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Archive for July 18th, 2012

Thanks largely to the Laffer Curve, there are some impressive examples of failed tax increases in countries such as the United States, France, and the United Kingdom. But if there was a prize for the people who most vociferously resist turning over more of their income to government, the Italians would be the odds-on favorite to win.

When they’re not firebombing tax offices to show their displeasure, they’re taking to the high seas to escape.

Here are some excerpts from a report in the UK-based Telegraph about runaway yachts.

Thousands are weighing anchor and fleeing with their gin palaces to quiet corners of the Mediterranean to escape a tax evasion crackdown – part of efforts by the government of Mario Monti, the prime minister, to tackle Italy’s €1.9 trillion public debt. …in the ports and marinas they are going after the owners of luxury yachts. Uniformed officers of the Guardia di Finanza, or tax police, are performing on-the-spot checks, boarding boats and checking owners’ details against their tax records. …The unwelcome attention has led many yacht owners to flee Italy’s marinas for friendlier foreign ports, from Corsica and the Cote d’Azur in the west to Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro and Greece in the east. Others are heading southwards, to Malta and Tunisia – where they can access their boats on low-cost budget flights from Italy for a fraction of the tax bill they might otherwise face.

Not surprisingly, a lot of middle-class people are suffering because of lost business.

Arriverderci, Polizia Fiscale!

Around 30,000 yachts have fled Italy this year, costing €200 million in lost revenue from mooring fees, port services and fuel sales, according to Assomarinas, the Italian Association of Marinas. “We’ve lost 10 to 15 per cent of our regular customers,” said Roberto Perocchio, the president of Assomarinas. “This is the worst crisis in Italian boating history. The authorities are using scare tactics and creating a climate of fear.” …Plans for a further 30,000 new berths have been put on hold. Business is down by more than a third in many marinas, with some half empty compared to last summer. “We’ve lost 40 boats in the last few months, all between 20 and 25 metres long,” said Giovanni Sorci, director of a marina at Rimini, on the Adriatic coast. “Most went to Slovenia – in fact it is so popular that there’s now barely a berth to be had there. …At Porto Rotondo in Sardinia, Giacomo Pileri, the general manager of a 700-berth marina, said at least 150 boats had fled to nearby Corsica. …A steep new tax of up to €700 per day on the largest yachts mooring in Italian ports, introduced by the Monti government in December, was watered down in March to exclude foreign-owned boats. But it has further fuelled the exodus of Italian boats abroad.

And it’s not just yachts that are being targeted by a revenue-hungry government. Here’s a remarkable report from Reuters on what’s happened to the luxury car market (h/t: suyts space).

Italians spooked by rising car taxes and highly publicized tax fraud spot checks cut back their purchases of Fiat’s high-end sports car brands Ferrari and Maserati in the first quarter of 2012, an industry body said on Tuesday. Ferrari sales slumped 51.5 percent, in Italy, and Maserati sales plummeted by 70 percent, said Italian car dealers group Federauto in a statement. Prime Minister Mario Monti’s government has stepped up its fight on tax evasion with spot checks on supercar drivers, as well as higher taxes on large cars. “These figures show how the choices made by the government are literally terrorizing potential clients,” said Federauto chairman Filippo Pavan Bernacchi.

I assume those awful sales numbers are partly because the economy is weak, but well-to-do Italians obviously don’t want to attract attention from the tax police.

The moral of the story is that Italy’s government should try a new strategy. The politicians need to understand that taxpayers don’t meekly acquiesce, like lambs in a slaughterhouse.

Heck, even the folks at the International Monetary Fund (a crowd not known for rabid free-market sympathies) have acknowledged that excessive taxation is the leading cause of the shadow economy.

So rather than trying to squeeze more blood from an unwilling stone, maybe the Italian government should junk the current tax code and adopt a simple and fair flat tax.

To conclude, here’s Part II of the three-part video series on the Laffer Curve, which focuses on historical evidence (including what happened to the yacht market in the U.S. when politicians went after the “rich”).

Sort of makes you wonder why politicians never seem to learn from their mistakes – especially when thoughtful people like me give them free lessons about the relationship between tax rates, tax revenue, and taxable income.

P.S. While I’m very happy to defend tax evasion in cases where government is excessive, venal, and/or corrupt, I suspect that Italians would evade even if they lived under a Hong Kong-style fiscal regime. If that ever happened (don’t hold your breath), even I wouldn’t get upset about crackdowns on yacht owners and Maserati drivers who aren’t declaring any income.

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Democrats have openly admitted that their top political objective is to get Republicans to give up their no-tax-hike position.

You would think, therefore, that Republicans would instinctively recognize that they should hold firm. After all, when your enemy wants you to do something, it’s not because he has your best interests at heart.

But there’s a reason that the GOP is known as the “stupid party” and this year’s tax fight may give them an opportunity to further demonstrate their ineptitude. Especially because Democrats have launched a two-pronged attack in hopes of bullying Republicans into surrender.

  1. Democrats are saying that there will be automatic cuts to the defense budget (sequestration) unless Republicans agree to raise taxes.
  2. Democrats are saying that they’ll let all the Bush tax cuts expire at the end of the year – thus screwing all taxpayers – unless Republicans agree to Obama’s class-warfare proposals to soak the rich.

I’ve already dealt with the first threat, pointing out that the defense budget still grows by 17 percent over the next 10 years with a sequester, so there’s no need to surrender to a tax hike (especially since the Pentagon accounts for 45 percent of global military spending).

As such, let’s deal with the second threat, which is actually a repeat of the fight we had back in 2010. Back then, Republicans said that extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts was an all-or-nothing proposition, while Democrats issued their own ultimatum and said that the rich should be hit with higher tax rates.

Republicans won that fight, even though they were heavily outnumbered in both the House and Senate. So why, given that they control the House and have many more seats in the Senate, isn’t this year’s fight an easy win for the GOP?

Beats me, but the Democrats are playing hardball, perhaps because they think a fight over class warfare is a good way of distracting voters from the weak economy.

One of the Senate’s top Democrats, Patty Murray of Washington, has thrown down the gauntlet and stated that her colleagues are willing to push all taxpayers off the fiscal cliff. Here’s some of what the Wall Street Journal opined about her remarks.

Democrats must feel really good about their election chances, because their latest campaign strategy is to say how willing and eager they are to leap off the January tax cliff. They’re all but daring Republicans to make the Democrats’ day by refusing to raise taxes before the election. …In a speech at the Brookings Institution, she declared that if Republicans won’t raise taxes on income above $250,000 before November, Democrats will gladly let all of the Bush tax rates expire at the end of the year—even on the middle class, and no matter the economic consequences.

The editors at the WSJ are mystified as to why Democrats are willing to undermine an already weak economy with an election just a few months away.

The Murray Democrats are the ones holding the middle-class rates hostage to a GOP vote to raise taxes on the affluent. …Mrs. Murray may think she’s putting Republicans on the political spot, but her real hostage is the already weak economy. Growth in the first quarter was a mere 1.9%, and economists have steadily downgraded their expectations for the second. As the tax cliff approaches, the policy uncertainty is already causing businesses to hold off on hiring and investment. Even the Keynesians at the Congressional Budget Office say that if all of the Bush tax rates expire, growth will fall close to recession territory.

Since the Democrats aren’t coming to me for advice, I’m not sure about their motives. Are they so wedded to class-warfare tax policy that they’re willing to sacrifice other goals in hopes of penalizing success?

Or are they playing a clever political game, figuring that a GOP surrender on taxes will generate so much discord on the right that it will more than offset any electoral downside of a weaker economy?

I suspect the answer to both questions is “yes,” but mostly to the second question. Which is why this Lisa Benson cartoon is an appropriate way to conclude this post.

P.S. You can find more Lisa Benson cartoons here, herehere, here, here, herehere, and here.

P.P.S. If you somehow think that higher taxes are necessary because it’s impossible to otherwise balance the budget, I hope you’ll change your mind when you learn we can balance the budget in just 10 years if politicians merely limit spending increases to 2 percent annually.

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