Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Here Is Hoping That The First Thousand Posts Are The Hardest

This post was originally published on Forbes Jun 8, 2015

Blogging about your own blog, represents the height of self-absorption.  I'm hoping my readers will forgive it as I recognize a milestone.  This is my 1,000th post on forbes.com or as I put it more grandiosely my Forbes Millenium.  It is also roughly the fifth anniversary of my commencing blogging in earnest. Since my then 16 year old son, William, and I took off on our cross country drive in 2010, I have posted at least weekly first from my outpost on blogspot where my readership numbered in the scores and for nearly the last four years here on forbes.com.

The main source for my blog is original source tax material - decisions of federal and state courts that have tax impact and rulings by the IRS.  Some time ago I articulated my selection criteria as being practical utility, humor and matter for reflection.  The "matter for reflection" indicates the way in which tax issues intersect with other controversial areas such as church and state.

Practical Utility

Oddly enough the articles that I have written that are the most useful tend to not be that popular. The big exception is my piece on using S Corporations to avoid SE tax.  That has shown real staying power.  Also pieces that I have written about people being blindsided by debt discharge income or income recognition from lapsed life insurance policies have attracted some attention.  I follow hobby loss cases pretty religiously.  It is a practical matter for some people, but also the cases tend to have interesting stories to them and also some non-tax wisdom - like the horse breeding business being one gd thing after another.  And then there is Amway - don't get me started.  Other practical themes that permeate my posts are why C corporations can be a really bad idea, how important it is and how hard it can be to be recognized as a real estate professional and how hard it can be to convince high tax states that you no longer reside in them.


I find quite a bit of amusement in the tax stuff I read, but I think the richest source of humor is the IRS rejections of exempt status.  I don't think anybody will ever top the Free Fertility Foundation.  The purpose of the foundation was to provide free sperm to worthy women who wanted to conceive.  The Tax Court allowed that the provision of sperm could be a charitable activity.  They were however just a bit taken aback by the fact that the only sperm provided came from the founder, noting that he was not actually benefiting all the women in the world, as he thought, but only those who wanted to have his children, without the need to, well you know, with him.

Matter For Reflection

What I have found most interesting is when I have picked up on a tax story with wider implications and followed it along in a series of posts over a long period of time.

DOMA Was Dumb

The first instance of that began in July 2010 when I posted about a then obscure Chief Counsel Advice which I titled Windfall For "Unmarried" Couples.  I then followed the issues raised by same sex marriage being recognized by states but not the federal government due to the Defense of Marriage Act and the judicial struggle to change that.  My very first post on forbes was about the compliance nightmare created by New York marriage equality. I introduced my readers to Robin and Terry, the couple of indeterminate gender who helped me with the awkward pronoun problems one faces when writing about same sex couples in general terms.  This particular story did have an end of sorts in 2013 when the Defense of Marriage Act was declared unconstitutional much to the displeasure of Antonin Scalia, who,  I can never resist mentioning, attended the same high school I did (Xavier High School in Manhattan).  Sadly my dream of being interviewed by Ellen DeGeneres was never fulfilled.

The Old Parsonage

The other issue that I covered from close to start to something of an unsatisfying finish (or perhaps break point) was the fight over the dubious constitutionality of the exclusion from taxable income of cash housing allowances of "ministers of the gospel".  The parsonage exclusion is often a fairly modest benefit that many clergy of smaller churches would gladly trade for a FICA match and a simpler tax return.  Nonetheless, unlike similar benefits for people living abroad and the military, there is no dollar limit on the parsonage exclusion, allowing the mega ministers of mega churches to have mega tax free housing allowances.  The controversy raised interesting Constitutional questions and gave me a chance to do some historical writing of a sort.   The story ended, at least for the present, with a whimper as the Seventh Circuit ruled that the Freedom From Religion Foundation did not have standing.  The parsonage exclusion drew Robert Baty to my blog who since February 2012 has posted over 2,000 comments on forbes.com.  Although other contributors have shared in his bounty, I have received a big share.

The Campaign

It didn't occur to me that when I became a tax blogger, I would be taking on something of a duty to review some more 1040s.  Like I wasn't already doing enough of that on the day job.  But somebody has to look at all those presidential candidate returns.  I found that some of them allowed me to reinforce practical lessons as I defended Newt Gingrich's using an S corporation to avoid SE tax.  The richest vein, of course, was Mitt Romney who prompted discussions of Son of Boss deals, hobby loss (a horse no less) and why guys like Romney just have to go on extension.  The finale was my take on a letter from PWC which was a masterpiece in obfuscation.

There was one presidential candidate that did not release her return.  Much to my amazement, with the help of my friend, filmmaker Jonathan Schwartz, I managed to leverage that into an interview, in which I covered all the tax aspects of the platform along with a couple of my own obsessions.

And Then There Is Doctor Dino

Bob Baty, my most constant commenter and bane of the basketball minister, kept trying to get me interested in Young Earth Creationism, the notion that people who arrive at the age of the Earth by summing up the begats in Genesis (about 6000 years) have scientific support for their view.  How could that mishegas have anything to do with taxes?  Then in 2012, the Tax Court ruled in the case of  Jo Delia Hovind, wife of Kent Hovind - Doctor Dino - , one of the better known YEC proponents who was in prison on tax-related charges.  I at least look at every single Tax Court decision and read most of them in their entirety.  When it comes to being a good story, this one was one of the all-time greats.

There was a good bit of traffic and more that the usual number of comments.  One sentence in my post impelled me to investigate a little further - "Mr. Hovind is in prison now. Some say it is religious persecution".  In January 2013, I posted - Not Income Tax Evasion - Structuring - That's How They Got Kent Hovind and I thought I was done.  Silly me.  There is a lot more fascinating back story to the Kent Hovind controversy, but it is what has happened in the last year that has made Hovindology something of an obsession with me.
Almost a year ago, the federal government indicted the still imprisoned Kent Hovind for filings he made relating to property seized as a result of his structuring conviction.  His supporters have waged a vigorous social media campaign on his behalf making him a staple of right wing conspiracy oriented alternative media and I have followed the story mainly because it is a great story, but also because I find it to be a perfect storm of issues I find fascinating such as alternative tax theories and the intersection of religion and taxation.
I have actually spent money on covering the story, which is truly extraordinary if you had any notion of what a cheapskate I am.  Hovind's trial in March ended in his conviction on one charge and a hung jury on more serious fraud and conspiracy charges.  Jonathan Schwartz assembled a team to cover the first trial in depth and was in Pensacola for what was projected to be the second trial last month.  Much to the surprise of many and the delight of Hovind's supporters, the Hovindicators, the government dismissed, without prejudice, the remaining charges and Judge Margaret Casey Rodgers threw out the March conviction.

Nonetheless, Jonathan used his time in Pensacola well.  Tomorrow I will be posting on the results of his investigation and releasing a wealth of interviews from key participants that will provide some interesting revelations.
The social media campaign on behalf of Kent Hovind has been one of the most vitriolic that I have ever seen.  So perhaps this small sample of what is coming tomorrow might be an almost one of a kind.  It is a positively civil discussion between Dee Holmes, who Hovindicators consider part of the enemy camp and Joshua Joscelyn, who was on the street in front of the court during the first trial encouraging the jurors to consider nullification in an effort to free Kent Hovind.

There's More

The extra emphasis on Kent Hovind in this round-up post is perhaps a reflection of the way that the immediacy of blogging keeps one in the now.  I am actually on the slow side compare to many bloggers and will sometimes pass issues that are intensely covered, because I don't have anything to add.  There are various attributions for the remark that "journalism is the first rough draft of history".  I think that we can now say that blogging has become the first draft of journalism.  The tension between the two crafts has become apparent to me as I have worked with a veteran journalist in covering the Kent Hovind story.

The immediacy of blogging is often valuable in the tax area.  I received a few kudos from practitioners for being on top of the repair regs and there are quite a few cases, that have been of interest to small groups of people that would have gotten no coverage at all, if I had not noted them.  The most recent instance of that is an Oregon Tax Court decision allowing real estate taxation of parish rectory that I see being picked up by the Catholic press.
I'm going to have to ask some of the veteran tax bloggers like Joe Kristan, Robert Flach and Kelly Erb if the first thousand posts are the hardest.  Regardless, though, I will keep at it.

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