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Posts Tagged ‘Financial Privacy’

It’s a bad idea when governments demand information on your bank accounts and investments so they can impose economically destructive double taxation.

It’s a worse idea when they also demand the right to tax economic activity in other jurisdictions (otherwise known as “worldwide taxation“).

And it’s the worst possible development when governments decide that they should impose a global network of data collection and dissemination as part of a scheme of worldwide double taxation.

Yet that’s exactly what’s happening. High-tax nations, working through the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, want to impose a one-size-fits-all system of “automatic information exchange” that would necessitate the complete evisceration of financial privacy.

David Burton of the Heritage Foundation explains the new scheme for giving governments more access to peoples’ private financial information.

…the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released the full version of the global standard for automatic exchange of information. The Standard for Automatic Exchange of Financial Account Information in Tax Matters calls on governments to obtain detailed account information from their financial institutions and exchange that information automatically with other jurisdictions on an annual basis.

I think this is bad policy, regardless. It is based on imposing and enforcing bad tax policy.

But David goes one step farther. He warns that this global network of tax police includes many unsavory nations.

It is one thing to exchange financial account information with Western countries that generally respect privacy and are allied with the United States. It is an entirely different matter to exchange sensitive financial information about American citizens or corporations with countries that do not respect Western privacy norms, have systematic problems with corruption or are antagonistic to the United States. States that fall into one of these problematic categories but are participating in the OECD automatic exchange of information initiative include Colombia, China and Russia. …The Obama administration enthusiastically supports the OECD initiative.

Moreover, David wisely does not believe we should trust the Obama Administration’s hollow assurances that other nations won’t misuse the data.

…even the administration has realized important privacy issues at are stake. Robert B. Stack, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for International Tax Affairs, has testified that “the United States will not enter into an information exchange agreement unless the Treasury Department and the IRS are satisfied that the foreign government has strict confidentiality protections…” Leaving these determinations to a tax agency with little institutional interest in anything other than raising tax revenue is dangerous. There is little doubt sensitive financial information about American citizens and businesses can and will be used by some governments for reasons that have nothing to do with tax administration, such as identifying political opponents’ financial resources or industrial espionage. In addition, individuals in corrupt governments may use the information for criminal purposes such as identity theft, to access others’ funds or to identify potential kidnapping victims. It is naïve to think otherwise. …The Senate should not ratify this protocol. The risks to American citizens and American businesses are too great.

David is exactly right, but too restrained and polite in his assessment.

Richard Rahn, my colleague at Cato, is more blunt in his analysis. Here’s some of what he wrote for the Washington Times.

Do you want the Obama administration sharing all of your financial information with the Russian, Chinese and Saudi Arabian governments? You may be thinking, not even President Obama would go that far. Not so… The rationale behind this despicable idea is to more effectively enable governments, such as that of France and the United States, to identify tax evaders. This might sound like a good idea until one realizes that every individual and business will be stripped of all of their financial privacy if this becomes the law of the land… all of the information that financial institutions now report to the U.S. government to try to ensure income-tax compliance, including your account balances, interest, dividends, proceeds from the sale of financial assets — would be shared with foreign governments. This would apply not only for individuals, but also for both financial and nonfinancial businesses, plus trust funds and foundations. 

Richard then explains that we can’t even trust the bureaucrats at the IRS.

The United States and other governments will, of course, claim that your sensitive financial information will remain confidential — and that you can trust the governments. After the recent Internal Revenue Service scandals — which recur every decade or so — why would anyone believe anything the IRS says? Remember, the IRS leaked information on some of Mitt Romney’s donors during the 2012 presidential campaign. It was blatantly illegal, and the IRS (i.e., you the taxpayer) paid a small fine, but no one went to jail. Many U.S. presidents have misused the IRS, starting at least as far back as Franklin Roosevelt, and the American people are always told “never again,” which is the beginning of the new lie.

And he logically concludes it would be even more foolish to trust foreign tax bureaucracies.

Particularly the tax authorities of the many nations that abuse human rights and persecute minorities, as well the tax police in nations that are too incompetent to be trusted with sensitive data.

…just think what is going to happen when all of those corrupt officials in foreign governments get ahold of it. Some will use the information for identity theft and to raid bank accounts, others for industrial espionage, some to identify potential kidnapping victims and some for political purposes. The potential list goes on and on. The U.S. Treasury Department says it will insist on strict confidentiality protections. (Lois Lerner, please call your office.) If you are a Ukrainian-American who donates to Ukrainian free-market and democratic causes, would you really think that Vladimir Putin’s team, having your financial information, would not misuse it? If you are an American Jew who donates to Israeli causes, do you really think that all of those in the Saudi government who now have full access to your confidential financial information are not going to misuse it? The Chinese are well known for using malware against their opponents. Just think of all the mischief they could cause if they had access to all of the sensitive financial information of human rights advocates in America.

Richard draws the appropriate conclusion. Simply stated, there’s no way we should have a global regime of automatic information exchange simply because a handful of high-tax nations want to remake global tax policy so they can prop up their decrepit welfare states.

As Lord Acton famously reminded us, governments are prone to misuse information and power. The instrument behind this information-sharing ploy is the OECD, which started out as a statistical collection and dissemination agency to promote free trade among its members. It has now morphed into an international agency promoting big government and higher taxes, and the destruction of financial freedom — while at the same time, by treaty, its staff salaries are tax-exempt. No hypocrisy there. Thinking Republicans and Democrats should unite around opposition to this terrible treaty and defund the OECD. Those who vote for it will deservedly be easy marks for their political opponents.

And kudos to Richard for urging the defunding of the OECD. It is absurd that American tax dollars are funding a Paris-based bureaucracy that constantly urges policies that would undermine the U.S. economy.

Especially when they’re insulated from the negative effects of the policies they push. Since they’re on the public teat, they don’t suffer when the private economy is battered. And they don’t even have to pay tax on their very generous salaries.

P.S. I’m very glad to report that at least one lawmaker is doing the right thing. Senator Rand Paul is leading the fight to block proposals that would put Americans at risk by requiring the inappropriate collection and sharing of private financial information.

P.P.S. By way of background, the OECD scheme is part of an effort to cripple tax competition so that high-tax nations can impose higher tax rates and finance bigger government. To learn more about tax competition (and tax havens), watch this four-part video series.

P.P.P.S. The OECD scheme is basically a multilateral version of the horrid “FATCA” legislation signed by Obama back in 2010.

P.P.P.P.S. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think a global tax database is even worse than an Obamacare database on our sex lives.

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Senator Rand Paul is being criticized and condemned by the Washington establishment.

That’s almost certainly a sign that he’s doing the right thing. And given the recent events in Russia and Ukraine, we should say he’s doing a great thing.

Rand PaulThis is because Senator Paul is waging a lonely battle to stop the unthinking and risky move to a world where governments – including corrupt and evil regimes – collect and share our private financial information.

I’ve written about this topic many times and warned about the risks of letting unsavory governments have access to personal information, but the Obama Administration – with the support of some Republicans who think government power is more important than individual rights – is actively pushing this agenda.

The White House has even endorsed the idea of the United States being part of a so-called Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters, even though that would require the sharing of large amounts of personal financial data with thuggish and corrupt regimes such as Argentina, Azerbaijan, China, Greece, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, and Saudi Arabia!

I’m sure Vladimir Putin very much appreciates this insider access so he can monitor dissidents and track political opponents. His government even signed onto a recent G-20 Communique that endorsed automatic information-sharing.

Heck, there’s even a Russian heading up the Financial Action Task Force, which is endlessly pushing to give governments untrammeled access to private information. FATF even wants banks and other financial institutions to spy on customers, regardless of whether there’s the slightest evidence of any wrongdoing.

The general mindset in Washington is that we should all bury our heads in the sand and blithely allow this massive accumulation of power and information by governments. After all, Putin and other thugs would never abuse this system, right?

Senator Paul battles the statists

Fortunately, at least one lawmaker is trying to throw sand in the gears. Like Horatius at the bridge, who single-handedly thwarted an invasion of Rome in 509 BC, Senator Paul is objecting to this massive invasion of privacy.

He has this old-fashioned appreciation for the Constitution and doesn’t think government should have carte blanche to access private financial data. He even – gasp! – thinks that government power should be restrained by the 4th Amendment and that there should be due process legal protections for individuals.

No wonder the DC establishment doesn’t like him.

One example of this phenomenon is that Senator Paul has placed a “hold” on some tax treaties. Here are some excerpts from a recent article in Politico.

Paul for years has single-handedly blocked an obscure U.S.-Swiss tax treaty that lawmakers, prosecutors, diplomats and banks say makes the difference between U.S. law enforcement rooting out the names of a few hundred fat-cat tax evaders — and many thousands more. …International tax experts for years have seethed over Paul’s block on the Swiss and several other tax treaties. These sorts of mundane tax protocols used to get approved by unanimous consent without anyone batting an eyelash — until Paul came to town.

These pacts are “mundane” to officials who think there shouldn’t be any restrictions on the power of governments.

Fortunately, Senator Paul has a different perspective.

Kentucky’s tea party darling says the treaty infringes on privacy rights. …Paul, a libertarian Republican widely believed to be eyeing a 2016 presidential run, says his hold stems from concerns about Fourth Amendment protections against “unreasonable search and seizure.” “These are people that are alleged, not convicted of doing anything wrong,” Paul said a few weeks ago. “I don’t think you should have everybody’s information from their bank. There should be some process: accusations and proof that you’ve committed a crime.”

The article also notes that Senator Paul is one of the few lawmakers to fight back against the egregious FATCA legislation.

Paul’s protest is also linked to his abhorrence of the soon-to-take-effect Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, which will force foreign banks to disclose U.S. account information to the IRS, and domestic banks to reciprocate to other nations’ revenue departments. …the senator has legislation to repeal FATCA and hesitates to support a treaty that enables a law he views as U.S. government overreach.

I don’t know how long Senator Paul can withstand the pressure in his lonely fight for individual rights, but I’m glad he’s waging the battle.

Even the Swiss government and Swiss banks have thrown in the towel, having decided that they have no choice but to weaken their nation’s human rights laws on financial privacy because of threats of financial protectionism by the United States.

So let’s give three cheers to our modern-day Horatius, a very rare elected official who is doing the right thing for the right reason.

For more information on the importance of financial privacy, here’s my video on the moral case for tax havens.

P.S. I shared some good jokes about Keynesian economics a few weeks ago.

Now, via Cafe Hayek, I have a great cartoon showing the fancy equation that left-wing economists use when they tell us that the economy will grow faster if there’s a bigger burden of government spending.

Keynesian Miracle Cartoon

Now you can see how the Congressional Budget Office puts together its silly estimates.

Indeed, Chuck Asay even produced a cartoon on CBO’s fancy methodology.

The next step is to find the secret equation that CBO uses when it publishes nonsensical analysis implying that growth is maximized when tax rates are 100 percent.

But to be fair, the politicians who pay their salaries want them to justify bigger government, so should we expect anything else?

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Time for another great moment in red tape.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that banks treat customers poorly in part because of bad laws and regulations from Washington.

Money laundering laws were adopted beginning about 30 years ago based on the theory that we could lower crime rates by making it more difficult for crooks to utilize the financial system. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, at least in theory. But these laws have become very expensive and intrusive, yet they’ve had no measurable impact on crime rates. …politicians and bureaucrats have decided to double down on failure and they’re making anti-money laundering laws more onerous, imposing ever-higher costs in hopes of having some sort of positive impact. This is bad for banks, bad for the poor, and bad for the economy.

You may think that only cranky libertarians are unhappy about this system.

But that’s not the case. Three professors with expertise in criminology, justice, sociology, and public policy wrote a detailed assessment of policies on anti-money laundering (AML) and combating the financing of terrorism (CFT).

Given the establishment pedigree of the authors, the finding of the report are rather shocking. The report’s introduction hints that the whole apparatus should be called into question.

To date there is no substantial effort by any international organization, including the IMF, to assess either the costs or benefits of an AML/CFT regime.  The FATF system has proceeded as if  it produces only public and private goods, not public or private “bads” or adverse by-products  against which the “goods” have to be weighed.   The Fund staff itself has raised questions about whether its substantial investment in the 3rd round has yielded adequate returns. It is not known what value that investment produced for the FATF or the Fund’s core objectives.  There needs to be more open acknowledgement of actual and potential financial costs of AML/CFT controls, their potential misuse by authoritarian rulers, and possible adverse effects on populations that rely on remittances and the informal economy, as well as potential negative impacts on NGOs and parts of civil society.

And when you dig into the details of the report, you find some surprisingly blunt language.

Basically, there’s no evidence that these policies work, and lots of evidence that they impose real harm.

Benefits of the FATF AML/CFT system have not been demonstrated. Although there may be benefits known to international organizations, governments, regulators, and intelligence agencies, no systematic efforts have been made by the FATF network of IOs or countries or institutions to demonstrate benefits. …Standards and Methodology proceed as if the implementation of an effective AML/CFT regime delivers only public and private goods and imposes no public or private “bads.” This study has learned of no significant effort by any of the standard-setting or assessor bodies to undertake a cost-benefit analysis… Little consideration has been given, they say, to the costs of implementing an AML/CFT regime, and little evidence has been adduced to demonstrate that the costs produce commensurate benefits in their own or indeed in any other jurisdiction. …Costs are substantial whether construed broadly or narrowly. …Moreover, an AML/CFT regime generates substantial costs on the financial sector in terms of money-laundering compliance staff and software procurement. Entire industries have grown around consulting and advising businesses and governments on AML/CFT compliance… Particularly strong views were expressed by bankers about excessive costs of misplaced demands upon the financial industry for surveillance of customers.

The report notes that poor people are among the biggest victims.

AML laws and regulations may adversely affect access of marginal groups whom FATF documents describe as subject to “financial exclusion” from the formal financial system. The more onerous the burdens placed on individuals, companies, and NPOs in countries where there is a substantial informal and cash economy, the more likely they are to opt out of the formal economy for reasons of cost. …Money laundering and counter-terrorism measures can reduce the volume of overseas remittances to the most vulnerable populations in the poorest countries. …Administrative and financial costs imposed on voluntary associations, most of which are very small and poorly funded, can threaten the survival of small associations

By the way, the World Bank also has acknowledged that these counterproductive laws are very bad for poor people, oftentimes disenfranchising them from the banking system

Last but not least, kudos to the authors for making the very relevant point that the destruction of financial privacy is a boon for authoritarian governments.

Numbers of experienced assessors have observed that a fully functioning AML/CFT regime in some countries has provided tools for authoritarian rulers to repress their political opponents by denying them banking or other facilities, increasing surveillance over their accounts, and prosecuting or penally taxing them for  non-disclosure, in addition to opening up more opportunities for illegal extortion for private gain. This weapon can be applied against persons/organizations already in the formal financial system.

It’s worth pointing out that this also explains why it’s so dangerous to have governments collecting and sharing tax information.

But let’s stick to the issue of money laundering. Now let’s look at two case studies to get a sense of how these laws impose real-world harm.

We’ll begin with an article in The Economist, which looks at how Western Union’s ability to provide financial services has been hampered by heavy-handed (yet ineffective) laws and regulation.

It seems like this is a company providing a very valuable service, particularly to the less fortunate.

Western Union’s services are essential for people who do not have bank accounts or are working far from home. …Western Union helps to bolster trade and disperse the world’s wealth.

But the statists don’t care.

Someone, somewhere, may want to transfer money for a nefarious purpose. And rather than the government do its job and investigate actual crimes, politicians and bureaucrats have decided that it’s easier to make Western Union spy on all customers.

…these laudable activities conflict with another pressing goal: impeding money laundering. Rules to that end require financial institutions to know who their customers are and how they obtained their money. These requirements transform the virtues of Western Union’s model—the openness and breadth of its network and its willingness to process vast numbers of small transactions—into liabilities.

And the heavy boot of government came down on the company, forcing Western Union to incur heavy expenses that make the system far more expensive for consumers.

Western Union struck a far-reaching compliance agreement with Arizona’s attorney-general in 2010. It agreed to adopt 73 changes to its systems and procedures, to install an external monitor to keep tabs on its conduct and to fund the creation of a new enforcement entity, the Southwest Border Anti-Money Laundering Alliance. Many of the recommendations were highly detailed. Western Union has, for example, set up a system to monitor transactions that takes into account factors such as the seasonality of marijuana harvests and illegal immigration. It is conducting background checks on agents and their families. Such efforts have turned out to be difficult and expensive. …Western Union’s shares have been jolted several times. Earlier this month Western Union said it would be subject to independent monitoring for an extra four years. It faces big fines and criminal prosecutions if it fails to meet the stipulations in the compliance agreement.

Let’s look at another real-world consequence of the AML/CFT regime.

You’ve heard of “driving while black,” which describes the suspicion and hostility that blacks sometimes experience, particularly when driving in ritzy neighborhoods.

Well, DWB has a cousin. It’s BWR, otherwise know as “banking while Russian.” And the stereotype has unpleasant consequences for innocent people.

Here are some passages from a story in the New York Times.

We had sold our apartment in Moscow, jumped through an assortment of Russian tax hoops and transferred the proceeds to the United States, where we now lived. It made me nervous to have all that money sitting in one virtual clump in the bank — but not nearly as nervous as having the card connected to it not work. The experience was also humiliating. In one moment, I had gone from being a Citigold client to a deadbeat immigrant who couldn’t pay for her son’s diapers. I called Citibank as soon as I got home. …”Who closed it?” I was working hard not to sound belligerent. “And where is my money?” …It was Citibank. “I see that because your transactions indicated there may be an attempt to avoid complying with currency regulations, Citibank has closed your account,” the woman informed me. …“Why wasn’t I notified?” “The cashier’s check will serve as your notice.” Citibank had fired me as a client.

Why would a bank not want customers?

Because the government makes some clients too costly and too risky, even though there’s no suggestion of wrongdoing.

Other than ethnicity.

I wasn’t entirely surprised. This had happened to other Russian-Americans I know, including one of my closest friends and my father. My friend had opened her account at a local bank in the United States when she got her first job, at age 13. Her accounts were summarily closed in 2008, while she was working in Russia. The bank, which had been bought by Sovereign in the meantime, would not state a reason for firing a client of 27 years. My father, who immigrated to the United States in 1981, had his accounts closed by BankBoston in 2000, when he was a partner in a Moscow-based business. His lawyers pressed the bank on the issue and were eventually told that because Russians had been known to launder money, the bank applied “heightened scrutiny” to accounts that had a Russia connection. It had closed “many” accounts because of what it considered suspicious activity. Like other kinds of ethnic profiling, these policies of weeding out Russian-Americans who have money are hardly efficient.

But the main thing to understand is that the entire system is inefficient.

Laws were adopted with the promise they would reduce crime. But just like you don’t stop crime by having cops hang out at Dunkin’s Donuts, you also don’t stop crime by creating haystacks of financial data and then expecting to make it easier to find needles.

For more information, here’s my video on the government’s failed money laundering policies.

P.S. This map shows you the countries considered most at risk of dirty money, which should make you wonder why anyone is foolish enough to think that higher costs on American banks will make a difference.

P.P.S. You probably didn’t realize there was such a thing as money laundering humor, but you’ll enjoy this joke featuring President Obama.

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One of the many differences between advocates of freedom and supporters of statism is how they view “rights.”

Libertarians, along with many conservatives, believe in the right to be left alone and to not be molested by government. This is sometimes referred to in the literature as “negative liberty,” which is just another way of saying “the absence of coercive constraint on the individual.”

Statists, by contrast, believe in “positive liberty.” This means that you have a “right” to things that the government will give you (as explained here by America’s second-worst President). Which means, of course, that the government has an obligation to take things from somebody else. How else, after all, will the government satisfy your supposed right to a job, education, healthcare, housing, etc.

Sometimes, the statists become very creative in their definition of rights.

You may laugh at these examples, particularly the ones that focus on seemingly trivial issues.

But don’t laugh too hard, because our friends on the left are busy with very grandiose plans for more “positive liberty.”

The EU Observer reports on efforts in Europe to create expanded rights to other people’s money.

Austerity programmes agreed with the troika of international lenders (the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) are in breach of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, according to a German legal expert. …under the EU charter of fundamental rights, a legal text which became binding for member states in 2009, several austerity measures enshrined in the MoUs can be fought in courts. …His study highlights that the MoUs “have seriously limited the autonomy of employers and trade unions to negotiate wages.” …Education and health care reforms prescribed in the memorandums are also questionable because they are focusing too much on cutting budgets, he said. …He noted that the concept of “financial stability” was put above all other considerations. “But financial stability cannot be achieved without social stability,” he said.

But it’s not just one oddball academic making these claims.

…the Council of Europe’s social rights committee noted that public policies since 2009 have been unable to stem a generalised increase in poverty on the continent. The committee identified some 180 violations of European Social Charter provisions on access to health and social protection across 38 European countries. In the bailed-out countries, the committee found several breaches – particularly in terms of wages and social benefits. Ireland was found in breach of the social charter for not ensuring the minimum levels of sickness, unemployment, survivor’s, employment injury and invalidity benefits. Greece and Cyprus have “inadequate” minimum unemployment, sickness, maternity and old age benefits, as well as a restrictive social security system. Spain also pays too little to workers on sick leave.

This crazy thinking also exists in the United States. A former Carter Administration official, now a law professor at Georgetown, has written that countries with good policy must change their systems in order to enable more tax revenue in nations with bad policy.

Do states like Switzerland, which provide a tax haven for wealthy citizens of developing countries, violate internationally recognized human rights? …bank secrecy has a significant  human rights impact if governments of developing countries are deprived of resources needed to meet basic economic rights guaranteed by the United Nations Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. …The Covenant explicitly recognizes individual rights to adequate food, clothing, and housing (Article 11); health care, clean water, and sanitation (Article 12); and education (Article 13). The Covenant also imposes obligations on member states to implement these rights.

And the right to redistribution isn’t just part of the U.N. mission.

There’s also a European set of Maastricht Principles which supposedly obligates nations to help each expand the burden of government.

Articles 19 and 20 of The Maastricht Principles call on states to “refrain from conduct which nullifies or impairs the enjoyment and exercise of economic . . . rights of persons outside their territories . . . or which impairs the ability of another State to comply with that State’s . . . obligations as regards economic rights.” …recognizing the fact that secrecy for offshore accounts makes it difficult for developing countries to implement Covenant obligations. It therefore seems indisputable that offshore accounts impede the fulfillment of internationally recognized human rights.

You may be thinking that all this sounds crazy. And you’re right.

You may be thinking that it’s insane to push global schemes for bigger government at the very point when the welfare state is collapsing. And you’re right.

You may be thinking that it’s absurd to trample national sovereignty in pursuit of bad policy. And you’re right.

And you may be thinking this is a complete bastardization of what America’s Founding Fathers had in mind. And you’re right.

But you probably don’t understand that this already is happening. The IRS’s awful FATCA legislation, for instance, is basically designed for exactly the purpose of coercing other nations into enforcing bad American tax policy.

Even more worrisome is the OECD’s Orwellian Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters, which is best viewed as a poisonous acorn that will grow into a deadly World Tax Organization oak tree.

P.S. And the Obama Administration already is pushing policies to satisfy the OECD’s statist regime. The IRS recently pushed through a regulation that says American banks have to put foreign tax law above U.S. tax law.

P.P.S. Statists may be evil, but they’re not stupid. They understand that tax havens and tax competition are a threat to big government.

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People are getting increasingly agitated about being spied on by government.

The snoops at the National Security Agency have gotten the most attention, and those bureaucrats are in the challenging position of trying to justify massive invasions of our privacy when they can’t show any evidence that this voyeurism has stopped a single terrorist attack.

And let’s not forget that some politicians and bureaucrats want to track our driving habits with GPS devices. Their immediate goal is taxing us (gee, what a surprise), but does anyone doubt that the next step would be a database of our movements?

But the worst example of government spying may be the web of laws and regulations that require banks to monitor our bank accounts and to share millions of reports about our financial transactions with the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.

Money laundering laws were adopted beginning about 30 years ago based on the theory that we could lower crime rates by making it more difficult for crooks to utilize the financial system.

There’s nothing wrong with that approach, at least in theory. But these laws have become very expensive and intrusive, yet they’ve had no measurable impact on crime rates.

As you might expect, politicians and bureaucrats have decided to double down on failure and they’re making anti-money laundering laws more onerous, imposing ever-higher costs in hopes of having some sort of positive impact. This is bad for banks, bad for the poor, and bad for the economy.

And it’s encouraging banks to treat customers like crap. Check out this ridiculous example included in a BBC report.

Stephen Cotton went to his local HSBC branch this month to withdraw £7,000 from his instant access savings account to pay back a loan from his mother. A year before, he had withdrawn a larger sum in cash from HSBC without a problem. But this time it was different, as he told Money Box: “When we presented them with the withdrawal slip, they declined to give us the money because we could not provide them with a satisfactory explanation for what the money was for. They wanted a letter from the person involved.” Mr Cotton says the staff refused to tell him how much he could have: “So I wrote out a few slips. I said, ‘Can I have £5,000?’ They said no. I said, ‘Can I have £4,000?’ They said no. And then I wrote one out for £3,000 and they said, ‘OK, we’ll give you that.’ ” He asked if he could return later that day to withdraw another £3,000, but he was told he could not do the same thing twice in one day.

Here’s another absurd story.

Peter from Wiltshire, who wanted his surname withheld, had a similar experience. He wanted to take out £10 000 cash from HSBC, some to pay to his sons and some to fund his long-haul travel plans. Peter phoned up the day before to give HSBC notice and everything seemed to be fine. The next day he got a call from his local branch asking him to pay his sons via a bank payment and to provide booking receipts for his holidays. Peter did not have any booking receipts to show.

And another.

Belinda Bell is another customer who was initially denied her cash, in her case to pay her builder. She told Money Box she had to provide the builder’s quote.

Why is the bank treating customers like dirt? Well, because they’re pressured to act that way thanks to anti-money laundering laws, which basically require them to act as if unusual transactions are criminal. In other words, customers are guilty until they prove themselves innocent.

HSBC has said…”We ask our customers about the purpose of large cash withdrawals when they are unusual and out of keeping with the normal running of their account. Since last November, in some instances we may have also asked these customers to show us evidence of what the cash is required for.” “The reason being we have an obligation to protect our customers, and to minimise the opportunity for financial crime…” Money Box asked other banks what their policy is on large cash withdrawals. They all said they reserved the right to ask questions about large cash withdrawals.

They’ve “reserved the right”?!? I think Mr. Cotton was spot on when he groused, “You shouldn’t have to explain to your bank why you want that money. It’s not theirs, it’s yours.”

A few politicians also are unhappy about pointless government-mandated spying.

Douglas Carswell, the Conservative MP for Clacton, is alarmed… “All these regulations which have been imposed on banks…infantilises the customer. In a sense your money becomes pocket money and the bank becomes your parent.”

Not let’s look at an example of how anti-money laundering laws lead to foolish intervention in the United States.

We’ll start with a feel-good story from Wired about an entrepreneur coming up with a service that’s desired by consumers.

Mike Caldwell spent years turning digital currency into physical coins. That may sound like a paradox. But it’s true. He takes bitcoins — the world’s most popular digital currency — and then he mints them here in the physical world. …by moving the digital currency into the physical realm, he also prevents hackers from stealing the stuff via an online attack. …You send him bitcoins via the internet, and he sends you back metal coins via the U.S. Postal Service. To spend bitcoins, you need a secret digital key — a string of numbers and letters — and when Caldwell makes the coins, he hides this key behind a tamper-resistant strip. …Caldwell takes a fee of about $50 on each coin he mints.

But our silver cloud has a dark lining.

…he received a letter from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FINCEN, the arm of the Treasury Department that dictates how the nation’s anti-money-laundering and financial crime regulations are interpreted. According to FINCEN, Caldwell needs to rethink his business. “They considered my activity to be money transmitting,” Caldwell says. And if you want to transmit money, you must first jump through a lot of state and federal regulatory hoops Caldwell hasn’t jumped through.

And since the hoops are very expensive, we have yet another example of foolish red tape killing a business.

Running afoul of FINCEN is a risky proposition. In the spring, the Department of Homeland Security seized two bank accounts belonging to Mt. Gox. The reasoning behind the $5 million seizure: Mt. Gox, like Caldwell, hadn’t registered itself as a money transmission business. …Because he runs a bitcoin-only business, Caldwell says there’s no Casascius bank account for authorities to seize. But he adds that he has no desire to anger the feds, whether he agrees with them or not. So he’s cranking out his last few orders.

I’m not saying, by the way, that bitcoins are necessarily a good way to hold wealth.

But I do believe that it’s good to see the evolution of private forms of money as a hedge against bad government policy. As I wrote back in 2011, “I have no way of knowing how well this system will work and how insulated it will be from government interference, but I very much hope it will be successful. Governments will never behave if they think people have no escape options.”

Unfortunately, politicians and bureaucrats are in the process of trying to shut down that escape option.

P.S. Switching to a different topic, I don’t know if there are any big policy implications, but I was fascinated to find this map in my twitter feed. It shows the first word that pops up when you ask why a country is so ____?

Europe Google Results

Here are my observations, for what it’s worth. Luxembourg and Switzerland are tax havens, so it’s no surprise that they are rich. Other nations should mimic their successful policies.

Norway, meanwhile, is rich because of oil.

I had no idea the Italians were supposed to be racist, though obviously this map merely shows what Google users are searching for, not what’s actually true.

I’m mystified that Macedonia is “important,” though I suspect Greece was similarly labeled because it is the first domino of the European debt crisis. Hardly something to be proud of.

I’m also surprised that Lithuanians are perceived as suicidal. Isn’t that a Swedish stereotype?

Croatia is beautiful, I’ll agree, at least along the coast.

The neglected people from Montenegro don’t even get a word! Heck, even the Kosovars and Moldovans have Google words.

I won’t comment on the stereotype about France, other than to say that the nation did get in the top-10 on a poll for attractiveness.

P.P.S. Since we’re discussing European stereotypes, here’s some politically incorrect terrorism humor from a British friend.

P.P.P.S. Speaking of stereotypes, here’s some polling data on how the Europeans see each other. I’m not sure how to interpret these results, other than to say that trustworthy people apparently are arrogant and lack compassion.

P.P.P.P.S. It goes without saying that I can’t resist the temptation to share these satirical maps on how the Greeks and Brits view their European neighbors.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Since the main topic of this post is money laundering, let’s end with a joke about how President Obama dealt with these foolish laws.

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There are many reason I don’t like Obamacare, including its punitive impact on taxpayers and the way it takes our healthcare system even further from a market-based approach.

But now I’m increasingly worried Obamacare also is creating a playground for hackers and identity thieves – and the rest of us will be the victims.

Simply stated, the results probably won’t be very pretty when you mix together these two items.

1) Typical government incompetence.

2) Massive data collection by government.

I pontificate on these issues in an interview with Neil Cavuto.

To elaborate, the internal revenue code is filled with double taxation of income that is saved and invested. As such the IRS insists on knowing extensive details on our income-producing assets, as well as any capital gains we earn.

And, if you’re subject to the death tax, they’ll want to know about everything you own. None of that would be necessary if we had a flat tax or a national sales tax.

Heck, they wouldn’t even need to know about your bank account since there’s no double taxation of interest with real tax reform.

But we’re on the other side of the pendulum, with the government wanting to know just about everything about our financial affairs. That’s good news for statists who want more redistribution…and it’s good news for other thieves who also want to take our money (but without using government as a middleman).

If you think I’m needlessly worried, check out this CNBC report. Here are some key excerpts.

Serious security weaknesses in the Internal Revenue Service’s data system have left millions of taxpayers’ sensitive financial information vulnerable to hackers. The agency claims it has fixed the problem, but its auditors beg to differ. A new report released by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) found that although the IRS claimed it had implemented 19 fixes to secure the system recommended by the auditor in previous years, at least eight (or 42 percent) of them “had not been fully implemented,” and should not have been checked off as completed. The auditors said the IRS never tracked its progress on the repairs, and in many cases, it closed cases without submitting documentation to prove the fix was complete. …The report also found that the agency didn’t properly scan servers—which contain taxpayer information—for “major vulnerabilities,” or properly lock user accounts, and it did not update software on databases. “When the right degree of security diligence is not applied to systems, disgruntled insiders or malicious outsiders can exploit security weaknesses and may gain unauthorized access,” Treasury Inspector General J. Russell George said.

That’s not exactly reassuring.

But it gets worse. Obamacare exchanges are a disaster waiting to happen, as explained in a USA Today column by the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Every day, personal information is the subject of hundreds of thousands of hacking attempts from all over the world. …On October 1, a major component of Obamacare made you even more vulnerable to devastating attacks on your personal information and the administration is doing too little about it. The Federal Data Services Hub (Hub), a component of the health insurance exchanges created by Obamacare, connects seven different government agencies and establish new access points to the sensitive personal information of the American public. Social Security numbers, employment information, birth dates, health records and tax returns are among the personal data that will be transmitted to this hub, consolidating an unprecedented amount of information. Every shred of data one would need to steal your identity or access your confidential credit information would be available at the fingertips of a skilled hacker, producing a staggering security threat. …These potential vulnerabilities are a dream of faceless international hackers and hostile foreign intelligence services.

Heck, you may as well put all your credit card info on your Facebook page.

More seriously, any sensible person will stay far away from Obamacare. Though if you don’t sign up on an Obamacare exchange, the White House wants you to get fined. So you lose no matter what.

Gee, isn’t big government wonderful?

P.S. I should have mentioned the huge privacy risks that will be created if politicians succeed in imposing an Internet sales tax cartel. Such a system will require a database of every online purchase and it will be accessible by bureaucrats from state and local governments.

P.P.S. I also failed to mention how high-tax governments such as France and Germany (with assistance from the Obama Administration) are pushing to create a global network of tax police that would collect and share information among governments – regardless of their level of corruption or pattern of human rights abuses!

NSA Yes We ScanP.P.P.S. Last but not least, we can’t have a discussion of privacy without mentioning our inquisitive friends at the NSA. Some of you may think it’s a non-story that the NSA is spying on just about all communications. The government, we are told, is merely trying to fight terrorism. Sounds okay in theory, but I’m not that sanguine for the simple reason that I don’t trust government. Indeed, all of us should worry that the NSA was just busted for spying on the web-surfing habits of its critics. Moreover, it doesn’t take much imagination to think the Obama White House would misuse that power to spy on political enemies. If you think I’m being paranoid, just consider how the IRS has been used as a partisan political tool in recent years.

P.P.P.P.S. I’ve been asked whether I’m worried that the NSA will snoop through my web history. As a matter of principle, I would object, but I’m not overly concerned because I’m a relatively boring person. That’s true even when I search for “libertarian porn” and “libertarian sex fantasies.”

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I’m very worried about America’s fiscal future. Simply stated, data from several sources (BIS, OECD, and IMF) indicates that we face a future Greek-style fiscal crisis unless policy makers implement genuine entitlement reform.

Unfortunately, politicians have little incentive to control spending and reform programs if they think that higher taxes are an option.

So how do we control their appetite for more revenue? There’s no silver bullet solution, but part of the answer is that we need tax competition and tax havens. Politicians are less likely to over-tax and over-spend if they’re afraid that the geese that lay the golden eggs can fly across the border.

In other words, tax competition is a necessary but not sufficient condition to promote good policy. And that’s why I’m willing to defend tax havens, even if it requires bringing a message of liberty to traditionally hostile audiences such as readers of the New York Times and viewers of CNN.

That’s also why I share well-written and compelling articles on the topic, such as this editorial by Pierre Bessard from Switzerland’s Liberales Institut and this column by Allister Heath of England’s City AM business newspaper.

I have a new piece to add to this collection. Professor Philip Booth and Dr Richard Wellings of the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs have produced a succinct and powerful case for tax competition and tax havens.

Here are some excerpts from the article they wrote for IFC Review. They start by warning that politicians have done a crummy job in most developed nations.

If we consider the performance of high-tax Western countries in recent years – which includes, amongst others, every EU country, plus the US – it has been pretty grim. These are countries which, despite their high levels of taxation, are building up huge debts. These countries also regulate their financial systems heavily, often through bodies which have huge discretion, and yet they have recently suffered the worst financial crisis since the Second World War. You would think that it would be this model – the corporatist model of high taxes and extensive regulation – that would be coming under scrutiny. However, like small children who wish to shift the blame, the EU is focusing its attention on International Financial Centres (IFCs).

Well said, though I would make one small correction. These nations have “huge debts” in part because of – not “despite” – “high levels of taxation.” More Taxes More Spending EU DataThat’s because of the Laffer Curve causing revenues to be lower than expected when taxes are raised and also because politicians can’t resist spending any revenue that is generated.

Returning to the article, Booth and Wellings make the important observation that these so-called tax havens largely exist because of bad policy in other nations.

Just as offshore centres came into being as a result of incompetent regulatory and tax policy from the US government in the 1960s and 1970s, these centres are just as important today in ensuring the free flow of international capital. The nature of our corporation tax systems is such that investors can be taxed several times over on the same profits. Companies can be taxed when they make profits; investment funds can be taxed on their returns; and investors in funds can be taxed by their home tax authorities. In addition, capital gains tax systems often end up taxing companies when their share price rises as a result of the retention of profits or the anticipation of future profits even though extra tax is levied on those profits when they accrue. If governments reformed their corporation tax systems so that they were coherent and focused on the shareholder rather than on the activities of companies themselves, there would be much less need for IFCs.

Amen. If politicians in high-tax nations really want to hurt tax havens, they should lower tax rates and reform their tax systems.

But I’m not holding my breath waiting for that to happen, so we need some external pressure to encourage good policy.

Booth and Wellings explain how tax competition leads to better policy, which leads to better economic performance.

…competition brings major economic benefits. There are very strong incentives for politicians to increase public spending (and hence taxes) in order to gain the support of powerful special interest groups and raise their chances of re-election. Partly as a result, most Western governments now confiscate around two-fifths of people’s earnings. Such high tax rates mean many wealth-creating economic activities are no longer viable. Indeed, long-term studies suggest that every one per cent added to the level of taxation (as a share of GDP) tends to reduce economic growth by about 0.15 per cent a year. Accordingly, a 10 percentage point increase would decrease average growth rates by around 1.5 per cent a year. High rates of taxation therefore have a very significant and negative long-term impact on living standards.

But I think this passage is the most important part of the article. Tax competition is necessary to protect people from greedy and short-sighted politicians.

This is one reason why IFCs are so important. They act as a deterrent to predatory politicians who wish to raise tax rates to highly damaging levels. Policymakers know that, if they set tax rates too high, business activity will shift to lower tax jurisdictions. The point at which tax increases no longer result in additional revenue to governments is therefore shifted downwards by competition from IFCs. This means tax rates will tend to be closer to the optimal rate for economic growth.

The authors also explain that slower growth has a big impact on government finances.

Lower levels of overall economic output mean fewer resources are available to spend on areas such as health and education. Arguments that high tax rates are necessary to fund essential public services are therefore deeply flawed. High-tax, high-spend policies are entirely counter-productive since their negative effect on economic output inevitably results in lower public spending in the long term. While state spending may absorb a larger share of the economy under the high-tax approach, the overall size of the economy will be very much smaller, limiting the resources available to government.

In other words, if the statists want both prosperity and ample tax revenue, they’re better off supporting modest-sized government and reasonable tax rates.

But this may be the fundamental divide between proponents of economic liberty and supporters of statism. Advocates of big government act as if they are more interested in punishing success than they are in enabling upward mobility for the less fortunate.

That seems perverse, but it’s the explanation that matches their behavior.

But it’s not my job to psychoanalyze statists. Let’s close by sharing my video primer on tax competition.

By the way, Professor Greg Mankiw at Harvard has made very similar points.

P.S. Leftists love to criticize “tax havens,” perhaps because they feel guilty about using them.

P.P.S. While the U.K. government is very misguided on fiscal policy issues (with the exception of Mark Field), there are a couple of Brits in the European Parliament. You’ll enjoy these short speeches by Dan Hannan and Godfrey Bloom.

Costco resultsP.P.P.S. I’m happy to share the news that late-reporting precincts have pushed me into a tie in the Costco poll on whether governments should try to tax outside their borders and persecute low-tax jurisdictions. As I noted last month, I was trailing by a 51-49 margin (though even that was somewhat surprising since I thought the poll used misleading language). Anyhow, here’s the debate and you can still cast a vote by clicking here.

P.P.P.P.S. Perhaps the most persuasive evidence is that the New York Times inadvertently admitted that tax competition is one of the few effective ways of fighting excessive government.

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I like tax havens for the simple reason that we need some ways of restraining the greed of the political class.

Simply stated, if profligate politicians think that we are “captive customers,” they are much more likely to impose (even) higher tax rates (as we’ve seen in the past couple of years in Europe). But if they think that we have escape options, they’ll probably exercise some self control.

That’s why I defend nations such as Switzerland, which often are persecuted by politicians from high-tax nations.

It’s also why I defend the tax system of the United States.

Huh?!? What do I mean by that?

Well, while there are many bad things about the American tax system (including pervasive double taxation and a very uncompetitive corporate tax system), one of few redeeming features of our tax system is that we are a tax haven.

Not for Americans, of course, but it turns out we have some good rules for foreigners.

Here’s some of what was recently published by the Heartland Institute.

Some international tax experts note a big irony…in continued U.S. government pressure to compel overseas banks to give up information on Americans with bank accounts in the belief those people may be hiding money from the taxman. The irony: Much of the world considers the United States to be one of the world’s biggest tax havens. …”it’s very easy for anybody in the world today to set up, let’s say, a Delaware Corporation. You can do it online. You have to give very little information to get it up and running. And Delaware’s not alone. There are other states where you can do it as well,” said Jim Duggan, a tax, wealth and estate planning attorney with the Duggan Bertsch LLC law firm in Chicago.

Other experts agree.

He’d get no argument from Kevin Packman, chairman of the Offshore Tax Compliance Team at the Holland & Knight international law firm. “There are a number of countries that have said the U.S. is the biggest tax haven in the world,” Packman said. “There’s something to be said for that view.” He noted there are many countries where people are rightly concerned about government moves to impose confiscatory taxes or seize assets. They view the United States as more respectful of property rights and therefore look for ways to move investments into the U.S., including by setting up Delaware or other corporations, and parking money in U.S. banks.

I’ve already noted that Delaware is one of the world’s best tax havens because of its attractive incorporation policies, but we also have very attractive federal tax rules.

Dennis Kleinfeld adds his analysis in an article for Money News.

Tax havens serve two vitally important purposes to everyone lucky enough to have private investment capital. First, they are a source by which foreign capital can be routed into the United States or other countries with tax efficiency.  Second, they represent a safe haven where investors’ private capital can flee from overbearing governments of all kinds — democratic, republic, dictatorship, monarchy and just plain thugs and despots — and with a comfortable level of privacy, confidentiality and secrecy. What is the world’s largest tax haven? …the United States can lay claim to that title.  …the United States would not be able to maintain its economy without large inflows of foreign capital. Foreign investors can invest in the United States virtually tax free — in structures that are legally protected from risks and, currently, with secrecy. With fairly simple planning, a foreign investor can avoid tax on interest as well as gains from sale of securities — all protected by the legal system… As for secrecy, Delaware or Nevada are quite accommodating. In these states, a foreign company or individuals can form a limited liability company and open a bank account, but if the investor does its or his business outside the United States, there is no U.S. tax or reporting.

Just as important, Dennis explains that tax havens are not only good for the American economy, but also for individuals seeking to protect themselves from rapacious government.

There are no investors — the people who actually create investment capital — who have any complaint against offshore tax-haven financial centers. …To politicians, your capital is their means to advance their political goals. Notwithstanding their propaganda of serving the American people, the needs of the people are always subservient to the voracious needs of political advancement.  How can private investors protect themselves from becoming the spoils of war from the marauding armies of politicians fighting for power? For that, investors need tax havens.

By the way, leftists also agree that the United States is a tax haven for non-Americans, so that’s not in dispute.

But there is a big argument about whether it’s good for America to have these policies. I’ve argued over and over again in favor of tax havens as a general principle (I recommend my New York Times piece if you want a good short summary), but it’s also worth noting that America’s tax haven policies have helped to attract trillions of dollars to the U.S. economy.

Costco Poll ResultsBy the way, I suppose it’s time to confess that I lost my recent debate on tax havens for the Costco Connection. Though I argued last month that the magazine phrased the question in a very misleading way, so the fact that the margin was only 51-49 could be an indication that I was actually somewhat persuasive.

And maybe some late-reporting precincts could still turn the tide, so feel free to add your opinion if you still haven’t voted.

But I’m digressing. Let’s conclude by assessing where we stand. Tax experts on the right and left agree that the United States is a tax haven for foreigners who need a safe place to invest their money.

There’s also no doubt that foreigners take advantage of these policies in ways that attract huge amounts of money to the American economy – more than $25 trillion according to the Commerce Department!

P.S. You won’t be surprised to learn that hypocritical leftists love using tax havens to protect their money even though they want to deny that freedom to the rest of us.

P.P.S. I’m such an avid defender of tax havens that I almost wound up in a Mexican jail. That’s dedication!

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I never thought I would wind up in Costco’s monthly magazine, but I was asked to take part in a pro-con debate on “Should offshore tax havens be illegal?”

Given my fervent (and sometimes risky) support of tax competition, financial privacy, and fiscal sovereignty, regular readers won’t be surprised to learn that I jumped at the opportunity.

After all, if I’m willing to take part in a debate on tax havens for the upper-income folks who read the New York Times, I should do the same thing for the middle-class folks who patronize big-box stores.

My main argument was that we need tax havens to help control the greed of the political elite. Simply stated, politicians rarely think past the next election, so they’ll tax and spend until we suffer a catastrophic Greek-style fiscal collapse unless there’s some sort of external check and balance.

…politicians have an unfortunate tendency to over-spend and over-tax. …And if they over-tax and over-spend for a long period, then you suffer the kind of fiscal crisis that we now see in so many European nations.  That’s not what any of us want, but how can we restrain politicians? There’s no single answer, but “tax competition” is one of the most effective ways of controlling the greed of the political elite. …Nations with pro-growth tax systems, such as Switzerland and Singapore, attract jobs and investment from uncompetitive countries such as France and Germany. These “tax havens” force the politicians in Paris and Berlin to restrain their greed.  Some complain that these low-tax jurisdictions make it hard for high-tax nations to enforce their punitive tax laws. But why should the jurisdictions with good policy, such as the Cayman Islands, be responsible for enforcing the tax law of governments that impose bad policy?

Costco MitchellI also made the point that the best way to undermine tax havens is to make our tax system fair and reasonable with something like a flat tax.

…the best way to reduce tax evasion is lower tax rates and tax reform. If the United States had a flat tax, for instance, we would enjoy much faster growth and we would attract trillions of dollars of new investment.

And I concluded by pointing out that there are other very important moral reasons why people need financial privacy.

In addition to promoting good fiscal policy, tax havens also help protect human rights. …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. The moral of the story is that tax havens should be celebrated, not persecuted.

And what did my opponent, Chye-Ching Huang from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, have to say about the issue? To her credit, she was open and honest about wanting to finance bigger government. And she recognizes that tax competition is an obstacle to the statist agenda.

It drains the United States of tax revenues that could be used to reduce deficits or invested in critical needs, including education, healthcare, and infrastructure.

Costco HuangShe also didn’t shy away from wanting to give the scandal-plagued IRS more power and money.

U.S. policymakers could and should act… Policymakers could provide the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) with the funding it needs to ensure that people pay the taxes they owe, including sufficient funds to detect filers who are using offshore accounts to avoid paying their taxes.

Her other big point was to argue against corporate tax reforms.

…a “territorial” tax system…would further drain revenues, and domestic businesses and individual taxpayers could end up shouldering the burden of making up the difference.

Given that the United States has the highest statutory tax rate for companies in the industrialized world and ranks only 94 out of 100 nations for business “tax attractiveness,” I obviously disagree with her views.

And I think she’s wildly wrong to think that tax havens lead to higher taxes for ordinary citizens. Heck, even the New York Times inadvertently admitted that’s not true.

In any event, I think both of us had a good opportunity to make our points, so kudos to Costco for exposing shoppers to the type of public finance discussion that normally is limited to pointy-headed policy wonks in sparsely attended Washington conferences.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that I don’t think I’m going to prevail in Costco’s online poll. It’s not that I made weak arguments, but the question wound up being altered from “Should offshore tax havens be illegal?” to “Should offshore bank accounts be taxable?”

Costco Debate QuestionSo I imagine the average reader will think this is a debate on whether they should be taxed on their account at the bank down the street while some rich guy isn’t taxed on his account at a bank in Switzerland.

Heck, even I would be sorely tempted to click “Yes” if that was the issue.

In reality, I don’t think any of our bank accounts should be taxable (whether they’re in Geneva, Switzerland or Geneva, Illinois) for the simple reason that there shouldn’t be any double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

The folks at Costco should have stuck with the original question (at least the way it was phrased to me in the email they sent), or come up with something such as “Are tax havens good for the global economy?”

But just as you can’t un-ring a bell, I can’t change Costco’s question, so I’m not holding my breath expecting to win this debate.

P.S. I’m at FreedomFest in Las Vegas, where I just debated Jim Henry of the Tax Justice Network on the same topic. I should have asked him what he though of all the politically connected leftists who utilize tax havens.

P.P.S. If you like tax haven debates, here are Part I and Part II of a very civilized debate I had with a young lady from the Task Force on Financial Integrity and Economic Development.

P.P.P.S. Maybe I haven’t looked hard enough, but I don’t have any tax haven-oriented cartoons to share other than one that compares where Romney put his money to where Obama puts our money.

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Because we live in an upside-down world, Switzerland is being persecuted for being a productive, peaceful nation that has a strong human rights policy with regards to privacy.

More specifically, politicians from high-tax nations resent the fact that investors flock to Switzerland to benefit from good policies, and they are pressuring the Swiss government to weaken that nation’s human rights laws so that governments with bad fiscal systems have an easier time of tracking and taxing flight capital.

I’ve resigned myself to this happening for the simple reason that it is well nigh impossible for a small nation (even one as well-armed as Switzerland) to withstand the coercion when all the world’s big nations are trying to impose one-size-fits-all policies designed to make it easier to raise tax rates and expand the size and power of government.

Switzerland v IRSBut, as the Wall Street Journal reports, the Swiss aren’t going down without a fight.

Switzerland’s lower house of Parliament voted 123-63 against the measure, which would have enabled many of the Alpine nation’s banks to sidestep the Swiss banking secrecy laws and start handing information to the U.S. Department of Justice about any past help they may have given to Americans hiding undeclared wealth in Swiss accounts. Earlier Wednesday, the smaller, upper house of Switzerland’s Parliament voted 26-18 in favor of the proposed plan. But in the lower house, lawmakers had raised concerns about the heavy-handedness of the U.S. effort to have them sign off on legislation that might have exposed the country’s banks and bank employees to legal hazards. Lawmakers had also raised concerns about the lack of detail in the plan regarding potential fines for banks that would have opted to participate.

I heartily applaud the lawmakers who rejected the fiscal imperialism of the United States government.

As I stated in my recent BBC interview on tax havens, I believe in sovereignty, and the IRS should have no right to impose bad American tax law on economic activity inside Swiss borders (just as, say, China should have no right to demand that the United States help track down Tiananmen Square protestors that escaped to America).

But I’m not opening champagne just yet, in part because I don’t like the stuff and in part because I fear that this will be a temporary victory.

The Swiss have resisted American demands before, and on more than one occasion, only to eventually back down. And it’s hard to blame them when they’re threatened by odious forms of financial protectionism.

That being said, I’m going to enjoy this moment while it lasts and hope that somehow David can continue to withstand Goliath.

P.S. If you want to understand more about the underlying economic and philosophical implications of this issue, I heartily recommend this New York Times column by Pierre Bessard of Switzerland’s Insitut Liberal.

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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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I often argue that we need to preserve tax competition and tax havens in order to limit the greed of the political class.

Without some sort of external constraint, they will over-tax and over-spend, creating the kind of downward economic spiral already happening in some European nations.

Speaking of which, new evidence from Europe bolsters my case.

Back in 2009, facing pressure from the big G-20 nations, all of the world’s major low-tax jurisdictions – even Switzerland – acquiesced to the notion that human rights laws protecting financial privacy no longer would apply to foreign investors.

In other words, high-tax governments now have much greater ability to track – and tax – flight capital.

So how have they responded since that time? Well, look at this chart from the European Union’s new report on taxation trends. Tax rates have begun to increase, reversing a very positive trend (which began with the Reagan and Thatcher tax cuts, though this chart only shows data since 1995).

Top EU Tax Rates

We can’t say, of course, that the increase in tax rates since 2009 is because tax competition was eroded. Just like we can’t say the reduction of tax rates in the preceding years was because of tax competition.

But we do know that simple economic theory tells us that monopolists are more likely to raise prices than firms in competitive markets. Likewise, governments are more likely to raise tax rates if they think taxpayers don’t have escape options.

And we also know that the proponents of higher tax rates, such as the statist bureaucrats at the Paris-based OECD, are also the biggest opponents of tax competition. The OECD even complained in one of its reports that tax competition “may hamper the application of progressive tax rates.”

Well, those international bureaucrats (who, by the way, get tax-free salaries) are getting their wish. Tax rates are increasing.

“Let them eat cake”

So the political class can breathe a sigh of relief.

But what about the people of Europe? Well, economic growth is almost non-existent and unemployment is at record levels.

However, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. As a past representative of Europe’s political elite once remarked, “let them eat cake.”

Marie Antoinette eventually may have regretted her choice of words, but Europe’s current politicians are probably more clever and have contingency plans. When the you-know-what hits the fan and Europe descends into social disarray and economic chaos, ordinary people will be the ones at risk.

Unfortunately, the United States is on the same path, as shown by these sobering charts from the Bank for International Settlements (and also as illustrated by these very funny Michael Ramirez and Bob Gorrell cartoons).

For more information on the important liberalizing impact of tax competition, here’s the video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

But remember that restraining fiscal burdens is not the only reason to preserve tax competition and tax havens. There also are very important moral reasons to support low-tax jurisdictions.

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Using data stolen from service providers in the Cook Islands and the British Virgin Islands, the Washington Post published a supposed exposé of Americans who do business in so-called tax havens.

Cayman April 2013

Another Research Trip to Cayman – One of the Sacrifices I Make in the Fight for Freedom

Since I’m the self-appointed defender of low-tax jurisdictions in Washington, this caught my attention. Thomas Jefferson wasn’t joking when he warned that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” I’m constantly fighting against anti-tax haven schemes that would undermine tax competition, financial privacy, and fiscal sovereignty.

Even if it means a bunch of international bureaucrats threaten to toss me in a Mexican jail or a Treasury Department official says I’m being disloyal to America. Or, in this case, if it simply means I’m debunking demagoguery.

The supposedly earth-shattering highlight of the article is that some Americans linked to offshore companies and trusts have run afoul of the legal system.

Among the 4,000 U.S. individuals listed in the records, at least 30 are American citizens accused in lawsuits or criminal cases of fraud, money laundering or other serious financial misconduct.

But the real revelation is that people in the offshore world must be unusually honest. Fewer than 1 percent of them have been named in a lawsuit, much less been involved with a criminal case.

This is just a wild guess, but I’m quite confident that you would find far more evidence of misbehavior if you took a random sample of 4,000 Americans from just about any cross-section of the population.

We know we would find a greater propensity for bad behavior if we examined 4,000 politicians. And I assume that would be true for journalists as well. And folks on Wall Street. And realtors. And plumbers. Perhaps even think tank employees. Anyhow, you get the point.

Citing a couple of anecdotes, the reporter then tries to imply that low-tax jurisdictions somehow lend themselves to criminal activity.

 Fraud experts say offshore bank accounts and companies are vital to the operation of complex financial crimes. Allen Stanford, who ran a $7 billion Ponzi scheme, used a bank he controlled in Antigua. Bernard Madoff, who ran the largest Ponzi scheme in U.S. history, used a series of offshore “feeder funds” to fuel the growth of his multibillion-dollar house of cards.

The Allen Stanford case was a genuine black eye for the offshore world, but it’s absurd to link Madoff’s criminality to tax havens. The offshore funds that invested with Madoff were victimized in the same way that many onshore funds lost money.

Moreover, there’s no evidence in this article – or from any other source to my knowledge – suggesting that financial impropriety is more likely in low-tax jurisdictions.

We then get some “hard” numbers.

Today, there are between 50 and 60 offshore financial centers around the world holding untold billions of dollars at a time of historic U.S. deficits and forced budget cuts. Groups that monitor tax issues estimate that between $8 trillion and $32 trillion in private global wealth is parked offshore.

So we have offshore wealth of somewhere “between $8 trillion and $32 trillion”? With that level of precision, or lack thereof, perhaps you now understand why the make-believe numbers about alleged tax evasion are about as credible as a revenue estimate from the Joint Committee on Taxation.

Speaking of make-believe numbers, the article mentions one of Washington’s worst lawmakers, a Senator who pushed through a law that has united the world against the United States.

Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) has been holding hearings and conducting investigations into the offshore world for nearly three decades. In 2010, Congress passed the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act requiring that U.S. taxpayers report foreign assets to the government and foreign institutions alert the IRS when Americans open accounts.

He justifies bad policy by claiming that there’s a pot of gold at the end of the tax haven rainbow.

“We can’t afford to lose tens of billions of dollars a year to tax-avoidance schemes,” Levin said. “And many of these schemes involve the shift of U.S. corporate tax revenues earned here in the U.S. to offshore tax havens.”

But FATCA is predicted to collected less than $1 billion per year, and it probably will lose revenue once you include Laffer Curve effects such as lower investment in the American economy from overseas.

The most interesting part of the article, as least from a personal perspective, is that the Center for Freedom and Prosperity is listed as one of the “powerful lobbying interests” fighting to preserve tax competition.

The efforts by Levin and other lawmakers have been opposed by powerful lobbying interests, including the banking and accounting industries and a little-known nonprofit group called the Center for Freedom and Prosperity. CF&P was founded by Daniel J. Mitchell, a former Senate Finance Committee staffer who works as a tax expert for the Cato Institute, and Andrew Quinlan, who was a senior economic analyst for the Republican National Committee before helping start the center. …The center argues that unfettered access to offshore havens leads to lower taxes and more prosperity.

Having helped to start the organization, I wish CF&P was powerful. The Center has never had a budget of more than $250,000 per year, so it truly is a David vs. Goliath battle when we go up against bloated and over-funded bureaucracies such as the IRS and the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The reporter somehow thinks it is big news that the Center has tried to raise money from the business community in low-tax jurisdictions.

According to records reviewed by The Post and ICIJ, the organization’s fundraising pleas have been circulated to offshore entities that make millions by providing anonymity for wealthy clients, many of them U.S. citizens.

Unfortunately, even though these offshore entities supposedly “make millions,” I’m embarrassed to say that CF&P has not been able to convince them that it makes sense to support an organization dedicated to protecting tax competition, financial privacy, and fiscal sovereignty.

But maybe that will change now that the OECD has launched a new attack on tax planning by multinational firms.

Let’s close by returning to the policy issue. The article quotes me defending the right of jurisdictions to determine their own fiscal affairs.

Mitchell, the co-founder of CF&P, added that nations shouldn’t be telling other countries how to conduct their affairs and noted that the United States is one of the worst offenders in the world when it comes to corporate secrecy.

My only gripe is that the reporter mischaracterizes my position. Yes, there are several states that are “tax havens” because of their efficient and confidential incorporation laws, but that means America is “one of the best providers,” not “one of the worst offenders.”

This is something to celebrate. I’m glad the United States is a safe haven for the oppressed people of the world. That’s great news for our economy. I just wish we also were a tax haven for American citizens.

“The United States is one of the biggest tax havens in the world,” Mitchell said. “In general, the United States is impervious to fishing expeditions here, and then the United States turns around and says, ‘Allow us to do fishing expeditions in your country.’”

But I’m not a hypocrite. Other nations should have the sovereign right to maintain pro-growth tax and privacy laws as well.

Other nations shouldn’t feel obliged to enforce bad American tax law, any more than we should feel obliged to enforce any of their bad laws.

P.S. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that “onshore” nations are much more susceptible to dirty money than “offshore” jurisdictions. Which is why you have a hard time finding any tax havens on this map showing the nations with the most money laundering.

P.P.S. On the topic of tax havens, you won’t be surprised to learn that Senator Levin is not the only dishonest demagogue in Washington. If you pay close attention around 1:25 and 2:25 of this video, you’ll see that the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue also has an unfortunate tendency to play fast and loose with the truth.

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Since I’m probably the foremost defender of tax havens in the United States, I tend to get a lot of press inquiries whenever something happens that brings attention to these low-tax jurisdictions.

In recent months, almost all of the media calls have been because (gasp!) Mitt Romney engaged in sound business practices and used tax havens to boost earnings while also legally minimizing the amount of money siphoned off by the buffoons in Washington.

I’ve explained that prominent Democrats routinely utilize tax havens for business and investment purposes, including as Bill Clinton, John Kerry, John Edwards, Robert Rubin, Peter Orszag, and Richard Blumenthal. I’ve also discussed the issue for the Wall Street Journal’s online interview program, and I slammed ABC News for empty and biased reporting on the issue.

Most recently, I got interviewed by NBC’s big station in New York City. They inexplicably seemed to think it was a big scoop that they were able to form a company in Nevis, though at least they gave me an opportunity to explain that taxpayers benefited from tax havens and tax competition.

But I don’t want to focus on my rather generic comments. Instead, I want to address the explicit assumption in the story that it is bad for Nevis (or any other jurisdiction) to have a simple and efficient process for forming companies.

Notwithstanding the news report, this is a good thing, a practice that should be applauded rather than condemned. Indeed, the World Bank highlights the importance of easy company formation in their important “Doing Business” project.

Moreover, there’s an implicit assumption in the story that not only is company formation somehow a sketchy thing, but that it’s only an issue for small Caribbean islands in the “offshore” world.

That’s completely inaccurate. Indeed, even leftists have acknowledged that Delaware is one of the premiere jurisdictions in the world for company formation, and I’ve explained that the U.S. has very attractive laws for international investors that have attracted trillions of dollars to the American economy.

Interestingly, we now have some very good evidence from three academics that the “offshore” world is much stricter about enforcing laws than the “onshore” world. Here’s what they did.

This paper reports the results of an experiment soliciting offers for these prohibited anonymous shell corporations. Our research team impersonated a variety of low- and high-risk customers, including would-be money launderers, corrupt officials, and terrorist financiers when requesting the anonymous companies. Evidence is drawn from more than 7,400 email solicitations to more than 3,700 Corporate Service Providers that make and sell shell companies in 182 countries. The experiment allows us to test whether international rules are actually effective when they mandate that those selling shell companies must collect identity documents from their customers.

And here’s what they found about so-called tax havens compared to high-tax nations. As you can see, the rules are much more likely to be obeyed in the low-tax jurisdictions that are always getting smeared.

A finding that runs directly counter to the conventional wisdom is that rich countries in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) are worse at enforcing the rules on corporate transparency than are poor countries (see Figure 2). For developing countries the Dodgy Shopping Count is 12, while for developed countries it is 7.8 (and tax havens are much higher at 25.2, as discussed below). The significance of this finding is that it does not seem to be particularly expensive to enforce the rules on shell companies, given that poor nations do better than rich countries. This suggests that the relatively lackluster performance in rich countries reflects a simple unwillingness to enforce the rules, rather than any incapacity. One of the biggest surprises of the project was the relative performance of rich, developed states compared with poorer, developing countries and tax havens (see Figure 3). The overwhelming policy consensus, strongly articulated in G20 communiqués and by many NGOs, is that tax havens provide strict secrecy and lax regulation, especially when it comes to shell companies. This consensus is wrong. The Dodgy Shopping Count for tax havens is 25.2, which is in fact much higher than the score for rich, developed countries at 7.8 – meaning it is more than three times harder to obtain an untraceable shell company in tax havens than in developed countries. Some of the top-ranked countries in the world are tax havens such as Jersey, the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas, while some developed countries like the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and the United States rank near the bottom of the list. It is easier to obtain an untraceable shell company from incorporation services (though not law firms) in the United States than in any other country save Kenya.

These are remarkable findings, but now let me take a moment to explain the correct interpretation of these results. Some people will argue that this data shows that there should be harsher rules imposed on the “onshore”  company formation business.

Au contraire. The goal should be to ease the regulatory burden everywhere. Simply stated, it is foolish to fight terrorism, corruption, and money laundering with costly rules that require the monitoring of countless legal actions.

Indeed, I’ve already explained how anti-money laundering rules are ineffective – or perhaps even counterproductive – in the fight against crime, largely because they generate a haystack of information, thus putting law enforcement in the unenviable position of searching for needles.

From a cost-benefit perspective, law enforcement should focus on actual criminal behavior. It wouldn’t make sense, after all, to have the government spy on everyone who buys a car merely because some people use autos when committing crime.

But that’s pretty much a good description of the mentality behind rules and regulations that target the company formation business.

P.S. For more information on the beneficial impact of so-called tax havens, Pierre Bessard wrote a great column about the topic for the New York Times.

P.P.S. I don’t want to overlook my statist friends. Here are a couple of short anti-tax haven videos from left wingers. The first one is tedious and amateurish, but I found the second one reasonably entertaining.

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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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If you saw my speech to Capitol Hill staff on the topic, you know I’m strongly opposed to schemes that would allow greedy state politicians to impose taxes on online sales that occur outside their borders.

I reiterated these sentiments in a debate that was posted today by U.S. News & World Report. Here’s some of what I wrote.

The debate over the so-called Marketplace Fairness Act is not about a level playing field. It is an attempt by politicians to grab more tax revenue to facilitate bigger government. …they want to create an elaborate and intrusive system to force out-of-state merchants to act as tax collectors. …To understand why this is a radical step, imagine if you took a trip to Las Vegas and played blackjack, but then got arrested when you returned home because your state doesn’t allow gambling. That would be an outrage because a state only has sovereign power to enforce laws (good ones or bad ones) on things that take place within its borders. And it would be equally outrageous if state governments tried to force Las Vegas casinos to discriminate against non-Nevada residents.

I also explain why this type of system is bad news for reasons other than fiscal policy.

This legislation also has very troubling implications for privacy. It can only work by creating a massive database that matches online purchases with the state and local sales tax rates for every consumer. I don’t know about you, but I’m not confident that this type of untested system will be secure. We’ve already seen major leaks of confidential data from both government and private companies. This database will be a magnet for identity thieves and other hackers looking for credit card information.

If you agree, feel free to give me an “up” vote on this U.S. News page featuring all the debate participants.

I’ve had good luck in these debates, coming in first place in debates on double taxation, European fiscal policy, flat tax, and Obamanomics, so I don’t want to break the streak.

Otherwise I may have to cry and sulk, like I did after Richard Epstein and I lost the Keynesian stimulus debate in New York City (you can click here to see why we should have prevailed!).

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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’ve complained many times about the pointless nature of anti-money laundering laws. They impose very high costs and force banks to spy on their customers, but they are utterly ineffective as a weapon against criminal activity. Yet politicians and bureaucrats keep making a bad system worse, and the latest development is a silly scheme to ban $100 bills!

It also seems that poor people are the main victims of these expensive and intrusive laws. According to a new World Bank study, half of all adults do not have a bank account, with 18 percent of those people (click on nearby chart for more info) citing documentation requirements – generally imposed as part of anti-money laundering rules – as a reason for being unable to participate in the financial system.

But this understates the impact on the poor. Of those without bank accounts, 25 percent said cost was a factor, as seen in the chart below. But one of the reasons that costs are high is that banks incur regulatory expenses for every customer, in large part because of anti-money laundering requirements, and then pass those on to consumers.

Here are some of the key points in the World Bank report.

The data show that 50 percent of adults worldwide have an account at a formal financial institution… Although half of adults around the world remain unbanked, at least 35 percent of them report barriers to account use that might be addressed by public policy. …The Global Findex survey, by asking more than 70,000 adults without a formal account why they do not have one, provides insights into where policy makers might begin to make inroads in improving financial inclusion. …Documentation requirements for opening an account may exclude workers in the rural or informal sector, who are less likely to have wage slips or formal proof of domicile. …Analysis shows a significant relationship between subjective and objective measures of documentation requirements as a barrier to account use, even after accounting for GDP per capita (figure 1.14). Indeed, the Financial Action Task Force, recognizing that overly cautious Anti-Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing (AML/CFT) safeguards can have the unintended consequence of excluding legitimate businesses and consumers from the financial system, has emphasized the need to ensure that such safeguards also support financial inclusion.

One would hope honest leftists, who claim to care about the poor, would join with libertarians to roll back absurd anti-money laundering requirements. Heck, one would hope honest conservatives, who claim to be against pointless red tape, would join the fight as well.

Here’s the video I narrated on the general topic of money laundering laws. I think it makes very good points, but I wish this data had been available when I did the video so I could explain how low-income people are the main victims.

Last but not least, I should point out that statists frequently demagogue against so-called tax havens for supposedly being hotbeds of dirty money, but take a look at this map put together by the Institute of Governance and you’ll find only one low-tax jurisdiction among the 28 nations listed.

P.S. You probably didn’t realize you could make a joke involving money laundering, but here’s one starring President Obama.

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A few days ago, I explained why I’m a big fan of tax competition. Simply stated, we need to subject governments to competitive pressure to at least partially offset the tendency of politicians to over-tax and over-spend.

Tax havens play an important role in this liberalizing process, largely because they do not put themselves under any obligation to enforce the bad tax laws of other jurisdictions. They also use privacy laws to protect their sovereign control of what gets taxed inside their borders (this is what separates a “tax haven” from a more conventional low-tax jurisdiction). This means they are fiscal safe zones, particularly for people who want to protect their assets from the pervasive double taxation that exists in so many nations.

Not everybody agrees with my analysis (gee, what a surprise). To cite one example, the petty bureaucrats at the OECD got so agitated at me in 2009 (when I was offering advice to representatives of so-called tax havens while standing in a public lobby of a public hotel) that they threatened to have me thrown in a Mexican jail.

Now I have a new critic, though hopefully someone who would never consider thuggish tactics to suppress dissent. Ann Hollingshead writes for the Task Force on Financial Integrity and Economic Development, which (notwithstanding the name of the organization) seems to favor bigger government.

Anyhow, she wrote an article specifically criticizing my work on tax havens. So I figured it was time for a fisking, while means a point-by-point rebuttal. Here’s how she begins, and I’ll follow up her points with my responses.

Officially Dan Mitchell is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, a conservative public policy research organization, and a researcher on tax reform. Unofficially, he has (perhaps ironically?) called himself the “world’s self-appointed defender of so-called tax havens.”

No irony on my part. As I have openly stated, tax havens are a key part of tax competition, which is a necessary (though sadly not sufficient) process to restrain the greed of the political class.

Oddly enough, Mitchell and I agree on many of the facts about these havens. We both have observed, for example, that there are buildings in Delaware and the Cayman Islands that house thousands of corporations. Mitchell concludes there is nothing wrong with either; I conclude there is something wrong with both. Mitchell also agrees that the United States“could be considered the world’s largest tax haven.” On that topic, he’s even cited my paper on non-resident deposits in secrecy jurisdictions. In his comment, he does not take issue with my methodology or my results, but rather concludes that my finding that the United States is the largest holder of non-resident deposits “makes the case for pro-market policies.” I, on the other hand, have argued that these findings support across the board reform, rather than that limited to traditional offshore financial centers.

Fair enough. We both recognize that the United States is a big tax haven. But we have different conclusions. I think it is unfortunate that only non-resident foreigners can benefit from these policies, while Ann wants to crack down on small low-tax jurisdictions such as Monaco, Bermuda, Liechtenstein, and the Cayman Islands, as well as big nations such as the United States. Sadly, Ann’s side has somewhat prevailed, and many of the havens have agreed to become deputy tax collectors for nations with bad tax law.

So how is it that two (relatively intelligent?) people can draw such different conclusions? I would argue our differences lie not in our facts, or perhaps even our economics, but in our underlying philosophical and theoretical differences.

I guess I should be happy that she holds out the possibility that I’m “relatively intelligent.”

Mitchell implicitly takes the position that tax havens do enable tax evasion and this helps to lower tax rates. He argues “it is largely globalization—not ideology—that has driven [a] ‘race to the bottom’” where global top corporate tax rates now average about 27 percent, down from 67 percent in 1980. Mitchell does not only believe this has occurred, but also maintains it is a positive development. He argues tax competition drives tax policy in the “right direction” (i.e., lower tax rates), has called these developments “positive,” and has even likened policy makers to “thieves” and tax competition to home “alarm systems.”

Ann makes one minor error. Corporate tax rates have dropped from a high of about 48 percent (and are now down to less than 25 percent). Top personal tax rates, by contrast, used to be more than 67 percent (and have now dropped to about 41 percent).

Regarding these developments, I think they are very positive. And I also think that politicians are akin to thieves, though Godfrey Bloom, a British member of the European Parliament, says it with a much better accent.

Mitchell’s argument that lower tax rates are always better and that those who tax others are thieves, makes several implicit assumptions about the relationship of citizens to their government. From his line of reasoning, Mitchell either believes, on a philosophical level, that governments do not have the right to tax their citizens or, on an economic level, that lower tax rates are always better, or both.

I definitely believe that lower tax rates are better than higher tax rates.

Mitchell may believe that taxation is the equivalent of thievery—and therefore that governments do not have the right to tax their citizens, just a thief does not have the right to steal. But he is also (more than likely) not an anarchist, which is the next logical extension of this reasoning, because on a number of occasions he has advocated a flat tax.

Ann makes a good point here. I’ve already admitted, in this post featuring a funny video mocking libertarianism, that I don’t see how to privatize the justice system and national defense, so I’m not an anarcho-capitalist.

Mitchell also argues lower tax rates are universally better, so at what point does the tax rate become acceptable? Clearly he doesn’t believe the tax rate should be zero, because that would get back to the anarchism theory. And he did once offer tepid support for Herman Cain’s 9 percent rate.

Another fair point. If a 50 percent tax is confiscatory and if politicians who impose such a tax are akin to thieves, then why would a 10 percent tax be acceptable? And would politicians imposing low tax rates still be acting like crooks?

Those are tough questions. But at the risk of dodging thorny philosophical issues, I’ll claim it doesn’t really matter. Government is too big right now and taxes are too onerous and unfair. If I somehow manage to bring government down to 10 percent of GDP, as the Rahn Curve suggests if we want to maximize prosperity for the American people, then I’ll have the luxury of worrying about the moral legitimacy of a limited public sector.

Clearly there’s a disconnect. Taxation cannot both be thievery, but also acceptable at a lower level. There is no evidence that, if tax competition through tax evasion is real, it would cease to drive down tax rates at some level that has been deemed acceptable by Dan Mitchell. So at what point does the “race to the bottom” bottom out? And is that a point where the United States can still maintain services that I’m sure Mitchell doesn’t advocate giving up, like police and law courts?

If I understand this passage correctly, I disagree. Tax competition does not drive tax rates to zero. It just encourages better policy. There’s pressure to lower tax rates, and there’s pressure to reduce double taxation of income tat is saved and invested. But there’s no reason to think that tax competition and/or tax evasion forces the overall tax burden “to the bottom.”

But I would be remiss not to point out some internal inconsistencies in Mitchell’s arguments, in addition to his logical ones. While he argues tax competition through tax evasion in havens has fostered lower tax rates worldwide, he has also reckoned that “only a tiny minority” of people who keep their money in havens “are escaping onerous tax burdens.” First of all, I would be interested to see where Mitchell got that statistic because no one knows how much money is deposited in havens, let alone its origins. Such information isn’t publicly available. That’s actually the whole point. And secondly, and more importantly, I’m unclear on how such a “tiny minority” of oversees deposits could drive international tax policy to such an extent that the average corporate tax rates have dropped by more than half in thirty years.

Actually, there is considerable data about the amount of money in tax havens. The Bank for International Settlements is a good place for those who like to peruse such information.

But that’s a secondary point. Her main criticism is that I’m inconsistent when I say tax evasion is minor, so let me allow me to elaborate. Tax competition works by making politicians fearful that jobs and investment will migrate to jurisdiction with better tax law. It works just as well when people engage in legal tax planning and legal tax avoidance as it does with illegal tax evasion.

Places such as the Cayman Islands, for instance, rely on completely legal and transparent lines of business such as hedge funds and captive insurance companies. Places such as Panama have completely legal shipping registries. Places such as the British Virgin Islands specialize in completely legal company formation. Places such as the Channel Islands focus on completely legal trusts. Places such as Bermuda are known for completely legal reinsurance firms.

The “illegal” part of the offshore business does exist (at least as defined by high-tax nations), and it tends to be in the areas of private wealth management and banking. And even then, only in jurisdictions that have very strong human rights laws protecting financial privacy.

To be sure, there’s no way to precisely state how much tax evasion exists, but I can say with total certainty that the left’s claims are absurd. During the 2008 campaign, for instance, then-candidate Obama said that his anti-tax haven policies would generate $100 billion every year. When his law was enacted in 2010, that huge amount of money shrank to only $870 million per year. And even that estimate is a mirage because the President’s FATCA law is discouraging productive investment in the United States.

It is not my intention to demonize Mitchell and I hope you’ll notice that I’ve neither called him, nor implied that he is, a “careless and know-nothing hack.” I also have no interest in taking easy jabs that imply he is personally benefiting from tax evasion through havens or that he is seeking to destabilize theU.S.government by removing its ability to tax its citizens. Such attacks might generate readers, but they don’t generate thoughtful discussion and I’m much more interested in the latter than the former.

You may be wondering why she included the comment about a “careless and know-nothing hack.” It’s because I used that phrase to describe a journalist who wrote a very sloppy article. But I don’t automatically disparage those with different views. I’ll disagree with people and argue with them, but I don’t mock them if they have serious and substantive views.

I suppose I should also say, just for the record, that I fully comply with all the onerous demands imposed on me by the government. Not because I want to, but rather because I worry that my work on public policy sooner or later will attract some discriminatory and politically motivated attention from the IRS. It hasn’t happened yet, so I hope I’m being needlessly paranoid, but suffice to say that I go out of my way to even declare income that I know isn’t reported to the tax police.

So here are my questions, to anyone who will answer. 1) On what philosophical basis, if any, do governments draw the right to tax their citizens?; 2) Do citizens have a moral or philosophical right to evade taxation by using tax havens under any circumstances?; 3) If so, at what level of taxation do those citizens no longer have a moral right to evade tax?; and 4) what is the philosophical reasoning that justifies this level?

Now we’re back to the hard-to-answer questions. When is government too big and when does it impose so many demands that people are justified in evading taxation? I’m not sure, but I’ll fall back on what former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

Put in context, I don’t blame people from France for evading confiscatory taxation. I don’t blame people in corrupt nations such as Mexico for evading taxation. I don’t blame people in dictatorial nations such as Venezuela for evading taxation.

But I would criticize people in Singapore,Switzerland, Hong Kong, or Estonia for dodging their tax liabilities. They are fortunate to live in nations with reasonable tax rates, low levels of corruption, and good rule of law.

Let me now circle back to the main point. In a world with vigorous tax competition, especially when augmented by the strong human rights laws of tax havens, nations will face some pressure to move their policies closer to Hong Kong and away from France. That’s something worth protecting and promoting, not something to be stamped out by high-tax nations seeking to create a tax cartel – sort of an OPEC for politicians.

Last but not least, if you haven’t yet overdosed on this topic, here’s my speech to a Capitol Hill audience on the valuable role of tax havens in the global economy.

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Tax competition, as I have explained to the point of being a nuisance, is an important restraint on the greed of the political class. Simply stated, politicians are less like to over-tax and over-spend if they know that geese with the golden eggs can fly across the border.

This is mostly an issue in the world of international tax policy, but the same principles apply for sub-national governments inside a nation.

State and local governments should compete with each by offering the best fiscal climate. Sadly, just as high-tax nations such as France and Germany are trying to hinder global tax competition, high-tax state governments are seeking to undermine fiscal rivalry inside the United States.

More specifically, they want to create a state sales tax cartel that would allow governments to force out-of-state businesses serve as deputy tax collectors. Greedy politicians are fearful that online shopping deprives them of revenue, so they are pushing for a privacy-threatening database that will enable them to track and tax these transactions.

I explained this issue last week for a standing-room-only audience on Capitol Hill.

The entire discussion is posted online, including the very astute observations of my former Heritage Foundation colleague, Adam Thierer, now at the Mercatus Center.

Investor’s Business Daily also has opined on why this is a bad idea, but if you want to get really worried, the clowns at the United Nations want to power to tax and regulate the Internet.

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I’ve written several times about a proposed IRS regulation that would force American banks to put foreign law above U.S. law. I’ve repeatedly warned that the scheme, which would force financial institutions to report the deposit interest they pay to foreigners, is bad economic policy, bad regulatory policy, and bad banking policy.

My arguments have included:

But these points don’t seem to matter to the Obama Administration, which is ideologically committed to the anti-tax competition agenda of Europe’s welfare states. This is why the White House supports all sorts of destructive policies, including not only this misguided regulation, but also the creation of something akin to a world tax organization that will have power to block free-market tax policy.

A new article in the Weekly Standard explains what’s at stake.

Early last year the Treasury Department published its “Guidance on Reporting Interest Paid to Nonresident Aliens,” which would require banks to report to the Internal Revenue Service the interest paid to foreign depositors with a U.S. bank account. While the Treasury and the regulatory apparatus insist that the cost and inconvenience of adhering to this regulation is next to nothing, the rule may cost the U.S. banking system hundreds of billions of dollars in lost deposits, in turn costing our economy billions of dollars, while providing no discernible benefit to banks, depositors, taxpayers, or the U.S. economy. …a much bigger problem—for banks and the economy—than the compliance costs is the threat of a massive capital flight. The United States is a very popular place for foreigners to park their savings, for a variety of reasons. For starters, we offer a stable government that can be trusted to keep its hands off deposits—something that appeals greatly to residents of Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador, and any number of other unstable countries. …As a result, a staggeringly large amount of savings from abroad is currently held in U.S banks. While the Treasury asserts that “deposits held by nonresident alien individuals are a very small percentage of the [total] deposits held by U.S. financial institutions,” that very small percentage amounts to more than $3.7 trillion, according to a 2011 Bureau of Economic Analysis report, hardly a pittance. The massive amount of foreign savings here is a boon to the U.S. economy. Banks lend against these deposits, mainly to companies here in the United States. Jay Cochran, an economist at George Mason University, studied the impact that the more limited 2002 reporting requirements would have had on the banking system, estimating that it would have resulted in nearly $100 billion in deposits leaving the U.S. banking system. A reporting regulation that covers all foreign accounts would likely result in two to three times more capital flight. The impact would be harmful not just for the banks but for the broader economy. The decline in profits in the banking sector alone from a roughly quarter-trillion-dollar capital flight would be in the range of $5-10 billion—which makes a mockery of the notion that the costs of the regulation are under $100,000.

For more information about this wretched proposal, here’s a video I narrated on the topic.

To put it bluntly, the Obama Administration is pushing this regulation because it thinks the anti-tax competition agenda of Europe’s welfare states is so important that it is willing to risk the health of the American economy, undermine the soundness of U.S. financial institutions, disregard the rule of law, and abuse the regulatory process.

Indeed, this proposal is even worse than the increasingly infamous Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act.

And that’s saying something, because with each passing day, it is more and more obvious that FATCA is a destructive law that will significantly harm the American economy. But at least it’s a law, one that was approved by Congress and signed by the President. And the costly FATCA regulations being developed by the IRS are for the purpose of enforcing the law.

The interest-reporting IRS regulation is also costly and destructive, to be sure, but what makes it so perverse is that it is – at best – completely gratuitous. It is being advanced solely for reasons of ideology, regardless of the law and consequences be damned.

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I’ve previously blogged about the declining status of the United States, as measured by objective sources such as the Economic Freedom of the World Index and the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report.

My attitude about these developments is to sarcastically say, “Thanks for nothing, Bush and Obama.”

But the real insult to injury is that America is dropping even according to indices created by left-wing groups.

The Tax Justice Network is a bunch of crazy Euro-socialists (no snarky comments about redundancy, please), and they specialize in seeking to undermine tax competition in order to make it easier for government to impose class-warfare taxes and expand the burden of government.

One of their projects in a “Financial Secrecy Index,” in which they identify the supposedly bad jurisdictions that have strong human rights policies on financial privacy. The TJN crowd hates privacy since it makes it difficult for greedy governments to track – and tax – flight capital.

Anyhow, these statists issued their first Index in 2009 and I’m proud to say the United States came in first place, presumably because of our pro-growth policies to attract foreign investment and the business-friendly incorporation laws in states such as Delaware and Nevada.

But now, as you can see, we’ve dropped to 5th place in the 2011 Index.

I confess, though, that I didn’t bother to read the accompanying report, so perhaps changes in methodology account for America’s decline in the rankings.

Regardless, it can’t be a positive sign that the United States is losing its status – particularly when we need more investment to counter the negative impact of the Bush-Obama policies.

One can only hope that there will be changes that lead to America claiming the top spot when the next Index is released.

By the way, for more information about the value of tax competition and financial privacy, click this link.

And here’s a link to a British politician, Dan Hannan, who understands what is at stake.

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Earlier this year, President Obama’s IRS proposed a regulation that would force banks in America to report any interest they pay to accounts owned by non-resident aliens (that’s the technical term for foreigners who don’t live in the U.S.).

What made this regulation so bizarre, however, is that Congress specifically has exempted these account from taxation for the rather obvious reason that they want to attract this mobile capital to the American economy. Indeed, Congress repeatedly has ratified this policy ever since it was first implemented 90 years ago.

So why, you may be asking, would the IRS propose such a regulation? After all, why impose a regulatory burden on a weakened banking sector when it has nothing to do with enforcing American tax law?

The answer, if you can believe it, is that they want American banks to help enforce foreign tax law. And the bureaucrats at the IRS want to impose this burden even though the regulation is completely contrary to existing U.S. law.

Not surprisingly, this rogue behavior by the IRS already has generated considerable opposition. Senator Rubio has been a leader on the issue, being the first to condemn the proposed regulation.

Both Senators from Texas also have announced their opposition, and the entire Florida congressional delegation came out against the IRS’s regulatory overreach.

And now we have two more important voices against the IRS’s rogue regulation.

The Chairman of the Oversight Subcommittee in charge of the IRS, Congressman Charles Boustany of Louisiana, just sent a very critical letter to Treasury Secretary Geithner, and these are some of his chief concerns.

If the regulation were to take effect, it would not only run counter to the will of the Congress, but would potentially drive foreign investments out of our economy, hurting individuals and small businesses by reducing access to capital.  I write to request that IRS suspend the proposed regulation. …As the Internal Revenue Code imposes no taxation or reporting requirements on this deposit interest, the proposed regulation serves no compelling tax collection purpose.  Instead, it is my understanding that the IRS seeks this new authority to help foreign governments collect their own taxes abroad.  …It is disappointing to see the IRS once again try to impose unnecessary regulations and costs on U.S. banks. To attract investment of foreign dollars into the U.S. economy, the Internal Revenue Code generally exempts these deposits from taxation and reporting requirements.  These foreign investments in turn help to finance a variety of products essential to economic growth, such as small business loans and home mortgages.  Imposing reporting requirements on these deposits through regulatory fiat threatens to drive significant investments out of our economy by undermining the rules Congress has set in place specifically to attract it, and at exactly the time when our economy can least afford it.

But criticism is not limited to Capitol Hill. The Center for Freedom and Prosperity has spearheaded opposition from think tanks, taxpayer organizations, and public policy groups.

And now the business community has become involved. Here’s some of what the Chamber of Commerce recently said, and you can click this PDF file (USCC S1506) to read the entire letter.

Given the fragile state of America’s economic recovery, it is disturbing to see actions by the Treasury that could jeopardize deposits at U.S. banks and credit unions held by nonresident aliens. These deposits, which are not subject to U.S. taxes, are at risk of being abruptly withdrawn and future deposits deterred, which could lead to a reallocation of deposits out of the U.S. banking system and, thus, reduce lending to businesses. Furthermore, complying with the proposed regulation places additional reporting requirements and expenses upon financial firms. Without any real benefit stemming from the collection of this information, imposition of this reporting requirement seems to be a solution in search of a problem.

This may seem like an arcane issue and international tax matters often are not terribly exciting, but a couple of minutes of watching this video will make you realize there are some very important principles at stake.

Only the IRS could manage to combine bad tax policy, bad regulatory policy, bad human rights policy, and bad sovereignty policy into one regulation.

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Being the world’s self-appointed defender of so-called tax havens has led to some rather bizarre episodes.

The bureaucrats at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development threatened to have me thrown in a Mexican jail for the horrible crime of standing in the public lobby of a hotel and giving advice to low-tax jurisdictions.

On a more amusing note, my efforts to defend tax havens made me the beneficiary of grade inflation and I was listed as the 244th most important person in the world of global  finance – even higher than George Soros and Paul Krugman.

But if that makes it seem as if the battle is full of drama and (exaggerated) glory, that would be a gross exaggeration. More than 99 percent of my time on this issue is consumed by the difficult task of trying to convince policy makers that tax competition, fiscal sovereignty, and financial privacy should be celebrated rather than persecuted.

Sort of like convincing thieves that it’s a good idea for houses to have alarm systems.

And it means I’m also condemned to the never-ending chore of debunking left-wing attacks on tax havens. The big-government crowd viscerally despises these jurisdictions because tax competition threatens the ability of politicians to engage in class warfare/redistribution policies.

Here’s a typical example. Paul Vallely has a column, entitled “There is no moral case for tax havens,” in the UK-based Independent.

To determine whether tax havens are immoral, let’s peruse Mr. Vallely’s column. It begins with an attack on Ugland House in the Cayman Islands.

There is a building in the Cayman Islands that is home to 12,000 corporations. It must be a very big building. Or a very big tax scam.

If lying is immoral, this is a quick black mark on Mr. Vallely rather than tax havens. I’ve already explained, in a post eviscerating an empty-suit Senator from North Dakota, that a company’s home is merely the place where it is chartered for legal purposes. A firm’s legal domicile has nothing to do with where it does business or where it is headquartered.

In other words, there is nothing nefarious about Ugland House, just as there is nothing wrong with the small building in Delaware that is home to more than 200,000 companies. Obama, by the way, demagogued about Ugland House during the 2008 campaign.

Now that we’ve established that the author is a careless and know-nothing hack, let’s see what else he has to say.

Are there any legitimate reasons why anyone would want to have a secret bank account – and pay a premium to maintain their anonymity – or move their money to one of the pink dots on the map which are the final remnants of the British empire: the Caymans, Bermuda, the Turks and Caicos and the British Virgin Islands?

Actually, there are lots of people who have very compelling reasons to keep their money in havens, and only a tiny minority of them are escaping onerous tax burdens.What about:

o Jews in North Africa and the Middle East?

o Persecuted ethnic Chinese in Indonesia and the Philippines?

o Political dissidents in places such as Russia and Venezuela?

o Entrepreneurs in thug regimes such as Venezuela and Zimbabwe?

o Families threatened by kidnapping failed states such as Mexico?

o Homosexuals in murderous regimes such as Iran?

As this video explains, there are billions of people around the world that are subject to state-sanctioned (or at least state-permitted) religious, ethnic, racial, political, sexual, and economic persecution. These people are especially likely to be targeted if they have any money, so the ability to invest their assets offshore and keep that information hidden from venal governments can, in some cases, be a life-or-death matter.

And let’s not forget the residents of failed states, where crime, expropriation, kidnapping, corruption, extortion, and economic mismanagement are ubiquitous. These people also need havens where they can safely and confidentially invest their money.

The author of the column is probably oblivious to these practical, real-world concerns. Instead, he is content with sweeping proclamations.

The moral case against is clear enough. Tax havens epitomise unfairness, cheating and injustice. .

But if he is against unfairness, cheating, and injustice, why does he want to empower the institution – government – that is the source of oppression in the world?

To be fair, our left-wing friend does attempt to address the other side of the argument.

Apologists insist that tax havens protect individual liberty. They promote the accumulation of capital, fair competition between nations and better tax law elsewhere in the world. They also foster economic growth. …Yet even if all that were true – and it is not – does it outweigh the ethical harm they do? The numbered bank accounts of tax havens are notoriously sanctuaries for the spoils of theft, fraud, bribery, terrorism, drug-dealing, illegal betting, money-laundering and plunder by Arab despots such as Gaddafi, Mubarak and Ben Ali, all of whom had Swiss accounts frozen.

But he can’t resist trying to discredit the economic argument by resorting to more demagoguery, asserting that tax havens are shadowy regimes. Not surprisingly, he offers no supporting data. Moreover, you won’t be surprised to learn that the real-world evidence directly contradicts what he wrote. The most comprehensive analysis of dirty money finds 28 problem jurisdictions, and only one could be considered a tax haven.

Last but not least, the author addresses the issue that really motivates the left – the potential loss of access to other people’s money, funds that they want the government to confiscate and redistribute.

Christian Aid reckons that tax dodging costs developing countries at least $160bn a year – far more than they receive in aid. The US research centre Integrity estimated that more than $1.2trn drained out of poor countries illicitly in 2008 alone. …Some say an attack on tax havens is an attack on wealth creation. It is no such thing. It is a demand for the good functioning of capitalism, balancing the demands of efficiency and of justice, and placing a value on social harmony.

There are several problems with this passage, including the (perhaps deliberate) mixing of tax evasion and tax avoidance. But the key point is that the burden of government spending in most nations is now at record levels, undermining prosperity and reducing growth. Why should add more fuel to the fire by giving politicians even more money to waste?

Let’s now shift from the inaccurate ramblings of a left-winger to some real-world evidence. The Wall Street Journal has an article on the Canton of Zug, Switzerland’s tax haven within a tax haven. This hopefully won’t surprise anyone, but low-tax policies have been very beneficial for Zug.

Developed nations from Japan to America are desperate for growth, but this tiny lake-filled Swiss canton is wrestling with a different problem: too much of it. Zug’s history of rock-bottom tax rates, for individuals and corporations alike, has brought it an A-list of multinational businesses. Luxury shops abound, government coffers are flush, and there are so many jobs that employers sometimes have a hard time finding people to fill them. …If Switzerland is the world’s most famous tax haven, Zug amounts to a haven within a haven.

Here’s some of the evidence of how better fiscal policy promotes prosperity. This is economic data, to be sure, but isn’t the choice between growth and stagnation also a moral issue?

Zug long was a poor farming region, but in 1947 its leaders began to trim tax rates in an effort to attract companies and the well-heeled. In Switzerland, two-thirds of total taxes, including individual and corporate income taxes, are levied by the cantons, not the central government. The cantons also wield other powers that enable them compete for business, such as the authority to make residency and building permits easy to get. …businesses moved in, many establishing regional headquarters. Over the past decade, the number of companies with operations of some sort in the canton jumped to 30,000 from 19,000. The number of jobs in Zug rose 20% in six years, driven by the economic boom and foreign companies’ efforts to minimize their taxes. At a time when the unemployment rate in the European Union (to which Switzerland doesn’t belong) is 9.4%, Zug’s is 1.9%.

It turns out that Zug is growing so fast that lawmakers actually want to discourage more investment. What a nice problem to have.

Describing Zug’s development as “astonishing,” Matthias Michel, the head of the canton government, said, “We are too small for the success we have had.” …Zug has largely stopped trying to lure more multinationals, according to Mr. Michel.

Its worth pointing out that the residents of Zug are not some sort of anomaly. The rest of Switzerland is filled with people who recognize the value of limited government.

…the Swiss are mostly holding fast to their fiscal beliefs. Last November, in a national referendum, they overwhelmingly rejected a proposal that would have established a minimum 22% tax rate on incomes over 250,000 francs, or about $315,000.

Sadly, even though the world is filled with evidence that smaller government is good for prosperity (and even more evidence that big government is bad for growth), statism is not abating.

Indeed, the left’s anti-tax haven campaign continues to gain steam. At a recent OECD meeting, high-tax nations (with the support of the Obama Administration) put in place a bureaucratic monstrosity that is likely to become a world tax organization.

This global tax cartel will be akin to an OPEC for politicians, and the impact on taxpayers will be quite similar to the impact of the real OPEC on motorists.

If that’s a moral outcome, then I want to be a hedonist.

To conclude, here are two other videos on tax havens. This one looks at the economic issues.

And here’s a video debunking some of the usual attacks on low-tax jurisdictions.

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Senator Rubio continues to impress with his Reagan-like efforts to restrain government and promote growth. His latest initiative is legislation to curtail rogue IRS bureaucrats who are seeking to use regulatory edicts to overturn 90 years of law.

Here are excerpts from a report in The Hill.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and other Senate Republicans on Tuesday introduced a bill aimed at blocking pending regulations that would require banks to report to the Internal Revenue Service all interest deposits paid to nonresident aliens (NRA). Rubio, along with Texas GOP Sens. John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison, introduced S. 1506 because they believe the pending regulations have the potential to drive billions of dollars of deposits away from U.S. banks. A summary of the bill provided by Rubio’s office argues that this could leave U.S. banks undercapitalized and less able to lend in the U.S. “Simply put, this rule will cause billions of dollars in important NRA deposits to be withdrawn from American banks and invested in countries with less onerous reporting requirements,” the lawmakers state in the bill summary. “A capital flight of any magnitude will hurt the lending capacity of community banks and damage local and state economies — not to mention endanger those who invest in U.S. banks due to corruption, inflation, and violence in their home countries, particularly in nations like Mexico and Venezuela.” The summary also notes that Congress has explicitly exempted NRA deposits from taxation… Rubio’s bill is a companion bill to H.R. 2568, which was introduced by Reps. Bill Posey (R-Fla.), Francisco Canseco (R-Texas), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), Ruben Hinojosa (D-Texas) and Gregory Meeks (D-NY).

This may sound like a technical issue, but this video explains why it has huge implications.

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I’m depressed about the global network of tax police being organized by the OECD and high-tax governments. If successful, it will lead to much bigger, more oppressive government. But maybe there’s a way of fighting back. Here’s a video from the folks at Reason TV about something that governments would hate – anonymous, digital money.

And here’s a video from the bitcoin people. I have no way of knowing how well this system will work and how insulated it will be from government interference, but I very much hope it will be successful. Governments will never behave if they think people have no escape options.

If anybody has an informed opinion about this, I’d welcome some feedback.

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There hasn’t been much good economic news in recent years, but one bright spot for the economy is that the United States is a haven for foreign investors and this has helped attract more than $10 trillion to American capital markets according to Commerce Department data.

These funds are hugely important for the health of the U.S. financial sector and are a critical source of funds for new job creation and other forms of investment.

This is a credit to the competitiveness of American banks and other financial institutions, but we also should give credit to politicians. For more than 90 years, Congress has approved and maintained laws to attract investment from overseas. As a general rule, foreigners are not taxed on interest they earn in America. Moreover, by not requiring it to be reported to the IRS, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have effectively blocked foreign governments from taxing this U.S.-source income.

This is why it is so disappointing and frustrating that the Internal Revenue Service is creating grave risks for the American economy by pushing a regulation that would drive a significant slice of this foreign capital to other nations. More specifically, the IRS wants banks to report how much interest they pay foreign depositors so that this information can be forwarded to overseas tax authorities.

Yes, you read correctly. The IRS is seeking to abuse its regulatory power to overturn existing law.

Not surprisingly, many members of Congress are rather upset by this rogue behavior.

Senator Rubio, for instance, just sent a letter to President Obama, slamming the IRS and urging the withdrawal of the regulation.

At a time when unemployment remains high and economic growth is lagging, forcing banks to report interest paid to nonresident aliens would encourage the flight of capital overseas to jurisdictions without onerous reporting requirements, place unnecessary burdens on the American economy, put our financial system at a fundamental competitive disadvantage, and would restrict access to capital when our economy can least afford it. …I respectfully ask that Regulation 146097-09 be permanently withdrawn from consideration. This regulation would have a highly detrimental effect on our economy at a time when pro-growth measures are sorely needed.

And here’s what the entire Florida House delegation (including all Democrats) had to say in a separate letter organized by Congressman Posey.

America’s financial institutions benefit greatly from deposits of foreigners in U.S. banks. These deposits help finance jobs and generate economic growth… For more than 90 years, the United States has recognized the importance of foreign deposits and has refrained from taxing the interest earned by them or requiring their reporting. Unfortunately, a rule proposed by the Internal Revenue Service would overturn this practice and likely result in the flight of hundreds of billions of dollars from U.S. financial institutions. …According to the Commerce Department, foreigners have $10.6 trillion passively invested in the U.S. economy, including nearly “$3.6 trillion reported by U.S. banks and securities brokers.” In addition, a 2004 study from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University estimated that “a scaled back version of the rule would drive $88 billion from American financial institutions,” and this version of the regulation will be far more damaging.

Both Texas Senators also have registered their opposition. Senators Hutchison and Cornyn wrote to the Obama Administration earlier this month.

We are very concerned that this proposed regulation will bring serious harm to the Texas economy, should it go into effect. …Forgoing the taxation of deposit interest paid to certain global investors is a long-standing tax policy that helps attract capital investment to the United States. For generations, these investors have placed their funds in institutions in Texas and across the United States because of the safety of our banks. Another reason that many of these investors deposit funds in American institutions is the instability in their home countries. …With less capital, community banks will be able to extend less credit to working families and small businesses. Ultimately, working families and small businesses will bear the brunt of this ill-advised rule. Given the ongoing fragility of our nation’s economy, we must not pursue policies that will send away job-creating capital.We ask you to withdraw the IRS’s proposed REG-14609-09. The United States should continue to encourage deposits from global investors, as our nation and our economy are best served by this policy.

Their dismay shouldn’t be too surprising since their state would be especially disadvantaged. Here are key passages from a story in the Houston Chronicle.

Texas bankers fear Mexican nationals will yank their deposits if the institutions are required to report to the Internal Revenue Service the interest income non-U.S. residents earn. …such a requirement would drive billions of dollars in deposits to other countries from banks in Texas and other parts the country, hindering the economic recovery, bankers argue. About a trillion dollars in deposits from foreign nationals are in U.S. bank accounts, according to some estimates. …The issue is of particular concern to some banks in South Texas, where many Mexican nationals have moved deposits because they don’t feel their money is safe in institutions in Mexico. …”This proposal has caused a wave of panic in Mexico,” said Lindsay Martin, an estate-planning lawyer with Oppenheimer Blend Harrison + Tate in San Antonio. He has received in recent weeks more than a dozen calls from Mexican nationals and U.S.-based financial planners with questions on the rule. …Jabier Rodriguez, chief executive of Pharr-based Lone Star National Bank, said not one Mexican national he has spoken to backs the rule. “Several of them have said if it were to happen, then there’s no reason for us to have our money here anymore,” he said. Many Mexican nationals worry that the data could end up in the wrong hands, jeopardizing their safety. If people in Mexico and some South American nations find out they have a million dollars in an FDIC-insured account in the United States, “their families could be kidnapped,” added Alex Sanchez, president of the Florida Bankers Association.

For those who want more information about this critical issue, here’s a video explaining why the IRS’s unlawful regulation is very bad for the American economy.

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