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Archive for September, 2012

I have a handful of simple rules for good tax policy.

  • Keep government small, since it’s impossible to have a reasonable tax system with a bloated welfare state.
  • Keep tax rates low to minimize penalties against income, production, and wealth creation.
  • Since capital formation is critical for long-run growth, don’t double-tax income that is saved and invested.
  • Eliminate corrupt and distorting loopholes that encourage people to make decisions that are economically irrational.

Some of these principles are interrelated. I don’t like loopholes in part because of the reasons I just listed. But I also don’t like them because politicians often claim that they need to boost tax rates to make up for the fact that they lose revenue due to various deductions, credits, exemptions, and preferences.

And sometimes a deduction in the tax code even leads to bad policy by state and local government. Today, I want to discuss preferences in the internal revenue code for state and local taxes. And I’m motivated to address this issue because some of the politicians on Capitol Hill have pointed out an inequity, but they want to fix it in the wrong way.

Under current law, state and local income taxes are fully deductible, but state and local sales taxes are only temporarily deductible. The right policy is to get rid of any deductibility for any state and local tax. But since that would create a windfall of new tax revenue for the spendaholics in Washington, every penny of that revenue should be used to lower tax rates.

Not surprisingly, the crowd in Washington doesn’t take this approach. Instead, they want to extend deductibility for the sales tax. And they may even be amenable to raising other taxes to impose that policy.

Here are some excerpts from a story in The Hill.

More than five dozen House members are pressing leaders of a tax panel to preserve a deduction for state and local sales taxes. The bipartisan group of lawmakers say it would be unfair to voters in their states not to extend the sales tax deduction, given that taxpayers would still be able to deduct state and local income taxes. …Eight states in all — Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and Wyoming — currently use a sales tax, but either don’t have or have a very limited state income tax. …The letter comes as many lawmakers hope to finish off an extenders package once Congress returns to Washington after November’s elections. Lawmakers will have to grapple with expiring Bush-era tax rates — just one part of the so-called fiscal cliff — when they return, and tax extenders could be tacked on to a broader package. The Senate Finance Committee has already passed an extenders package of its own, which included a two-year extension — at a cost of an estimated $4.4 billion over a decade — of the sales tax deduction.

I have some sympathy for these members of Congress. They represent states that have wisely decided not to impose income taxes, yet the federal tax system rewards profligate high-tax states such as New York and California with a permanent deduction for state and local income taxes.

This is a very misguided policy. It means that greedy politicians such as Governor Brown of California or Governor Cuomo of New York can raise tax rates and tell voters not to get too upset because they can deduct that additional burden. This means that a $1 tax hike results in a loss of take-home pay of as little as 65 cents.

This is what a fair tax code looks like

But you don’t cure one bad policy with another bad policy. A deduction for state and local sales taxes just augments the IRS-enforced preference for bigger government at the state and local level.

The right answer is the flat tax. Put in place the lowest-possible tax rate, which is feasible because all loopholes are wiped out.

In the case of state and local tax deductibility (or lack thereof, with any luck), that’s a win-win-win situation.

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Way back in 2010, I savaged Prince Charles for being the ultimate Limousine Liberal. He lives off the taxpayers while traveling on private jets so he can pontificate about the need for ordinary people to live bleaker lives in order to appease the environmental gods.

And if someone asked me about the taxpayer cost of maintaining England’s royal family compared to the equivalent numbers for President Obama and his family, I would have guessed the royal family was more expensive.

I would have been wrong. Here’s an excerpt from a story in the Daily Caller.

Taxpayers spent $1.4 billion dollars on everything from staffing, housing, flying and entertaining President Obama and his family last year, according to the author of a new book on taxpayer-funded presidential perks. In comparison, British taxpayers spent just $57.8 million on the royal family. Author Robert Keith Gray writes in “Presidential Perks Gone Royal” that Obama isn’t the only president to have taken advantage of the expensive trappings of his office. But the amount of money spent on the first family, he argues, has risen tremendously under the Obama administration and needs to be reined in. Gray told The Daily Caller that the $1.4 billion spent on the Obama family last year is the “total cost of the presidency,” factoring the cost of the “biggest staff in history at the highest wages ever,” a 50 percent increase in the numbers of appointed czars and an Air Force One “running with the frequency of a scheduled air line.”

I hope that these numbers are wrong. Indeed, it wouldn’t be fair to add the policy staff of the White House (even though I’m sure it could be cut in half) when making comparisons of the care and upkeep of the Obamas and the royal family.

“Send out the Sheriff of Nottingham to collect more tribute”

But there’s definitely a big kernel of truth to the charge that politicians are leading lives of privilege and elitism compared to the peasants that finance their pampered existence.

To add insult to injury, they exempt themselves from the laws they impose on the rest of us, such as the decision that some White House vehicles will be exempt from Obama’s directive that the federal government purchase only green cars.

Keep in mind, though, that it’s not just Obama. The Bush White House also was guilty of extravagance, albeit perhaps at a lower level.

But the big numbers, in terms of the burden on taxpayers, come from the giant army of overcompensated federal bureaucrats. And you need to consider the mass of lobbyists and consultants that also are part of the corrupt Washington machine.

No wonder, as shown in this map, most of the richest counties in America are those surrounding Washington.

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I wrote earlier this year that I could accept a tax hike if there was a deal that actually resulted in a permanent reduction in the burden of government spending.

In reality, however, we will never get an acceptable deal. Instead, the politicians want us to accept deeply flawed packages like the Simpson-Bowles tax-hike.

But maybe I have to moderate my views. When a group of people loudly say we need higher taxes, then perhaps we should agree. But since they’re the ones saying taxes should go up, we should stick them with the tax hike.

Glenn Reynolds, the Instapundit, has been suggesting that it’s time to repeal the Hollywood tax cuts. After all, that crowd is always pontificating for statism. So let them put their money where their mouths are.

I’m thinking of a different group. Based on their penchant for supporting tax hikes, maybe it’s time to raise taxes on corporate executives. Here are some relevant blurbs from a Wall Street Journal story.

A coalition of anti-deficit groups has tapped businesses and foundations and raised more than $29 million… They are planning to run “fix the debt” ads after the election. …And they are building a roster of big-company chief executives, thus far numbering about 70. These executives are alarmed by the degree of dysfunction in Washington and have pledged to speak out about the urgency of addressing deficits… The “fix the debt” campaign, as it is called, is coordinated by deficit worrywarts in Washington… The effect that CEOs have on Congress depends on who they are and what they actually do. Former Sen. Sam Nunn (D., Ga.), who is leading a group of retired congressmen to build support for a deficit deal, says Democrats need CEOs to organize grass-roots support for a deficit compromise among their workers. And Republicans need business cover for agreeing to raise taxes in exchange for restraints on the growth of health-care spending. CEOs enlisting in the fix-the-debt campaign see no alternative to both cutting benefit spending and raising taxes, despite campaign rhetoric to the contrary. “It’s going to entail sacrifice by every American, every company, every entity,” says Mr. Oberhelman. “I, for one, believe that revenue has to increase. I think every American would pay more if they thought spending was going to be cut and the budget brought to balance.”

At the risk of disagreeing with Mr. Oberhelman, it goes without saying that higher taxes will lead to more spending rather than less.

Corporate executives probably understand tax hikes don’t work, but they want to “play ball” with the politicians – probably because many of them are crony capitalists.

But regardless of their motives, the obvious response is to ask them to cough up some of their cash.

A hike in the corporate income tax wouldn’t be the right approach, though, since that would penalize shareholders, workers, and consumers.

Increasing personal income tax rates also would be the wrong approach since that would punish every successful person, not just wayward corporate executives.

I’m guessing that the best approach is to impose a special excise tax on the fringe benefits and salaries of CEOs at publicly traded companies.

True, that will also punish corporate executives who aren’t guilty of sucking up to the political class, but that will have a positive impact in that the good CEOs will pressure the statist CEOs to stop being suck-up a$$holes.

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I wrote back in July about the remarkable transformation of Chile into a prosperous market economy.

In that post, I noted that Chile was a pioneer in the shift from unsustainable tax-and-transfer entitlement schemes to savings-based personal retirement accounts. And with good reason. That system, which has been in place for more than three decades, is hugely successful.

We should do the same thing in America, and we should do it yesterday, if not sooner.

But Chile’s success is driven by more than just pension reform. And I want to mention something remarkable about what’s happening with school choice in that country.

Jose Pinera – Freedom Fighter

First, some background. I’m currently at a Cato Institute donor retreat, where I had the chance to talk to Jose Pinera, who is now the Co-chairman of Cato’s Project on Social Security Choice, but who also was the person who implemented the pension reforms in his home country of Chile.

I knew Chile had a school choice program, and I wrote a brief post about those reforms back in 2010.

But I was stunned when Jose told me yesterday that about 60 percent of Chilean kids – of all ages – now attend private schools.

That’s far better than Sweden, which also has nationwide school choice, but has only about 20 percent of high school-age kids in private schools.

Jose thinks that it is just a matter of time before more than 80 percent of Chilean kids are in private schools. Why? Because people like freedom and choice.

He often brags – and rightly so – that more than 95 percent of workers chose personal retirement accounts when given the option of staying with the old government-run pension system. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that parents also choose wisely when deciding how to get the best possible education option for their kids.

Now, if we can just figure out how to expand school choice in America

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I spoke at the United Nations back in May, explaining that more government was the wrong way to help the global economy.

But I guess I’m not very persuasive. The bureaucrats have just released a new report entitled, “In Search of New Development Finance.”

As you can probably guess, what they’re really searching for is more money for global redistribution.

But here’s the most worrisome part of their proposal. They want the U.N. to be in charge of collecting the taxes, sort of a permanent international bureaucracy entitlement.

I’ve written before about the U.N.’s desire for tax authority (on more than one occasion), but this new report is noteworthy for the size and scope of taxes that have been proposed.

Here’s the wish list of potential global taxes, pulled from page vi of the preface.

Here’s some of what the report had to say about a few of the various tax options. We’ll start with the carbon tax, which I recently explained was a bad idea if imposed inside the U.S. by politicians in Washington. It’s a horrible idea if imposed globally by the kleptocrats at the United Nations.

…a tax of $25 per ton of CO2 emitted by developed countries is expected to raise $250 billion per year in global tax revenues. Such a tax would be in addition to taxes already imposed at the national level, as many Governments (of developing as well as developed countries) already tax carbon emissions, in some cases explicitly, and in other cases, indirectly through taxes on specific fuels.

Notice that the tax would apply only to “developed countries,” so this scheme is best characterized as discriminatory taxation. If Obama is genuinely worried about jobs being “outsourced” to nations such as China (as he implies in his recent attack on Romney), then he should announce his strong opposition to this potential tax.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

Next, here’s what the U.N. says about a financial transactions tax.

A small tax of half a “basis point” (0.005 per cent) on all trading in the four major currencies (the dollar, euro, yen and pound sterling) might yield an estimated $40 billion per year. …even a low tax rate would limit high-frequency trading to some extent. It would thus result in the earning of a “double dividend” by helping reduce currency volatility and raising revenue for development. While a higher rate would limit trading to a greater extent, this might be at the expense of revenue.

This is an issue that already has attracted my attention, and I also mentioned that it was a topic in my meeting with the E.U.’s Tax Commissioner.

But rather than reiterate some of my concerns about taxing financial consumers, I want to give a back-handed compliment the United Nations. The bureaucrats, by writing that “a higher rate…might be at the expense of revenue,” deserve credit for openly acknowledging the Laffer Curve.

By the way, this is an issue where both the United States and Canada have basically been on the right side, though the Obama Administration blows hot and cold on the topic.

Now let’s turn to the worst idea in the U.N. report. The clowns want to steal wealth from rich people. But even more remarkable, they want us to think this won’t have any negative economic impact.

…the least distorting, most fair and most efficient tax is a “lump sum” payment, such as a levy on the accumulated wealth of the world’s richest individuals (assuming the wealthy could not evade the tax). In particular, it is estimated that in early 2012, there were 1,226 individuals in the world worth $1 billion or more, 425 of whom lived in the United States, 90 in other countries of the Americas, 315 in the Asia-Pacific region, 310 in Europe and 86 in Africa and the Middle East. Together, they owned $4.6 trillion in assets, for an average of $3.75 billion in wealth per person.21 A 1 per cent tax on the wealth of these individuals would raise $46 billion in 2012.

I’ll be the first to admit that you can’t change people’s incentives to produce in the past. So if you steal wealth accumulated as the result of a lifetime of work, that kind of “lump sum” tax isn’t very “distorting.”

But here’s a news flash for the nitwits at the United Nations. Rich people aren’t stupid (or at least their financial advisers aren’t stupid). So you might be able to engage in a one-time act of plunder, but it is deliberate naiveté to think that this would be a successful long-run source of revenue.

For more information, I addressed wealth taxes in this post, and the argument I was making applies to a global wealth tax just as much as it applies to a national wealth tax.

Now let’s conclude with a very important warning. Some people doubtlessly will dismiss the U.N. report as a preposterous wish list. In part, they’re right. There is virtually no likelihood of these bad policies getting implemented at any point in the near future.

But the statists have been relentless in their push for global taxation, and I’m worried they eventually will find a way to impose the first global tax. And if you’ll forgive me for going overboard on metaphors, once the camel’s nose is under the tent, it’s just a matter of time before the floodgates open.

The greatest threat is the World Health Organization’s scheme for a global tobacco tax. I wrote about this issue back in May, and it seems my concerns were very warranted. The bureaucrats recently unveiled a proposal – to be discussed at a conference in South Korea in November – that would look at schemes to harmonize tobacco taxes and/or impose global taxes.

Here’s some of what the Washington Free Beacon wrote.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is considering a global excise tax of up to 70 percent on cigarettes at an upcoming November conference, raising concerns among free market tax policy analysts about fiscal sovereignty and bureaucratic mission creep. In draft guidelines published this September, the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control indicated it may put a cigarette tax on the table at its November conference in Seoul, Korea. …it is considering two proposals on cigarette taxes to present to member countries. The first would be an excise tax of up to 70 percent. …The second proposal is a tiered earmark on packs of cigarettes: 5 cents for high-income countries, 3 cents for middle-income countries, and 1 cent for low-income countries. WHO has estimated that such a tax in 43 selected high-/middle-/low-income countries would generate $5.46 billion in tax revenue. …Whichever option the WHO ends up backing, “they’re both two big, bad ideas,” said Daniel Mitchell, a senior tax policy fellow at the Cato Institute. …Critics also argue such a tax increase will not generate more revenue, but push more sales to the black market and counterfeit cigarette producers. “It’s already huge problem,” Mitchell said. “In many countries, a substantial share of cigarettes are black market or counterfeit. They put it in a Marlboro packet, but it’s not a Marlboro cigarette. Obviously it’s a big thing for organized crime.” …The other concern is mission creep. Tobacco, Mitchell says, is easy to vilify, making it an attractive beachhead from which to launch future vice tax initiatives.

It’s my final comment that has me most worried. The politicians and bureaucrats are going after tobacco because it’s low-hanging fruit. They may not even care that their schemes will boost organized crime and may not raise much revenue.

They’re more concerned about establishing a precedent that international bureaucracies can impose global taxes.

I wrote the other day about whether Americans should escape to Canada, Australia, Chile, or some other nation when the entitlement crisis causes a Greek-style fiscal collapse.

But if the statists get the power to impose global taxes, then what choice will we have?

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I despise protectionism. Mostly because it is bad economic policy, but also because politicians often use protectionism as a way of diverting attention from their own failures.

So when I appeared on Neil Cavuto’s show to comment on President Obama’s criticism of “outsourcing,” I was a tad bit critical.

I think my opening comments were effective. I wanted to help viewers understand that cross-border investment is a big net plus for the American economy. Indeed, this is why I’m so critical of laws such as FATCA that discourage foreigners from making job-creating investments in the United States.

And I hope people understood the moral point I made about how it’s not our business what private citizens do with their own money, but it is our business when politicians squander taxpayer money.

Though perhaps I should have asked the folks at Fox to put this cartoon on the screen.

I also got to take a jab at the failed Keynesian stimulus. And I explained that big government facilitates corruption and that excessive government spending undermines growth, so I’m generally happy with my remarks.

But not completely happy. I should have said that the average corporate tax rate around the world is 15 to 17 percentage points below the American level, not 15 to 17 percent, but hopefully people understood the point I was trying to make.

P.S. Romney’s been engaging in some China bashing, so he also deserves some criticism.

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I did a post two days ago with a series of signs and images making fun of gun-free zones.

I’m personally more partial to t-shirts and bumper stickers, such as the ones you can view here, here, and here, but folks seem to really enjoy the posters. Indeed, here are two more that were shared by readers.

The first one is self-explanatory.

Though I suppose the message in the poster is not completely accurate. As an economist, I do think laws – on the margin – can discourage both gun ownership and pot smoking. It’s simply a matter of the likelihood of getting caught and the severity of the punishment (which was the theory behind the famous $1 million fine for speeding in Sweden).

That being said, it’s foolish to have bad laws – such as ones that restrict the freedom of people to engage in peaceful behavior that doesn’t infringe on the rights of others.

Speaking of laws, I think the message in this poster is perfect.

Indeed, this is a pretty good way of looking at much of what the government does.

Anti-money laundering laws, for instance, require banks (at great expense) to snoop on the financial transactions of customers in the theory that a few bad guys might get caught. As even the World Bank has noted, totally innocent poor people are some of the biggest victims of this policy.

Just an law-abiding people are the ones most hurt by gun control laws.

By the way, if you can’t get enough anti-gun control info, here are some videos I’ve posted over the past couple of years.

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