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Archive for June, 2013

I’m a big proponent of tax reform, so at first I was very excited to learn that Senators Max Baucus (D-MT) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) were launching an effort to clean up the tax code.

But on closer inspection, I don’t think this will lead to a simple and fair system like the flat tax. Or even a national sales tax (assuming we could trust politicians not to pull a bait-and-switch, adding a new tax and never getting rid of the income tax).

But judge for yourself. Here’s some of what’s contained in a letter they sent to their colleagues, starting with some language about the growing complexity of the tax code and the compliance cost for taxpayers.

…since then, the economy has changed dramatically and Congress has made more than 15,000 changes to the tax code. The result is a tax base riddled with exclusions, deductions and credits. In addition, each year, it costs individuals and businesses more than $160 billion to comply with the tax code. The complexity, inefficiency and unfairness of the tax code are acting as a brake on our economy. We cannot afford to be complacent.

Sounds good, though they also could have mentioned other indicators of nightmarish complexity, such as the number of pages in the tax code, the number of special tax provisions, or the number of pages in the 1040 instruction manual.

I’m a bit mystified, however, at the low-ball estimate of $160 billion of compliance costs. As explained in this video, there are far higher estimates that are based on very sound methodology.

But perhaps I’m nit-picking. Let’s see with Senators Baucus and Hatch want to do.

In order to make sure that we end up with a simpler, more efficient and fairer tax code, we believe it is important to start with a “blank slate”—that is, a tax code without all of the special provisions in the form of exclusions, deductions and credits and other preferences that some refer to as “tax expenditures.”

I don’t like the term “tax expenditure” since it implies that the government taking money from person A and giving it to person B is equivalent to the government simply letting person B keep their own money. These two approaches may be economically equivalent in certain cases, but they’re not morally equivalent.

Once again, however, I may be guilty of nit-picking.

That being said, there is a feature of the “blank slate” approach which does generate legitimate angst. There’s a footnote in the letter that states that the Joint Committee on Taxation is in charge of determining so-called tax expenditures.

A complete list of these special tax provisions as defined by the non-partisan Joint Committee on Taxation.

This is very troubling. The JCT may be non-partisan, but it’s definitely not non-ideological. These are the bureaucrats, for instance, who assume that the revenue-maximizing tax rate is 100 percent! Moreover, the JCT uses the “Haig-Simons” tax system as a benchmark, which means they start with the assumption that there should be pervasive double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

This is not nit-picking. The definition of “tax expenditure” is a critical policy decision, not something to be ceded to the other side before the debate even begins.

As illustrated by this chart, the tax code is very biased against saving and investment.

Between the capital gains tax, the corporate income tax, the double tax on dividends, and the death tax, it’s possible for a single dollar of income to be taxed as many as four different times.

This is a very foolish policy, particularly since every school of thought in the economics profession agrees that capital formation is a key to long-run growth. Even the Marxists and socialists!

To make matters worse, double taxation puts America at competitive disadvantage. To get a sense of how the U.S. tax system is a self-inflicted wound, check out these sobering international comparisons of death tax burdens and the degree of double taxation of dividends and capital gains.

Here’s what the Haig-Simons tax base means.

1. An assumption that new business investment should be penalized with depreciation instead of being treated neutrally with expensing.

2. An assumption that IRAs and 401(k)s are loopholes to be eliminated, when they’re actually ways to protect against double taxation.

3. An assumption that various other forms of double taxation – such as the capital gains tax – should be retained.

But that’s not the only preemptive capitulation to bad policy.

The “blank slate” assumes that the class-warfare bias in the tax code also should be part of the benchmark against which possible reforms will be judged.

…we asked the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation and Finance Committee tax staff to estimate the relationship between tax expenditures and the current tax rates if the current level of progressivity is maintained. …The blank slate approach would allow significant deficit reduction or rate reduction, while maintaining the current level of progressivity.

Since the internal revenue code already imposes a disproportionate burden on upper-income taxpayers – even when compared to European welfare states, it doesn’t make sense to automatically assume an ideological agenda such as progressivity.

This has been a very long answer to a simple question, but it’s very important to realize that tax reform is a three-legged stool. If we want to minimize the economic damage of generating revenue for government, we should have 1) a low tax rate, 2) no distorting tax preferences, and 3) no distorting tax penalties such as double taxation.

Unfortunately, too many people focus only on the first and second legs of the stool. And while tax rates and deductions are important, so is double taxation.

I’m not asserting that the “blank slate” should have assumed no double taxation (sometimes referred to as the “Fisher-Ture” tax base or “consumption” tax base).

But I don’t think it would have been unreasonable for Senators Baucus and Hatch to have told other Senators that one of their choices would be to pick either the Haig-Simons approach or the Fisher-Ture approach.

Heck, even the Congressional Budget Office acknowledged that there are two ways of measuring tax expenditures. To reiterate, the choice of tax base should be a policy decision, not a built-in assumption.

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Regular readers know that one of my main goals is to preserve and promote tax competition as a means of restraining the greed of the political class. Heck, I almost wound up in a Mexican jail because of my work defending low-tax jurisdictions.

As you can imagine, it’s difficult to persuade politicians. After all, why would they support policies such as fiscal sovereignty and financial privacy that hinder their ability to extract more revenue?

So I try to educate them about the link between taxes and growth in hopes that they will understand that a vibrant economy also means a large tax base.

And I specifically tell them that so-called tax havens play a very valuable role since they are an alternative source of investment capital for nations that have undermined domestic investment with bad tax policy.

And I also explain to them that low-tax jurisdictions give companies some much-needed flexibility to maintain operations in an otherwise hostile fiscal environment. Let’s look at that specific issue by reviewing some of the findings from a study by two Canadian economists about tax havens and business activity.

In the introduction to their study, they describe the general concern (among politicians) that competition between governments will lead to lower tax rates.

Increased mobility of goods and services is apt to give rise to an erosion of corporate tax bases in high-tax industrialized countries, a decline in tax revenues and a rise in competition among governments. Countries seeking to attract and retain mobile investment and the associated tax revenues may be induced to reduce tax rates below the levels that would obtain in the absence of mobility. In the view of some commentators, indeed, increased mobility can lead to a “race to the bottom” driving business tax rates to minimal levels, due to the fiscal externalities that mobility creates.

It certainly is true that tax competition has pressured politicians to lower tax rates, and the academic research shows that this is a good thing, notwithstanding complaints by leftists economists such as Jeffrey Sachs.

What folks on the left don’t understand is that there is a big difference between tax rates and tax revenue. Thanks in large part to Laffer-Curve effects, the big decline in tax rates in the past three decades has not led to a decline in tax revenues.

Indeed, taxes on income and profit, measured as a share of GDP, have increased as tax rates have declined.

But I’m getting distracted. The purpose of this post is to analyze the findings of the two Canadian economists.

Here are their major conclusions, which show that tax havens actually help high-tax nations by allowing companies to engage in “real economic activities” in spite of punitive tax policies.

Financial mobility is manifested in the decisions of multinational enterprises to separate research and development and capital financing activities from production and sales of outputs, and so to engage in “tax planning” to realize income from intellectual property and from capital in jurisdictions different from those where real economic activities are located. …While tax planning may reduce revenues of high-tax jurisdictions, therefore, it may have offsetting effects on real investment that are attractive to governments. In principle, then, the presence of international tax planning opportunities may allow countries to maintain or even increase high business tax rates, while preventing an outflow of foreign direct investment. …the investment-enhancing effects of international tax planning can dominate the revenue-erosion effects. The implications of this view are strong: an increase in international tax avoidance can lead to…an increase in the welfare of citizens of high-tax countries. …consistent with our model, governments may be reluctant to close such “loopholes,” because of fears of losses in multinational employment and, in particular, expatriations of ownership and headquarters operations to low-tax countries. …revenue losses due to tax planning are irrelevant, and what matters is the effect of tax planning on the level of multinational investment in high-tax countries and its deadweight costs for the economy, if any.

In other words, tax havens make it possible for companies to indirectly reduce their overall tax burden, thus making it economically feasible to continue operating – and retaining jobs – in nations with bad tax policy.

Other economists have reached similar conclusions. At about the 7:20 mark of this video, I cite research by Mihir Desai, Fritz Foley, and James Hines that also found that tax havens facilitate greater economic activity in high-tax nations.

P.S. I’ve done lots of debates about tax havens (on American TV, British TV, and French TV) and those of you attending FreedomFest can see me cross rhetorical swords in a debate with James Henry of the Tax Justice Network. As you can see from the agenda, I’ll also be moderating a panel on tax reform and introducing Charles Murray’s talk on how to limit the state.

P.S.S. There’s something about tax havens that causes statists to become even more irrational than they usually are. Some of them actually advocate military action against these peaceful jurisdictions! I’m wondering if this is their way of compensating for the guilt that they feel since many well-known leftists invest their money in these low-tax jurisdictions.

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I generally believe that social conservatives and libertarians are natural allies. As I wrote last year, this is “because there is wide and deep agreement on the principle of individual responsibility. They may focus on different ill effects, but both camps understand that big government is a threat to a virtuous and productive citizenry.”

I even promoted a “Fusionist” principle based on a very good column by Tim Carney, and I suspect a large majority of libertarians and social conservatives would agree with the statement.

But that doesn’t mean social conservatives and libertarians are the same. There’s some fascinating research on the underlying differences between people of different ideologies, and I suspect the following story might be an example of where the two camps might diverge.

But notice I wrote “might” rather than “will.” I’ll be very curious to see how various readers react to this story about a gay couple that is taking an unusual step to minimize an unfair and punitive tax imposed by the government of Pennsylvania.

John met Gregory at a gay bar in Pittsburgh nearly 45 years ago and immediately fell in love. …Now, as lifelong partners facing the financial and emotional insecurities of old age, they have legally changed their relationship and are father and son — John, 65, has adopted Gregory, 73. The couple was worried about Pennsylvania’s inheritance tax. “If we just live together and Gregory willed me his assets and property and anything else, I would be liable for a 15 percent tax on the value of the estate,” said John. “By adoption, that decreases to 4 percent. It’s a huge difference.” …the couple had considered marrying in another state, but because their primary residence was in Pennsylvania, which does not recognize same-sex marriage, they would still be subjected to the inheritance law.

The Judge who approved the adoption obviously wasn’t too troubled by this unusual method of tax avoidance.

The judge did turn to John and said, “I am really curious, why are you adopting [Gregory]?” “I said, ‘Because it’s our only legal option to protect ourselves from Pennsylvania’s inheritance taxes,'” said John. “He got it immediately.” The judge agreed to sign the adoption papers on the spot and handed it to the clerk. Then he turned and looked at John, “Congratulations, it’s a boy.”

So what’s your take on this issue? For some groups, it’s easy to predict how they’ll react to this story.

1. If you have the statist mindset of England’s political elite or if you work at a bureaucracy such as the OECD, you’ll think this is morally wrong. Not because you object to homosexuality, but because you think tax avoidance is very bad and you believe the state should have more money.

2. If you’re a libertarian, you’re cheering for John and Gregory. Even if you don’t personally approve of homosexuality, you don’t think the state should interfere with the private actions of consenting adults and you like the idea of people keeping more of the money they earn.

3. If you’re a public finance economist, you think any form of death tax is a very perverse form of double taxation and you like just about anything that reduces this onerous penalty on saving and investment.

But there are some groups that will be conflicted.

Social Conservative Quandary1. Social conservatives don’t like big government and bad tax policy, but they also don’t approve of homosexuality. And, in this case, it’s now technically incestuous homosexuality! If I had to guess, most social conservatives will argue that the court should not have granted the adoption. We’ll see if there are some good comments on this post.

Leftist Quandary2. Leftists also will be conflicted. They like the death tax and they want the government to have more money, but they also believe in identity politics and wouldn’t want to offend one of their constituent groups.  I’m guessing identity politics would trump greed, but I suspect their ideal approach would be to tax all inheritances at 15 percent.

In my fantasy world, needless to say, there’s no death tax and the entire issue disappears.

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One of history’s worst butchers, Josef Stalin, is rumored to have said that, “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.”

Sadly, there’s probably some truth in that statement.

I’ve shared a bunch of horror stories about the U.K.’s government-run healthcare system (see here, here, here, here, here, herehereherehereherehereherehere, here and here) and I challenge you to read them without feeling some mix of anger, sadness, despair, and disgust.

Now read these passages from a story earlier this year in the UK-based Daily Mail.

As many as 1,165 people starved to death in NHS hospitals over the past four years… According to figures released by the Office for National Statistics following a Freedom of Information request, for every patient who dies from malnutrition, four more have dehydration mentioned on their death certificate. …In 2011, 43 patients starved to death and 291 died in a state of severe malnutrition, while the number of patients discharged from hospital suffering from malnutrition doubled to 5,558. …NHS hospitals have also stood accused of fiddling figures to mask the numbers of patients dying needlessly.

Without names, faces, and specific details, it’s easy to read the words, shrug your shoulders, and remain emotionally detached.

“I’m Josef Stalin and I approve government-run healthcare”

But there’s probably a gripping and tragic story for every one of those 1,165 people who died, as well as the 5,558 people who suffered from malnutrition.

You’re probably wondering whether the doctors and nurses in the United Kingdom are especially incompetent and/or inhumane. That may be true, but these nauseating statistics also are the result of a deliberate government policy to hasten death. If you think I’m kidding, read this story about children being put on the “Liverpool Care Pathway.” But only if you have a strong stomach.

Makes you wonder what Paul Krugman was thinking when he asserted that, “In Britain, the government itself runs the hospitals and employs the doctors. We’ve all heard scare stories about how that works in practice; these stories are false.”

By the way, I’m not implying that the American health care system is the ideal approach. Our system is grossly inefficient and wasteful thanks to government-caused third-party payer.

But with Obamacare being implemented, including the IPAB “death panels,” maybe we’ll have the worst of both worlds. The inefficiency and expense of American-style third-party payer and the clinical cruelty of British-style single-payer.

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The late, great Margaret Thatcher famously said that “Socialist governments…always run out of other people’s money” and “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” is an iconic line from Apocalypse Now.

Thinking about the fiscal mess in Europe, I’m going to combine these two sentiments and state that, “I love it when statists run out of victims and start cannibalizing each other.”

And that’s about to happen in France.

The burden of government spending is enormous, with the public sector consuming 57 percent of economic output.

That’s more than either Greece or Sweden!

If something isn’t done, France will suffer a Greek-style crisis as investors lose trust in the government’s ability to pay its bills.

The situation is so bad that even the country’s Socialist President claims that he plans to cut spending, but he faces a revolt in his own party from those who refuse to recognize reality. Here are some excerpts from a column in the UK-based Telegraph.

President Francois Hollande has already angered much of his own Socialist base with plans to cut spending next year in absolute terms for the first time since 1958, but this may be just start of the battle. The Cour des Comptes said France is not even “halfway” through its fiscal squeeze. …”France is drifting away. Like a receeding wave, it is retreating little by little from the global economy, imperceptibly in the past, but visibly so today,” said Jean-Pierre Letartre, Ernst & Young’s chief in France. …The government has pencilled in economic contraction of 0.3pc this year, with a weak recovery starting in the second half, but a chorus of private economists fear far worse if there is any outside shock. “It could be as much as minus 1.5pc,” said Jean-Michel Six from Standard & Poor’s. …Mr Hollande has so far gone along with EU austerity demands, backing away from his pledge for a New Deal growth strategy in the elections last year. But his poll ratings have crashed at the fastest rate ever for a new president, and much of his own party is near revolt.

I’ll be surprised if France actually follows through with genuine spending cuts, but you can see from this chart that the time for fiscal restraint is long overdue.

French Spending, 2003-2012

To be somewhat optimistic, it’s worth noting that governments will do the right thing when there’s no other alternative.

Greece, for instance, has cut spending three years in a row, bringing the budget down from 124 billion euro in 2009 to 106 billion euro last year. Unfortunately, there have also been big tax hikes, and the overall level of spending is still about where it was in 2007, so Greece is far from a role model. But at least the era of ever-rising outlays has ended.

And I’ve already pointed out that the Baltic nations are a role model since they made genuine spending cuts the moment the crisis began and they’re now enjoying an economic rebound.

I realize this will be the understatement of the year, but France is not going to be the new Estonia.

Unlike the Canadian Liberal Party or Australian Labor Party, it does not appear that the Socialist Party in France is willing to recognize reality and do the right thing.

But the good news is that they don’t have any room to raise taxes. Successful people already are leaving the country because of punitive tax rates, and I suspect even President Hollande privately understands that France is on the wrong side of the Laffer Curve.

So I expect there will be a fight. On one side, we’ll have the rational statists who recognize that spending cuts are needed to avoided a fiscal crisis. On the other side, we’ll have the irrational statists who blindly think more money can be squeezed from the rich with more class-warfare tax policy.

Let’s hope for heavy casualties on both sides.

P.S. There’s a lot to like about France, and I reported a few years ago that it was ranked as the top nation for good living. But that’s only if you already are rich. Now that the French national sport is taxation, productive people who want to become rich have a big incentive to go someplace else.

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For my birthday last year, the only present I wanted was for the Supreme Court to uphold the Constitution and reject Obamacare.

Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Instead, the Chief Justice put politics above the law and made a mockery of his Oath of Office.

So I’m now a bit superstitious and I’m not going to write about anything I want today or in the future. But I will pretend that something good happened because it’s my birthday, so let’s celebrate the fact that the European Union has basically made the right decision on how to deal with insolvent banks.

Technically, it happened yesterday, the day before my birthday, but it’s being reported today, and that’s close enough for me. Here are some details from the EU Observer.

Bank shareholders and creditors will be first in line to suffer losses if their bank gets into difficulties, according to draft rules agreed by ministers in the early hours of Thursday morning… Under the new regime, banks’ creditors and shareholders would be the first to take losses. But if this proves insufficient to rescue the bank in question, savers holding uninsured deposits worth more than €100,000 would also take a hit.

This is basically the “FDIC-resolution” approach that I’ve mentioned before, and it’s sort of what happened in Cyprus (after the politicians tried every other option).

And it’s the opposite of the corrupt TARP system that the Bush and Obama Administrations imposed on the American people.

The reason this new European approach is good is that it puts the pressure for sound business decisions where it belongs – with the shareholders who own the bank and with the big creditors (such as bondholders) who should be responsible for monitoring the underlying safety and soundness of a bank before lending it money.

And rich people (depositors with more than €100,000) also should be smart enough to apply some due diligence before putting their money someplace.

The last people to bear any costs should be taxpayers. They don’t own the bank. They don’t invest in the bank. And they don’t have big bucks. So why should they bear the cost when the big-money people screw up?!? Especially when TARP-style bailouts promote moral hazard!

I’m sure the new system won’t be properly implemented, that there are some bad details in the fine print, and there will be too many opportunities for back-door bailouts and cronyism, but let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Happy Birthday to me. And such an unexpected present: Something good actually came out of Europe!

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Last year, I shared a potential slogan for Obama’s re-election campaign (followed by a warning about the big challenge he would face if victorious).

Now we have a new Michael Ramirez cartoon that has a similar theme.

Super-Obama Cartoon

You can see why Michael Ramirez was the winner of my political cartoonist contest. He conveys so much with a single image.

He won for his “Julia” cartoon, but he just as easily could have prevailed for his  gem about Obamanomics, his European lemming cartoon, or his masterpiece on taxes in the Garden of Eden.

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