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Early this year, I shared an amusing but accurate image that showed an important difference between capitalism and socialism.

And in 2012, I posted a comparison of Detroit and Hiroshima to illustrate the damage of big government.

Well, if you combine those concepts, you get this very pointed look at the evolution of Cuban socialism and Hong Kong capitalism.

Some might dismiss these photos as being unrepresentative, and it’s reasonable to be skeptical. After all, I’m sure it would be easy to put together a series of photos that make it seem as if the United States is suffering from decay while France is enjoying a boom.

So let’s go to the data. In previous posts, I’ve shared comparisons of long-run economic performance in market-oriented nations and statist countries. Examples include Chile vs. Argentina vs. VenezuelaNorth Korea vs. South Korea, Cuba vs. Chile, Ukraine vs. Poland, Hong Kong vs. ArgentinaSingapore vs. Jamaica, and the United States vs. Hong Kong and Singapore.

Now let’s add Cuba vs. Hong Kong to the mix.

Wow, this is amazing. Through much of the 1950s, Hong Kong and Cuba were economically similar, and both were very close to the world average.

Then Hong Kong became a poster child for capitalism while Cuba became an outpost of Soviet communism. And, as you might expect, the people of Hong Kong prospered.

What about the Cubans? Well, I suppose a leftist could argue that they’re all equally poor and that universal deprivation somehow makes Cuban society better Hong Kong, where not everybody gets rich at the same rate.

But even that would be a lie since Cuba’s communist elite doubtlessly enjoys a very comfortable lifestyle. So while the rest of the country endures hardships such as a toilet paper shortage, the party bosses presumably drink champagne and eat caviar.

The bottom line is that statists still don’t have an acceptable answer for my two-part challenge.

P.S. If you prefer stories rather than images or data, this updated version of the fable of the ant and the grasshopper makes a key point about incentives and redistribution. And you get a similar message from the PC version of the Little Red Hen.

P.P.S. Cuba’s system is so wretched that even Fidel Castro confessed it is a failure. So maybe there’s hope that Obama will have a similar epiphany about American-style statism!

I generally focus on the profligate habits and abusive tactics of the federal government in Washington, but that doesn’t mean other levels of government are well behaved.

In a column for the Washington Post, Catherine Rampell outlines some of the reprehensible ways that state and local governments extract money from the citizenry.

Think of recent, infuriating stories on civil asset forfeiture, in which law enforcement seizes cash and other property from people who are never charged with crimes. Often the departments that do the seizing get to keep the proceeds, which leads to terrible incentives. …Onerous traffic fees and court fines — which have been blamed for long-simmering tensions in places like Ferguson, Mo. — often have a similarly mercenary motive.

She’s right to be infuriated.

Policies like asset forfeiture are disgusting ways of stealing money, particularly from the less fortunate. Indeed, it’s worth noting that the two first leaders of the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture office now say the practice should be ended because of rampant abuses.

But other revenue-raising policies also are objectionable.

…states and cities are also increasingly trying to monetize other behaviors seen as sinful or wayward, like marijuana use, strip club patronage, and gambling. Hence the explosion of state-sponsored lotteries, which prey on (mostly poor) people’s mathematical illiteracy… States have also been jockeying to expand casinos and other venues for legalized gambling, which voters seem to see as generating free money. …Then there are the expensive occupational licensure requirements for jobs that don’t seem to require state-level gatekeeping, like hair-braiding.

At this point, after reading various examples of greedy governments pillaging citizens, you may be thinking Ms. Rampell is a good libertarian.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Her anger is misdirected. Instead of holding politicians accountable, she blames voters for their unwillingness to acquiesce to tax hikes as a way of dealing with “widespread budget crunches.”

If the political toxicity of spending and tax hikes encourages obfuscation at the federal level, it has led to far more destructive and distortionary policies at the state and local levels. Voters hate taxes and will punish any politician who threatens to raise them (or, in many cases, does not accede to cutting them). But schools, roads, police forces, garbage collection, firefighters, jails and pensions still cost money, even when you cut them back as much as voters will tolerate. So instead of raising taxes, state and municipal governments have resorted to nickel-and-diming constituents through other kinds of piecemeal, non-tax revenue raisers, an outcome that is less transparent, and likely to worsen the economy, inequality and social injustice. …It’s time to take off the fiscal blinkers and start rewarding politicians who have the courage to advocate raising revenues the old-fashioned way: through taxes.

Reward a politician for raising taxes? Isn’t that like rewarding a mosquito for taking your blood?

But I shouldn’t be snarky. After all, maybe Ms. Rampell is right and that budgets for state and local governments have been cut as much as possible.

That being said, I noticed she didn’t include any figures on the trends in spending by state and local governments.

So I went to the Office of Management and Budget’s historical tables, specifically Table 15-2 which includes state and local government expenditures. And after adjusting the data for inflation, based on the composite deflator in Table 1-3, I put together a graph to determine whether there was a “budget crunch” for state and local government.

Um…not so much.

As you can see, state and local government spending has jumped dramatically, even when looking at inflation-adjusted dollars.

Indeed, the 164 percent increase in outlays since 1980 is four times greater than the 40 percent increase in the nation’s population over the same period.

In other words, the only “budget crunch” is the one being imposed on long-suffering taxpayers by state and local politicians.

Those officials are the folks who deserve Ms. Rampell’s ire.

P.S. Since this column corrects a big oversight in a Washington Post column, I suppose this would be a good time to point out other mistakes or misstatements I’ve noticed in that newspaper.

Such as the time it asserted in a news report that Germany is “fiscally conservative.”

Or the time the newspaper claimed a 0.158 percent cut would “slash” the federal budget.

And how about the time the Post said the tiny sequester would impose a “sledgehammer of budget cuts.”

P.P.S. On the other hand, the Washington Post has produced genuinely good editorials on school choice and postal service privatization, so it isn’t all bad.

P.P.P.S. And it presumably is better than the New York Times, which has a bigger list of preposterous stories (and I’m not even counting Paul Krugman’s mistakes, some of which can be seen here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

Since I’ve accused the Congressional Budget Office of “witch doctor economics and gypsy forecasting,” it’s obvious I’m not a big fan of the organization’s approach to fiscal analysis.

I’ve even argued that Republicans shouldn’t cite CBO when the bureaucrats reach correct conclusions on policy (at least when such findings are based on bad Keynesian methodology).

So nobody should be surprised that I think the incoming Republican majority should install new leadership at CBO (and the Joint Committee on Taxation as well).

So why, then, are some advocates of smaller government – such as Greg Mankiw, Keith Hennessey, Alan Viard, and Michael Strain – arguing that Republicans should keep the current Director, Doug Elmendorf, who was appointed by the Democrats back in 2009?

Before answering that question, let’s look at some of what was written today for the Washington Post’s Wonkblog.

After a series of highly-regarded conservatives voiced their support for Doug Elmendorf, the director of the Congressional Budget Office whose term is up in January, Elmendorf haters fired back on Friday, urging Republicans to jettison the Democratic appointee as soon as possible. …This argument is advanced most forcefully in an open letter to GOP congressional leaders by Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, who…is most famous as the author of the anti-tax pledge that binds virtually every Republican in Congress never to vote to raise taxes. So why is Norquist against Elmendorf? For one thing, because CBO, under Elmendorf, has not demonized higher taxes. Instead, the agency promotes a “Failed Keynesian Economic Analysis,” Norquist says, that asserts that “higher taxes are good for the economy, even to the point of implying that growth is maximized when tax rates are 100 percent.”

And where did Grover get the idea that CBO believes that ever-higher taxes lead to more growth?

Umm…well, from something I wrote.

As evidence, Norquist points to a 2010 post by the Cato Institute’s Dan Mitchell, titled “Congressional Budget Office Says We Can Maximize Long-Run Economic Output with 100 Percent Tax Rates.” “I hope the title of this post is an exaggeration,” Mitchell writes, “but it’s certainly a logical conclusion based on” CBO’s claim that paying down the national debt — regardless of whether it’s through higher taxes or lower government spending — would be a good thing for the economy. “There’s nothing necessarily wrong with CBO’s concern about deficits,” Mitchell goes on. But “what’s missing from CBO’s analysis is any recognition or understanding that the real problem is excessive government spending.” In other words, what’s missing is conservative ideology about fiscal policy.

I have two reactions, one minor and one major.

My minor point is that the author of the piece is supposed to be a neutral, even-handed reporter, yet she refers to opponents of Elmendorf as “haters” and she implies that we’re simply upset because CBO’s analysis is missing “conservative ideology about fiscal policy.”  Given that she was writing for Wonkblog, which is more akin to an editorial page, there’s nothing wrong with being opinionated. But ask yourself whether someone with such hostility can be impartial when doing straight news stories.

My major point is about policy. Why is my concern about the size of government characterized as “ideology” while we’re supposed to believe CBO’s analysis is “scrupulously impartial” even though it produced analysis which implies you maximize growth with 100 percent tax rates?!?

If my views are blind ideology, then why is there research showing the economic damage of excessive government from international bureaucracies such as the World Bank and European Central Bank? And why are there studies about the harmful economic impact of government spending from the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development? Nobody has ever accused these institutions of being hotbeds of libertarian thought.

But perhaps I’m not being fair to CBO. Did the bureaucrats really imply, as part of their analysis on what would happen to the economy if the Bush tax cuts were allowed to expire, that you maximize growth with 100 percent tax rates?

You can read my original post, which holds up very well four years later. And here’s some of what I wrote yesterday to someone who asked me to justify my views on the issue.

…let’s focus on the “subsequent years,” when CBO projectst that GDP would be lower with extended tax cuts. …I’m happy to be corrected, but my reading is that CBO was stating that fiscal balance is the tail that wags the economic dog. The extended tax cuts cause larger deficits, and CBO says that these larger deficits will divert national saving from productive investment and lead to lower output. But if the tax burden is higher, as in the baseline forecast, then deficits are lower and more saving is available for productive investment and output is higher. As far as I’m aware, CBO didn’t have any limiting language back then to suggest that higher tax rates led to growth, but only up to X point. So I think I was on solid ground in asserting the CBO’s analysis implied that ever-higher tax rates led to ever-higher growth.

Seems reasonable. Moreover, I strongly suspect the Wonkblog reporter would have found several people to condemn me had I over-stated the implications of CBO’s analysis.

Now let’s return to the issue of whether Mr. Elmendorf should be re-appointed. Which fiscal conservatives are correct, the ones who want to keep him or the ones who want him replaced?

I’m in the latter category, as explained here, but Elmendorf’s defenders make plenty of good points.

The bottom line is that he is a nice guy (based on my limited interactions), a thoughtful economist, and he has been a big improvement over his predecessor. Indeed, he’s almost certainly the best CBO Director ever appointed by Democrats.

Here’s an analogy that may help make sense of this issue. Elmendorf’s predecessor was a doctrinaire leftist named Peter Orszag. If Orszag’s policy views were a country, they would be France or Greece. By contrast, I’m guessing that Elmendorf would be like Sweden or Germany.

In other words, he wants more government than I do, but at least Elmendorf basically understands that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. He realizes 2+2=4, and he’s aware that there are tradeoffs. And since his arrival, CBO has been much better on issues such as the adverse impact of higher marginal tax rates and the debilitating effect of higher transfer payments.

That being said, while it’s much better to be Sweden rather than Greece, I obviously would prefer to be Hong Kong (or, even better, pre-1913 America).

Though, to continue the analogy, the best I can probably hope for is that Republicans appoint someone akin to Australia or Switzerland.

P.S. For more information about the economics of deficits and fiscal balance, here’s a video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

P.P.S. The Congressional Research Service made the same argument about higher taxes being pro-growth, asserting in 2010 that “The expiration of the tax cuts would nevertheless reduce the budget deficit, absent other policy changes, which economic theory predicts would have a positive effect on the economy in the long run.”

I’ve argued that the crowd in Washington profits by plundering America, but that’s just part of the equation.

There are also plenty of big companies that have their snouts in the public trough.

No wonder many people have become disgusted

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, James Freeman points out that a growing number of Americans think the system is rigged against them and he links this disillusionment to an ever-expanding federal government.

According to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, a full 56% of Americans agree with this statement: “The economic and political systems in the country are stacked against people like me.” This disillusionment index has been rising for more than a decade and coincides with an explosion in the size of the federal government. …The last time Americans had this little faith in the country’s political and economic systems was for a brief period in 1992, in the aftermath of President George H.W. Bush’s breaking of his no-new-taxes pledge in a deal with Congressional Democrats that enabled more spending. …more government enables people to get rich through political favoritism. In the era of the Beltway boom, no wonder so many people feel the deck is stacked against them.

So is this just empty anti-government rhetoric?

I don’t think so.

Consider the way a select handful of big companies use the Export-Import Bank to obtain undeserved profits.

Or look at the way the major pharmaceutical companies and big insurance companies got into bed with the White House to line their pockets via Obamacare.

And examine how big financial firms pillaged taxpayers as part of the sleazy TARP bailout.

How about the way big agri-businesses rip off consumers with the ethanol scam.

Don’t forget H&R Block is trying to get the IRS to drive competitors out of the market.

Big Sugar also gets a sweet deal by investing in politicians.

Another example is the way major electronics firms enriched themselves by getting Washington to ban incandescent light bulbs.

Needless to say, we can’t overlook Obama’s corrupt green-energy programs that fattened the wallets of well-connected donors.

And General Motors became Government Motors thanks to politicians fleecing ordinary Americans.

After looking at that list, I’m surprised that 100 percent of Americans haven’t concluded that the system is rigged for corrupt insiders.

But just in case you think that list is inadequate, let’s look at some new examples.

But first, allow me to reiterate my view on markets.

Simply stated, I believe in genuine unfettered capitalism within a system that protects life, liberty, and property (in other words, “unfettered capitalism” obviously doesn’t include the right to hire a hit man to kill your mother-in-law).

Within those boundaries, I have no objection to people taking risks, accumulating wealth, or losing all their money. Heck, it’s not just that I have “no objection.” I welcome such a system since it means the maximum freedom and prosperity for people, particularly the less fortunate.

But I don’t want people to get rich(er) because they have political allies who will adopt cronyist policies that tilt the playing field in favor of well-connected insiders.

And that’s exactly what’s happening in my two new examples.

First, we have the case of a big Democratic donor who invested a lot of money in a short sell position on Herbalife, which means he will profit if the stock falls in value.

Nothing wrong with that, at least in theory. Short selling can be a very economically beneficial way of correcting markets when something is over-valued. Heck, we would all be much better off today if there had been some short selling to pop the housing bubble before it got so big.

But as Tim Carney explains in a column for the Washington Examiner, this short-selling insider isn’t relying on market forces. Instead, he is asking his buddies in the Obama Administration to use coercive government to hurt the company and lower its value.

Here are some excerpts.

Politically connected hedge-funder Bill Ackman…shorted the nutritional supplement company Herbalife in late 2012… After Ackman’s announcement, Herbalife shares fell from $46 to $27. Ackman kept hammering away, taking his compelling slide show on the road to convince the investing public that Herbalife was a house of cards. But after the initial drop, Herbalife stock rebounded… But Ackman had another weapon in his arsenal. Namely: Big Government. Ackman lobbied congresswoman Linda Sánchez, D-Calif., to sic the Federal Trade Commission on Herbalife. Sanchez complied. Ackman also…“paid civil rights organizations at least $130,000 to join his effort by helping him collect the names of people who claimed they were victimized by Herbalife in order to send the leads to regulators…” Ackman’s firm, Pershing Square Capital Management, hired an army of K Street lobbyists — paying a combined $14,000 a month to three firms that disclose lobbying for him — to turn the government against Herbalife.

What reprehensible behavior on the part of Ackman.

I have no idea whether Herbalife is a good company or a bad company. And I have no idea whether its stock is over-valued or under-valued.

But I do know that Ackman shouldn’t be getting his political buddies to intervene. As Tim points out, this is a recipe for rampant cronyism.

This is different from ordinary lobbying. Typically, companies lobby to protect or subsidize their business. When hedge funds play Ackman’s game, helping or hurting some other company is the entirety of that business — and so lobbying can become the core of their business plan. We’ve seen it before. Investor Steve Eisman took a short position on for-profit colleges and lobbied Congress and the Department of Education to crack down on them. The Obama administration this month announced new proposed regulations on these colleges.

Now let’s look at another example.

Only this time it involves a big-donor Republican who wants favors from big government.

As the Washington Post reports, Sheldon Adelson doesn’t want his casinos to face competition from the Internet.

Given the more than $100 million that Sheldon Adelson has donated lately to Republican causes, the billionaire casino tycoon is well-positioned to get what he wants from a GOP-dominated Congress. But it turns out that the item on top of Adelson’s wish list — a ban on Internet gambling — is encountering resistance. And it’s not Democrats who stand in his way but a small group of fellow conservatives. …Online betting has been embraced by a number of Adelson’s industry rivals and several states eager for the additional tax revenue it provides….Yet the move to the Internet has also been seen as a threat that could deplete the customer base for Adelson’s brick-and-mortar casino resorts. …Half of the 22 Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee have co-sponsored the Adelson-backed legislation.

So what’s the status of the battle?

…conservative opposition began to emerge. …leaders of the other groups, including the American Conservative Union, did not mention Adelson by name. But their letter follows the publication this week of a fiery online column by former congressman Ron Paul (R-Tex.), the libertarian hero and father of potential presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). He called the bill an example of “crony capitalism” written “for the benefit of one powerful billionaire.” …Adelson called the 2011 Justice Department legal opinion a mistake and has taken steps to rein in online gambling, fighting state-level proposals to authorize it and pushing for the federal ban. A company lawyer penned an initial draft of the Restoration of America’s Wire Act — later refined and introduced last year by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) — which would effectively prevent states from authorizing online betting.

Ugh, how nauseating.

Though I’m glad to see that there is opposition inside the GOP to Adelson’s self-serving proposal.

I realize we can’t say for sure whether opponents are motivated solely by good principles of non-intervention and federalism. Perhaps they’ve received money from interest groups on the other side, but at least there is resistance and presumably some of that opposition is for the right reasons.

By contrast, I’m not aware of any Democrats who are opposed to Ackman’s cronyist attack on Herbalife.

The moral of the story is that big government enables insider corruption. Which is the message of this video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

But if you don’t want to watch the video, just remember the simple lesson of today’s column, which is that all the examples of sleazy cronyism we discussed (both the new ones and the old ones) were only possible because government had the power to trump free markets.

Now let’s return to where we started. Yes, a growing number of Americans are getting disillusioned, and with good reason. But will the good people in Washington appeal to them with a principled campaign against corporate welfare and other policies that help insider fat cats?

Or will it be business as usual, with GOP cronyists replacing Democrat cronyists?

Even worse, will statists latch onto the issue and say the solution is to impose higher tax rates? That presumably would take some money from rich insiders, but it also would penalize folks who earn money honestly.

And it means the money that consumers lose because of cronyism winds up in the pockets of politicians.

Wouldn’t it be better to simply get rid of the bad subsidies and handouts and solve the real problem?

P.S. Since today’s column looks at capitalism vs cronyism, here’s the famous example of how you can explain various economic systems using two cows.

I don’t know whether it’s because I’m a libertarian or because I’m an economist, but I get very frustrated by the issue of corporate inversions.

It galls me to hear demagogic politicians like Obama make absurd statements about “unpatriotic” corporations that re-domicile overseas when the problem is entirely the result of bad policy that penalizes U.S.-domiciled firms trying to compete in global markets.

1. The United States imposes the world’s highest corporate tax rate.

2. The United States is one of the few countries to impose “worldwide tax” on domestic firms.

3. The United States maintains very anti-competitive tax rules.

So when politicians grouse about “Benedict Arnold” companies, my reaction is to be happy that companies are taking steps to protect workers, consumers, and shareholders.

But, given what he’s done on amnesty and Obamacare, you won’t be surprised to learn that the President has unilaterally changed policy to make inversions more difficult.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the President’s bad policy doesn’t change reality.

An editorial in the Wall Street Journal looks at the latest example of an American company getting a new address.

Ireland-based drug company Actavis on Monday announced a $66 billion agreement to buy California’s Allergan , maker of the Botox anti-wrinkle treatment. …the tax savings…could be hundreds of millions a year beginning in 2015.

The folks at the WSJ make the obvious point about bad American tax laws.

…the deal highlights how desperately U.S. tax policy needs a makeover. …As if a combined state and local corporate tax rate of 40%—the highest in the industrialized world—isn’t harsh enough, the U.S. is also one of the few countries in which the government demands to be paid even on earnings that have already been taxed in foreign jurisdictions. Given this competitive disadvantage for U.S.-based firms, it’s no coincidence that both of the suitors that have been seeking to acquire Allergan are based overseas.

And what’s really remarkable is that both the suitors used to be U.S.-based companies!

Both Actavis and Valeant used to be based in the U.S. but moved their headquarters offshore in so-called inversion transactions in which they adopted the home country of businesses they acquired. Moving offshore allows businesses to invest more in the U.S., as Actavis has already done with its recent purchase of New York’s Forest Laboratories.

But hold on a second, didn’t the Obama Administration enact rules to prevent inversions?

President Obama views such rational decisions as unpatriotic, because he wants to tax both foreign and U.S. operations. So this fall Treasury Secretary Jack Lew reinterpreted longstanding tax regulations to make it more expensive to execute such deals—a punishment for companies that didn’t exit the U.S. when they had the chance. …Mr. Lew has decided the best response to foreign tax competition is to bolt the door to prevent more corporate escapes.

But here’s the catch. The White House and Treasury Department did make it more costly for companies to re-domicile, but the Administration can’t actually prohibit cross-border mergers.

So let’s summarize the net effect.

Before the Obama Administration imposed new rules, American-based companies would acquire foreign-based companies and use that maneuver to technically re-domicile in a nation with less punitive corporate taxation. But there’s very little risk of American jobs being lost.

After the rule changes, American-based companies are the ones being acquired by their overseas competitors. This means the White House can’t argue that the change in domicile isn’t real. And it means that there’s a far higher probability of jobs going overseas.

I guess the White House thinks this is a victory.

Let’s now step back and put this issue in context. This is the educational part of today’s column.

Here are some slides from a presentation by Professor Dick Harvey at Villanova University School of Law. He presents lots of information, but here are the three slides that are probably most interesting to non-tax geeks.

First, here’s the key thing to know about inversions. They’re a do-it-yourself version of territorial taxation.

And since territorial taxation is the right policy, nobody should be upset about inversions.

Second,  here’s a look at how many inversions occur each year. As you can see, we’re in the midst of another wave.

You’ll notice that these waves roughly coincide with periods featuring corporate tax rate reductions in other nations.

So the lesson is that bad American policy is making it more and more difficult for U.S.-domiciled firms to compete in global markets.

Third, here’s a slide showing where companies are re-domiciling.

Some of my favorite places, particularly Cayman, Bermuda, Switzerland, and Hong Kong!

Now let’s zoom out even further and consider the leftist view that multinational corporations are getting away with some sort of scam because of so-called stateless income.

Sinclair Davidson, a professor at Australia’s RMIT University, writes about the issue. Here are a few excerpts from his scholarly paper.

It is commonly argued that the corporate income tax system is ‘broken’. …The latest theoretical argument suggesting that the corporate income tax base is likely to be eroded is the ‘stateless income doctrine’.

But there’s an itsy-bitsy problem with this theory, as Sinclair explains.

…there is no evidence to support the view that the corporate income tax base is being eroded. At best, the concern about the tax base is not so much that it is being eroded, but rather that multinational corporations do not pay tax in every host economy.

He also points out that companies are obeying the law, which is a point I’ve also made on this topic.

…there is little evidence of any wrongdoing by any of the three corporations that are regularly singled out for abuse. It is true that these corporations do not pay as much tax in the UK or the US as those governments would like them to pay, but they pay as much tax as is required by the laws that those governments have passed. …‘None of this required a Senate “investigation” to  discover because Apple is constantly inspected by the IRS and other tax authorities. These tax collectors are well aware of Apple’s corporate structure, which has remained essentially the same since 1980. An Apple executive said Tuesday that the company’s annual US tax return adds up to a stack of paperwork more than two feet high. …These corporations are fully compliant with the tax law in the jurisdictions in which they operate.

So what’s his bottom line?

There is no such thing as ‘stateless income’, rather there is income that the governments of the UK and the US do not tax because under their own legal systems that income is not sourced in their economy. When these governments complain about stateless income, the question rather should be, ‘Why do the owners of intellectual property not locate their property in your economy?’. An implicit assumption of the stateless income doctrine is that multinational corporations maximise their value to society only when they pay tax. Of course, this is not the case. … It is one thing to point out that multinational corporations do not pay tax in some jurisdictions but that says nothing about the actual corporate  income tax base. … So-called ‘stateless income’ is a return on intellectual property.

Amen.

Let’s close with another perspective on the issue. Stewart Dompe and Adam Smith of Johnson and Wales University in North Carolina have a column in The Freeman.

…the United States is unique in that it taxes corporations at 35 percent regardless of where the income is earned, and hence regardless of whether the corporation benefited from any public goods. Payment without benefit is simply bad business. Avoiding particularly high tax rates like those of the United States can yield significant savings for companies—and their shareholders. Charlotte-based Chiquita Brands International, for instance, hopes to save $60 million via its recent acquisition of Ireland-based Fyffes PLC. Burger King’s merger, according to analyst estimates, could cut its overall tax bill by 13 percent. …Populist themes like “economic patriotism” may appeal to voters, but such arguments are nonsensical: Firms are ultimately responsible to their shareholders. As Judge Learned Hand wrote, “Any one may so arrange his affairs that his taxes shall be as low as possible; he is not bound to choose that pattern which will best pay the Treasury; there is not even a patriotic duty to increase one’s taxes.” If anything, firms have a moral responsibility to minimize their taxable liabilities. The legal structure of a firm establishes the relationship between shareholders, who own the capital, and managers that make operating decisions. Executives have a fiduciary responsibility to pay the lowest tax possible because they are the stewards of their shareholders’ wealth.

I particularly like their conclusion.

This competition among legal regimes is a powerful constraint on government—and that is a good thing for all of us. America has the second-highest corporate tax rate in the world—the highest when state taxes are included. The solution to this problem lies not in closing loopholes or imitating poor Oliver pleading for more, but in offering a simpler, more competitive tax system.

They hit the nail on the head. As I argued just yesterday, we need to restrain the greed of the political class.

But the fight isn’t limited to national capitals. International bureaucracies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development also are promoting schemes to squeeze more money out of companies – which, of course, means harming workers, consumers, and shareholders.

The pro-tax crowd can concoct all sorts of theories, such as stateless income, but this assault on companies is happening because government have spent themselves into a fiscal ditch and they want taxpayers to pay the price for this profligacy.

P.S. If you read this far, you deserve a reward. You can enjoy a good Michael Ramirez cartoon about inversions by clicking here, and there are several additional cartoons included in this post.

P.P.S. But if you’re a glutton for punishment, you can watch my video on international corporate taxation instead.

P.P.P.S. One final point worth sharing is that folks who try to complain about “low tax burdens” on the foreign-source income of American multinationals need to remember that they pay a lot of tax to foreign governments.

Tax competition is a very important tool for constraining the greed of the political class. Simply stated, politicians are less likely to impose bad tax policy if they are afraid that jobs and investment (and accompanying tax revenue) will move to jurisdictions with better tax policy.

This works to limit revenue grabs by politicians at the state level and it works to control the craving for money on the part of politicians at the national level.

But this doesn’t mean all forms of tax competition are equally desirable.

If a country lowers overall tax rates on personal income or corporate income in hopes of attracting business activity, that’s great for prosperity. If a jurisdiction seeks faster growth by reducing double taxation – such as lowering the tax rate on capital gains or abolishing the death tax, that’s also very beneficial.

Some politicians, however, try to entice businesses with special one-off deals, which means one politically well-connected company gets a tax break while the overall fiscal regime for other companies stays the same (or even gets worse).

That’s corrupt cronyism, not proper tax competition.

With this in mind, let’s consider the growing controversy about tax planning by multinational companies. There’s lot of controversy, both in the United States and in Europe, about whether companies are gaming the system.

The most recent kerfuffle deals with Luxembourg, which is accused of having a very friendly regime for business taxation.

Syed Kamall, a Tory member of the European Parliament, has a column in the Wall Street Journal Europe about the right kind of corporate tax competition.

It seems to have come as a great shock to many in the European Parliament that Luxembourg may have encouraged multinational companies to domicile there to pay lower taxes. I’m not sure where these members of parliament have been living for the past 20 years.

What worries Syed is that many European politicians want to use the news from Luxembourg as an excuse to push tax harmonization.

…an agenda of EU-wide tax harmonization…is rapidly gaining popularity in some quarters despite being exactly the wrong prescription for Europe. …tax harmonization…would hang the “Closed for Business” sign at Europe’s border. Tax competition across the single market helps keep tax rates competitive and drives inward investment. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has said that “the ability [of companies] to choose the location of economic activity offsets shortcomings in government budgeting processes, limiting a tendency to spend and tax excessively.”

By the way, the OECD is a big proponent of tax harmonization, so it’s especially noteworthy that even those bureaucrats admitted that tax competition constrains greedy government.

You can click here for further examples of OECD economists admitting that tax competition is necessary and desirable, notwithstanding the anti-market policies being advocated by the political appointees who run the institution.

And since we’re discussing the merits of tax competition, we should point out that Mr. Kamall also mentioned those benefits.

The clearest example of that came with the tax reductions enacted by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Those tax-rate cuts in the U.K. and U.S. forced other industrialized nations to cut their average top marginal rate for personal income to 42% today from more than 67% in 1980 simply to remain competitive, according to the Adam Smith Institute. Tax competition has driven down the average top rate for corporate income in the developed world to less than 27% today from 48% in 1980. Tax competition in Europe encouraged many EU members from the former Soviet bloc to enact flat taxes, which have benefitted them substantially. …it’s important for leaders to keep making the case that tax-policy competition within the single market has been good for Europe.

And he correctly warns that tax harmonization would be a vehicle for higher tax burdens.

Imposing uniform rates under a harmonized system would turn the EU into a convoy that can move only as fast as the slowest ship. Europe’s tax rate would be only as low as the highest-taxing member. …A harmonized tax system would encourage companies and investors to seek new solutions outside the EU in order to avoid paying what would inevitably be higher, French-style levels of European taxation.

And if you don’t believe Mr. Kamall, just look at what’s happened over the past couple of years in Europe.

Last but not least, Syed points out that there is a pro-growth way of improving tax compliance.

The best way to cut down on tax avoidance is to cut tax rates and simplify tax codes. That way people and companies would be willing and able to pay their money to Europe’s exchequers, rather than paying accountants to find loopholes.

But that would require politicians to be responsible, so don’t hold your breath.

So what’s the bottom line? Is there a good way of identifying the desirable forms of tax competition that should be defended.

The simple answer is that it’s always a good idea to compete with lower tax rates that apply to all taxpayers. That’s true for tax rates on companies and households.

The more complex (but equally important) answer is that it’s also good to compete by having a properly designed tax system. On the business side, that means expensing instead of depreciation and territorial taxation rather than worldwide taxation. For households, it means having the proper definition of income so that there’s no longer pernicious discrimination against saving and investment.

Misguided tax competition, by contrast, exists when there are very narrow preferences that apply to a small handful of powerful taxpayers.

For more information on the general topic, here’s my video on the virtues of tax competition.

P.S. My support for tax competition is so intense that I even try to bring the message to unfriendly audiences, such as Capitol Hill and the New York Times.

P.P.S. Heck, my support for tax competition is so intense that I almost got tossed in a third-world jail. That’s true dedication!

P.P.P.S. In you admire hypocrisy, you’ll be very impressed that many rich statists utilize tax havens to protect their money even though they want you to give more of your income to government.

P.P.P.P.S. Speaking of hypocrisy, the main anti-tax competition international organization gives its bureaucrats tax-free salaries.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Since I just mentioned the OECD, I should note that it has a project to curtail business tax competition. They claim that their intention is to go after misguided forms of tax competition, but I’m not surprised that the real goal is to simply extract more money from companies.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S. I’m not sure how to classify this final bit of information, but it’s surely worth mentioning that Bill Clinton defends corporate tax competition. As does Bono.

I don’t like coerced redistribution. When the government uses the threat of force to take from Person A to give to Person B, it simultaneously reduces Person A’s incentives to produce while also luring Person B into dependency.

But not all coerced redistribution and government intervention is created equal.

I don’t like welfare programs, for instance, in part because taxpayers are writing huge checks to support a plethora of programs, but also because there is very strong evidence that the modern welfare state has caused more poverty.

Nonetheless, I understand that there are well-meaning people who support these programs. Their motives are pure in that they simply want to alleviate perceived suffering. And since they’ve never learned about the adverse indirect effects of government intervention and presumably haven’t given any thought to the ethics of government coercion, I don’t think of these people as being bad or immoral. Just uninformed.

But there are some forms of redistribution and intervention that are so self-evidently odious and corrupt that you can’t give supporters the benefit of the doubt. Simply stated, there’s no justifiable argument for using government coercion to hurt poor people in order to benefit rich people.

Let’s look at two examples.

First, the Export-Import Bank is a quintessential example of corporate welfare. The program forces taxpayers to guarantee the contracts of big corporations and foreign buyers, and there’s now a fight over whether it should be extended.

Needless to say, ordinary voters don’t want their money being used enrich big companies.

So if you were one of the beltway insiders who benefited from this corrupt institution, how would you try to get the program extended? Would you be upfront and argue that big companies like Boeing deserve tax dollars? Would you argue that politicians are really smart and wise and that they should interfere with the free market?

That would be the honest way of supporting the Ex-Im Bank. But you won’t be surprised to learn that advocates instead have resorted to lies. Here are some excerpts from a Reuters story.

The U.S. Export-Import Bank has mischaracterized potentially hundreds of large companies and units of multinational conglomerates as small businesses, a flaw in its record keeping that could undermine the export lender’s survival strategy. …A comparison of some 6,000 businesses characterized by Ex-Im as “small” with information supplied by corporate data collector Dun & Bradstreet, which Ex-Im also uses to vet applicants, and other sources turns up some 200 companies that appear to be mislabeled and many more whose classification is uncertain.

Um… I would say they lied rather than characterize it as a “flaw in its record keeping.” But let’s set that aside and look at some of the “small businesses” that had their snouts in the Ex-Im trough.

…analysis showed companies owned by billionaires such as Warren Buffet and Mexico’s Carlos Slim, as well by Japanese and European conglomerates, were listed as small businesses and Ex-Im acknowledged errors in its data in response to those findings.  …A division of Austria’s Swarovski jewelers shows up, as does North Carolina’s Global Nuclear Fuels, which is owned by General Electric and Japan’s Toshiba and Hitachi. …The list of small businesses in Texas, for example, includes engineering and construction company Bechtel, which has 53,000 employees.

Gee, Warren Buffet and foreign conglomerates don’t exactly sound like my idea of small businesses.

Hopefully this will provide more ammunition of those fighting to wean big companies from the public teat.

Bank officials and supporters have used the Ex-Im’s support for American small business as a first line of defense against a campaign by conservatives to shut it down as an exponent of “crony capitalism.” …“Rarely does Ex-Im miss a (public relations) opportunity to claim that it primarily helps small business, but Ex-Im is again playing fast and loose with the facts,” said Representative Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Financial Services Committee. “The bulk of Ex-Im’s help indisputably goes to large corporations that can finance their own operations without putting it on the taxpayer balance sheet.”

For our second example, we have the absolutely horrifying spectacle of the Obama Administration trying to shut down Wisconsin’s school choice system.

Why? Well, because currying favor with union bosses is more important than improving educational opportunities for students from disadvantaged communities.

George Will explains what’s happening in his Washington Post column.

It is as remarkable as it is repulsive… Eager to sacrifice low-income children to please teachers unions, the Justice Department wants to destroy Wisconsin’s school choice program. Feigning concern about access for disabled children, the department aims to handicap all disadvantaged children by denying their parents access to school choices of the sort affluent government lawyers enjoy. …Wisconsin’s school choice program was pioneered by an American hero, Mississippi-born Annette Polly Williams, who died Nov. 9 at age 77. During her three decades in Wisconsin’s legislature, she overcame the opposition of fellow Democrats to offering education choices to low-income parents. At the end of her life, however, she saw an African American attorney general, serving an African American president, employing tortured legal reasoning in an attempt to bankrupt private schools that enlarge the education options of disadvantaged children. …Closing the voucher program is the obvious objective of the teachers unions and hence of the Obama administration. Herding children from the choice schools back into government schools would swell the ranks of unionized teachers, whose union dues fund the Democratic Party as it professes devotion to “diversity” and the downtrodden.

By the way, you probably won’t be surprised (given the White House’s cavalier approach to the rule of law) to learn that the Obama Administration is using is utterly nonsensical legal theory.

…federal lawyers argue that because public funds, in the form of tuition vouchers empowering parents to make choices, flow to private schools, the schools become “public entities.” …this is like arguing that when food stamps are used for purchases at Wal-Mart, America’s largest private employer ceases to be private — it becomes an extension of the government. Inconveniently for the Justice Department, the U.S. Supreme Court has said the fact that a “private entity performs a function which serves the public does not make its acts state action.”

The preposterous legal reasoning is a farce, but that doesn’t get me overly upset.

What does bother me is the way the White House is acting like the modern-day equivalent of George Wallace, standing in the schoolhouse door to prevent low-income (and largely minority) students from getting an opportunity for better education.

I guess that a black President (who sends his own kids to private school) consigning black children to the back of the proverbial bus shouldn’t surprise me too much. After all, some divisions of the NAACP also have decided that being politically allied with union bosses is more important that educational opportunity for minority kids.

But that doesn’t make it morally acceptable. Put yourself in the shoes of a low-income parent. Wisconsin’s school choice programs gives you some hope that your kids can break free of poverty. Imagine what it feels like, then, when some of the politicians who claim to be on your side then decide that your children are expendable pawns. How disgusting.

Since we’re talking about things that are disgusting, let’s shift back to the Ex-Im Bank. I’ve actually had some Republican types tell me that corporate welfare is okay because it “helps to offset” some of the redistribution from rich to poor.

I confess that I’m dumbstruck by such arguments. It’s sort of like hearing someone say it’s okay to murder, rape, and steal because other people are doing it.

This is why it’s not easy being a libertarian. Yes, we believe in small government for utilitarian reasons such as faster growth, higher living standards, and more jobs. But we’re also motivated by morality, by the belief that there’s right and wrong and that good people should strive to uphold the former and fight the latter.

That’s not a popular view in Washington, which is best characterized as an incestuous racket for the benefit of interest groups, politicians, cronyists, lobbyists, bureaucrats, contractors, and other insiders.

P.S. On a completely separate (and non-political) issue, I can’t resist seeking some sympathy after what happened to me this morning. I took two of my cats to the vet for their spay and neuter appointments. Some of you pet owners already know that most cats don’t like car rides, so you might have some inkling of what I’m about to report.

In happier times

About five minutes into the drive, one of the cats vomits in the little cat carrier. That obviously wasn’t a happy development, particularly since it left me with an unpleasant choice of enduring a very unpleasant smell or having the window open and enduring a very bitter chill. But then, a few minutes later, the other cat…um, how should I phrase this…loses control of her bowels.

Which means that the next 20 minutes was almost as unbearable as watching a state-of-the-union address. I was running late for the appointment, so I couldn’t stop someplace and try to deal with the mess. And the two cats kept moving around in their carrier, making things worse. Trying to breathe through my mouth, even with the window down, was at best a pitiful attempt to mitigate my suffering.

An utterly miserable situation. Almost 1/10th as bad as an IRS audit.

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