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Archive for March 28th, 2011

General Electric has received a lot of unwelcome attention for paying zero federal income tax in 2010, even though it reported $5.1 billion in U.S. profits. This is a good news-bad news situation.

The good news is that GE’s clever tax planning deprived the government of revenue. And I’m in favor of just about anything that reduces the amount of money that winds up in the hands of the most corrupt and least competent people in America (a.k.a., the political class in Washington).

The bad news, though, is that politicians can engage in borrow-and-spend vote-buying behavior, so depriving them of revenue doesn’t seem to have much impact on the overall burden of government spending.

Moreover, there are good ways to cut taxes and not-so-good ways to cut taxes. Special loopholes for politically powerful companies and well-connected insiders are unfair, corrupt, and inefficient.And I’ve already written about GE’s distasteful track record of getting in bed with politicians in exchange for grubby favors.

Ideally, we should junk the corrupt internal revenue code (and the corporate side of the tax code makes the personal tax code seem simple by comparison) and replace it with a simple and transparent system such as the flat tax.

That way, all income would be taxed since loopholes would be abolished, but there would be a very low tax rate and no double taxation.

Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner is one of the best economic and policy journalists on the scene today, and this excerpt from his column explains what is right and wrong about GE’s tax bill.

GE allocates hundreds of talented minds to attempts at lowering taxes. I don’t blame GE for that. It’s probably worth it — which is exactly the problem. In a world with a simpler tax code — or better yet, with no corporate income tax — GE would spend those resources creating something of value. Again, this is a case where government creates a chasm between what’s profitable (gaming tax law) and what’s valuable for society. Also, this story demonstrates once again how Big Government hurts small business much more than it affects Big Business, which can afford to figure out a way around taxes.

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Okay, the title’s an exaggeration, but this chart is rather revealing. It shows how per-capita GDP has changed between 1980 and 2008 in Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela.

As you can see, Chile used to be the poorest of the three countries and now it is comparatively rich. Argentina has enjoyed a bit of growth. Venezuela, by contrast, used to be the richest of the three nations but has stagnated and now is in last place.

So what accounts for these remarkable changes in relative prosperity? The answer, at least in part, is the difference between free markets and statism. Simply stated, Chile has reduced the burden of government a lot in the past three decades, Argentina has reduced the burden of government a little, and Venezuela has gone in the wrong direction and increased the burden of government.

The following numbers come from the Economic Freedom of the World, which looks at all facets of economic policy, including regulation, trade policy, monetary policy, fiscal policy, rule of law, and property rights.

* Chile’s score jumped from 5.6 in 1980 to 8.0 in 2008, and the country now ranks as the world’s 4th-freest economy (ahead of the United States!).

* Argentina’s ranking has improved a bit, rising from 4.4 to 6.0 between 1980 and 2008, but that still only puts them in 94th-place in the world rankings.

* Venezuela, by contrast, is embarrassingly bad. The nation’s score has dropped from 6.3 to 4.4, and its ranking has plunged from 22nd-place in 1980 to 121st-place in 2006.

The simple lesson is that nations have the ability to create prosperity, but they have to follow a simple recipe. Adam Smith is reported to have written several hundred years ago that, “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.”

Since Adam Smith probably never imagined a world filled with things such as OSHA, the Department of Energy, the IRS, agriculture subsidies, and fiat money, his recipe might be a bit dated, but the general idea still holds.

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