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Archive for September 2nd, 2010

As is so often the case, Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe hits the nail on the head, asking why taxpayers should be forced to fund embryonic stem-cell research. The moral issues in this debate are very important, to be sure, but Jacoby’s column takes a different approach and uses economic arguments to thoroughly debunk those who claimed that taxpayer funding is the only hope for people suffering from a wide range of ailments. After all, if stem-cell research is expected to yield medical miracles, it should go without saying that the private sector will jump in with both feet. Which is exactly what has happened.
James Thomson, an embryologist at the University of Wisconsin, cultivated the first embryonic stem cell lines in 1998. By then the prohibition on using federal funds for scientific research in which human embryos are destroyed was already on the books; President Bill Clinton had signed it nearly three years earlier. So how did Thomson secure a government grant to finance his landmark achievement? He didn’t. His work was funded by the Geron Corporation, a California biotechnology company that develops treatments for cancer, spinal cord injuries, and degenerative diseases. …this a good moment to ask a threshold question: Why should the federal government be funding controversial medical research in the first place? As Thomson’s 1998 discovery proved, pathbreaking accomplishments in stem-cell science are possible even when the government isn’t footing the bill. That was no anomaly. If the feds didn’t fund the search for embryonic stem-cell therapies, the private sector would. …For-profit corporations and their shareholders aren’t the only source of private-sector stem-cell funding. The Washington Post reported in 2006 on the private philanthropy that was building new stem-cell labs in academia. “Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad gave $25 million to the University of Southern California for a stem cell institute, sound-technology pioneer Ray Dolby gave $16 million to the University of California at San Francisco, and local donors are contributing to a $75 million expansion at the University of California at Davis. . . Early this year, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg quietly donated $100 million to Johns Hopkins University, largely for stem-cell research.’’ …Imagine those that would do so if the federal government stopped underwriting research that so many taxpayers find problematic. Douglas Melton, the co-director of Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute, told the Boston Globe last week that private support is “the only durable and consistent source’’ of funding for embryonic stem-cell research. He’s right. Medical research would not wither away if the government took a back seat to the private sector. In this as in so many other areas, perhaps it’s time to re-think Washington’s role.

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Here’s a Reuters story about the Australian Tax Office harassing Paul Hogan, better known to Americans as Crocodile Dundee, because of a tax dispute. The grinches at the tax office took advantage of Hogan’s return for his mother’s funeral to hold him hostage, refusing to let him leave the country until he coughs up some cash. It appears that the tax police in Australia are just as politicized and above the law as the IRS. Hogan has never been charged with tax evasion and there are plenty of signs that the bureaucrats want to make him a high-profile victim to justify the amount of money that has been squandered in a probe of supposed offshore evasion.
Actor Paul Hogan, star of the “Crocodile Dundee” movies, has vowed to continue fighting the Australian tax office which has barred him from leaving Australia until he pays a massive bill, saying he’s victim of a witch hunt. Hogan, 70, was served with a departure prohibition order 10 days ago while in Australia to attend his 101-year-old mother’s funeral which has prevented him from leaving to return to Los Angeles where he lives with his wife and son. The Australian Tax Office refused to comment on reports of seeking tax on A$38 million ($34 million) of allegedly undeclared income from Hogan, saying it cannot give details of individual taxpayers. But the actor went public in the Australian media this week to put forward his side in his five-year row with the tax office, saying he had done nothing wrong and the tax office was on a witch hunt for a high-profile case. …”If I was a tax evader, which I’m not, I must be the dumbest one in the world to keep coming back here instead of fleeing to a tax haven … I know they’re absolutely desperate to nail some high-profile character with money to justify the expense to the taxpayer.” Hogan, who was once a painter on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, is under investigation as part of Australia’s biggest probe into offshore tax evasion, Operation Wickenby. The operation is budgeted to cost at least $300 million. The tax office has claimed he put tens of millions of dollars in film royalties in offshore tax havens, a claim that he has denied. He has never been charged with tax evasion.
This story is symbolic of a bigger issue, which is the the unfortunate tendency of governments to create ever-more oppressive and misguided laws in response to failures of existing policy. We see this in the failed War on Drugs, which leads to trampling of civil liberties and erosion of privacy. We see it in the failed War on Poverty, which leads to more redistribution that further traps people in dependency. We see it in the failed government-run education system, which wastes more money every year as outcomes remain stagnant and children from poor and minority communities suffer.
 
In the case of tax policy, politicians impose high tax rates and punitive forms of double taxation. As anybody with a modicum of common sense could predict, this bad tax policy undermines economic performance and drives economic activity to jurisdictions with better tax law. The politicians then have two ways to respond. They can lower tax rates and reform tax systems, an approach that simultaneously would boost growth and improve compliance. Or they can tighten the thumbscrews on taxpayers, trample their rights, and conspire with other high-tax nations to punish the jurisdictions that do have good policy.
 
Not surprisingly, most politicians choose the latter approach. And the attack on low-tax jurisdictions is a particularly loathsome part of their response. As this video explains, tax competition is a liberalizing force in the world economy and the effort by high-tax nations to penalize so-called tax havens is driven by a statist impulse to prop up decrepit and inefficient welfare states.

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I tangle with my old nemesis Christian Weller, one of the statists at the Center against American Progress, in a debate on whether the corporate tax rate should be reduced. I was somewhat amused that Christian defended the current system because companies currently are earning profits. Maybe I’ll eventually convince him to be a capitalist.

The debate was fairly uneventful, but I was a bit disappointed that my comment about the Laffer Curve got buried at the end of the segment. The fundamental point is that America has a very high corporate tax rate by world standards, yet we collect relatively little revenue. My argument, not surprisingly, is that revenues are low because the tax rate is high.

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