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I’m either a total optimist or a glutton for punishment. I recently explained the benefits of “tax havens” for the unfriendly readers of the New York Times.

Now I’m defending a different form of tax competition for CNN, another news outlet that leans left. In this case, the topic is whether states can reach beyond their borders for tax revenue.

Here’s some of what I wrote about the so-called Marketplace Fairness Act that was just approved by the Senate and presumably will soon be considered by the House. I start by explaining that the powers of governments should be constrained by borders.

Let’s assume you live in Utah, Hawaii or South Carolina, and you go to Nevada for a vacation. While in Las Vegas, you spend some money in the casinos. Gambling is illegal in the state where you live, so should the cops in your home state be able to track your activities and arrest you for what happened in Nevada? The answer, needless to say, is no. Or at least it should be no. Common sense tells us that state laws should only apply to things that happen inside a state’s borders. But this sensible principle is being tossed out the window by the U.S. Senate, which has approved a proposal that would give states the ability to impose their taxes on out-of-state sellers.

I also explain that this issue isn’t about whether the Internet should be taxed. Indeed, as a fan of the flat tax, I don’t want special favors or special penalties in the tax code. Internet profits and Internet sales should face the same (ideally low) taxes as all other sectors of the economy.

Instead, the fight is really about whether a state government has the right to force out-of-state merchants to act as deputy tax collectors. If you believe that borders should limit the power of governments, the answer is no.

But that rubs politicians the wrong way.

…some governors and state legislators don’t like this system because many states don’t bother imposing any tax on sales to out-of-state consumers. And even if states levied taxes on sales to out-of-state consumers, what about the five states that don’t have any sales tax? Wouldn’t those states become “tax havens” for Internet sales? For these reasons, some politicians fret that the Internet will put competitive pressure on them to keep their sales tax rates from getting too high.

But this is exactly why politicians shouldn’t be allowed to tax beyond their borders. We want tax competition in order to limit the greed of the political class.

States with no payroll income taxes, such as Nevada, Florida, Tennessee, Texas and New Hampshire, help restrain the greed of politicians in states that have punitive income tax systems, such as California, Illinois, New York and Massachusetts. And if politicians in the high-tax states refuse to adjust their bad tax policies, then people should have the freedom to escape and earn income in other states. The same principle applies to sales taxes. If politicians in, say, Arizona are worried that consumers will go online or travel across the border to avoid the punitive sales tax, then they should reduce their sales tax rate.

So what’s the bottom line?

Politicians can choose to maintain uncompetitive tax systems, of course, but they also should be prepared to accept the consequences. I don’t think California and Illinois should try to become the France and Greece of America, but that’s something for the voters of those states to figure out for themselves. In any event, they shouldn’t have the right to force out-of-state sellers to act as deputy tax collection officials if they decide to impose bad tax policy. …To be blunt, a sales tax cartel is bad news for tax policy and bad news for privacy. Let’s limit the power of state governments so they can only screw up things inside their own borders.

Let’s close on a light note. Here’s a clever cartoon from Nate Beeler.

Internet Tax Shark Cartoon

I agree with the cartoon’s message, at least to the extent that onerous taxes can be very deadly to an industry. But, as noted above, I don’t want special tax-free status for the Internet.

So the ideal cartoon would show lots of surfers from all industries exercising the freedom to pick the waves with the smallest and least destructive sharks. Some might even call that federalism.

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Art Laffer has a guaranteed spot in the liberty hall of fame because he popularized the common-sense notion that you can’t make any assumptions about tax rates and tax revenue without also figuring out what happens to taxable income.

Lot’s of people on the left try to denigrate the “Laffer Curve,” but it’s worth noting that even left-wing economists now admit that you don’t maximize revenue with a 100 percent tax rate.*

Indeed, I think the only people who now cling to that absurd view are the bureaucrats at the Joint Committee on Taxation.

But this post isn’t about the Laffer Curve. It’s about a disappointing column that Art Laffer wrote for today’s Wall Street Journal.

The issue is whether states should have the power to impose taxes on sales that take place outside their borders. Art starts the column with a very good point about the link between growth and living standards.

After enjoying an average growth rate above 3.5% per year between 1960 and 1999, Americans have had to make do with less than one-half that pace since 2000. The consequences are already dramatic and will become even more so over time. Overall we are 20% poorer today than we would be had the pre-2000 growth rate persisted.

That’s a great point. I’ve also tried to get people to focus on the importance of long-run growth.

Heck, just look at what’s happened in Hong Kong and Singapore and you’ll agree.

In his column, Art also correctly defines good tax policy.

The principle of levying the lowest possible tax rate on the broadest possible tax base is the way to improve the incentives to work, save and produce—which are necessary to reinvigorate the American economy and cope with the nation’s fiscal problems.

But he then asserts that an Internet sales tax cartel somehow will result in better policy.

…there are reforms that can alleviate the problems associated with declining sales-tax bases and, at the same time, allow the states to move closer to a pro-growth tax system. One such reform would be to have Internet sellers collect the sales taxes that are owed by in-state consumers when they purchase goods over the Web. So-called e-fairness legislation addresses the inequitable treatment of retailers based on whether they are located in-state (either a traditional brick-and-mortar store or an Internet retailer with a physical presence in the state) or out of state (again as a brick-and-mortar establishment or on the Internet). …The exemption of Internet and out-of-state retailers from collecting state sales taxes reduced state revenues by $23.3 billion in 2012 alone, according to an estimate by the National Conference of State Legislatures. The absence of these revenues has not served to put a lid on state-government spending. Instead, it has led to higher marginal rates in the 43 states that levy income taxes.

This is a very disappointing collection of sentences. Let’s review.

1. States have declining sales-tax bases because state lawmakers treat that levy the same way that politicians in Washington treat the income tax – they put in loopholes in exchange for campaign cash and political support. For them to complain about declining sales-tax bases is sort of like the old joke about the guy who murders  his parents and then asks the court for mercy because he’s an orphan.

2. Art offers zero evidence that state governments would use the additional revenue from a state sales tax cartel to reduce income tax rates. What’s next, a column saying we should have a value-added tax because the politicians may use the revenue to get rid of the income tax? Yeah, good luck with that approach.

3. Why is it “inequitable” for there to be different tax policies in different states? That’s another way of describing federalism, and it’s something we should be celebrating and promoting. Particularly since it promotes tax competition, which is one of the most effective ways of restraining the greed of the political class.

4. The Internet sales tax cartel being promoted by Art and various politicians requires that governments have the ability to tax sales that tax place outside their borders. That’s an assault of sovereignty, particularly since out-of-state merchants will be coerced into being tax collectors for a distant government. This is the same dangerous ideology that is used by high-tax governments to promote global anti-tax competition policies.

5. Art offers zero evidence that the absences of a state sales tax cartel has led to higher income tax rates. Yes, some states have raised tax rates in recent years, but others have lowered tax rates.

For more information on why a sales tax cartel among the states would be a bad idea, here’s my short speech to an audience on Capitol Hill.

*This should be an obvious point, but I can’t resist emphasizing that maximizing revenue should not be the goal of fiscal policy.

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The United Nations may be useful as a forum for world leaders, but it is not a productive place to develop policy. The international bureaucracy compulsively supports statist initiatives that would reduce individual liberty and expand the burden of government.

And you won’t be surprised to learn that the United Nations also wants to control the Internet. Actually, to be more specific, some nations want to regulate and censor the Internet and they are using the United Nations as a venue.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Gordon Crovitz explains this new threat. He starts by describing the laissez-faire system that currently exists and identifies the governments pushing for bad policy.

Who runs the Internet? For now, the answer remains no one, or at least no government, which explains the Web’s success as a new technology. But as of next week, unless the U.S. gets serious, the answer could be the United Nations. Many of the U.N.’s 193 member states oppose the open, uncontrolled nature of the Internet. Its interconnected global networks ignore national boundaries, making it hard for governments to censor or tax. And so, to send the freewheeling digital world back to the state control of the analog era, China, Russia, Iran and Arab countries are trying to hijack a U.N. agency that has nothing to do with the Internet. For more than a year, these countries have lobbied an agency called the International Telecommunications Union to take over the rules and workings of the Internet.

He then warns about the risk of government control.

Having the Internet rewired by bureaucrats would be like handing a Stradivarius to a gorilla. The Internet is made up of 40,000 networks that interconnect among 425,000 global routes, cheaply and efficiently delivering messages and other digital content among more than two billion people around the world, with some 500,000 new users a day. …The self-regulating Internet means no one has to ask for permission to launch a website, and no government can tell network operators how to do their jobs. The arrangement has made the Internet a rare place of permissionless innovation.

Crovitz identifies some of the specific tax and regulatory threats.

Proposals for the new ITU treaty run to more than 200 pages. One idea is to apply the ITU’s long-distance telephone rules to the Internet by creating a “sender-party-pays” rule. International phone calls include a fee from the originating country to the local phone company at the receiving end. Under a sender-pays approach, U.S.-based websites would pay a local network for each visitor from overseas, effectively taxing firms such as Google and Facebook. …Regimes such as Russia and Iran also want an ITU rule letting them monitor Internet traffic routed through or to their countries, allowing them to eavesdrop or block access.

And he warns that the Obama Administration’s representative seems inadequately committed to advancing and protecting American interests.

The State Department’s top delegate to the Dubai conference, Terry Kramer, has pledged that the U.S. won’t let the ITU expand its authority to the Internet. But he hedged his warning in a recent presentation in Washington: “We don’t want to come across like we’re preaching to others.” To the contrary, the top job for the U.S. delegation at the ITU conference is to preach the virtues of the open Internet as forcefully as possible. Billions of online users are counting on America to make sure that their Internet is never handed over to authoritarian governments or to the U.N.

With all the support Obama got from Silicon Valley and the high-tech crowd, one would think this is an issue where the Administration would do the right thing. And it sounds like the U.S. is on the right side, but the real issue is whether the American representative is prepared to tell the dictators and kleptocrats to jump in a lake.

The moral of the story is that the United Nations should not be a policy forum. The bureaucrats seem to have no appreciation or understanding of how the economy works, perhaps because they live in a bubble and get tax-free salaries.

And I don’t say that out of animosity. The folks I’ve met from the United Nations have all been pleasant and I even participated in a U.N. conference as the token free-market supporter.

But just because someone’s nice, that doesn’t mean that they should have any power over my life or your life. And many of the nations pushing to control and regulate the Internet are governed by people who are neither nice nor pleasant.

P.S. You probably don’t want to know my innermost fantasies, but one of them involved the United Nations.

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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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As part of his campaign to expand the size and scope of the federal government (and to justify his advocacy of class-warfare taxation), President Obama has been asserting that all of us benefit from government spending.

It’s why he now echoes Elizabeth Warren’s claim that entrepreneurs owe their success to government programs and activities.

It’s also why he cites the Internet as an example of wise, prudent, and far-seeing government intervention.

Sounds like a powerful example. The kind of anecdote that leaves libertarians momentarily speechless.

But there’s just one small, tiny, itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny problem with Obama’s example. It ain’t true.

Here are some excerpts from a first-rate column by Gordon Crovitz in the Wall Street Journal.

It’s an urban legend that the government launched the Internet. …The truth is a more interesting story about how innovation happens—and about how hard it is to build successful technology companies even once the government gets out of the way. …If the government didn’t invent the Internet, who did? Vinton Cerf developed the TCP/IP protocol, the Internet’s backbone, and Tim Berners-Lee gets credit for hyperlinks. …But full credit goes to the company where Mr. Taylor worked after leaving ARPA: Xerox. It was at the Xerox PARC labs in Silicon Valley in the 1970s that the Ethernet was developed to link different computer networks. Researchers there also developed the first personal computer (the Xerox Alto) and the graphical user interface that still drives computer usage today. …So having created the Internet, why didn’t Xerox become the biggest company in the world? The answer explains the disconnect between a government-led view of business and how innovation actually happens. Executives at Xerox headquarters in Rochester, N.Y., were focused on selling copiers. From their standpoint, the Ethernet was important only so that people in an office could link computers to share a copier. …As for the government’s role, the Internet was fully privatized in 1995, when a remaining piece of the network run by the National Science Foundation was closed—just as the commercial Web began to boom. Economist Tyler Cowen wrote in 2005: “The Internet, in fact, reaffirms the basic free market critique of large government. Here for 30 years the government had an immensely useful protocol for transferring information, TCP/IP, but it languished. . . . In less than a decade, private concerns have taken that protocol and created one of the most important technological revolutions of the millennia.”

It’s nice to see this urban legend of effective government punctured weakened, but let’s close out this post with a thought experiment. Let’s assume that the federal government deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the Internet.

Our Tax Dollars at Work?

Or we’re sometimes told that NASA generated big benefits, such as Tang and microwave ovens, and maybe those claims are true.

Would any of this justify Obama’s proposals to expand the size and cost of the federal government?

Since I’ve actually explained in one of my videos that there are some forms of government spending – such as capital spending – that can generate positive rates of return, this is an empirical question.

But here’s where Obama’s argument breaks down. If you look at federal outlays for “major public physical capital investment” and “conduct of research and development,” they add up to less than 10 percent of the federal budget.

So the parts of the budget that theoretically might generate some positive spin-offs are trivial. The vast majority of spending, by contrast, is consumed by inefficient tax-and-transfer entitlement programs.

And what are Obama’s two biggest “accomplishments” since taking office? The so-called stimulus and Obamacare, two pieces of legislation that expand the unambiguously unproductive portions of the federal budget.

In other words, like most other politicians, Obama is like an unethical used car salesman. He lures the unsuspecting onto the lot with glib talk of good roads and the Internet, but they wind up driving away with a lemon known as the welfare state.

P.S. Speaking of Elizabeth Warren, here’s an amusing parody of her views as they apply to the world of intimacy. And here’s a video mocking her “Soul Man” claims of Indian ancestry.

P.P.S. Just like I recently apologized to hyenas and gang members, I now apologize to used car salesmen for putting them on the same level of politicians.

P.P.P.S. The government may not have invented the Internet, but it sure is anxious to tax it, with everyone from state politicians to U.N. bureaucrats trying to stick their hands in the cookie jar.

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Addendum: My Cato colleague Jim Harper and others tell me that government played a bigger role than argued by Crovitz, so the first part of this post overstates the argument against government as incubator. But that underscores the importance of what I wrote in the concluding part of the post.

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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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It’s hard to imagine how we would get through life without necessities like bacon and duct tape. But have you ever thought about how the free market gives you so much for so little?

Here’s a video that should be mandatory viewing in Washington. Too bad politicians didn’t watch it before imposing government-run healthcare.

And since we’re contemplating the big-picture issue of whether markets are better than statism, here’s some very sobering polling data from EurActiv.

A recent survey has found deep pessimism among European Commission staff on a wide range of issues, including the course of European integration over the past decade and the likelihood of success of the EU’s strategy for economic growth. Some 63% partially or totally agreed that “the European model has entered into a lasting crisis”.

This is remarkable. Even the statist über-bureaucrats of the European Commission realize the house of cards of big government is collapsing, yet politicians in Washington still want to make America more like Europe.

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The mid-term elections were a rejection of President Obama’s big-government agenda, but those results don’t necessarily mean better policy. We should not forget, after all, that Democrats rammed through Obamacare even after losing the special election to replace Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts (much to my dismay, my prediction from last January was correct).

Similarly, GOP control of the House of Representatives does not automatically mean less government and more freedom. Heck, it doesn’t even guarantee that things won’t continue to move in the wrong direction. Here are five possible bad policies for 2011, most of which the Obama White House can implement by using executive power.

1. A back-door bailout of the states from the Federal Reserve – The new GOP Congress presumably wouldn’t be foolish enough to bail out profligate states such as California and Illinois, but that does not mean the battle is won. Ben Bernanke already has demonstrated that he is willing to curry favor with the White House by debasing the value of the dollar, so what’s to stop him from engineering a back-door bailout by having the Federal Reserve buy state bonds? The European Central Bank already is using this tactic to bail out Europe’s welfare states, so a precedent already exists for this type of misguided policy. To make matters worse, there’s nothing Congress can do – barring legislation that Obama presumably would veto – to stop the Fed from this awful policy.

2. A front-door bailout of Europe by the United States – Welfare states in Europe are teetering on the edge of insolvency. Decades of big government have crippled economic growth and generated mountains of debt. Ireland and Greece already have been bailed out, and Portugal and Spain are probably next on the list, to be followed by countries such as Italy and Belgium. So why should American taxpayers worry about European bailouts? The unfortunate answer is that American taxpayers will pick up a big chunk of the tab if the International Monetary Fund is involved. Indeed, this horse already has escaped the barn. The United States provides the largest amount of  subsidies to the International Monetary Fund, and the IMF took part in the bailouts of Greece and Ireland. The Senate did vote against having American taxpayers take part in the bailout of Greece, but that turned out to be a symbolic exercise. Sadly, that’s probably what we can expect if and when there are bailouts of the bigger European welfare states.

3. Republicans getting duped by Obama and supporting a VAT – The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the Obama Administration is contemplating a reduction in the corporate income tax. This sounds like a great idea, particularly since America’s punitive corporate tax rate is undermining competitiveness and hindering job creation. But what happens if Obama demands that Congress approve a value-added tax to “pay for” the lower corporate tax rate? This would be a terrible deal, sort of like a football team trading a great young quarterback for a 35-year old lineman. The VAT would give statists a money machine that they need to turn the United States into a French-style welfare state. This type of national sales tax would only be acceptable if the personal and corporate income taxes were abolished – and the Constitution was amended to make sure the federal government never again could tax what we earn and produce. But that’s not the deal Obama would offer. My fingers are crossed that Obama doesn’t offer to swap a lower corporate income tax for a VAT, particularly since we already know that some Republicans are susceptible to the VAT.

4. Regulatory imposition of global warming policy – This actually is an issue we needed to start worrying about before this year. The Obama Administration already is in the process of trying to use regulatory edicts to impose Kyoto-style restrictions on energy use, and 2011 may be a pivotal year for this issue. This issue is troubling because of the potential impact on economic growth, but it also represents an assault on the rule of law since the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency are engaging in regulatory overreach because they did not have enough support to get so-called climate change legislation through Congress. The new GOP majority presumably will try to use the “power of the purse” to limit the EPA’s power grab, and the outcome of that fight could have dramatic implications for job creation and competitiveness.

5. U.N. control of the Internet – The Federal Communications Commission just engaged in an unprecedented power grab as part of its “Net Neutrality” initiative, so we already have bad news for both Internet consumers and America’s telecommunications industry. But it may get worse. The bureaucrats at the United Nations, conspiring with autocratic governments, have created an Internet Governance Forum in hopes of grabbing power over the online world. This has caused considerable angst, leading Vint Cerf, one of inventors of the Internet (sorry, Al Gore) to warn: “We don’t believe governments should be allowed to grant themselves a monopoly on Internet governance. The current bottoms-up, open approach works — protecting users from vested interests and enabling rapid innovation. Let’s fight to keep it that way.” International bureaucracies are very skilled at incrementally increasing their authority, so this won’t be a one-year fight. Stopping this power grab will require persistent oversight and a willingness to reject compromises that inevitably give bureaucracies more power and simply set the stage for further demands.

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Some ideas are so horrible that I’m almost at a loss for words. The United Nations is a grotesquely wasteful and corrupt international bureaucracy with a long track record of failure and incompetence.

Yet some people think this collection of looters, moochers, and kleptocrats should have authority over the Internet. I’m not kidding. Here are some of the details from an Australian newspaper.

The United Nations is considering whether to set up an inter-governmental working group to harmonise global efforts by policy makers to regulate the internet. Establishment of such a group has the backing of several countries, spearheaded by Brazil. At a meeting in New York on Wednesday, representatives from Brazil called for an international body made up of Government representatives that would to attempt to create global standards for policing the internet… India, South Africa, China and Saudi Arabia appeared to favour a new possible over-arching inter-government body. However, Australia, US, UK, Belgium and Canada and attending business and community representatives argued there were risks in forming yet another working group that might isolate itself from the industry, community users and the general public.

For what it’s worth, this proposal is so crazy that it appears that even the Obama Administration is opposed. I certainly hope so, because this proposal inevitably would lead to many bad results, including restrictions on freedom of speech.

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Here’s a very disturbing report from Foxnews.com about a scheme at the United Nations to impose global taxes. This has been a long-time dream of the bureaucrats, who (naturally) are exempt from paying tax themselves. Here’s a link to a study I wrote on a separate UN tax threat nearly 10 years ago, and here’s an excerpt from the Foxnews.com story:

The World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations’ public health arm, is moving full speed ahead with a controversial plan to impose global consumer taxes on such things as Internet activity and everyday financial transactions like paying bills online — while its spending soars and its own financial house is in disarray. The aim of its taxing plans is to raise “tens of billions” of dollars for WHO that would be used to radically reorganize the research, development, production and distribution of medicines around the world, with greater emphasis on drugs for communicable diseases in poor countries. The irony is that the WHO push to take a huge bite out of global consumers comes as the organization is having a management crisis of its own, juggling finances, failing to use its current resources efficiently, or keep its costs under control — and it doesn’t expect to show positive results in managing those challenges until a year from now, at the earliest. …the proposals are headed for the four-day annual meeting of the 193-member World Health Assembly, WHO’s chief legislative organ, which begins in Geneva on May 17. …What truly concerns the experts, however, is how to get the wealth transfers that will make the R and D transfers possible — on a permanent basis. The panel offers up a specific number of possibilities. Chief among them: • a “digital” or “bit” tax on Internet activity, which could raise “tens of billions of U.S. dollars”; • a 10 percent tax on international arms deals, “worth about $5 billion per annum”; • a financial transaction tax, citing a Brazilian levy that was raising some $20 billion per year until it was canceled (for unspecified reasons); • an airline tax that already exists in 13 countries and has raised some $1 billion. Almost casually, the panel’s report notes that the fundraising effort would involve global changes in legal structures — and policing. As the report puts it: “Introducing a new tax or expanding an existing tax may require legal changes, nationally and internationally and ongoing regulation to ensure compliance.”

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