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As part of my “Question of the Week” series, I said that Australia probably would be the best option if the United States suffered some sort of Greek-style fiscal meltdown that led to a societal collapse.*

One reason I’m so bullish on Australia is that the nation has a privatized Social Security system called “Superannuation,” with workers setting aside 9 percent of their income in personal retirement accounts (rising to 12 percent by 2020).

Established almost 30 years ago, and made virtually universal about 20 years ago, this system is far superior to the actuarially bankrupt Social Security system in the United States.

Probably the most sobering comparison is to look at a chart of how much private wealth has been created in Superannuation accounts and then look at a chart of the debt that we face for Social Security.

To be blunt, the Aussies are kicking our butts. Their system gets stronger every day and our system generates more red ink every day.

And their system is earning praise from unexpected places. The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, led by a former Clinton Administration official, is not a right-wing bastion. So it’s noteworthy when it publishes a study praising Superannuation.

Australia’s retirement income system is regarded by some as among the best in the world. It has achieved high individual saving rates and broad coverage at reasonably low cost to the government.

Since I wrote my dissertation on Australia’s system, I can say with confidence that the author is not exaggerating. It’s a very good role model, for reasons I’ve previously discussed.

Here’s more from the Boston College study.

The program requires employers to contribute 9 percent of earnings, rising to 12 percent by 2020, to a tax-advantaged retirement plan for each employee age 18 to 70 who earns more than a specified minimum amount. …Over 90 percent of employed Australians have savings in a Superannuation account, and the total assets in these accounts now exceed Australia’s Gross Domestic Product. …Australia has been extremely effective in achieving key goals of any retirement income system. …Its Superannuation Guarantee program has generated high and rising levels of saving by essentially the entire active workforce.

The study does include some criticisms, some of which are warranted. The system can be gamed by those who want to take advantage of the safety net retirement system maintained by the government.

Australia’s means-tested Age Pension creates incentives to reduce one’s “means” in order to collect a higher means-tested benefit. This can be done by spending down one’s savings and/or investing these savings in assets excluded from the Age Pension means test. What makes this situation especially problematic is that workers can currently access their Superannuation savings at age 55, ten years before becoming eligible for Age Pension benefits at 65. This ability creates an incentive to retire early, live on these savings until eligible for an Age Pension, and collect a higher benefit, sometimes referred to as “double dipping.”

Though I admit dealing with this issue may require a bit of paternalism. Should individuals be forced to turn their retirement accounts into an income stream (called annuitization) once they reach retirement age?

I’m torn on this issue. Paternalists sometimes do have good ideas, but shouldn’t people have the freedom to make their own decisions, even if they make mistakes? But does the answer to that question change when mistakes mean that those people will be taking money from taxpayers?

Fortunately, I don’t need to be wishy-washy on the other criticism in the study.

Australia’s system does have shortcomings. It is heavily dependent on defined contribution plans and is vulnerable to weaknesses in such programs.

I strongly disagree. A “defined contribution” account is something to applaud, not a shortcoming.

The author presumably is worried that a “DC” account leaves a worker vulnerable to the ups and downs of the market, whereas a “defined benefit” account promises a specific payment and removes that uncertainty. Sounds great, but the problem with “DB” accounts is that they almost inevitably seem to promise more than they can deliver. And that seems to be the case whether they’re supposedly based on real savings (like company retirement plans or pension funds for state and local bureaucrats) or based on pay-as-you-go taxation (like Social Security).

*Since I’m somewhat optimistic that America can be saved, I’m not recommending you head Down Under just yet.

P.S. I’m also a huge fan of Chile’s system of private accounts. At the risk of oversimplifying, Chile’s system is sort of like universal IRAs and Australia’s system is sort of like universal 401(k)s.

P.P.S. There’s much to admire about Australia, but its government is plenty capable of boneheaded policy. Heck, the government even provides workers’ compensation payments to people who get injured while having sex after work hours, simply because they were on a business-related trip. Talk about double dipping!

P.P.P.S. Here’s my video explaining why we should implement personal retirement accounts in the United States.

P.P.P.S. The death tax has been abolished in Australia, so there’s more to admire than just personal retirement accounts.

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A reader from New York has a follow-up question for me.

Referencing a “Question of the Week” from last month, in which I expressed guarded optimism that America could be saved, she wants to know what I would do if things go the wrong way.

In other words, what if things go really wrong and America suffers a Greek-style fiscal collapse? And imagine how bad that might be since there wouldn’t be an IMF or European Central Bank capable of providing bailouts to the United States.

Perhaps because of an irrational form of patriotism, I’m fairly certain that I will always live in the United States and I will be fighting to preserve (or restore) liberty until my last breath.

But I probably would want my children someplace safe and stable, so I’ll answer the question from that perspective.

The obvious first choice is a zero-income tax jurisdiction like the Cayman Islands that is prosperous and reasonably well governed.

But I’m not sure about the long-run outlook for the Cayman Islands, in part because the politicians there have flirted with an income tax and in part because the jurisdiction inevitably would suffer if the United States was falling apart.

So what’s a place that is stable and not overly tied to the American economy.

Then the obvious choice is Switzerland. That nation’s long-run fiscal outlook is relatively favorable because of  modest-sized government and a very good spending control mechanism.

But while Switzerland is not dependent on the U.S. economy, it is surrounded by European welfare states. And I’m fairly certain that nations such as France, Italy, and (perhaps) Germany will collapse before America.

And even though most Swiss households have machine guns and the nation presumably can defend itself from barbarian hordes in search of a new welfare check, Switzerland’s probably not the ideal location.

Estonia is one of my favorite countries, and they’ve implemented some good reforms such as the flat tax. But I worry about demographic decline. Plus, I’m a weather wimp and it’s too chilly most of the year.

Another option is a stable nation in Latin America, perhaps Chile, Panama, or Costa Rica. I haven’t been to Chile, but I’m very impressed by the nation’s incredible progress in recent decades. I have been to Panama many times and it is one of my favorite nations. I’ve only been to Costa Rica two times, but it also seems like a nice country.

The bad news is that I don’t speak Spanish (and my kids don’t speak the language, either). The good news is that Hispanics appear to be the world’s happiest people, so that should count for something.

“G’day mate, we’ve privatized our social security system!”

This brings me to Australia, the country that probably would be at the top of my list. The burden of government spending in Australia is less than it is in the United States.

But the gap isn’t that large. The reason I like Australia is that the nation has a privatized Social Security system (called Superannuation) and the long-run fiscal outlook is much, much better than the United States.

Plus the Aussies are genuinely friendly and they speak an entertaining form of English.

So if America goes under, I recommend going Down Under.

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Australia is perhaps my favorite country. In part this is because there have been some good economic reforms, such as personal retirement accounts.

But there’s more to life than public policy, and I like Australia because the people are so outgoing and friendly.

Though sometimes their outgoing friendliness, so to speak, creates opportunities for really stupid government policy. A judge in Australia has ruled, for instance, that a woman deserves employment compensation after injuring herself while having sex. Here are some of the remarkable details.

The battle for compensation is not over for a woman who was injured while having sex in a motel on a work trip. Comcare, the Federal Government workplace safety body, has lodged an appeal against the Federal Court decision that the public servant, aged in her late 30s, was entitled to workers’ compensation.Comcare is appealing the judgment on four grounds, including that the court was wrong in finding the woman’s injuries were caused “in the course of her employment”.She is claiming compensation for facial and psychological injuries suffered when a glass light fitting above the bed was pulled from its mount while the woman was having sex in November 2007.Justice John Nicholas said it was not relevant whether it was the woman or her partner – who she met about a month earlier – who pulled the light fitting from the wall.The Administrative Appeals Tribunal had earlier upheld Comcare’s decision, finding that sexual activity was “not an ordinary incident of an overnight stay like showering, sleeping or eating”.”…She was involved in a recreational activity which her employer had not induced, encouraged or countenanced.”However Justice Nicholas overruled that decision and found in favour of the woman.

I have two reactions to this story.

Aussie sex position?

First, what am I doing wrong? How come I’ve never caused light fixtures to be pulled from a wall? That might be worth a facial injury.

Second, what sort of idiot judge concludes that an injury suffered during a sexual relationship entitles someone to get employment compensation money from taxpayers. Sounds like the Appeals Tribunal showed a lot more common sense in ruling that her sexcapades were a “recreational activity” and not “induced, encouraged or countenanced” by her employer.

I’ve come across lots of crazy government decisions in my time, but this is near the top of the list. Probably not as bad as the Greek government subsidizing pedophiles or demanding stool samples before letting entrepreneurs set up online companies, but still amazingly foolish.

It’s also at least as silly as the European courts that have ruled that there’s an entitlement to free soccer broadcasts and a right to satellite TV.

And it’s probably worse than the Finnish court that ruled there’s a right to broadband access, though not as nutty as the Bolivian decision that there’s a human right to receive stolen property.

In any event, at least the Australian government is appealing this moronic decision, so that’s another reason to think it’s a good country. Maybe when America falls apart and enters a Greek-style fiscal death spiral, I can emigrate.

Though I would still need to fight for freedom since Australia’s government does plenty of bad things, such as their version of wasteful “stimulus” and very shameful efforts to stifle political dissent on global warming hysteria.

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There are two serious problems with America’s Social Security system. Almost everyone knows about the first problem, which is that the system is bankrupt, with huge unfunded liabilities of about $30 trillion.

The other crisis is that the system gives workers a lousy level of retirement income compared to the amount of taxes they pay during their working years. Younger workers are particularly disadvantaged, as are African-Americans because of lower life expectancy.

These are critical issues, but perhaps looking at a couple of charts is the best way to illustrate why the Social Security system is inadequate.

Let’s start by looking at some numbers from Australia, where workers set aside 9 percent of their income in personal retirement accounts.

This system, which was made universal by the Labor Party beginning in the 1980s, has turned every Australian worker into a capitalist and generated private wealth of nearly 100 percent of GDP. Here’s a chart, based on data from the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority.

Now let’s look at one of the key numbers generated by America’s tax-and-transfer entitlement system. Here’s a chart showing the projected annual cash-flow deficits for the Social Security system, based on the just-released Trustees’ Report.

By the way, the chart shows inflation-adjusted 2012 dollars. The numbers would look far worse if I used the nominal numbers.

The two charts aren’t analogous, of course, but that’s because there’s nothing to compare. The Social Security system has no savings. Indeed, it discourages people from setting aside income.

And Australia’s superannuation system doesn’t have anything akin to America’s unfunded liabilities. The closest thing to an analogy would be the safety net provision guaranteeing a basic pension to people with limited savings (presumably because of a spotty employment record).

So now ask yourself whether Australia should copy America or America should copy Australia? Seems like a no-brainer.

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I haven’t written much on the global-warming debate, other than to warn about how agenda-driven government funding is corrupting scientific inquiry and to mock nutjob extremists who assert climate change will cause catastrophes ranging from genocide to AIDS.

But I feel compelled to address the issue today because of a despicable move by the Australian government. In a step that one might expect from a thugocracy such as Russia or Argentina, Aussie politicians are criminalizing free speech, at least when it comes to businesses dealing with the burden of a new carbon tax.

Here are some excerpts from a column in Australia’s Daily Telegraph.

Now that the carbon tax has passed through federal parliament, the government’s clean-up brigade is getting into the swing by trying to erase any dissent against the jobs-destroying legislation. On cue comes the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, which this week issued warnings to businesses that they will face whopping fines of up to $1.1m if they blame the carbon tax for price rises. …Businesses are not even allowed to throw special carbon tax sales promotions before the tax arrives on July 1. “Beat the Carbon Tax – Buy Now” or “Buy now before the carbon tax bites” are sales pitches that are verboten. Or at least, as the ACCC puts it, “you should be very cautious about making these types of claims”. There will be 23 carbon cops roaming the streets doing snap audits of businesses that “choose to link your price increases to a carbon price”. Instead, the ACCC suggests you tell customers you’ve raised prices because “the overall cost of running (your) business has increased”. …But no matter how Orwellian the tactics, no matter how many carbon cops are sent into hairdressing salons to interrogate barbers on the precise nature of their price rises, the truth remains: Australia has gone out on a limb, imposing a carbon tax that will send businesses to the wall, cause undue hardship to families, and tether Australians more tightly to government handouts. And soon, we will send billions of dollars overseas to buy useless pieces of paper called carbon credits. Investment bankers, lawyers and carbon traders will get rich, as will all the usual spivs and scam artists ready to stick a bucket under the government spigot raining taxpayer cash.

As is often the case when I read something this grotesque, I hope the author is wrong, or at least wildly exaggerating. I don’t hold politicians in high regard, but I like to think we haven’t reached a stage where they are using government coercion to stifle dissent.

I’m especially chagrined that this soft form of fascism is happening in one of my favorite nations.

By the way, as those of us in the northern hemisphere prepare for winter, we also should prepare for more protests instigated by Al Gore. And if you like global-warming humor, this Hitler parody is a classic.

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Welcome Instapundit readers. Notwithstanding my next-to-last paragraph full of caveats, some people are saying I’m too soft on the Aussies. This previous post should disabuse people of that notion.

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The Economist magazine has a couple of good articles about Australia’s increasingly enviable economic status. Here’s a blurb from the first article, which outlines the pro-market reforms that enabled today’s prosperity.

Only a dozen economies are bigger, and only six nations are richer—of which Switzerland alone has even a third as many people. Australia is rich, tranquil and mostly overlooked, yet it has a story to tell. Its current prosperity was far from inevitable. Twenty-five years ago Paul Keating, the country’s treasurer (finance minister), declared that if Australia failed to reform it would become a banana republic. Barely five years later, after a nasty recession, the country began a period of uninterrupted economic expansion matched by no other rich country. It continues to this day. This special report will explain how this has come about and ask whether it can last. …With the popular, politically astute Mr Hawke presiding, and the coruscating, aggressive Mr Keating doing most of the pushing, this Labor government floated the Australian dollar, deregulated the financial system, abolished import quotas and cut tariffs. The reforms were continued by Mr Keating when he took over as prime minister in 1991, and then by the Liberal-led (which in Australia means conservative-led) coalition government of John Howard and his treasurer, Peter Costello, after 1996. …By 2003 the effective rate of protection in manufacturing had fallen from about 35% in the 1970s to 5%. Foreign banks had been allowed to compete. Airlines, shipping and telecoms had been deregulated. The labour market had been largely freed, with centralised wage-fixing replaced by enterprise bargaining. State-owned firms had been privatised. …the double taxation of dividends ended. Corporate and income taxes had both been cut.

This chart (click for a larger image), from Economic Freedom of the World, presents a more rigorous look at this period. It shows how Australia’s economic freedom ranking had dropped to as low at 19 (out of 72 nations measured) and now is up to 8 (out of 114 nations measured). This is akin to moving from the 74th percentile to the 94th percentile.

There is also an accompanying article about Australia’s private Social Security system. Called superannuation, these personal accounts have generated tremendous results.

…most Australian workers, over 8m in total, now have a private nest-egg for their old age. No tax is paid when members withdraw from their fund; they can take all they want as a lump sum, subject to a limit, or buy an annuity. Aussies are now a nation of capitalists. At the same time the state pension system, and therefore the taxpayer, is being progressively relieved of most of the burden of retirement provision, since eligibility for the state pension depends on both assets and income. As supers take over, the provision for old folks’ incomes will be almost entirely based on defined contributions, not defined benefits. So Australia is in the happy position of not having to worry too much about the pension implications of an ageing population… The supers…have created a pool of capital in Australia that might not otherwise have existed. Collectively worth about $1.3 trillion—much the same as GDP—they have made Australia the world’s fourth-largest market for pension savings.

Australia is not exactly Hong Kong. Marginal tax rates are still far too high. The burden of government spending is lower than in the United States, but is still far too onerous. Nonetheless, the Aussies have made impressive strides in reducing the overall size, scope, and level of government interference and intervention. And this has translated into much better economic performance.

This video uses the Economic Freedom of the World index to explain why comprehensive free market reforms (like Australia) generate the best results.

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The death tax is a punitive levy that discourages saving and investment and causes substantial economic inefficiency. But it’s also an immoral tax that seizes assets from grieving families solely because someone dies. The good news is that this odious tax no longer exists. It disappeared on January 1, 2010, thanks to the 2001 tax cut legislation. The bad news is that the death tax comes back with a vengeance on January 1, 2011, ready to confiscate as much as 55 percent of the assets of unfortunate families.

I’ve criticized the death tax on many occasions, including one column in USA Today explaining the economic damage caused by this perverse form of double taxation, and I highlighted a few of the nations around the world that have eliminated this odious tax in another column for the same paper.

Politicians don’t seem persuaded by these arguments, in part because they feel class warfare is a winning political formula. President Obama, House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus have been successful in thwarting efforts to permanently kill the death tax. But I wonder what they’ll say if their obstinate approach results in death?

Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming is getting a bit of attention (including a link on the Drudge Report) for her recent comments that some people may choose to die in the next two months in order to protect family assets from the death tax. For successful entrepreneurs, investors, and small business owners who might already be old (especially if they have a serious illness), there is a perverse incentive to die quickly. 

U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis says some of her Wyoming constituents are so worried about the reinstatement of federal estate taxes that they plan to discontinue dialysis and other life-extending medical treatments so they can die before Dec. 31. Lummis…said many ranchers and farmers in the state would rather pass along their businesses — “their life’s work” — to their children and grandchildren than see the federal government take a large chunk. “If you have spent your whole life building a ranch, and you wanted to pass your estate on to your children, and you were 88 years old and on dialysis, and the only thing that was keeping you alive was that dialysis, you might make that same decision,” Lummis told reporters.

The class-warfare crowd doubtlessly will dismiss these concerns, but they should set aside their ideology and do some research. Four years ago, two Australian scholars published an article on this issue in Topics in Economic Analysis & Policy, which is published by the Berkeley Electronic Press. Entitled “Did the Death of Australian Inheritance Taxes Affect Deaths?”, their paper looked at the roles of tax, incentives, and death rates. The abstract has an excellent summary.

In 1979, Australia abolished federal inheritance taxes. Using daily deaths data, we show that approximately 50 deaths were shifted from the week before the abolition to the week after. This amounts to over half of those who would have been eligible to pay the tax. …our results imply that over the very short run, the death rate may be highly elastic with respect to the inheritance tax rate.

And here’s a graph from the article, which shows how many affected taxpayers managed to delay death until the tax went away.

Obama and other class-warfare politicians now want to run this experiment in reverse. I already noted in another blog post that there are Americans who are acutely aware of the hugely beneficial tax implications if they die in 2010. In other words, Congresswoman Lummis almost certainly is right.

I don’t actually think that Obama, Rangel, Baucus and the rest of the big-government crowd should be blamed for any premature deaths that occur. But I definitely think that they should be asked if they feel any sense of guilt, remorse, and/or indirect responsibility.

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 I’m finally back in Washington after a week in Australia for the Mont Pelerin Society general meeting. Aussies are great people, but their government is just as misguided as the one we’re burdened with here in America. A friend took this pic of me on a visit to Manly Beach. You may notice a similarity to this other photo (though the Australian sign has not been changed to reflect truth-in-advertising).

Moreover, it also appears that the Australian Tax Office is just as odious as our internal revenue service. One of the Aussies at the Mont Pelerin meeting told me that his nation’s tax police were going to investigate a bunch of people because…drum roll, please…they purchased hail-damaged cars at an auction.

Yes, you read right. Being a frugal shopper and looking for bargains apparently is seen as behavior that cries out for harassment by the tax man. I expressed some skepticism when told this story, but the Aussie sent me a link to a story that ran in the West Australian. Here’s an excerpt.

Tens of thousands of Perth residents who bought a new car after the March hailstorm face a new danger – a close examination of their tax details. The Australian Taxation Office revealed yesterday it was expanding its data matching program to take in cars worth more than $10,000 that were sold, transferred or newly registered between July 1 last year and June 30 this year. Tax commissioner Michael D’Ascenzo said…”In the past our motor vehicle data matches focused on luxury cars, but the net is now being cast much wider,” he said. “We’re looking to identify businesses that sell vehicles and fail to report or under-report those sales. “We’re also looking at whether a person’s income was not sufficient to support the purchase of the vehicle. …Car sales in Perth went through the roof after the March 22 storm when many hail-damaged vehicles were written off by insurance companies. WA car sales hit an all time high of almost 12,000 in April, a jump of 29 per cent on March, as drivers rushed to buy a replacement vehicle. Almost every one of those purchases will fall under the ATO’s watch.

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Blogging will be at irregular hours for the next week. I am in Sydney for the Mont Pelerin Society conference. The MPS was founded in 1947 by Friedrich Hayek, “…to facilitate an exchange of ideas between like-minded scholars in the hope of strengthening the principles and practice of a free society and to study the workings, virtues, and defects of market-oriented economic systems.” Home to several Nobel laureates, the MPS is an oasis of freedom-loving individuals in a world that seems to reward statism and conformity. Belonging to this organization is one of the great honors of my life.

And perhaps I will have to travel overseas more often. When I landed in Sydney, I discovered that order had been restored to the universe. By that, I mean that the beloved Bulldogs had thrashed the Tennessee Volunteers 41-14.

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Here’s a Reuters story about the Australian Tax Office harassing Paul Hogan, better known to Americans as Crocodile Dundee, because of a tax dispute. The grinches at the tax office took advantage of Hogan’s return for his mother’s funeral to hold him hostage, refusing to let him leave the country until he coughs up some cash. It appears that the tax police in Australia are just as politicized and above the law as the IRS. Hogan has never been charged with tax evasion and there are plenty of signs that the bureaucrats want to make him a high-profile victim to justify the amount of money that has been squandered in a probe of supposed offshore evasion.
Actor Paul Hogan, star of the “Crocodile Dundee” movies, has vowed to continue fighting the Australian tax office which has barred him from leaving Australia until he pays a massive bill, saying he’s victim of a witch hunt. Hogan, 70, was served with a departure prohibition order 10 days ago while in Australia to attend his 101-year-old mother’s funeral which has prevented him from leaving to return to Los Angeles where he lives with his wife and son. The Australian Tax Office refused to comment on reports of seeking tax on A$38 million ($34 million) of allegedly undeclared income from Hogan, saying it cannot give details of individual taxpayers. But the actor went public in the Australian media this week to put forward his side in his five-year row with the tax office, saying he had done nothing wrong and the tax office was on a witch hunt for a high-profile case. …”If I was a tax evader, which I’m not, I must be the dumbest one in the world to keep coming back here instead of fleeing to a tax haven … I know they’re absolutely desperate to nail some high-profile character with money to justify the expense to the taxpayer.” Hogan, who was once a painter on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, is under investigation as part of Australia’s biggest probe into offshore tax evasion, Operation Wickenby. The operation is budgeted to cost at least $300 million. The tax office has claimed he put tens of millions of dollars in film royalties in offshore tax havens, a claim that he has denied. He has never been charged with tax evasion.
This story is symbolic of a bigger issue, which is the the unfortunate tendency of governments to create ever-more oppressive and misguided laws in response to failures of existing policy. We see this in the failed War on Drugs, which leads to trampling of civil liberties and erosion of privacy. We see it in the failed War on Poverty, which leads to more redistribution that further traps people in dependency. We see it in the failed government-run education system, which wastes more money every year as outcomes remain stagnant and children from poor and minority communities suffer.
 
In the case of tax policy, politicians impose high tax rates and punitive forms of double taxation. As anybody with a modicum of common sense could predict, this bad tax policy undermines economic performance and drives economic activity to jurisdictions with better tax law. The politicians then have two ways to respond. They can lower tax rates and reform tax systems, an approach that simultaneously would boost growth and improve compliance. Or they can tighten the thumbscrews on taxpayers, trample their rights, and conspire with other high-tax nations to punish the jurisdictions that do have good policy.
 
Not surprisingly, most politicians choose the latter approach. And the attack on low-tax jurisdictions is a particularly loathsome part of their response. As this video explains, tax competition is a liberalizing force in the world economy and the effort by high-tax nations to penalize so-called tax havens is driven by a statist impulse to prop up decrepit and inefficient welfare states.

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Australia got rid of its death tax in 1979. A couple of Aussie academics investigated whether the elimination of the tax had any impact on death rates. They found the ultimate example of supply-side economics, as reported in the abstract of their study.
In 1979, Australia abolished federal inheritance taxes. Using daily deaths data, we show that approximately 50 deaths were shifted from the week before the abolition to the week after. This amounts to over half of those who would have been eligible to pay the tax. Although we cannot rule out the possibility that our results are driven by misreporting, our results imply that over the very short run, the death rate may be highly elastic with respect to the inheritance tax rate.

It looks like this experiment will be repeated in the United States, but in the other direction. There was a rather unsettling article in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend. The story begins with a description of how the death tax rate dropped from 45 percent in 2009 to zero in 2010, and then notes the huge implications of a scheduled increase to 55 percent in 2011.

Congress, quite by accident, is incentivizing death. When the Senate allowed the estate tax to lapse at the end of last year, it encouraged wealthy people near death’s door to stay alive until Jan. 1 so they could spare their heirs a 45% tax hit. Now the situation has reversed: If Congress doesn’t change the law soon—and many experts think it won’t—the estate tax will come roaring back in 2011. …The math is ugly: On a $5 million estate, the tax consequence of dying a minute after midnight on Jan. 1, 2011 rather than two minutes earlier could be more than $2 million; on a $15 million estate, the difference could be about $8 million.
The story then features several anecdotes from successful people, along with observations from those who deal with wealthy taxpayers. The obvious lesson is that taxpayers don’t want the IRS to confiscate huge portions of what has been saved and invested over lifetimes of hard work.
“You don’t know whether to commit suicide or just go on living and working,” says Eugene Sukup, an outspoken critic of the estate tax and the founder of Sukup Manufacturing, a maker of grain bins that employs 450 people in Sheffield, Iowa. Born in Nebraska during the Dust Bowl, the 81-year-old Mr. Sukup is a National Guard veteran and high school graduate who founded his firm, which now owns more than 70 patents, with $15,000 in 1963. He says his estate taxes, which would be zero this year, could be more that $15 million if he were to die next year. …Estate planners and doctors caution against making life-and-death decisions based on money. Yet many people ignore that advice. Robert Teague, a pulmonologist who ran a chronic ventilator facility at a Houston hospital for two decades, found that money regularly figured in end-of-life decisions. “In about 10% of the cases I handled at any one time, financial considerations came into play,” he says. In 2009, more than a few dying people struggled to live into 2010 in hopes of preserving assets for their heirs. Clara Laub, a widow who helped her husband build a Fresno, Calif., grape farm from 20 acres into more than 900 acres worth several million dollars, was diagnosed with advanced cancer in October, 2009. Her daughter Debbie Jacobsen, who helps run the farm, says her mother struggled to live past December and died on New Year’s morning: “She made my son promise to tell her the date and time every day, even if we wouldn’t,” Mrs. Jacobsen says. …Mr. Aucutt, who has practiced estate-tax law for 35 years, expects to see “truly gruesome” cases toward the end of the year, given the huge difference between 2010 and 2011 rates.
The obvious question, of course, is whether politicians will allow the tax to be reinstated. The answer is almost certainly yes, but it’s also going to be interesting to see if they try to impose the tax retroactively on people who died this year.
So far in 2010, an estimated 25,000 taxpayers have died whose estates are affected by current law, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. That group includes least two billionaires, real-estate magnate Walter Shorenstein and energy titan Dan Duncan. …”Enough very wealthy people have died whose estates have the means to challenge a retroactive tax, and that could tie the issue up in the courts for years,” says tax-law professor Michael Graetz of Columbia University.
It should go without saying, by the way, that the correct rate for the death tax is zero. It’s also worth noting that this is an issue that shows that incentives do matter.

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Here’s a cheerful story I saw linked on Drudge, which shows that sometimes rich people are not guilt-ridden statists and instead stand shoulder to shoulder with ordinary people to fight bad government policy. In Australia, the leftist government wants to impose a class-warfare tax on the mining industry, but the scheme is backfiring as opponents point out such a levy will undermine national competitiveness.

It was, by any measure, a most unusual rally. Many of the placard-waving protesters gathered in a Perth park wore suits and ties, and impassioned speeches were delivered from the back of a flat-bed truck by two billionaires, including Australia’s richest woman. Gina Rinehart’s pearls glistened in the sunlight as she bellowed through a megaphone: “Axe the tax!” Ms Rinehart has a personal fortune of $4.8bn (£2.7bn). Andrew Forrest, in monogrammed worker’s overalls, told the well-mannered crowd that Australia was “turning Communist”. Mr Forrest is the country’s fourth richest person, worth an estimated $4.2bn. …Now Kevin Rudd’s Labour government is planning to levy an extra tax on the mining industry, and the industry is furious. The issue has dominated the political agenda for weeks, and is even threatening to torpedo Mr Rudd’s chance of being returned to power at an election due to be held before the end of this year. Labour, which had an unassailable lead over the conservative Liberal-National Party coalition six months ago, is now trailing by six percentage points, according to a poll this week. If that were translated into votes on election day, Mr Rudd would become the first prime minister for nearly 80 years to lose office after just one term. …the mining companies, led by the multi-nationals BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, claim the tax will reduce their competitiveness and threaten thousands of jobs. Amid much fanfare, they have already shelved a number of projects. They have also launched a major advertising campaign. The government has responded with its own advertisements, using $38m of public money. Before coming to power, Mr Rudd promised to curb taxpayer-funded advertising on political issues. So far, the miners appear to be winning the argument. A poll commissioned by the industry, and conducted in nine marginal seats, found 48 per cent of people opposed to the super tax, with 28 per cent in favour. Nearly one in three said they were less likely to vote for Labour because of it

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