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Posts Tagged ‘Jeffrey Sachs’

I posted yesterday about visiting the United Nations to participate in “The High Level Thematic Debate on the State of the World Economy.”

There were five speakers on my panel, including yours truly. Here are my thoughts on what the others said.

Dr. Supachai Panitchpakdi, Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, must have been part of the buzz-word contest I mentioned yesterday. Lots of rhetoric that theoretically was inoffensive, but I had the feeling that it translated into a call for more government. But maybe I’m paranoid SOB, so who knows.

Professor Dato’ Dr. Zaleha Kamaruddin, Rector of the International Islamic University of Malaysia, was an interesting mix. At some points, she sounded like Ron Paul, saying nice things about the gold standard and low tax rates. But she also called for debt forgiveness and other forms of intervention. She explicitly said she was providing Islamic insights, so perhaps the strange mix makes sense from that perspective.

Former Senator Alan K. Simpson also was a mixed bag. Simpson was co-chair of Obama’s fiscal commission, which I thought was a disappointment because it endorsed higher taxes and urged sub-par entitlement changes rather than much-needed structural reforms. He also went after Grover Norquist because of the no-tax pledge, which I think is a valuable tool to keep Republicans from selling out for bigger government. All that being said, Senator Simpson is a promoter of smaller government and he wants lower tax rates. So while I disagree with some of his tactical decisions, he was an ally on the panel and would probably do a pretty good job if he was economic czar.

Last but not least, Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University was a statist, as one would expect based on what I wrote about him last year. We clashed the most, arguing about everything from tax havens to the size of government. Interestingly, we both said nice things about Sweden, but I was focusing on policies such as school choice and pension reform, while he admired the large public sector. But I will admit he was a nice guy. We sat next to each other and did find a bit of common ground in that we both were sympathetic to the way Sweden dealt with its financial crisis about 20 years ago (a version of the FDIC-resolution approach rather than the corrupt TARP bailout approach).

My message, by the way, was very simple. Higher taxes won’t work. The “growth” vs. “austerity” debate in Europe is really a no-win fight between those who want higher spending vs. those who want higher taxes. The only good answer is to restrain spending with…you guessed it, Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

I’m not safely out of New York City, and I promise I didn’t drink any of the Kool-Aid. I’m still a critic of international bureaucracies. And I wouldn’t allow myself to be bought off by a lavish, tax-free job at the United Nations.

Unless, perhaps, it was a Special Envoy position with Angelina Jolie.

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Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University is a big booster of the discredited notion that foreign aid is a cure-all for poverty in the developing world, but he is now branching out and saying silly things about policy in other areas.

In a column for the Financial Times, he complains that tax competition is forcing governments to “race to the bottom” with regards to tax rates. The answer, he wants us to believe, is some sort of global tax cartel. Sort of an “OPEC for politicians” that will facilitate the imposition of higher tax rates.

Only international co-operation can now solve what is becoming a runaway social crisis in many high-income countries. …With capital globally mobile, moreover, governments are now in a race to the bottom with regard to corporate taxation and loopholes for personal taxation of high incomes. Each government aims to attract mobile capital by cutting taxes relative to others. …countries cannot act by themselves. Even the social democracies of northern Europe, with their balanced budgets and high tax rates, are increasingly being pulled into the vortex of tax cutting and the race to the bottom. …recent trends…require increased, not decreased, taxation of higher incomes, including corporate profits; and that tax and regulatory co-ordination across countries are vital to prevent a ruinous fiscal race to the bottom.

If this overwrought rhetoric is true, it would mean that governments have been starved of revenue because of race-to-the-bottom tax cuts for evil corporations and sinister rich people. Well, it is true that tax competition over the past 30-plus years has resulted in lower tax rates. But do lower tax rates mean less tax revenue, as implied by Sachs’ analysis?

At the risk of being impolite and shattering anyone’s illusions, let’s actually see what happened to the overall tax burden on both personal and corporate income.

This chart, showing the average for industrialized nations, shows that Sachs and his ilk are wrong. Way wrong. Tax rates have come down, but the overall tax burden actually has increased. So while there may be a race to less-destructive tax rates, there certainly isn’t a race to bottom for tax revenue.

Hmmm….lower tax rates and higher tax revenue. That seems vaguely familiar. Maybe it has something to do with “supply-side economics.” One can only wonder if Sachs has heard about that strange idea known as the Laffer Curve.

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