December 30, 2016
December 14, 2016
Republican Tax Plan likely to cause "an explosive rise in federal debt" according to Centrist former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers (Michael Simkovic)
Former Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers recently warned that President Elect Donald Trump's proposed tax reform plan "will massively favor the top 1 per cent of income earners, threaten an explosive rise in federal debt, complicate the tax code and do little if anything to spur growth."
Summers served as Secretary of the Treasury during the Clinton Administration, during one of the few periods in the last 4 decades when the Federal Government ran a surplus budget. Summers is a Professor of Economics at Harvard University, served as the President of Harvard University, was the Chief Economist of the World Bank, was the Director of the National Economic Council, and was a managing partner at hedge fund D.E. Shaw.
Summers is widely regarded as data-driven, rigorous, and centrist (Summers has complained about "absurd political correctness" in academe and his potential nomination as Chairman of the Federal Reserve was opposed by Progressive Democrats).
"Unfortunately, neither the Trump plan, nor the one put forward by Paul Ryan, speaker of the House of Representatives, provides for nearly enough base-broadening to finance all the high-end tax cutting they include.
Steven Mnuchin, Treasury secretary-designate, asserts there will be no absolute tax cut for the upper class because deductions would be scaled back. The rub is that totally eliminating all deductions for those with incomes over $1m would not even raise enough revenue to cover reducing their marginal tax rates from 39 to 33 per cent, let alone offset their benefit from huge rate reductions on business and corporate income, and the elimination of estate and gift taxes.
Estimates of the Trump plan suggest that it will raise the average after-tax income of the 0.9 per cent of the population with incomes over $1m by 14 per cent, or more than $215,000. This contrasts with proposed tax cuts for those in the middle of the income distribution of $1,000, or about 2 per cent.
The repeal of estate and gift taxes is especially problematic because it would provide a window for the very rich to use gift and trust structures to ensure that their wealth passes without tax not just to their children but to their grandchildren and great grandchildren, regardless of subsequent legislation. . . .
The envisioned Trump tax cut is about the same size relative to the economy as the 1981 Reagan tax cut. It is worth remembering that Reagan, hardly a fan of reversing course or raising taxes, found it necessary to propose significant tax increases in 1982 and 1984 (the equivalent in today’s economy of $3.5tn over a decade) due to concerns about federal debt.
December 01, 2016
U.S. LLM Programs Probably Benefit International Students (Part 2): Students who return home (Michael Simkovic)
In part 1 of this 2 part post, I noted that U.S. LLM programs may provide substantial financial benefits to students who remain in the United States, even if they do not necessarily pass a U.S. bar exam. But what about the LLM graduates who return to their countries of origin?
While good data is hard to come by, it is easy to imagine how studying U.S. law might benefit lawyers working outside of the United States and hard to imagine how international programs could continue to attract applicants if returning lawyers did not speak favorably of their studies abroad. Indeed, some countries explicitly encourage students to study abroad and return home. U.S. higher educational institutions often have far better resources than those available in international students’ countries of origin.
Many efforts to “harmonize” and “modernize” corporate, commercial, and regulatory law have historically been efforts to adopt a more U.S.-like approach. For example, the Uniform Commercial Code is greatly admired and appreciated by international bankers and lawyers who have grappled with other countries’ fragmented and inconsistent approaches to secured credit. The U.S. Bankruptcy code is thought to be more conducive to entrepreneurship and consumer finance than the approach in many foreign jurisdictions. Many securities are issued under U.S. law. Many international transactions explicitly choose New York law. U.S. anti-trust law can extend to companies based outside of the United States. U.S. tax law helps drive many international transactions.
Derek Muller recently noted evidence suggesting lower first-time bar passage rates for international students taking the bar exam compared to graduates of ABA approved 3-year JD programs. Although his headline is provocative, Muller is careful to avoid overstating the significance of this finding. Lower bar passage rates are expected, considering that for many LLMs, English is a second language, while for most ABA-approved-JD graduates, English is a first language. On the bar exam, LLMs compete without accommodation on a timed exam with a large essay component with students who either speak English as a first language or have had many more years to immerse themselves in the English language. It can take years for immigrants to become roughly substitutable for U.S.-born workers.
But as noted in my previous post, from a consumer protection perspective, the relevant comparison is not U.S.-born-citizens versus immigrants or foreigners. It’s immigrants or foreigners with more U.S. education versus immigrants or foreigners with less U.S. education.
1-year degrees appear to provide benefits. It seems likely that a 3-year degree would provide international students even more benefits than a 1-year degree. But a 3-year degree would also cost more and take more time to complete, and might be unappealing to those planning to return home.
The U.S. has a history of using English-literacy tests to exclude immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe while permitting immigration from Northern Europe. Today, historians generally view these policies as discriminatory. It would be unfortunate if the ABA were to take a parallel approach today to deny access to U.S. legal education to lawyers from non-common-law countries on ill-considered consumer protection grounds. Many of those international students intend to return home rather than practice law in the United States. Some of those international students may face even lower odds of passing the bar exam in their countries of origin than in the United States, language barriers notwithstanding.
November 29, 2016
U.S. LLM Programs Probably Benefit International Students (Part 1): Students Who Stay in the U.S. (Michael Simkovic)
At a conference I recently attended, some law professors and administrators seemed willing to assume the worst about LLM and international JD programs. They seemed to think that LLM programs provide revenue to law schools but do little to help students. This stoked my curiosity about international law programs. It seems likely, as conference attendees suggested, that LLM admissions are less exclusive than JD admissions at comparable institutions. But lower selectivity does not imply that LLM programs fail to help their students.
Immigrants are generally at a disadvantage relative to those born in the United States because of language, culture, and legal issues. But comparing immigrants to U.S.-born individuals tells us nothing about the benefits of U.S. education for immigrants. Instead, we can either compare immigrants to those from their countries who stay home, or compare immigrants to each other by education level.
Decades of peer reviewed labor economics research indicates that additional education boosts earnings. Moreover, Immigration to the United States can often dramatically boost earnings for immigrants over the long term. Are foreign LLM programs or international JDs exceptions to widely observed trends regarding benefits of education and immigration?
While data is limited, the unsurprising answer appears to be: Probably not.
Using U.S. Census data (ACS), I found (in a very preliminarily, quick analysis intended primarily to satisfy my own curiosity) that an LLM might boost long term annual earnings by as much as $25,000 on average compared to a bachelor’s degree (depending on unobserved selection effects, the causal boost could be lower since these are cross-tabbed means by race sex and education level). The earnings boost from a JD for immigrants might be around two or two and a half times as high as the boost from an LLM.
August 19, 2016
"There's a new book out about the student loan crisis [Student Debt: Rhetoric and Realities of Higher Education], or what author Sandy Baum suggests is a "bogus crisis." Baum, a financial aid expert and senior fellow at the Urban Institute, claims it has been [sensationalized and exaggerated] by the media in search of a spicy story and fueled by politicians pushing "debt free college" proposals. . . . "
"People who earn bachelor's degrees, by and large, do fine.
The problem is that we have a lot of people actually borrowing small amounts of money, going to college, not completing [a degree] or completing credentials that don't have labor market value. They tend to be older. They tend to come from disadvantaged or middle-income families and they're struggling. [But] not because they owe a lot of money. . . .
Its not realistic to say we're going to pay people to go to college [for free]. Someone has to pay. We can have everyone pay much higher taxes. But short of that, it's not clear how we would pay. . . .
There are some people who borrowed under fraudulent, deceptive situations and their debt should be forgiven. There are people for whom education did not work out through no fault of their own and their debt should be forgiven. . . . We don't give people very much advice and guidance about where [and] when to go to college, how to pay for it, what to study. . . .
[[There are facts that] get little or no attention because they don't fit the "crisis" narrative:
- A third of college students who earn a four-year degree graduate with no debt at all. Zero.
- A fourth graduate with debt of no more than $20,000.
- Low-income households hold only 11 percent of all outstanding [student] debt.
- Almost half of the $1.3 trillion in student loan debt is held by 25 percent of graduates who are actually making a pretty high income.]
This is an investment that pays off really well. The median earnings for young bachelor's degree recipients is about $20,000 a year higher than the median earnings for high school graduates.
Student debt is really creating a lot of opportunities for people. People wouldn't be able to go to college otherwise."
Baum notes that many graduates with high debt levels (>$100,000) have advanced degrees, high expected incomes, and low default rates.
"The highest debt levels are for those earning professional degrees . . . Despite high debt levels, default rates among graduate borrowers are very low." However, Baum expresses some concern about those pursuing expensive master's degrees in fields "that rarely lead to the kind of earnings that doctors, lawyers, and MBAs can expect."
Baum's findings are broadly consistent with recent research by Beth Akers and Matthew Chingos, reviewed by David Leonhardt for the New York Times. Akers and Chingos have a new book coming out this fall.
August 17, 2016
New York Times journalist Elizabeth Olson recently reported that the law school graduating class of 2015--which was very close to the size of the class of 1996--had about the same number of private sector jobs 9 months after graduation as the class of 1996. That's a pretty good outcome considering that the economy-wide employment population ratio in February 2016 was 3.6 points lower than in February 1997. Olson puts a negative spin on the non-story.
UPDATE: Casey Sullivan at Bloomberg provides more balanced coverage, noting the smaller class size at the outset of his story and focusing on overall earnings rather than job counts in one segment of the market.
For previous coverage, see
Timing Law School (forthcoming in JELS)
August 15, 2016
“Glass Half Full” author concedes problems with estimates of solo practitioner incomes and headcounts (updated 8/18)
Professor Benjamin H. Barton recently responded to critiques of his estimates of solo practitioner incomes. Barton does not answer the specific questions that I posed about his use of IRS data, but he generally concedes that the IRS data is problematic.
- Barton wrote:
“Is it possible that the IRS data undersells the earnings of solo practitioners? Yes, for the reasons I state above and for some of the reasons that you and Professor Diamond point out.”
- Barton wrote:
“Do I think that the IRS data are off by a factor of 3.5 or even 2? No.”
I encourage Professor Barton to present a revised estimate that he thinks is more accurate. Several studies that he cites for support suggest that his solo income estimates are off by a factor of approximately 2 to 3 (see below for details).
- Barton defends his use of IRS data on three grounds, each of which is problematic:
a. “The IRS data on lawyer earnings is the longest running data I could find and thus the best dataset for a discussion of long term trends.”
Professor Barton overlooked the U.S. Census Bureau’s Decennial Census, which has data on Lawyer’s incomes since 1950 (which reports 1949 incomes).[i] The IRS data presented by Barton starts 18 years later, in 1967.
When considering long term trends in occupational incomes, it’s important to consider changes in the race and sex of members of the occupation. Across occupations, women and minorities generally earn less than white men. Race and sex variables are available in Census Household data, but not public-use IRS data.
b. The IRS data “separates lawyer earnings into solo practitioners and law firm partners”
Professor Barton acknowledges that his data misses incorporated self-employed lawyers, and that this group likely has higher incomes than those that he captures.[ii]
This means that Professor Barton’s IRS data is much less useful for identifying small and solo practitioners in 2013 than it was in 1970. This is because the proportion of solo and small attorneys who incorporated has likely increased dramatically. In 1970, 5 percent of full-time self-employed lawyers were incorporated. By 2014, the share increased to more than 50 percent.[iii]. Barton is missing many solo and small time practitioners. If trends toward incorporation continue, his data will become less useful every passing year. The IRS data has different biases at different points in time, making trends potentially unreliable.
August 11, 2016
Some news sources claim that I think solo practitioners are "tax cheats." The estimate that small business owners underreport their revenue and over-claim on expenses comes from the Internal Revenue Service and the Government Accountability Office, not my imagination. It’s inappropriate to say that I’m claiming that solo attorneys are tax cheats. I'm simply explaining the IRS's position on biases in IRS data--something that anyone who uses this data should be sure to note.
At least one source has claimed that ACS income data include business revenue rather than business net income or profits, citing Professor Barton as its source. This claim is incorrect.
The Census defines Self-employment income as follows:
"self-employment income includes net money income (gross receipts minus expenses) from one’s own business, professional enterprise, or partnership. Gross receipts include the value of all goods sold and services rendered. Expenses include costs of goods purchased, rent, heat, light, power, depreciation charges, wages and salaries paid, business taxes (not personal income taxes), etc.” See pg. 80
Perhaps the journalist misunderstood Professor Barton. I've requested corrections.
July 28, 2016
Some questions for Professor Benjamin H. Barton about his use of IRS data to estimate solo practitioner incomes (Michael Simkovic)
After Tuesday's post explaining why IRS schedule C data dramatically underestimates incomes for solo practitioners and other sole proprietors, Professor Benjamin H. Barton emailed to indicate that his views remained unchanged and he did not intend to respond beyond his previous comments on Professor Stephen Diamond's blog. Barton's comments did not address many of the issues I raised.
On Wednesday, I asked Professor Barton to consider the following questions:
1) Do you think that 20 million or so U.S. small business owners are living below the poverty threshold for a 2 person household?
2) Do you think the IRS is wrong about its own data and schedule C does not in fact understate net income? Why do you think that you understand IRS data, IRS enforcement capabilities, and the level of tax evasion better than the IRS?
3) Do you think that everyone who files schedule C has no other sources of income?
4) Do you think that Treasury and JCT estimates of tax expenditures are way off and exclusions and deductions from tax concepts of income are negligible?
5) If apples to apples comparisons using schedule C data show that legal services sole proprietorships are more profitable than 97 percent of sole proprietorships, is that something you should mention? Would you at least agree that using schedule C data for legal services and census data for everyone else is a methodological error?
Professor Barton has not yet responded.
Aug. 11, 2016. Professor Barton responded without specifically answering the questions above, but generally conceded that IRS data is problematic.
Aug. 15, 2016. I replied to Barton.
July 26, 2016
In 2015, Professor Benjamin Barton of the University of Tennessee estimated for CNN.com, and Business Insider that attorneys working in solo practice earn an average of slightly less than $50,000 per year. Barton made similar estimates in his book, “Glass Half Full.” Professor Stephen Diamond of Santa Clara argues that solo incomes are quite a bit higher. (Barton responded in the comments section).
There is little doubt that solo practitioners typically earn substantially less than lawyers working in large Wall Street Law firms. However, a closer reading of the Internal Revenue Service data on which Barton relies and Census data both suggest that solo practitioner average (mean) annual earnings are likely closer to $100,000.
I. Average (Mean) Incomes of Lawyers: Census Income Data vs. IRS Schedule C Net Income Data
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, average (mean) total personal income for lawyers who are “self employed, not incorporated” (a proxy for those in small legal practice) was around $140,000 in 2012 and 2013. For those who were self-employed, incorporated (a proxy for those who are owners of larger legal practices) average total personal income was around $180,000 to $190,000. These average figures include those working part time. Restricting the sample to those working full-time increases average earnings for “self employed, not incorporated” lawyers to around $160,000 to $165,000 and for the “self-employed, incorporated” lawyers to $185,000 to $200,000.
Barton based his earnings estimates on average “net income” data from the Internal Revenue Services Statistics of Income for Non-farm Sole Proprietorships for “Legal Services (NAICS Code 5411)”. This data is based on Schedule C of form 1040, which is used to calculate one of several sources of income on an individual tax return (“Business Income or Loss”).
Looking at the same IRS schedule-C net-income data for all non-farm sole proprietorships and applying Barton’s reasoning suggests that in 2013, 24 million American small business owners earned an average (mean) income of $12,500. This is barely above the poverty threshold for a 1 person household, and considerably lower than average (mean) earned income figures for all Americans reported by the U.S. Census’s American Community Survey (around $47,000 including only those who are employed in some capacity, and $22,000 averaging in everyone—children, the retired, and those not in the work force).
A. IRS Schedule C Data Is Biased Downward:
What explains the large discrepancy between low IRS sole proprietor net income data and higher Census earnings data—for lawyers and for everyone else? There are several problems with IRS sole proprietor data that are likely to lead to dramatic underestimation of individual earnings.