In late July, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a 2016 federal agency funding bill that came with instructions to the Internal Revenue Service to vastly expand the paperwork for the Earned Income Tax Credit.
This buried provision adds a layer of red tape for which the tax-preparation company H&R Block has lobbied heavily for more than a year, in letters and hearings. H&R Block and other tax-prep companies stand to benefit handsomely, while taxpayers who are unable to navigate the complicated new forms will face two costly alternatives: Pay a tax preparer to parse the forms, or give up the EITC, a crucial tax break for low-income families.
In 2013, more than 27 million working families and individuals received the EITC. It gives households making less than a certain annual income (ranging from $39,000 to $53,300) a bigger tax refund, based on a formula that takes into account marital status and number of children. Numerous studies have shown that the EITC reduces poverty, improves health and incomes, and diverts people out of social welfare programs.
In several lettersto Congress over the past year, H&R Block has pushed to expand the Schedule EIC—the form required to claim the credit—as a backstop against tax fraud and improper payments. The new form would go from one page to five, and it would incorporate most of a 30-question eligibility checklist that only paid preparers, as opposed to self-filers, are currently required to submit. The Senate incorporated the proposal into its 2016 funding provisions, which require the IRS to use an expanded Schedule EIC next tax season.
In its letters and hearing testimony, H&R Block encouraged lawmakers to add similar paperwork to claims for other refundable tax credits. Again, the company was successful: The Senate bill adds paperwork to the Child Tax Credit; the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which reduces taxes owed for tuition-paying college students; and the Premium Tax Credit, which helps families pay for health insurance.
"Along with undercutting the EITC's basic purpose…by discouraging eligible working families from filing for it, the committee's proposed directive is unnecessary," writes Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That, he says, is because self-filers are already inundated with eligibility information: The rules are covered extensively in five pages of EITC instructions appended to tax-return forms, and in a separate 37-page IRS pamphlet.
"This seems to me like a fairly naked attempt by Block to get its market share up by basically driving a lot of people away from self-preparing," Greenstein told Politico Pro. (Greenstein was not available for comment on this story.)
H&R Block said in a statement last week that "this is not about competitive business interests. It's about reducing fraud and protecting the future of the EITC."
H&R Block has used the threat of fraud for years in arguing for a more complex tax filing system. In fact, studies have found that the majority of EITC overpayments are the result of unintentional error, not fraud—and research suggests that self-filers are already pretty good at getting it right. As Vox points out, a 2014 IRS study found that EITC claims filed from 2006 to 2008 by paid preparers were more likely to result in overpayments than self-filed claims.
CBPP's Greenstein also notes that there's a double standard when it comes to tax-preparer companies' advocacy around fraud. The Treasury Department estimates that $16-19 billion was lost in 2014 from EITC overpayments. But the underreporting of business income cost $122 billion in 2006 (the latest year for which data are available) and is the single largest component of uncollected taxes.
Many universities spend way more managing their investment portfolios than they do helping students with tuition.
For the tens of thousands of college students who are taking out another year's worth of debt in preparation for the start of classes, here's a rage-inducing data point: Many universities spend way more managing their investment portfolios than they do assisting students with tuition.
A New York Times op-ed published Wednesday by Victor Fleischer, a law professor at the University of San Diego, lays out this disparity. Fleischer cited Yale University, which paid its fund managers nearly $743 million in 2014 but gave out just $170 million in scholarships. He also noted that many universities, large and small, public and private, show the same imbalance in spending. "We've lost sight of the idea that students, not fund managers, should be the primary beneficiaries of a university's endowment," he writes. "The private-equity folks get cash; students take out loans."
Fleischer provided Mother Jones with more of his data, which is gleaned from tax forms, financial statements, and annual reports. Here's how the numbers shake out at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Princeton. On average, these four wealthy, elite universities spend 70 percent more on managing their investment portfolios than they do on tuition assistance. (Complete scholarship data for 2014 was not available, and some investment management fees are estimated.)
That disparity is even more glaring when you consider the tax benefits fund managers derive from working with universities. Fleischer notes that investors typically pay their fund managers about 20 percent of their investment profits. That money, called carried interest, is taxed at a lower rate for fund managers, who can claim it as capital gains instead of income.
Some universities justify the high management fees by arguing that they ensure top financial performance for their endowments. It's true that these portfolios have done quite well: Harvard's endowment is nearly $36 billion, and Yale's is more than $25 billion, a 50 percent increase since 2009. But, writes Fleischer, a little less endowment hoarding and a little more spending, both on financial aid and other educational goals, would still allow universities' money to grow generously while eliminating the hefty tuition increases that force students to take on burdensome debt.
Fleischer proposes that when Congress moves to reauthorize the Higher Education Act this term, lawmakers should require universities with assets greater than $100 million to spend 8 percent of their endowment each year. Even doing that, universities would likely continue to get exponentially richer. As he notes, the average endowment has grown 9.2 percent annually for the past 20 years (after accounting for 4 percent annual spending), a more than respectable rate of return.
Elite schools do offerneed-blind admission and some of the best financial aid for low-income students. But for many students, tuition increases still mean more loans: On paper, many middle-class students often don't qualify for large scholarships, but their families also can't afford more than $50,000 in annual tuition. More generous allocation of endowments could help to roll back that trend while also funding moreteaching and research. As Fleischer writes in the Times, "Only fund managers would be worse off."
With the political class chattering about Hillary Clinton's recent difficulties—the email controversy, the Bernie Sanders wave, a decline in some polls—Vice President Joe Biden seems to be closer to running for president. At least, there's more talk about a Biden bid. Several of his former operatives have started a super-PAC in hopes of getting him to run, and the 72-year-old Biden is calling friends and political allies to discuss the possibility.
Not surprisingly, the response among Democrats has been mixed. Some commentators wonder whether Biden could actually help Clinton by leaping into the fray. But one Democratic source told CNN that White House insiders are concerned a Biden run could hurt the veep's reputation as the elder statesman of the Democratic Party who has spent more than four decades in public life.
Biden was a six-term US senator from Delaware before becoming vice president, and he earned respect from many for both his legislative work and his grace in the face of tragedy. In 1972, a few weeks after Biden was elected to the Senate for the first time, his wife and one-year-old daughter were killed in a car crash, and his two sons were injured. Biden considered resigning to care for his sons. Instead, he commuted on Amtrak from his Delaware home to Washington every day, so he could be with his kids for dinner. He continued this practice for years into his political career. (In May, one of those sons, Beau, died of brain cancer at the age of 46.)
Biden, who has been President Barack Obama's go-to guy for breaking deadlocks with obstructionist GOPers on Capitol Hill on the budget, the debt ceiling, and tax deals, unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988 and 2008. (His first time out, he left the race after the Michael Dukakis campaign leaked information showing Biden had cribbed part of his stump speech from a British politician. On his second try, Biden, who survived a brain aneurysm in 1988, performed well in the debates but on the campaign trail was eclipsed by Obama and Clinton.) His career has covered extremes. He helped confirm one conservative Supreme Court justice but opposed several others. He long supported arms control and diplomatic efforts, but he also voted to allow President George W. Bush to invade Iraq. He has worked to protect women, but he sometimes gets a little too close.
So with a deadline for a final decision approaching—Biden probably cannot wait much longer—here's a partial rundown of high points and low points in the vice president's story:
Ahead of the pack on marriage equality: In May of 2012, while appearing on Meet the Press during Obama's reelection campaign, Biden came out in favor of same-sex marriage. At the time, the White House had only officially endorsed civil unions. Some speculate that Biden's unambiguous support helped push Obama from "evolving" on the issue to a full-fledged, official endorsement of gay marriage.
Changing the treatment of victims of sexual assault and domestic violence: In 1990, Biden introduced the Violence Against Women Act, which improved law enforcement practices for investigating and prosecuting domestic violence and sexual assault. Once he became vice president, he continued to advocate on behalf of women and girls. He appointed the first ever White House adviser on violence against women, launched an initiative to decrease dating violence among teens, and worked to clamp down on campus sexual assault.
Foreign policy chops: From the beginning of US involvement in Iraq, Biden strenuously advocated the use of diplomacy before military action. In 2002, while the Bush administration was heading toward the Iraq invasion, Biden, who was then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, proposed ways to curtail Saddam Hussein's weapons program diplomatically and held several hearings to discuss the potential challenges of stabilizing the country after an invasion. Most notably, he worked with Leslie Gelb, then president of the Council on Foreign Relations, to propose a system for stabilizing Iraq, modeled off the Dayton Accords in Bosnia. Biden called for a federalist system that would separate Iraq into three regions, along ethno-religious lines—Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia—allowing each group to control its own affairs, with a central government remaining in Baghdad. Some Middle East scholars havesincewondered whether Biden's proposal could have prevented some of the ongoing unrest in Iraq. A longtime advocate of arms control and nuclear nonproliferation efforts, he was an essential player in Obama's successful 2010 push to win congressional approval of the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty. And he was a crucial voice within the Obama administration for decreasing the US military presence in Afghanistan and shifting US policy from a counterinsurgency perspective to a counterterrorism approach.
Supreme Court savvy: As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee for three decades, Biden was involved in the nomination and confirmation of seven of the nine sitting Supreme Court justices. Biden opposed the confirmation of several conservative Supreme Court justices. His opposition to the nomination of Robert Bork was successful. In the case of Samuel Alito, Biden voted with other Democratic senators to filibuster the nomination vote, in part because of his concerns over Alito's disapproval of a landmark Supreme Court ruling on voting rights. Biden's stance when confirming Justice Clarence Thomas wasn't quite so clear-cut. (See: Anita Hill.)
the NOT SO GOOD
Exacerbating America's mass incarceration problem: As my colleague Pat Caldwell reported, Biden played a key role in getting the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act passed during the Clinton era. The bill implemented a host of policies that would ensure more severe incarceration of inmates, such as expanding death penalty crimes, criminalizing gang membership, and reducing opportunities for parole.Many, including Bill Clinton himself, now point to this piece of legislation as having contributed to the severe overcrowding of prisons and forced judges to impose harsher, longer sentences that have led to a problem with mass incarceration.
Saying the wrong thing at the wrong time: Biden has the gift of gab or, perhaps, a tendency toward verbosity. And he not infrequently puts his foot in his mouth. A few examples: Speaking at a 2008 campaign rally in Columbia, Missouri, he accidentally asked Missouri state Sen. Chuck Graham, who is wheelchair-bound, to "stand up." Also during the 2008 presidential campaign, he called Obama the first "articulate and bright and clean" African American man to run for president. Biden also botched Obama's last name, introducing him as "Barack America," at his first rally as Obama's running mate. Later he handed John McCain one of his main anti-Obama talking points when he suggested that Obama would face an international crisis in the beginning of his presidency. During a 2010 St. Patrick's Day celebration at the White House, Biden asked for God's blessing for the Irish prime minister's late mother—even though she was very much alive.
Creeping on women: Biden is known for his enthusiasm for campaigning and pressing the flesh. This hasoccasionally been a problem when it comes to women. For example:
Anita Hill and the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings: In 1991, Biden, as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, presided over the controversial confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas, nominated by President George H.W. Bush to sit on the Supreme Court. Law professor Anita Hill alleged that Thomas sexually harassed her when she was one of his employees, and this charge became a central focus of those hearings. Biden was widely criticized for his treatment of Hill during the sessions. He allowed three male senators to aggressively question Hill, but he never called three women to testify who had been subpoenaed to discuss other instances of alleged inappropriate behavior by Thomas. These women presumably could have buttressed Hill's claims. (Biden ultimately voted against Thomas.)
Donald Trump enters a Manhattan courthouse for jury duty on August 17.
Celebrity tycoon and GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump arrived at a courthouse in Manhattan on Monday morning to report for jury duty. He pulled up in a limo and fist bumped bystanders on his way into the State Supreme Court. Last week, at a rally in New Hampshire, Trump said he would willingly sacrifice valuable campaign time to answer his jury summons.
But prior to professing his commitment to civic responsibility, Trump has perennially skipped out on jury summonses in the past.
Trump's attorney Michael Cohen confirmed to CNN that Trump has missed five jury summonses over nine years. But Cohen claimed that Trump was not shirking his civic duty. The summonses, he said, were delivered to the wrong address.
"You gotta serve it to the right property," Cohen said. "I believe he owns the building but he doesn't reside there, and nobody knows what happened to the document."
It's true that master jury lists are often outdated; an address mix-up is feasible. But in general, wealthy individuals are usually more likely to report for jury duty. Lower-income people often cut out due to the various economic pressures that come with jury duty: time off from work, reduced pay (in most states, jury pay is less than $50 a day), and child care needs.
Because he made it to the courthouse today, CNN reports, Trump will not have to pay the $250 fine he was facing for previous failures to appear. It's doubtful the threat of such a fine compelled him to show up. But a cynic can certainly wonder what will happen the next time he is called to jury duty when he is not a presidential candidate.
Back in October 2013, Tracy Chou, a top engineer for the social scrapbooking site Pinterest, was flying home to San Francisco with fellow attendees of the annual Grace Hopper Celebration, the nation's biggest conference for women in computing. "If this flight out of Minneapolis goes down," she tweeted, "Silicon Valley is going to be down a substantial % of female engineers."
She was only half joking. At the conference, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg had posited that the Valley's gender gap was actually getting worse, and the comment set Chou's geek gears whirling. "Not that I disagree with the premise," she says. "I just had this thought that nobody actually knows what the numbers are."
The presence of women on engineering teams has remained flat, at around 13 percent, for more than two decades.
For years, Silicon Valley has tried to hide those numbers. Starting in 2008, news outlets filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the Department of Labor, hoping to obtain the workforce diversity data the tech giants refused to release. The companies lawyered up—as of March 2013, most of the top firms (Apple, Google, Microsoft, et al.) had convinced the feds their stats were trade secrets that should remain private.
Their real reason for withholding the data may well have been embarrassment. Although tech employment has grown by 37 percent since 2003, the presence of women on engineering teams has remained flat (at around 13 percent) for more than two decades, and women's share of what the US Census Bureau calls "computer workers" has actually declined since the early 1990s.
In this male-dominated landscape, Chou, 27, is a rising star, with two degrees from Stanford, including a master's in computer science with a focus on artificial intelligence. On her way up, she interned at Google, Facebook, and a rocket science company. Her coding prowess recently landed her on Forbes' "30 under 30" and Fast Company's 2015 list of the "most creative people in business."
Read about how Rev. Jesse Jackson is taking on Silicon Valley's epic diversity problem.
Despite her success, she's more than passingly familiar with the obstacles the Valley's sausage fest creates for women—from brogrammer pickup lines to biased hiring and promotion. (Not to mention pay: As of 2011, census data shows, women in technical fields were making about $16,000 less, on average, than men.)
Fed up with the data void, Chou came home from her conference and wrote a Medium post calling for more transparency: "The actual numbers I've seen and experienced in industry are far lower than anybody is willing to admit," she wrote. "So where are the numbers?" With her bosses' permission, she started the ball rolling: Just 11 of Pinterest's 89 engineers (12 percent) were women, she revealed. (Today, it's around 17 percent.)
"The crowdsourced stuff is way better and more reliable than the official party line," notes diversity consultant turned Github VP Nicole Sanchez.
Her post quickly made its way around programmer circles, and employees of two dozen companies shared gender stats with Chou via Twitter. To keep track of the numbers, she set up a repository on the code-sharing site GitHub and invited all to participate. As word spread, more techies stepped up. Within a week, her repository had stats on more than 50 firms. (It now has more than 200—including GitHub, whose 104 coders include just 14 women—making it the most comprehensive available source of coders' gender data.)
The numbers were as bad as you might expect: Just 17 of Yelp's 206 engineers (8 percent) were women, for example. Dropbox was barely better, with 26 out of 275 (9 percent). Nextdoor, a social-media tool for neighborhoods, had 29 engineers—all male. Change.org, which bills itself as "the world's platform for change," had less than 13 percent women engineers; it has since changed for the better, with 20 percent.*
Chou's project helped fuel the wave of public criticism that has shamed big companies into coming clean. Seven months after the launch, Google disclosed that 17 percent of its tech staff is female. (Chou heard that her Medium post had made it all the way to cofounder Larry Page.) Twitter, Facebook, Yahoo, and dozens of other companies coughed up their stats not long after: Most reported between 10 and 20 percent women in "tech" positions—which can be pretty loosely defined. Some household names, like IBM, Netflix, and Zynga, still have yet to produce meaningful diversity data. "The crowdsourced stuff is way better and more reliable than the official party line," notes Silicon Valley diversity consultant Nicole Sanchez, whom Github recently hired as a VP. (The racial diversity numbers are equally cringeworthy; see our related story on Jesse Jackson's efforts in Silicon Valley.)
"I felt really out of place," in Stanford's computer science program, Chou told me. "There weren't many other women."
I sat down with Chou at Pinterest's San Francisco headquarters a few days before an infusion of capital made it one of the world's most valuable startups—$11 billion on paper. In a glass-wrapped conference room, she perched on the edge of her seat, speaking softly, but at a spitfire pace. Chou first learned of the industry's gender problem from her parents, engineers who earned their Ph.D.s together back in the 1980s. "Their names are gender-ambiguous transliterations of their Chinese names," she recalled. "One of the stories my mom told was that she went to pick up finals for both her and my dad. The professor was really surprised at who was who, because my mom was doing better in the class."
When she started out studying computer science as a Stanford undergrad, "I felt really out of place," she told me. "There weren't many other women." The coursework was tough, and the guys in her classes talked a big game. "My self-calibration was off," she explained. "There's research on how guys are generally inclined to give themselves more credit. So their calibration was 'I'm awesome; this is super easy,' when I felt like I was doing poorly."
Concerned she wasn't qualified for CS, Chou switched to electrical engineering. But the more she excelled, the more pushback she got. Male classmates would interrupt her or tune out when she spoke. During group projects, guys would reject her proposals and debate alternatives for hours before returning to her idea. "It's okay to have a girl in the class if she's not very good," she said. "But it felt like once I became better than they were, it was not okay anymore."
At one tech meet-up, a guy joked about Chou's job at another company: "What do you do there, photocopy shit?"
This insidious sexism followed her into the real world. At one diversity event, Chou got into a debate with a male developer over a product built by Quora, where she'd been an early engineer. "Finally, I had to say, 'No, I worked there. Stop shitting on me!'" Another time, at a meet-up, a guy joked about Chou's job at another company: "What do you do there, photocopy shit?" Men tried picking her up with lines like, "You're too pretty to code." Such cluelessness presented a conundrum: "There's always that question of, 'Do I want to be the engineer that always talks about gender? Or do I want to be an engineer that talks about engineering?'"
The Valley's sexism came under renewed scrutiny this year when Ellen Pao, a former partner at Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield, and Byers, sued the VC firm for discrimination. She lost, but the case "raised awareness of the sort of thing that a lot of women face: unconscious bias, messy situations, discrimination that's not clear-cut," Chou said. In her view, getting the numbers out there is merely a first step: "There's an analogy in product development," she said. You can try to grok your users by looking at what people are clicking and how many are creating accounts, but "understanding the why in the numbers is pretty important," she added. "We're not quite there yet."
Clarification: After publication, Nextdoor contacted Mother Jones with their updated gender breakdown; of the company's 40 full-time engineers, three are women.