Tag Archives: taxation

MondayMap: Your Taxes and Google Street View

The fear of an annual tax audit brings many people to their knees. It’s one of many techniques that government authorities use to milk their citizens of every last penny of taxes. Well, authorities now have an even more powerful weapon to add to their tax collecting arsenal — Google Street View. And, if you are reading this from Lithuania you will know what we are talking about.

From the Wall Street Journal:

One day last summer, a woman was about to climb into a hammock in the front yard of a suburban house here when a photographer for the Google Inc. Street View service snapped her picture.

The apparently innocuous photograph is now being used as evidence in a tax-evasion case brought by Lithuanian authorities against the undisclosed owners of the home.

Some European countries have been going after Google, complaining that the search giant is invading the privacy of their citizens. But tax inspectors here have turned to the prying eyes of Street View for their own purposes.

After Google’s car-borne cameras were driven through the Vilnius area last year, the tax men in this small Baltic nation got busy. They have spent months combing through footage looking for unreported taxable wealth.

“We were very impressed,” said Modestas Kaseliauskas, head of the State Tax Authority. “We realized that we could do more with less and in shorter time.”

More than 100 people have been identified so far after investigators compared Street View images of about 500 properties with state property registries looking for undeclared construction.

Two recent cases netted $130,000 in taxes and penalties after investigators found houses photographed by Google that weren’t on official maps.

From aerial surveillance to dedicated iPhone apps, cash-strapped governments across Europe are employing increasingly unconventional measures against tax cheats to raise revenue. In some countries, authorities have tried to enlist citizens to help keep watch. Customers in Greece, for instance, are insisting on getting receipts for what they buy.

For Lithuania, which only two decades ago began its transition away from communist central planning and remains one of the poorest countries in the European Union, Street View has been a big help. After the global financial crisis struck in 2008, belt tightening cut the tax authority’s budget by a third. A quarter of its employees were let go, leaving it with fewer resources just as it was being asked to do more.

“We were pressured to increase tax revenue,” said the authority’s Mr. Kaseliauskas.

Street View has let Mr. Kaseliauskas’s team see things it would have otherwise missed. Its images are better—and cheaper—than aerial photos, which authorities complain often aren’t clear enough to be useful.

Sitting in their city office 10 miles away, they were able to detect that, contrary to official records, the house with the hammock existed and that, in one photograph, three cars were parked in the driveway.

An undeclared semidetached house owned by the former board chairman of Bank Snoras, Raimundas Baranauskas, was recently identified using Street View and is estimated by the government to be worth about $260,000. Authorities knew Mr. Baranauskas owned land there, but not buildings. A quick look online led to the discovery of several houses on his land, in a quiet residential street of Vilnius.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of (who else?), Google Maps.

Your Tax Dollars at Work

Naysayers would say that government, and hence taxpayer dollars, should not be used to fund science initiatives. After all academia and business seem to do a fairly good job of discovery and innovation without a helping hand pilfering from the public purse. And, without a doubt, and money aside, government funded projects do raise a number of thorny questions: On what should our hard-earned income tax be spent? Who decides on the priorities? How is progress to be measured? Do taxpayers get any benefit in return? After many of us cringe at the thought of an unelected bureaucrat or a committee of such spending millions if not billions of our dollars. Why not just spend the money on fixing our national potholes?

But despite our many human flaws and foibles we are at heart explorers. We seek to know more about ourselves, our world and our universe. Those who seek answers to fundamental questions of consciousness, aging, and life are pioneers in this quest to expand our domain of understanding and knowledge. These answers increasingly aid our daily lives through continuous improvement in medical science, and innovation in materials science. And, our collective lives are enriched as we increasingly learn more about the how and the why of our and our universe’s existence.

So, some of our dollars have gone towards big science at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) beneath Switzerland looking for constituents of matter, the wild laser experiment at the National Ignition Facility designed to enable controlled fusion reactions, and the Curiosity rover exploring Mars. Yet more of our dollars have gone to research and development into enhanced radar, graphene for next generation circuitry, online courseware, stress in coral reefs, sensors to aid the elderly, ultra-high speed internet for emergency response, erosion mitigation, self-cleaning surfaces, flexible solar panels.

Now comes word that the U.S. government wants to spend $3 billion dollars — over 10 years — on building a comprehensive map of the human brain. The media has dubbed this the “connectome” following similar efforts to map our human DNA, the genome. While this is the type of big science that may yield tangible results and benefits only decades from now, it ignites the passion and curiosity of our children to continue to seek and to find answers. So, this is good news for science and the explorer who lurks within us all.

[div class=attrib]From ars technica:[end-div]

Over the weekend, The New York Times reported that the Obama administration is preparing to launch biology into its first big project post-genome: mapping the activity and processes that power the human brain. The initial report suggested that the project would get roughly $3 billion dollars over 10 years to fund projects that would provide an unprecedented understanding of how the brain operates.

But the report was remarkably short on the scientific details of what the studies would actually accomplish or where the money would actually go. To get a better sense, we talked with Brown University’s John Donoghue, who is one of the academic researchers who has been helping to provide the rationale and direction for the project. Although he couldn’t speak for the administration’s plans, he did describe the outlines of what’s being proposed and why, and he provided a glimpse into what he sees as the project’s benefits.

What are we talking about doing?

We’ve already made great progress in understanding the behavior of individual neurons, and scientists have done some excellent work in studying small populations of them. On the other end of the spectrum, decades of anatomical studies have provided us with a good picture of how different regions of the brain are connected. “There’s a big gap in our knowledge because we don’t know the intermediate scale,” Donaghue told Ars. The goal, he said, “is not a wiring diagram—it’s a functional map, an understanding.”

This would involve a combination of things, including looking at how larger populations of neurons within a single structure coordinate their activity, as well as trying to get a better understanding of how different structures within the brain coordinate their activity. What scale of neuron will we need to study? Donaghue answered that question with one of his own: “At what point does the emergent property come out?” Things like memory and consciousness emerge from the actions of lots of neurons, and we need to capture enough of those to understand the processes that let them emerge. Right now, we don’t really know what that level is. It’s certainly “above 10,” according to Donaghue. “I don’t think we need to study every neuron,” he said. Beyond that, part of the project will focus on what Donaghue called “the big question”—what emerges in the brain at these various scales?”

While he may have called emergence “the big question,” it quickly became clear he had a number of big questions in mind. Neural activity clearly encodes information, and we can record it, but we don’t always understand the code well enough to understand the meaning of our recordings. When I asked Donaghue about this, he said, “This is it! One of the big goals is cracking the code.”

Donaghue was enthused about the idea that the different aspects of the project would feed into each other. “They go hand in hand,” he said. “As we gain more functional information, it’ll inform the connectional map and vice versa.” In the same way, knowing more about neural coding will help us interpret the activity we see, while more detailed recordings of neural activity will make it easier to infer the code.

As we build on these feedbacks to understand more complex examples of the brain’s emergent behaviors, the big picture will emerge. Donaghue hoped that the work will ultimately provide “a way of understanding how you turn thought into action, how you perceive, the nature of the mind, cognition.”

How will we actually do this?

Perception and the nature of the mind have bothered scientists and philosophers for centuries—why should we think we can tackle them now? Donaghue cited three fields that had given him and his collaborators cause for optimism: nanotechnology, synthetic biology, and optical tracers. We’ve now reached the point where, thanks to advances in nanotechnology, we’re able to produce much larger arrays of electrodes with fine control over their shape, allowing us to monitor much larger populations of neurons at the same time. On a larger scale, chemical tracers can now register the activity of large populations of neurons through flashes of fluorescence, giving us a way of monitoring huge populations of cells. And Donaghue suggested that it might be possible to use synthetic biology to translate neural activity into a permanent record of a cell’s activity (perhaps stored in DNA itself) for later retrieval.

Right now, in Donaghue’s view, the problem is that the people developing these technologies and the neuroscience community aren’t talking enough. Biologists don’t know enough about the tools already out there, and the materials scientists aren’t getting feedback from them on ways to make their tools more useful.

Since the problem is understanding the activity of the brain at the level of large populations of neurons, the goal will be to develop the tools needed to do so and to make sure they are widely adopted by the bioscience community. Each of these approaches is limited in various ways, so it will be important to use all of them and to continue the technology development.

Assuming the information can be recorded, it will generate huge amounts of data, which will need to be shared in order to have the intended impact. And we’ll need to be able to perform pattern recognition across these vast datasets in order to identify correlations in activity among different populations of neurons. So there will be a heavy computational component as well.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article following the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: White matter fiber architecture of the human brain. Courtesy of the Human Connectome Project.[end-div]

Time for Some Pigovian Taxes

Leaving the merits of capitalism or socialism aside for a moment, let’s consider the case for taxing bad behavior versus good. Adam Davidson, economics columnist and founder of NPR’s Planet Money, reviews the case now being made by a growing number of economists on both the left and the right. They all come to a similar conclusion: Forget about taxing good or constrictive behavior such as entrepreneurialism. Rather, it’s time to tax people for doing destructive and damaging things.

Arthur Pigou, the early-20th century economist, for whom Pigovian taxes are so named, argued that people should face the consequences of externalities. An externality covers an action that we take and that affects others, but to which the market cannot, yet, assign a price. Here’s an example. Say on your morning commute to work your bad habit of driving while using a mobile phone causes an accident followed by an hour-long traffic jam — the lost productivity from all those stuck behind you on the highway is an externality. So, the thinking goes, what if we were to tax such errant behavior? Not only would governments secure an alternate, or — sigh — yet another form of revenue, but we could also collectively discourage bad behavior through monetary means. Taxes on tobacco are a good example — more so due to the addictive nature of nicotine.

Perhaps it’s time for a tax on burgers and fries, a tax on sneezing and coughing in public, and, why not, a tax on those who sing out of tune.

[div class=attrib]From the New York Times:[end-div]

Driving home during the holidays, I found myself trapped in the permanent traffic jam on I-95 near Bridgeport, Conn. In the back seat, my son was screaming. All around, drivers had the menaced, lifeless expressions that people get when they see cars lined up to the horizon. It was enough to make me wish for congestion pricing — a tax paid by drivers to enter crowded areas at peak times. After all, it costs drivers about $16 to enter central London during working hours. A few years ago, it nearly caught on in New York. And on that drive home, I would have happily paid whatever it cost to persuade some other drivers that it wasn’t worth it for them to be on the road.

Instead, we all suffered. Each car added an uncharged burden to every other person. In fact, everyone on the road was doing all sorts of harm to society without paying the cost. I drove about 150 miles that day and emitted, according to E.P.A. data, about 140 pounds of carbon dioxide. My very presence also increased (albeit infinitesimally) the likelihood of a traffic accident, further dependence on foreign oil and the proliferation of urban sprawl. According to an influential study by the I.M.F. economist Ian Parry, my hours on the road cost society around $10. Add up all the cars in all the traffic jams across the country, and it’s clear that drivers are costing hundreds of billions of dollars a year that we don’t pay for.

This is how economists think, anyway. And that’s why a majority of them support some form of Pigovian tax, named after Arthur Pigou, the early-20th-century British economist. Pigou developed the idea of externalities: the things we do that affect others and that the market is unable to price. A negative externality is like the national equivalent of what happens when you go to dinner with three friends and, knowing that you’ll pay only a fourth of the bill, decide to order an expensive entree. Pigou argued that there are so many damaging things that we do — play music too loudly, drive aggressively — and that we’d probably do less if we had to pay for them.

The $10 I cost the economy was based on Parry’s algorithm, which calculates that drivers should pay a tax of at least $1.25 a gallon. Forty percent of that price, he says, is the cost that each vehicle adds to congestion. Another 40 cents or so offsets the price of accidents if we divided the full cost — more than $400 billion annually — by each gallon of gas consumed. (Only about 32 cents would be needed to offset the impact on the environment.) According to Parry’s logic, if we paid a tax of $1.25 per gallon instead of the current average of 50 cents, the price of gas would increase by about 25 percent to around $4 a gallon, which is still well below what much of Europe pays. But it would still encourage us to drive less, pollute less, crash less, lower the country’s dependence on foreign oil and make cities more livable. Not surprisingly, several studies have found that people — especially in Europe, where the gas tax is around $3 a gallon — drive a lot less when they have to pay a lot more for gas.

The idea of raising taxes to help society might sound like the ravings of a left-wing radical, or an idea that would destroy American industry. Yet the nation’s leading proponent of a Pigovian gas tax is N. Gregory Mankiw, chairman of President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers and a consultant to Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. Mankiw keeps track of others who support Pigovian taxes, and his unofficial Pigou Club is surely the only group that counts Ralph Nader and Al Gore along with leading conservatives like Charles Krauthammer, Alan Greenspan and Gary Becker as members.

Republican economists, like Mankiw, normally oppose tax increases, but many support Pigovian taxes because, in some sense, we are already paying them. We pay the tax in the form of the overcrowded roads, higher insurance premiums, smog and global warming. Adding an extra fee at the pump simply makes the cost explicit. Pigou’s approach, Mankiw argues, also converts a burden into a benefit. Imposing taxes on income and capital gains, he notes, punishes the work and investment that improve society; taxing negative externalities allows the government to make money while discouraging activity that hurts the overall economy.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Arthur Cecil Pigou, 1943. Courtesy of Ramsey and Muspratt Collection.[end-div]