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Archive for May 21st, 2010

I spoke yesterday in Vienna on the third stop on the FMRS tour. My speech focused on solutions to the fiscal crisis. I pointed out the need to substantially reduce the burden of government spending and also warned against higher tax rates – in part because higher tax rates discourage much-needed economic growth.

This puts me in direct conflict with many European politicians, many of whom think extracting more money from taxpayers is the answer to the over-spending problem. Some of these politicians try to sound more rational by saying they don’t necessarily want to boost tax rates and instead would be happy to collect more money by more onerous enforcement of existing tax laws.

I don’t think it is reasonable to expect big reductions in the underground (or shadow) economy. In a previous post, I quoted an IMF paper authored by Friedrich Schneider, which noted (with particular reference to Austria):

Macroeconomic and microeconomic modeling studies based on data for several countries suggest that the major driving forces behind the size and growth of the shadow economy are an increasing burden of tax and social security payments… The bigger the difference between the total cost of labor in the official economy and the after-tax earnings from work, the greater the incentive for employers and employees to avoid this difference and participate in the shadow economy. …Several studies have found strong evidence that the tax regime influences the shadow economy. …In Austria, the burden of direct taxes (including social security payments) has been the biggest influence on the growth of the shadow economy… Other studies show similar results for the Scandinavian countries, Germany, and the United States. In the United States, analysis shows that as the marginal federal personal income tax rate increases by one percentage point, other things being equal, the shadow economy grows by 1.4 percentage points. …A study of Quebec City in Canada shows that people are highly mobile between the official and the shadow economy, and that as net wages in the official economy go up, they work less in the shadow economy. This study also emphasizes that where people perceive the tax rate as too high, an increase in the (marginal) tax rate will lead to a decrease in tax revenue.

Interestingly, I just came across a new study from the Bank of Italy that looks at the issue from the perspective of “taxpayer morale.” The study finds that tax compliance also is sensitive to public perceptions about whether taxpayer money is being wasted. This excerpt touches on many of the key issues, and all I could think of when reading the study was bailouts, handouts, and other forms of corrupt and inefficient spending on both sides of the Atlantic:

…our measure of public spending inefficiency enters with the expected negative sign, and it is significant at the 1 percent level. Taxpayers interacting with a more efficient public sector are likely to show a higher level of tax morale. Our result can be interpreted by looking at the interaction between citizens and the government as a contractual relationship, implying duties and rights for each contract partner. If the taxpayer observes that the tax burden is not spent efficiently, he will feel cheated and his willingness to cooperate will fall. …Torgler and Werner (2005) state that greater fiscal autonomy allows regions to spend the tax revenues according to local preferences and this, in turn, might have a positive impact on tax morale. …As expected, the coefficient on the level of public spending per capita enters with a positive sign, and it is significantly different from zero. On the other side, we find a weak positive relationship between fiscal autonomy and tax morale, thus partially confirming the results by Torgler and Werner (2005). At the same time, the coefficient of public spending inefficiency remains negative and highly significant. …We find that tax morale is higher when the taxpayer perceives and observes that the government is efficient; that is, it provides a fair output with respect to the revenues. This evidence can be interpreted in terms of a psychological contract between taxpayer and fiscal authorities in which the former punishes the local government when he observes that resources are not spent well. Therefore, encouraging more efficient spending of public resources has wider consequences and contributes to increasing the citizens’ propensity to pay taxes.

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I´ve already posted a great video from the folks at the Institute for Justice about this issue, but this John Stossel column is another good reminder of the corrupt and evil impact of asset forfeiture laws. If bureaucrats have an incentive to take people´s property – even if they never get convicted of a crime, the results are bound to be horrendous. Repeal is the right answer, but at the very least the laws should be changed so cops and prosecutors can´t line their own pockets:

Zaher El-Ali has repaired and sold cars in Houston for 30 years. One day, he sold a truck to a man on credit. Ali was holding the title to the car until he was paid, but before he got his money the buyer was arrested for drunk driving. The cops then seized Ali’s truck and kept it, planning to sell it. …The police say they can keep it under forfeiture law because the person driving the car that day broke the law. It doesn’t matter that the driver wasn’t the owner. It’s as if the truck committed the crime. “I have never seen a truck drive,” Ali said. I don’t think it’s the fault of the truck. And they know better.” Something has gone wrong when the police can seize the property of innocent people. … This is serious, folks. The police can seize your property if they think  it was used in a crime. If you want it back, you must prove it was not  used criminally. The burden of proof is on you. This reverses a centuries-old safeguard in Anglo-American law against arbitrary government power. The feds do this, too. In 1986, the Justice Department made $94 million on forfeitures. Today, its forfeiture fund has more than a billion in it. …”When you give people the wrong incentives, people respond accordingly. And so it shouldn’t be surprising that they’re stretching the definition of law enforcement,” Balko said. “But the fundamental point is that you should not have people out there enforcing the laws benefiting directly from them.”

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I have mixed feelings about the right response to illegal immigration. I don´t favor amnesty because of my respect for the rule of law and because it would encourage more illegal immigration. On the other hand, I certainly do not want law enforcement resources diverted to hassling people who are in America solely in search of a better life based on hard and honest work. Walter Williams has a good column on the issue which concludes with a call for more legal immigration:

I believe most people, even my open-borders libertarian friends, would not say that everyone on the planet had a right to live in the U.S. That being the case suggests there will be conditions that a person must meet to live in the U.S. …most Americans would recoil at the suggestion that somebody other than Americans should be allowed to set the conditions for people to live in the U.S. …Probably, the overwhelming majority of Mexican illegal immigrants are hardworking, honest and otherwise law-abiding members of the communities in which they reside. It would surely be a heart-wrenching scenario for such a person to be stopped for a driving infraction, have his illegal immigrant status discovered and face deportation proceedings. Regardless of the hardship suffered, being in the U.S. without authorization is a crime. …Various estimates put the illegal immigrant population in the U.S. between 10 and 20 million. One argument says we can’t round up and deport all those people. That argument differs little from one that says since we can’t catch every burglar, we should grant burglars amnesty. Catching and imprisoning some burglars sends a message to would-be burglars that there might be a price to pay. Similarly, imprisoning some illegal immigrants and then deporting them after their sentences were served would send a signal to others who are here illegally or who are contemplating illegal entry that there’s a price to pay. …Start strict enforcement of immigration law, as Arizona has begun. Strictly enforce border security. Most importantly, modernize and streamline our cumbersome immigration laws so that people can more easily migrate to our country.

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