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Posts Tagged ‘Territorial Taxation’

I’m in favor of free markets.

That means I’m sometimes on the same side as big business, but it also means that I’m often very critical of big business.

That’s because large companies are largely amoral.

Depending on the issue, they may be on the side of the angels, such as when they resist bad government policies such as higher tax rates and increased red tape.

But many of those same companies will then turn around and try to manipulate the system for subsidies, protectionism, and corrupt tax loopholes.

Today, I’m going to defend big business. That’s because we have a controversy about whether a company has the legal and moral right to protect itself from bad tax policy.

We’re dealing specifically with a drugstore chain that has merged with a similar company based in Switzerland, which raises the question of whether the expanded company should be domiciled in the United States or overseas.

Here’s some of what I wrote on this issue for yesterday’s Chicago Tribune.

Should Walgreen move? …Many shareholders want a “corporate inversion” with the company based in Europe, possibly Switzerland. …if the combined company were based in Switzerland and got out from under America’s misguided tax system, the firm’s tax burden would drop, and UBS analysts predict that earnings per share would jump by 75 percent. That’s a plus for shareholders, of course, but also good for employees and consumers.

Folks on the left, though, are fanning the flames of resentment, implying that this would be an example of corporate tax cheating.

But they either don’t know what they’re talking about (a distinct possibility given their unfamiliarity with the private sector) or they’re prevaricating.

Some think this would allow Walgreen to avoid paying tax on American profits to Uncle Sam. This is not true. All companies, whether domiciled in America or elsewhere, pay tax to the IRS on income earned in the U.S. 

The benefit of “inverting” basically revolves around the taxation of income earned in other nations.

But there is a big tax advantage if Walgreen becomes a Swiss company. The U.S. imposes “worldwide taxation,” which means American-based companies not only pay tax on income earned at home but also are subject to tax on income earned overseas. Most other nations, including Switzerland, use “territorial taxation,” which is the common-sense approach of only taxing income earned inside national borders. The bottom line is that Walgreen, if it becomes a Swiss company, no longer would have to pay tax to the IRS on income that is earned in other nations. 

It’s worth noting, by the way, that all major pro-growth tax reforms (such as the flat tax) would replace worldwide taxation with territorial taxation. So Walgreen wouldn’t have any incentive to redomicile in Switzerland if America had the right policy.

And this is why I’ve defended Google and Apple when they’ve been attacked for not coughing up more money to the IRS on their foreign-source income.

But I don’t think this fight is really about the details of corporate tax policy.

Some people think that taxpayers in the economy’s productive sector should be treated as milk cows that exist solely to feed the Washington spending machine.

…ideologues on the left, even the ones who understand that the company would comply with tax laws, are upset that Walgreen is considering this shift. They think companies have a moral obligation to pay more tax than required. This is a bizarre mentality. It assumes not only that we should voluntarily pay extra tax but also that society will be better off if more money is transferred from the productive sector of the economy to politicians.

Needless to say, I have a solution to this controversy.

…the real lesson is that politicians in Washington should lower the corporate tax rate and reform the code so that America no longer is an unfriendly home for multinational firms.

For more information, here’s the video I narrated on “deferral,” which is a policy that mitigates America’s misguided policy of worldwide taxation. And you’ll see (what a surprise) that the Obama Administration wants to make the system even more punitive.

P.S. On this topic, click here is you want to compare good research from the Tax Foundation with sloppy analysis from the New York Times.

P.P.S. Many other companies already have re-domiciled overseas because the internal revenue code is so punitive. The U.S. tax system is so bad that companies even escape to Canada and the United Kingdom!

P.P.P.S. It also would be a good idea to lower America’s anti-competitive corporate tax rate.

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It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that the United States has the world’s worst corporate tax system.

We definitely have the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world, and we may have the highest corporate tax rate in the entire world depending on how one chooses to classify the tax regime in an obscure oil Sheikdom.

But America’s bad policy goes far beyond the rate structure. We also have a very punitive policy of “worldwide taxation” that forces American firms to pay an extra layer of tax when competing for market share in other nations.

And then we have rampant double taxation of both dividends and capital gains, which discourages business investment.

No wonder a couple of German economists ranked America 94 out of 100 nations when measuring the overall treatment of business income.

So if you’re an American company, how do you deal with all this bad policy?

Well, one solution is to engage in a lot of clever tax planning to minimize your taxable income. Though that’s probably not a successful long-term strategy since the Obama Administration is supporting a plan by European politicians to create further disadvantages for American-based companies.

Another option is to somehow turn yourself into a foreign corporation. You won’t be surprised to learn that politicians have imposed punitive anti-expatriation laws to make that difficult, but the crowd in Washington hasn’t figured out how to stop cross-border mergers and acquisitions.

And it seems that’s a very effective way of escaping America’s worldwide tax regime. Let’s look at some excerpts from a story posted by CNBC.

Some of the biggest mergers and acquisitions so far in 2013 have involved so-called “tax inversions” – where a US acquirer shifts overseas, to Europe in particular, to pay a lower rate.

The article then lists a bunch of examples. Here’s Example #1.

Michigan-based pharmaceuticals group Perrigo has said its acquisition of Irish biotech company Elan will lead to re-domiciling in Ireland, where it has given guidance it expects to pay about 17 per cent in tax, rather than an estimated 30 per cent rate it was paying in the US. Deutsche Bank estimates Perrigo will achieve tax savings of $118m a year as a result.

And Example #2.

New Jersey-based Actavis’s acquisition of Warner Chilcott in May – will also result in a move to Ireland, where Actavis’s tax rate will fall to about 17 per cent from an effective rate of 28 per cent tax, and enable it to save an estimated $150m over the next two years.

Then Example #3.

US advertising company Omnicom has said its $35bn merger with Publicis will result in the combined group’s headquarters being located in the Netherlands, saving about $80m in US tax a year.

Last but not least, Example #4.

Liberty Global’s $23bn acquisition of Virgin Media will allow the US cable group to relocate to the UK, and pay its lower 21 per cent tax rate of corporation tax.

And we can expect more of these inversions in the future.

M&A advisers say the number of companies seeking to re-domicile outside the US after a takeover is rising. …Increased use of tax inversion has coincided with an intensifying political debate on US tax – with Democrats, Republicans and the White House agreeing that the current code, which imposes a top rate of 35 per cent but offers a plethora of tax breaks, is in need of reform.

I’ll close with a very important point.

It’s not true that the current code has a “plethora of tax breaks.” Or, to be more specific, there are lots of tax breaks, but the ones that involve lots of money are part of the personal income tax, such as the state and local tax deduction, the mortgage interest deduction, the charitable contributions deduction, the muni-bond exemption, and the fringe benefits exclusion.

There are some corrupt loopholes in the corporate income tax, to be sure, such as the ethanol credit for Big Ag and housing credits for politically well-connected developers. But if you look at the Joint Committee on Taxation’s list of so-called tax expenditures and correct for their flawed definition of income, it turns out that there’s not much room to finance a lower tax rate by getting rid of unjustified tax breaks.

So does this mean there’s no way of fixing the problems that cause tax inversions?

If lawmakers put themselves in the straitjacket of “static scoring” as practiced by the Joint Committee on Taxation, then a solution is very unlikely.

But if they choose to look at the evidence, they’ll see that there are big Laffer-Curve effects from better tax policy. A study from the American Enterprise Institute found that the revenue-maximizing corporate tax rate is about 25 percent while more recent research from the Tax Foundation puts the revenue-maximizing tax rate for companies closer to 15 percent.

I should hasten to add that the tax code shouldn’t be designed to maximize revenues. But when tax rates are punitively high, even a cranky libertarian like me won’t get too agitated if politicians wind up with more money as a result of lowering tax rates.

You might think that’s a win-win situation. Folks on the right support lower tax rates to get more growth and folks on the left support the same policy to raise more tax revenue.

But there’s at least one person on Washington who wants high tax rates even if they don’t raise additional revenue.

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

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

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

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

Here are some details from a Bloomberg report.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The same is true for companies.

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

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

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I 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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Whether it’s American politicians trying to extort more taxes from Apple or international bureaucrats trying to boost the tax burden on firms with a global corporate tax return, the left is aggressively seeking to impose harsher fiscal burdens on the business community.

A good (or “bad” would a more appropriate word) example of this thinking can be found in the New York Times, where Steven Rattner just wrote a column complaining that companies are using mergers to redomicile in jurisdictions with better tax law.*

He thinks the right response is higher taxes on multinationals.

While a Senate report detailing Apple’s aggressive tax sheltering of billions of dollars of overseas income grabbed headlines this week, …the American drug maker Actavis announced that it would spend $5 billion to acquire Warner Chilcott, an Irish pharmaceuticals company less than half its size. Buried in the fifth paragraph of the release was the curious tidbit that the new company would be incorporated in Ireland, even though the far larger acquirer was based in Parsippany, N.J. The reason? By escaping American shores, Actavis expects to reduce its effective tax rate from about 28 percent to 17 percent, a potential savings of tens of millions of dollars per year for the company and a still larger hit to the United States Treasury. …Eaton Corporation, a diversified power management company based for nearly a century in Cleveland, also became an “Irish company” when it acquired Cooper Industries last year. …That’s just not fair at a time of soaring corporate profits and stagnant family incomes. …President Obama has made constructive proposals to reduce the incentive to move jobs overseas by imposing a minimum tax on foreign earnings and delaying certain tax deductions related to overseas investment.

But Mr. Rattner apparently is unaware that American firms that compete in other nations also pay taxes in other nations.

Too bad he didn’t bother with some basic research. He would have discovered some new Tax Foundation research by Kyle Pomerleau, which explains that these firms already are heavily taxed on their foreign-source income.

Tax Foundation - Overseas Corporate Tax Burden…the amount U.S. multinational firms pay in taxes on their foreign income has become a common topic for the press and among politicians. Some of the more sensational press stories and claims by politicians lead people to believe that U.S. companies pay little or nothing in taxes on their foreign earnings. Last year, even the president suggested the U.S. needs a “minimum tax” on corporate foreign earnings to prevent tax avoidance. Unfortunately, such claims are either based upon a misunderstanding of how U.S. international tax rules work or are simply careless portrayals of the way in which U.S. companies pay taxes on their foreign profits. …According to the most recent IRS data for 2009, U.S. companies paid more than $104 billion in income taxes to foreign governments on foreign taxable income of $416 billion. As Table 1 indicates, companies paid an average effective tax rate of 25 percent on that income.

Unfortunately, the New York Times either is short of fact checkers or has very sloppy editors. Here are some other egregious errors.

And none of this counts Paul Krugman’s mistakes, which are in a special category (see here, here, here, here, and here for a few examples).

*There is an important lesson to be learned when American companies redomicile overseas. Unfortunately, the New York Times wants to make a bad system even worse.

P.S. Rand Paul has a must-watch video on the issue of anti-Apple demagoguery.

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Senator Rand Paul is perhaps even better than I thought he would be.

The Founding Fathers would be proud

He already is playing a very substantive role on policy, ranging from his actions of big-picture issues, such as his proposed budget that would significantly shrink the burden of government spending, to his willingness to take on lower-profile but important issues such as repealing the Obama Administration’s wretched FATCA law.

But he also plays a very valuable role by articulating the message of liberty and refusing to allow leftist politicians to claim the moral high ground and use false morality to cloak their greed for other people’s money.

And there’s no better example than what he just did at the Senate hearing about Apple’s tax burden.

Wow. I thought I hit on the key issues in my post on the anti-Apple demagoguery, but Senator Paul hit the ball out of the park.

If you want other video examples of Senator Paul in action, click here to see him grill a TSA bureaucrat and click here to see him rip an Obama appointee on whether Americans should be free to choose the light bulb they prefer.

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The Senate is holding a Kangaroo Court designed to smear Apple for not voluntarily coughing up more tax revenue than the company actually owes.

Here are four things you need to know.

Apple is fully complying with the tax law. There is no suggestion that Apple has done anything illegal. The company is being berated by politicians for simply obeying the law that politicians have enacted. What’s really happening, of course, is that the politicians are conducting a show trial in hopes of creating an environment more conducive to tax increases on multinational companies (this is in addition to the OECD effort to impose higher tax burdens on multinational firms).

Left-wing whining

It is better for Apple to retain its profits than it is for politicians to grab the money. If Harry Reid, Barack Obama, and the rest of the crowd in Washington are able to use this fake issue as an excuse to raise taxes, the only things that changes is that the tax system becomes more onerous and politicians have more money to spend. Neither of those results are good for growth, particularly compared to the potential benefits of leaving the money in the productive sector of the economy.

Apple shouldn’t pay any tax to the IRS on any of its foreign-source income. A few years ago, Google was criticized for paying “only” 2.4 percent tax on its foreign-source income, but I explained that was 2.4 percentage points too high. Likewise, when Apple earns money overseas, that should not trigger any tax liability to the IRS since the income already is subject to all applicable foreign taxes (much as, say, Toyota pays tax to the IRS on its US-source income). Good tax policy is based on the common-sense notion of “territorial taxation,” which means governments only tax income and activity within their national borders. Unfortunately, the American tax system is partially based on the anti-competitive policy of “worldwide taxation,” which means the IRS gets to tax income that is earned – and already subject to tax – in other nations. Fortunately, we have a policy called “deferral,” which allows companies to postpone this second layer of tax.

If Apple is trying to characterize US-source income into foreign-source income, that’s because the US corporate tax system is anti-competitive. Multinational companies often are accused of “abusing” transfer-pricing rules on intra-company transactions to inappropriately turn US-source income into foreign-source income. To the extent this happens (and always with IRS approval), it is because the American corporate tax rate is now the highest in the developed world (and the second highest in the entire world), so companies naturally would prefer to reduce their tax burdens by declaring income elsewhere. So the only pro-growth solution is lowering the corporate tax rate.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that the Tax Foundation recently estimated that the revenue-maximizing corporate tax rate is 14 percent.

So if the anti-Apple lynch mob actually wants more revenue, they should learn a Laffer Curve lesson and slash the corporate tax rate.*

*I want to maximize growth, not maximize revenue.

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I’m a big fan of lower corporate tax rates.

I also want to eliminate worldwide taxation so American companies can be on a level playing field when competing for market share around the world.

And I want to get rid of the double taxation of dividends and capital gains in part because these reforms will boost business investment.

Given this track record, I don’t think anybody could accuse me of being an anti-big-business activist.

But I do get very irritated when politically connected corporations use cronyism to guard their interests at the expense of other taxpayers and the overall economy.

That’s why, in this interview with Larry Kudlow on CNBC, I spend most of the time advocating for pro-growth policies, but near the end I slam corporate CEOs from the Business Roundtable for endorsing higher tax rates for small businesses.

For those who don’t follow the intricacies of business taxation, most small companies – such as sole proprietorships, partnerships, and S-corps – are taxed through the personal income tax.

So it’s a bit outrageous when corporate CEOs endorse higher personal income tax rates, knowing that their smaller competitors will get reamed.

I don’t think they’re doing it just for that purpose. As I say in the interview, it’s more a case of feeding somebody else to the sharks out of a narrow, short-term sense of self preservation.

But this also explains why I am such a strong believer in the no-tax-hike pledge. Once “revenue enhancement” is part of the discussion, taxpayers lose their sense of unity and begin to throw each other overboard.

And this isn’t just something that happens among Washington insiders. I’ve previously explained that ordinary Americans get very tempted to support class-warfare tax hikes once they realize someone is going to be raped and pillaged by Washington.

This is why, to discourage talk of tax hikes (especially by crony capitalists), I am willing to make a special exception and support an excise tax on CEO salaries. Anybody who endorses higher taxes should be first in line for the guillotine.

P.S. I apologize for the poor quality of the video. The guy at Cato who does these things is out for the holidays, and you see the suboptimal results when I dabble in technical things. And since I’m acknowledging my shortcomings, I should have said “obediently” instead of “appropriately” at the 3:44 mark.

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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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My friends at Americans for Tax Reform have received a bunch of attention for a new report entitled “Win Olympic Gold, Pay the IRS.”

In this clever document, they reveal that athletes could face a tax bill – to those wonderful folks at the IRS – of nearly $9,000 thanks to America’s unfriendly worldwide tax system.

The topic is even getting attention overseas. Here’s an excerpt from a BBC report.

US medal-winning athletes at the Olympics have to pay tax on their prize money – something which is proving controversial in the US. But why are athletes from the US taxed when others are not? The US is right up there in the medals table, and has produced some of the finest displays in the Olympics so far. … But not everyone is happy to hear that their Olympic medal-winning athletes are being taxed on their medal prize money. Athletes are effectively being punished for their success, argues Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican, who introduced a bill earlier this week that would eliminate tax on Olympic medals and prize money. …This, he said, is an example of the “madness” of the US tax system, which he called a “complicated and burdensome mess”.

It’s important to understand, though, that this isn’t a feel-good effort to create a special tax break. Instead, Senator Rubio is seeking to take a small step in the direction of better tax policy.

More specifically, he wants to move away from the current system of “worldwide” taxation and instead shift to “territorial” taxation, which is simply the common-sense notion of sovereignty applied to taxation. If income is earned inside a nation’s borders, that nation gets to decided how and when it is taxed.

In other words, if U.S. athletes earn income competing in the United Kingdom, it’s a matter for inland revenue, not the IRS.

Incidentally, both the flat tax and national sales tax are based on territorial taxation, and most other countries actually are ahead of the United States and use this approach. The BBC report has further details.

The Olympic example highlights what they regard as the underlying problem of the US’ so-called “worldwide” tax model. Under this system, earnings made by a US citizen abroad are liable for both local tax and US tax. Most countries in the world have a “territorial” system of tax and apply that tax just once – in the country where it is earned. With the Olympics taking place in London, the UK would, in theory, be entitled to claim tax on prize money paid to visiting athletes. But, as is standard practice for many international sporting events, it put in place a number of tax exemptions for competitors in the Olympics – including on any prize money. That means that only athletes from countries with a worldwide tax system on individual income are liable for tax on their medals. And there are only a handful of them in the world, says Daniel Mitchell, an expert on tax reform at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank – citing the Philippines and Eritrea as other examples. But with tax codes so notoriously complicated, unravelling which countries would apply this in the context of Olympic prize money is a tricky task, he says. Mitchell is a critic of the worldwide system, saying it effectively amounts to “double taxation” and leaves the US both at a competitive disadvantage, and as a bullyboy, on the world stage. “We are the 800lb (360kg) gorilla in the world economy, and we can bully other nations into helping enforce our bad tax law.”

To close out this discussion, statists prefer worldwide taxation because it undermines tax competition. This is because, under worldwide taxation, individuals and companies have no ability to escape high taxes by shifting activity to jurisdictions with better tax policy.

Indeed, this is why politicians from high-tax nations are so fixated on trying to shut down so-called tax havens. It’s difficult to enforce bad tax policy, after all, if some nations have strong human rights policies on privacy.

For all intents and purposes, a worldwide tax regime means the government gets a permanent and global claim on your income. And without having to worry about tax competition, that “claim” will get more onerous over time.

P.S. Just because a nation has a right to tax foreigners who earn income inside its borders, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to go overboard. The United Kingdom shows what happens if politicians get too greedy and Spain shows what happens if marginal tax rates are reasonable.

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Mitt Romney is being criticized for supporting “territorial taxation,” which is the common-sense notion that each nation gets to control the taxation of economic activity inside its borders.

While promoting his own class-warfare agenda, President Obama recently condemned Romney’s approach. His views, unsurprisingly, were echoed in a New York Times editorial.

President Obama raised…his proposals for tax credits for manufacturers in the United States to encourage the creation of new jobs. He said this was greatly preferable to Mitt Romney’s support for a so-called territorial tax system, in which the overseas profits of American corporations would escape United States taxation altogether. It’s not surprising that large multinational corporations strongly support a territorial tax system, which, they say, would make them more competitive with foreign rivals. What they don’t say, and what Mr. Obama stressed, is that eliminating federal taxes on foreign profits would create a powerful incentive for companies to shift even more jobs and investment overseas — the opposite of what the economy needs.

Since even left-leaning economists generally agree that tax credits for manufacturers are ineffective gimmicks proposed for political purposes, let’s set that topic aside and focus on the issue of territorial taxation.

Or, to be more specific, let’s compare the proposed system of territorial taxation to the current system of “worldwide taxation.”

Worldwide taxation means that a company is taxed not only on it’s domestic earnings, but also on its foreign earnings. Yet the “foreign-source income” of U.S. companies is “domestic-source income” in the nations where those earnings are generated, so that income already is subject to tax by those other governments.

In other words, worldwide taxation results in a version of double taxation.

The U.S. system seeks to mitigate this bad effect by allowing American-based companies a “credit” for some of the taxes they pay to foreign governments, but that system is very incomplete.

And even if it worked perfectly, America’s high corporate tax rate still puts U.S. companies in a very disadvantageous position. If an American firm, Dutch firm, and Irish firm are competing for business in Ireland, the latter two only pay the 12.5 percent Irish corporate tax on any profits they earn. The U.S. company also pays that tax, but then also pays an additional 22.5 percent to the IRS (the 35 percent U.S. tax rate minus a credit for the 12.5 percent Irish tax).

In an attempt to deal with this self-imposed disadvantage, the U.S. tax system also has something called “deferral,” which allows American companies to delay the extra tax (though the Obama Administration has proposed to eliminate that provision!).

Romney is proposing to put American companies on a level playing field by going in the other direction. Instead of immediate worldwide taxation, as Obama wants, he wants to implement territorial taxation.

But what about the accusation from the New York Times that territorial taxation “would create a powerful incentive for companies to shift even more jobs and investment overseas”?

Well, they’re somewhat right…and they’re totally wrong. Here’s what I’ve said about that issue.

If a company can save money by building widgets in Ireland and selling them to the US market, then we shouldn’t be surprised that some of them will consider that option.  So does this mean the President’s proposal might save some American jobs? Definitely not. If deferral is curtailed, that may prevent an American company from taking advantage of a profitable opportunity to build a factory in some place like Ireland. But U.S. tax law does not constrain foreign companies operating in foreign countries. So there would be nothing to prevent a Dutch company from taking advantage of that profitable Irish opportunity. And since a foreign-based company can ship goods into the U.S. market under the same rules as a U.S. company’s foreign subsidiary, worldwide taxation does not insulate America from overseas competition. It simply means that foreign companies get the business and earn the profits.

To put it bluntly, America’s tax code is driving jobs and investment to other nations. America’s high corporate tax rate is a huge self-inflected wound for American competitiveness.

Getting rid of deferral doesn’t solve any problems, as I explain in this video. Indeed, Obama’s policy would make a bad system even worse.

But, it’s also important to admit that shifting to territorial taxation isn’t a complete solution. Yes, it will help American-based companies compete for market share abroad by creating a level playing field. But if policy makers want to make the United States a more attractive location for jobs and investment, then a big cut in the corporate tax rate should be the next step.

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I don’t often have reason to praise the White House. But the Administration occasionally winds up fighting on the right side when dealing with the statists on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

I lauded the Obama Administration two years ago when the Treasury Department was fighting against a scheme from the Europeans to impose a tax on financial transactions.

And now it’s time to praise the White House again. In this case, they are fighting against a proposal by the European Union to impose an emissions tax on airliners. And even though the proposed tax is similar to the cap-and-trade scheme supported by Obama, the Administration is on the right side, as noted in this AP story.

The House voted Monday to exclude U.S. airlines from an emissions cap-and-trade program that the European Union plans to impose on all airlines flying to and from the continent beginning next year. With the legislation, which passed by voice vote, lawmakers joined the airline industry and the Obama administration in opposing the EU Emissions Trading Scheme scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1. The bill now goes to the Senate, where there is currently no companion legislation. The measure directs the transportation secretary to prohibit U.S. carriers from participating in the program if it is unilaterally imposed. It also tells other federal agencies to take steps necessary to ensure that U.S. carriers are not penalized by the emissions control scheme. …The U.S. aviation industry says the cost between 2012 and 2020 could hit $3.1 billion. It says it is unfair that a flight from the United States, for example from Los Angeles, would have to pay for emissions for all parts of flights to Europe, including time spent over the United States and the Atlantic. “It’s a tax grab by the European Union,” Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., said. “The meter starts running the minute the plane departs from any point in the U.S. until it reaches Europe.” …That drew fire from Krishna R. Urs, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of State for transportation affairs, who repeated the U.S.’s “strong legal and policy objections to the inclusion of flights by non-EU carriers” in the EU program.

Individual nations have the right, of course, to impose tax on activities that take place inside national borders. And a group of nations, such as the European Union, has the right to impose taxes on things that take place within their combined borders.

In this case, however, the EU wants to levy the tax based on miles flown inside the United Stats and over international waters. This type of extraterritorial tax grab should be strongly resisted.

Fiscal sovereignty is a very important principle, one that is necessary to preserve tax competition and constrain the greed of the political class.

As such, even though the Obama Administration often is guilty of supporting schemes to impose bad US tax law on a worldwide basis, I’m glad they are fighting this European Union tax grab.

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There’s been considerable attention to the news that the IRS has only managed to grab 2.4 percent of Google’s overseas income. As this Bloomberg article indicates, many statists act as if this is a scandal (including a morally bankrupt quote from a Baruch College professor who thinks a company’s lawful efforts to lower its tax liability is “evil” and akin to robbing citizens).

Google Inc. cut its taxes by $3.1 billion in the last three years using a technique that moves most of its foreign profits through Ireland and the Netherlands to Bermuda. Google’s income shifting — involving strategies known to lawyers as the “Double Irish” and the “Dutch Sandwich” — helped reduce its overseas tax rate to 2.4 percent, the lowest of the top five U.S. technology companies by market capitalization, according to regulatory filings in six countries. …Google, the owner of the world’s most popular search engine, uses a strategy that…takes advantage of Irish tax law to legally shuttle profits into and out of subsidiaries there, largely escaping the country’s 12.5 percent income tax. The earnings wind up in island havens that levy no corporate income taxes at all. Companies that use the Double Irish arrangement avoid taxes at home and abroad as the U.S. government struggles to close a projected $1.4 trillion budget gap and European Union countries face a collective projected deficit of 868 billion euros. …U.S. Representative Dave Camp of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, and other politicians say the 35 percent U.S. statutory rate is too high relative to foreign countries. …Google is “flying a banner of doing no evil, and then they’re perpetrating evil under our noses,” said Abraham J. Briloff, a professor emeritus of accounting at Baruch College in New York who has examined Google’s tax disclosures. “Who is it that paid for the underlying concept on which they built these billions of dollars of revenues?” Briloff said. “It was paid for by the United States citizenry.”

Congressman Dave Camp, the ranking Republican (and presumably soon-to-be Chairman) of the House tax-writing committee sort of understands the problem. The article mentions that he wants to investigate whether America’s corportate tax rate is too high. The answer is yes, of course, as explained in this video, but the bigger issue is that the IRS should not be taxing economic activity that occurs outside U.S. borders. This is a matter of sovereignty and good tax policy. From a sovereignty persepective, if income is earned in Ireland, the Irish government should decide how and when that income is taxed. The same is true for income in Bermuda and the Netherlands.

From a tax policy perspective, the right approach is “territorial” taxation, which is the common-sense notion of only taxing activity inside national borders. It’s no coincidence that all pro-growth tax reform plans, such as the flat tax and national sales tax, use this approach. Unfortunately, America is one of the world’s few nations to utilize the opposite approach of “worldwide” taxation, which means that U.S. companies face the competitive disadvantage of having two nations tax the same income. Fortunately, the damaging impact of worldwide taxation is mitigated by a policy known as deferral, which allows multinationals to postpone the second layer of tax.

Perversely, the Obama Administration wants to undermine deferral, thus putting American multinationals at an even greater disadvantage when competing in global markets. As this video explains, that would be a major step in the wrong direction. Instead, policy makers should junk America’s misguided worldwide system and replace it with territorial taxation.

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The overall fiscal burden in the United States may be lower than it is in Europe, but there are some features of the internal revenue code that are far worse than what can be found on the other side of the Atlantic. America has a “worldwide” tax system, for instance, which means that our government interferes with the sovereignty of other nations by taxing income earned by Americans inside their borders. Good tax policy, by contrast, relies on the “territorial” principle of only taxing income earned inside national borders – and every other developed nation uses this system. Not surprisingly, both the flat tax and national sales tax are based on this common-sense approach. If an American earns income in Hong Kong, it should be up to Hong Kong to decide how that money gets taxed. Likewise, if a German earns money in the United States, then he is fair game for the IRS. There’s an old saying that good fences make good neighbors, and territorial taxation is the fiscal policy equivalent of this sound rule. Not surprisingly, however, other nations want to mimic this horrible feature of the American tax code. The Financial Times is even urging European nations to jointly make that misguided choice. Fortunately, it is almost certain that some nations will refuse to join in such a statist cartel:

The US is unique in using citizenship in determining whether a person’s worldwide income is subject to taxation. Most countries do not impose tax on their citizens who are not resident within their borders – apart from any income that is sourced in that country. But the US system has much to commend it. After all, any citizen of a country enjoys the implicit legal and physical protection it affords. …provision is made to avoid double taxation. Moreover, there is an exit for individuals who do not accept it as they can renounce their citizenship and move elsewhere. But perhaps the best thing about it is that a worldwide system linked to citizenship is simple and easy to understand. Most American citizens do accept it, although more have handed back their passports recently. It would be hard for, say, the UK or Germany to introduce such a system unilaterally. There would be the risk of citizens jurisdiction-hopping by swapping one passport for another within a common economic area. But all European Union states could introduce the same rule. That would not be impossible. After all, EU countries already co-ordinate their policies on savings taxes and their tax authorities exchange information.

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