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Archive for April, 2016

I’m a proud advocate and defender of capitalism for the simple reason that it is a system that is consistent with human freedom while also producing mass prosperity that was unimaginable for much of human history.

Jurisdictions that embrace capitalism enjoy great progress while nations that veer in the other direction suffer economic decline, as vividly demonstrated by comparisons such as the relative performance of Hong Kong and Argentina.

And, for what it’s worth, the Princess of the Levant even says capitalism is “a sexy word.”

But not everybody agrees.

A column by Greg Sargent in the Washington Post has some very depressing poll numbers.

…the Harvard Institute of Politics has released a new poll of young voters… One key finding in the poll, which surveyed over 3,000 people from ages 18-29, is that these young people see a robust role for government in guaranteeing a right to a basic standard of living, and majorities of them see a large or moderate federal role in regulating the economy and access to health care and higher education. …A narrow majority of respondents in Harvard’s poll said they did not support capitalism.

Writing for Mic, Marie Solis looks at these recent poll numbers and wonders if the real issue is whether “capitalism” is simply an unpalatable word.

A new Harvard University survey found 51% of the participants between the ages 18 and 29 said they do not support capitalism. …The university’s results echo recent findings from Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who surveyed 1,000 Americans between the ages of 18 and 26 and found that 58% of respondents believed socialism to be the “more compassionate” political system when compared to capitalism. …the results may be more indicative of a shifting connotation for the word “capitalism” itself. “The word ‘capitalism’ doesn’t mean what it used to,” he said. “You don’t hear people on the right defending their economic policies using that word anymore.”

Not so fast. I still use “that word.”

But should I? James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute is sympathetic to the notion that there’s a perception problem. He speculates that the real problem is that capitalism now has a negative connotation.

America’s millennials are hardly some fifth column of communist sympathizers. Nor are they idiots. But they are at least a bit skeptical of “capitalism.” …Yet, oddly, many of those same capitalism skeptics also hold views similar to those of any Ayn Rand-loving free marketeer. For example: Less than a third believe government should play a large role in regulating the economy, reducing income inequality, or stimulating economic growth. Likewise, just a third said they supported socialism.

I fear Pethokoukis is being too optimistic in his reading of the polling data. When you review the questions in the poll and add together those who want a “large” role for government with those who favor a “moderate” role for government, they overwhelm the advocates of laissez-faire who say government should play “little to no role.”

Though maybe I’m just being a pessimist since the folks who want a “moderate” role may think the government today already is playing a “large” role and therefore would want to reduce the size and scope of Washington (though the fact that many people actually blame deregulation for the financial crisis, notwithstanding all the evidence to the contrary, makes me think that would be a Pollyannish interpretation of the polling data).

In any event, let’s return to the issue of whether capitalism is akin to a toxic brand.

Maybe one problem here is the word “capitalism” and what it evokes in the aftermath of the Great Recession and Wall Street bailout. Maybe “capitalism” really isn’t the right word for the free enterprise system, the deep magic that has made America the richest, most powerful nation on Earth. Indeed, wherever and whenever there’s been a bit of economic freedom, amazing things have happened — from Europe in the 1800s to China and India in the late 20th century. …Maybe millennials aren’t capitalists as much as they are “innovists” or “innovationists.” They believe the same dynamic economic system that created those amazing panes of internet-connected glass in their pockets will also create a better world.

It galls me that young people blame capitalism for the financial crisis. Have they ever heard of the Federal Reserve? Or Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac?

Blaming capitalism for the recent mess is like blaming the Red Cross for tornadoes. Sounds like millennials don’t know the difference between capitalism and cronyism.

But I’m digressing again. Time to get back to the central topic. Elizabeth Nolan Brown weighs in with a column for Reason.

…this new poll finds young people torn between “capitalism” and “socialism,” with perhaps little—or, to be more charitable, an ahistorical—understanding of what either means.

I definitely agree with her than millennials are confused about what these terms mean.

But grousing about their lack of knowledge doesn’t solve the problem. But maybe we can make progress if we learn why young people think the way they do.

…words—especially big, emotionally-laden words describing controversial or complicated concepts—connote different things to different people. When pollsters probe young people further about socialism and capitalism, they tend to find that respondents don’t have clear concepts of these economic philosophies. To many millennials, “socialism” doesn’t mean a government-managed economy but something like what we have now, only with more subsidized health care, student-loan forgiveness, and mandatory paid parental leave. …”Capitalism,” meanwhile, doesn’t simply mean private, for-profit enterprise. …Capitalism is Big Banks, Wall Street, “income inequality,” greed. It’s wealthy sociopaths screwing over the little guy, Bernie Madoff, and horrifying sweatshops in China. …However incomplete or caricatured, these are the narratives of capitalism that millennials have grown up with.

She basically comes to the same conclusion as Pethokoukis.

We certainly need to consider whether and how the word can be reclaimed, or if we’re better served talking about the “market economy,” “private enterprise,” “free trade,” or “entrepreneurship.” Millennials love the word entrepreneur… Unlike anti-capitalists of yore, young people today don’t seem to see a tension between turning a profit and living righteously. …As John Della Volpe, polling director at Harvard, puts it, millennials aren’t “rejecting the concept” of capitalism. “The way in which capitalism is practiced, in the minds of young people—that’s what they’re rejecting.”

Indeed, she shares some 2014 polling data that shows there is 2-1 support for free markets, which is significantly better than the level of support for capitalism.

This analysis is persuasive. If we can convince more people to support good policy by talking about “free markets” rather than “capitalism,” then I have no objection to using a more effective phrase or word.

For what it’s worth, opponents of economic liberty such as Karl Marx were among the first to use the term “capitalist” and they obviously meant it as a slur. Which is another reasons why advocates of economic liberty shouldn’t feel obliged to use that word.

That being said, I’m not sure whether using a different word or phrase will make a big difference. I remember when Social Security reform was a big issue between 1995-2005. Proponents were repeatedly told that “private” and “privatization” were words to avoid, so we all dutifully said we were for “personal retirement accounts.”

Which was fine, but it didn’t stop leftists from using “privatization.” Moreover, polling data showed considerable support for the idea, notwithstanding demagoguery from advocates of the status quo.

Now that we’ve discussed whether “capitalism” is a bad word, let’s shift gears and look at whether “liberal” should be a good word.

Professor Daniel Klein says the word has been hijacked by statists.

Here I make a plea, addressed to conservatives and libertarians, regarding the word liberal: please do not describe leftists, progressives, social democrats, or Democrats as “liberal.” …Words have deep-seated cognates and connotations; they have character and history. …The term liberal has always had an abundance of positive connotations: generous, open-minded, tolerant, big-hearted. …to oppose “liberals” almost seems tantamount to opposing modern, open civilization.

And “liberal” originally was linked to economic liberty and free markets.

The inception of liberal as a political term should be credited to the Scottish historian William Robertson, who published a book in 1769 that uses the term repeatedly to mean principles of liberty and commercial freedom. Adam Smith…used the term repeatedly in a signal way to refer to the sort of policy he advocated, a system that gives a strong presumption to individual liberty, and hence commercial and market freedom. …The principles of Adam Smith spread throughout Europe, as did the name he used for them, “liberal.” …so “liberal” political movements were born.

But then the statists began to call themselves liberals.

At the end of the nineteenth century, and thereafter, there came a dramatic shift. Collectivism or statism was on the rise. …Especially during the period 1880 to 1940, there came great changes in the meanings of words, changes in semantics. …people started using words in new ways, and often even announced and emphasized the newness of their usage and meaning. …the statists arrogated the term liberal to themselves… The literature of the so-called New Liberals declaimed openly against individual liberty and in favor of state collectivism and socialistic reform.

Interestingly, the bastardization of “liberal” has primarily occurred in the United States and Canada.

…when we step outside North America, we see that, by and large, liberal still means liberal…read and listen to European Parliament member Daniel Hannan, who often uses liberal proudly in its original sense, and who never calls leftists “liberal,” or to read the journal of the Institute of Economic Affairs (London)—Economic Affairs: A Journal of Liberal Political Economy. …In Prague, for example, the leading freedom-oriented organization is called the Liberal Institute. Where liberal still means liberal, such as in Europe and Latin America, leftists have no reluctance in calling their imaginary bogeyman “neoliberalism.”

I can vouch for that. I’m often accused of being a “liberal” or “neo-liberal” when speaking overseas. It took a while to get used to it, but now I smile and say “yup, that’s me.”

And I’ll sometimes use “classical liberal” and “libertarian” interchangeably when speaking in the United States. But given the way the meaning of the word has changed over time, I don’t think it would make sense to the average person if I referred to myself as “liberal.”

That being said, I fully agree with Professor Klein that we shouldn’t let leftists get away with using that term to describe themselves. I prefer to describe them as “statists.”

P.S. Tom Sowell has a more controversial, but technically accurate, term to describe modern leftists.

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What’s the worst loophole (properly defined) in the cluttered internal revenue code?

I think the deduction for state and local taxes is very bad policy since it enables higher tax burdens in states such as California, New Jersey, and Illinois. The exemption for municipal bond interest is another misguided provision since it makes it easier for states to finance spending with debt.

Special favors in the tax code for ethanol also deserve scorn and disdain, and I’m also not a fan of the charitable deduction or the ways in which housing gets preferential treatment.

But if I had to pick just one tax preference to repeal, it would be the so-called healthcare exclusion. This is the policy that enables employers to deduct the cost of health insurance policies they buy for their employees.

You may think that deduction is reasonable. After all, employers also can deduct the wages and salaries they pay their employees. But here’s the catch. Employees pay tax on their wages and salaries, but they don’t have to pay tax on the value of their health insurance, even though such policies obviously are a form of compensation.

Moreover, since this type of compensation is shielded from both income taxes and payroll taxes, the playing field is therefore very tilted, which generates some very perverse results.

First, some background. As part of a broader analysis of the non-taxation of fringe benefits, Scott Greenberg of the Tax Foundation explains how government has created a big incentive to take income in the form of fringe benefits rather than wages and salaries.

…eighty years ago, it was relatively uncommon to offer workers compensation other than their regular wages and salaries. In 1929, only 1.9 percent of employee pay took the form of fringe benefits. By 2014, fringe benefits had risen to 19.2 percent of worker compensation.

Here’s a chart looking at the historical data.

Greenberg says this distortion in the tax code is unfair.

…the growing trend of unreported fringe benefits is “inequitable and inefficient.” This claim is spot on. For an illustration, imagine two employees, one of whom makes a salary of $100,000, and one of whom makes a salary of $80,000 and benefits worth $20,000, which largely go unreported. Although both workers receive the same overall compensation, the first employee is subject to a significantly higher tax burden than the second, which seems plainly unfair.

Moreover, the distortion lures people into making economically foolish choices.

Furthermore, this arrangement incentivizes companies to shift more compensation towards benefits, to help employees avoid taxes. This leads to an inefficient allocation of resources, towards services that employers might not have been willing to pay for in the absence of tax incentives.

He’s correct

Writing for the Weekly Standards, Ike Brannon looks specifically at the biggest tax-free fringe benefit.

…allowing employers to provide health insurance tax-free to their workers is terrible policy, a truism that any honest economist—whether liberal, conservative, or otherwise—would agree with. …First, workers end up with more health insurance than they would ever purchase on their own (since tax-free health insurance is worth more than income that’s taxed at 30%-50%), which gives people less take-home pay to spend as they see fit. Second, more generous health insurance entails lower co-pays as well as other provisions that insulate the worker from the actual cost of their health care. As a result, people become less sensitive to prices when seeking health care, and they consume more of it—most of which does nothing to improve health outcomes, numerous studies have shown.

For further details on this unfortunate tax preference, A. Barton Hinkle looks at the evolution of the health exclusion in a column for Reason.

…the original sin of the American health-care marketplace…was committed back in World War 2, when inflation led workers to demand higher wages – which many employers could not afford to pay because of price controls. …With wages frozen, employers needed another way to compete for labor made scarce by the draft. So some began offering health coverage. The practice took root, spread, and outlasted the war. In 1949 the National Labor Relations Board ruled that health benefits counted as wages for the purpose of union negotiations. Five years later, the IRS ruled that health coverage was not taxable income. The result was a double incentive for employers to offer fatter health benefits in lieu of fatter paychecks. …The result: a skyrocketing, ultimately unsustainable increase in national outlays for health care. …In short, for decades the federal government has encouraged employers to provide gold-plated health-care plans.

Joe Antos of the American Enterprise Institute explains how the “healthcare exclusion” is bad fiscal policy, bad health policy, and bad economic policy.

If we hope to move to an efficient healthcare system that is fair to everyone, Congress will have to take on the largest subsidy in the tax code. …Premiums paid for employment-based health insurance are excluded from federal income and payroll taxes.

When describing provisions that allow people to keep more of their own money, I would prefer to say largest distortion rather than largest subsidy, but I realize I’m being pedantic. Regardless of word choice, the net effect of this preference is negative.

The tax exclusion…fuels the rapid growth of health spending, contributes to stagnating wage growth, and disadvantages low-wage workers. Because there is no limit on how much can be excluded from taxes, workers are encouraged to buy more expensive coverage than they would otherwise…makes consumers less sensitive to prices and promotes the use of medical services, including services that may not provide much value to the patient.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the problems associated with the exclusion.

The exclusion has caused a shift in compensation from taxable cash wages to greater health benefits which are not taxed. Between 1999 and 2015, the average employer contribution for family coverage nearly tripled while wage rates increased by only about half.

By the way, our leftists friends should oppose the exclusion for class-warfare reasons.

…workers in higher tax brackets benefit the most from the exclusion. The Joint Committee on Taxation found that the average savings for tax filers with incomes less than $30,000 was about $1,650 compared to about $4,580 for those with incomes over $200,000.

To deal with these negative effects, Antos proposes a modified version of the “Cadillac tax” from Obamacare combined with tax credits for consumers who purchase their own health insurance.

That’s better than the status quo, but the ideal solution is a flat tax, which would eliminate the deduction provided to employers for compensation in the form of fringe benefits.

In their book on tax reform, Professors Hall and Rabushka explain the obvious beneficial consequence of a level playing field for all forms of compensation.

The flat tax eliminates the distortion toward fringe benefits created by the fact that employers can deduct them, thereby receiving a subsidy that can be passed on to their employees. The best alternative, and one we expect your employer to select, is to offer you higher pay in exchange for lower fringes. You can then use the extra cash to buy whatever combination of benefits you desire.

This will make the healthcare marketplace much more efficient.

Here’s what I wrote about the healthcare exclusion way back in 2009, as part of a column on government-created inefficiency in the health sector.

…social engineering in the tax code created this mess. Specifically, most of us get some of our compensation in the form of health insurance policies from our employers. And because that type of income is exempt from taxation, this encourages so-called Cadillac health plans.  …our gold-plated health plans now mean we use insurance for routine medical costs. This means, of course, we have the paperwork issues discussed above, but that’s just a small part of the problem. Even more problematic, our pre-paid health care system is somewhat akin to going to an all-you-can-eat restaurant. We have an incentive to over-consume since we’ve already paid. Except this analogy is insufficient. When we go to all-you-can-eat restaurants, at least we know we’re paying a certain amount of money for an unlimited amount of food. Many Americans, by contrast, have no idea how much of their compensation is being diverted to purchase health plans. …this messed-up approach causes inefficiency and higher costs. We consumers don’t feel any need to be careful shoppers since we perceive that our health care is being paid by someone else. Should we be surprised, then, that normal market forces don’t seem to be working? (though it is worth noting that costs keep falling and quality keeps rising in the few areas – such as laser-eye surgery and cosmetic surgery – that are not covered by insurance) Imagine if auto insurance worked this way? Or homeowner’s insurance? Would it make sense to file insurance forms to get an oil change? Or to buy a new couch? That sounds crazy. The system would be needlessly bureaucratic, and costs would rise because we would act like we were spending other people’s money.  But that’s what would probably happen if government intervened in the same way it does in the health-care sector.

By the way, to make sure politicians don’t get a windfall of new revenue, the healthcare exclusion should only be repealed as part of a reform that also lowers tax rates.

Here’s a video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that highlights how the healthcare exclusion is a major cause of the third-party payer problem.

And if you like videos, I strongly recommend this Reason TV explanation of how simple and affordable healthcare can be in the absence of government-created third-party payer.

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We can learn a lot of economic lessons from Europe.

Today, we’re going to focus on another lesson, which is that higher taxes lead to more red ink. And let’s hope Hillary Clinton is paying attention.

I’ve already made the argument, using European fiscal data to show that big increases in the tax burden over the past several decades have resulted in much higher levels of government debt.

But let’s now augment that argument by considering what’s happened in recent years.

There’s been a big fiscal crisis in Europe, which has forced governments to engage in austerity.

But the type of austerity matters. A lot.

Here’s some of what I wrote back in 2014.

…austerity is a catch-all phrase that includes bad policy (higher taxes) and good policy (spending restraint). But with a few notable exceptions, European nations have been choosing the wrong kind of austerity (even though Paul Krugman doesn’t seem to know the difference).

And when I claim politicians in Europe have chosen the wrong kind of austerity, that’s not hyperbole.

As of 2012, there were €9 of tax hikes for every €1 of supposed spending cuts according to one estimate. That’s even worse than some of the terrible budget deals we’ve seen in Washington.

At this point, a clever statist will accuse me of sour grapes and state that I’m simply unhappy that politicians opted for policies I don’t like.

I’ll admit to being unhappy, but my real complaint is that higher tax burdens don’t work.

And you don’t have to believe me. We have some new evidence from an international bureaucracy based in Europe.

In a working paper for the European Central Bank, Maria Grazia Attinasi and Luca Metelli crunch the numbers to determine if and when “austerity” works in Europe.

…many Euro area countries have adopted fiscal consolidation measures in an attempt to reduce fiscal imbalances…in most cases, fiscal consolidation did not result, at least in the short run, in a reduction in the debt-to-GDP ratio…calls for a more temperate approach to fiscal consolidation have increased on the ground that the drag of fiscal restraint on economic growth could lead to an increase rather than a decrease in the debt-to-GDP ratio, as such fiscal consolidation may turn out to be self-defeating. …The aim of this paper is to investigate the effects of fiscal consolidation on the general government debt-to-GDP ratio in order to assess whether and under which conditions self defeating effects are likely to materialise and whether they tend to be short-lived or more persistent over time.

Now let’s look at the results of their research.

It turns out that austerity does work, but only if it’s the right kind. The authors find that spending cuts are successful and higher tax burdens backfire.

The main finding of our analysis is that…In the case of revenue-based consolidations the increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio tends to be larger and to last longer than in the case of spending-based consolidations. The composition also matters for the long term effects of fiscal consolidations. Spending-based consolidations tend to generate a durable reduction of the debt-to-GDP ratio compared to the pre-shock level, whereas revenue-based consolidations do not produce any lasting improvement in the sustainability prospects as the debt-to-GDP ratio tends to revert to the pre-shock level. …strategy is more likely to succeed when the consolidation strategy relies on a durable reduction of spending, whereas revenue-based consolidations do not appear to bring about a durable improvement in debt sustainability.

Unfortunately, European politicians generally have chosen the wrong approach.

This is an important policy lesson also in view of the fact that revenue-based consolidations tend to be the preferred form of austerity, at least in the short run, given also the political costs that a durable reduction in government spending entail.

Here are a few important observations from the study’s conclusion.

…the findings of our analysis are in line with those of the literature on successful consolidation, namely that the composition of fiscal consolidation matters and that a durable reduction in the debt-to-GDP ratio is more likely to be achieved if consolidation is implemented on the expenditure side, rather than on the revenue side. In particular, when fiscal consolidation is implemented via an increase in taxation, the debt-to-GDP ratio reverts back to its pre-shock level only in the long run, thus failing to generate an improvement in the debt ratio, and producing what we call a self-defeating fiscal consolidation. …fiscally stressed countries benefit from an immediate reduction in the level of debt when reducing spending.

In other words, restraining the growth of spending is the best way to reduce red ink. Heck, it’s the only way.

When debating my leftists friends, I frequently share this table showing nations that have obtained very good results with multi-year periods of spending restraint.

My examples are from all over the world and cover all sorts of economic conditions. And the results repetitively show that when you deal with the underlying problem of too much government, you automatically improve the symptom of red ink.

I then ask my statist pals to show me a similar table of data for countries that have achieved good results with higher taxes.

I’m still waiting for an answer.

Which is why the only good austerity is spending restraint.

P.S. Paul Krugman is remarkably sloppy and inaccurate when writing about austerity. Check out his errors when commenting on the United Kingdom, Germany, and Estonia.

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There’s a very powerful statement, variously attributed to Alexis de Toqueville, Benjamin Franklin, or Alexander Tytler, that basically warns that democracy is doomed when people figure out they can vote themselves money.

There’s no evidence that any of them actually spoke or wrote those words, though I guess it doesn’t matter that the quote didn’t originate with someone like Franklin. What does matter is that it accurately captures something very important, which is the tendency for governments to over-tax and over-spend once people decide that it’s okay to use government coercion to take other people’s money.

But it’s still nice to be able to cite something accurate. With this in mind, I came up with my Theorem of Societal Collapse. And I think it’s actually more accurate than the vote-themselves-money quote because democracy doesn’t necessarily lead to statism. What leads to bad outcomes is democracy combined with bad values.

And a pervasive belief in redistributionism is a bad value. Heck, it’s a self-destructive value. Consider Greece. When you add together the people getting welfare and disability to the people getting pension payments to the people on the government payroll, it turns out that a majority of people in the country are riding in the wagon of government dependency.

That’s bad. But what makes the Greek situation so hopeless is that those are the same people who vote. Which means there’s very little chance of getting a government that would implement good policy.

After all, why would the recipients of other people’s money vote for politicians who support limits on redistribution?

But I’m not just blaming voters. Politicians also deserve scorn and disdain because they are the ones who often seek votes by promising to take other people’s money.

Some observers would like to believe that these politicians will use their supposed superior expertise and knowledge about public policy to make appropriate tradeoffs and prevent the system from becoming over-burdened.

But that’s somewhat naive.

Indeed, there’s an entire school of thought in economics, known as “public choice,” which is based on making real-world assumptions about the self-interested behavior of politicians and interest groups. Here’s a partial description from the Library of Economics and Liberty.

As James Buchanan artfully defined it, public choice is “politics without romance.” The wishful thinking it displaced presumes that participants in the political sphere aspire to promote the common good. …public officials are portrayed as benevolent “public servants” who faithfully carry out the “will of the people.” …public choice, like the economic model of rational behavior on which it rests, assumes that people are guided chiefly by their own self-interests… As such, voters “vote their pocketbooks,” supporting candidates and ballot propositions they think will make them personally better off; bureaucrats strive to advance their own careers; and politicians seek election or reelection to office. Public choice, in other words, simply transfers the rational actor model of economic theory to the realm of politics. …collective decision-making processes allow the majority to impose its preferences on the minority.

In other words, both voters and politicians can have an incentive for ever-larger government, even if the end result is Greek-style fiscal chaos because taxes and spending reach ruinous levels.

I call this “Goldfish Government” because some think that a goldfish lacks the ability to control its appetite and therefore will eat itself to death when presented with unlimited food.

Indeed, public choice scholars explicitly recognize that unconstrained democracy can lead to bad results.

Public choice scholars have identified…deep…problems with democratic decision-making processes.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that their research suggests ways to compensate for the natural tendency of ever-expanding government.

Like that founding father of the American constitutional republic, public choice recognizes that men are not angels and focuses on the importance of the institutional rules… If, for example, democratic governments institutionally are incapable of balancing the public budget, a constitutional rule that limits increases in spending and taxes to no more than the private sector’s rate of growth will be more effective.

Hmmm…., a rule that limits the government so it doesn’t grow faster than the private sector.

Sounds like an idea worth embracing.

But while I like anything that builds support for the Golden Rule, I’m not sure it’s a sufficient condition for good policy.

Simply stated, we have too many examples of nations that followed the Golden Rule for several years, only to then fall off the wagon with a new splurge of spending.

There are two ways to deal with this problem. First, make the spending restraint part of a jurisdiction’s constitution, as we see in Switzerland and Hong Kong.

Second, augment the internal constraint of a spending cap with the external constraint of tax competition. Bluntly stated, destructive tax policies will be less likely when politicians are afraid that taxpayers will move across borders.

I spoke about this topic at a recent conference in Slovakia.

I also discuss the critical role of demographic change toward the end of my speech.

P.S. America’s Founding Fathers had the right solution. They set up a democratic form of government, but they strictly limited the powers of the central government. This system worked remarkably well for a long period, but then the Supreme Court decided that the enumerated powers listed in the Constitution were just a suggestion.

P.P.S. While it’s bad news to combine democracy with bad value, I want to emphasize that the problem is bad values. Most non-democratic societies have policies that are so evil and destructive (think Cuba and North Korea) that they make France seem like a beacon of economic liberty.

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What do left-wing firebrand Congressman Alan Grayson, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, Obama’s top trade negotiator Michael Froman, liberal financier Donald Sussman, and big-money Democratic donor Tom Steyer. all have in common?

The answer is that they all engage in tax avoidance and tax planning by utilizing tax havens. Like many other Democrats (and Democrat donors), they understand it would be very foolish to deliberately pay more tax than is required.

Yet they all want the rest of us to pay higher taxes!

And now we can add Secretary of State John Kerry to our list of tax haven hypocrites.

Here’s some of what we know from, the Daily Caller‘s exposé.

Secretary of State John Kerry and his wife Teresa Heinz have invested millions of U.S. dollars through family trusts in at least 11 offshore tax havens, according to The Daily Caller News Foundation’s Investigative Group. …Two other trusts appear to have been set up by the Heinz family since Kerry was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2013 to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. …that doesn’t sit well with some who would normally be supportive of Kerry. “Well I say it doesn’t look good by any means,” said Susan Harley, deputy director of Congress Watch, a progressive lobby organization founded by Ralph Nader.

Actually, since the only “tax havens” listed are the Cayman Islands, Gibraltar, Guernsey, and the British Virgin Islands, it appears that the story should have stated 11 trust investments in tax havens, not trust investments in 11 tax havens.

But I’m nitpicking. As you can see, the Kerry family makes wide use of structures in these low-tax jurisdictions.

Utilizing Cayman-based structures is a sensible choice for the Kerry family, by the way.

Just like it is perfectly appropriate for people to use Panama-organized structures when engaging in international business and investment.

The only reason this is even a story because John Kerry is a left-wing hypocrite who wants everyone else to pay high taxes, but he conveniently arranges his affairs so his family’s money is protected.

Heck, he even moored his yacht in Rhode Island to dodge several hundred thousand dollars of tax that otherwise would have been owed to the state of Massachusetts.

Once again, this was a perfectly reasonable choice. But it’s a bit galling that a wealthy statist like Kerry takes these steps while simultaneously supporting ever-higher tax burdens on those of us who weren’t born with silver spoons in our mouths.

And since we’re on the topic of leftist hypocrites and tax havens, it turns out that the crank who pushed for big government and high taxes when he was Greece’s Finance Minister also seems to like the “offshore” world for his own money.

Here are some blurbs from a story in the U.K.-based Times.

He describes himself as a Marxist libertarian but a lifestyle of glamorous photo-shoots, evenings in chic bars and weekends in luxurious island villas may have convinced the man who brought Greece to the verge of bankruptcy to become a highly-paid capitalist. Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s former finance minister, is allegedly charging almost £40,000 for speeches he is invited to make worldwide, seeking payment via an HSBC bank account in Oman, according to reports.

Just like with Kerry, there’s nothing wrong or illegal in Varoufakis’ actions. Giving speeches for money and keeping money in another jurisdiction are perfectly legitimate behaviors.

Heck, given the Greek government’s rampant corruption and wasteful habits, I think it’s defensible for people to go one step farther and evade as well as avoid.

But not for Varoufakis. When an advocate of class warfare decides he doesn’t want to live under the rules he would like to impose on the rest of us, he’s simply being a hypocrite and is undeserving of any sympathy.

Not to mention that anyone who think that you can be a Marxist and a libertarian at the same time obviously is a blithering nincompoop.

Let’s shift to another issue for our final glaring example of left-wing hypocrisy. Writing for USA Today, Professor Glenn Reynolds of the University of Tennessee is irked by statists with very big carbon footprints who attend ritzy conferences to concoct plans to impose hardship on the rest of us.

…opulent conferences seem to be our political class’s response to pretty much everything, but they do ring hollow when the topic is what sort of sacrifices should be imposed on the rest of us. …Perhaps people aren’t inclined to treat climate change as a crisis because, despite all the talk, the political class itself isn’t acting as if it’s a crisis. Shouldn’t “shared sacrifice” start at the top?

Glenn has a few modest ideas to resolve this problem of inequity.

First, no more jetting around. Congress should provide that no federal money — either at agencies or at institutions receiving federal funds — should pay for travel to attend conferences or meetings. …Second, to set an example, no air conditioning in federal offices. Sure, it’s uncomfortable without it, but we won World War II with mostly un-air conditioned offices, so we can manage without A/C today. …Third, no more fundraising jaunts on Air Force One. Typically, presidents schedule a fundraiser, then find an elementary school or something to tour in the same town to make the trip “official business.” Congress should provide that no fundraising appearances can be made on any presidential trip charged to the taxpayers. …Fourth, no more UN conferences except online.

Those are all good ideas, but we also need some rules to help other hypocrites (like Leonardo DiCaprio and Prince Charles) practice what they preach.

P.S. In addition to being hypocrites, many leftists also have bad judgement about tyrannical regimes. I wrote last year about Paul Samuelson’s misguided endorsement of the Soviet economic system just as it was about to collapse.

Well, another well-know left-wing economist actually wrote an article to praise the “Korean Miracle.” But Joan Robinson was writing about North Korea rather than South Korea!

It’s true that she didn’t have this evidence available when she was gushing about the Pyongyang being a “city without slums,” but it’s still remarkable that she went out of her way to praise a totalitarian dictatorship.

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Just like with nations, there are many factors that determine whether a state is hindering or enabling economic growth.

But I’m very drawn to one variable, which is whether there’s a state income tax. If the answer is no, then it’s quite likely that it will enjoy better-than-average economic performance (and if a state makes the mistake of having an income tax, then a flat tax will be considerably less destructive than a so-called progressive tax).

Which explains my two main lessons for state tax policy.

Anyhow, I’ve always included Tennessee in the list of no-income-tax states, but that’s not completely accurate because (like New Hampshire) there is a tax on capital income.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the Associated Press reports that Tennessee is getting rid of this last vestige of  income taxation.

The Tennessee Legislature has passed a measure that would reduce and eventually eliminate the Hall tax on investment income. The Hall tax imposes a general levy of 6 percent on investment income, with some exceptions. Lawmakers agreed to reduce it down to 5 percent before eliminating it completely by 2022.

It’s not completely clear if the GOP Governor of the state will allow the measure to become law, so this isn’t a done deal.

That being said, it’s a very positive sign that the state legislature wants to get rid of this invidious tax, which is a punitive form of double taxation.

Advocates are right that this will make the Volunteer State more attractive to investors, entrepreneurs, and business owners.

Keep in mind that this positive step follows the recent repeal of the state’s death tax, as noted in a column for the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Following a four-year phase out, Tennessee’s inheritance tax finally expires on Jan. 1 and one advocacy group is hailing the demise of what it calls the “death tax.” “Tennessee taxpayers can finally breath a sigh of relief,” said Justin Owen, head of the free-market group, the Beacon Center of Tennessee, which successfully advocated for the taxes abolishment in 2012.

On the other hand, New York seems determined to make itself even less attractive. Diana Furchtgott-Roth of the Manhattan Institute writes for Market Watch about legislation that would make the state prohibitively unappealing for many investors.

New York, home to many investment partnerships, now wants to increase state taxes on capital gains… New York already taxes capital gains and ordinary income equally, but apparently that’s not good enough. …The New York legislators want to raise the taxes on carried interest to federal ordinary income tax rates, not just for New York residents, but for everyone all over the world who get returns from partnerships with a business connection to the Empire State. Bills in the New York State Assembly and Senate would increase taxes on profits earned by venture capital, private equity and other investment partnerships by imposing a 19% additional tax.

Diana correctly explains this would be a monumentally foolish step.

If the bill became law, New York would likely see part of its financial sector leave for other states, because many investors nationwide would become subject to taxes that were 19 percentage points higher….No one is going to pick an investment that is taxed at 43% when they could choose one that is taxed at 24%.

Interestingly, even the state’s grasping politicians recognize this reality. The legislation wouldn’t take effect until certain other states made the same mistake.

The sponsors of the legislation appear to acknowledge that by delaying the implementation of the provisions until Connecticut, New Jersey and Massachusetts enact “legislation having an identical effect.”

Given this condition, hopefully this bad idea will never get beyond the stage of being a feel-good gesture for the hate-n-envy crowd.

But it’s always important to reinforce why it would be economically misguided since those other states are not exactly strongholds for economic liberty. This video has everything you need to know about the taxation of carried interest in particular and this video has the key facts about capital gains taxation in general

Not let’s take a look at the big picture. Moody’s just released a “stress test” to see which states were well positioned to deal with an economic downturn.

Is anybody surprised, as reported by the Sacramento Bee, that low-tax Texas ranked at the top and high-tax California and Illinois were at the bottom of the heap?

California, whose state budget is highly dependent on volatile income taxes, is the least able big state to withstand a recession, according to a “stress test” conducted by Moody’s Investor Service. Arch-rival Texas, meanwhile, scores the highest on the test because of “lower revenue volatility, healthier reserves relative to a potential revenue decline scenario and greater revenue and spending flexibility,” Moody’s, a major credit rating organization, says. …California not only suffers in comparison to the other large states, but in a broader survey of the 20 most populous states. Missouri, Texas and Washington score highest, while California and Illinois are at the bottom in their ability to withstand a recession.

Of course, an ability to survive a fiscal stress test is actually a proxy for having decent policies.

And having decent policies leads to something even more important, which is faster growth, increased competitiveness, and more job creation.

Though perhaps this coyote joke does an even better job of capturing the difference between the two states.

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The ongoing cluster-you-know-what of Obamacare is a source of unhappy satisfaction.

Part of me is glad the law is such a failure, but it’s tragic that millions of people are suffering adverse consequences. These are folks who did nothing wrong, but now are paying more, losing employment, suffering income losses, and/or being forced to find new plans and new doctors.

And it seems we get more bad news every day, as noted in a new editorial from Investor’s Business Daily.

ObamaCare rates will skyrocket next year, according to its former chief. Enrollment is tumbling this year. And a big insurer is quitting most exchanges. That’s what we learned in just the past few days.

Why do we know these three bad things are happening? Because that’s what we’re being told by Mary Tavenner, the former head of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services for the Obama Administration who has now cashed out and is pimping for the health insurance companies that got in bed with the White House to foist Obamacare on the American people.

IBD gives us the sordid details.

Why will 2017 rates spike even higher? In addition to the cost of complying with ObamaCare’s insurance regulations and mandates, there’s the fact that the ObamaCare exchanges have failed to attract enough young and healthy people needed to keep premiums down. Plus, two industry bailout programs expire this year, Tavenner notes. Oh, and she admits that people are gaming ObamaCare just like critics said they would: buying coverage after they get sick — since insurance companies can no longer turn them down or charge them more — then dropping it when they’re done with treatments. “That churn increases premiums. So you have to kind of price over that.”

And that’s just one slice of bad news.

Here’s more.

ObamaCare enrollment has already dropped an average of more than 14% in five states since February — a faster rate of decline than last year — as people get kicked off for not paying premiums. Finally, we learned on Tuesday that UnitedHealth Group (UNH) is planning to drop out of almost every ObamaCare market it currently serves after losing $1 billion on those policies. …Skyrocketing premiums, fewer choices in the marketplace, and people fleeing ObamaCare in droves after signing up. This isn’t exactly what Obama promised when he signed ObamaCare into law.

For those who were paying attention, none of this is a surprise. It was always a fantasy to think that more government intervention was going to improve a healthcare system that already was cumbersome and expensive because of previous government interventions.

By the way, IBD isn’t the only outlet to notice the ongoing disaster of Obamacare.

Let’s look at some other recent revelations.

Chris Jacobs writes that “For millions of Americans, the Left’s insurance utopia has rapidly deteriorated into a bleak dystopia” and that “the ‘cheaper prices’ that the president promised evaporated as quickly as the morning dew.”

John Graham explains that “CBO estimates Obamacare will leave 27 million uninsured through 2019 – an increase of almost one quarter” and that “CBO estimates 68 million will be dependent on the program this year through 2019 – an increase of almost one third in the welfare caseload.”

Betsy McCaughey opines that, “Obamacare is already hugely in the red. …over the next ten years Obamacare will add $1.4 trillion to the nation’s debt” and that “Insurers struggling with Obamacare are already drastically reducing your choice of doctors and hospitals to cut costs.”

Devon Herrick reveals that “Obamacare has caused more people to reach for their wallets after a medical encounter — not less” and that “all but the most heavily subsidized Obamacare enrollees would be better off financially if they skipped coverage and pay for their own medical care out of pocket.”

Jeffrey Anderson observes that “it seems possible that Obamacare has actually reduced the number of people with private health insurance” and that “Obamacare is basically an expensive Medicaid expansion coupled with 2,400 pages of liberty-sapping mandates.”

John Goodman notes that “Prior to Obamacare, many employers of low-wage workers offered their employees a “mini med” plan, covering, say, the first $25,000 of expenses” and that “Those plans are now gone… employees…are…completely uninsured”

The CEO of CKE Restaurants warns that “fewer people buying insurance through the exchanges, the economics aren’t holding up” and that “Ten of the 23 innovative health-insurance plans known as co-ops—established with $2.4 billion in ObamaCare loans—will be out of business by the end of 2015 because of weak balance sheets.”

Critics of Obamacare now get to say “we told you so.”

As the Washington Examiner opines:

…conservatives screamed a simple fact from the rooftops: Obamacare will not work. No one wanted to listen then, but their warnings are now coming into fruition. Obamacare, as constructed, attempted to fix a dysfunctional health care payment system by creating an even more complicated system on top of it, filled with subsidies, coverage mandates, and other artificial government incentives. But its result has been a system that plucked Americans out of coverage they like and forced them to pay more for less. …Taxpayers and insurance customers alike should demand replacing Obamacare with a system that reduces costs and improves quality by injecting actual choice and competition into the insurance market.

I especially like the last part of the excerpt. Which is why we need to go well beyond simply repealing Obamacare if we want to restore market forces to the healthcare sector.

P.S. I wrote about that it’s tragic that so many people are suffering because of Obamacare. I should add that there are some victims who actually are getting what they deserve.

P.P.S. In the long run, I fear taxpayers will be the biggest (and most undeserving) victims.

P.P.P.S.Though, in fairness, the law does have at least one redeeming feature.

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As a general rule, I’m not overly concerned about debt, even when looking at government red ink.

I don’t like deficit and debt, to be sure, but government borrowing should be seen as the symptom. The real problem is excessive government spending.

This is one of the reasons I’m not a fan of a balanced budget amendment, Based on the experiences of American states and European countries, I fear politicians in Washington would use any deficit-limiting requirement as an excuse to raise taxes.

I much prefer spending caps, such as those found in Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Colorado. If you cure the disease of excessive government, you automatically ameliorate the symptom of too much borrowing.

That being said, the fiscal chaos plaguing European welfare states is proof that there is a point when a spending problem can also become a debt problem. Simply stated, the people and institutions that buy government bonds at some point will decide that they no longer trust a government’s ability to repay because the public sector is too big and the economy is too weak.

And even though the European fiscal crisis no longer is dominating the headlines, I fear this is just the calm before the storm.

For instance, the data in a report from Citi about the looming Social Security-style crisis are downright scary.

…the total value of unfunded or underfunded government pension liabilities for twenty OECD countries is a staggering $78 trillion, or almost double the $44 trillion published national debt number.

And the accompanying chart is rather appropriate since it portrays this giant pile of future spending promises as an iceberg.

And when you look at projections for ever-rising spending (and therefore big increases in red ink) in America, it’s easy to see why I’m such a strong advocate of genuine entitlement reform.

But it’s also important to realize that government policies also can encourage excessive debt in the private sector.

Before digging into the issue, let’s first make clear that debt is not necessarily bad. Households often borrow to buy big-ticket items like homes, cars, and education. And businesses borrow all the time to finance expansion and job creation.

But if there’s too much borrowing, particularly when encouraged by misguided government policies, then households and businesses are very vulnerable if there’s some sort of economic disruption and they no longer have enough income to finance debt payments. This is when debt becomes excessive.

Yet this is what the crowd in Washington is encouraging.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, George Melloan warns that misguided “stimulus” and “QE” policies have created a debt bubble.

…while Mr. Bernanke and Ms. Yellen were trying to prevent deflation, the federal government was engineering its cause, excessive debt. And the Fed abetted the process by purchasing trillions of dollars of government paper, aka quantitative easing. Near-zero interest rates also have encouraged consumers and business to releverage. Cars are now financed with low or no-interest five-year loans. With the 2008 housing debacle forgotten, easier mortgage terms have made a comeback. Corporations also couldn’t let cheap money go to waste, so they have piled up debts to buy back their own stock. Such “investment” produces no economic growth, but it has to be paid back nonetheless. Amid the Great Recession, many worried that the entire economy of the U.S., or even the world, would be “deleveraged.” Instead, we have a new world-wide debt bubble.

The numbers he shares are sobering.

Global debt of all types grew by $57 trillion from 2007 to 2014 to a total of $199 trillion, the McKinsey Global Institute reported in February last year. That’s 286% of global GDP compared with 269% in 2007. The current ratio is above 300%.

Professor Noah Smith writes in Bloomberg about research showing that debt-fueled bubbles are especially worrisome.

…since debt bubbles damage the financial system, they endanger the economy more than equity bubbles, which transmit their losses directly to households. Financial institutions lend people money, and if people can’t pay it back — because the value of their house has gone down — it could cause bank failures. …Economists Oscar Jorda, Moritz Schularick, and Alan Taylor recently did a historical study of asset price crashes, and they found that, in fact, debt seems to matter a lot. …To make a long story short, they look at what happened to the economy of each country after each large drop in asset prices. …bubbles make recessions longer, and credit worsens the effect. …the message is clear: Bubbles and debt are a dangerous combination.

To elaborate, equity and bubbles aren’t a good combination, but there’s far less damage when an equity bubble pops because the only person who is directly hurt is the person who owns the asset (such as shares of a stock). But when a debt bubble pops, the person who owes the money is hurt, along with the person (or institution) to whom the money is owed.

Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute adds his two cents to the issue.

…the world is presently drowning in debt. Indeed, as a result of the world’s major central banks for many years having encouraged markets to take on more risk by expanding their own balance sheets in an unprecedented manner, the level of overall public and private sector indebtedness in the global economy is very much higher today than it was in 2008 at the start of the Great Economic Recession. Particularly troublesome is the very high level of corporate debt in the emerging market economies and the still very high public sector debt levels in the European economic periphery. …the Federal Reserve’s past policies of aggressive quantitative easing have set up the stage for considerable global financial market turbulence. They have done so by artificially boosting asset prices and by encouraging borrowing at artificially low interest rates that do not reflect the likelihood of the borrower eventually defaulting on the loan.

In other words, artificially low interest rates are distorting economic decisions by making something (debt) seem cheaper than it really is. Sort of financial market version of the government-caused third-party payer problem in health care and higher education.

And Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal makes the very important point that debt is encouraged by bailouts and subsidies.

Big banks aren’t automatically bad or badly managed because they are big, but it’s hard to believe big banks would exist without an explicit and implicit government safety net underneath them. …None of this has changed since Dodd-Frank, none of it is likely to change. …we know where the crisis will come from and how it will be transmitted to the financial system. The Richmond Fed’s “bailout barometer” shows that, since the 2008 crisis, 61% of all liabilities in the U.S. financial system are now implicitly or explicitly guaranteed by government, up from 45% in 1999. …Six years after a crisis caused by excessive borrowing, McKinsey estimates that even visible global debt has increased by $57 trillion, while in the U.S., Europe, Japan and China growth to pay back these liabilities has been slowing or absent.

The bottom line is that government spending programs directly cause debt, but we should be just as worried about the private debt that is being encouraged and subsidized by other misguided government policies.

And surely we shouldn’t forget to include the pernicious role of the tax code, which further tilts the playing field in favor or debt.

P.S. Let’s briefly divert to another issue. I wrote last Christmas that President Obama may have given the American people a present.

But the Washington Examiner reports that gift has turned into a lump of coal.

The Department of Justice announced this week that it is resuming its Equitable Sharing program…that allows state and local police to get around tough state laws that limit how much property can be taken from citizens without being charged with wrongdoing, let alone convicted of a crime. …money-hungry police departments can exploit these lax federal rules about confiscating people’s property. The feds like this because they get a cut of the loot. …there is no presumption of innocence. …civil forfeitures by the feds amounted to $4.5 billion in 2014, which is more than the $3.9 billion that all of America’s burglars stole that year. It’s hard to imagine more compelling evidence of gross wrong.

Wow, so the government steals more money than burglars. I guess I’m not surprised.

But if you really want to get upset, check out real-world examples of asset forfeiture by clicking here, here, here, here, and here.

Thankfully, some states are seeking to curtail this evil practice.

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My opinion on taxing corporate income varies with my mood.

When I’m in a fiery-libertarian phase, I want to abolish taxes on corporate income for the simple reason that all income taxes should be eliminated. Heck, I would also eliminate October 3 from the calendar because that’s the awful day in 1913 that the income tax was signed into low.

But when I’m going through a pragmatic-libertarian phase, I grudgingly accept that my fantasies won’t be realized and focus on incremental reform. And that means I want a simple and fair system like the flat tax, which is based on the principle that all income should be taxed, but only one time and at one low rate.

And that means corporate income should be taxed.

That being said, while it may be appropriate to tax corporate income, that does not mean the U.S. corporate income tax is ideal.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that all of these problems can be solved with a flat tax, which would rip of the current corporate income tax and replace it with a very simple, low-rate system that properly measures income (i.e., expensing and territorial taxation) and taxes it only one time (i.e., no double taxation).

By the way, corporate income can be taxed without a corporate income tax. Simply tax the income when it is distributed to shareholders (the people who own the company) instead of taxing it at the business level. The goal, of course, is to make sure it no longer gets taxed twice.

A good business tax system isn’t a fantasy. Jurisdictions such as Estonia and Hong Kong have business tax systems that are very close to the aforementioned ideal. And it goes without saying that jurisdictions such as Bermuda, Monaco, and the Cayman Islands. are even better since they fulfill my dream of no income tax whatsoever.

With this background on good business tax policy, let’s now look at some contentious issues and see how they should be addressed.

We’ll start with the kerfuffle over companies that don’t pay tax, a controversy that was triggered by a somewhat disingenuous report from the Government Accountability Office.

One of the takeaway headlines from the GAO report is the supposedly startling revelation that 70 percent of corporations paid no tax.

But Aparna Mathur of the American Enterprise Institute explained the real story, which is that they didn’t pay tax because they didn’t have profits.

In 2012, out of 1.6 million corporate tax returns, only 51% were returns that had positive “net incomes,” and only 32% were returns that had positive “incomes subject to tax.” …“income subject to tax” allows companies with positive “net incomes” to claim an additional deduction as a result of prior-year operating losses. These losses can be carried forward to offset taxable incomes in years when firms are making a profit or have positive net incomes; this is known as a net operating loss deduction (NOLD). For 2012, the data show that approximately 20% of companies with positive “net incomes” (or profits) claimed a net operating loss deduction resulting in a zero tax liability.

There’s a bit of jargon in that passage, but the main thing to understand is that companies get to use losses from one year to offset profits from another year, which means – for all intents and purposes – that the government’s definition of taxable income does a better job of measuring profits over a longer period of time.

Here are some more details.

…the data shows two things: first, the GAO claim that 70% of companies paid no income tax is largely because more than 50% of these companies had zero profits or net incomes, and therefore they had zero tax liability. Secondly, some of these currently “profitable” (positive net income) companies have experienced large losses in prior years. For these companies, the NOL deduction allowed them to reduce their tax liability to zero. …The intent of this provision is, for example, to avoid a company with 5 years of consecutive operating losses of $20 million each having to pay income tax in year 6 simply because it realizes income of $20 million in that year. The principle underlying NOLD is intended to allow companies to get out of the hole of accumulated losses before the government can start claiming…the company’s income.

Her conclusion is completely sensible and appropriate.

…the GAO clearly acknowledges that the reason 70% of companies are paying no taxes is because they are either not currently profitable or they are able to offset taxes because of prior-year losses.

The Tax Foundation also has weighed in on this issue.

…the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report on corporate income taxes, which found that 19.5 percent of “profitable large corporations” paid zero corporate income taxes in 2012. …Should you be…outraged…about the number of U.S. corporations that pay no corporate income tax? In fact, there is good reason to think that many of the corporations that the GAO identifies as “profitable” did not actually earn a profit. In such cases, it would have been a mistake to collect corporate income taxes from these companies.

Echoing the explanation from Ms. Mathur, the Tax Foundations makes the same point about current year profits being offset by prior years’ losses, but also add a few additional reasons why “profitable” companies aren’t paying tax.

…some of the corporations that were categorized as “profitable” by the GAO in 2012 did not actually earn positive profits in the United States. …To the extent that some of the “profitable” corporations in the GAO report earned only foreign profits, rather than domestic profits, it is entirely reasonable that these corporations should not be subject to any U.S. corporate tax burden.

Particularly since they already are paying lots of tax on their foreign-source income to foreign governments.

There’s also the issue of depreciation, which journalists always have a hard time understanding.

…when calculating a corporation’s economic profit, it is appropriate to treat the entire cost of an investment as a current year expense. …imagine a corporation with $1 million in operating profits and $2 million in investment costs. Depending on how much of the investment the corporation treats as a current-year expense, the corporation could be making a large profit, no profit, or negative profit.

The bottom line is that you have look closely at how government defines “profit” to correctly ascertain whether companies are somehow avoiding taxation.

And in most cases, you’ll discover that the firms that don’t pay tax are the ones that don’t actually have income, properly defined.

…some U.S. corporations with positive book income might have negative taxable income: not because of any tricks or loopholes, but simply because the tax code operates under different accounting rules. …there are real, legitimate reasons why a “profitable” corporation would not and should not be required to pay corporate income taxes in a given year.

Now let’s return to the issue of double taxation, which occurs when income is taxed at the business level and then a second time when distributed as dividends to shareholders.

The Tax Foundation nicely summarize the issues in a new study, including some much-deserved focus on how this creates a bias for debt.

…income that is earned by corporations and funded by equity (stocks) is subject to a double tax: once on the corporate level, when it is earned, and once on the shareholder level, when it is distributed as dividends. The double taxation of equity-financed corporate income leads to several major economic distortions. It encourages investors to shift their investments from corporate to non-corporate businesses, leading to a less efficient allocation of capital. Furthermore, it incentivizes corporations to fund their operations with debt, rather than equity, leading to excessive leverage.

The solution, needless to say, is something called “corporate integration,” which is simply a wonky way of saying that income should be taxed only one time.

Corporate integration refers to a set of proposals to standardize the taxation of business income across legal forms and methods of financing. The chief advantage of corporate integration is that it would end the double taxation of equity-financed corporate income… The principle of tax neutrality – that a tax system should neither encourage nor discourage specific economic decisions – is embraced by public policy scholars throughout the political spectrum. Corporate integration – taxing all business income at the same top rate, regardless of the legal form of the business or how the income was financed – would minimize the economic distortions created by the U.S. tax code and conform to the principle of neutrality.

Here’s a chart showing how neutrality is violated by double taxing income that is generated by equity. Once again, there’s a bit of jargon, but the main thing to understand is that companies deduct interest payments they make to bondholders, so there’s a tax at the household level but no tax at the business level. But they can’t deduct dividend payments, which effectively means the company is taxed on that money in addition to the household paying tax as well.

The Tax Foundation helpfully suggests how this inequity could be resolved. Allow companies to deduct dividend payments, just as they now deduct interest payments.

Perhaps the simplest way to integrate the corporate and individual tax codes would be to tax dividends received by individuals at ordinary income rates and allow corporations to deduct all of their dividends paid.

Incidentally, this would basically mean that there’s no longer a corporate income tax, though (as discussed above) all corporate income would still be taxed (at the household level).

Let’s close by looking at two pieces of legislation and applying the lessons we’ve learned.

Congressman Devin Nunes (R-CA) has legislation that would address many of the problems outlined above. Here’s how the Tax Foundation describes his plan.

Major elements of his plan are: Cutting the corporate income tax to 25 percent; Limiting the top tax rate on non-corporate business income to 25 percent; Allowing businesses to deduct investment costs when they occur (full expensing); Eliminating most business tax credits and many deductions; Moving to a territorial tax system like most developed nations; …Applying the same tax-rate limitation to individuals’ interest income as now applies to their capital gains and dividend income; and Eliminating the individual and corporate alternative minimum taxes (AMTs).

Wow, that’s fixing many of the problems outlined above.

But here’s the catch. To make the numbers add up, he gets rid of the bias for debt. But he does it by adding a second layer of taxation to interest income rather than abolishing the second layer of tax on dividend income.

The Nunes plan would not let nonfinancial businesses deduct interest payments, but would not tax them on interest receipts. It would generally not allow individuals to deduct interest payments, except that home mortgage interest would remain deductible, and it would apply the same tax-rate limitation to individuals’ interest income as to dividends (top rate of 20 percent). These changes would have a mixed effect on tax biases. On the one hand, they would lessen the tax distortion at the corporate level between debt and equity financing. Because debt is riskier than equity (debt payments are legally required regardless of business cash flow), corporate businesses would be better able to weather economic adversity if the tax system did not push them so strongly toward debt financing. On the other hand, the changes would mean that corporate returns financed through debt would be taxed at both the corporate and individual levels, as is now the case with corporate equity.

For what it’s worth, the Tax Foundation projects that Cong. Nunes’ plan would be very beneficial to growth and job creation, so the benefits of the good reforms are much larger than the harm associated with extending double taxation to interest payments.

That sounds right to me, particularly when you include the fact that companies will make sounder decisions once there’s no longer a bias for debt.

Last but not least, let’s review some recent legislation from Congressman Tom Emmer (R-MN).

Here’s what Americans for Tax Reform wrote about his proposal.

Currently, the U.S. corporate rate is the highest amongst the 34 country Organisation for Economic Development (OECD). At 39 percent, it far exceeds the OECD average rate of 25 percent, and is even further behind developed countries like Ireland, Canada, and the U.K. which have rates of 20 percent or less. The CREATE Jobs act would fix this by reducing the U.S. corporate rate to five points below the OECD average and creating a process by which the U.S. rate is regularly reviewed to ensure economic competitiveness. …bringing the rate below the OECD average would have strong and immediate effects. A 20 percent U.S. corporate rate could create more than 600,000 jobs, increase GDP by 3.3 percent, and increase wages by 2.8 percent over the long-term, according to the Tax Foundation.

P.S. Here’s a video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that describes some of the warts associated with the corporate income tax.

P.P.S. If you think my video is a bit amateurish, it’s because it was a first-time experiment and originally wasn’t going to be released. But once it was finished, we figured it was adequate. And I think it compares well to some corporate tax videos put together by other groups.

P.P.P.S. For those worried about corporate inversions, it’s worth noting that the types of reforms listed above would make companies far less likely to re-domicile in other jurisdictions.

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If you look at the methodology behind the major measures of economic liberty, such as Economic Freedom of the World and Index of Economic Freedom, you’ll notice that each nation’s regulatory burden is just as important as the overall fiscal burden.

Yet there doesn’t seem to be adequate appreciation for the importance of restraining red tape. I’ve tried to highlight the problem with some very depressing bits of information.

Unfortunately, these bad numbers are getting worse.

We start with the fact that there’s a natural tendency for more intervention in Washington because of the Obama Administration’s statist orientation.

That’s the bad news. The worse news is that this tendency to over-regulate is becoming more pronounced as Obama’s time in office is winding down.

I’ve already opined on the record levels of red tape emanating from Washington, but it’s getting even worse in the President’s final year.

Here’s what the Wall Street Journal recently wrote about the regulatory wave.

…government-by-decree that is making Mr. Obama the most prolific American regulator of all time. Unofficially, Mr. Obama’s Administration has once again broken its own record by issuing a staggering 82,036 pages of new and proposed rules and instructions in the Federal Register in 2015. …That would not only eclipse Mr. Obama’s record of 81,405 set in 2010; it would also give him six of the seven most prolific years of regulating in the history of the American republic. He’s a champion when it comes to limiting economic freedom, and American workers have the slow growth in jobs and wages to prove it. …His Administration is also in a class by itself in issuing de facto rules as “notices” or “guidance” that are ignored by businesses at their peril. …And there’s much more to come.

Amen. The WSJ is correct to link the regulatory burden with anemic economic performance.

As I point out in this interview, red tape is akin to sand in the economy’s gears.

By the way, I can’t resist emphasizing that the Nordic nations, much beloved by Bernie Sanders and other leftists, generally are more free market than the United States on non-fiscal issues.

In other words, they have a more laissez-faire approach on matters such as regulation.

Now let’s try to quantify the cost of all this red tape.

The Washington Examiner reports on some new research.

The price of the Obama administration’s regulatory burden hit just shy of $200 billion last year, or $784 million for every day his government was open for business, according to a new analysis by American Action Forum.

To make matters worse, as I noted in the interview, I very much suspect the bulk of that new regulation was not accompanied by cost-benefit analysis. So the supposed benefits will be small and the actual costs will be high.

Let’s move from the general to the specific. The Heritage Foundation has a list of the worst regulations from last year. Here are some of the highlights, though lowlights would be a better term.

  • …a ban by New Jersey on sales of tombstones by churches — adopted in March at the behest of commercial monument makers.
  • Certain New York restaurants now have to include warnings on their menus about the sodium content in many popular dishes.
  • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration…expanded its mandate in June by declaring that businesses should allow employees to use whichever restroom corresponds to their “gender identity.”
  • …the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers expanded their own jurisdiction to regulate virtually every wet spot in the nation.

And there are plenty more if you really want to get depressed.

But let’s not dwell on bad news. Instead, we’ll close by highlighting a potentially helpful bit of regulatory reform north of the border. Here are some blurbs from a story in the Washington Examiner.

…look to Canada for lessons from its experiment with regulatory budgeting. What is regulatory budgeting? It’s a process that seeks to use traditional budget concepts to better manage regulatory costs. The goal is to require government departments and agencies to prioritize and manage “regulatory expenditures,”… Regulatory budgeting imposes hard caps on departments and agencies and requires that new regulatory policies fit within their respective budgets. It may not be a silver bullet to the U.S. government’s regulatory profligacy, but with strong political leadership and a proper design, it can arrest the growth of new regulations and bring greater accountability, discipline and transparency to the process. …Departments and agencies are given a “baseline” calculation of regulatory requirements and the costs they impose on individuals and businesses, and then are expected to live within their respective budgets. This means — at least, in the case of the federal experiment — that any new regulatory requirements be offset by eliminating existing ones with equivalent “costs.” An independent, third-party panel verifies the government’s year-over-year compliance.

And it appears this new system is yielding dividends.

Over the past two years, the federal government estimates the system has saved Canadian businesses more than C$32 million in administrative burden, as well as 750,000 hours spent dealing with “red tape.” Most importantly, regulatory budgeting has gradually contributed to a more disciplined regulatory process by rewarding departments and agencies for finding lower-cost options and for making existing requirements smarter and less burdensome.

Hmmm…, maybe I should consider escaping to Canada rather than Australia if (when?) America falls apart.

In addition to this sensible approach on regulatory reform, Canada is now one of the world’s most economically free nations thanks to relatively sensible policies involving spending restraint, corporate tax reform, bank bailouts, the tax treatment of saving, and privatization of air traffic control. Heck, Canada even has one of the lowest levels of welfare spending among developed nations.

Though things are now heading in the wrong direction, which is unfortunate for our northern neighbors.

P.S. While the regulatory burden in the United States is stifling and there are some really inane examples of silly rules (such as the ones listed above), I think Greece and Japan win the record if you want to identify the most absurd specific examples of red tape.

P.P.S. Though I suspect America wins the prize for worst regulatory agency and most despicable regulatory practice.

P.P.P.S. Here’s what would happen if Noah tried to comply with today’s level of red tape when building an ark.

P.P.P.P.S. Just in case you think regulation is “merely” a cost imposed on businesses, don’t forget that bureaucratic red tape is the reason we’re now forced to use inferior light bulbs, substandard toilets, second-rate dishwashers, and inadequate washing machines.

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The value-added tax is a very dangerous levy for the simple reason that giving a big new source of revenue to Washington almost certainly would result in a larger burden of government spending.

That’s certainly what happened in Europe, and there’s even more reason to think it would happen in America because we have a looming, baked-in-the-cake entitlement crisis and many politicians don’t want to reform programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare. They would much rather find additional tax revenues to enable this expansion of the welfare state. And their target is the middle class, which is why they very much want a VAT.

The most frustrating part of this debate is that there are some normally rational people who are sympathetic to the VAT because they focus on theoretical issues and somehow convince themselves that this new levy would be good for the private sector.

Here are the four most common economic myths about the value-added tax.

Myth 1: The VAT is pro-growth

Reihan Salam implies in the Wall Street Journal that taxing consumption is good for growth.

Mr. Cruz has roughly the right idea. He has come out in favor of a growth-friendly tax on consumption… Rather sneakily, he’s calling his consumption tax a “business flat tax,” but everyone knows that it’s a VAT.

And a different Wall Street Journal report asserts there’s a difference between taxing income and taxing consumption.

…a VAT taxes what people consume rather than how much they earn.

Reality: The VAT penalizes all productive economic activity

I don’t care whether proponents change the name of the VAT, but they are wrong when they say that taxes on consumption are somehow better for growth than taxes on income. Consider two simple scenarios. In the first example, a taxpayer earns $100 but loses $20 to the income tax. In the second example, a taxpayers earns $100, but loses $20 to the VAT. In one case, the taxpayer’s income is taxed when it is earned and in the other case it is taxed when it is spent. But in both cases, there is an identical gap between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption. The economic damage is identical, with the harm rising as the marginal tax rate (either income tax rate or VAT rate) increases.

Advocates for the VAT generally will admit that this is true, but then switch the argument and say that there’s pervasive double taxation in the internal revenue code and that this tax bias against saving and investment does far more damage, per dollar collected, than either income taxes imposed on wages or VATs imposed on consumption.

They’re right, but that’s an argument against double taxation, not an argument for taxing consumption instead of taxing income. They then sometimes assert that a VAT is needed to make the numbers add up if double taxation is to be eliminated. But a flat tax does the same thing, and without the risk of giving politicians a new source of revenue.

Myth 2: The VAT is pro-savings and pro-investment

As noted in a recent Wall Street Journal story, advocates claim this tax is an economic elixir.

Supporters of a VAT…say it is better for economic growth than an income tax because it doesn’t tax savings or investment.

Reality: The VAT discourages saving and investment

The superficially compelling argument for this assertion is that the VAT is a tax on consumption, so the imposition of such a tax will make saving relatively more attractive. But this simple analysis overlooks the fact that another term for saving is deferred consumption. It is true, of course, that people who save usually earn some sort of return (such as interest, dividends, or capital gains). This means they will be able to enjoy more consumption in the future. But that does not change the calculation. Instead, it simply means there will be more consumption to tax. In other words, the imposition of a VAT does not alter incentives to consume today or consume in the future (i.e., save and invest).

But this is not the end of the story. A VAT, like an income tax or payroll tax, drives a wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax income. This means, as already noted above, that a VAT also drives a wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption – and this is true for current consumption and future consumption. This tax wedge means less incentive to earn income, and if there is less total income, this reduces both total saving and total consumption.

Again, advocates of a VAT generally will admit this is correct, but then resort to making a (correct) argument against double taxation. But why take the risk of a VAT when there are very simple and safe ways to eliminate the tax bias against saving and investment.

Myth 3: The VAT is pro-trade.

My normally sensible friend Steve Moore recently put forth this argument in the American Spectator.

…a better way to do this…is through a “border adjustable”…tax, meaning that it taxes imports and relieves all taxes on exports. …The guy who gets this is Ted Cruz. His tax plan…would not tax our exports. Cruz is right when he says this automatically gives us a 16% advantage.

Reality: The protectionist border-adjustability argument for a VAT is bad in theory and bad in reality.

For mercantilists worried about trade deficits, “border adjustability” is seen as a positive feature. But not only are they wrong on trade, they do not understand how a VAT works. Protectionists seem to think a VAT is akin to a tariff. It is true that the VAT is imposed on imports, but this does not discriminate against foreign-produced goods because the VAT also is imposed on domestic-produced goods.

Under current law, American goods sold in America do not pay a VAT, but neither do German-produced goods that are sold in America. Likewise, any American-produced goods sold in Germany are hit be a VAT, but so are German-produced goods. In other words, there is a level playing field. The only difference is that German politicians seize a greater share of people’s income.

So what happens if America adopts a VAT? The German government continues to tax American-produced goods in Germany, just as it taxes German-produced goods sold in Germany. There is no reason to expect a VAT to cause any change in the level of imports or exports from a German perspective. In the United States, there is a similar story. There is now a tax on imports, including imports from Germany. But there is an identical tax on domestically-produced goods. And since the playing field remains level, protectionists will be disappointed. The only winners will be politicians since they have more money to spend.

I explain this issue in greater detail in this video, beginning about 5:15, though I hope the entire thing is worth watching.

Myth 4: the VAT is pro-compliance

There’s a common belief, reflected in this blurb from a Wall Street Journal report, that a VAT has very little evasion or avoidance because it is self enforcing.

…governments like it because it tends to bring in more revenue, thanks in part to the role that businesses play in its collection. Incentivizing their efforts, businesses receive credits for the VAT they pay.

Reality: Any burdensome tax will lead to avoidance and evasion and that applies to the VAT.

I’m always amused at the large number of merchants in Europe who ask for cash payments for the deliberate purpose of escaping onerous VAT impositions. But my personal anecdotes probably are not as compelling as data from the European Commission.

To give an idea of the magnitude, here are some excerpts from a recent Bloomberg report.

Over the next two years, the Brussels-based commission will seek to streamline cross-border transactions, improve tax collection on Internet sales… In 2017, the EU plans to propose a single European VAT area, a reform of rates and add specifics to its anti-fraud strategy. …“We face a staggering fiscal gap: the VAT revenues are 170 billion euros short of what they could be,” EU Economic Affairs and Tax Commissioner Pierre Moscovici said. “It’s time to have this money back.”

For what it’s worth, the Europeans need to learn that burdensome levels of taxation will always encourage noncompliance.

Though, to be fair, much of the “tax gap” for the VAT in Europe exists because governments have chosen to adopt “destination-based” VATs rather than “origin-based” VATs, largely for the (ineffective) protectionist reasons outlined in Myth 3. And this creates a big opportunity to escape the VAT by classifying sales as exports, even if the goods and services ultimately are consumed in the home market.

P.S. At the risk of being wonky, it should be noted that there are actually two main types of value-added tax. In both cases, businesses collect the tax, and the tax incidence is similar (households actually bear the cost), but there are different collection methods. The credit-invoice VAT is the most common version (ubiquitous in Europe, for instance), and it somewhat resembles a sales tax in its implementation, albeit with the tax imposed at each stage of the production process. The subtraction-method VAT, by contrast, relies on a tax return sort of like the corporate income tax. The Joint Committee on Taxation has a good description of these two systems.

Under the subtraction method, value added is measured as the difference between an enterprise’s taxable sales and its purchases of taxable goods and services from other enterprises. At the end of the reporting period, a rate of tax is applied to this difference in order to determine the tax liability. The subtraction method is similar to the credit-invoice method in that both methods measure value added by comparing outputs (sales) to inputs (purchases) that have borne the tax. The subtraction method differs from the credit-invoice method principally in that the tax rate is applied to a net amount of value added (sales less purchases) rather than to gross sales with credits for tax on gross purchases (as under the credit-invoice method). The determination of the tax liability of an enterprise under the credit-invoice method relies upon the enterprise’s sales records and purchase invoices, while the subtraction method may rely upon records that the taxpayer maintains for income tax or financial accounting purposes.

P.P.S. Another wonky point is that the effort by states to tax Internet sales is actually an attempt to implement and enforce the kind of “destination-based” tax regime mentioned above. I explain that issue in this presentation on Capitol Hill.

P.P.P.S. You can enjoy some amusing – but also painfully accurate – cartoons about the VAT by clicking here, here, and here.

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I sometimes wonder if I was put on this planet to defend tax competition and tax havens.

I argue for fiscal sovereignty, good tax policy, and financial privacy to the denizens of Capitol Hill, both in writing and in person.

I make the same arguments for readers of the New York Times, as well as readers of big-box store magazines.

My affection for low-tax jurisdictions is so strong that I ran the risk of getting thrown in a Mexican jail and also was accused of disloyalty to America by a bureaucrat for the Treasury Department.

Though I much prefer the hardship duty of arguing for tax competition and tax havens in places such as Bermuda, Antigua, Monaco, the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, and the Cayman Islands. Yes, I’m willing to go the extra mile in the fight for economic liberty.

And, if nothing else, my intensity on these issues makes me quotable, at least to writers for the Economist.

Not one to mince words, Daniel Mitchell of the right-wing Cato Institute denounces the OECD’s push to co-ordinate global tax enforcement as “the devil’s spawn” and possibly even a step towards the fiscal equivalent of…the World Trade Organisation. Tax havens “should not have to enforce the burdensome tax laws of other countries”, he thunders. “Having grown rich with the tax policies of their choosing, the OECD countries are pulling up the ladder and saying, ‘you can’t do the same to attract investment’. It’s fiscal imperialism.”

But I’m not the only one with sensible views on these issues.

A different article in the Economist highlights some benefits made possible by “tax havens.”

Offshore centres oil the financial interface between larger economies, insists Alasdair Robertson of Maples. Grant Stein of Walkers, another Cayman firm, thinks of it as “the plumbing that connects the global financial system”. …They enjoy support from some fierce ideological warriors, including libertarians at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC. …many offshore transactions are about tax neutrality, not cheating. …“It’s not about evasion but about avoiding an extra, gratuitous layer of tax,” says John Collis of Conyers Dill & Pearman, a Bermuda law firm. Such structures offer legal neutrality too. In a joint venture in, say, the BVI, no shareholder has a home advantage; all get a sophisticated, predictable common-law system with a small but well-regarded local commercial court and Britain’s Privy Council as the ultimate arbiter. …Some offshore champions consider tax competition a good thing because it discourages countries from trying to tax their way out of trouble.

Writing for Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, David Dodwell explains the valuable role of low-tax jurisdictions.

…offshore centres like Panama, the British Virgin Islands, Singapore, Hong Kong, Jersey, Lichtenstein or Switzerland serve a multitude of valuable roles. …Offshore financial centres have always acted as safe havens against such chaos or personal insecurity, and should be allowed to continue to do so. Is Hong Kong to be stigmatised as a tax haven because it offers a company low and simple tax arrangements compared with France, or Italy or India or wherever?

He uses his own experiences as an example.

When I settled permanently in Hong Kong, I did so not just because the work was interesting… I did so because I escaped onerous British taxes, and horrendous, stressful weeks completing nonsensically complex tax returns for Britain’s Inland Revenue. When I uplifted my Financial Times pension from Britain and placed it in a Hong Kong trust, I did so perfectly legally and transparently because if I had the pension sent to me monthly from Britain, it would be taxed. This was a pension built on a lifetime of hard-earned labour that had already been taxed once. I saw no justification for Britain’s inland revenue to tax me a second time. Was I acting unethically by eliminating a tax obligation to the British Government? …Building savings, and providing long-term security to my family…is not something I think I should feel embarrassed about. Nor should governments that create complex and burdensome personal and corporate tax regimes be surprised if people relocate to other jurisdictions where operating overheads are less onerous, and tax rules more simple and comprehensible.

He concludes with some wise words on the value of low-tax jurisdictions for the rest of the world.

As trade has exploded over the past four decades, so companies have become progressively more international, with operations sprawling across many economy and tax jurisdictions. Choosing a single low-tax base from which to coordinate such potentially messy production networks makes eminent good sense. So too is a zero-tax offshore location valuable as a way of avoiding double taxation for companies operating in more than one economy. …Use of such centres makes incorporation simpler, gives access to tried and tested legal systems including for arbitration, and tax-neutral treatment of investment. All legitimate reasons.

In a piece for the Financial Times that focuses primarily on British offshore financial centers, Richard Hay explains why so-called tax havens are so valuable.

Many of those who benefit from offshore centres — including millions receiving workplace pensions — are not aware of the key role they play in their financial affairs. Such financial centres facilitate trade, investment and economic growth. Globalisation has contributed to a doubling of world gross domestic product over the past two decades. Much of the benefit has accrued to developing countries, where dramatic declines in poverty have resulted from connecting local workforces to world consumers. …The true appeal of the UK offshore centres lies in their widely trusted British-inspired laws, courts, and professionals. The predictability and security offered by British institutions make such jurisdictions magnets for investors seeking reliable structures for international investment.

He cites one example of how Jersey (one of the Channel Islands, not the over-taxed New Jersey in the United States) produces big benefits for the United Kingdom.

UK offshore centres support British jobs, increase financing available for investment in the country and elevate the rate of return for savings. A 2013 study conducted by Capital Economics, a research consultancy, found that Jersey supports more than 140,000 British jobs — six times as many as the entire UK steel industry. The study found that Jersey’s contribution generates £2.5bn a year in tax for the exchequer, as much as the UK loses through all tax avoidance, onshore and offshore, combined.

And workers are big beneficiaries.

International investment is pooled in funds in tax-neutral countries like the Cayman Islands. Cost-efficient facilities afforded by such centres boost saving and pension returns, improving the lives of ordinary workers in retirement and easing the welfare burden on cash-strapped governments. Such pooled funds are liable to tax in the countries where their income and gains are earned, and again when received by the ultimate investors.

In a column for City A.M., James Quarmby highlights some of the practical and appropriate business reasons for utilizing so-called tax havens.

…the truth is that the major OFCs are extremely well regulated and have been so for many years. It is far harder to set up a company in Jersey than in the UK, for instance, because of its rigorous “know your client” rules. …most people use companies in OFCs for quite mundane, non-tax reasons. If you are trading or investing internationally, an offshore company is an essential building block for your business. …Experienced business people will tell you that there are certain emerging markets where, under no circumstances, would you want to resolve an investors’ dispute – you would much rather resolve it in a Cayman court where you could be sure of a fair fight. …Another reason for using an OFC is the bi-lateral treaties many of them have entered into with other countries. Mauritius, for instance, has excellent treaties with India and as a consequence it is now the world’s most important financial gateway to the sub-continent. Hong Kong, for similar reasons, is the gateway into China… OFCs are a vital part of our globalised world – without them international trade and investment would seriously suffer, global GDP would be lower, and the world would be a poorer place.

By the way, there is an effective and pro-growth way to boost tax compliance, as explained in another article in the Economist.

Getting rich people to pay their dues is an admirable ambition, but this attack is both hypocritical and misguided. It may be good populist politics, but leaders who want to make their countries work better should focus instead on cleaning up their own back yards and reforming their tax systems. …governments should not bash companies for trying to reduce their tax bills, if they do so legally. In the end, tax systems must be reformed. …Governments also need to lower corporate tax rates. Tapping companies is inefficient: firms pass the burden on to others. …Nor do corporate taxes raise much money: barely more than 2% of GDP (8.5% of tax revenue) in America and 2.7% in Britain. …a lower rate on a broader base…would be more efficient and would probably raise more revenue.

Pierre Bessard of Switzerland’s Liberales Institut looks at the big picture in his monograph on Individual Rights and the Fight Against Tax Evasion. He starts by noting that the entire anti-tax competition campaign is an illegitimate exercise of “might makes right.”

…the G20 as a body lacks democratic or legal legitimacy and is in effect a cartel of governments… The G20…is clearly a departure from the rule of law in international affairs and replaces negotiations with political pressure under the (explicit or implicit) threat of economic and financial sanctions.

He then explains that anti-tax competition advocates rely on laughable arguments about the supposed desirability of bigger government.

To make the G20 governments’ war against citizens protecting wealth and resources in “tax havens” more palatable, the OECD  has initially argued that governments “need every tax dollar legally due to combat the world recession”. As this argument lost its credibility as the evidence  increasingly showed that Keynesian-style fiscal interventionism worsened and prolonged the crisis, the OECD now holds that tax avoidance and tax evasion mean fewer resources “for infrastructure and services such as education and health, lowering standards of living in both developed and developing economies”. This statement, however, contradicts all theoretical and empirical evidence, which shows that a smaller scope and size of government go hand in hand with higher  economic growth and living standards.

And he also explains why tax competition leads to better tax policy and more growth.

By restricting government’s capacity to indefinitely raise the tax burden, the diversity of jurisdictions and systems unquestionably contributes to greater prosperity. The most obvious consequence of tax competition is its beneficial impact on saving, since lower taxes encourage capital accumulation. This in turn leads to more investment, more jobs and more economic welfare. …Experience shows that “tax havens”…play at most a preventive or corrective role of arbitrage in the face of excessive taxation. In general, tax competition from “tax havens” leads to a better balance between public services and the tax burden. …From an economic perspective, the use of “tax havens” facilitates capital accumulation and improves economic prosperity in the high-tax countries where the capital is eventually repatriated to be invested in factors of production. “Tax havens” therefore increase the efficiency of international  capital markets and thus the efficiency of capital allocation to the most productive investments, thereby contributing to raise overall living standards. As a result, “tax havens” benefit all residents, whether they make use of them directly or not. They serve to channel capital and avoid double or even triple taxation in high-tax countries and lead to better economic performance in those countries.

The bottom line is that tax competition protects individuals by at least partially constraining the greed of the political class.

…tax diversity is an essential condition for the preservation of individual liberty. Competition tends to restrict the predatory potential of the territorial monopoly on the use of coercion (which defines government). …An individual’s freedom of choice and legitimate rights to the fruits of his or her labor and property are thus better protected in a world with strong tax competition.

And Pierre closes by noting the powerful intellectual lineage in favor of systems diversity as a driver and protector of liberty.

…jurisdictional competition and the advantages of smaller, open territorial monopolies controlled by governments are important ideas of the intellectual liberal tradition. Such diverse thinkers as David Hume, Adam Smith, Montesquieu, Alexis de Tocqueville, Immanuel Kant, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and Turgot insisted on the role of institutional diversity and the right to exit for individual freedom.

P.S. Pierre also wrote a superb column a few years ago about tax competition, fiscal sovereignty, and financial privacy for the New York Times.

P.P.S. Here’s my video on the economic case for tax havens.

P.P.P.S. Let’s not forget that the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is the international bureaucracy most active in the fight to destroy tax competition. The is doubly outrageous because, 1) our tax dollars subsidize the OECD, and 2) those bureaucrats get tax-free salaries!

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It’s that time of year. Those of us who wait until the last minute are rushing to get tax returns filed (or extensions submitted).

So it’s also a good time to remind ourselves that there is a better way.

Economists look at the tax system and focus on the warts that undermine growth.

Other people focus on the immorality of the tax code.

Most of these problems have existed for decades and are familiar to people who have the misfortune of working for tax reform.

But every so often, policy wonks like me get surprised because we find out that things are even worse than we thought.

For instance, here are some excerpts from a very disturbing article in The Hill about the IRS’s we-don’t-care attitude about fraudulent use of Social Security numbers.

…illegal immigrants…use other people’s social security numbers (SSNs) to get jobs and then file their taxes with their IRS-issued Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs). Although the tax returns contain false W-2 information, the IRS continues to process them, and the agency does not notify the people whose SSNs were used. …Koskinen said that in such cases “it’s in everybody’s interest to have them pay the taxes they owe.” …Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.)…told The Hill on Friday that he was “shocked” and “horrified” by Koskinen’s response. …House Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio)…said Friday that Koskinen’s comments about illegal immigrants’ tax returns are “just one more example of why Koskinen is doing such a poor job and should be impeached.”

As a quick aside, I’d be very curious to get some confirmation about Commissioner Koskinen’s assertion that illegals are net taxpayers. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn instead that they are a net drain because of “earned income tax credit,” which is a form of redistribution that gets laundered through the tax code.

But setting that aside, it’s completely outrageous that the IRS doesn’t let taxpayers know that their Social Security numbers have been stolen.

Congressman Jordan (and George Will) are right. There should be consequences for a government official who treats taxpayers with contempt.

Though Koskinen does deserve some credit for honesty about tax reform, as reported by the Washington Free Beacon.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen told lawmakers on Wednesday that implementing a flat tax would be simpler than the current tax system and would save the agency a lot of money. …Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R., Mo.) asked Koskinen whether a flat tax policy would save the agency money. …”clearly if you had a two-page form or a one-page form where you got rid of all the deductions and everything else and people just paid…a flat tax…it would be simpler for taxpayers and it would be much simpler for us,” Koskinen said. …Luetkemeyer asked Koskinen for more specifics about how much of the IRS’ current budget of $11.2 billion could be saved if a flat tax were implemented. “…it would be a lot,” Koskinen said. “It’d clearly be a sea change, a difference in the way the place operates.”

To call the flat tax “a sea change” is an understatement. As explained in this video, research from the Tax Foundation shows that the compliance burden of the tax code would fall by more than 90 percent.

And the economy would grow much faster since a key principle of the flat tax is that revenue should be collected in the least-damaging manner.

Though if you’re worried that a flat tax is too timid and you would prefer no broad-based tax for Washington, Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute shared this wonderful image.

Which is why October 3, 1913 may be the worst day in American history.

Some people claim that it would be impossible to have a modern society without an income tax.

Well, the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, and Monaco are very modern, and all those jurisdictions enjoy great prosperity in large part because there is no income tax.

And we could enjoy the same freedom and prosperity in the United States. But only if we reduced the size of the public sector.

In other words, we could free ourselves of the income tax if we could somehow get rid of all the programs that were created once the income tax gave politicians a big new source of tax revenue.

The challenge is convincing politicians to give up their ability to buy votes with other people’s money.

Incidentally, this is why we should be stalwart in our opposition to the value-added tax. The experience with the income tax shows that politicians will expand the burden of government spending if they obtain any significant new source of revenue.

Let’s close with a somewhat amusing look at how tax compliance works in India. Here are some blurbs from a story in the Wall Street Journal.

For five years, real-estate developer Prahul Sawant ignored government orders to pay his taxes. Then the drummers showed up, beating their instruments and demanding he cough up the cash. Neighbors leaned out windows and gawked. Within hours, a red-faced Mr. Sawant had written a $945 check to settle his long-standing arrears. Shame is the name of the game as India’s local governments try new tools to collect taxes from reluctant citizens. …Thane’s municipal commissioner, Sanjeev Jaiswal, is resorting to public embarrassment of tax scofflaws. …Since the drummers started work early this year in this suburb of Indian commercial capital Mumbai, property-tax revenue has jumped 20%, said Mr. Jaiswal.

It’s also safer for the tax bureaucrats to rely on drummers.

Tax collectors in Vitawa-Kalwa are glad the drummers, and some security officers, are touring the neighborhood with them. “When the staff show up to collect tax alone, people get angry and beat them up,” said S.R. Patole, the assistant commissioner, who is responsible for revenue in the area.

And if drummers don’t work, the municipal commissioner has a back-up plan.

Mr. Jaiswal…plans to deploy groups of transgender women, known in India as hijras, to perform mocking dances to shame tax delinquents. Hijras are widely believed to be able to impose hexes.

I’ll have to add this story to my collection of “great moments in tax enforcement.”

For what it’s worth, I’m on the side of the taxpayers because of the Indian government’s legendary ability to waste money.

P.S. If you’re a late filer and need some humor to get through the day, here’s my collection of IRS-related jokes: A new Obama 1040 form, a death tax cartoon, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a cartoon of how GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, two Obamacare/IRS cartoons (here and here), a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), a song about the tax agency, the IRS’s version of the quadratic formula, and (my favorite) a joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

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Since Pope Francis is very critical of capitalism, I suppose it’s fitting that he had a special meeting with America’s crazy-Uncle-in-the-attic, Bernie Sanders.

With my sixth-grade sense of humor, I confess that my initial instinct (perhaps motivated by the famous line from Animal House about “a wimp and a blimp“) was to write about “the Pope and the dope,” but I’m going to be somewhat mature and instead share some excerpts from a very good column by Charles Lane, an editorial writer for the Washington Post.

Here’s some of what he wrote before Senator Sanders’ departure.

Democratic socialist presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will depart soon for the Vatican… In keeping with Pope Francis’s call for a “moral economy,” Sanders has said he’ll discuss “how we address the massive levels of wealth and income inequality that exist around the world, how we deal with unemployment, how we deal with poverty and how we create an economy that works for all people rather than the few.”

While inequality should be a non-issue (assuming income is earned honestly), it is very desirable to reduce poverty and boost wealth for the less fortunate. As such, Lane suggests that the Vermont Senator read some of the research from World Bank economist Branko Milanovic.

…real income went up between 70 percent and 80 percent for those around the world who were already earning at or near the global median, including some 200 million Chinese, 90 million Indians and 30 million people each in Indonesia, Egypt and Brazil. Those in the bottom third of the global income distribution registered real income gains between 40 percent and 70 percent, Milanovic reports. The share of the world’s population living on $1.25 or less per day — what the World Bank defines as “absolute poverty” — fell from 44 percent to 23 percent.

And here are the most important passages.

Was all this progress because of big government? Nope, people were lifted out of poverty because the power of government was reduced.

Did this historic progress, with its overwhelmingly beneficial consequences for millions of the world’s humblest inhabitants, occur because everyone finally adopted “democratic socialism”? …To the contrary: The big story after 1988 is the collapse of communism and the spread of market institutions, albeit imperfect ones, to India, China and Latin America. This was a process mightily abetted by freer flows of international trade and private capital… The extension of capitalism fueled economic growth, which Milanovic correctly calls “the most powerful tool for reducing global poverty and inequality.” And he’s no supply-sider, but instead a left-leaning critic of modern economic orthodoxy — as his new book, “Global Inequality,” makes clear.

The final sentence is worth highlighting. Mr. Milanovic is not a libertarian firebrand. And since Charles Lane is an editorial writer at the Washington Post, it’s safe to assume that he isn’t an advocate of small government either.

For what it’s worth, they’re probably both supporters of something akin to the Nordic Model, which allows for a large welfare state and high tax rates, but otherwise is very sympathetic to free markets (i.e., open trade, light regulation, stable money, strong property rights, etc).

In other words, if we created a scale or a spectrum, there would be a big difference between the crazy left and the rational left. And the socialists and totalitarians would be in their own category.

The flags of the Nordic nations represent the rational left. I’ve put the Greek flag next to Bernie Sanders to represent the crazy left.

I actually had a hard time coming up with an example of a genuine socialist (i.e., government ownership of the means of production) who wasn’t also a totalitarian, but eventually settled on Clement Attlee, the United Kingdom’s misguided post-WWII Prime Minister who nationalized industries.

And Hitler and Stalin obviously are representatives of the totalitarian left.

I’ve placed Obama and Clinton on the spectrum based on what I think they actually believe, not what they say. So even though Hillary and Bernie are singing from the same nutty song sheet, I suspect she’s exaggerating her leftism and he’s downplaying his.

P.S. Returning to our original focus about which policies actually help the poor, Bono also understands that there’s no substitute for free markets.

P.P.S. My goal, of course, is to help rational leftists understand that free markets are just one ingredient in the recipe for prosperity. We also should have small government.

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Maybe future events will require a reassessment, but right now the biggest danger to the western world isn’t terrorism. Nor is it climate change. Or Zika. Or even Donald Trump.

The real threat is demographic change.

America’s population profile already has changed, but the future shift will be even more dramatic.

But demographics changes are neither good nor bad. The real problem, as I pointed out last month, is when you combine an aging population with poorly designed entitlement programs.

…even a small welfare state becomes a problem when a nation has a population cylinder. Simply stated, there aren’t enough people to pull the wagon and there are too many people riding in the wagon.

That’s a recipe for a crisis.

Here are some sobering details from a story in Business Insider.

The world is about to see a mind-blowing demographic situation that will be a first in human history: There are about to be more elderly people than young children. …And these two age groups will continue to grow in opposite directions: The proportion of the population ages 65 and up will continue to increase, while the proportion of the population ages 5 and under will continue decreasing. In fact, according to the Census Bureau, by 2050 those ages 65 and up will make up an estimated 15.6% of the global population — more than double that of children ages 5 and under, who will make up an estimated 7.2%. “This unique demographic phenomenon of the ‘crossing’ is unprecedented,” the report’s authors said.

Here’s the chart that accompanied the story.

And as you look at the numbers, keep in mind that entitlement programs mean that a growing population of old people means more spending, while a shrinking number of children means fewer future taxpayers to finance that spending.

Let’s now look at a nation that is the “canary in the coal mine” for why changing demographics is a recipe for fiscal crisis.

A story from The Week highlights the grim demographic outlook for Japan.

Japan is us, and we’re Japan. …Japan has a…serious problem on its hands: The country is literally dying. According to current projections, by 2060 the country will have shrunk by a third, and people over 65 years old will account for 40 percent of the population. Already, the country is selling more adult diapers than infant diapers. To say this is unsustainable is a euphemism. The country is quite simply dying. …Demography is not destiny, exactly, but it is close to it. …the impending collapse can no longer be denied, as is the case in Japan and Germany. …The extinction of a people and culture is always a global tragedy. It’s time for Japan — and the West — to wake up.

A wake-up call is needed. It’s not just Japan. The entire developed world faces a demographic problem.

The good news is that there is an understanding that something needs to change.

The not-so-good news is that many of the responses are misguided. Cheered on by the OECD, Japan has been boosting the value-added tax in hopes of financing an ever-expanding burden of government spending.

That won’t end well.

And I’m not overly enthralled by some of the other proposals.

Why not just pay people to have children? …If you lower the price of something, you will get more of it. Over the past two decades, Japan has spent trillions of dollars on mostly wasteful pork-barrel spending projects. It seems to me that the country would be better off today if that money had been spent on bonuses for second and third children instead.

For what it’s worth, I agree that giving money to parents would have been better than the various Keynesian spending binges (some of which are downright nuts) that have taken place in Japan.

But I’m not confident that child subsidies are an effective or desirable long-run solution to the nation’s demographic situation.

The one option that would work is to reform entitlement programs. Hong Kong’s demographic outlook is even more challenging than Japan’s, yet it is in much better long-run shape because it has a more sensible approach to entitlements, including a private Social Security system.

P.S. Every so often, a celebrity from the entertainment world has an epiphany about greedy and corrupt government. It definitely happened for Jon Lovitz, Will Smith, and Rob Schneider. And it might be happening for George Lopez.

Newsbusters has the details.

In a recent radio interview for BigBoyTV, comedian George Lopez let us all know that he’s endorsing Senator Bernie Sanders, while paradoxically, making it known he doesn’t want to pay any more taxes.

Here’s what he specifically said.

I endorsed Bernie Sanders. But really just to… I mean it’s cool. I can’t pay any more taxes, it’s ridiculous. But, so, we’ll figure it out.

Huh?!? He’s getting pillaged by the tax code yet he’s supporting a candidate who wants giant tax hikes. I guess his epiphany needs more clarity.

P.P.S. I admit these examples are all sarcastic, but Obama could have a Hollywood career after leaving office.

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As I’ve repeatedly explained, governments generally get in fiscal trouble because politicians can’t resist spending lots of money when the economy is buoyant and therefore generating lots of tax revenue.

And this is why I’m a huge fan of spending caps. If outlays can’t grow faster than, say, 3 percent annually, that make it difficult for politicians to enact unsustainable spending commitments (as we’ve seen in Greece, Alberta, Puerto Rico, California, and Alaska) in years when there is extra revenue.

Now I have a new example, and it’s extra painful because the politicians literally want me to pay for their profligacy.

Here’s part of what was recently written in the Washington Post about the supposed budget hardships in my home county of Fairfax in Virginia.

Virginia’s largest municipality is fraying around the edges. A population that is growing older, poorer and more diverse is sharpening the need for basic services…even as a sluggish local economy maintains a chokehold on the revenue stream. Since the 2008 recession, local officials have whittled away at programs to the tune of $300 million. …Since 2008, the county has eliminated 700 jobs. Libraries operate on shorter schedules and with fewer books, class sizes have swelled past 32 students in some schools… County agencies are stretching out vehicle maintenance — including for school buses and fire engines — and officials say aging athletic courts and deteriorating playgrounds await nearly $20 million in repairs. …The county slashed $3.8 million in summer school funding in 2015 and is trying to use $374,000 less in paper this year.

But all this budget “slashing” apparently isn’t enough to balance the budget.

…there is no fat left to trim. Instead, they are searching for ways to raise taxes… The county is searching for new revenue to cover some of what officials estimate are hundreds of millions of dollars worth of unmet needs. …“We’ve been punting for seven years now,” said John C. Cook (R-Braddock), a county supervisor. “There’s really nothing easy left to cut.” …the County Board of Supervisors will decide whether to raise residential property taxes by as much as four cents — to $1.13 per $100 of assessed value.

Gee, sounds like the government has “cut spending to the bone” and imposed “savage austerity,” which means higher taxes are the only option, right?

Not exactly, Professor Don Boudreaux of George Mason University digs through the data and exposes the truth.

What budget cuts?  In fiscal year 2016 Fairfax County’s government will spend $7.13 billion dollars – the highest inflation-adjusted annual expenditure in County history.  And this real expenditure is the highest in County history even on a per-capita basis.  …Fairfax County’s government today spends, per county resident, 168 percent more real dollars than it spent in 1975, 144 percent more than in 1986, 30 percent more than in 2001, and 1.6 percent more than in 2008 – the year that your reporter suggests marks the beginning of Fairfax County’s budget austerity. …it is emphatically not true that the Fairfax leviathan has cut its spending or suffered budget cuts.  Quite the opposite.

Don included a table of data, which I’ve put into a chart.

Let me know if you can find where spending was “slashed.”

Remember, this is inflation-adjusted spending, and also per-capita-adjusted spending, which means we can do apples-to-apples comparisons.

And the comparison that really matters is that the local government is now spending more than twice as much as it did 30 years ago.

  • Are the schools more than twice as good? No.
  • Are the roads more than twice as good? No.
  • Are the parks more than twice as good? No.

So where did all the money go? Beats me, though I’m going to take a wild guess that the country bureaucracy is now far bigger and getting paid much more.

In other words, the same theorem of government that explains the behavior of Washington also applies at the local level.

P.S. Let’s close with a very appropriate joke about the type of people who create fiscal crises.

A father told his 3 sons when he sent them to the university: “I feel it’s my duty to provide you with the best possible education, and you do not owe me anything for that. However, I want you to appreciate it. As a token, please each put $1,000 into my coffin when I die.”

And so it happened. His sons became a doctor, a lawyer, and a financial planner, each very successful financially. When their father’s time had come and they saw their father in the coffin, they remembered his wish.

First, it was the doctor who put 10 $100 bills onto the chest of the deceased.

Then, came the financial planner, who also put $1,000 there.

Finally, it was the heartbroken lawyer’s turn.He dipped into his pocket, took out his checkbook, wrote a check for $3,000, put it into his father’s coffin, and took the $2,000 cash.

He later went on to become a member of Congress…

If you want more jokes about politicians, click here.

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I recently wrote about gun control, noting how there’s less murder in demographically similar U.S. states than there is in matching Canadian provinces.

This is one of the reasons why I’m optimistic about protecting the Second Amendment. The empirical evidence is so strong that law-abiding people are safer in well-armed societies.

But let’s see how the rest of the world is faring on this issue.

Let’s start with a story from Switzerland, a nation that has a very strong tradition of gun rights.

Switzerland is becoming safer. Police recently flagged up that crime rates fell by 7% in 2015, reaching a seven-year low. In 2014, homicide was actually at its lowest level in 30 years. …A survey by swissinfo.ch shows gun permit applications were up almost everywhere in Switzerland in 2015.

Hmmm…, more guns and less crime. The person who slapped the headline on the story seems to think it’s a mystery why that relationship exists.

But anybody capable of passing my IQ test for criminals and liberals understands that the title should be changed to “Lower crime because Swiss have more guns” or something like that.

The article also includes a section on Switzerland’s gun culture.

Switzerland has one of the highest gun ownership rates in the world because of its militia army. The defence ministry estimates that some two million guns are in private hands in a population of 8.3 million. An estimated 750,000 of those guns have been recorded in a local register. Under the militia system soldiers keep their army-issue weapons at home. Voters in recent years have rejected tighter gun controls. In 2011, voters rejected a proposal to restrict access to guns by banning the purchase of automatic weapons and introducing a licensing system for the use of firearms.

Ah, those sensible Swiss voters. Not only are they against tax hikes and regulatory intervention, but they also reject licensing and support the right to purchase automatic weapons.

Now let’s travel Down Under and see what happens when a government takes the wrong approach to guns.

Hillary Clinton says “Australia is a good example”… The man Clinton wants to succeed, Barack Obama, noted, “Australia … imposed very severe, tough gun laws.  And they haven’t had a mass shooting since.” …Maybe it’s time to tell the president and his likely successor that the policies they so admire have been largely flouted… Clinton and Obama tout a 1996 “gun buyback” that was actually a compensated confiscation of self-loading rifles, self-loading shotguns, and pump-action shotguns in response to the Port Arthur mass shooting. The seizure took around 650,000 firearms out of civilian hands and tightened the rules on legal acquisition and ownership of weapons going forward. …What the law couldn’t do—what prohibitions can never accomplish—was eliminate demand for what was forbidden. …The Sporting Shooters’ Association of Australia estimates compliance with the “buyback” at 19 percent. Other researchers agree. In a white paper on the results of gun control efforts around the world, Franz Csaszar, a professor of criminology at the University of Vienna, Austria, gives examples of large-scale non-compliance with the ban. He points out, “In Australia it is estimated that only about 20% of all banned self-loading rifles have been given up to the authorities.”

There is one group benefiting from the attempted gun ban. Criminal gangs are big winners.

“Australians may be more at risk from gun crime than ever before with the country’s underground market for firearms ballooning in the past decade,” the report added. “[T]he national ban on semi-automatic weapons following the Port Arthur massacre had spawned criminal demand for handguns.” …Once you enable organized crime, there are no boundaries. Australia’s criminal gangs supply not just pistols, but weapons up to and including rocket launchers—some of which may have ended up in terrorist hands. …like American bootleggers who supplemented smuggled booze with bathtub gin, Australia’s organized criminal outfits have learned the joy of DIY production. …Australia will have to live with the rise in organized crime for years to come.

Such a disappointment that Australia, which is a role model on some issues, is so anti-civil rights when it comes to guns.

Now let’s travel to France, where there are at least one person doesn’t think it’s a good idea to let terrorists be the only ones with guns.

The leader of the rock band playing the Bataclan in Paris the night ISIS terrorists killed 90 in the concert hall three months ago ripped French gun control laws and urged “everybody” to get a gun. “I can’t let the bad guys win,” said Jesse Hughes of Eagles of Death Metal. …Speaking in a sometimes tearful interview to iTele, Hughes added, “Did your French gun control stop a single fu—– person from dying at the Bataclan? And if anyone can answer yes, I’d like to hear it, because I don’t think so.”

Amen. It’s downright bizarre that European politicians think it’s a good idea for citizens to be disarmed while crazies get to stock up on weapons.

Now let’s turn to America, where New Jersey (again) is a national embarrassment.

A New Jersey actor faces 10 years in prison for firing a prop pellet gun while filming an independent film. Carlo Goias, who uses the stage name Carlo Bellario, was charged with firing the fake gun without a state gun permit as part of the Garden State’s insanely strict gun laws. In New Jersey, all guns require a state permit, even non-lethal airsoft guns like the one Goias was using. …just seeing Goias pretending to fire from a car window prompted neighborhood residents to call the police. “I pretended to shoot out the window; they were going to dub in the sound later,” Goias told the Associated Press. “We get back, and within a couple of minutes we’re surrounded by cop cars.” …being sent away for 10 years over a fake gun is a reminder of just how absurd New Jersey’s gun laws still are.

Speaking of gun control, here’s radio shock jock Howard Stern making mostly sensible comments on the right to keep and bear arms.

It’s a bit disappointing that he supports a national gun registry, but I assume that’s because he doesn’t realize that the left supports registration primarily as a predicate for gun confiscation.

But he atones for that error by mocking leftists who have personal (and well-armed) security guards. Gee, I wonder if we might have an example of such a person.

And it’s also good that Howard mentions that most cops support gun rights, something that we see in the polling data.

P.S. Click here and here for some good gun control humor.

P.P.S. And click here for some entertaining videos mocking gun control.

P.P.P.S. Even some leftists have seen the light on gun rights, as you can see here, here, and here.

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If you follow the contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, most of the tax discussion is about who has the best plan to squeeze the rich with ever-higher tax rates.

For those motivated by spite and envy, Bernie Sanders “wins” that debate since he wants bigger increases in the tax rates on investors, entrepreneurs, business owners, and other upper-income taxpayers.

For those of us who don’t earn enough to be affected by changes in the top tax rates, this may not seem to be a relevant discussion. Some of us like the idea of higher tax rates on our well-to-do neighbors because we expect to get a slice of the loot and we think it’s morally okay to use government to take other people’s money. Others of us don’t like those higher rates because we don’t resent success and we also worry about the likely impact on incentives to create jobs and wealth.

But all of us are making a mistake if we think that the policy proposals from Bernie and Hillary won’t mean higher taxes on ordinary Americans.

Here are three basic proposition to help explain why lower-income and middle-income taxpayers are the ones who face the biggest threat.

  1. Hillary and Bernie want government to be much bigger, because of both built-in expansions of entitlements and a plethora of new handouts and subsidies.
  2. There’s not much ability to squeeze more money from the “rich” and America already has the developed world’s most “progressive” tax system.
  3. The only practical way to finance bigger government is with big tax hikes on the middle class, both with higher income taxes and a value-added tax.

There’s not really any controversy about the first proposition. We know the two Democratic candidates are opposed to genuine entitlement reform, so that means the burden of government spending automatically will climb in coming decades. And we also know that Hillary and Bernie also want to create new programs and additional spending commitments, with the only real difference being that Bernie wants government to expand at a faster rate.

So let’s look at my second proposition, which may strike some people as implausible, particularly the assertion that America has the most “progressive” tax system. After all, don’t European nations impose higher tax rates on the “rich” than the United States?

Yes and no, but first let’s deal with the issue of whether the rich are a never-ending spigot of tax revenue. The most important thing to understand is that there’s a huge difference between tax rates and tax revenue. If you don’t believe me, simply look at the IRS data from the 1980s, which shows that upper-income taxpayers paid far more to Uncle Sam at a 28 percent tax rate in 1988 than they paid at a 70 percent tax rate in 1980.

And keep in mind that there are incredibly simple – and totally legal – steps that well-to-do taxpayers can take to dramatically lower their tax exposure.

The bottom line is that high tax rates penalize productive behavior and encourage inefficient tax planning, the net effect being that higher tax rates won’t translate into higher revenue.

Moreover, as shown by a different set of IRS data, the American tax system already is heavily biased against the so-called rich. Even when compared with other countries. There are some nations that impose higher top tax rates than America, to be sure, but that’s only part of the story. The “progressivity” of a tax system is based on what share of the burden is paid by the rich.

And if you look at this data from the Tax Foundation, particularly the two measures of progressivity in columns 1 and 3, you can see that the United States gets a greater share of taxes from the rich than any other developed nation.

By the way, the data is from the middle of last decade, so the numbers are probably different today. But since we’ve taken more people off the tax rolls in the past 10 years in America while also increasing tax rates on upper-income households, I would be shocked if the United States didn’t still have the most “progressive” tax code.

In any event, the most important takeaway from the Tax Foundation data is that America has the most “progressive” tax system not because we impose the highest tax rates on the rich, but rather for the simple reason that the tax burden on lower-income and middle-income taxpayers is comparatively mild.

In other words, the tax burden on the rich in America is not particularly unusual. Some nations impose higher tax rates and some countries impose lower tax rates. But because other taxpayers in the U.S. pay very low effective tax rates, that’s why the overall tax code in the United States is so tilted against the rich.

Which brings us to the third proposition about the middle class being the main target of Hillary and Bernie.

Simply stated, the only practical way of financing bigger government is by raising the tax burden on lower-income and middle-income Americans. As already explained, there’s not much leeway to generate more tax revenue from the “rich.”

In other words, the rest of us have a bulls-eye painted on our backs. Our tax burden is relatively low by world standards and there are simple and effective ways that politicians could grab more of our income.

Let’s look at some of the details. The folks at the Pew Research Group crunched the data for 39 developed nations to compare tax burdens for various types of middle-income households. As you can see, taxpayers in the United States are relatively fortunate, particularly if they have kids.

Here are some excerpts from the article.

…most research has concluded that, at least among developed nations, the U.S. is on the low end of the range.  We looked at 2014 data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s database of benefits, taxes and wages, which has standardized data from 39 countries going back to 2001 and allows comparisons across different family types. …We calculated this for four different family types: a single employed person with no children; two married couples with two children, one with both parents working and the other with one worker; and a single working parent. In all cases, the U.S. was below the 39-nation average – in some cases, well below. …Much of the difference in relative tax burdens among different countries is due to the taxes that fund social-insurance programs, such as Social Security and Medicare in the U.S. These taxes tend to be higher in other developed nations than they are in the U.S.

And here’s the most shocking part of the article. The aforementioned data only considers income taxes and payroll taxes.

…the OECD data don’t include…other national taxes, such as…value-added taxes.

This is a huge omission. The average VAT in Europe is now 21 percent, so the actual tax burden on taxpayers in other nations is actually much higher than shown in the chart prepared by Pew.

Let’s look at the scorecard.

  • Non-rich Europeans pay higher income tax rates.
  • Non-rich Europeans pay higher payroll taxes.
  • Non-rich Europeans pay the value-added tax.

And because all these taxes on lower-income and middle-income people are the only effective and realistic way to finance European-sized government, this is the future Hillary and Bernie want for America. Even though they won’t admit it.

P.S. I can’t resist pointing out that the countries most admired by Bernie Sanders, Denmark and Sweden, both have tax systems that are far less “progressive” than the United States according to the Tax Foundation data. And the reason for that relative lack of progressivity is because of a giant fiscal burden on lower-income and middle-income taxpayers. And that’s what will happen in the United States if entitlements aren’t reformed.

P.P.S. Since I’m a fan of the flat tax, does that mean I like the countries with lower scores in column 3 of the Tax Foundation table? Yes and no. A lower score obviously means that a nation’s tax code isn’t biased against successful taxpayers, but it’s also important to look at the overall size of the public sector. Sweden’s tax system isn’t very progressive, for instance, but everyone pays a lot because of a bloated government. It’s far better to be in Switzerland, which has the right combination of a modest-sized government and a non-discriminatory tax regime.

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I recently wrote a primer on the issue of tax evasion, which is illegal. I made the elementary point that low tax rates and a simple tax code are the best (and only good) way of promoting high levels of tax compliance.

Now let’s shift to the related topic of tax avoidance, which is legal. Unlike evasion, there’s no civil disobedience and no breaking of laws with tax avoidance. It simply means that taxpayers are taking advantage of provisions in the tax code that help protect income from the government.

And we all do it.

All these things I do to lower my taxes are legal.

As Judge Learned Hand correctly opined, nobody has any obligation to deliberately overpay the government.

Tax avoidance also is moral. Tax codes are corrupt and governments waste money, so anything that reduces the flow of revenue to the public sector is helpful.

With that in mind, I want to offer a hearty defense of Mr. Cameron from the United Kingdom. But I’m not referring to David Cameron, the current Prime Minister. Instead, I want to defend Ian Cameron, his late father.

The Financial Times has a summary of what Cameron’s father did to protect against punitive taxation.

Mr Cameron’s father, Ian, was one of the founder investors. Blairmore was incorporated in Panama but based in the Bahamas. The idea was for investors to avoid an extra layer of tax because investors came from lots of jurisdictions and some, at least, would have faced double taxation if the fund had been based in a mainstream jurisdiction — firstly by the country where the fund operated, and then by the investor’s own country when he or she received his profits. …In 1982, when Blairmore was set up, offshore funds were more tax-efficient than UK funds, on which investors had to pay tax annually. …It is also possible that investors avoided paying stamp duty — a tax on the transfer of documents, including share certificates — by using bearer shares, which were exempt from the duty.

I also want to defend David Cameron’s mother, who is still alive and engaging in tax avoidance, as noted by a column in the U.K.-based Times.

He also admitted receiving a lump sum of £200,000 from his mother in 2011, eight months after his father died in September 2010. The handout, which came on top of a £300,00 legacy, could allow Mr Cameron to avoid an £80,000 inheritance tax bill if his mother lives until 2018.

This is perfectly appropriate and legitimate tax planning, and also completely moral and economically beneficial since death taxes shouldn’t exist.

Now let’s consider why David Cameron’s parents decided to engage in tax avoidance. To understand his father’s motives, let’s look at the history of British tax rates, as reported by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in a survey of the U.K. tax system released last November.

In 1978–79, there was a starting rate of 25%, a basic rate of 33% and higher rates ranging from 40% to 83%. In addition, an investment income surcharge of 15% was applied to those with very high investment income, resulting in a maximum income tax rate of 98%.

In other words, David Cameron’s father had to deal with a tax code that basically stole all his money above a certain threshold. Much of his income was earned when the top rate was 98 percent. And when he set up his offshore structures, even after Thatcher’s early reforms, his top tax rate could have been as high as 75 percent.

I frequent use “confiscatory” when talking about tax systems that grab, say, 50 percent of the additional income being earned by taxpayers, but I’m simply expressing outrage at excessive taxation. In the case of 1970’s-era England, even a leftist presumably would agree that word applies to a system that seizes 75 percent-98 percent of a taxpayer’s income (though some British statists nonetheless will applaud because they think all income belongs to the government and some American leftists also will applaud because of spite).

By the way, let’s not forget that David Cameron’s father was presumably also aware that there was lots of double taxation in the United Kingdom because of other levies such as the corporate income tax, death tax, and capital gains tax. So I shudder to think about the effective marginal tax rate that may have applied to him and other taxpayers in the absence of tax planning (maybe they paid more than 100 percent, like the thousands of unfortunate French taxpayers victimized by that nation’s wretched tax system).

The bottom line if that I’m very sympathetic to Cameron’s father, who was simply doing what was best for his family and what was best for the economy.

But I’m not exactly bubbling over with sympathy for the Prime Minister, who appears to be a puerile and shallow hypocrite. I’ve previously shared examples of his government browbeating taxpayers who don’t choose to needlessly give extra money to the government.

And now he’s caught is his own web of demagoguery.

Writing in the U.K.-based Sunday Times, Dominic Lawson has an appropriately jaundiced perspective.

Jimmy Carr must be laughing. In June 2012 the comedian was revealed by The Times as one of a number of showbiz folk to have invested in a scheme that had the effect of minimising the tax paid on their (typically volatile) income. Somehow unable to resist commenting on this story, David Cameron…told journalists that Carr’s behaviour had been “morally wrong”. …In other words: the people are angry and the prime minister wants to be with the pitchfork-waving crowd, not on the other side of the barricades. …now the PM is himself the subject of a whipped-up storm of fury… That is why, in my column of June 24, 2012 (“Cameron’s the clown in this Carr sketch”), there appeared these words: “The prime minister could not resist accusing Carr of ‘morally wrong’ behaviour, a piece of headline-grabbing he will have cause to regret.” …As a result, Cameron has now felt forced to become the first prime minister to make his tax details open to the electorate. It’s a sort of ritual humiliation, but one that will in no way appease those who regard the very idea of personal wealth as immoral. He should never have pandered to them.

Janet Daly of the U.K.-based Telegraph is similarly unimpressed with Cameron’s shallow posturing.

…there is a great mass of voters…who are very susceptible to the impression that Mr Cameron is a rich man who may possibly be a hypocrite when he denounces the tax-avoiding wealthy. …The Prime Minister and his Chancellor had put themselves in the forefront of the assault on “the rich”. This was the modern Conservative party…a major rhetorical revolution that took dangerous liberties with the vocabulary of what was being discussed. The Government began to obscure the difference between tax evasion, which is a crime, and tax avoidance…George Osborne invented a new category of sin called “aggressive tax avoidance”. This was a far nastier, more elaborate form of financial planning… Some kinds of tax avoidance are OK but other kinds are not, and the difference between them is, well, basically a matter of what kind of person you are – which is for the Government to decide. …Mr Cameron says…he has done nothing illegal or unusual… Nor, apparently, have most of the people whose private finances have been revealed to the world in the Panama Papers. …free societies should not create moral “crimes” that can put people beyond the pale when they have done nothing illegal. Mr Cameron may be about to conclude that himself.

By the way, Cameron and his people are not very good liars. Here are some more excerpts from the Times column I cited above, which explained how his mother is transferring assets to David in ways that will avoid the awful death tax.

Government sources pushed back yesterday against claims that the arrangement was a tax dodge. …“Every year hundreds of thousands of parents give money to their children,” a No 10 source said. “To suggest that by giving money to the prime minister there is somehow a tax dodge is extraordinary.” A No 10 spokesman said: “This is in no way linked to tax avoidance and it would be wrong to suggest otherwise.”

This is bollocks, as the English would say. If there was no desire to avoid an unfair and pernicious tax, Cameron’s mother could have left him that money upon her death.

Instead, she made a gift for purposes of hopefully keeping any extra money if her family rather than letting the government grab it. David Cameron should proudly embrace this modest bit of tax avoidance.

It’s definitely what I would do if I ever get to the point where I had enough money to worry about the death tax. Sadly, I don’t expect that to happen because it’s not easy for policy wonks to earn large amounts of money.

But if I ever find a big pot of money that will be around after my death, I know that I’ll want my children and the Cato Institute to be the beneficiaries, not a bunch of greedy and wasteful politicians (sorry to be redundant).

Heck, I’d leave my money to my cats before giving it to the corrupt crowd in Washington.

P.S. Rich leftists often say they want to pay higher taxes, yet they change their tune when presented with the opportunity to voluntarily give more of their money to Washington.

P.P.S. Since I quoted Judge Learned Hand on tax avoidance, I’m almost certain to get feedback from my leftist friends about the quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes about taxes being the price we pay for civilization. Allow me to preempt them by noting that Justice Holmes made that remark when the federal government consumed about 5 percent of our economy. As I wrote in 2013, “I’ll gladly pay for that amount of civilization.”

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I wrote recently about the Pfizer-Allergan merger and made the case that it was a very sensible way to protect the interests of workers, consumers, and shareholders.

That’s the good news.

Why? Because companies should be allowed to engage in a do-it-yourself form of territorial taxation to minimize the damage caused by bad tax policy coming out of Washington.

The bad news is that the White House, with its characteristic disregard of the rule of law, promulgated a regulation that retroactively changed existing tax law and derailed the merger.

Now the White House has produced an infographic designed to bolster its case against inversions, which I have reprinted to the right.

You can click on this link to see the full-sized version, but I thought the best approach would be to provide a “corrected” version.

So if you look below, you’ll find my version, featuring the original White House document on the left and my editorial commentary on the right.

But if you don’t want to read the document and my corrections, all you need to know is that the Obama Administration makes several dodgy assumptions and engages in several sins of omission. Here are the two biggest problems.

  1. No acknowledgement that the U.S. corporate tax regime drives inversions because of high rates and worldwide taxation.
  2. A bizarre and anti-empirical assertion that money is spent more productively by governments compared to the private sector.

And here’s the entire “corrected” infographic.

The bottom line is there aren’t any “loopholes” being exploited by inverting companies.

Instead, there’s a very anti-growth American tax system that makes it very difficult for American-domiciled firms to compete in global markets.

The solution is a simple, low rate flat tax.

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I don’t care whether it’s called socialism, fascism, or communism, statism is evil and destructive. And going partway down that path with “democratic socialism” may avoid brutality, but the end result is still economic misery.

In hopes of getting this point across, I utilize everything from humor to theoretical analysis.

But my favorite approach, based on decades of experience with one-on-one meetings, public speeches, and private briefings, is to share cross-country comparisons. Such real-world evidence seems to be most persuasive.

So it’s time to add to that collection.

Let’s go back to 2011, when Catherine Rampell was with the New York Times and she wrote a column about a book by World Bank economist Branko Milanovic. She focuses on a powerful visual.

My favorite part of the book was this graph…on the vertical axis, you can see where any given ventile from any country falls when compared to the entire population of the world. …take a look at America. Notice how the entire line for the United States resides in the top portion of the graph? That’s because the entire country is relatively rich. In fact, America’s bottom ventile is still richer than most of the world: That is, the typical person in the bottom 5 percent of the American income distribution is still richer than 68 percent of the world’s inhabitants. …America’s poorest are, as a group, about as rich as India’s richest.

Here’s the graph that grabbed her attention.

I agree with everything Ms. Rampell wrote about that graph, but let me expand the focus by explaining why this is yet another piece of evidence for the proposition that policy makers should focus on growth rather than (in)equality.

From a leftist perspective, the ideal line for such a graph is horizontal because that represents complete income equality. And they naturally think that statist policies are more likely to produce an outcome closer to that redistributionist ideal (hence, their support for politicians such as Obama, Clinton, and Sanders).

But the graph shows why they are so wrong to support ever-larger government.

For instance, ponder the question of which nation produces better outcomes for poor people? Obviously, per-capita output for all income levels is higher in the United States, but the gap is especially huge for those with low incomes.

There doubtlessly are many reasons for the output gap in the chart, but one logical explanation is that the overall burden of government is much lower in the United States (#16 in the economic freedom rankings) than in China (#111), India (#114), and Brazil (#118).

By the way, some people may say it’s unfair to compare the United States with nations from the developing world. But the entire point of this comparison is that these other countries aren’t part of the “first world” in part because their economic policies are characterized by statism rather than capitalism.

But for those who want comparisons among developed nations, I’ve reviewed evidence from the United States and Europe on many occasions and the results always show that the relatively more market-friendly policies in the United States produce higher levels of prosperity than the more statist policies of Europe.

And if you want a more apples-to-apples comparison involving one of the most successful European nations, consider this chart showing the relative prosperity of different income levels in the United States and Sweden.

The bottom line is that it’s very difficult to find any evidence to suggest that any group of people enjoys more prosperity in a nation with a larger burden of government.

Which is why I’m still waiting for a leftist to successfully respond to my two-question challenge (and they actually only need to give an answer to one of the questions).

Another good way of determining whether markets work better than statism is to see how fast nations grow over time.

James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute shares a chart from Max Roser showing long-run changes in per-capita economic output for South Korea and Venezuela.

The amazing takeaway is that Venezuela was about three times richer than South Korea about fifty years ago, but now that ratio is almost reversed.

This is an amazing ratification of the all-important principle that sustained differences in growth have an enormous impact on a nation’s long-run prosperity.

And it shows that nations from the developing world can experience “convergence” and join the first world if they adopt good policies.

They don’t even need great policies. The key is simply to keep the burden of government at modest levels so the private sector has room to grow.

P.S. For those wondering about my juvenile title, I probably watched Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey over 100 times when my kids were young and I’m borrowing a very appropriate line from that film.

P.P.S. For those who want more information about South Korean growth, check out this comparison of that country with its northern neighbor.

P.P.P.S. And for those who want to learn more about Venezuela’s lack of growth, see how that country compares to Chile and Argentina.

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I’m hoping the “Panama Papers” issue will quickly fade from the news (as happened after a similar data theft from BVI in 2013)  for the simple reason that even left-leaning reporters will get bored when they discover it is mostly a story about internationally active investors legally using structures designed for cross-border investment.

Yes, statists have a broader agenda of trying to make tax avoidance somehow shameful and illegitimate. But I doubt they’ll make much progress since no rational person (not even Bono or Donald Trump) voluntarily pays more to the government than is legally required.

Instead, I’m hoping that advocates of economic liberty can use this non-controversy controversy to our advantage by explaining that good tax policy is the best way to encourage both growth and compliance.

I often explain, for instance, that the best way to “hurt” tax havens is for onshore countries to have lower tax rates and less double taxation.

But is it really possible to have a simple tax system that accomplishes all these things? Some folks say no. They argue that there are competing goals in tax policy and that lawmakers are in the unenviable position of having to choose among goals that are mutually inconsistent.

Indeed, a writer for The Economist has a column that purports to show the existence of a “trilemma.”

…the trilemma, under which three options are available, but only two at most can be selected. In this case, it is a simple tax system; independent national tax policies; and the existence of multinational companies and investors.

Here’s my amateur depiction of this supposed trilemma, which ostensibly allows only two out of the three goals to be achieved.

And why does the author think these three things can’t simultaneously exist?

…simple tax systems are the best; they do not distort behaviour. But countries also like to set their own tax policies… The existence of national tax policies also allows economies like Ireland to offer themselves as an attractive place to do business… But that freedom also means that multinational companies and investors can arrange their affairs so as to minimise their tax charge. Governments react to that possibility with a series of carrots and sticks; tax breaks to persuade companies to stay and regulations designed to close loopholes that multinationals try to exploit… This makes the tax system more complex.

This may sound superficially persuasive, but it’s wrong.

And it’s not just wrong in theory. There are real-world examples that show that the trilemma is false.

  • Hong Kong has a simple tax system, an independent national tax policy, and lots of multinational companies and investors.
  • The Cayman Islands has a simple tax system, an independent national tax policy, and lots of multinational companies and investors.
  • Switzerland has a simple tax system, an independent national tax policy, and lots of multinational companies and investors.
  • Estonia has a simple tax system, an independent national tax policy, and lots of multinational companies and investors.

So why is the author wrong?

For the simple reason that he omitted one word. The trilemma can be switched from false to true by adding “high” before “tax.”

To be fair, perhaps this is what the author actually meant since he writes at one point about the level of taxes needed to finance ever-expanding welfare states.

…a world of simple taxes, and independent tax policies, would probably undermine the tax base governments need to fund the welfare states

So there actually is a real lesson to be learned and a real trilemma to analyze. If nations have high taxes, they can’t also have simple tax systems that are appealing to companies and investors.

By the way, the author makes a very good point, noting that tax rates would be more punitive if politicians didn’t have to worry that jobs and investment could cross national borders.

…without…tax competition, one suspects the global tax take would creep higher and higher.

Actually, this is not something “one suspects.” It is a 99.9999 percent certainty. Heck, the OECD even admitted at the very beginning of its anti-tax competition project that the goal was to enable high tax rates and large fiscal burdens. Here’s what the (tax-free!) bureaucrats wrote on page 14 of their 1998 report about the impact of “harmful tax competition.”

Since I’ve pointed out that the OECD has an unseemly pattern of dishonest data manipulation, I feel compelled to give them credit for being uncharacteristically truthful in this instance.

P.S. Let’s take a look at some other trilemmas.

From what I can tell, the most famous trilemma in economics is the Impossible Trinity, which says you can’t simultaneously have fixed exchange rates, open capital flows, and an independent monetary policy. Instead, you have to pick only two of the three options. I try to steer clear of monetary policy issues, but this makes sense.

And it’s definitely true that you can spark an argument among libertarians by raising the possibility, as put forth by an economist from Sweden, that there is a trilemma regarding immigration policy. Is it really true that you can’t simultaneously have limited government, open borders, and democracy? Do you really have to pick two of the three options? For what it’s worth, I would change “democracy” to “majoritarianism.”

Though if you prefer non-policy trilemmas, there’s the one circulates in the business world. It hypothesizes that you can’t have a process for producing a product that is good, cheap, and fast. You have to pick two of the three options. I suspect this is true in the short run, but one of the great thing about capitalism is that markets over time generally make things cheaper, better, and faster.

Last but not least, while searching for good examples of trilemmas, I found this one about communism. It’s amusing, obviously, but can someone truly be both communist and intelligent? Maybe that was possible 100 years ago, before all the horrors that have been unleashed by communism, but is that possible today? Though maybe that’s the point of the trilemma. You can be a smart communist, but only if you actually understand that the system doesn’t work and you’re willing to make dishonest arguments. But, if that’s the case, are you really a communist, or are you some sort of sleazy, power-hungry opportunist?

P.P.S. For those who appreciate politically incorrect humor, here’s another trilemma that you may find amusing.

P.P.P.S. Returning to our original topic, I can’t resist sharing a blurb from this story about New Jersey’s fiscal problems.

The decision by billionaire hedge-fund manager David Tepper to quit New Jersey for tax-friendly Florida could complicate estimates of how much tax money the struggling state will collect, the head of the Legislature’s nonpartisan research branch warned lawmakers. …New Jersey relies on personal income taxes for about 40 percent of its revenue, and less than 1 percent of taxpayers contribute about a third of those collections.

Gee, what a surprise. A state that punishes success over time has less successful people.

But let’s now match this story to our aforementioned tax trilemma. I don’t know if New Jersey’s tax system is simple, but Tepper’s escape means we now have more evidence that high-tax policy is not compatible with attracting and retaining investors.

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Senator Bernie Sanders wants to dramatically increase the burden of government and he claims that his policies won’t lead to economic misery because nations such as Sweden show that you can be a prosperous country with a big welfare state.

Perhaps, but there are degrees of prosperity. And a large public sector imposes a non-trivial burden on Nordic nations, resulting in living standards that lag U.S. levels according to OECD data.

Moreover, according to research by a Swedish economist, people of Scandinavian descent in America produce and earn much more than their counterparts at home.

That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of the Nordic Model.

But there actually are some things we can learn from places such as Sweden. And not just things to avoid.

As Johan Norberg explains in this short video (you may have to double-click and watch it on the YouTube site), there are some very good policies in his home country. Indeed, in some ways, his nation is more free market than America.

I especially like Johan’s explanation about how Sweden became a rich country before the welfare state was adopted.

And he’s right that Sweden had a smaller government and a lower tax burden than the United States for a long period.

Indeed, there was very little income redistribution until the 1960s.

But once the welfare state was adopted, the Swedes went crazy and dramatically increased tax rates and the burden of government spending. And, as Johan explained, that’s when Sweden’s relative prosperity began to drop.

And big government eventually led to an economic crisis in the early 1990s, which has sobered up Swedish officials and policy in recent decades has been moving in the right direction.

Including significant reductions in the budget and lower tax rates (though the fiscal burden is still far too high).

I particularly like Johan’s advice to copy what works. We should partially privatize our Social Security system (actually, we should be like Australia and have full privatization, but we should at least get the ball rolling). And we should have extensive school choice like Sweden. Moreover, let’s copy the Swedes and get rid of the death tax.

Sweden is actually a very pro-market country, albeit one that is weighed down by a large welfare state and excessive taxation. Interestingly, if you look at the non-fiscal policy variables from Economic Freedom of the World, Sweden actually ranks much higher than the United States (along with many other Nordic nations).

The bottom line is that Sweden actually is somewhat like the United States. There are some very bad policies and some fairly decent policies. America ranks above Sweden in a couple of areas, but lags in other areas. The net result is that we’re both more market-oriented than the average western nation (compare Sweden and Greece, for instance), but both well behind the pace setters for economic liberty, Hong Kong and Singapore.

For more information on this topic, here’s a video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that features another Swede explaining what works and doesn’t work in her country.

P.S. Denmark is a lot like Sweden. A crushing tax burden and extravagant welfare state, but also hyper-free market policies in other areas (and maybe some fiscal progress if Denmark continues to follow the Golden Rule).

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I wrote a couple of days ago about the “Panama Papers” issue and touched on the key issues. I explained that this non-scandal scandal is simply another chapter in the never-ending war by high-tax governments against tax competition, fiscal sovereignty, and financial privacy.

Here are a few of the other points I made: .

I touched on some of these topics in this interview with Neil Cavuto.

Let’s look at what some others have written on this issue.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center looks at some reactions from onshore politicians, which range from illogical to extremist.

The French finance minister, for instance, already put Panama back on the list of countries that aren’t sufficiently willing to help enforce onerous French tax law. That’s despite France’s removal of Panama from its list of uncooperative states and territories in 2012 after reaching a bilateral agreement on precisely that issue. President Barack Obama, on the other hand, recognizes that most of the activities reported in the stolen pages are legal. As such, he wants to do something that might be even more radical than what France has done. He proposes making it illegal to legally reduce one’s tax burden. Falling back on some generic and zero-sum concept of tax fairness, he told reporters that we “shouldn’t make it legal to engage in transactions just to avoid taxes” and that he wants to enforce “the basic principle of making sure everyone pays their fair share.”

So France wants to punish Panama, even though Panama already has agreed to help enforce bad French tax laws. Meanwhile, President Obama reflexively wants to punish taxpayers who have the temerity and gall to not voluntarily over-pay their taxes (an issue where Donald Trump actually said something sensible).

As an economist, Veronique highlights the most important issue (assuming, of course, one wants more prosperity).

If you want more global trade and more global investments, international bureaucracies such as the Organisation for Co-operation and Economic Development and governments around the world shouldn’t make it harder to operate international businesses and engage in cross-border investment and business.

Then she looks at discouraging developments from her home country.

For years, France has punished its entrepreneurs and businesses with high taxes and terrible laws. As a result, last year alone, some 10,000 French millionaires called it quits and moved abroad. However, rather than reform its tax laws and streamline its government, it wants to put its grabby hands on some cash… But it won’t work in the long run. France and other high-tax nations can try very hard to destroy tax competition, financial privacy and the sovereignty of countries with better tax structures, but they still won’t be able to afford their big and broken welfare states. …That’s the real financial scandal.

Amen. This is a simple matter of math and demographics.

The Wall Street Journal also has opined on the controversy, wondering about the fact that some folks on the left are fixating on legal tax avoidance.

The papers…purport to document the dealings of the Mossack Fonseca law firm, which appears to have helped wealthy clients establish shell companies in Panama, a rare remaining bastion of bank secrecy. …The fact that an individual created such a company, or opened bank accounts in Panama, is not proof of any wrongdoing… That’s not stopping the media from jumping to conclusions, many are oddly focusing on tax avoidance.

There’s a reason for the fixation on tax avoidance, of course. Politicians realize that they need to demonize legal tax if they want to impose big tax hikes by shutting down loopholes (both the real ones and the fake ones).

In any event, the editors agree that the real issue from Panama Papers is the presumably dodgy accumulation of assets by politicians.

The mistake now would be to narrow the focus prematurely, zeroing in on tax avoidance that is a hobbyhorse of the political class but in this case is a distraction. The real news here are the incomes and far-flung bank accounts of the political class.

The WSJ is right.

I touch on that issue in this interview with CNBC, explaining that it should be a non-story that international investors use international structures, but hitting hard on the fact that politicians so often manage to obtain a lot of wealth during their time in public “service.”

The bottom line is that if we’re going to have a crusade for transparency, it should focus on government officials, who have a track record of unethical behavior, not on the investors and entrepreneurs who actually earn their money by using capital to boost growth.

I should have dug into my files and provided a few examples of the hypocritical American politicians who have utilized tax havens. Such as…ahem…the current Secretary of the Treasury.

Speaking of hypocrisy, Seth Lipsky of the New York Sun identifies another strange example of double standards, in this case involving privacy.

The New York Times…defended Apple when the iPhone maker refused to help the FBI break into the iPhone that had been used by the Islamist terrorists who slew 14 innocent people in San Bernardino. It even praised Apple for refusing to help. Yet it’s joining in the feeding frenzy over what are coming to be known as the Panama Papers…calling for major investigations into money laundering and tax evasion.

I was sympathetic to Apple’s legal argument, even though I also wished the company would have helped the FBI (albeit without giving the government any details that could have been used to create a backdoor into all of our iPhones).

But Mr. Lipsky is right that the privacy-loving defenders of Apple have a remarkably inconsistent approach to the issue.

Where were most of the do-gooders…when the FBI was frantically trying to gain access to the infamous iPhone? It might be able to tell us to whom the killers had been talking and whether they were planning more attacks. …Apple…got cheered by all the right people. The Gray Lady…praised Apple for refusing to help. …So why are the do-gooders who are so protective of iPhone data when it belongs — or relates — to terrorists nonetheless so delighted about the disclosure of data when the data belong to the rich? Or relates to their property? Property rights, it seems, just don’t interest the do-gooders. They don’t believe individuals have a right to property or to due process before their stuff is taken.

This is a great point.

What it basically shows is that leftists (“do-gooders” to Seth) have more sympathy for medieval butchers who kill innocent people than they have for over-burdened taxpayers who actually want to preserve their money so it is used to promote prosperity rather than to fatten government budgets.

By the way, I can’t resist sharing another excerpt.

…tax havens can serve a benign purpose. They put pressure on law-abiding governments to keep taxation within non-abusive limits, something that is increasingly rare in the age of socialism.

Bingo. This is why everyone – especially those of us who aren’t rich – should applaud low-tax jurisdictions.

Just imagine how high taxes would be if politicians thought all of us were captive customers!

Let’s look at one final interview on the topic. But I’m not sharing this BBC interview because I said anything new or different. Instead, I want to use this opportunity to grouse about media bias. You’ll notice that I was out-numbered 2-to-1 in the discussion (3-to-1 if you include the host).

But I’m not upset I was in the minority. That’s so common that I barely notice when it happens.

What did irk me, though, was the allocation of time. Both statists got far more ability to speak, turning a run-of-the-mill example of bias into an irritating experience.

On the other hand, I did get to point out that the OECD bureaucrat was staggeringly hypocritical since she urges higher taxes on everyone else when she (like the rest of her colleagues) gets a tax-free salary. So maybe I should be content having unleashed that zinger.

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For all his faults, you have to give President Obama credit for strong convictions. He’s generally misguided, but it’s perversely impressive to observe his relentless advocacy for higher taxes, bigger government, more intervention, and limits on constitutional freedoms.

That being said, his desire to “fundamentally transform” the United States leads him to decisions that run roughshod over core principles of a civilized society such as the rule of law.

Consider, for instance, the Obama Administration project, known as “Operation Choke Point,” to restrict banking services to politically incorrect businesses such as gun dealers.

It doesn’t matter than these companies are engaged in legal activities. In pursuit of its ideological agenda, the White House is using regulatory bullying in hopes of getting banks to deny services to these businesses.

For more information, click here to read about recent efforts to end this thuggish initiative. Also, here’s a very short video explaining the topic.

Well, there’s an international version of Operation Choke Point.It’s called “de-risking,” and it occurs when banks are pressured by regulators into cutting off banking services to certain regions.

The Wall Street Journal has a column on this topic by two adjunct professors from Fordham Law School.

…a widespread trend in banking called “de-risking.” Reacting to pressure by various government regulators…, banks are rejecting customers in risky regions and industries. Throughout 2014 J.P. Morgan Chase dropped more than 100,000 accounts because they were considered risky… Between 2013 and 2014, Standard Chartered closed 70,000 small and medium-size business accounts, and ended hundreds of relationships with banks in Latin America and Central Europe. …In yet another form of de-risking, the European Central Bank reports that banks have steadily cut their correspondent relationships—that is, the other banks they work with in sending money around the globe. HSBC alone closed more than 326 correspondent bank accounts between 2010 and 2012. …the banks’ actions are understandable. They face unprecedented regulatory penalties, unclear legal standards, high litigation costs and systemic risks to their business. In 2012 HSBC settled with the Justice Department, paying $1.9 billion in fines for such failings as “ignor[ing] the money laundering risks associated with doing business with certain Mexican customers.” …A bank with a single mistaken customer relationship could be put out of business. Banks have concluded that they will be punished anytime money reaches criminals, regardless of their own efforts. It’s better to drop all supposedly risky customers.

The authors explain that there should be “safe harbor” rules to protect both banks and their customers. That’s a very sensible suggestion.

And there are easy options to make this happen. I’m not a big fan of the Financial Action Task Force, which is an OECD-connected organization that ostensibly sets money-laundering rules for the world. Simply stated, the bureaucrats at FATF think there should be no human right to privacy. Moreover, FATF advocates harsh regulatory burdens that impose very high costs while producing miserly benefits.

That being said, if a nation is not on the FATF blacklist, that should be more than enough evidence that it imposes very onerous rules to guard against misbehavior.

Unfortunately, bureaucrats in the United States and Europe don’t actually seem interested in fighting money laundering. Or, to be more precise, it appears that their primary interest is to penalize places with low tax rates.

Many Caribbean jurisdictions, for instance, are being victimized by de-risking even though they comply with all the FATF rules. And this means they lose important correspondent relationships with larger banks.

To address this issue, the Organization of American States recently held a meeting to consider this topic. I was invited to address the delegations. And since other speakers dealt with the specific details of de-risking (you can watch the entire event by clicking here), I discussed the big-picture issue of how low-tax jurisdictions are being persecuted by harsh (and ever-changing) demands. Here are my remarks, with a few of my PowerPoint slides embedded in the video.

Now for the most remarkable (and disturbing) development from that meeting.

Many of the Caribbean nations offered a rather innocuous resolution in hopes of getting agreement that de-risking is a problem and that it would be a good idea if nations came up with clear rules to eliminate the problem.

That seems like a slam dunk, right?

Not exactly. The U.S. delegation actually scuttled the declaration by proposing alternative language that was based on the notion that other countries should put the blame on themselves – even though these nations already are complying with all the FATF rules! You can read the original declaration and proposed changes by the U.S. by clicking here, but this is the excerpt that really matters.

Wow, what arrogance and hypocrisy by the Obama appointees. These jurisdictions, most with black majorities, are suffering from ad hoc and discriminatory de-risking because the Administration doesn’t like the fact that they generally have low taxes.

But rather than openly state that they favor discrimination against low-tax nations, the political hacks put in place by the Obama White House proposed blame-the-victim language, thus ensuring that nothing would happen.

P.S. Perhaps the most surreal part of the experience is the strange bond I felt with the Venezuelan delegation. Regular readers know I’m not a fan of the statist and oppressive government in Caracas. But the Venezuelan delegation apparently takes great pleasure in opposing the position of the U.S. government, so we were sort of on the same side in the discussion. A very bizarre enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend situation.

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There’s no agreement on the most important variable for state tax competitiveness.

I’m sympathetic to the final option, in part because of my disdain for the income tax. And if an income tax is imposed, I prefer a simple and fair flat tax.

With that in mind, here’s a fascinating infographic I received via email. I don’t know if Reboot Illinois is left wing, right wing, or apolitical, but they did a very good job. I particularly like the map showing zero-income tax states (gray), flat tax states (red), and states with so-called progressive tax schemes (blue).

For what it’s worth, Illinois taxpayers should fight as hard as possible to preserve the state’s flat tax. If the politicians get the power to discriminate among income classes, it will just be a matter of time before all taxpayers are hit by higher rates.

Now let’s shift to the spending side of the fiscal ledger.

Like any good libertarian, I generally focus on the size of government. I compare France with Hong Kong and that tells me that big is bad and small is good.

But regardless of whether a government is large or small, it’s desirable if it spends money efficiently and generates some benefit. I shared, for instance, a fascinating study on “public sector efficiency” from the European Central Bank and was not surprised to see that nations with smaller public sectors got much more bang for the buck (with Singapore easily winning the prize for the most efficient government).

So I was very interested to see that WalletHub put together a report showing each state’s “return on investment” based on how effectively it uses tax monies to achieve desirable outcomes for education, health, safety, economy, and infrastructure, and pollution.

I’m not completely comfortable with the methodology (is it a state government’s fault if the population is more obese and therefore less healthy, for instance, and what about adjusting for demographic factors such as age and race?), but I nonetheless think the study is both useful and interesting.

Here are the best and worst states.

One thing that should stand out is that the best states are dominated by zero-income tax states and flat tax states.

The worst states, by contrast, tend to have punitive tax systems (Alaska is a bit of an outlier because it collects – and squanders – a lot of revenue from oil).

By the way, if you’re a Republican, you can probably give yourself a small pat on the back. The so-called red states do a bit better than the so-called blue states.

P.S. WalletHub put together some fascinating data on which cities get a good return on investment (i.e., bang for the back) for spending on police and education.

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Three years ago, thieves stole a bunch of information from “offshore” service providers in the Cook Islands and British Virgin Islands. This was supposed to be a ground-breaking exposé with huge ramifications, but it turned out to be a tempest in a teapot. As I pointed out at the time, all that we really learned is that people who use offshore services are generally honest and law-abiding. And they definitely had far more integrity than the politicians who routinely attack the offshore world.

Well, here we go again. We’ve learned that thieves have now obtained client data from a global law firm based in Panama, and leftists once again are making this seem like a giant story.

But here’s what you really need to know. This is simply another chapter in the never-ending war by high-tax governments against tax competition, fiscal sovereignty, and financial privacy.

Here’s some of what I wrote for Caribbean News on the issue, starting with the big picture.

Many nations in Western Europe can no longer afford their big welfare states. Countries such as Greece, Spain, and Italy already have needed bailouts, while it’s just a matter of time before several other European nations face a fiscal day of reckoning. …rather than fix their own fiscal problems, many of these nations are working through international bureaucracies such as the G-20 and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to rewrite the rules and traditions of global commerce in an attempt to extract more tax revenue. This is why there’s been a major attack against so-called tax havens as part of a coordinated campaign to undermine fiscal sovereignty and restrict the human right of financial privacy.

In other words, welfare states are going bankrupt and they hope to somehow prop up their unaffordable entitlements with a money grab.

And they’re more than happy to rely on stolen data.

One of the more bizarre chapters in this story is the way the pro-welfare state crowd is now trying to demonize financial service providers such as law firms that are hired to fill out paperwork by investors and entrepreneurs who are setting up trusts, companies, and other entities. Consider, for instance, the plight of Mossack Fonseca, a professional services firm based in Panama. …this collection of legal practitioners and egghead trust advisors is suddenly being portrayed as an international crime syndicate that’s corrupting Western civilization one business incorporation at a time.

But it makes no sense to attack service providers.

The controversy, in large part, derives from a basic and arguably willful misunderstanding of what firms like Mossack Fonseca do – and don’t do – for their clients. In basic terms, these firms help people create new businesses and trusts. …unlike banks, these law firms don’t take possession of their clients’ money. So the notion that they are involved in “money laundering” is laughable. Once incorporation papers are filed, the law firms don’t direct in any way the operation of the businesses.

Besides, the real target isn’t the Panamanian law firm. Activists on the left, working in concert with international bureaucracies and uncompetitive governments, want to create a global tax cartel (sort of an “OPEC for politicians“) in hopes of enabling higher tax burdens.

Firms like Mossack Fonseca are merely just the latest stand-ins and proxies for a much wider campaign being waged by left-wing governments and their various allies and interest groups. This campaign is built around aggressive attacks on anyone who, for any reason, seeks to legally protect their hard-earned assets from confiscatory tax policies. …a cabal of governments…has decided not to compete…instead simply seeking to malign and destroy any entity, individual or jurisdiction that exists that deprives them of tax revenue to which politicians greedily believe they are entitled. As usual, the media outlets running these perennial “exposés,” usually at the bidding of OECD bureaucrats (who ironically get tax-free salaries).

Let’s close with a couple of points about the broader issue.

  • It is hardly a surprise that wealthy people with cross-border investments use instruments (such as foundations, trusts, and companies) designed for such purposes.
  • Like everyone, wealthy people value privacy (even more so because they have to worry more about kidnapping and other crimes), so these structures are designed to protect their confidentiality.
  • Some of these clients may not have complied with the tax laws of their countries. That is generally a function of excessive tax rates and home-country corruption.
  • A few end-user clients may be unsavory (Putin’s cronies, for instance), but should businesses be prohibited from dealing with people who are viewed as sketchy (but otherwise are not under investigation and haven’t been convicted of crimes)?
  • Cross-border economic activity and structures play a valuable role in the global economy and should not be demonized, just as GM shouldn’t be demonized if some crooks use a Chevy as their getaway vehicle.
  • Low-tax jurisdictions have stronger laws against dirty money than high-tax nations.

So at the risk of stating the obvious, I’m on the side of low-tax jurisdictions and the service providers in those jurisdictions. And I’ll defend them (here, here, here, here, and here) even if it means a bunch of international bureaucrats threaten to toss me in a Mexican jail or a Treasury Department official says I’m being disloyal to America.

Or, in this case, if it simply means I’m explaining why it’s a non-story that internationally active investors use international structures.

P.S. Why is it okay for rich leftists to utilize “tax havens” but not okay for people in the economy’s productive sector?

P.P.S. We should be very thankful that Senator Rand Paul is standing tall in the fight against nosy and destructive governments on this issue.

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Australia is one of my favorite nations, and not just because the people are friendly.

It has a modest-sized government, at least compared to other developed nations (see table 25 of this OECD data), and it has a very attractive private Social Security system that puts Australia in relatively good shape when looking at the long-run fiscal health of countries.

Indeed, this is one of the reasons why I picked Australia when asked which nation to choose if (when?) America suffers a Greek-style fiscal and economic collapse.

But this surely doesn’t mean that Australia has ideal public policy. It ranks #11 for economic freedom, which is better than America, but the Aussies trail first-place Hong Kong by more than one full point in the 1-10 scoring system.

That being said, Australia will probably move in the right direction if Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull succeeds in his plan to implement real federalism by shrinking the central government and returning tax and spending authority to the states.

Here’s how an Australian media report characterized the issue.

Returning income taxing power to the states would have resulted in a fierce interstate economic battle that would see Australians vote with their feet and move their lives across borders to get a better deal, economists warn.

The reporter obviously is talking to left-wing economists. If she talked to sensible economists, the above sentence would end with “hope” rather than “warn.”

Here are some of the specific details.

The Prime Minister met with state premiers and territory chief ministers yesterday to discuss his plan to lower the federal government’s income tax and have the states make up the rest by collecting their own tax, to do with which whatever they please. If his bold scheme had gone ahead, they would eventually have been able to set their own tax rates as well.

Unfortunately, state-level politicians apparently are not happy with the notion of having real responsibility.

…premiers and chief ministers weren’t keen and the idea is now off the table, for now, after Malcolm Turnbull conceded there was “nothing like a consensus”.

Actually, there was a consensus of the state politicians. If you’ll allow me to provide a negative interpretation, they want the empty-suit job of taking money from the nation’s central government and then playing Santa Claus by distributing that money to various interest groups.

But I hope Turnbull isn’t giving up because of resistance by these hacks.

Here are some more excerpts that help to explain why he has a very good idea.

What he had been attempting to do with the tax shift was to force more responsibility onto state governments, and encourage greater accountability to its voters. It’s a new way of funding school and hospitals and is also designed to encourage competition between the states and force them to operate more efficiently. It’s a model called competitive federalism, which allows states to battle it out over a range of issues to compete to provide their citizens with the best value goods and services at the best cost.

And the reporter did talk to at least one good economist, my buddy Sinclair Davidson.

RMIT economist Professor Sinclair Davidson explains…“At the moment, because the federal government has so much power over the revenue that goes into health and education, for example, there’s not much difference between the states…But once that changes, for people whose state’s bundles of goods and services don’t suit their needs, they can start looking around.” With a mobile population threatening to abandon its state government, effectively stripping it of a major revenue supply, the voting public would have a lot more control over state governments, Prof Davidson says. …With state governments made more eager to please, it sounds like this new tax plan would be a win for voters, if those downward pressures on tax rates the system’s meant to encourage do come off.

Here’s a different prespective.

Curtin University Associate Professor Helen Hodgson argues state tax competition could lead to a race to the bottom. “The biggest challenge that would emerge is if states chose to exercise the right to increase or decrease their income tax rates,” she writes… Prof Hodgson says boosting migration between the states would put pressure on state governments to reduce their own rates as they compete to retain their populations, while “a general lowering of tax rates would defeat the stated intention of allowing states to raise additional funding for health and education.”

Methinks Professor Hodgson’s “stated intention” is not the same as Prime Minister Turnbull’s “stated intention.”

Here’s some more analysis from a column in The Conversation.

Malcolm Turnbull has called for a dramatic shift in Australia’s model of federalism… Many economists regard this as sensible and much-overdue reform…the argument is for a shift from a federal income tax to a state income tax. In principle, this can be done in a completely revenue-neutral way. …that would, on the whole, benefit Australian taxpayers because a more efficient tax system is a less costly tax system.

But it wouldn’t benefit state politicians in Australia. With the exception of Western Australia’s Colin Barnett, they don’t like accountability and responsibility.

state premiers…hated the idea. It’s important to understand why. This is not because the idea is bad for the citizens of the states, with the premiers being outraged on their behalf. Rather it is because it is bad for the political classes themselves, and the premiers in particular.

Citing the groundbreaking work of economist Charles Tiebout, the article includes a description of why tax competition between sub-national governments is desirable.

The basic idea is that the states compete with each other by offering bundles of public goods at different prices (i.e. taxes). This is the significance of the state-level income tax. Victoria, for example, may offer very high levels of public services, but also at a high price through high state income taxes. NSW may offer more moderate public services, but also much lighter taxes. What happens next is that citizens sort themselves over the states according to their preferences. Those who value high levels of public services move to Victoria, where they pay that marginal valuation in high taxes. Citizens with preferences for lower levels of public services and also taxes move to NSW. This is a market, not a political, model of local public goods. Economists like it because it encourages competition between the states to provide an efficient bundle of public goods and services at a point that voters (as consumers) are willing to pay. This competition tends to produce an efficient outcome.

Here’s the bottom line. The current system creates a perverse incentive for state officials to endlessly whine for more money. Putting state governments in charge creates an appropriate balance of responsibility and accountability.

That is not the situation we have now. Premiers are incentivised to represent their citizens as all wanting the maximum amount of public goods and services, because someone else is paying for them. State income taxes (coupled with reduced federal income taxes) are a way of implementing this mechanism. The main winners from this will be the 7 million or so Australian taxpayers, because it will deliver a much more efficient supply of public goods and services. The main losers will be the state and territory premiers, because they will have to compete in the market for political goods and services.

Heaven forbid, politicians actually having to collect and spend their own money. Especially in a system where taxpayers can look across state borders to see which states are doing a bad job or good job (think Texas vs. California). How cruel that would be! They would be forced…gasp…to compete.

But let’s set aside sarcasm. It’s worth noting that the most decentralized major economy is Switzerland, and that system has worked quite well.

And the United States also compares favorably with other developed nations, even though we’ve allowed Washington to grab powers that more properly belong at the state level (or in the private sector).

Hopefully, Turnbull’s plan in Australia will move forward and create additional evidence that America should return to the more robust federalist system that our Founders envisioned.

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I used to think the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was the worst federal bureaucracy. After all, these are the pinheads who are infamous for bone-headed initiatives, such as:

But I’m beginning to think that the Veterans Administration should win the prize. The EEOC crowd is simply a bunch of nutty leftists, but VA bureaucrats are downright evil. They create secret waiting lists that result in dying veterans and then pay themselves big bonuses.

And we now have evidence that they deliberately lie to internal investigators and deliberately scheme to deny care to former military personnel. The Daily Caller has some of the gruesome details. First, here’s information on the attempted coverup.

Management at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical centers in California selected and coached employees on exactly what to tell investigators about wait time manipulation, according to new inspector general reports. According to two whistleblowers, management handpicked medical support assistants and told them what to tell the Veterans Health Administration Inspection Team, which visited the San Diego medical center in May, 2014, following the wait time manipulation scandal which rocked the Phoenix VA.

And here’s evidence on the effort to delay care while simultaneously hiding evidence of waiting lists.

Investigators interviewed 16 more medical support assistants, and most of them said they were told to “zero out” appointment times by changing veterans’ desired appointment dates to the first actual appointment date available. This practice gives off the appearance the veteran is getting the appointment at the desired time with no wait. …A veteran actually tried to commit suicide out of desperation and frustration as a result of four canceled appointments in a row.

You won’t be surprised to learn, by the way, that the crowd in Washington claims the actual problem is that the VA’s budget is too small.

Now let’s shift from malice to incompetence.

The Washington Post reports that officials from the Central Intelligence Agency left a rather unwelcome present for schoolkids recently.

The CIA left “explosive training material” under the hood of a Loudoun County school bus after a training exercise last week, a bus that was used to ferry elementary and high school students to and from school on Monday and Tuesday with the material still sitting in the engine compartment, according to the CIA and Loudoun County officials. …Loudoun schools spokesman Wayde Byard said the CIA indicated the nature of the material but asked the school system not to disclose it. Byard described it as a “putty-type” material designed for use on the battlefield.

By the way, the explosives weren’t discovered because the CIA has strong inventory controls.

The bus was taken to a school system facility on Wednesday for routine maintenance. Byard said the county’s buses are regularly taken off-line to check their spark plugs, hoses and to rotate tires. It was during a routine inspection that a technician discovered the explosive material.

Gee, how comforting.

Speaking of inventory procedures, the Daily Caller reports on an internal investigation that found grotesque and dangerous sloppiness in the handling of weapons at federal prisons.

Firearms, ammunition and dangerous chemical agents could be missing from federal prison armories without government officials having a clue they are gone…said a Department of Justice Inspector General report made public Thursday. …The IG reported missing ammunition in one armory but redacted multiple examples of equipment that was removed or added without a system update. Inventory tracking inadequacies make it all but impossible to know if equipment is missing. The IG investigation was prompted in 2011 after a BOP employee pleaded guilty to stealing munitions from a federal prison facility, but changes made since 2011 by BOP have not remedied the problem. …Three of the seven federal prisons reviewed also stockpiled “unauthorized chemical agents and ammunition,” but the IG redacted details about those stockpiles.

The good news (fingers crossed) is that there’s no concrete evidence that weapons actually wound up in the hands of thugs or terrorists.

And I guess this isn’t as bad as the Obama Administration’s so-called “fast and furious” scandal, which was based on deliberately letting criminals obtains guns (though it did lead to a good Jay Leno joke).

P.S. Since I don’t want to be accused of discrimination, the episodes discussed above from the VA, CIA and BOP should not be interpreted as a slight to all the other federal departments and agencies that also work hard to waste money and make our lives less pleasant. Rest assured that the bureaucrats at the TSA, IRS, State Department, DHS, and elsewhere are also capable of waste, inefficiency, fraud, and abuse.

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Does Donald Trump have a consistent and coherent set of economic policies?

He sometimes says things indicating that he understands Washington is a cesspool of waste. But on other occasions, he seems to be singing off the same song sheet as Bernie Sanders.

Which is why, when I recently tried to dissect Trumponomics, I admitted to being clueless.

The honest answer is that I don’t know. He has put forth a giant tax cut that is reasonably well designed, so that implies more prosperity, but is he serious about the plan? And does he have a plan for the concomitant spending reforms needed to make his tax proposal viable? He also has lots of protectionist rhetoric, including a proposal for a 45 percent tax on Chinese products, which implies harmful dislocation to the American economy. Is he actually serious about risking a global trade war, or is his saber rattling just a negotiating tool, as some of his defenders claim?

For what it’s worth, I’m getting more skeptical that Trump would try to restrain and limit the federal government if he got elected.

And I have three recent news reports to underscore my concern.

Here’s a very disturbing example. Trump actually criticized Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin for not raising taxes. Here’s an excerpt from a report in the U.K.-based Guardian.

Donald Trump attacked Wisconsin governor Scott Walker for failing to raise taxes in order to properly fund schools and roads on Tuesday, in a startling new break from rightwing orthodoxy… “There’s a $2.2bn deficit and the schools were going begging and everything was going begging because he didn’t want to raise taxes ’cause he was going to run for president,” said Trump. “So instead of raising taxes, he cut back on schools, he cut back on highways, he cut back on a lot of things.”

To dig deeper into the issue, Governor Walker had just endorsed Ted Cruz, so I can understand why Trump would try to take a few shots at someone who is supporting a rival for the GOP nomination.

But attacking the Wisconsin governor for successfully balancing his state’s budget without a tax hike? Sounds more like something Hillary would say. Maybe it’s time to induct Trump into the Charlie Brown Club.

Trump also doesn’t like federalism. Assuming he even knows what it is. In his column for the Washington Post, Professor Jonathan Adler shares some Q&A from a recent CNN interview with Trump.

QUESTION:  In your opinion, what are the top three functions of the United States government?

TRUMP:  Well, the greatest function of all by far is security for our nation.  I would also say health care, I would also say education.

This doesn’t sound like a candidate who wants to reduce the federal government’s footprint.

Here’s more of the interview.

COOPER:  So in terms of federal government role, you’re saying security, but you also say health care and education should be provided by the federal government?

TRUMP:  Well, those are two of the things.  Yes, sure.  I mean, there are obviously many things, housing, providing great neighborhoods…

Huh, providing “great neighborhoods” is now a legitimate function of the federal government?!? I guess if Washington gets to be involved with underwear, neighborhood policy is just fine.

And why is he talking about education when the goal should be to eliminate the Department of Education?

To be fair, Trump also said in the interview that he wants to get rid of Common Core.  So it’s unclear what he actually envisions.

His answer on healthcare is similarly hazy.

COOPER:  And federal health care run by the federal government?

TRUMP:  Health care – we need health care for our people.  We need a good – Obamacare is a disaster.  It’s proven to be…

COOPER:  But is that something the federal government should be doing?

TRUMP:  The government can lead it.

So he wants the federal government involved, but he also thinks Obamacare is a “disaster.” I certainly agree about the Obamacare part, but once again we’re left with no idea whether a President Trump would make good reforms of bad reforms (i.e., would he move the “health care freedom meter” in the right direction or wrong direction?).

One thing that is clear, however, is that Trump doesn’t seem to have any core principles about the size and scope of the federal government.

He may not even realize that federalism is a key issue for advocates of limited and constitutional government.

Last but not least, Trump criticized Senator Cruz for the partial government shutdown fight that occurred in 2013. Here are some passages from a report by Byron York in the Washington Examiner.

When Trump did get around to Cruz, his critique focused…on the 2013 partial government shutdown. …He goes and he stands on the floor of the Senate for a day and a half and he filibusters …. To stand there and to rant and rave for two days and to show people you can filibuster — and in the meantime, nothing was accomplished.

I guess this isn’t an issue of underlying principles, but it does give us some idea of whether a President Trump would be willing to fight the Washington establishment.

Moreover, his assessment of the shutdown fight is completely wrong. By reminding voters that Republicans were opposed to Obamacare, the GOP won a landslide victory in 2014.

But you don’t have to believe me. Even an ultra-establishment, anti-Cruz figure like Trent Lott (former senator and now lobbyist) grudgingly admits that the shutdown was a success.

Cruz views the shutdown as a victory because the Affordable Care Act remains unpopular and Republicans swept to victory in 2014. Lott said…“That was their strategy, and it worked, so maybe they’re right and I’m wrong.”

The bottom line is that America is heading in the wrong direction, with Washington projected to consume ever-larger amounts of the economy’s output. This is a recipe for continued economic weakness in the short run and economic crisis in the long run.

Turning policy in the right direction requires a principled President who is fully committed to overcoming resistance from the special interests that dominate Washington’s culture.

I still don’t pretend to know where Donald Trump is on the big issues, but I’m not holding my breath for good results if he somehow gets elected.

P.S. Though I do expect more examples of clever political humor the longer he’s in the public eye.

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