Abstract

This Article advocates fundamental changes in the federal income tax base by systematically challenging conventional understandings of consumption and investment. As signaled by its title, "Costly Mistakes," this Article's thesis has to do with the disparate treatment of expenditures incurred by business owners and workers. Where the current tax law treats a business owner's expenditure as investment, the Article sometimes finds consumption and questions why the law should allow the expenditure to be deducted. Where the tax law treats a worker's expenditure as consumption, the Article sometimes finds investment and questions why the law does not allow at least a partial deduction. Through an historical analysis of the development of the modern tax law with special attention to Justice Cardozo's 1933 U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Welch v. Helvering and a review of Welch's judicial and legislative progeny, the Article demonstrates that the deference the tax law traditionally has accorded business owners results in their undertaxation. Through an analysis of the tax law's treatment of workers, it further shows how its structural and substantive rules treat workers primarily as consumers, rather than as producers, and why that results in their overtaxation. The Article then investigates the economic inefficiencies produced by the tax law's generous treatment of business owners' outlays and its unduly restrictive treatment of workers' outlays. It goes on to suggest how to scrutinize and reform the tax treatment of workers and how to extend that approach to business owners with far-reaching implications. Finally, the Article relates the undertaxation of business owners and the overtaxation of workers to the broader social policy discussions concerning the high rate of unemployment in the private sector and the escalating deficits in the public sector. It concludes that the success of the U.S. economy in the twenty-first century requires the tax law to treat both business owners and workers as producers. It further concludes that the tax law's continuing failure to acknowledge that business owners and workers are both consumers and producers undermines the goals of efficiency and fairness.