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Archive for the ‘Tax Compliance’ Category

I realize this may be a thought crime by DC standards, but it sure would be nice to eliminate the high tax rates that undermine economic growth and reduce American competitiveness.

At the risk of sharing too much information, I fantasize about a world without the internal revenue code. In addition to getting rid of high tax rates, I also want to abolish the pervasive double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

Tax Code PagesJust as important, I want to wipe out the distorting loopholes that tilt the playing field in favor of politically connected interest groups. And I daydream about how much easier tax day would be if ordinary people didn’t have to figure out how to comply with an ever-changing tax code.

But perhaps you’re a normal person and you don’t dwell on these topics. Your fantasies probably have nothing to do with fiscal policy and instead involve that hottie in your neighborhood.

That’s fine. I’m actually envious of well-adjusted people who don’t fixate on the cesspool of Washington.

But – at the very least – I want you to agree that America needs fundamental tax reform. And to help persuade you,  here are some fresh stories to remind you that the tax code and the IRS are a blight on society.

For instance, how do you feel about the IRS engaging in partisan politics, as reported by the Washington Times.

Even as the IRS faces growing heat over Lois G. Lerner and the tea party targeting scandal, a government watchdog said Wednesday it’s pursuing cases against three other tax agency employees and offices suspected of illegal political activity in support of President Obama and fellow Democrats. …the Office of Special Counsel…said it was “commonplace” in a Dallas IRS office for employees to have pro-Obama screensavers on their computers, and to have campaign-style buttons and stickers at their office. In another case, a worker at the tax agency’s customer help line urged taxpayers “to re-elect President Obama in 2012 by repeatedly reciting a chant based on the spelling of his last name,” the Office of Special Counsel said in a statement. …Another IRS employee in Kentucky has agreed to serve a 14-day suspension for blasting Republicans in a conversation with a taxpayer.

For more information about this nauseating scandal, read the wise words of Tim Carney and Doug Bandow.

Or what about the time, expense, and anxiety that the tax code causes for small businesses? Heck, even the Washington Post has noticed this is a big issue.

More than half of small employers say the administrative burdens and paperwork associated with tax season pose the greatest harm to their businesses, according to a new survey by the National Small Business Association. Forty-seven percent say the actual tax bill hits their companies the hardest. On average, small-business owners spend more than 40 hours — the equivalent of a full workweek — filing their federal taxes every year. One in four spends at least three full weeks on the annual chore. There is also the expense of doing that work. Only 12 percent of employers filed their taxes on their own this year, down from 15 percent last year — and hiring help can be pricey. Half spent more than $5,000 on accountants and administrative costs last year. One in four spent more than $10,000.

I was tempted to say compliance costs add insult to injury, except that understates the problem. Watch this video if you want to understand why the tax code needs to be junked.

And let’s not forget that high tax rates are pointlessly destructive and bad for America. Dozens of companies have redomiciled in other jurisdictions to get out from under America’s punitive corporate tax system. And more are looking at that option. Here are some excerpts from a report in the U.K.-based Financial Times.

Walgreens has come under pressure from an influential group of its shareholders, who want the US pharmacy chain to consider relocating to Europe, in what would be one of the largest tax inversions ever attempted. …The move, known as an inversion, would dramatically reduce Walgreens’ taxable income in the US, which has among the highest corporate tax rates in the world. …In a note last month, analysts at UBS said Walgreens’ tax rate was expected to be 37.5 per cent compared with 20 per cent for Boots, and that an inversion could increase earnings per share by 75 per cent. They added, however, that “Walgreens’ management seems more hesitant to pull the trigger near-term due to perceived political risks.”

By the way, “perceived political risks” is a polite way of saying that the team at Walgreens is worried that the company might be targeted by the crowd in Washington. In other words, it will be attacked if it does the right thing for workers, consumers, and shareholders.

But that’s blaming the victim. All you really need to know is that America’s corporate tax system is so harsh that companies don’t just escape to Ireland, Switzerland, the Cayman Islands, and Bermuda. They even find better fiscal policy in Canada and the United Kingdom!

Last but not least, do you trust the IRS with your confidential financial data? If you answer yes, seek help right away from a mental health professional and check out these stories.

According to the Washington Times:

A new cost-saving computer technology being implemented by the IRS has left the agency vulnerable to hacking, putting taxpayers’ info at risk, an investigative report has found. …although the IRS has developed cybersecurity guidelines, many of the servers aren’t following them, said a report by the agency’s internal watchdog, the Inspector General for Tax Administration. In fact, the servers failed 43 percent of the tests investigators put them through, though they aren’t releasing what those tests and settings are due to security concerns.

According to a Bloomberg report:

A U.S. Internal Revenue Service employee took home a computer thumb drive containing unencrypted data on 20,000 fellow workers, the agency said in a statement today. …The IRS said it’s working with its inspector general to investigate the incident. The IRS statement didn’t say why the incident was discovered now, didn’t include the name of the employee who used the thumb drive and didn’t say whether the employee still works at the IRS.

And National Review has reported:

The Internal Revenue Service stole and improperly accessed 60 million medical records after raiding a California company, according to a legal complaint filed in March with the California superior court for San Diego. …“No search warrant authorized the seizure of these records; no subpoena authorized the seizure of these records; none of the 10,000,000 Americans were under any kind of known criminal or civil investigation and their medical records had no relevance whatsoever to the IRS search.”

So what’s the bottom line? I suppose there are different interpretations, but my view is that the system is irretrievably broken. It needs to be shredded and replaced.

What are the options?

My real fantasy is to have a very small federal government. Then we wouldn’t need a broad-based tax of any kind.

But I also have incremental fantasies. Until we can shrink the federal government to its proper size, let’s at least figure out ways of collecting revenue that are much less destructive and much less unfair.

The flat tax is one possible answer.

I’m also a fan of the national sales tax, though only if we first amend the Constitution to ensure that politicians don’t pull a bait-and-switch and burden us with both an income tax and sales tax!

To be more specific, I’m a fan of the Fair Tax, but only if we make sure that politicians never again have the ability to impose an income tax.

P.S. Since we’re on the subject of taxes, folks in Northern New Jersey, Southern New York, and New York City may be interested in a tax symposium this Thursday at Ramapo College in Mahway, New Jersey. Along with several other speakers, I’ll be pontificating on the following question: “The Income Tax:
Necessary Evil, Or the Root of All Evil?”

The college is convenient to I-287 near the New York/New Jersey border. Say hello if you attend.

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I’ll be first in line if there’s a contest over who thinks most strongly that politicians are corrupt, or whether they can waste money in creative ways.

But if somebody asserts that politicians are stupid, I’m going to argue on the other side.

This isn’t because I’m a fan of elected officials. Far from it. However, having been a student of public policy for three decades, I have a grudging admiration for their animal cunning. They’ve developed some remarkably clever ways of extracting more and more revenue from taxpayers.

The bureaucrats at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are turning an old pact on mutual administrative assistance between governments into something akin to a World Tax Organization that will have the power to penalize nations that don’t impose onerous tax burdens.

Showing amazing capacity for innovation, Pakistan’s tax police 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.

World Bank bureaucrats put together a report card on the tax systems of different nations, and the way to get a high grade is to impose high tax burdens.

Our friends at the Internal Revenue Service have something called the Taxpayer Advocate Service that mostly exists to – get ready for a surprise – push policies to expand the size and power of the IRS.

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

That last example is a good segue into our newest example of great moments in tax enforcement.

The state of New York has won the right to impose a sales tax on lap dances and other…um…services at strip clubs. Here are some excerpts from the Daily News.

The jiggling and gyrating strippers at Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club are selling sexual fantasy — not demonstrating their dance skills — in the private rooms at the Hell’s Kitchen skin palace, an administrative law judge ruled. “The dancing portion of the service is merely ancillary to the performer removing her clothes or creating the sexual fantasy,” Judge Donna Gardiner wrote in a decision released Monday that means the raunchy moves are subject to the state sales tax. …Gardiner said the Hell’s Kitchen jiggle joint will have to pay $2.1 million in sales tax on the $23.8 million worth of scrip, or the club’s in-house currency, that it sold between June 1, 2006 and November 2008.

And don’t think the government didn’t investigate this issue closely before rendering a decision.

After listening to strippers’ testimony and watching the club’s videotapes, Gardiner ruled that some of the strippers’ routines involve dance, choreography and music, but overall, these are not artistic performances.

I wonder if they also read copies of Hustler magazine? This might be a case where government officials went above and beyond the call of duty to study a topic.

Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club owes $2.1 million in taxes for lap dances performed at the Hell’s Kitchen jiggle joint.Regardless, the strip club didn’t prevail. I guess art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

I suppose this is the point where I should make some more jokes, but I’m enough of a tax dork that instead I’m going to make a serious point.

The problem in New York is not that the Hustler Club is now being taxed. The problem is that there’s an exemption from the sales tax for “artistic performances.”

Don’t get me wrong. I would prefer that there not be an income tax or sales tax in New York. But if the state is going to impose a sales tax, then all consumption should be treated equally.

This is also my view on the flat tax. I would prefer no income tax, and America did quite well with that approach until 1913. But if there is going to be an income tax, then you minimize corruption and economic damage by having the levy apply equally and neutrally.

At least one Judge in New York seems to have the right perspective on this issue. Here’s another blurb from the Daily News report.

One judge, Robert Smith, criticized the majority, arguing that it was making a distinction based on their preferences. …“Perhaps, for similar reasons I do not read Hustler magazine; I would rather read the New Yorker,” he wrote. “I would be appalled, however, if the state were to exact from Hustler a tax that the New Yorker did not have to pay, on the ground that what appears in Hustler is insufficiently ‘cultural and artistic.’”

Needless to say, I doubt politicians pay much attention to these philosophical and economic arguments for genuine fairness in the tax code.

They simply want more money. And even though I wish they were stupid and incompetent in this regard, they have great talents when it comes time to take our money.

But there is one easy way to avoid heavy taxation. Just drop out of the labor force and live off the government. Millions of your neighbors already have taken this route.

It’s not good for the nation, but it sure is the logical response to perverse government policies that make it less and less attractive to pull that wagon and more and more comfortable to ride in the wagon.

As Henry Payne sarcastically noted, it’s time to party like the Greeks!

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President Obama promised he would unite the world…and he’s right.

Representatives from dozens of nations have bitterly complained about an awful piece of legislation, called the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), that was enacted back in 2010.

They despise this unjust law because it extends the power of the IRS into the domestic affairs of other nations. That’s an understandable source of conflict, which should be easy to understand. Wouldn’t all of us get upset, after all, if the French government or Russian government wanted to impose their laws on things that take place within our borders?

But it’s not just foreign governments that are irked. The law is so bad that it is causing a big uptick in the number of Americans who are giving up their citizenship.

Here are some details from a Bloomberg report.

Americans renouncing U.S. citizenship surged sixfold in the second quarter from a year earlier… Expatriates giving up their nationality at U.S. embassies climbed to 1,131 in the three months through June from 189 in the year-earlier period, according to Federal Register figures published today. That brought the first-half total to 1,810 compared with 235 for the whole of 2008. The U.S., the only nation in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that taxes citizens wherever they reside.

I’m glad that the article mentions that American law is so out of whack with the rest of the world.

We should be embarrassed that our tax system – at least with regard to the treatment of citizens living abroad and the treatment of tax exiles – is worse than what they have in nations such as France.

And while there was an increase in the number of Americans going Galt after Obama took office, the recent increase seems to be the result of the FATCA legislation.

Shunned by Swiss and German banks and facing tougher asset-disclosure rules under the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, more of the estimated 6 million Americans living overseas are weighing the cost of holding a U.S. passport. …Fatca…was estimated to generate $8.7 billion over 10 years, according to the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation.

I very much doubt, by the way, that the law will collect $8.7 billion over 10 years.

And it’s worth noting that President Obama initially claimed that his assault on “tax havens” would generate $100 billion every year. If you don’t believe me, click here and listen to his words at the 2;30 mark.

So we started with politicians asserting they could get $100 billion every year. Then they said only $8.7 billion over ten years, or less than $1 billion per year.

And now it’s likely that revenues will fall because so many taxpayers are leaving the country. This is yet another example of how the Laffer Curve foils the plans of greedy politicians.

You may be tempted to criticize these overseas Americans, but I’ve talked to several hundred of them in the past few years and you can’t begin to imagine how their lives are made more difficult by the illegitimate extraterritorial laws concocted by Washington. Bloomberg has a few more details.

For individuals, the costs are also rising. Getting a mortgage or acquiring life insurance is becoming almost impossible for American citizens living overseas, Ledvina said. “With increased U.S. tax reporting, U.S. accounting costs alone are around $2,000 per year for a U.S. citizen residing abroad,” the tax lawyer said. “Adding factors, such as difficulty in finding a bank to accept a U.S. citizen as a client, it is difficult to justify keeping the U.S. citizenship for those who reside permanently abroad.”

Imagine what your life would be like if you had trouble opening a bank account or conducting all sorts of other financial activities. Things that are supposed to be routine, but are now nightmares.

I collected some of the statements from these overseas Americans. I encourage you to visit this link and get a sense of what they have to endure.

And then keep in mind that all of these problems would disappear if we had the right kind of tax system, such as the flat tax, and didn’t let the tentacles of the IRS extend beyond America’s borders.

P.S. Based on people I’ve met in my international travels, I’d guess that, for every American that officially gives up their citizenship, there are probably a dozen more living overseas who simply drop off the radar screen. Many of these people can’t afford – or can’t stand – to deal with the onerous requirements imposed by hacks, bullies, and lightweights in Washington such as Barbara Boxer.

P.P.S. Remember the Facebook billionaire who moved to Singapore to escape being an American taxpayer? Many of us – including me – instinctively find this unsettling. But if we believe that folks should have the freedom to move from California to Texas to benefit from better tax policy, shouldn’t they also have the freedom to move to another nation?

The same is true for companies.

If our tax law is bad, we should lower tax rates and adopt real reform.

Unless, of course, you think it’s okay to blame the victim.

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I’m thinking of inventing a game, sort of a fiscal version of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

Only the way it will work is that there will be a map of the world and the winner will be the blindfolded person who puts their pin closest to a nation such as Australia or Switzerland that has a relatively low risk of long-run fiscal collapse.

That won’t be an easy game to win since we have data from the BIS, OECD, and IMF showing that government is growing far too fast in the vast majority of nations.

We also know that many states and cities suffer from the same problems.

A handful of local governments already have hit the fiscal brick wall, with many of them (gee, what a surprise) from California.

The most spectacular mess, though, is about to happen in Michigan.

The Washington Post reports that Detroit is on the verge of fiscal collapse.

After decades of sad and spectacular decline, it has come to this for Detroit: The city is $19 billion in debt and on the edge of becoming the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy. An emergency manager says the city can make good on only a sliver of what it owes — in many cases just pennies on the dollar.

This is a dog-bites-man story. Detroit’s problems are the completely predictable result of excessive government. Just as statism explains the problems of Greece. And the problems of California. And the problems of Cyprus. And the problems of Illinois.

I could continue with a long list of profligate governments, but you get the idea. Some of these governments are collapsing at a quicker pace and some at a slower pace. But all of them are in deep trouble because they don’t follow my Golden Rule about restraining the burden of government spending so that it grows slower than the private sector.

Detroit obviously is an example of a government that is collapsing sooner rather than later.

Why? Simply stated, as the size and scope of the public sector increased, that created very destructive economic and political dynamics.

More and more people got lured into the wagon of government dependency, which puts an ever-increasing burden on a shrinking pool of producers.

Meanwhile, organized interest groups such as government bureaucrats used their political muscle to extract absurdly excessive compensation packages, putting an even larger burden of the dwindling supply of taxpayers.

But that’s not the main focus of this post. Instead, I want to highlight a particular excerpt from the article and make a point about how too many people are blindly – perhaps willfully – ignorant of the Laffer Curve.

Check out this sentence.

Property tax collections are down 20 percent and income tax collections are down by more than a third in just the past five years — despite some of the highest tax rates in the state.

This is a classic “Fox Butterfield mistake,” which occurs when someone fails to recognize a cause-effect relationship. In this case, the reporter should have recognized that tax collections are down because Detroit has very high tax rates.

The city has a lot more problems than just high tax rates, of course, but can there be any doubt that productive people have very little incentive to earn and report taxable income in Detroit?

And that’s the essential insight of the Laffer Curve. Politicians can’t – or at least shouldn’t – assume that a 20 percent increase in tax rates will lead to a 20 percent increase in tax revenue. They also have to consider the degree to which a higher tax rate will cause a change in taxable income.

In some cases, higher tax rates will discourage people from earning more taxable income.

In some cases, higher tax rates will discourage people from reporting all the income they earn.

In some cases, higher tax rates will encourage people to utilize tax loopholes to shrink their taxable income.

In some cases, higher tax rates will encourage migration, thus causing taxable income to disappear.

Here’s my three-part video series on the Laffer Curve. Much of this is common sense, though it needs to be mandatory viewing for elected officials (as well as the bureaucrats at the Joint Committee on Taxation).

P.S. Just in case it’s not clear from the videos, we don’t want to be at the revenue-maximizing point on the Laffer Curve.

P.P.S. Amazingly, even the bureaucrats at the IMF recognize that there’s a point when taxes are so onerous that further increases don’t generate revenue.

P.P.P.S. At least CPAs understand the Laffer Curve, probably because they help their clients reduce their tax exposure to greedy governments.

P.P.P.P.S. I offered a Laffer Curve lesson to President Obama, but I doubt it had any impact.

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In a recent interview with the BBC, I basically accused UK Prime Minister David Cameron of being a feckless and clueless demagogue who is engaged in a desperate effort to resuscitate his political future.

Two peas in a pod

I shouldn’t have been so kind. Cameron manages to combine bad policy and bad morality in a way that is embarrassing even for a politician.

Writing for the Daily Telegraph, Janet Daley eviscerates Cameron’s puerile approach to fiscal policy, beginning with some mockery of his class-warfare approach to tax enforcement.

David Cameron said something last week that was the precise opposite of the truth…the Prime Minister said was: “If you want a low-tax economy, you have to collect the taxes that are owed.” When what he should have said, of course, was: “If you want to collect the taxes that are owed, you have to have a low-tax economy.” Mr Cameron’s statement was one of the more subtle threats contained in the declaration by the G8 – which was pretty much all they could agree on – that they are now the rightful owners of all the wealth produced by anyone except for certain exemptions that they will, subject to minimal notice, decide upon. His remark, presumably designed to provide moral justification for the unprecedented levels of shared surveillance and breaches of data protection that governments are preparing to launch, actually stood on its head the truth about effective tax collection. Which is that the lower rates of taxation are, the less likely it is that payment of them will be avoided or evaded.

She also makes some very astute points about other issues, including the Laffer Curve.

The introduction of the 50p rate of income tax caused two-thirds of those earning a million pounds per year simply to disappear from the reach of HM Revenue & Customs. Whereas under the previous highest tax level of 40p, 16,000 people were prepared to declare earnings of one million pounds, that number shrank to only 6,000 after Gordon Brown, bless him, raised it to 50p. Result: the Treasury lost £7 billion in revenue.

Ms. Daley also comments on tax compliance and the risks of letting governments destroy financial privacy as part of their efforts to undermine tax competition.

If people regard levels of tax as fair (in the true sense of the word, not the Left-wing sense, which actually means “vindictive”), they will not go to expensive and dangerous lengths to escape from paying. The more punitive and discouraging of wealth-creation taxes are, the more they are avoided by stealth or geographical relocation – or by the even more economically disastrous measure of people being disinclined to increase their own productivity. Ah yes, but isn’t this the problem that those heads of government are determined to address? Rather than lowering taxes to levels that those who are taxed find acceptable, they will simply close off all the avenues of escape. There is to be no more possibility, by international agreement (which is to say, the coercion of smaller, less rich countries), of geographical movement for tax advantage.

She closes by opining on why this is really a debate about the burden of government spending and whether taxpayers exist to feed the spending appetites of politicians.

If you eliminate tax competition – if you create a uniform, universally policed tax standard – it is the poorer countries that suffer because they are deprived of the capacity to attract foreign capital. …What is at the heart of all this is the growth of governments: the treasuries of the world are becoming needier and greedier. …Underlying almost all political debate on this matter now is the unspoken assumption that privately owned wealth is inherently evil, and that its only moral justification is to provide revenue that governments can redistribute. …let me remind you of what you may actually believe, shocking as it may sound in the context of prevailing public discourse. Are you ready? It is not the primary function of business to provide funds for politicians to spend.

Amen. The statists and collectivists that dominate the political elite treat us like a herd of cattle to be milked and slaughtered.

We need tax havens in order to impose at least a tiny bit of restraint on the greed of the political class. These low-tax jurisdictions aren’t a sufficient condition to save us from statism, but they sure as heck are a necessary condition.

P.S. Who moved farther in the wrong direction, U.S. Republicans who went from Reagan to Bush or U.K. Tories who went from Thatcher to Cameron?

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It goes without saying that I’m always ready to defend tax havens when statists are seeking to undermine tax competition, financial privacy, and fiscal sovereignty.

So when the BBC asked if I would debate the topic, I said yes even though I’m in Paris (where supporting liberty is probably a capital crime).

I think the debate went well. Or, to be more precise, I was happy that I got to make my points.

I’ve been in debates on tax havens when I’m outnumbered 3-1, so a fair fight almost seems like a treat.

P.S. If you have a burning desire to watch me debate tax havens, you can see me cross swords with a bunch of different statists by clicking here.

P.P.S. Or if you like watching when I’m outnumbered, here’s my debate against three leftists on state-run TV.

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For the past 30 or so years, I’ve done my own taxes by hand. I thought this was a good approach because it would help me better understand the practical challenges of the tax code.

Bravest man IRS

Dan Mitchell has dropped out of this contest

But it’s time to confess that I broke down and used Turbotax for yesterday’s tax return.

It’s not that my financial affairs are complicated. I basically get my Cato salary and a bit of income from speeches and articles. But even that became too much of a challenge. The tipping point was the form for Health Savings Accounts. The IRS is yelling at me for how I filled out this form in past years, and I fear that I will be perpetually in their cross hairs without relying on a computer program to avoid mistakes.

To help me deal with yesterday’s traumatic experience, I’m sharing some very good cartoons.

We’ll start with one from Gary Varvel.

IRS Cartoon 1

Sort of the visual version of this letter-to-the-editor.

Our next cartoon, which may be my favorite of the group, is from Glenn McCoy.

IRS Cartoon 2

By the way, if you don’t think the IRS is capable of thuggery, read this horrifying story.

I don’t know Paul Fell’s work, but this next cartoon is a very good introduction.

IRS Cartoon 3

This is the second time the grim reaper has appeared in a cartoon. The first time involved the death tax.

Last but not least, we have a Chip Bok cartoon about tax code complexity.

IRS Cartoon 4

As a bonus, it also features the complexity of Obamacare. If you like cartoons that mix the IRS and Obamacare, check out this classic from Glenn McCoy and this gem by Gary Varvel.

If you still need to be cheered up, here’s some more IRS humor to brighten your day, including the IRS version of the quadratic formula, a new Obama 1040 form, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a cartoon ofhow GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), and two songs about the tax agency (here and here),  and a PG-13 joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

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I could only use 428 words, but I highlighted the main arguments for tax havens and tax competition in a “Room for Debate” piece for the New York Times.

NYT Tax Haven Room for DebateI hope that my contribution is a good addition to the powerful analysis of experts such as Allister Heath and Pierre Bessard.

I started with the economic argument.

…tax havens are very valuable because they discourage anti-growth tax policy. Simply stated, it is very difficult for governments to impose and enforce confiscatory tax rates when investors and entrepreneurs can shift their economic activity to jurisdictions with better tax policy. Particularly if those nations have strong policies on financial privacy, thus making it difficult for uncompetitive high-tax nations to track and tax flight capital. Thanks to this process of tax competition, with havens playing a key role, top personal income tax rates have dropped from an average of more than 67 percent in 1980 to about 42 percent today. Corporate tax rates also have plummeted, falling from an average of 48 percent to 24 percent. …Lawmakers also were pressured to lower or eliminate death taxes and wealth taxes, as well as to reduce the double taxation of interest, dividends and capital gains. Once again, tax havens deserve much of the credit because politicians presumably would not have implemented these pro-growth reforms if they didn’t have to worry that the geese with the golden eggs might fly away to a confidential account in a well-run nation like Luxembourg or Singapore.

Since I didn’t have much space, here’s a video that elaborates on the economic benefits of tax havens, including an explanation of why fiscal sovereignty is a big part of the debate.

My favorite part of the video is when I quote OECD economists admitting the beneficial impact of tax havens.

I also explain for readers of the New York Times that there’s a critical ethical reason to defend low-tax jurisdictions.

Tax havens also play a very valuable moral role by providing high-quality rule of law in an uncertain world, offering a financial refuge for people who live in nations where governments are incompetent and corrupt. …There are also billions of people living in nations with venal and oppressive governments. To cite just a few examples, tax havens offer secure financial services to political dissidents in Russia, ethnic Chinese in Indonesia and the Philippines, Jews in North Africa, gays in Iran and farmers in Zimbabwe.

To elaborate, here’s my video making the moral case for tax havens.

By the way, many of the issues in this video may not resonate for those of us in “first world” nations, but please remember that the majority of people in the world live in countries where basic human rights are at risk or simply don’t exist.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry about the stability of our nations. I close my contribution to the New York Times by warning that the welfare state may collapse.

With more and more nations careening toward fiscal collapse, raising the risk of social chaos and economic calamity, it is more important than ever that there are places where people can protect themselves from bad government. Tax havens should be celebrated, not persecuted.

I didn’t have space to cite the BIS and OECD data showing that most of the world’s big nations – including Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom – face fiscal problems more significant that Greece is dealing with today. Assuming these nations don’t implement desperately needed entitlement reform, the you-know-what is going to hit the fan at some point. Folks with funds in a tax haven will be in much better shape if, or when, that happens.

For more background information on tax competition, here’s a video explaining the ABCs of the issue.

It’s galling, by the way, that the bureaucrats at the OECD pushing for a global tax cartel get tax-free salaries.

And here’s my video debunking some of the common myths about tax havens.

My favorite part of this video is the revelation that a former John Kerry staffer fabricated a number that is still being used by anti-tax haven demagogues.

And speaking of demagogues misusing numbers, you’ll notice the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has a starring role in this video.

I’ve probably exhausted your interest in videos, but if you’re game for one more, click here to learn more about the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a statist international bureaucracy that is active in trying to undermine tax havens as part of it’s efforts to create a global tax cartel to prop up Europe’s welfare states.

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I’m not a big fan of the Internal Revenue Service, though I try to make sure that politicians get much of the blame for America’s convoluted, punitive, and unfair tax code.

Heck, just look at these three images – here, here, and here – and you’ll find startling evidence that politicians make the tax system worse with each passing year.

But there is an office at the IRS that ostensibly exists to defend the interests of taxpayers. The Taxpayer Advocate Service, according to the government website, “an independent organization within the IRS and helps taxpayers resolve problems with the IRS and recommend changes that will prevent the problems.” The head of this office, Nina Olson, has the title of National Taxpayer Advocate.

Sounds good, right?

Well, not so fast. The TAS does some good things, but Ms. Olson spends at least part of her time advocating for the government.

The TAS just released its annual report, and here’s some of what the bureaucracy recommended, according to a Bloomberg story.

Among the other problems Olson identifies in the report are…the underfunding of the Internal Revenue Service… The IRS, which Olson compares to the accounts receivable department of a company, should be fenced off from more budget cuts by Congress, she writes in the report.

Don’t rub your eyes or clean your glasses. You read correctly. The folks at the IRS who supposedly are advocating for you are instead advocating for a bigger IRS budget.

I debunked this silly argument last year, explaining why Congress should reject the Obama Administration’s assertion that more money for the IRS would be an “investment” that would yield big returns.

But I want to be fair. Some of what the TAS does is worth applauding. The report also discusses the grotesque levels of complexity in the code. Here’s more of the Bloomberg story.

TAS IRS ComplexityThe U.S. tax system’s most serious problem is the 4-million-word code’s excessive complexity that makes it tough for taxpayers to comply with and difficult for the government to administer, National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson wrote in an annual report to Congress. The tax code cost taxpayers and businesses $168 billion in compliance in 2010… “Lowering rates in exchange for broadening the tax base would be an excellent bargain,” says the report, released today in Washington. “We are confident that in the end, public support for a simpler code will be strong and deep.”

The TAS also produced this very depressing infographic (click to enlarge). It’s absolutely disgraceful that complying with the tax code requires the equivalent of 3 million full-time workers. It’s a vast understatement to call this a counterproductive misallocation of labor.

Or how about the fact that just the guidance for the income tax, when printed out, creates a stack of paper more than 12 inches high? And what about the nauseating little tidbit that the tax code has been changed more than once per day since 2001?

No wonder it’s such a corrupt mess. Isn’t it time we rip up the entire tax code and put in place something simple and fair like a flat tax? Here’s my case for real tax reform.

By the way, I’m also more than willing to replace the tax code with a national sales tax, perhaps something like the Fair Tax. I’m given speeches, testified to Congress, appeared on TV, and done all sorts of things to promote that idea.

But the one huge caveat is that we need to make sure that the politicians don’t pull a bait and switch and stick us with both an income tax and national sales tax. Which is what happened in Europe when governments implemented the value-added tax without repealing income taxes.

That’s why we would first need to get rid of the income tax and repeal the 16th Amendment. But then, because I don’t trust the Supreme Court (gee, I wonder why?), I would also want to replace the 16th Amendment with new language that would be so ironclad that even Chief Justice John Roberts couldn’t fabricate reasons why an income tax could ever return to plague the nation.

But since we can’t even get the votes to approve a watered-down balanced budget amendment, I’m not holding my breath for the day that the Constitution is amended to permanently kill the income tax.

And that’s why I think the flat tax is a safer option.

The worst thing that happens if we get a flat tax is that politicians change their mind and we degenerate back to the current system.

The worst thing that happens if we get a national sales tax is that politicians “forget” to eliminate the income tax, we wind up with both, and become France.

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I used to think this image was a damning indictment of the internal revenue code. Or here’s another chart showing how the tax system has become more convoluted over time.

But this new image may be the most effective of all of them. We don’t know what’s in the other 72,000 pages of tax code, but we’re all familiar with the basic 1040 tax form. Look at what the politicians have done to it over the past several decades.

1040 Instruction graph

The only answer, needless to say, is to throw the entire mess in the trash can and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

Here’s my brief explanation of how the flat tax would work and why it’s a good idea.

Tax reform would give us more growth, but it also would reduce one of the major source of corruption in Washington.

It’s also based on the notion that discrimination is wrong and that class-warfare policy should be rejected.

So what’s not to like?

P.S. I always get a lot of email and comments from people who wonder whether we should adopt a national sales tax instead. That’s fine with me, for reasons I explain here, but you better make sure to first amend the Constitution so that scheming politicians don’t pull a bait-and-switch and saddle us with both an income tax and a sales tax.

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I’ve been very critical of Obama’s class-warfare ideology because it leads to bad fiscal policy. But perhaps it is time to give some attention to other arguments against high tax rates.

Robert Samuelson, a columnist for the Washington Post, has a very important insight about tax rates and sleaze in Washington.

His column is mostly about Obama’s anti-tax reform agenda, but it includes this very important passage.

…many politicians support tax breaks for favored groups (the elderly, the poor, small business) and causes (homeownership, attending college, “green” industries). This enhances their power. The man who really pronounced the death sentence for the Tax Reform Act of 1986 was Bill Clinton, who increased the top rate to 39.6 percent rather than broadening the base. As the top rate rose, so did the value of generating new tax breaks. Ironically, many of the people who complain the loudest about Washington influence-peddling and lobbying are the same people who support higher tax rates, which stimulate more influence-peddling and lobbying.

The last sentence is key. Higher tax rates are good news for the politicians, interest groups, bureaucrats, and lobbyists that dominate Washington.

Here’s a simple example. Let’s pretend we have a modest tax rate of 20 percent. Now imagine you are part of an industry with $200 million in profits and you want a special tax break. How much are you willing to pay to get that loophole?

Well, with a 20 percent tax, the most you can save (assuming the loophole is huge and you wipe out all your tax liability) is $40 million.

So how much would you spend on lobbyists, campaign contributions, etc, in order to get that loophole? That’s hard to answer, because it would require some estimate of the probability of success. But one thing we can safely assume is that the industry would never spend more than $40 million.

But let’s now assume you live in a world with 50 percent tax rates. Does that change the incentive for influence peddling in Washington? Of course it does. The industry’s tax bill is now $100 million, so it now has an incentive to spend up to that amount to get special treatment.

So now let’s consider a couple of additional hypothetical questions.

  • First, imagine you’re a lobbyist. Do you think you will get more business if tax rates are high, or if tax rates are low?
  • Second, imagine you are a politician. Do you think you will get more campaign contributions if tax rates are high, or if tax rates are low?

The answers are obvious, and so are the implications. Yes, higher tax rates are bad for growth and competitiveness. And, yes, they are unfair and discriminatory.

But they also foment and encourage sleaze in D.C., and that’s something that honest leftists should hate as much as the rest of us.

For more information, here’s my video on the link between big government and corruption, including a section on how a loophole-ridden tax system benefits Washington insiders.

And here’s the video on the flat tax, which explains why low tax rates are good for economic performance.

Both videos have good information (at least I like to think), but kudos to Samuelson for drawing an important link between high tax rates and corruption.

P.S. Robert Samuelson is hard to pin down on the philosophical spectrum. He’s written very good columns denouncing Obama’s manipulation of welfare statistics and criticizing the President’s flirtation with the value-added tax. But he’s also had a couple of columns where he identifies a very real problem, but fails to reach the right conclusion, including this piece that should have been an argument for Austrian economics and this piece on health care inefficiency that should have pinned the blame on third-party payer.

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Remember when you were a kid and your parents would either be happy or angry depending on whether your report card said you were trying hard or being a slacker? No matter whether your grades were good or bad, it helped to get an “A for Effort.”

But sometimes a high level of effort isn’t a good thing.

The World Bank has a new study that measures national tax burdens. But instead of using conventional measures, such as top tax rates or tax collections as a share of GDP, the international bureaucracy has developed an index that measures “tax effort” and “tax capacity” after adjusting for variables such as per-capita GDP, corruption, and demographics.

One goal of the study is to develop an apples-to-apples way of comparing tax burdens for nations at various levels of development. Poor nations, for instance, tend to have low levels of tax revenue even though they often have high tax rates. This is partly because of Laffer Curve reasons, but perhaps even more so because of corruption and incompetence. Rich nations, by contrast, usually have much greater ability to enforce their tax codes. So if you want to compare the tax system of Paraguay with the tax system of Sweden, you need to take these factors into account.

Here’s a description of how the authors addressed this issue.

Measuring taxation performance of countries is both theoretically and practically challenging. …tax economists have attempted to deal with this problem by applying an empirical approach to estimate the determinants of tax collection and identify the impact of such variables on each country’s taxable capacity. The development of a tax effort index, relating the actual tax revenues of a country to its estimated taxable capacity, provides us with a tempting measure which considers country specific fiscal, demographic, and institutional characteristics. …Tax effort is defined as an index of the ratio between the share of the actual tax collection in GDP and the taxable capacity.

This is a worthwhile project. There sometimes are big differences between nations and those should be part of the equation when comparing tax policies. Indeed, this is why my recent post on the rising burden of the value-added tax looked at data for nations at different levels of development.

But I’m irked by the World Bank study because it’s really measuring “tax onerousness.” I’m not even sure onerousness is a word, but I sure don’t like the term “tax effort” because it implies that a higher tax burden is a good thing. After all, we learned from our report cards that it’s good to demonstrate high effort and not be a slacker.

And just so you know I’m not just imagining things, the authors explicitly embrace the notion that bigger tax burdens are desirable. They assert (without any evidence, of course) that higher levels of tax promote “development” and that more money for politicians is “desirable.”

The international development community is increasingly recognizing the centrality of effective taxation to development. …higher tax revenues are important to lower the aid dependency in low-income countries. They also encourage good governance, strengthen state building and promote government accountability. …many developing countries experience a chronic gap between the actual and desirable levels of tax revenues. Taxation reforms are needed to close this gap.

If the authors of the study looked at economic history, they would understand that they have things backwards. “Effective taxation” doesn’t lead to “development.” It’s the other way around. The western world became rich when the burden of government was very small and most nations didn’t even have income tax regimes. It was only after nations because prosperous that politicians figured out how to extract significant shares of economic output.

But let’s set that aside and see which nations have the most and least onerous tax systems. Here’s a table from the report and it seems that Papua New Guinea has the world’s worst tax system and Bahrain has the best tax system. Among developed nations, New Zealand is the worst and Japan is the best. The United States (circled in red) gets a decent score. We’re not nearly as good as Switzerland and we’re slightly worse than Canada, but our politicians expend less “effort” than their counterparts in nations such as France, Italy, and Belgium.

By the way, I’m not endorsing either the methodology or the results. I like what the authors are trying to do (at least in terms of creating an apples-to-apples measure), but some of the results seem at odds with reality. New Zealand’s tax system isn’t great, but it certainly doesn’t seem as bad as the French tax code. And I have a hard time believing that Japan’s tax code is less onerous than the Swiss system.

The World Bank study also breaks down the data so that countries can be put into a matrix based on how much money they collect and how much “effort” they expend.

Here’s where the authors let their bias show. In their descriptions of the various boxes, they reflexively assume that higher tax collections are a good thing. Here is some of what they wrote in that section of the study.

The collection of taxes in this group of countries is currently low and lies below their respective taxable capacity. These countries have potential to succeed in deepening comprehensive tax policy and administration reforms focusing on revenue enhancement. …Botswana and Chile were originally in the low-effort, low-collection group, but they made it to the high-effort, high-collection group after recent improvements in revenue performance. …Although countries in this [high collection, low effort] group have already achieved a high tax collection, fiscally they still have the potential to implement reforms to reduce distortions and reach a higher level of efficiency of tax collection, since their tax effort index is low.

Very Orwellian, wouldn’t you say? We’re supposed to conclude that it’s bad if nations are “below their respective taxable capacity” because they can “succeed in deepening comprehensive tax policy” for purposes of “revenue enhancement.” Other nations, though, got gold stars because of “improvements in revenue performance.” And others were encouraged to try harder, even if they already collected a lot of revenue, in order to “reach of a higher level of efficiency of tax collection.”

But, to be fair, the study does include some semi-sensible comments acknowledging that there are limits to the greed of the political class. For all intents and purposes, the authors warn that there will be Laffer Curve effects if “high effort” nations seek to make their tax systems even more onerous.

Given that the level of tax intake in this group of countries is already high and stays above their respective taxable capacity, a further increase in tax revenue collection may lead to unintended economic distortions. …low-income countries with a low level of tax collection but high tax effort have less opportunity to increase tax revenues without possibly creating distortions or high compliance costs.

Just in case you’re not familiar with the lingo, “distortion” refers to the economic damage caused by high tax rates. This can be because high tax rates lead to a reduction in work, saving, investment, entrepreneurship, and other productive behaviors. Or it can be because high tax rates encourage people to make economically inefficient choices solely for tax planning purposes.

So the fact that the World Bank recognizes that taxes can hurt economic performance in at least some circumstances puts them ahead of the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation. That’s damning with faint praise, to be sure, but I wanted to close on an upbeat note.

P.S. If you peruse the matrix, you’ll notice that New Zealand is considered a developing country. I’m sure that will be the source of amusement to my friends in Australia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some excerpts from a story in The Hill.

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

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

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

This is what a fair tax code looks like

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

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

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

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I’ve done thorough blog posts highlighting the economic benefits of the flat tax, but I find that most people are passionate about tax reform because they view the current system as being unfair and corrupt.

They also don’t like the IRS, in part because it has so much arbitrary power to ruin lives.

But it’s not just that is has the power to ruin lives. That can be said about the FBI, the DEA, the BATF, and all sorts of other enforcement agencies.

What irks people about the IRS is that it has so much power combined with the fact that the internal revenue code is a nightmare of complexity that can overwhelm even the most well-intentioned taxpayer. Just spend a couple of minutes watching this video if you don’t believe me.

I’ve already shown depressing charts on the number of pages in the tax code and the number of special breaks in the tax law. To make matters worse, not even the IRS understands how to interpret the law. According to a recent GAO report, the IRS gave the wrong answers on matters of tax law more than 530,000 times in 2010.

Yet if you use inaccurate information from the IRS when filing your taxes, you’re still liable. To add insult to injury (or perhaps injury to injury is the right phrase), you’re then guilty until you prove yourself innocent – notwithstanding the Constitution’s guarantee of presumption of innocence.

Now we have some new information showing the difficulty of complying with a bad tax system.

A new report from the Treasury Department reveals that volunteers (who presumably have the best of intentions) make mistakes in more than 50 percent of cases.

Here are some key excerpts from the report.

Of the 39 tax returns prepared for our auditors, 19 (49 percent) were prepared correctly and 20 (51 percent) were prepared incorrectly. The accuracy rate should not be projected to the entire population of tax returns prepared at the Volunteer Program sites. Nevertheless, if the 20 incorrect tax returns had been filed: 12 (60 percent) taxpayers would not have been refunded a total of $3,996 to which they were entitled, one (5 percent) taxpayer would have received a refund of $303 more than the amount to which he or she was entitled, one (5 percent) taxpayer would have owed $165 less than the amount that should have been owed, and six (30 percent) taxpayers would have owed an additional total of $1,483 in tax and/or penalties. …The IRS also conducted 53 anonymous shopping visits during the 2012 Filing Season. Volunteers prepared tax returns for SPEC function shoppers with a 60 percent accuracy rate.

So here’s the bottom line. We have a completely corrupt tax system that is impossibly complex. Yet every year politicians add new provisions to please their buddies from the lobbyist community.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could rip up all 72,000 pages and instead have a simple and fair tax system?

Sadly, tax reform is an uphill battle for four very big reasons.

  • Politicians don’t want tax reform since it reduces their power to micro-manage the economy and to exchange loopholes for campaign cash.
  • The IRS doesn’t want tax reform since there are about 100,000 bureaucrats with comfy jobs overseeing the current system.
  • Lobbyists obviously don’t want to reform since that would mean fewer clients paying big bucks to get special favors.
  • And the interest groups oppose the flat tax because they want a tilted playing field in order to obtain unearned wealth.

But there are now about 30 nations around the world that have adopted this simple and fair system, so reform isn’t impossible. But it will only happen when voters can convince politicians that they will lose their jobs if they don’t adopt the flat tax.

P.S. I’ll also take a national sales tax, like the Fair Tax, as a replacement. But since I don’t trust politicians, that option requires that we first replace the 16th Amendment with something so ironclad that not even Chief Justice John Roberts would be able to rationalize that an income tax was permissible.

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Even though I’m not a Romney fan, I sometimes feel compelled to defend him against leftist demagoguery.

But instead of writing about tax havens, as I’ve done in the past, today we’re going to look at incremental tax reform.

The left has been loudly asserting that the middle class would lose under Mitt Romney’s plan to cut tax rates by 20 percent and finance those reductions by closing loopholes.

That class-warfare accusation struck me as a bit sketchy because when I looked at the data a couple of years ago, I put together this chart showing that rich people, on average, enjoyed deductions that were seven times as large as the deductions of middle-income taxpayers.

And the chart includes only the big itemized deductions. There are dozens of other special tax preferences, as shown in this depressing image, and you can be sure that rich people are far more likely to have the lawyers, lobbyists, and accountants needed to exploit those provisions.

But that’s not a surprise since the internal revenue code has morphed into a 72,000-page monstrosity (this is why I sometimes try to convince honest leftists that a flat tax is a great way of reducing political corruption).

But this chart doesn’t disprove the leftist talking point, so I’m glad that Martin Feldstein addressed the issue in today’s Wall Street Journal. Here’s some of what he wrote.

The IRS data show that taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes over $100,000 (the top 21% of all taxpayers) made itemized deductions totaling $636 billion in 2009. Those high-income taxpayers paid marginal tax rates of 25% to 35%, with most $200,000-plus earners paying marginal rates of 33% or 35%. And what do we get when we apply a 30% marginal tax rate to the $636 billion in itemized deductions? Extra revenue of $191 billion—more than enough to offset the revenue losses from the individual income tax cuts proposed by Gov. Romney. …Additional revenue could be raised from high-income taxpayers by limiting the use of the “preferences” identified for the Alternative Minimum Tax (such as excess oil depletion allowances) or the broader list of all official individual “tax expenditures” (such as tax credits for energy efficiency improvements in homes), among other credits and exclusions. None of this base-broadening would require taxing capital gains or making other changes that would reduce the incentives for saving and investment. …Since broadening the tax base would produce enough revenue to pay for cutting everyone’s tax rates, it is clear that the proposed Romney cuts wouldn’t require any middle-class tax increase, nor would they produce a net windfall for high-income taxpayers. The Tax Policy Center and others are wrong to claim otherwise.

In other words, even with a very modest assumption about the Laffer Curve, it would be quite possible to implement something akin to what Romney’s proposing and not “lose” tax revenue.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that Romney seriously intends to push for good policy. I’m much more concerned, for instance, that he’ll wander in the wrong direction and propose something very bad such as a value-added tax.

But Romney certainly can do the right thing if he wins. Assuming that’s what he wants to do.

Just like he can fulfill his promise the reduce the burden of government spending by implementing Paul Ryan’s entitlement reforms. But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

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In previous posts, I put together tutorials on the Laffer Curve, tax competition, and the economics of government spending.

Today, we’re going to look at the issue of tax reform. The focus will be the flat tax, but this analysis applies equally to national sales tax systems such as the Fair Tax.

There are three equally important features of tax reform.

  1. A low tax rate – This is the best-known feature of tax reform. A low tax rate is designed to minimize the penalty of work, entrepreneurship, and productive behavior.
  2. No double taxation of saving and investment – All major tax reform plans, such as the flat tax and national sales tax, get rid of the tax bias against income that is saved and invested. The capital gains tax, double tax on dividends, and death tax are all abolished. Shifting to a system that taxes economic activity only one time will boost capital formation, thus facilitating an increase in productivity and wages.
  3. No distorting loopholes – With the exception of a family-based allowance designed to protect lower-income people, the main tax reform plans get rid of all deductions, exemptions, shelters, preference, exclusions, and credits. By creating a neutral tax system, this ensures that decisions are made on the basis of economic fundamentals, not tax distortions.

All three features are equally important, sort of akin to the legs of a stool. Using the flat tax as a model, this video provides additional details.

One thing I don’t mention in the video is that a flat tax is “territorial,” meaning that only income earned in the United States is taxed. This common-sense rule is the good-fences-make-good-neighbors approach. If income is earned by an American in, say, Canada, then the Canadian government gets to decide how it’s taxed. And if income is earned by a Canadian in America, then the U.S. government gets a slice.

It’s also worth emphasizing that the flat tax protects low-income Americans from the IRS. All flat tax plans include a fairly generous “zero-bracket amount,” which means that a family of four can earn (depending on the specific proposal) about $25,000-$35,000 before the flat tax takes effect.

Proponents of tax reform explain that there are many reasons to junk the internal revenue code and adopt something like a flat tax.

  • Improve growth – The low marginal tax rate, the absence of double taxation, and the elimination of distortions combine to create a system that minimizes the penalties on productive behavior.
  • Boost competitiveness – In a competitive global economy, it is easy for jobs and investment to cross national borders. The right kind of tax reform can make America a magnet for money from all over the world.
  • Reduce corruption – Tax preferences and penalties are bad for growth, but they are also one of the main sources of political corruption in Washington. Tax reform takes away the dumpster, which means fewer rats and cockroaches.
  • Promote simplicity – Good policy has a very nice side effect in that the tax system becomes incredibly simple. Instead of the hundreds of forms required by the current system, both households and businesses would need only a single postcard-sized form.
  • Increase privacy – By getting rid of double taxation and taxing saving, investment, and profit at the business level, there no longer is any need for people to tell the government what assets they own and how much they’re worth.
  • Protect civil liberties – A simple and fair tax system eliminates almost all sources of conflict between taxpayers and the IRS.

All of these benefits also accrue if the internal revenue code is abolished and replaced with some form of national sales tax. That’s because the flat tax and sales tax are basically different sides of the same coin. Under a flat tax, income is taxed one time at one low rate when it is earned. Under a sales tax, income is taxed one time at one low rate when it is spent.

Neither system has double taxation. Neither system has corrupt loopholes. And neither system requires the nightmarish internal revenue service that exists to enforce the current system.

This video has additional details – including the one caveat that a national sales tax shouldn’t be enacted unless the 16th Amendment is repealed so there’s no threat that politicians could impose both an income tax and sales tax.

Last but not least, let’s deal with the silly accusation that the flat tax is a risky and untested idea. This video is a bit dated (some new nations are in the flat tax club and a few have dropped out), but is shows that there are more than two dozen jurisdictions with this simple and fair tax system.

P.S. Fundamental tax reform is also the best way to improve the healthcare system. Under current law, compensation in the form of fringe benefits such as health insurance is tax free. Not only is it deductible to employers and non-taxable to employees, it also isn’t hit by the payroll tax. This creates a huge incentive for gold-plated health insurance policies that cover routine costs and have very low deductibles. This is a principal cause (along with failed entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid) of the third-party payer crisis. Shifting to a flat tax means that all forms of employee compensation are taxed at the same low rate, a reform that presumably over time will encourage both employers and employees to migrate away from the inefficient over-use of insurance that characterizes the current system. For all intents and purposes, the health insurance market presumably would begin to resemble the vastly more efficient and consumer-friendly auto insurance and homeowner’s insurance markets.

P.P.S. If you want short and sweet descriptions of the major tax reform plans, here are four highly condensed descriptions of the flat tax, national sales tax, value-added tax, and current system.

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

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

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

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

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

Arriverderci, Polizia Fiscale!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I’m not a fan of David Cameron, the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister.

Even though he belongs to the Conservative Party that produced the great Margaret Thatcher, Cameron seems to be a bit of guilt-ridden statist with his finger always in the air to see which way the wind is blowing. The policy results are not pretty.

Now I have another reason to dislike Cameron. He just condemned a comedian for legally seeking to minimize the amount of his income that is seized – and then wasted – by the U.K. government. Here are some of the details from The Telegraph.

Prime Minister David Cameron today branded the tax arrangement of comedian Jimmy Carr “morally wrong” after it emerged he was using a scheme which allows the wealthy to pay as little as one per cent of their income. …Speaking at the G20 summit the Prime Minister told ITV News: “I think some of these schemes – and I think particularly of the Jimmy Carr scheme – I have had time to read about and I just think this is completely wrong. “People work hard, they pay their taxes, they save up to go to one of his shows. They buy the tickets. He is taking the money from those tickets and he, as far as I can see, is putting all of that into some very dodgy tax avoiding schemes. …some of these schemes we have seen are quite frankly morally wrong.” …Lawyers for the comedian have…categorically denied any wrongdoing, saying the scheme had been disclosed to the relevant authorities in line with the law. …Chancellor George Osborne has claimed he was left “shocked” after finding the extent to which multi-millionaires were exploiting tax loopholes and vowed to take “action”.

 I have no idea whether the specific “tax avoiding scheme” used by Carr is good tax policy (protecting against double taxation, for instance) or bad policy (such as a loophole that creates favoritism for a specific behavior), but that’s not the point of this post.

Instead, this is a moral question about whether people have some sort of obligation to pay extra tax, merely to get some sort of pat on the head from politicians. The same politicians, by the way, that squander the money on varying vote-buying schemes that undermine prosperity and create dependency.

I’d be willing to condemn Carr if I found out he’s some sort of statist who wants higher taxes for everybody else, but then (like John Kerry) takes steps to minimize his personal tax bill.

But I’d be condemning Carr for hypocrisy, not criticizing the idea of tax avoidance.

The United Kingdom has become a bloated welfare state (with horribly depressing implications, as you can read here and here). If people want to be moral, they should strive to pay the least amount possible to this corrupt and wasteful enterprise. The United States is not quite as bad (yet), but the same principle applies.

Politicians, needless to say, will violently disagree with this ethical viewpoint. So we can all expect more taxes, higher taxes, and additional draconian enforcement measures.

The only good news is that the Laffer Curve will prevent these greedy thugs from collecting nearly as much money as they think.

P.S. To get an idea of how the Conservative Party has declined, compare Cameron’s statist rhetoric to Margaret Thatcher’s comments that “there is no such thing as public money.”

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I have a confession to make. I’m enjoying the Greece debacle and I like the Greek people.

Sure, there are lots of moochers in Greece. And yes, the government is insanely wasteful, even to the point of subsidizing pedophiles and requiring stool samples from folks applying to set up online companies.

But at least there’s high entertainment value, such as the altercation in this video between one of the national socialists in the Golden Dawn party and a regular socialist from the Syriza party and one of the international socialists from the Communist party.

Of course, I hope that all of these strains of socialism lose at the polls, just as I hope that the Keynesians and tax-increasers fight each other to the death in the rest of Europe.

Until that point, though, I want more entertainment.

I also have a certain fondness for the Greeks because of their disdain for the tax authorities. These people have an amazing expertise when it comes to not paying taxes (their Italian and Irish counterparts also seem less than enthused about giving more money to government).

To be sure, I suspect most of them are motivated by getting something for nothing rather than libertarian principles. But even if they’re dodging taxes for the wrong reasons, these anecdotes from the New York Times are quite amusing.

An essential element of Greece’s recovery plan has been to collect more taxes from a population that has long engaged in tax avoidance. The government is owed 45 billion euros in back taxes, tax officials in Athens said, only a fraction of which will ever be recovered. To understand the difficulty, just talk to Nikos Maitos, a longtime official in Greece’s financial crimes investigation unit. When he and a team of inspectors recently prowled the recession-hit island of Naxos for tax evaders, a local radio station broadcast his license plate number to warn residents. …“After two and a half years of austerity, it’s really a difficult time to bring in revenue,” said Harry Theoharis, a senior official in the Greek Finance Ministry who helps oversee the country’s tax payment system. “You can’t keep flogging a dead horse.” …Income expected from a higher, 23 percent value-added tax required by the bailout agreement has fallen short by around 800 million euros in the first four months of 2012. That is partly because cash-short businesses that were once law-abiding have started hiding money to stay afloat, tax officials said. …the government started enforcing a 1995 law that gives them access to bank accounts of suspected tax evaders. But Nikos Lekkas, a top official at the financial crimes agency where Mr. Maitos works, said Greek banks had obstructed nearly 5,000 requests for account data since 2010. “The banks delay sending the information for 8 to 12 months,” he said. “And when they do, they send huge stacks of documents to make it confusing. By the time we can follow up, much of the money has already fled.” …During a surveillance trip on the resort island of Santorini, Mr. Maitos said he and two colleagues observed a gas station owner insisting on cash-only transactions to avoid declaring taxes. When confronted, the man lashed at them with a bullwhip while cursing the state for taking his money.

Pretty impressive. Not only are taxpayers getting help from radio stations and banks, but they even use bullwhips to defend themselves.

It’s also worth noting that the “flogging a dead horse” comment and the shortfall in VAT receipts are further evidence for the Laffer Curve.

But I don’t want to focus too much on policy in this post. I just want to enjoy the spectacle. In later posts, we’ll look to see whether American statists have learned any lessons about reforming entitlements so we avoid a future Greek-style fiscal crisis in America.

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Back in April, responding to an article written by Ann Hollingshead for the Task Force on Financial Integrity and Economic Development, I wrote a long post defending so-called tax havens.

I went through the trouble of a point-by-point response because her article was quite reasonable and focused on some key moral and philosophical issues (rather than the demagoguery I normally have to deal with when people on the left reflexively condemn low-tax jurisdictions).

She responded to my response, and she raised additional points that deserve to be answered.

So here we go again. Let’s go through Ann’s article and see where we agree and disagree.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog post criticizing the philosophies of Dan Mitchell, a libertarian scholar from the Cato Institute. I asked for a “thoughtful discussion” and I got it—both from the comments section of our blog and from Dan himself.  On his own blog, Dan replied with a thought-provoking point-by-point critique of my piece.

It has been a polite discussion, which is good because readers get to see that we don’t really disagree on facts. Our differences are a matter of philosophy, as Ann also acknowledges.

Dan made several interesting points in his rebuttal. As much as I’d like to take on the whole post right now, my reply would be far too long and I don’t think our readers would appreciate a blog post that approaches a novella. Rather I’ll focus on a couple of his comments that I find interesting on a philosophical level (there were many) and which demand a continued conversation because, I believe, they are the basis of our differences. We’ll start with a rather offhand remark in which Dan indirectly refers to financial privacy as a human right. This is an argument we’ve heard before. And it is worth some exploration.Unless I am very much mistaken, Dan’s belief that financial privacy is a human right arises out of his fundamental value of freedom. My disagreement with Dan, therefore, does not arise from a difference in the desire to promote human rights (I believe we both do), but rather in the different relative weights we each place on the value of privacy, which Dan (I’m supposing) would call an extension of freedom.

I wouldn’t argue with her outline, though I think it is incomplete. I’m a big fan of privacy as a principle of a civil and just society, but I also specifically support financial privacy as a means to an end of encouraging better tax policy. Simply stated, politicians are much more likely to reduce or eliminate double taxation if they feel such taxes can’t be enforced and simply put a country in a much less competitive position.

Okay, so on to [my] answer of the subject of this post. Privacy—and financial privacy by extension—is important. But is it a human right? That’s a big phrase; one which humanity has no business throwing around, lest it go the way of “[fill in blank]-gate” or “war on [whatever].” And as Dan himself points out, governments have a way of fabricating human rights—apparently some European courts have ruled that free soccer broadcasts and owning a satellite dish are a human rights—so it’s important that we get back to [philosophical] basics and define the term properly. The nearly universally accepted definition of “human rights” was established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the United Nations adopted in 1948. According to the UN, “human rights” are those “rights inherent to all human beings,” regardless of “nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status.” The Declaration includes 30 Articles which describe each of those rights in detail. “Financial privacy” per se is not explicitly a human right in this document, but “privacy” is, and I think it’s reasonable to include financial privacy by extension. But privacy is defined as a fundamental, not an absolute, human right. Absolute rights are those that there is never any justification for violating. Fundamental freedoms, including privacy and freedom from detention, can be ethically breached by the government, as long as they authorized by law and not arbitrary in practice. The government therefore has the right to regulate fundamental freedoms when necessary.

I’m not sure how to react. There are plenty of admirable provisions in the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but there are also some nonsensical passages – some of which completely contradict others.

Everyone hopefully agrees with the provisions against slavery and in favor of equality under law, but Article 25 of the U.N. Declaration also includes “the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”

That sounds like a blank check for redistributionism, similar to the statism that I experienced when I spoke at the U.N. last month, and it definitely seems inconsistent with the right of property in Article 17.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t care that the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes a “right to privacy” because I don’t view that document as having any legal or moral validity. I don’t know whether it’s as bad as the European Union’s pseudo-constitution, but I do know that my support for privacy is not based on or dependent on a document from the United Nations.

As an aside, I can’t help noting that Articles 13 and 15 of the U.N. Declaration guarantee the right to emigrate and the right to change nationality, somethings leftists should keep in mind when they demonize successful people who want to move to nations with better tax law.

Getting back to Ann’s column, she confirms my point that you can’t protect property rights for some people while simultaneously giving other people a claim on their output.

That’s important because it means, that when it comes to freedom and privacy, we need to make choices. We can’t always have them all at once. To use a hideously crude example that gets back to the issue of tax evasion, in a developing country, a rich person’s right to financial privacy might be at odds with a poor person’s right to “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.”

For those who are not familiar with the type of discussion, it is the difference between “negative rights” promoted by classical liberals, which are designed to protect life, liberty, and property from aggression, and the “positive rights” promoted by the left, which are designed to legitimize the redistributionist state.

Tom Palmer has a good discussion of the topic here, and he notes that “positive rights” create conflict, writing that, “…classical liberal ‘negative’ rights do not conflict with each other, whereas ‘positive’ rights to be provided with things produce many conflicts. If my ‘right to health care’ conflicts with a doctor’s ‘right to liberty,’ which one wins out?”

Continuing with Ann’s article, she says values conflict with one another, though that’s only if true if one believes in positive rights.

I started this post with a discussion of values, because at the core that’s what we’re talking about. Values are relative, individual, and often in conflict with one another. And they define how we rank our choices between human rights. Dan values freedom, perhaps above most else. He might argue that economic freedom would lead to an enrichment of human rights at all levels, but he probably wouldn’t disagree that that thesis remains untested. My views are a little more complicated because I don’t get to enjoy the (albeit appealing and consistent) simplicity of libertarianism.

I’m tempted to say, “C’mon in, Ann, the water’s fine. Libertarianism is lots of fun.” To be a bit more serious, libertarianism is simple, but it’s not simplistic. You get to promote freedom and there’s no pressure to harass, oppress, or pester other people.

As my colleague David Boaz has stated, “You could say that you learn the essence of libertarianism — which is also the essence of civilization –  in kindergarten: don’t hit other people, don’t take their stuff, keep your promises.”

The world would be a lot better if more people rallied to this non-coercive system.

One more point. Dan mentioned he does “fully comply” with the “onerous demands imposed on [him] by the government.” But as Dan insinuates, irrespective of an individual’s personal values, those demands are not optional. In the United States, we have the luxury of electing a group of individuals to represent our collective values. Together those people make a vision for the country that reflects our ideals. And then, we all accept it. If our country got together and decided to value freedom above all else, we would live in a world that looks a lot like Dan’s utopia. But, frankly, it hasn’t. So we respect our tax code out of a respect for the vision of our country. Dan has the right to try to shape that vision, as do I. Neither of us has the right to violate it.

What Ann writes is true, but not persuasive. Libertarians don’t like untrammeled majoritarianism. We don’t think two wolves and a sheep should vote on what’s for lunch.

We like what our Founding Fathers devised, a constitutional republic where certain rights were inalienable and protected by the judicial system, regardless of whether 90 percent of voters want to curtail our freedoms.

Ann, as you can see from her final passage, does not agree.

That, at is heart, is my problem with both tax evasion and tax avoidance. Neither lines up with the spirit of our collective compact; although the latter is not necessarily reflected in the official laws on the books. I’m not saying tax avoiders should be thrown in jail; they’ve done nothing illegal. I’m saying the regulations that confine us should line up with the vision we’ve created and the values we’ve agreed upon. If that vision is Dan’s, I’ll accept it. But I’m glad he’ll (begrudgingly) accept ours too.

I’m not automatically against having a “collective compact.” After all, that’s one way of describing the American Constitution. But I will return to my point about America’s founders setting up that system precisely because they rejected majoritarianism.

So what does all this mean? Probably nothing, other than the less-than-remarkable revelation that Ann and I have different views on the legitimate role(s) of the federal government.

Since I want to restrain the size and scope of government (not only in America, but elsewhere in the world) and avert future Greek-style fiscal nightmares, that means I want tax competition. And, to be truly effective, that means tax havens.

If that appeals to you (or at least seems like a reasonably hypothesis), I invite you to read some writings by Allister Heath of the United Kingdom and Pierre Bessard of Switzerland.

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It seems that there’s nothing but bad news coming from Europe. Whether we’re talking about fake austerity in the United Kingdom, confiscatory tax schemes in France, or bailouts in Greece, the continent seems to be a case study of failed statism.

But that’s not completely accurate. Every so often I highlight good news, such as Switzerland’s successful spending cap, Sweden’s shift to the right on spending, Germany’s wise decision not to be Keynesian, and Portugal’s admission that “stimulus” doesn’t work.

Admittedly, the good news from Europe is oftentimes merely the failure to do something bad. But I’ll take victories in any form.

And that’s why I’m happy that Austria and Luxembourg are blocking a misguided European Commission plan to undermine financial privacy in order to increase double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

Here are some cheerful passages from a story in the EU Observer.

“Completely unjustifiable … grossly unfair … a mystery” – the European Commission and the Danish EU presidency have given Austria and Luxembourg a tongue-lashing for protecting tax evaders. The harsh words came after the two countries on Tuesday (15 May) blocked the commission from holding talks with Switzerland on a new savings tax law designed to recoup some of the estimated €1 trillion a year lost to EU exchequers in tax fraud and evasion. Tax commissioner Algirdas Semeta in a press conference in Brussels said: “The position that Austria and Luxembourg have taken on this issue is grossly unfair. They are hindering 25 willing member states from improving tax compliance and finding additional sources of income.” …Danish economic affairs minister Margrethe Vestager took his side. “It is a mystery why we shouldn’t move on making people pay the taxes that they should pay,” she noted. She described Austria and Luxembourg’s decision as “unfortunate.” For their part, Luxembourg and Austria have declined to publicly explain why they are against the move. Semeta on Tuesday indicated they object to “automatic transfer” of tax data between EU countries and Switzerland, even though the alternative is trusting Switzerland to decide which data it gives and which it withholds. He added that automatic exchange is becoming the international gold standard in the field, with “the US moving in the same direction.”

The quote from the Danish economic affairs minister is especially nauseating. It’s not the “taxes that they should pay.” It’s the “taxes that greedy politicians demand.”

Good tax policy is predicated on the notion that there should not be a bias against income that is saved and invested. This is because double taxation undermines capital formation and thus reduces long-run growth.

Yet European politicians, like many of their American counterparts, are drawn to class warfare tax policy and can’t resist trying to penalize the “evil rich.”

So let’s tip our proverbial hats to Austria and Luxembourg. This is probably just a short-term victory over the unrelenting forces of statism, but let’s enjoy it while it lasts.

P.S. This European kerfuffle is a fight over tax competition vs. tax harmonization. To understand why financial privacy and fiscal sovereignty are desirable, watch the four-part video series at this post.

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I wrote last year about a tax protest in Ireland, and I wrote earlier this year about a tax revolt in Greece.

But Irish and Greek taxpayers are wimps compared to their Italian compatriots. When Italians decide to have a tax revolt, they don’t kid around. Here are some remarkable details from the UK-based Telegraph.

In the last six months there has been a wave of countrywide attacks on offices of Equitalia, the agency which handles tax collection, with the most recent on Saturday night when a branch was hit with two petrol bombs.Staff have also expressed fears over their personal safety with increasing numbers calling in sick and with one unidentified employee telling Italian TV: “I have told my son not to say where I work or tell anyone what I do for a living.”

As much as I despise high taxes, I don’t think petrol bombs are the answer. But I am glad that at least some of the bureaucrats feels shame about their jobs.

Not surprisingly, the political elite wants people to be deferential to predatory government.

Annamaria Cancellieri, the interior minister, said she was considering calling in the army in a bid to quell the rising social tensions.“There have been several attacks on the offices of Equitalia in recent weeks. I want to remind people that attacking Equitalia is the equivalent of attacking the State,” she said in an interview with La Repubblica newspaper.

Here’s some advice for Ms. Cancellieri: Maybe people will be less likely to attack “the State” if “the State” stops attacking the people.

But don’t expect that to happen. The Prime Minister also demands obedience to “the State” and there’s rhetoric about “paying taxes is a duty” from other high-level government officials.

Saturday night’s attack took place on the Equitalia office in Livorno and the front of the building was left severely damaged by fire after the bombs exploded. The phrases “Thieves” and “Death to Equitalia” were sprayed onto outside walls. It came just 24 hours after more than 200 people had been involved in running battles with police outside a branch in Naples which left a dozen protesters and officers hurt. …There has also been a striking increase in suicides with people leaving notes directly blaming Equitalia and tax demands. Paola Severino, the Justice minister, said: “The economic situation has produced unease but paying taxes is a duty. On one side there is anger and the problem of paying when the resources are scare but on the other side is the fact that they must be paid.” …Mr Monti has vowed to press on even harder this year to recover the lost money. He is due to have a meeting with Equitalia chief Attilio Befera to discuss the situation and he has already said: “We are not going to take a step back, there will be no giving in to those who have declared was against the revenue and therefore the State. We will not be intimidated.”

Keep in mind, by the way, that this is the government that supposedly is being run by brilliant technocrats, yet they are so incompetent that they appoint the wrong people to posts. But the real problem is that government is far too big, consuming one-half of Italy’s economic output.

If Italy’s political class wants to improve tax compliance, they should listen to the IMF and academic economists, both of whom point out that lower tax rates reduce incentives for evasion and avoidance.

It also would help to shrink the burden of the public sector. Unfortunately, as is the case with most other European nations, “austerity” in Italy mostly means higher taxes, not less spending.

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The Laffer Curve is a graphical representation of the relationship between tax rates, tax revenue, and taxable income. It is frequently cited by people who want to explain the common-sense notion that punitive tax rates may not generate much additional revenue if people respond in ways that result in less taxable income.

Unfortunately, some people misinterpret the insights of the Laffer Curve. Politicians, for instance, tend to either pretend it doesn’t exist, or they embrace it with excessive zeal and assume all tax cuts “pay for themselves.”

Another problem is that people assume that tax rates should be set at the revenue-maximizing level. I explained back in 2010 that this was wrong. Policy makers should strive to set tax rates at the growth-maximizing level. But since a growth-generating tax is about as common as a unicorn, what this really means is that tax rates should be set to produce enough revenue to finance the growth-maximizing level of government – as illustrated by the Rahn Curve.

That’s the theory of the Laffer Curve. What about the evidence? Where are the revenue-maximizing and growth-maximizing points on the Laffer Curve?

Well, ask five economists and you’ll get nine answers. In part, this is because the answers vary depending on the type of tax, the country, and the time frame. In other words, there is more than one Laffer Curve.

With those caveats in mind, we have some very interesting research produced by two economists, one from the Federal Reserve and the other from the University of Chicago. They have authored a new study that attempts to measure the revenue-maximizing point on the Laffer Curve for the United States and several European nations. Here’s an excerpt from their research.

Figure 6 shows the comparison for the US and EU-14. …Interestingly, the capital tax Laffer curve is affected only very little across countries when human capital is introduced. By contrast, the introduction of human capital has important effects for the labor income tax Laffer curve. Several countries are pushed on the slippery slope sides of their labor tax Laffer curves. …human capital turns labor into a stock variable rather than a flow variable as in the baseline model. Higher labor taxes induce households to work less and to acquire less human capital which in turn leads to lower labor income. Consequently, the labor tax base shrinks much more quickly when labor taxes are raised.

There’s a bit of jargon in this passage, so here are the charts from Figure 6. They look complex, but here are the basic facts to make them easy to understand.

The top chart shows the Laffer Curve for labor taxation, and the bottom chart shows the Laffer Curve for capital taxation. And both charts show different curves for the United States and an average of 14 European nations. Last but not least, the charts show how the Laffer Curves change is you add some real-world assumptions about the role of human capital.

Some people will look at these charts and conclude that there should be higher tax rates. After all, neither the U.S. or E.U. nations are at the revenue-maximizing  point (though the paper explains that some European nations actually are on the downward-sloping portion of the curve for capital taxes).

But let’s think about what higher tax rates imply, and we’ll focus on the United States. According to the first chart, labor taxes could be approximately doubled before getting to the downward-sloping portion of the curve. But notice that this means that tax revenues only increase by about 10 percent.

This implies that taxable income would be significantly smaller, presumably because of lower output, but also perhaps due to some combination of tax avoidance and tax evasion.

The key factoid (assuming my late-at-night, back-of-the-envelope calculations are right) is that this study implies that the government would reduce private-sector taxable income by about $20 for every $1 of new tax revenue.

Does that seem like good public policy? Ask yourself what sort of politicians are willing to destroy so much private sector output to get their greedy paws on a bit more revenue.

What about capital taxation? According to the second chart, the government could increase the tax rate from about 40 percent to 70 percent before getting to the revenue-maximizing point.

But that 75 percent increase in the tax rate wouldn’t generate much tax revenue, not even a 10 percent increase. So the question then becomes whether it’s good public policy to destroy a large amount of private output in exchange for a small increase in tax revenue.

Once again, the loss of taxable income to the private sector would dwarf the new revenue for the political class. And the question from above bears repeating. What should we think about politicians willing to make that trade?

And that’s the real lesson of the Laffer Curve. Yes, the politicians usually can collect more revenue, but the concomitant damage to the private sector is very large and people have lower living standards. So that leaves us with one final question. Do we think government spending has a sufficiently high rate-of-return to justify that kind of burden? This Rahn Curve video provides the answer.

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I speculated last year that the political elite finally might be realizing that higher tax rates are not the solution to Greece’s fiscal situation.

Simply stated, you can only squeeze so much blood out of a stone, and pushing tax rates higher cripples growth and drives more people into the underground economy.

Well, it turns out that even the International Monetary Fund agrees with me. Here’s what the IMF said in its latest analysis about the Greek fiscal situation.

…further progress in reducing the deficit is going to be hard without underlying structural fiscal reforms. The fiscal deficit is now expected to be 9 percent this year, against the program target of 7½ percent. “One of the things we have seen in 2011 is that we have reached the limit of what can be achieved through increasing taxes,” Thomsen said. “Any further measures, if needed, should be on the expenditure side.

This is a remarkable admission. The IMF, for all intents and purposes, is acknowledging the Laffer Curve. At some point, tax rates become so punitive that the government collects less revenue.

This is a simple and common-sense observation, as explained in this video.

Unfortunately, even though the IMF now recognizes reality, the same can’t be said about the Obama Administration.

The President has proposed higher tax rates in his recent budget and it seems he can’t make a speech without making a class-warfare argument for penalizing producers, investors, entrepreneurs, and small business owners.

Yet if you compare American tax rates and Greek tax rates, it seems that the IMF’s lesson also applies in the United States.

The top tax in Greece is 45 percent, which is higher than the 35 percent top rate in America. But this doesn’t count the impact of state income taxes, which add an average of about five percentage points to the burden. Or the Medicare payroll tax, which boosts the rate by another 2.9 percentage points.

So Obama’s proposed 4.6 percentage point hike in the top tax rate almost certainly would mean a higher tax burden in the United States.

Even more worrisome, the U.S. tax rates on dividends and capital gains already are higher than the equivalent rates in Greece. Yet Obama wants to boost double taxation on these forms of retained earnings and distributed earnings.

But there are important cultural differences between the United States and Greece, so there’s no reason to think that the revenue-maximizing tax rates in both nations are the same (by the way, policy makers should strive for growth-maximizing tax rates, not the rates that generate the most money).

That’s why I wrote about the U.S.-specific evidence from the 1980s, which shows that rich people paid much more to the IRS when tax rates were slashed from 70 percent to 28 percent.

But all this analysis may miss the point. Why is the President willing to raise tax rates even if the economy suffers enough damage that the Treasury doesn’t collect any revenue? And if you’re wondering why I might ask such a crazy question, watch this video – especially beginning about the 4:30 mark.

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I fight to preserve tax competition, fiscal sovereignty, and financial privacy for the simple reason that politicians are less likely to impose destructive tax policy if they know that labor and capital can escape to jurisdictions with more responsible fiscal climates.

My opponents in this battle are high-tax governments, statist international bureaucracies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and left-wing pressure groups, all of which want to impose some sort of global tax cartel – sort of an “OPEC for politicians.”

In my years of fighting this battle, I’ve has some strange experiences, most notably in 2008 when the OECD threatened to have me thrown in a Mexican jail for the supposed crime of standing in a public area of a hotel and advising representatives of low-tax jurisdictions on how best to resist fiscal imperialism.

A few other bizarre episodes occurred in Barbados, back when I was first getting involved in the issue. Here’s a summary of that adventure.

As part of its “harmful tax competition” project, the OECD had called a meeting in 2001 and invited officials from the so-called tax havens to attend in hopes of getting them to surrender their fiscal sovereignty and agree to become deputy tax collectors for uncompetitive welfare states.

Realizing that the small, relatively powerless low-tax nations and territories would be out-gunned and out-manned in such a setting, I organized a delegation of liberty-minded Americans to travel to Barbados and help fight back (as regular readers know, I’m willing to make big sacrifices and go to the Caribbean when it’s winter in Washington).

One of the low-tax nations asked me to provide technical assistance, so they made me part of their delegation. But when I got to the OECD conference, the bureaucrats refused to let me participate. That initial obstacle was overcome, though, when representatives from the low-tax country arrived and they created a stink.

So I got my credentials and went into the conference. But this obviously caused some consternation. Bureaucrats from the OECD and representatives from the Clinton Treasury Department (this was before Bush’s inauguration)  began whispering to each other, followed by some OECD flunky coming over to demand my credentials. I showed my badge, which temporarily stymied the bad guys.

But then a break was called and the OECD announced that the conference couldn’t continue if I was in the room. The fact that the OECD and some of the high-tax nations had technical consultants of their own was immaterial. The conference was supposed to be rigged to generate a certain outcome, and my presence was viewed as a threat.

Given the way things were going, with the OECD on the defensive and low-tax jurisdictions unwilling to capitulate, we decided to let the bureaucrats have a symbolic victory – especially since all that really happened is that I sat outside the conference room and representatives from the low-tax jurisdictions would come out every few minutes and brief me on what was happening. And everything ended well, with the high-tax nations failing in their goal of getting low-tax jurisdictions to surrender by signing “commitment letters” drafted by the OECD.

While the controversy over my participation in the meeting was indicative of the OECD’s unethical and biased behavior, the weirdest part of the Barbados trip occurred at the post-conference reception at the Prime Minister’s residence.

I was feeling rather happy about the OECD’s failure, so I was enjoying the evening. But not everybody was pleased with the outcome. One of the Clinton Treasury Department officials came up and basically accused me of being disloyal to the United States because I opposed the Administration’s policy while on foreign soil.

As you can probably imagine, that was not an effective argument. As this t-shirt indicates, my patriotism is to the ideals of the Founding Fathers, not to the statist actions of the U.S. government. And I also thought it was rather silly for the Treasury Department bureaucrat to make that argument when there was only a week or so left before Clinton was leaving office.

I’m reminded of this bit of personal history because of some recent developments in the area of international taxation.

The federal government recently declared that a Swiss bank is a “fugitive” because it refuses to acquiesce to American tax law and instead is obeying Switzerland’s admirable human rights policy of protecting financial privacy. Here are some details from a report by Reuters.

Wegelin & Co, the oldest Swiss private bank, was declared a fugitive after failing to show up in a U.S. court to answer a criminal charge that it conspired to help wealthy Americans evade taxes. …The indictment of Wegelin, which was founded in 1741, was the first in which the United States accused a foreign bank, rather than individuals, of helping Americans commit tax fraud. …Wegelin issued a statement from Switzerland saying it has not been served with a criminal summons and therefore was not required to appear in court. “The circumstances create a clear dilemma for Wegelin & Co,” it said. “If it were to adhere to current U.S. legal practice aimed at Swiss banks, it would have to breach Swiss law.” …Wegelin has no branches outside Switzerland.

It’s time for me to again be unpatriotic because I’m on the side of the “fugitive.” To be blunt, a Swiss bank operating on Swiss soil has no obligation to enforce bad U.S. tax law.

To understand the principles at stake, let’s turn the tables. What if the Iranian government demanded that the American government extradite Iranian exiles who write articles critical of that country’s nutjob leadership? Would the Justice Department agree that the Iranian government had the right to persecute and prosecute people who didn’t break U.S. law. Of course not (at least I hope not!).

Or what if the Chinese government requested the extradition of Tiananmen Square protesters who fled to the United States? Again, I would hope the federal government would say to go jump in a lake because it’s not a crime in America to believe in free speech.

I could provide dozens of additional examples, but I assume you get the point. Nations only cooperate with each other when they share the same laws (and the same values, including due process legal protections).

This is why Wegelin is not cooperating with the United States government, and this is why genuine patriots who believe in the rule of law should be on the side of the “fugitive.”

For further information, here’s a video I narrated on tax competition.

The moral of the story is that “tough on crime” is the right approach, but only when laws are just. At the risk of stating the obvious, the internal revenue code does not meet that test – especially when the IRS is trying to enforce it in a grossly improper extraterritorial fashion.

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Leftists want higher tax rates and they want greater tax compliance. But they have a hard time understanding that those goals are inconsistent.

Simply stated, people respond to incentives. When tax rates are punitive, folks earn and report less taxable income, and vice-versa.

In a previous post, I quoted an article from the International Monetary Fund, which unambiguously concluded that high tax burdens are the main reason people don’t fully comply with tax regimes.

Macroeconomic and microeconomic modeling studies based on data for several countries suggest that the major driving forces behind the size and growth of the shadow economy are an increasing burden of tax and social security payments… The bigger the difference between the total cost of labor in the official economy and the after-tax earnings from work, the greater the incentive for employers and employees to avoid this difference and participate in the shadow economy. …Several studies have found strong evidence that the tax regime influences the shadow economy.

Indeed, it’s worth noting that international studies find that the jurisdictions with the highest rates of tax compliance are the ones with reasonable tax systems, such as Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Singapore.

Now there’s a new study confirming these findings. Authored by two economists, one from the University of Wisconsin and the other from Jacksonville University, the new research cites the impact of tax burdens as well as other key variables.

Here are some key findings from the study.

According to the results provided in Table 2, the coefficient on the average effective federal income tax variable (AET) is positive in all three estimates and statistically significant for the overall study periods (1960-2008) at beyond the five percent level and statistically significant at the one percent level for the two sub-periods (1970-2007 and 1980-2008). Thus, as expected, the higher the average effective federal income tax rate, the greater the expected benefits of tax evasion may be and hence the greater the extent of that income tax evasion. This finding is consistent with most previous studies of income tax evasion using official data… In all three estimates, [the audit variable] exhibits the expected negative sign; however, in all three estimates it fails to be statistically significant at the five percent level. Indeed, these three coefficients are statistically significant at barely the 10 percent level. Thus it appears the audit rate (AUDIT) variable, of an in itself, may not be viewed as a strong deterrent to federal personal income taxation [evasion].

Translating from economic jargon, the study concludes that higher tax burdens lead to more evasion. Statists usually claim that this can be addressed by giving the IRS more power, but the researchers found that audit rates have a very weak effect.

The obvious conclusion, as I’ve noted before, is that lower tax rates and tax reform are the best way to improve tax compliance – not more power for the IRS.

Incidentally, this new study also finds that evasion increases when the unemployment rate increases. Given his proposals for higher tax rates and his poor track record on jobs, it almost makes one think Obama is trying to set a record for tax evasion.

The study also finds that dissatisfaction with government is correlated with tax evasion. And since Obama’s White House has been wasting money on corrupt green energy programs and a failed stimulus, that also suggests that the Administration wants more tax evasion.

Indeed, this last finding is consistent with some research from the Bank of Italy that I cited in 2010.

…the coefficient of public spending inefficiency remains negative and highly significant. …We find that tax morale is higher when the taxpayer perceives and observes that the government is efficient; that is, it provides a fair output with respect to the revenues.

And I imagine that “tax morale” in the United States is further undermined by an internal revenue code that has metastasized into a 72,000-page monstrosity of corruption and sleaze.

On the other hand, tax evasion apparently is correlated with real per-capita gross domestic product. And since the economy has suffered from anemic performance over the past three years, that blows a hole in the conspiratorial theory that Obama wants more evasion.

All joking aside, I’m sure the President wants more tax compliance and more prosperity. And since I’m a nice guy, I’m going to help him out. Mr. President, this video outlines a plan that would achieve both of those goals.

Given his class-warfare rhetoric, I’m not holding my breath in anticipation that he will follow my sage advice.

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I’m perfectly willing to give my opponents credit when they do something clever and/or effective.

I posted this video making fun of libertarians, for instance, because it is genuinely funny. People like me, I will confess, sometimes are so allergic to government that we do things that make us easy targets for satire.

Well, here’s a video parody of Mitt Romney and the Cayman Islands, obviously designed to resemble the Corona beer commercials. I’m not impressed.

My tepid reaction is not because I recently defended Romney’s use of Cayman-based investment vehicles.

Indeed, here’s an old video attacking tax havens, and I think it’s sufficiently amusing that I just uploaded it onto my Youtube channel because it’s worth sharing and I couldn’t find it online.

Both of these leftist videos make silly and inaccurate points, but the anti-Romney video is simplistic and the entire premise is false. He’s not hiding anything. Intelligent satire uses the truth as a starting point. This video doesn’t.

The anti-Cheney video, by contrast, has some big mistakes, but at least it is based on the accurate premise that companies legally try to reduce their taxes. Moreover, the Jimmy Buffett music is a nice touch.

Since I’ve share a couple of anti-tax haven videos, I feel compelled to post one of mine for some balance. And since I recently posted my video on the economic case for tax havens, here’s my video on the moral case for tax havens.

And if you want to really understand these issues, I humbly suggest you look at the paper I wrote for the UK-based Adam Smith Institute.

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Exactly 10 days ago, I predicted that the press would attack Mitt Romney for using tax havens. In that post, I wrote that, “…based on the questions, it appears that the establishment media wants to hit Romney for utilizing tax havens… As far as I can tell, none of these reporters have come out with a story. …But I think it’s just a matter of time.”

Sure enough, like the swallows returning to Capistrano, it’s happened. Two hacks at ABC News, Brian Ross and Megan Chuchmach, revealed (brace yourself for a real scoop) that Mitt Romney is a rich guy and some of his investments are based in funds domiciled in the Cayman Islands (gasp!).

Wow, what a revelation! This must be Pulitzer Prize material. Pray tell, what wrongdoing did the story uncover? Well, let’s excerpt the key passages from the article.

Mitt Romney has millions of dollars of his personal wealth in investment funds set up in the Cayman Islands, a notorious Caribbean tax haven. A spokesperson for the Romney campaign says Romney follows all tax laws and he would pay the same in taxes regardless of where the funds are based.  …Romney has as much as $8 million invested in at least 12 funds listed on a Cayman Islands registry. Another investment, which Romney reports as being worth between $5 million and $25 million, shows up on securities records as having been domiciled in the Caymans.  …Romney campaign officials and those at Bain Capital tell ABC News that the purpose of setting up those accounts in the Cayman Islands is to help attract money from foreign investors, and that the accounts provide no tax advantage to American investors like Romney. Romney, the campaign said, has paid all U.S. taxes on income derived from those investments. …Bain officials called the decision to locate some funds offshore routine, and a benefit only to foreign investors who do not want to be subjected to U.S. taxes.

You’re probably thinking you missed something, because there’s nothing to the story. But that’s because the reporters don’t have anything. And if you think I excerpted unfairly, feel free to read the whole article.

The only thing you’ll discover is that Ross and Chuchmach are biased hacks. Because not only did they write a story about nothing, they also quoted two left-wingers, Jack Blum and Rebecca Wilson, and failed to give the other side even an inch of column space.

Blum is a former John Kerry staffer who is most famous for making unsubstantiated claims (which he later admitted were fabricated) that tax havens resulted in $100 billion of lost revenue to the Treasury each year.

And Rebecca Wilson works for Citizens for Tax Justice, a union-funded group so radical that even congressional Democrats usually are reluctant to work with them.

But what about the other side of the story?

  1. Did the article quote me, since I’ve been working on these issues for more than a decade? No.
  2. Did the article quote anybody from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, the organization most active in the fight to defend low-tax jurisdictions? No.
  3. Did the article quote Richard Rahn, the Cato Institute Fellow who was a Board Member of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority? No.
  4. Did the article quote any of the academic scholars who have written about so-called tax havens, such as Jim Hines of the University of Michigan or Andrew Morriss of the University of Alabama? No.
  5. Did the article quote Bob Bauman, the former Congressman and offshore expert who serves as Legal Counsel of the Sovereign Society? No.

Fair and competent journalists would have done those things, but not the dynamic duo from ABC News.

Instead, they quote two hard-core lefts. And in a gross display of editorializing, they also referred to the Cayman Islands as a “notorious tax haven.”

Yet what is “notorious” about being a prosperous multiracial society with living standards considerably above American levels?

Moreover, Cayman has a tax treaty with the United States and an overwhelming share of the investment in the jurisdiction is completely legal institutional money – just like the Romney investment funds.

But I guess a place like the Cayman Islands must be bad, at least to biased people from the press. After all, a place with no income taxes, no capital gains taxes, no payroll taxes, and no death taxes must be condemned.

I’m not a Romney fan, as you can see by reading this post, but I believe in honest and intelligent debate. Too bad ABC doesn’t.

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