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Posts Tagged ‘Competitiveness’

I don’t know whether it’s because I’m a libertarian or because I’m an economist, but I get very frustrated by the issue of corporate inversions.

It galls me to hear demagogic politicians like Obama make absurd statements about “unpatriotic” corporations that re-domicile overseas when the problem is entirely the result of bad policy that penalizes U.S.-domiciled firms trying to compete in global markets.

1. The United States imposes the world’s highest corporate tax rate.

2. The United States is one of the few countries to impose “worldwide tax” on domestic firms.

3. The United States maintains very anti-competitive tax rules.

So when politicians grouse about “Benedict Arnold” companies, my reaction is to be happy that companies are taking steps to protect workers, consumers, and shareholders.

But, given what he’s done on amnesty and Obamacare, you won’t be surprised to learn that the President has unilaterally changed policy to make inversions more difficult.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the President’s bad policy doesn’t change reality.

An editorial in the Wall Street Journal looks at the latest example of an American company getting a new address.

Ireland-based drug company Actavis on Monday announced a $66 billion agreement to buy California’s Allergan , maker of the Botox anti-wrinkle treatment. …the tax savings…could be hundreds of millions a year beginning in 2015.

The folks at the WSJ make the obvious point about bad American tax laws.

…the deal highlights how desperately U.S. tax policy needs a makeover. …As if a combined state and local corporate tax rate of 40%—the highest in the industrialized world—isn’t harsh enough, the U.S. is also one of the few countries in which the government demands to be paid even on earnings that have already been taxed in foreign jurisdictions. Given this competitive disadvantage for U.S.-based firms, it’s no coincidence that both of the suitors that have been seeking to acquire Allergan are based overseas.

And what’s really remarkable is that both the suitors used to be U.S.-based companies!

Both Actavis and Valeant used to be based in the U.S. but moved their headquarters offshore in so-called inversion transactions in which they adopted the home country of businesses they acquired. Moving offshore allows businesses to invest more in the U.S., as Actavis has already done with its recent purchase of New York’s Forest Laboratories.

But hold on a second, didn’t the Obama Administration enact rules to prevent inversions?

President Obama views such rational decisions as unpatriotic, because he wants to tax both foreign and U.S. operations. So this fall Treasury Secretary Jack Lew reinterpreted longstanding tax regulations to make it more expensive to execute such deals—a punishment for companies that didn’t exit the U.S. when they had the chance. …Mr. Lew has decided the best response to foreign tax competition is to bolt the door to prevent more corporate escapes.

But here’s the catch. The White House and Treasury Department did make it more costly for companies to re-domicile, but the Administration can’t actually prohibit cross-border mergers.

So let’s summarize the net effect.

Before the Obama Administration imposed new rules, American-based companies would acquire foreign-based companies and use that maneuver to technically re-domicile in a nation with less punitive corporate taxation. But there’s very little risk of American jobs being lost.

After the rule changes, American-based companies are the ones being acquired by their overseas competitors. This means the White House can’t argue that the change in domicile isn’t real. And it means that there’s a far higher probability of jobs going overseas.

I guess the White House thinks this is a victory.

Let’s now step back and put this issue in context. This is the educational part of today’s column.

Here are some slides from a presentation by Professor Dick Harvey at Villanova University School of Law. He presents lots of information, but here are the three slides that are probably most interesting to non-tax geeks.

First, here’s the key thing to know about inversions. They’re a do-it-yourself version of territorial taxation.

And since territorial taxation is the right policy, nobody should be upset about inversions.

Second,  here’s a look at how many inversions occur each year. As you can see, we’re in the midst of another wave.

You’ll notice that these waves roughly coincide with periods featuring corporate tax rate reductions in other nations.

So the lesson is that bad American policy is making it more and more difficult for U.S.-domiciled firms to compete in global markets.

Third, here’s a slide showing where companies are re-domiciling.

Some of my favorite places, particularly Cayman, Bermuda, Switzerland, and Hong Kong!

Now let’s zoom out even further and consider the leftist view that multinational corporations are getting away with some sort of scam because of so-called stateless income.

Sinclair Davidson, a professor at Australia’s RMIT University, writes about the issue. Here are a few excerpts from his scholarly paper.

It is commonly argued that the corporate income tax system is ‘broken’. …The latest theoretical argument suggesting that the corporate income tax base is likely to be eroded is the ‘stateless income doctrine’.

But there’s an itsy-bitsy problem with this theory, as Sinclair explains.

…there is no evidence to support the view that the corporate income tax base is being eroded. At best, the concern about the tax base is not so much that it is being eroded, but rather that multinational corporations do not pay tax in every host economy.

He also points out that companies are obeying the law, which is a point I’ve also made on this topic.

…there is little evidence of any wrongdoing by any of the three corporations that are regularly singled out for abuse. It is true that these corporations do not pay as much tax in the UK or the US as those governments would like them to pay, but they pay as much tax as is required by the laws that those governments have passed. …‘None of this required a Senate “investigation” to  discover because Apple is constantly inspected by the IRS and other tax authorities. These tax collectors are well aware of Apple’s corporate structure, which has remained essentially the same since 1980. An Apple executive said Tuesday that the company’s annual US tax return adds up to a stack of paperwork more than two feet high. …These corporations are fully compliant with the tax law in the jurisdictions in which they operate.

So what’s his bottom line?

There is no such thing as ‘stateless income’, rather there is income that the governments of the UK and the US do not tax because under their own legal systems that income is not sourced in their economy. When these governments complain about stateless income, the question rather should be, ‘Why do the owners of intellectual property not locate their property in your economy?’. An implicit assumption of the stateless income doctrine is that multinational corporations maximise their value to society only when they pay tax. Of course, this is not the case. … It is one thing to point out that multinational corporations do not pay tax in some jurisdictions but that says nothing about the actual corporate  income tax base. … So-called ‘stateless income’ is a return on intellectual property.

Amen.

Let’s close with another perspective on the issue. Stewart Dompe and Adam Smith of Johnson and Wales University in North Carolina have a column in The Freeman.

…the United States is unique in that it taxes corporations at 35 percent regardless of where the income is earned, and hence regardless of whether the corporation benefited from any public goods. Payment without benefit is simply bad business. Avoiding particularly high tax rates like those of the United States can yield significant savings for companies—and their shareholders. Charlotte-based Chiquita Brands International, for instance, hopes to save $60 million via its recent acquisition of Ireland-based Fyffes PLC. Burger King’s merger, according to analyst estimates, could cut its overall tax bill by 13 percent. …Populist themes like “economic patriotism” may appeal to voters, but such arguments are nonsensical: Firms are ultimately responsible to their shareholders. As Judge Learned Hand wrote, “Any one may so arrange his affairs that his taxes shall be as low as possible; he is not bound to choose that pattern which will best pay the Treasury; there is not even a patriotic duty to increase one’s taxes.” If anything, firms have a moral responsibility to minimize their taxable liabilities. The legal structure of a firm establishes the relationship between shareholders, who own the capital, and managers that make operating decisions. Executives have a fiduciary responsibility to pay the lowest tax possible because they are the stewards of their shareholders’ wealth.

I particularly like their conclusion.

This competition among legal regimes is a powerful constraint on government—and that is a good thing for all of us. America has the second-highest corporate tax rate in the world—the highest when state taxes are included. The solution to this problem lies not in closing loopholes or imitating poor Oliver pleading for more, but in offering a simpler, more competitive tax system.

They hit the nail on the head. As I argued just yesterday, we need to restrain the greed of the political class.

But the fight isn’t limited to national capitals. International bureaucracies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development also are promoting schemes to squeeze more money out of companies – which, of course, means harming workers, consumers, and shareholders.

The pro-tax crowd can concoct all sorts of theories, such as stateless income, but this assault on companies is happening because government have spent themselves into a fiscal ditch and they want taxpayers to pay the price for this profligacy.

P.S. If you read this far, you deserve a reward. You can enjoy a good Michael Ramirez cartoon about inversions by clicking here, and there are several additional cartoons included in this post.

P.P.S. But if you’re a glutton for punishment, you can watch my video on international corporate taxation instead.

P.P.P.S. One final point worth sharing is that folks who try to complain about “low tax burdens” on the foreign-source income of American multinationals need to remember that they pay a lot of tax to foreign governments.

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Tax competition is a very important tool for constraining the greed of the political class. Simply stated, politicians are less likely to impose bad tax policy if they are afraid that jobs and investment (and accompanying tax revenue) will move to jurisdictions with better tax policy.

This works to limit revenue grabs by politicians at the state level and it works to control the craving for money on the part of politicians at the national level.

But this doesn’t mean all forms of tax competition are equally desirable.

If a country lowers overall tax rates on personal income or corporate income in hopes of attracting business activity, that’s great for prosperity. If a jurisdiction seeks faster growth by reducing double taxation – such as lowering the tax rate on capital gains or abolishing the death tax, that’s also very beneficial.

Some politicians, however, try to entice businesses with special one-off deals, which means one politically well-connected company gets a tax break while the overall fiscal regime for other companies stays the same (or even gets worse).

That’s corrupt cronyism, not proper tax competition.

With this in mind, let’s consider the growing controversy about tax planning by multinational companies. There’s lot of controversy, both in the United States and in Europe, about whether companies are gaming the system.

The most recent kerfuffle deals with Luxembourg, which is accused of having a very friendly regime for business taxation.

Syed Kamall, a Tory member of the European Parliament, has a column in the Wall Street Journal Europe about the right kind of corporate tax competition.

It seems to have come as a great shock to many in the European Parliament that Luxembourg may have encouraged multinational companies to domicile there to pay lower taxes. I’m not sure where these members of parliament have been living for the past 20 years.

What worries Syed is that many European politicians want to use the news from Luxembourg as an excuse to push tax harmonization.

…an agenda of EU-wide tax harmonization…is rapidly gaining popularity in some quarters despite being exactly the wrong prescription for Europe. …tax harmonization…would hang the “Closed for Business” sign at Europe’s border. Tax competition across the single market helps keep tax rates competitive and drives inward investment. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has said that “the ability [of companies] to choose the location of economic activity offsets shortcomings in government budgeting processes, limiting a tendency to spend and tax excessively.”

By the way, the OECD is a big proponent of tax harmonization, so it’s especially noteworthy that even those bureaucrats admitted that tax competition constrains greedy government.

You can click here for further examples of OECD economists admitting that tax competition is necessary and desirable, notwithstanding the anti-market policies being advocated by the political appointees who run the institution.

And since we’re discussing the merits of tax competition, we should point out that Mr. Kamall also mentioned those benefits.

The clearest example of that came with the tax reductions enacted by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Those tax-rate cuts in the U.K. and U.S. forced other industrialized nations to cut their average top marginal rate for personal income to 42% today from more than 67% in 1980 simply to remain competitive, according to the Adam Smith Institute. Tax competition has driven down the average top rate for corporate income in the developed world to less than 27% today from 48% in 1980. Tax competition in Europe encouraged many EU members from the former Soviet bloc to enact flat taxes, which have benefitted them substantially. …it’s important for leaders to keep making the case that tax-policy competition within the single market has been good for Europe.

And he correctly warns that tax harmonization would be a vehicle for higher tax burdens.

Imposing uniform rates under a harmonized system would turn the EU into a convoy that can move only as fast as the slowest ship. Europe’s tax rate would be only as low as the highest-taxing member. …A harmonized tax system would encourage companies and investors to seek new solutions outside the EU in order to avoid paying what would inevitably be higher, French-style levels of European taxation.

And if you don’t believe Mr. Kamall, just look at what’s happened over the past couple of years in Europe.

Last but not least, Syed points out that there is a pro-growth way of improving tax compliance.

The best way to cut down on tax avoidance is to cut tax rates and simplify tax codes. That way people and companies would be willing and able to pay their money to Europe’s exchequers, rather than paying accountants to find loopholes.

But that would require politicians to be responsible, so don’t hold your breath.

So what’s the bottom line? Is there a good way of identifying the desirable forms of tax competition that should be defended.

The simple answer is that it’s always a good idea to compete with lower tax rates that apply to all taxpayers. That’s true for tax rates on companies and households.

The more complex (but equally important) answer is that it’s also good to compete by having a properly designed tax system. On the business side, that means expensing instead of depreciation and territorial taxation rather than worldwide taxation. For households, it means having the proper definition of income so that there’s no longer pernicious discrimination against saving and investment.

Misguided tax competition, by contrast, exists when there are very narrow preferences that apply to a small handful of powerful taxpayers.

For more information on the general topic, here’s my video on the virtues of tax competition.

P.S. My support for tax competition is so intense that I even try to bring the message to unfriendly audiences, such as Capitol Hill and the New York Times.

P.P.S. Heck, my support for tax competition is so intense that I almost got tossed in a third-world jail. That’s true dedication!

P.P.P.S. In you admire hypocrisy, you’ll be very impressed that many rich statists utilize tax havens to protect their money even though they want you to give more of your income to government.

P.P.P.P.S. Speaking of hypocrisy, the main anti-tax competition international organization gives its bureaucrats tax-free salaries.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Since I just mentioned the OECD, I should note that it has a project to curtail business tax competition. They claim that their intention is to go after misguided forms of tax competition, but I’m not surprised that the real goal is to simply extract more money from companies.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S. I’m not sure how to classify this final bit of information, but it’s surely worth mentioning that Bill Clinton defends corporate tax competition. As does Bono.

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According to the bean counters at Ernst and Young, the United States has one of the highest capital gains tax rates in the world.

But if you don’t trust the numbers from a big accounting firm, then you can peruse a study from the pro-tax Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that reaches the same conclusion.

But does this really matter? Is the United States harmed by having a high tax rate?

The Wall Street Journal certainly makes a compelling case that high tax rates on capital gains are self-destructive.

And this remarkable chart shows that workers are victimized when there is less investment.

Let’s add to all this evidence.

Jason Clemens, Charles Lammam, and Matthew Lo have produced a thorough study for the Fraser Institute about the economic impact of capital gains taxation.

A capital gain (or loss) generally refers to the price of an asset when it is sold compared to its original purchase price. A capital gain occurs if the value of the asset at the time of sale is greater than the initial purchase price. …Capital gains taxes, of course, raise revenues for government but they do so with considerable economic costs. Capital gains taxes impose costs on the economy because they reduce returns on investment and thereby distort decision making by individuals and businesses. This can have a substantial impact on the reallocation of capital, the available stock of capital, and the level of entrepreneurship.

It turns out that there are many reasons why the capital gains tax harms economic performance. Clemens, Lammam, and Lo explain the “lock-in effect.”

Capital gains are taxed on a realization basis. This means that the tax is only imposed when an investor opts to withdraw his or her investment from the market and realize the capital gain. One of the most significant economic effects is the incentive this creates for owners of capital to retain their current investments even if more profitable and productive opportunities are available. Economists refer to this result as the “lock-in” effect. Capital that is locked into suboptimal investments and not reallocated to more profitable opportunities hinders economic output. …Peter Kugler and Carlos Lenz (2001)…examined the experience of regional governments (“cantons”) in Switzerland that eliminated their capital gains taxes. The authors’ statistical analysis showed that the elimination of capital gains taxes had a positive and economically significant effect on the long-term level of real income in seven of the eight cantons studied. Specifically, the increase in the long-term level of real income ranged between 1.1 percent and 3.0 percent, meaning that the size of the economy was 1 percent to 3 percent larger due to the elimination of capital gains taxes.

Then the authors analyze the impact of capital gains taxes on the “user cost” of capital investment.

Capital gains taxes make capital investments more expensive and therefore less investment occurs. …Several studies have investigated the link between the supply and cost of venture capital financing and capital gains taxation, and found theoretical and empirical evidence suggesting a direct causality between a lower tax rate and a greater supply of venture capital. …Kevin Milligan, Jack Mintz, and Thomas Wilson (1999) sought to estimate the sensitivity of investment to changes in the user cost of capital…and found that decreasing capital gains taxes by 4.0 percentage points leads to a 1.0 to 2.0 percent increase in investment.

Next, they investigate the impact on entrepreneurship.

Capital gains taxes reduce the return that entrepreneurs and investors receive from the sale of a business. This diminishes the reward for entrepreneurial risk-taking and reduces the number of entrepreneurs and the investors that support them. The result is lower levels of economic growth and job creation. …Analysing the stock of venture capital and tax rates on capital gains from 1972 to 1994, Gompers and Lerner found that a one percentage point increase in the rate of the capital gains tax was associated with a 3.8 percent reduction in venture capital funding.

Last but not least, the authors also discuss the impact of capital gains taxation on compliance costs, administrative costs, and tax avoidance. They also look at the marginal efficiency cost of capital gains taxation and report on some of the research in that area.

Dale Jorgensen and Kun-Young Yun (1991)…estimate the marginal efficiency costs of select US taxes and find that capital-based taxes (such as capital gains taxes) impose a marginal cost of $0.92 for one additional dollar of revenue compared to $0.26 for consumption taxes. …Baylor and Beausejour find that a $1 decrease in personal income taxes on capital (such as capital gains, dividends, and interest income) increases society’s well-being by $1.30; by comparison, a similar decrease in consumption taxes only produces a $0.10 benefit. …the Quebec government’s Ministry of Finance…found that a reduction in capital gains taxes yields more economic benefits than a reduction in other types of taxes such as sales taxes. Reducing the capital gains tax by $1 would yield a $1.21 increase in the GDP.

Here’s my video on the topic, which explains that the right capital gains tax rate is zero.

The bottom line is that the United States is shooting itself in the foot.

Or, to be more accurate, politicians are hobbling America’s productive sector  and undermining U.S. competitiveness with senseless class-warfare taxation.

And don’t forget that the United States compounds the damage with the world’s highest corporate tax rate, pervasive double taxation of dividends, and a punitive death tax.

So while some countries are doing the right thing and abolishing their capital gains taxes, the United States is languishing in the international contest for more investment.

The only “good news” is that a few other nations also impose foolish policies as well.

P.S. It’s worth noting that all good tax reforms, such as the flat tax, completely abolish the capital gains tax.

P.P.S. This is yet another example of first-rate research from the Fraser Institute. They’re the publishers of Economic Freedom of the World, as well as some excellent research on the harmful impact of excessive government spending.

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Since all economic theories – even Marxism and socialism – recognize that capital formation is a key to long-run growth, higher wages, and improved living standards, it obviously doesn’t make sense to penalize saving and investment.

Yet that’s exactly what happens because of double taxation in the United States, as can be seen by this rather sobering flowchart.

So how can we fix the problem? The best answer, particularly in the long run, is to shrink the burden of government spending so that there’s no pressure for punitive tax policies.

Good reform is also possible in the medium run. Policy makers could implement a big bang version of tax reform, replacing the corrupt internal revenue code with a simple and fair flat tax. That automatically would eliminate the tax bias against saving and investment since one of the key principles of the flat tax is that income gets taxed only one time.

That being said, there’s no chance of sweeping tax reform for the next few years (and maybe ever), so let’s look at some pro-growth incremental reforms that would reduce or eliminate the extra tax penalties on income that is saved and invested.

On the investment side of the ledger, any policies that lower or end the capital gains tax and the double tax on dividends would be desirable.

But let’s focus today on the saving side. And let’s start by explaining how a fair and neutral system would operate. Here’s what I wrote back in 2012 and I think it’s reasonably succinct and accurate.

…all saving and investment should be treated the way we currently treat individual retirement accounts. If you have a traditional IRA (or “front-ended” IRA), you get a deduction for any money you put in a retirement account, but then you pay tax on the money – including any earnings – when the money is withdrawn. If you have a Roth IRA (or “back-ended” IRA), you pay tax on your income in the year that it is earned, but if you put the money in a retirement account, there is no additional tax on withdrawals or the subsequent earnings. From an economic perspective, front-ended IRAs and back-ended IRAs generate the same result. Income that is saved and invested is treated the same as income that is immediately consumed. From a present-value perspective, front-ended IRAs and back-ended IRAs produce the same outcome. All that changes is the point at which the government imposes the single layer of tax.

The key takeaways are in the first and last sentences. All savings should be protected from double taxation, not just what you set aside for retirement. And that means government can tax you one time, either when you first earn the income or when you consume the income.

Our friends to the north can teach us some lessons on this issue.

Here are some excerpts from a column in the Wall Street Journal, authored by my colleague Chris Edwards and Amity Shlaes of the Calvin Coolidge Foundation.

Some Republicans are advocating a giant child tax credit, but there are more effective means for helping the middle class. One is a tax program already road-tested in the country whose populace most resembles our own, Canada. It’s called the Tax-Free Savings Account and TFSA, as most Canadians refer to it, is a roaring success. …what is this Canadian savings account? The nearest U.S. equivalent would be Roth Individual Retirement Accounts. With a Roth, workers pay taxes on earnings before they put their cash into the account. The money then grows tax-protected, and people pay no tax when they withdraw it.

But these accounts are much better than Roth IRAs.

Though these savings accounts were introduced only five years ago, 48% of Canadians have already signed up. That compares with only 38% of U.S. households owning any type of IRA—though IRAs have been around for decades….Roth accounts have numerous restrictions. You can’t open a Roth easily if your earnings are above certain limits: $191,000, for example, for a married couple filing jointly. You can’t withdraw cash whenever you feel like it, at least not without daunting penalties. …Canada’s TFSAs are like Roth IRAs—but supercharged. Citizens may deposit up to $5,500 after-tax each year, and all account earnings and withdrawals are tax-free. However, unlike Roth IRAs, funds can be withdrawn at any time for any reason with no penalties or taxes. Another feature: The annual limit on a contribution carries over from year to year if a citizen doesn’t reach it. So if a Canadian contributes $2,000 this year, he can put away up to $9,000 next year ($3,500 plus $5,500). There are other attractive features: Unlike in a Roth, there are no income limits for individuals contributing to a TFSA, and there are no withdrawal requirements at retirement.

In other words, the Canadian accounts are like unlimited or unrestricted Roth IRAs.

And because the government isn’t trying to micro-manage how people save, Canadians are very receptive. Chris adds some additional information in a post for Cato at Liberty.

…released new data confirming the popularity of TFSAs. In just the past year, TFSA account assets increased 34 percent, and the number of accounts increased 16 percent. In June 2014, 13 million Canadians held $132 billion in TFSA assets. Given that the U.S. population is about 10 times that of Canada, it would be like 130 million Americans pouring $1.3 trillion into a new personal savings vehicle. …In just five years, TFSAs have become the most popular savings vehicle in Canada, outstripping the Canadian version of 401(k)s.

Here’s a chart Chris included in his blog post.

And he adds some more analysis on the importance of simple vehicles to protect against double taxation.

Everyone agrees that Americans don’t save enough, so why don’t we kick-start a home-grown savings revolution with a U.S. version of TFSAs? …Canada has now run the real-world experiment on such accounts, and it has succeeded brilliantly. TFSAs, or USAs, are a better way to handle savings in the tax code. Currently, many people are scared off by the complexity of U.S. savings vehicles and by the lack of liquidity in retirement accounts. TFSAs solve these problems.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see whether American policy makers pay attention and follow Chris’ sage advice.

P.S. I realize I’m being picky, but I wish the Canadians didn’t use the term “tax-free savings accounts.” After the all, the income is taxed before it gets put into the accounts. Though even a nit-picker like me realizes that it might be a bit awkward to call them “no-double-taxation savings accounts.”

P.P.S. I do like that Chris and Amity argued that the accounts would be better than big child tax credits, particularly since I also argued in the Wall Street Journal that there were better ways to help the middle class.

P.P.P.S. Canada also can teach us important lessons on other issues, such as spending restraint, corporate tax reform, bank bailouts, and privatization of air traffic control. Heck, Canada even has one of the lowest levels of welfare spending among developed nations.

P.P.P.P.S. No wonder the two most capitalistic places in North America are in Canada. And Canada ranks above the United States in the Economic Freedom of the World Index.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Though there are still plenty of statists north of the border, so I’m not sure it’s the best escape option for advocates of small government. Though I doubt leftists no longer see it as an escape option, which was the premise of this joke that circulated after the 2010 election.

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I’ve had ample reason to praise Hong Kong’s economic policy.

Most recently, it was ranked (once again) as the world’s freest economy.

And I’ve shown that this makes a difference by comparing Hong Kong’s economic performance to the comparatively lackluster (or weak) performance of economies in the United States, Argentina, and France.

But perhaps the most encouraging thing about Hong Kong is that the nation’s top officials genuinely seem to understand the importance of small government.

Here are some excerpts from a recent speech delivered by Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary. He brags about small government and low tax rates!

Hong Kong has a simple tax system built on low tax rates. Our maximum salaries tax rate is 15 per cent and the profits tax rate a flat 16.5 per cent. Few companies and individuals would find it worth the risk to evade taxes at this low level. And that helps keep our compliance and enforcement costs low. Keeping our government small is at the heart of our fiscal principles. Leaving most of the community’s income and wealth in the hands of individuals and businesses gives the private sector greater flexibility and efficiency in making investment decisions and optimises the returns for the community. This helps to foster a business environment conducive to growth and competitiveness. It also encourages productivity and labour participation. Our annual recurrent government expenditure has remained steady over the past five years, at 13 per cent of GDP. …we have not responded irresponsibly to…populist calls by introducing social policies that increase government spending disproportionally. …The fact that our total government expenditure on social welfare has remained at less than 3 per cent of our GDP over the past five years speaks volumes about the precision, as well as the effectiveness, of these measures.

And he specifically mentions the importance of controlling the growth of government, which is the core message of Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

Our commitment to small government demands strong fiscal discipline….It is my responsibility to keep expenditure growth commensurate with growth in our GDP.

Is that just empty rhetoric?

Hardly. Here’s Article 107 from the Basic Law, which is “the constitutional document” for Hong Kong

The most important part of Article 107, needless to say, is that part of keeping budgetary growth “commensurate with the growth rate of its gross domestic product.”

The folks in Hong Kong don’t want to wind up like Europe.

Last year, I set up a Working Group on Long-term Fiscal Planning to conduct a fiscal sustainability health check. We did it because we are keenly aware of Hong Kong’s low fertility rate and ageing population, not unlike many advanced economies. And that can pose challenges to public finance in the longer term. A series of expenditure-control measures, including a 2 per cent efficiency enhancement over the next three financial years, has been rolled out.

And, speaking of Europe, he says the statist governments from that continent should clean up their own messes before criticizing Hong Kong for being responsible.

I would hope that some of those governments in Europe, those that have accused Hong Kong of being a tax haven, would look at the way they conduct their own fiscal policies. I believe they could learn a lesson from us about the virtues of small government.

Just in case you think this speech is somehow an anomaly, let’s now look at some slides from a separate presentation by different Hong Kong officials.

Here’s one that warmed my heart. The Hong Kong official is bragging about the low-tax regime, which features a flat tax of 15 percent!

But what’s even more impressive is that Hong Kong has a very small burden of government spending.

And government officials brag about small government.

By the way, you’ll also notice that there’s virtually no red ink in Hong Kong, largely because the government focuses on controlling the disease of excessive spending.

Why is government small?

In large part, as you see from the next slide, because there is almost no redistribution spending.

Indeed, officials actually brag that fewer and fewer people are riding in the wagon of dependency.

Can you imagine American lawmakers with this kind of good sense?

None of this means that Hong Kong doesn’t have any challenges.

There are protests about a lack of democracy. There’s an aging population. And there’s the uncertainty of China.

But at least for now, Hong Kong is a tribute to the success of free markets and small government.

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Most of us will never be directly impacted by the international provisions of the internal revenue code.

That’s bad news because it presumably means we don’t have a lot of money, but it’s good news because IRS policies regarding “foreign-source income” are a poisonous combination of complexity, harshness, and bullying (this image from the International Tax Blog helps to illustrate that only taxpayers with lots of money can afford the lawyers and accountants needed to navigate this awful part of the internal revenue code).

But the bullying and the burdens aren’t being imposed solely on Americans. The internal revenue code is uniquely unilateral and imperialistic, so we simultaneously hurt U.S. taxpayers and cause discord with other jurisdictions.

Here are some very wise words from a Washington Post column by Professor Andrés Martinez of Arizona State University.

Much of his article focuses on the inversion issue, but I’ve already covered that topic many times. What caught my attention instead is that he does a great job of highlighting the underlying philosophical and design flaws of our tax code. And what he writes on that topic is very much worth sharing.

The Obama administration is not living up to its promise to move the country away from an arrogant, unilateral approach to the world. And it has not embraced a more consensus-driven, multipolar vision that reflects the fact that America is not the sole player in the global sandbox. No, I am not talking here about national security or counter-terrorism policy, but rather the telling issue of how governments think about money — specifically the money they are entitled to, as established by their tax policies. …ours is a country with an outdated tax code — one that reflects the worst go-it-alone, imperialistic, America-first impulses. …the…problem is old-fashioned Yankee imperialism.

What is he talking about? What is this fiscal imperialism?

It’s worldwide taxation, a policy that is grossly inconsistent with good tax policy (for instance, worldwide taxation is abolished under both the flat tax and national sales tax).

He elaborates.

The United States persists in imposing its “worldwide taxation” system, as opposed to the “territorial” model embraced by most of the rest of the world. Under a “territorial” tax system, the sovereign with jurisdiction over the economic activity is entitled to tax it.  If you profit from doing business in France, you owe the French treasury taxes, regardless of whether you are a French, American or Japanese multinational.  Even the United States, conveniently, subscribes to this logical approach when it comes to foreign companies doing business here: Foreign companies pay Washington corporate taxes on the income made by their U.S. operations. But under our worldwide tax system, Uncle Sam also taxes your income as an American citizen (or Apple’s or Coca-Cola’s) anywhere in the world. …Imagine you are a California-based widget manufacturer competing around the world against a Dutch widget manufacturer. You both do very well and compete aggressively in Latin America, and pay taxes on your income there. Trouble is, your Dutch competitor can reinvest those profits back in its home country without paying additional taxes, but you can’t.

Amen.

Indeed, if you watch this video, you’ll see that I also show how the territorial system of the Netherlands is far superior and more pro-competitive than America’s worldwide regime.

And if you like images, this graphic explains how American companies are put at a competitive disadvantage.

Professor Martinez points to the obvious solution.

Instead of attacking companies struggling to compete in the global marketplace, the Obama administration should work with Republicans to move to a territorial tax system.

But, needless to say, the White House wants to move policy in the wrong direction.

Looking specifically at the topic of inversions, the Wall Street Journal eviscerates the Obama Administration’s unilateral effort to penalize American companies that compete overseas.

Here are some of the highlights.

…the Obama Treasury this week rolled out a plan to discourage investment in America. …the practical impact will be to make it harder to make money overseas and then bring it back here. …if the changes work as intended, they will make it more difficult and expensive for companies to reinvest foreign earnings in the U.S. Tell us again how this helps American workers.

The WSJ makes three very powerful points.

First, companies that invert still pay tax on profits earned in America.

…the point is not to ensure that U.S. business profits will continue to be taxed. Such profits will be taxed under any of the inversion deals that have received so much recent attention. The White House goal is to ensure that the U.S. government can tax theforeign profits of U.S. companies, even though this money has already been taxed by the countries in which it was earned, and even though those countries generally don’t tax their own companies on profits earned in the U.S.

Second, there is no dearth of corporate tax revenue.

Mr. Lew may be famously ignorant on matters of finance, but now there’s reason to question his command of basic math. Corporate income tax revenues have roughly doubled since the recession. Such receipts surged in fiscal year 2013 to $274 billion, up from $138 billion in 2009. Even the White House budget office is expecting corporate income tax revenues for fiscal 2014 to rise above $332 billion and to hit $502 billion by 2016.

Third, it’s either laughable or unseemly that companies are being lectured about “fairness” and “patriotism” by a cronyist like Treasury Secretary Lew.

It must be fun for corporate executives to get a moral lecture from a guy who took home an $800,000 salary from a nonprofit university and then pocketed a severance payment when he quit to work on Wall Street, even though school policy says only terminated employees are eligible for severance.

Heck, it’s not just that Lew got sweetheart treatment from an educational institution that gets subsidies from Washington.

The WSJ also should have mentioned that he was an “unpatriotic” tax avoider when he worked on Wall Street.

But I guess rules are only for the little people, not the political elite.

P.S. Amazingly, I actually found a very good joke about worldwide taxation. Maybe not as funny as these IRS jokes, but still reasonably amusing.

P.P.S. Shifting from tax competitiveness to tax principles, I’ve been criticized for being a squish by Laurence Vance of the Mises Institute. He wrote:

Mitchell supports the flat tax is “other than a family-based allowance, it gets rid of all loopholes, deductions, credits, exemptions, exclusions, and preferences, meaning economic activity is taxed equally.” But because “a national sales tax (such as the Fair Tax) is like a flat tax but with a different collection point,” and “the two plans are different sides of the same coin” with no “loopholes,” even though he is “mostly known for being an advocate of the flat tax,” Mitchell has “no objection to speaking in favor of a national sales tax, testifying in favor of a national sales tax, or debating in favor of a national sales tax.” But as I have said before, the flat tax is not flat and the Fair Tax is not fair. …proponents of a free society should work towardexpanding tax deductions, tax credits, tax breaks, tax exemptions, tax exclusions, tax incentives, tax loopholes, tax preferences, tax avoidance schemes, and tax shelters and applying them to as many Americans as possible. These things are not subsidies that have to be “paid for.” They should only be eliminated because the income tax itself has been eliminated. …the goal should be no taxes whatsoever.

In my defense, I largely agree. As I’ve noted here, here, here, and here, I ultimately want to limit the federal government to the powers granted in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, in which case we wouldn’t need any broad-based tax.

Though I confess I’ve never argued in favor of “no taxes whatsoever” since I’m not an anarcho-capitalist. So maybe I am a squish. Moreover, Mr. Vance isn’t the first person to accuse me of being insufficiently hardcore.

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I’ve complained over and over again that America’s tax code is a nightmare that undermines competitiveness and retards growth.

Our aggregate fiscal burden may not be as high as it is for many of our foreign competitors, but high tax rates and poor design mean the system is very punitive on a per-dollar-raised basis.

For more information, the Tax Foundation has put together an excellent report measuring international tax competitiveness.

Here’s the methodology.

The Tax Foundation’s International Tax Competitiveness Index (ITCI) measures the degree to which the 34 OECD countries’ tax systems promote competitiveness through low tax burdens on business investment and neutrality through a well-structured tax code. …No longer can a country tax business investment and activity at a high rate without adversely affecting its economic performance. In recent years, many countries have recognized this fact and have moved to reform their tax codes to be more competitive. However, others have failed to do so and are falling behind the global movement. …The competitiveness of a tax code is determined by several factors. The structure and rate of corporate taxes, property taxes, income taxes, cost recovery of business investment, and whether a country has a territorial system are some of the factors that determine whether a country’s tax code is competitive.

And here’s how the United States ranks.

The United States provides a good example of an uncompetitive tax code. …the United States now has the highest corporate income tax rate in the industrialized world. …The United States places 32nd out of the 34 OECD countries on the ITCI. There are three main drivers behind the U.S.’s low score. First, it has the highest corporate income tax rate in the OECD at 39.1 percent. Second, it is one of the only countries in the OECD that does not have a territorial tax system, which would exempt foreign profits earned by domestic corporations from domestic taxation. Finally, the United States loses points for having a relatively high, progressive individual income tax (combined top rate of 46.3 percent) that taxes both dividends and capital gains, albeit at a reduced rate.

Here are the rankings, including scores for the various components.

You have to scroll to the bottom to find the United States. It’s embarrassing that we’re below even Spain and Italy, though I guess it’s good that we managed to edge out Portugal and France.

Looking at the component data, all I can say is that we should be very thankful that politicians haven’t yet figured out how to impose a value-added tax.

I’m also wondering whether it’s better to be ranked 32 out of 34 nations or ranked 94 out of 100 nations?

But rather than focus too much on America’s bad score, let’s look at what some nations are doing right.

Estonia – I’m not surprised that this Baltic nations scores well. Any country that rejects Paul Krugman must be doing something right.

New Zealand – The Kiwis can maintain a decent tax system because they control government spending and limit government coercion.

Switzerland – Fiscal decentralization and sensible citizens are key factors in restraining bad tax policy in Switzerland.

Sweden – The individual income tax is onerous, but Sweden’s penchant for pro-market reform has helped generate good scores in other categories.

Australia – I’m worried the Aussies are drifting in the wrong direction, but any nations that abolishes its death tax deserves a high score.

To close, here’s some of what the editors at the Wall Street Journal opined this morning.

…the inaugural ranking puts the U.S. at 32nd out of 34 industrialized countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). With the developed world’s highest corporate tax rate at over 39% including state levies, plus a rare demand that money earned overseas should be taxed as if it were earned domestically, the U.S. is almost in a class by itself. It ranks just behind Spain and Italy, of all economic humiliations. America did beat Portugal and France, which is currently run by an avowed socialist. …the U.S. would do even worse if it were measured against the world’s roughly 190 countries. The accounting firm KPMG maintains a corporate tax table that includes more than 130 countries and only one has a higher overall corporate tax rate than the U.S. The United Arab Emirates’ 55% rate is an exception, however, because it usually applies only to foreign oil companies.

The WSJ adds a very important point about the liberalizing impact of tax competition.

Liberals argue that U.S. tax rates don’t need to come down because they are already well below the level when Ronald Reagan came into office. But unlike the U.S., the world hasn’t stood still. Reagan’s tax-cutting example ignited a worldwide revolution that has seen waves of corporate tax-rate reductions. The U.S. last reduced the top marginal corporate income tax rate in 1986. But the Tax Foundation reports that other countries have reduced “the OECD average corporate tax rate from 47.5 percent in the early 1980s to around 25 percent today.”

This final excerpt should help explain why I spend a lot of time defending and promoting tax competition.

As bad as the tax system is now, just imagine how bad it would be if politicians didn’t have to worry about jobs and investment escaping.

P.S. If there was a way of measuring tax policies for foreign investors, I suspect the United States would jump a few spots in the rankings.

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