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Archive for December 14th, 2010

Regular readers know that I am a tireless advocate for tax competition, which exists when governments are encouraged to adopt better tax policy in order to attract/retain jobs and investment. In other words, I want governments to compete with each other because that leads to better policy, just as we get better results as consumers when banks, pet stores, hairdressers, and grocery stores compete with each other.

There is powerful evidence that tax competition has generated very good results in the past 30 years. Top personal income tax rates averaged more than 67 percent back in 1980, but thanks in large part to tax competition, the average top tax rate on individuals has fallen to about 41 percent. Corporate tax rates also have dropped dramatically, from an average of around 48 percent (this data is not as easy to pin down) in 1980 to 25 percent today. And we now have more than 30 flat tax nations today, compared to just 3 in 1980.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that greedy politicians don’t like being constrained by tax competition. Politicians didn’t lower tax rates because they wanted to. They only made their tax systems better because they were afraid that jobs and investment would escape to lower-tax jurisdictions. They resent the fact that tax competition makes it hard to engage in class-warfare tax policy.

That’s why many of these politicians are seeking to replace tax competition with some sort of tax cartel. They want to impose rules on the entire world that will make it hard for taxpayers to benefit from better tax policy in another jurisdiction. In effect, they want some form of tax harmonization, which would create an “OPEC for politicians.” And just as the real OPEC extracts more money from energy consumers, a tax cartel would grab more money from taxpayers.

One aspect of this battle is the way proponents of higher taxes try to demonize so-called tax havens. Many of these jurisdictions are very small, but the smart ones nonetheless defend themselves against the attacks coming from the world’s major welfare states. Here’s a good example. Tony Travers of Cayman Finance, the association representing the financial services industry in the Cayman Islands, recently spoke about the left’s campaign against low-tax jurisdictions.

Travers said he believed the widespread negativity was part of well organised and powerful public relations campaigns driven by onshore Treasury, and supranational and domestic regulatory bodies. British politicians such as Emma Reynolds and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and even US President Barack Obama were, he said, examples of politicians that were “blame deflecting … and anxious to obfuscate the failures of their domestic regulatory systems … by suggesting that in some way it is the tax or regulatory system of the offshore financial centre that is at fault.” He claimed the problems they were trying to conceal by their demonisation of offshore centres had their source onshore. He described various socialist activist movements, such as the trade unions, major charities such as Oxfam, and Travers arch nemesis, Richard Murphy of the Tax Justice Network as the “Tax Taliban” .

This fight is occurring at all levels. A new scholarly study from the Instituto Bruno Leoni in Italy digs into the academic debate about tax competition. Written by Dalibor Rohác of London’s Legatum Institute, the report debunks the argument that tax competition somehow is economically inefficient.

The first common argument is that tax competition distorts the allocation of mobile factors of production across countries. The second argument recurrent in the literature says that tax competition can reduce tax revenue and endanger the stability of public finances. The troublesome feature of both of these arguments is that they start from the assumption of government benevolence and omniscience. For instance, the first argument presupposes that the initial allocation of capital between the two countries was optimal and that tax competition is driving it away from the optimum. Likewise, the second argument implicitly assumes that the initial amount raised in taxes corresponded to some well-defined social optimum and therefore that tax competition drives revenue below that optimal level. Hence neither of these arguments holds in the light of basic public choice theory which convincingly demonstrates that governments do have a tendency to overspend and overtax.

Rohác cleverly exposes the other side’s statist agenda. He explains that their main argument is based on the idea that different tax rates in different nations will lead to an inefficient allocation of investment. He then points out that there is a pro-growth way and an anti-growth way of dealing with this supposed problem.

…if the problem of capital misallocation is caused by differences in tax rates among countries, than introducing a maximal rate is a solution that would be equally appropriate. …tax competition might well offer a solution to the alleged problem of misallocation of capital caused by tax differentials. If tax competition was a “race to the bottom,” then the final outcome would actually be a tax rate harmonized across countries and harmonized at a rate of zero per cent, thus eliminating capital tax distortions altogether.

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Okay, perhaps the title of the post is not quite as memorable as Charlton Heston’s famous line from Planet of the Apes, but it certainly captures my sentiments after reading an article in Slate that calls for the elimination of the $100 bill. The author, Timothy Noah, says that large bills are only for “criminals and sociopaths.” Here’s the crux of his argument.

…why does the U.S. continue to print C-notes…? Technological change has reduced much further the plausible need of any law-abiding American to carry a C-note in his wallet or to stash a pile of C-notes in his mattress.

Noah’s argument is unconvincing for several reasons. First, he is underestimating the degree to which “law-abiding” Americans use “Benjamins.”  And with higher inflation almost certainly around the corner, one can safely expect that $100 bills will become even more common in the future. Second, his entire argument rests on the statist assumption that government should restrict honest people because this will somehow make life more difficult for criminals. Yet he debunks his own anti-money laundering argument by noting that the government already has stopped printing larger bills, such as the $500 note. Has that stopped the drug trade? Hello? Anyone? Bueller?

Like much of what government does, the campaign against money laundering is a costly exercise with very few tangible benefits. This video examines the cost-benefit issues.

I actually think the moral arguments against anti-money laundering laws are even more powerful. As Americans, we should have a presumption of innocence in our daily lives. What business is it of government whether we want to carry $20 bills or $100 bills? And think about the implications of these laws. What if the government said we need to ban cars, or put government-monitored homing devices in all vehicles, because bank robbers occasionally use automobiles as getaway vehicles? In this case, there is a theoretical benefit to the policy, just like there is a somewhat plausible case for anti-money laundering laws, but presumably we would reject such a policy as too intrusive.

Anti-money laundering laws are a classic case of Mitchell’s Law, which is the notion that bad policy begets more bad policy (this insight has been around forever, but I’m quite envious of Art Laffer for the Laffer Curve, so I’m trying to give myself a small measure of notoriety by being the lead proponent of the concept). The government passes drug laws that create huge profits for criminals. But rather than fight criminals (or, as libertarians would argue, get rid of victimless crimes), the government imposes policies that make life more difficult and costly for everyone else.

But regardless of what people think about drug laws, let’s at least use common sense and tell the crowd in Washington that it’s our choice whether we use $100 bills.

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