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Archive for October, 2009

There’s been an interesting debate in Washington (at least among tax nerds) about whether all tax cuts are a good idea. I’m largely sympathetic to cutting taxes anytime and anywhere, though I certainly agree with those who argue that supply-side tax-rate reductions are far better than tax credits and other forms of social engineering through the internal revenue code. But perhaps the debate can now be settled. The home-buyer tax credit, much beloved by politicians from both parties, is absolutely horrible policy. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial is a great summary of this corrupt and wasteful tax preference:

It’s hard not to laugh when viewing the results of the federal first-time home-buyer tax credit. The credit, worth up to $8,000 for the purchase of a home, has only been available since April of last year. Yet news of the latest taxpayer-funded mortgage scam has traveled fast. The Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration, J. Russell George, recently told Congress that at least 19,000 filers hadn’t purchased a home when they claimed the credit. For another 74,000 filers, claiming a total of $500 million in credits, evidence suggests that they weren’t first-time buyers. Among those claiming bogus credits, at least some of them were definitely first-timers. The credit has already been claimed by 500 people under the age of 18, including a four-year-old. …As a “refundable” tax credit, it guarantees the claimants will get cash back even if they paid no taxes. A lack of documentation requirements also makes this program a slow pitch in the middle of the strike zone for scammers. The Internal Revenue Service and the Justice Department are pursuing more than 100 criminal investigations related to the credit, and the IRS is reportedly trying to audit almost everyone who claims it this year. Speaking of the IRS, apparently its own staff couldn’t help but notice this opportunity to snag an easy $8,000. …Mr. George said his staff has found at least 53 cases of IRS employees filing “illegal or inappropriate” claims for the credit. “In all honesty this is an interim report. I expect that the number would be much larger than that number,” he said. The program is set to expire at the end of November, so naturally given its record of abuse, Congress is preparing to extend it. Republican Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia is so pleased with the results that he wants to expand the program beyond first-time buyers and double the income limits. …Meanwhile, the credit continues to distort the housing market and postpone the day when home prices can find a floor that is a basis for a stable recovery. More than two years into the housing bust, trillions of dollars in taxpayer losses or guarantees via Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and amid an ongoing plague of redefaults in federal programs to prevent foreclosures, politicians are still trying to manipulate housing prices. And leave it to Congress to design a program that even a four-year-old can scam.

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KPMG has released its annual global survey of corporate tax systems. For the 10th-consecutive year, the average corporate tax rate fell, and it is now down to 25.5 percent (just 23.2 percent in the European Union!).

In the United States, unfortunately, the corporate tax rates remains stuck at about 40 percent. Only one developed nation, Japan, has a more punitive regime.

Something to keep in mind the next time a politician complains that jobs are going to China (corporate tax rate of 25 percent).

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Here’s a Cato Institute podcast with H.S.H. Prince Michael v. Liechtenstein. It would be nice if America has business and political leaders with a commitment to individual liberty and personal freedom.

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Soviet-Style Tax Collection Tactics in the Windy City. During the Cold War, Americans often would use dark humor to mock the totalitarian nature of the Soviet regime, and it was not uncommon to joke about children turning in their parents for anti-Soviet behavior in exchange for a pair of Western blue jeans. In the real world, of course, these things are not funny, and folks in places such as Cuba still live in fear that neighborhood informants will get them in trouble with the secret police. So it is particularly nauseating to see that the City of Chicago is encouraging some taxpayers to snitch on others:

Chicago and Cook County residents aren’t the only ones about to get shocking tax news; the city is debuting a “tax whistle-blower” plan that could turn neighbor against neighbor in Chicago’s business community. The folks at city hall will pay cash bounties to informants who turn in business tax cheats around the city. The reward would amount to some sort of percentage of the tax money that the city recovers. “It’s just another way of bringing people into compliance,” Revenue Department spokesman Ed Walsh told the Sun-Times .

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According to the Legatum Institute, Finland is the world’s most prosperous nation, based on material well-being and certain social indicators. Other Nordic nations, as well as Switzerland and the Netherlands also rank above the United States. The variables that determined the ranking leave something to be desired from a libertarian perspective, but a column in the Wall Street Journal Europe, authored by the heads of the Legatum Institute and America Enterprise Institute, makes a valuable point about the the fact that the Nordic nations have very laissez-faire policies with the exception of large welfare states. This commitment to unfettered markets enables them to retain some dynamism, thus offsetting to some degree the negative impact of too much taxes and spending. As the column notes, this has important lessons – especially for the United States, which is moving toward bigger government and more intervention in private markets:

…free enterprise has come under attack with the global economic crisis, the perceived threat of climate change, and a broader concern—most recently promoted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy—that growth alone does not indicate prosperity. …Many people—especially Americans—think of wealth as the basis of health and happiness, too. In other words, market economies with good economic fundamentals drive us to more fulfilling lives. Europeans often counter that a narrow pecuniary viewpoint gives a distorted picture of the human experience. Worse yet, it can lead to the tyranny of materialism. Who is right? …While free enterprise is not the only important factor explaining national differences in well-being, it probably does explain most of it. This means subverting the mechanisms of free enterprise would not just lead to lower economic growth but also lower social scores. The fact that the Nordic countries do so well in the Prosperity Index has largely to do with the fact that apart from their welfare policies, they also encourage entrepreneurship, free trade, and have stable monetary policies—even as they employ strong rhetoric against capitalism. Finland, Sweden and Denmark all score higher than Switzerland and nearly all of their southern European counterparts on their capacity to commercialize innovation, through factors such as business start-up procedures, business registration rates, and royalties on patents. All of this drives dynamic entrepreneurship, and spurs people to innovate and take risks, as they are more reassured that good ideas will pay off. U.S. policy makers would do well to note this fact as they contemplate more “European” policies. And as the West contemplates ever tighter regulations on how and where money can be spent, lent and invested, their leaders should remember that economic and political liberty—while not the whole story—play a key role in prosperity. They are the engine driving much of what makes life worthwhile.

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This is another classic for the picture-tells-a-thousand-words category. This poster is especially appropriate since the clowns in Washington want to take over our health care system.

Government Solutions

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A handful of guilt-ridden wealthy Germans are asking to pay more tax according to a BBC report. They could just give their money to the state, of course, but they want to impose their self-loathing policies on all successful Germans. The amusing part of the story is that these dilettantes were puzzled that so few people showed up to their protest. Maybe next time they could do some real redistribution and announce that they will be tossing real banknotes in the air:

A group of rich Germans has launched a petition calling for the government to make wealthy people pay higher taxes. The group say they have more money than they need, and the extra revenue could fund economic and social programmes… Simply donating money to deal with the problems is not enough, they want a change in the whole approach. …The man behind the petition, Dieter Lehmkuhl, told Berlin’s Tagesspiegel that there were 2.2 million people in Germany with a fortune of more than 500,000 euros. If they all paid the tax for two years, Germany could raise 100bn euros to fund ecological programmes, education and social projects, said the retired doctor and heir to a brewery. Signatory Peter Vollmer told AFP news agency he was supporting the proposal because he had inherited “a lot of money I do not need”. He said the tax would be “a viable and socially acceptable way out of the flagrant budget crisis”. The group held a demonstration in Berlin on Wednesday to draw attention to their plans, throwing fake banknotes into the air. Mr Vollmer said it was “really strange that so few people came”. 

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