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Archive for the ‘Spain’ Category

Since I’m an economist, I generally support competition.

But it’s time to admit that competition isn’t always a good idea. Particularly when international bureaucracies compete to see which one can promote the most-destructive pro-tax policies.

For instance, I noted early last year that the bureaucrats at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) were pushing a new scheme to increase the global tax burden on the business community.

Then I wrote later in the year that the International Monetary Fund was even more aggressive about pushing tax hikes, earning it the label of being the Dr. Kevorkian of the world economy.

That must have created some jealousy at the OECD, so those bureaucrats earlier this year had a taxpalooza party and endorsed a plethora of class-warfare tax hikes.

Now the IMF has responded to the challenge and is pushing additional tax increases all over the world.

For example, the bureaucrats want much higher taxes on energy use, both in the United States and all around the world.

This chart from the IMF shows how much the bureaucracy thinks that the tax should be increased just on coal consumption.

The chart doesn’t make much sense, particularly if you don’t know anything about “gigajoules.” Fortunately, Ronald Bailey of Reason translates the jargon and tells us how this will impact the average American household.

The National Journal reports that the tax rate would be $8 per gigajoule of coal and a bit over $3 per gigajoule of natural gas. Roughly speaking a ton of coal contains somewhere around 25 gigajoules of energy, which implies a tax rate of $200 per ton. …The average American household uses about 11,000 kilowatt hours annually, implying a hike in electric rates of about $1,100 per year due to the new carbon tax. Since the average monthly electric bill is about $107, the IMF’s proposed tax hike on coal would approximately double how much Americans pay for coal-fired electricity. A thousand cubic feet (mcf) of natural gas contains about 1 gigajoule of energy. The average American household burns about 75 mcf of natural gas annually so that implies a total tax burden of $225 per residential customer.

To be fair, the IMF crowd asserts that all these new taxes can be – at least in theory – offset by lower taxes elsewhere.

…we are generally talking about smarter taxes rather than higher taxes. This means re-calibrating tax systems to achieve fiscal objectives more efficiently, most obviously by using the proceeds to lower other burdensome taxes. The revenue from energy taxes could of course also be used to pay down public debt.

Needless to say, I strongly suspect that politicians would use any new revenue to finance a larger burden of government spending. That’s what happened when the income tax was enacted. That’s what happened when the payroll tax was enacted. That’s what happened when the value-added tax was enacted.

If you think something different would happen following the implementation of an energy tax, you win the grand prize for gullibility.

But let’s give the IMF credit. The bureaucrats are equal opportunity tax hikers. They don’t just want higher taxes in the United States. They give the same message everywhere in the world.

Here are some excerpts from an editorial about Spanish fiscal policy in the Wall Street Journal.

Madrid last month cut corporate and personal tax rates, simplified Spain’s personal-income tax system and vowed to close loopholes. That’s good news… So leave it to the austerity scolds at the International Monetary Fund to call for tax increases. …Specifically, the Fund wants Spain to raise value-added taxes, alcohol and tobacco excise taxes, tourism taxes, and various environmental and energy levies: “It will be critical to protect the most vulnerable by increasing the support system for them via the transfer and tax system.”

Gee, I suppose that we should be happy the IMF didn’t endorse higher income taxes as well.

The good news is that the Spanish government may have learned from previous mistakes that tax hikes don’t work.

Rather than heed this bad advice, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Finance Minister Cristobal Montoro are cutting government spending and eliminating wasteful programs to reduce pressure on the public fisc. Public spending amounted to 44.8% of GDP in 2013, which is still too high but down from 46.3% in 2010. The government projects it will fall to 40% by 2017.Madrid has also made clear that it believes private growth is the real answer to its fiscal woes. …In other words, economic growth spurred by low taxes and less state intervention yields more revenue over time. If Mr. Montoro can pursue the logic of that insight, there’s hope for Spain’s beleaguered economy.

I’m not overly confident about Spain’s future, but it is worth noting that, according to IMF data, government spending has basically been flat since 2010 (after rising by an average of about 10 percent annually in the previous three decades).

So if the politicians can maintain fiscal discipline by following my Golden Rule, maybe Spain can undo decades of profligacy and become the success story of the Mediterranean.

Let’s hope so. In any event, we know some Spanish taxpayers have decided that they’re tired of being fleeced.

We have one final example of the IMF’s compulsive tax-aholic instincts.

Allister Heath explains that the bureaucracy is pushing for a plethora of new taxes on the U.K. economy.

The IMF wants an increase in the VAT burden.

…the IMF wants to get rid or significantly reduce the zero-rated exemption on VAT, which covers food, children’s clothes and the rest. While it is true that the exemptions reduce economic efficiency, ditching them would necessitate a big hike in benefits and a major uplift in the minimum wage, which would be far more damaging to the economy’s performance and ability to create jobs for the low-skilled. It’s a stupid idea and one which would destroy any government that sought to implement it, with zero real net benefit. It would be a horrendous waste of precious political capital that ought instead to be invested in real reform of the public sector.

And an increase in energy taxes.

The report also calls for a greater reliance on so-called Pigouvian taxes, which are supposed to discourage externalities and behaviour which inflicts costs on others. It mentions higher taxes on carbon and on congestion as examples. But what this really means is that the IMF is advocating a massive tax increase on motorists, even though there is robust evidence which suggests that they already pay much more, in the aggregate, than any sensible measure of the combined cost of road upkeep and development, pollution and congestion.

And higher property taxes.

It gets worse: these days, one cannot read a document from an international body that doesn’t call for greater taxes on property. This war on homeowners is based on the faulty notion that taxing people who own their homes doesn’t affect their behaviour, which is clearly ridiculous. This latest missive from the IMF doesn’t disappoint on this front: it calls for the revaluation of property for tax purposes, which is code for a massive increase in council tax for millions of homes, especially in London and the home counties.

Understandably, Allister is not thrilled by the IMF’s proposed tax orgy.

The tax burden is already too high; increasing it further would be a terrible mistake. The problem is that spending still accounts for an excessively large share of the economy, and the political challenge is to find a way of re-engineering the welfare state to allow the state to shrink and the private sector to expand. The model should be Australia, Switzerland or Singapore, countries that boast low taxes and high quality services.

And I particularly like that Allister correctly pinpoints the main flaw in the IMF’s thinking. The bureaucrats look at deficits and they instinctively think about how to close the gap with tax hikes.

That’s flawed from a practical perspective, both because of the Laffer Curve and because politicians will respond to the expectation of higher revenue by boosting spending.

But it’s also flawed from a theoretical perspective because the real problem is that the public sector is far too large in all developed nations. So replacing debt-financed spending with tax-financed spending doesn’t address the real problem (even if one heroically assumes revenues actually materialize and further assumes politicians didn’t exacerbate the problem with more spending).

Here’s a remedial course for politicians, international bureaucrats, and others who don’t understand fiscal policy.

P.S. Wise people have speculated that international bureaucrats are quick to urge higher taxes because they don’t have to pay taxes on their lavish salaries.

P.P.S. This isn’t the first time the IMF has proposed massive tax hikes on energy consumption.

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With occasional exceptions such as Switzerland and Estonia, there’s rarely good news from Europe. At least with regards to fiscal policy.

But maybe there’s a bit of sense on the Iberian Peninsula. I reported a couple of years ago that Portugal was at least flirting with the notion of lower tax rates and spending restraint.

Now Spain may be undoing some class-warfare mistakes on tax policy.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the government plans to lower tax rates on both personal income and corporate income.

Spanish leaders who broke their no-new-taxes pledge after taking office 2½ years ago announced sweeping tax cuts on Friday, saying it was time to compensate a recession-battered populace for its sacrifices and boost a nascent recovery. Budget Minister Cristóbal Montoro, announcing the government’s main economic initiative of the year, said the planned reductions of income and corporate taxes will stimulate investment, creating jobs and making Spanish companies more competitive abroad. …Spain’s corporate tax rate would drop from 30% to 25% by 2016. People earning more than €300,000 ($408,000) a year would see their personal income-tax rate fall from 52%, one of the highest in Europe, to 45% in 2016. …The cuts announced Friday would by 2016 bring income-tax rates back to their pre-2012 levels for high-income earners and lower them slightly for low-income earners.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think the tax cuts will happen – or at least won’t be durable – unless Spain’s politicians also impose some long-run spending restraint.

Fortunately, there are some good examples they can follow.

Since we’re on the topic of international tax developments, let’s shift to another story.

If you want hard-core tax enforcement, beyond the fantasies of even the IRS, then it’s hard to beat the ISIS crowd in Iraq.

Let’s not give the IRS any ideas

Here some of what the New York Times reported on that group’s “tax” regime.

Behind the image of savagery that the extremists of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria present to the world, as casual executioners who kill helpless prisoners and even behead rival jihadis, lies a disciplined organization that employs social media and sophisticated financial strategies in the funding and governance of the areas it has conquered. …Once in charge, they typically levy “taxes,” which are just as lucrative. So-called road taxes of $200 on trucks are collected all over northern Iraq to allow them safe passage. The Iraqi government claims that the insurgents are now levying a “tax” on Christians in Mosul, who were a significant minority there, to avoid being crucified.

Hopefully, this is just a short-run aberration and not a new idea that will spread to other nations.

Though politicians in other countries already have demonstrated that they’re willing to innovate when it comes to extracting money from their citizens.

Showing amazing capacity for innovation, Pakistan’s tax authority hires transgendered people to encourage (presumably homophobic) taxpayers to cough up more money.

The tax police in England have floated a proposal to have all paychecks go directly to the tax authority, which would then decide how much gets forwarded to taxpayers.

And since we’re talking about the United Kingdom, that nation’s despicable political class wants to improve compliance by indoctrinating kids to snitch on their parents.

Speaking of snitches, tax authorities in both the state of New York and the city of Chicago have programs encouraging neighbors to rat our neighbors.

And New York also has won a case to treat lap dances – for purposes of sales tax – as a service rather than art.

And who among us isn’t impressed that the German tax authorities have figured out how to levy a prostitute tax using parking meters.

Just remember that politicians view any money you earn as either a current tax obligation or a potential source of future revenue.

After all, all money belongs to them.

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Are there any fact checkers at the New York Times?

Since they’ve allowed some glaring mistakes by Paul Krugman (see here and here), I guess the answer is no.

But some mistakes are worse than others.

Consider a recent column by David Stuckler of Oxford and Sanjay Basu of Stanford. Entitled “How Austerity Kills,” it argues that budget cuts are causing needless deaths.

Here’s an excerpt that caught my eye.

Countries that slashed health and social protection budgets, like Greece, Italy and Spain, have seen starkly worse health outcomes than nations like Germany, Iceland and Sweden, which maintained their social safety nets and opted for stimulus over austerity.

The reason this grabbed my attention is that it was only 10 days ago that I posted some data from Professor Gurdgiev in Ireland showing that Sweden and Germany were among the tiny group of European nations that actually had reduced the burden of government spending.

Greece, Italy, and Spain, by contrast, are among those that increased the size of the public sector. So the argument presented in the New York Times is completely wrong. Indeed, it’s 100 percent wrong because Iceland (which Professor Gurdgiev didn’t measure since it’s not in the European Union) also has smaller government today than it did in the pre-crisis period.

But that’s just part of the problem with the Stuckler-Basu column. They want us to believe that “slashed” budgets and inadequate spending have caused “worse health outcomes” in nations such as Greece, Italy, and Spain, particularly when compared to Germany, Iceland, and Spain.

But if government spending is the key to good health, how do they explain away this OECD data, which shows that government is actually bigger in the three supposed “austerity” nations than it is in the three so-called “stimulus” countries.

NYT Austerity-Stimulus

Once again, Stuckler and Basu got caught with their pants down, making an argument that is contrary to easily retrievable facts.

But I guess this is business-as-usual at the New York Times. After all, this is the newspaper that’s been caught over and over again engaging in sloppy and/or inaccurate journalism.

Oh, and if you want to know why the Stuckler-Basu column is wrong about whether smaller government causes higher death rates, just click here.

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If there was a prize for fighting back against tax authorities, the Italians would probably deserve first place. I’m not aware of any other country where tax offices get firebombed. The Italians also believe in passive forms of resistance, with tens of thousands of boat owners sailing away to protect themselves from the government.

But the Spanish are beginning to get into the swing of things, perhaps because they are increasingly upset by the plethora of tax hikes imposed by the supposedly right-of-center government in Madrid.

Here’s part of a report from NPR about a new tax revolt on the Iberian Peninsula.

When the Spanish government hiked sales tax on theater tickets this past summer, Quim Marcé thought his theater was doomed. With one in four local residents unemployed, Marcé knew that even a modest hike in ticket prices might leave the 300-seat Bescanó municipal theater empty.

So what did he do to protect the theater from fiscal destruction?

Taxes are revolting, so why aren’t you?

“We said, ‘This is the end of our theater, and many others.’ But then the next morning, I thought, we’ve got to do something, so that we don’t pay this 21 percent, and we pay something more fair,” says Marcé in Spanish. …He…suddenly had an idea: Instead of selling tickets to his shows, he’d sell carrots. “We sell one carrot, which costs 13 euros [$16] -– very expensive for a carrot. But then we give away admission to our shows for free,” he explains in Spanish. “So we end up paying 4 percent tax on the carrot, rather than 21 percent, which is the government’s new tax rate for theater tickets.” Classified as a staple, carrots are taxed at a much lower rate and were spared new tax hikes that went into effect here on September 1.

Very clever. Senor Marcé is getting lots of praise for his novel approach, though it’s unclear whether the ravenous tax bureaucrats will come up with some sort of ruling to squash the tax revolt.

Spanish media have dubbed this the “Carrot Rebellion,” and the Bescanó theater has won kudos from arts advocates nationwide. Shows are sold out. …Marcé, the theater director, says he consulted a lawyer before launching his carrot sales. He’s got backing from the local mayor too. And no one has stopped him so far. …He says he’s a little worried the government might declare it illegal to sell carrots at theaters. But dozens of foods are considered “staples” and taxed at only 4 percent. So if that happens, Marcé says he might switch to selling tomatoes instead.

And if he has some leftover tomatoes that are rotten, perhaps they can be used – along with spoiled eggs and moldy cabbage – to express appreciation for any tax collectors that happen to visit (I won’t say what the carrots can be used for).

So why doesn’t the title of this post award “three cheers” for this Spanish tax revolt?

Well, as much as I admire non-compliance when tax systems are too onerous, I suspect that these Spaniards are protesting against the idea that they should pay for big government, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they very much support a bloated welfare state if someone else is picking up the tab.

In other words, they’re probably hypocrites, and I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that their Irish and Greek compatriots also are protesting for the wrong reason.

Moreover, it’s not specified in the article, but I’m quite certain that the Spaniards actually are protesting in favor of tax distortions. The 4 percent tax on carrots and other “staples” presumably is a special exception to the normal value-added tax of 21 percent.

If they were protesting the VAT, I would give them three cheers, but if they’re simply protesting the fact that theater tickets are now treated the same as most other forms of consumption, then I’m tempted to give this tax revolt only one cheer.

But I’ll still give them two cheers because I’m in favor of just about anything that will reduce the amount of money diverted to finance government.

That’s because the real fiscal problem, in Spain and the United States, is that government is far too big. And trying to curb the rapacious appetites of politicians with a tax hike is akin to trying to cure a group of alcoholics by giving them the keys to a liquor store.

P.S. The greedy Spanish government may have jacked up some tax rates so high that they could be beyond the revenue-maximizing point, though I doubt the politicians care. Heck, even international bureaucracies such as the IMF have figured out that it’s self-destructive to push tax rates so high that governments lose revenue.

P.P.S. Just to cover my you-know-what, allow me to take this opportunity to stress that maximizing revenue should not be the goal of tax policy. I’m a big fan of the Laffer Curve, to be sure, but policy makers should target the growth-maximizing point.

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I’ve shared evidence from around the world (England, Italy, the United States, and France) and from various states (IllinoisOregonFlorida,Maryland, and New York) to argue that it is foolish to ignore the Laffer Curve.

Not that it makes any difference. I’m slowly coming the conclusion that my friends on the left will never learn – in large part because they’re more interested in punishing success with class warfare tax policy than they are in collecting extra revenue for government.

But surely there are some statists who are motivated by emotions other than spite, so I refuse to give up. Let’s look at some evidence from Spain to further confirm that high tax rates aren’t necessarily the way to maximize tax revenue (this also is a story showing that tax competition between nations is a good way of disciplining governments that are too greedy, but that’s another issue).

Here are some details from a CNBC report.

Spain’s corporate tax take has tumbled by almost two thirds from pre-crisis levels as small businesses fail and a growing number of big corporations seek profits abroad to compensate for the prolonged downturn at home. …Spain has a headline corporate tax rate of 30 percent, broadly in line with other large European economies. Switzerland, however, has a headline rate of 8.5 percent, and lawyers say deductions can be made to reduce this further. “A fundamental right of EU law is the freedom of establishment. All companies and taxpayers look after their tax affairs, and if they can pay a lower rate somewhere else, it’s better for their business and natural that they would do so,” a global tax lawyer based in Spain said. …Rajoy did eliminate some corporate tax breaks in 2012, a policy he will continue in 2013, and has also brought forward some tax payments, though that could be storing up problems.

Much of the decline in corporate tax revenue can be attributed to Spain’s dismal economy, of course, which has been exacerbated by a bunch of tax hikes imposed by a supposedly right-of-center government.

The one tax rate that hasn’t been increased, though, is the top rate of corporate tax. So how can this be a story about the Laffer Curve?

Well, sometimes standing still is a recipe for defeat. And sometimes moving in the right direction isn’t enough when everybody else is going in the right direction at a faster rate.

Here’s a chart showing changes in the average EU corporate tax rate compared to Spain’s corporate tax rate.

Spain’s corporate tax rate has dropped by five percentage points. That’s progress, but other nations have moved more rapidly in the right direction. Back in 1995, the Spanish corporate rate was slightly lower than the EU average. Now it’s noticeably higher.

And as the excerpt above notes, there are nations such as Switzerland that have far lower tax rates and much better fiscal policy.

To be sure, Spain’s main challenge is the need to dramatically reduce the burden of government spending. That will help long-run growth because more resources will be allocated by private markets.

But Spain also should seek an immediate boost to growth by reducing tax rates on productive behavior. A lower corporate tax rate should be part of the answer.

It also would be a good idea for the United States.

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With the exception of a few top-notch thinkers such as Pierre Bessard and Allister Heath, there are very few people in Europe who can intelligently analyze public policy, particularly with regard to fiscal issues.

I don’t know if Fredrik Erixon of the Brussels-based European Centre for International Political Economy is even close to being in the same league with Pierre and Allister, but he has a very good article that correctly explains that government spending and the welfare state are the real fiscal problems in Europe.

Here are some excerpts from his Bloomberg column.

When it comes to overspending on social welfare, …Europe has no angels. Even the “good” Scandinavians, and governments that appeared to be in sound fiscal shape in 2008, …were spending too much and will have to restructure. …Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain…are in many ways different, but they have three important characteristics in common. …government spending in those nations grew at remarkably high rates. In Greece and Spain, nominal spending by the state increased 50 percent to 55 percent in the five years before the crisis started, according to my calculations based on government data. In Portugal, public expenditure rose 35 percent; in Ireland, almost 75 percent. No other country in Western Europe came close to these rates.

This is remarkable. Someone in Europe who is focusing on the growth of government spending. He doesn’t mention that the solution is a spending cap (something akin to Mitchell’s Golden Rule), but that’s an implication of what he says. Moreover, I’m just glad that someone recognizes that the problem is spending, and that debt and deficits are best understood as symptoms of that underlying disease.

In any event, Mr. Erixon also has the right prognosis. The burden of the welfare state needs to shrink. And he seems reasonably certain that will happen.

Europe’s crisis economies will now have to radically reduce their welfare states. State spending in Spain will have to shrink by at least a quarter; Greece should count itself lucky if the cut is less than a half of the pre-crisis expenditure level. The worse news is that this is likely to be only the first round of welfare-state corrections. The next decade will usher Europe into the age of aging, when inevitably the cost of pensions will rise and providing health care for the elderly will be an even bigger cost driver. This demographic shift will be felt everywhere, including in the Nordic group of countries that has been saved from the worst effects of the sovereign-debt crisis. …Europe’s social systems will look very different 20 years from now. They will still be around, but benefit programs will be far less generous, and a greater part of social security will be organised privately. Welfare services, like health care, will be exposed to competition and, to a much greater degree, paid for out of pocket or by private insurance. The big divide in Europe won’t be between North and South or left and right. It will be between countries that diligently manage the transition away from the universal welfare state that has come to define the European social model, and countries that will be forced by events to change the hard way.

I’m not quite so optimistic. While I agree that current trends are unsustainable, I fear that the “optimistic” scenario is for governments to semi-stabilize their finances with both taxes and spending consuming about 50 percent of gross domestic product.

That’s obviously far beyond the growth-maximizing size of government, which means European nations  – on average – would be condemned to permanent economic stagnation. Some of the nations that have very laissez-faire policies in areas other than fiscal policy, such as the Nordic nations, might experience some modest growth, but that would be offset by permanent recession in nations that have both big government and lots of intervention.

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Late last year, Spanish voters kicked out a socialist government and elected a new government led by the supposedly conservative People’s Party.

Is that translating into smaller government and more freedom? Doesn’t look that way. It seems that Spanish right-of-center politicians are just as useless and statist as the faux conservatives in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.

The ballots haven’t even gotten cold and the new government is proposing a bevy of new taxes. Here are some of the grim details from Tax-news.com, including a class-warfare increase in the top tax rate.

…the incoming Spanish government, headed by Mariano Rajoy, is to introduce higher taxes from 2012 contrary to the party’s pre-election pledge. …The government has announced numerous tax hikes worth EUR6.2bn, for introduction in 2012, including income tax increases across the board, ranging from a 0.75% increase in the tax rate applicable on income of EUR9,500, to a 7% hike for those earning above EUR300,000. Savings income will also be subject to higher taxes under the proposals. Personal savings of up to EUR6,000 will be subject to a 2% rate; with additional rates of 4% on savings income up to EUR24,000 and 6% above this threshold.

By the way, all these tax hikes are in addition to an increase last year in the value-added tax, which was boosted from 16 percent to 18 percent.

Could it be, though, that tax increases are necessary because Spain has already cut spending? As you might imagine, that’s a joke.

According to OECD data, government spending jumped from 39.2 percent of GDP in 2000 to 45.6 percent of GDP in 2010. Equally relevant, EU data shows that government spending almost doubled in the past 10 years.

In other words, Spain is screwed. The new government is just as bad – or perhaps even worse – than the previous government. I wrote two years ago that Spain was in trouble because of over-spending and I see no reason to change my analysis now. Actually, I have changed my analysis. Spain is going down the toilet even faster.

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