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Archive for the ‘Competitiveness’ Category

Last September, I wrote that America’s business tax system is a nightmare that simultaneously undermines the competitiveness of American companies while also causing lots of irritation in other nations.

Both of those bad things happen because politicians in Washington think the IRS should be able to tax income that is earned (and already subject to tax) in other countries. This approach, known as “worldwide taxation,” is contrary to good tax policy.

Indeed, all good tax reform plans, such as the flat tax, are based on “territorial taxation,” which is the common-sense principle that governments should only tax activity inside national borders.

Given the self-inflicted wound of worldwide taxation, particularly when combined with the world’s highest corporate tax rate, it’s easy to understand why some companies engage in “inversions” and become foreign-domiciled firms. Simply stated, that’s their best option if they care about the best interests of their workers, customers, and shareholders.

Well, the same problem exists for households. And it exists for the same reason. The United States also imposes “worldwide taxation” on individual taxpayers. But it’s even worse, because there are specific laws, such as the infamous Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, that impose absurdly high costs on Americans with cross-border economic activity, particularly those who live and work in other nations.

And just as our senselessly punitive corporate tax system drives corporations to re-domicile, the same is true for the personal tax code. As CNN reports, record numbers of Americans are officially giving up their citizenship.

The number of Americans choosing to give up their passports hit a record 3,415 last year, up 14% from 2013, and 15 times more than in 2008, when only 231 people renounced their citizenship. Experts say the recent surge is coming from expats who no longer want to deal with complicated tax paperwork, a burden that has only gotten worse in recent years. Unlike most countries, the U.S. taxes all citizens on income, no matter where it is earned or where they live. The mountain of paperwork can be so complicated that expats are often forced to fork over high fees to hire an accountant… “More and more are considering renouncing,” said Vincenzo Villamena of Online Taxman, an accountant who specializes in expat taxes. “There are a lot of uncertainties about FATCA…I don’t think we’ve seen the full effect that FATCA can have on people’s lives.” As both expats and financial institutions rush to understand the new law, some banks have chosen to kick out their Americans clients rather than comply. If a bank mistakenly fails to report accounts held by Americans outside the U.S. — even checking and savings accounts — they can face steep penalties.

Here’s a chart from the CNN article.

As you can see, there was a pause in 2012, perhaps because people were waiting to see what happened in the election.

But ever since, the number of people escaping U.S. citizenship has jumped dramatically.

To better understand how bad tax law is hurting people with U.S. passports, let’s look at the plight of Americans in Canada, as reported by the Vancouver Sun.

…many Ameri-Canadians are feeling rising anger, fear and even hatred toward their powerful country of origin. …The U.S. is the only major country to tax based on citizenship, not residency. …open displays of American pride in Canada are becoming even less likely as Ameri-Canadians seek shelter from the long reach of FATCA. …In addition, the flow of Americans leaving the U.S. for Canada more than doubled in the decade up until 2011, according to Statistics Canada. …Now — with FATCA causing investigators to scour the globe to hunt down more than seven million broadly defined “U.S. persons” it claims should be paying taxes to Uncle Sam — even more people in Canada with U.S. connections are finding another reason to bury their American identities.

Now let’s be even more focused and look at the impact on a single Englishman who happens to be the Mayor of London.

Johnson was characteristically forthright, describing FATCA as “outrageous”, and a “terrible doctrine of taxation.” Born in New York and having never given up his US citizenship, the London mayor cannot escape the clutches of FATCA, which requires that foreign financial institutions report the financial information of Americans. Those affected include many so-called “accidental Americans” like Johnson… What has seemingly brought FATCA to the front of Boris’s mind is the sale of his UK home, on which he is liable to pay tax in America. …What it does do – because of its host of serious, unintended, adverse consequences – is brand Americans, and accidental Americans choosing to live or work overseas, as financial pariahs. …Similarly, American businesses working in international markets are now often branded with a leprosy-like status. Clearly, this can only be detrimental to the country’s global competitiveness, and could, in turn, hit American jobs and the long-term growth of the economy. Questions should be asked about the imperialist characteristics of FATCA. Governments and foreign financial institutions have been coerced into complying with its expensive, burdensome, privacy-infringing, sovereignty-violating regulations by the US – or they have to face heavy penalties and the prospect of being effectively frozen out of US markets. And all this to “recover” an estimated $1bn (£637m) per year, which is enough, according to reports, to run the federal government for less than two hours.

As you can see, FATCA is a major problem.

And not just for specific taxpayers. The law is also bad for economic growth since it throws sand in the gears of global commerce.

Here are some excerpts from another news report, which includes some of my thoughts on the FATCA issue.

Critics say the FATCA has gone too far, is too draconian and is imposing an undue hardship on Americans living overseas. So says Dan Mitchell of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington. He says the law is “causing lots of headaches and heartaches around the world, not only for foreign financial institutions but also for overseas Americans, who are now being treated as Pyrrhus because financial institutions view them as too costly to service.” The U.S. is one of the few countries that tax its citizen on the basis of nationality, not residency. And faced with a larger tax bill, thousands of Americans living overseas would rather give up their passports then pay a new tax to Uncle Sam. The Taxpayer Advocate’s Office of the IRS has reported that the FATCA “has the potential to be burdensome, overly broad and detrimental to taxpayer rights.” Mitchell says, “An American living and working in some other country is required to not only pay tax to that country where they live but also file a tax return to the U.S. No other civilized country does that.”

By the way, I didn’t say that the law was causing overseas Americans to be treated as “Pyrrhus.” I said they were being viewed as “pariahs.” But that’s the risk you take when doing oral interviews.

Returning to matters of substance, you’ll also be happy to know that FATCA is making people more vulnerable to identity theft. It’s gotten so bad that even the IRS was forced to issue an official warning.

The Internal Revenue Service today issued a fraud alert for international financial institutions complying with the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA). Scam artists posing as the IRS have fraudulently solicited financial institutions seeking account holder identity and financial account information. …These fraudulent solicitations are known as “phishing” scams. These types of scams are typically carried out through the use of unsolicited emails and/or websites that pose as legitimate contacts in order to deceptively obtain personal or financial information. Financial institutions or their representatives that suspect they are the subject of a “phishing” scam should report the matter to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) at 800-366-4484, or through TIGTA’s secure website. Any suspicious emails that contain attachments or links in the message should not be opened.

Gee, nice of them to be so concerned about potential victims.

Though perhaps it would be better if we didn’t have intrusive laws in the first place.

The law is even so destructive that the Associated Press reported that it might be used as a weapon against the Russians!

As the United States attempts to punish Russia for its actions in Ukraine, the Treasury Department is deploying an economic weapon that could prove more costly than sanctions: the Internal Revenue Service. This summer, the U.S. plans to start using a new law that will make it more expensive for Russian banks to do business in America. “It’s a huge deal,” says Mark E. Matthews, a former IRS deputy commissioner. “It would throw enormous uncertainty into the Russian banking community.” …beginning in July, U.S. banks will be required to start withholding a 30 percent tax on certain payments to financial institutions in other countries — unless those foreign banks have agreements in place… But after Russia annexed Crimea and was seen as stoking separatist movements in eastern Ukraine, the Treasury Department quietly suspended negotiations in March. With the July 1 deadline approaching, Russian banks are now concerned that the price of investing in the United States is about to go up. …For Russia, the penalties could be more damaging to its economy than U.S. sanctions, said Brian L. Zimbler, managing partner of the Moscow office of Morgan Lewis, an international law firm. …The 2010 law is known as FATCA.

So what’s the bottom line?

As you can see, America’s worldwide tax system is bad policy, and it’s a nightmare for millions of innocent people thanks to ill-considered laws such as FATCA.

What’s really remarkable – in a bad way – is the complete lack of proportionality.

Back during the 2008 campaign, Obama claimed that laws like FATCA would generate $100 billion per year. From the perspective of tax collectors, that amount of money may have justified an onerous law.

But when the dust settled, the revenue estimators predicted that FATCA would bring in less than $1 billion per year.

In other words, the amount of money the IRS will collect is dwarfed by the damage to the overall economy and the harm to millions of taxpayers. Not to mention all the negative feelings against America that have been generated by this absurd law.

Yet very few politicians are willing to fight FATCA because they’re afraid that their opponents will engage in demagoguery and accuse them of being in favor of tax evasion. Senator Rand Paul is an admirable exception.

P.S. Since this has been such a depressing discussion, here is some good IRS humor to lighten the mood.

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If nothing else, our leftist friends deserve credit for chutzpah.

All around the world, we see concrete evidence that big government leads to stagnation and decay, yet statists repeatedly argue that further expansions in taxes and spending will be good for growth.

During Obama’s recent state-of-the-union address, he pushed for class warfare policies to finance bigger government, claiming such policies would be an “investment” in the future.

But it’s not just Obama. Hillary Clinton, on several occasions (see here, here, here, and here), has explicitly argued that higher tax rates and bigger government are good for growth.

The statists at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (financed with our tax dollars) actually argue that higher taxes and more spending will somehow enable more prosperity, both in the developing world and in the industrialized world.

And some left-wing “charities” are getting in on this scam. Oxfam, for instance, now argues that higher tax rates and bigger government are necessary for growth and development in poor nations. And Christian Aid makes the same dodgy argument.

The Oxfam/Christian Aid argument is especially perverse.

If they actually think that bloated public sectors are the key to faster growth in the developing world, shouldn’t they provide at least one example of a jurisdiction that has become rich following that approach?

Let’s examine this issue more closely.

Here are some excerpts from a column in the most recent issue of Cayman Financial Review. Written by the Cato Institute’s Marian Tupy, it looks at the challenge of boosting prosperity in sub-Saharan Africa.

Marian starts with some good news. The 21st Century, at least so far, has seen genuine progress.

Real gross domestic product has been ticking along at an average annual rate of 4.8 percent, while per capita income has grown by roughly 40 percent. …The benefits to ordinary people have been impressive. The share of Africans living on less than $1.25 per day fell from 56 percent in 1990 to 48 percent in 2010. …If the current trend continues, Africa’s poverty rate will fall to 24 percent by 2030. In addition, per-capita caloric intake has increased from 2,150 kcal in 1990 to 2,430 kcal in 2013. …Moreover, between 1990 and 2012, the percentage of the population with access to clean drinking water increased from 48 percent to 64 percent. Many African countries have also seen dramatic falls in infant and child mortality. Over the last decade, for example, child mortality in Senegal, Rwanda, Uganda, Ghana, and Kenya declined at a rate exceeding 6 percent per year.

This is very good news.

And foreign investment deserves some of the credit. When western multinationals enter a nation, they play a vital role in creating (relatively) high-paying and building a nation’s capital stock.

Particularly since the overall economic and policy climate in many sub-Saharan nations is very dismal.

As you can see from the accompanying map, based on the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World, most nations in the region are either in the most economically repressed category (red) or the next-t0-last category (yellow).

In either case, these countries obviously have far too much taxes, spending, regulation, and intervention.

Needless to say, these policies make it difficult for local businesses and entrepreneurs to succeed, which means the jobs and prosperity made possible by foreign investment are absolutely vital.

But Marian warns that this progress could come to a halt if African nations fall victim to class-warfare proposals that seek to demonize multinational firms as part of a push to expand tax collections.

…future growth could be at risk if economic conditions on the continent deteriorate.  And that may happen if policy makers decide to adopt a more hostile approach to entrepreneurs and investors. Specifically, African governments are urged to take a stance against so-called tax havens, which are alleged to deprive the former of significant chunks of tax revenue. …Oxfam, a British charity, has argued that…tax maneuvering by multinational companies is entrenching poverty and weakening developing countries’ economies. According to Oxfam, “Developing countries lose an estimated $100 billion to $160 billion annually to corporate tax dodging.” As such, Oxfam has urged the G20 to rewrite international tax laws so that “developing countries are not taken advantage of by the rich.”

The problem with this ideology, as Marian explains, is that foreign companies won’t have nearly as much incentive to create jobs and growth in Africa if tax policy becomes more onerous.

Africa has one of the world’s riskiest business environments. Government accountability and transparency are low. The rule of law and protection of property rights are weak. Corruption is high. In a sense, low taxes compensate domestic and foreign investors for shortcomings of the business environment that are more difficult to address: a low tax rate can be legislated overnight, but corruption-free bureaucracy takes generations to accomplish. What’s true for corporations is also true for individuals. Many wealthy Africans continue to work and create wealth in the difficult African business environment in part because they know that at least a portion of their wealth is safe from inflation and predation.

But the most important part of Marian’s article is the section where he debunks the notion that bigger government somehow leads to more prosperity.

…the argument in favor of higher tax revenues assumes that government spending is an efficient driver of economic growth. This is a common misperception in the West, which is now being applied, with potentially disastrous consequences, to the developing world. In America, for example, Hillary Clinton has argued that more revenue improves economic development and the “rich people … [who] do not contribute [jeopardize]… the growth of their own countries.” She has urged “the wealthy across the Americas to pay their ‘fair share’ of taxes in order to eliminate poverty and promote economic opportunity for all.” Is the former Secretary of State correct? Are developing nations suffering from inadequate levels of public spending? Is there a need for more revenue to finance bigger government so that national economies can grow faster?

Marian looks at the actual data.

And he makes the absolutely essential point that western nations became rich when government was very small and there was virtually no redistribution.

According to the International Monetary Fund, government outlays consume, on average, about 27 percent of economic output in sub-Saharan nations….the burden of government spending averaged only about 10 percent of economic output in North America and Western Europe through the late 1800s and early 1900s – the period when the nations in these regions enjoyed huge increases in living standards and evolved from agricultural poverty to middle-class prosperity. If the goal is to have African nations copy the successful growth spurts of western nations (keeping in mind that per-capita economic output today in sub-Saharan Africa is roughly equal to per-capita GDP levels in Western nations in the late 1800s), then the latter’s experience implies that high levels of government spending are not necessary. Indeed, too much spending presumably hinders growth by leading to the misallocation of labor and capital. Moreover, it should be pointed out that the United States and other currently rich countries also had no income taxes when they made their big improvements in economic status.

In other words, the best recipe for African prosperity is the one that worked for the western world.

Sub-Saharan Africa needs small government and free markets.

And, yes, there is a role for government in providing the rule of law and other core public goods, but African nations already collect more than enough revenue to finance these legitimate roles.

Here’s the bottom line.

Of course, not all government spending is bad for growth. Upholding the rule of law and protecting property rights costs money, but helps growth. Historically, African governments have been at their weakest when providing for these “night watchman” functions of the state. And their economies suffered as a result. Were African governments to focus on a set of narrow, clearly defined goals, they would find plenty of revenue to finance their accomplishment – without having to resort to punitive tax policies that are likely to undermine Africa’s long term economic prospects.

P.S. Since today’s topic dealt with tax havens, that’s my excuse to share this interview with the folks at the Mises Institute. I wax poetic about why tax havens are a liberalizing force in the global economy, while also touching on issues such as double taxation, corporate inversions, financial privacy, and FATCA.

For more information, here’s my video series on tax competition and tax havens.

P.P.S. On a completely separate topic, I’ve often made the point that the “Obama recovery” is very anemic.

Well, here’s some new evidence from the Wall Street Journal.

Wow, less than half the growth we got under Reaganomics.

Seems like a good opportunity for me to reissue my two-part challenge to the left. To date, not a single statist has successfully responded.

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The most compelling graph I’ve ever seen was put together by Andrew Coulson, one of my colleagues at the Cato Institute. It shows that there’s been a huge increase in the size and cost of the government education bureaucracy in recent decades, but that student performance has been stagnant.

But if I had to pick a graph that belongs in second place, it would be this relationship between investment and labor compensation.

The clear message is that workers earn more when there is more capital, which should be a common-sense observation. After all, workers with lots of machines, technology, and equipment obviously will be more productive (i.e., produce more per hour worked) than workers who don’t have access to capital.

And in the long run, worker compensation is tied to productivity.

This is why the President’s class-warfare proposals to increase capital gains tax rates, along with other proposals to increase the tax burden on saving and investment, are so pernicious.

The White House claims that the “rich” will bear the burden of the new taxes on capital, but the net effect will be to discourage capital investment, which means workers will be less productive and earn less income.

Diana Furchtgott-Roth of Economics 21 has some very compelling analysis on the issue.

President Obama will propose raising top tax rates on capital gains and dividends to 28 percent, up from the current rate of 24 percent. Prior to 2013, the rate was 15 percent. Mr. Obama seeks to practically double capital gains and dividend taxes during the course of his presidency, a step that would have negative effects on investment and economic growth. …the middle class would be harmed by higher capital gains tax rates, because capital would be more likely to go offshore. …[a] higher rate would have negative effects on the economy by reducing U.S. investment or driving it overseas. If firms pay more in capital gains taxes in America, they would make fewer investments — especially in the businesses or projects that most need capital — and they would hire fewer workers, many of them middle-class. Higher capital gains taxes would reduce economic activity, especially financing for private companies, innovators, and small firms getting off the ground. Taxes on U.S. investment would be higher compared with taxes abroad, so some investment capital is likely to move offshore.

At this point, I want to emphasize that the point about higher taxes in America and foregone competitiveness isn’t just boilerplate.

According to Ernst and Young, as well as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States has one of the highest tax rates on capital gains in the entire developed world.

The only compensating factor is that at least these destructive tax rates aren’t imposed on foreign investors. Yes, it’s irritating that our tax code treats U.S. citizens far worse than foreigners, but at least we benefit from all the overseas capital being invested in the American economy.

By the way, Diana also points out that higher capital gains tax rates may actually lose revenue for the simple reason that investors can decide to hold assets rather than sell them.

Here’s some of what she wrote, accompanied by a chart from the Tax Foundation.

…higher capital gains tax rates rarely result in more revenue, because capital gains realizations can be timed.  When rates go up, people hold on to their assets rather than selling them, expecting that rates will go down at some point. …Capital gains tax revenues rose after 1997, when the rate was reduced from 28 percent to 20 percent, and again after 2003, when rates were reduced further to 15 percent… The decline in rates resulted in higher tax receipts from owners of capitals, as they sold assets, giving funds to Uncle Sam.

Yes, the Laffer Curve is alive and well.

Not that Obama cares. If you pay close attention at the 4:20 mark of this video, you’ll see that he wants higher capital gains tax rates for reasons of spite.

But I don’t care about the revenue implications. I care about good tax policy. And in an ideal tax system, there wouldn’t be any tax on capital gains.

It’s a form of double taxation with pernicious effects, as the Wall Street Journal explained back in 2012.

…the tax on the sale of a stock or a business is a double tax on the income of that business. When you buy a stock, its valuation is the discounted present value of the earnings. …If someone buys a car or a yacht or a vacation, they don’t pay extra federal income tax. But if they save those dollars and invest them in the family business or in stock, wham, they are smacked with another round of tax. Many economists believe that the economically optimal tax on capital gains is zero. Mr. Obama’s first chief economic adviser, Larry Summers, wrote in the American Economic Review in 1981 that the elimination of capital income taxation “would have very substantial economic effects” and “might raise steady-state output by as much as 18 percent, and consumption by 16 percent.” …keeping taxes low on investment is critical to economic growth, rising wages and job creation. A study by Nobel laureate Robert Lucas estimates that if the U.S. eliminated its capital gains and dividend taxes (which Mr. Obama also wants to increase), the capital stock of American plant and equipment would be twice as large. Over time this would grow the economy by trillions of dollars.

John Goodman also has a very cogent explanation of the issue.

…why tax capital gains at all? …The companies will realize their actual income and they will pay taxes on it. If the firms return some of this income to investors (stockholders), the investors will pay a tax on their dividend income. If the firms pay interest to bondholders, they will be able to deduct the interest payments from their corporate taxable income, but the bondholders will pay taxes on their interest income. …Eventually all the income that is actually earned will be taxed when it is realized and those taxes will be paid by the people who actually earned the income. ……why not avoid all these problems by reforming the entire tax system along the lines of a flat tax? The idea behind a flat tax can be summarized in one sentence: In an ideal system, (a) all income is taxed, (b) only once, (c) when (and only when) it is realized, (d) at one low rate.

And if you want to augment all this theory with some evidence, check out the details of this comprehensive study published by Canada’s Fraser Institute.

For more information, here’s the video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, which explains why the capital gains tax should be abolished.

P.S. These posters were designed by folks fighting higher capital gains taxes in the United Kingdom, but they apply equally well in the United States. And since we’re referencing our cousins on the other side of the Atlantic, you’ll be interested to know that Labor Party voters share Obama’s belief in jacking up tax rates even if the economic damage is so severe that the government doesn’t collect any revenue.

P.P.S. Don’t forget that the capital gains tax isn’t indexed for inflation, so the actual tax rate almost always is higher than the statutory rate. Indeed, for folks that have held assets for a long time, the effective tax rate can be more than 100 percent. Mon Dieu!

P.P.P.S. In the past 20-plus years, I’ve seen all sorts of arguments for class-warfare taxation. These include:

I suppose leftists deserve credit for being adaptable. Just about anything is an excuse for soak-the-rich tax hikes. The sun is shining, raise taxes! The sky is cloudy, increase tax rates!

Or, in this case, Obama is giving a speech, so we know higher tax rates are on the agenda.

P.P.P.P.S. You deserve a reward if you read this far. You can enjoy some amusing cartoons on class-warfare tax policy by clicking here, here,here, here, here, here, and here.

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In my younger years, I oftentimes would have arguments with statists who wanted me to believe that countries in Northern Europe like Sweden “proved” that generous welfare states were compatible with economic prosperity.

That doesn’t happen as often today because the Nordic nations in recent decades have not enjoyed rapid growth. Moreover, some of the nations – such as Sweden in the early 1990s and Iceland last decade – suffered from serious financial downturns.

So I stand by my position that free markets and small government are the recipe for prosperity.

That being said, there are still some interesting lessons to be learned from these countries.

As I’ve previously argued, the Nordic countries demonstrate that a big welfare state is “affordable” so long as countries are willing to accept less growth and so long as they are willing to compensate for high taxes and high spending with very pro-market policies in other areas.

And that’s definitely the case. If you examine the Economic Freedom of the World data, you see that Nordic nations get fairly decent scores because they have very laissez-faire policies for regulation, trade, monetary policy, and property rights.

Yes, the fiscal burden of the welfare state slows growth and drags down their rankings, but they still do far better than other European countries that have big governments and a lot of intervention. Just think of France (#58), Italy (#79), and Spain (#51).

With this bit of background, let’s now look at two new and interesting articles about the extent to which the Nordic nations should be role models.

Our first story is from the Washington Post, and it’s authored by a British journalist who lives in Denmark. He starts by noting the inordinate amount of praise these countries receive.

The United States is in the midst of an episode of chronic Scandimania, brought on in part by the habitually high placing of Sweden and its similarly prosperous, egalitarian, collectivist neighbors — Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Finland — in global rankings of everything from happiness to lack of corruption.

But he then points out that these is trouble in the Nordic paradise.

The Washington Post is not immune to Scandinavia’s charms, recently marveling at how Danish branches of McDonald’s manage to pay their employees 2.5 times U.S. McDonald’s workers’ wages (clue: When about 75 percent of earnings disappear as income and consumption taxes, higher wages are more necessity than choice). …and last month the Times assured us that “A Big Safety Net and Strong Job Market Can Coexist. Just Ask Scandinavia.” (*Cough* unemployment is 5.6 percent in the United States, vs. 8.1 percent in Sweden, 8.9 percent in Finland and 6.4 percent in Denmark.) …And global and domestic events are conspiring to make life a little more uncertain for these former high achievers. …the Scandinavian model’s structural fissures are coming under increasing stress. …the Norwegians seem to have lost their parsimonious, workaholic, Lutheran mojo. Norwegians treat Friday as a “free day” and take more sick leave than anyone else in Europe, if not the world — a law enshrines their right to claim sick days even while on holiday.

The author continues, pointing out some serious warts.

Sweden’s political establishment was subverting the democratic process. This has distracted from the slowing economy, increasing state and household debt levels, and one of the highest youth unemployment rates in Europe. …Denmark took a bigger hit than its neighbors following the 2008 global economic crisis, which increased pressure on its massive welfare state, funded by the highest taxes in the world. Household debt is the highest in Europe (any connection there, I wonder?). …along with the Norwegians they work among the fewest hours a year of any Europeans. …In Iceland, …ultra-Nordic social cohesion…led to the near-bankruptcy of the entire country.

And here are some more details that also don’t sound so encouraging.

These countries that do so well in life-satisfaction surveys also record the highest consumption of antidepressants in the world, and despite their reputation for gender equality, they have the highest rates of violence against women in Europe. …few Americans would truly embrace a Scandinavian-style society. The tax rates alone would likely be a sufficient deterrent. Though I’m a freelance journalist, I essentially work until Thursday lunchtime for the state. And it’s not as if the money that is left in my pocket goes all that far: These are fearfully expensive countries in which to live.

Here’s the bottom line from a balanced story.

Scandinavia is not the utopia that American liberals or the 11 million Americans of Nordic descent often make it out to be, just as it is not the quasi-commie, statist gulag that those on the right would often have us believe. …I’m not saying the Nordic miracle is over, but it was never a miracle. And it’s over.

Now let’s look at our second story, which was published by the New York Post.

The tone is more negative, but it basically has the same message.

In the American liberal compass, the needle is always pointing to places like Denmark. Everything they most fervently hope for here has already happened there.

But there’s bad news in the land of the Northern Lights.

Here’s what he writes about Denmark.

Visitors say Danes are joyless to be around. Denmark suffers from high rates of alcoholism. In its use of antidepressants it ranks fourth in the world. (Its fellow Nordics the Icelanders are in front by a wide margin.) Some 5 percent of Danish men have had sex with an animal. Denmark’s productivity is in decline, its workers put in only 28 hours a week, and everybody you meet seems to have a government job. …Danes operate on caveman principles — if you find it, share it, or be shunned. Once your date with Daisy the Sheep is over, you’d better make sure your friends get a turn.

Though Daisy is lucky that she’s not on the tax rolls. The tax system in that nation is so oppressive that I’ve joked birthers should accuse Obama of having been born in Denmark.

In addition to paying enormous taxes — the total bill is 58 percent to 72 percent of income — Danes have to pay more for just about everything. Books are a luxury item. Their equivalent of the George Washington Bridge costs $45 to cross. …Health care is free — which means you pay in time instead of money. Services are distributed only after endless stays in waiting rooms. (The author brought his son to an E.R. complaining of a foreign substance that had temporarily blinded him in one eye and was turned away, told he had to make an appointment.) Pharmacies are a state-run monopoly, which means getting an aspirin is like a trip to the DMV.

But the author doesn’t just pick on Denmark.

Iceland’s famous economic boom turned out to be one of history’s most notorious real estate bubbles. …The success of the Norwegians — the Beverly Hillbillies of Europe — can’t be imitated. Previously a peasant nation, the country now has more wealth than it can spend: Colossal offshore oil deposits spawned a sovereign wealth fund that pays for everything. Finland, which tops the charts in many surveys (they’re the least corrupt people on Earth, its per-capita income is the highest in Western Europe and Helsinki often tops polls of the best cities), is also a leader in categories like alcoholism, murder (highest rate in Western Europe), suicide and antidepressant usage. …Booze-related disease is the leading cause of death for Finnish men, and second for women. …“Dark” doesn’t just describe winter in the Arctic suburbs, it applies to the Finnish character.

Sweden gets a lot of attention.

Immigration is associated in the Swedish mind with welfare (housing projects full of people on the dole) and with high crime rates (these newcomers being more than four times as likely to commit murder). Islamist gangs control some of the housing projects. Friction between “ethnic Swedes” and the immigrants is growing. Welfare states work best among a homogeneous people, and the kind of diversity and mistrust we have between groups in America means we could never reach a broad consensus on Nordic levels of social spending. Anyway, Sweden thought better of liberal economics too: When its welfare state became unsustainable (something savvy Danes are just starting to say), it went on a privatization spree and cut government spending from 67 percent of GDP to less than half.

And then there’s this excerpt about the Swedes, which makes me think it might be better to cohabit with a sheep in Copenhagen.

…a poll in which Swedes were asked to describe themselves, the adjectives that led the pack were “envious, stiff, industrious, nature-loving, quiet, honest, dishonest and xenophobic.” In last place were these words: “masculine,” “sexy” and “artistic.”

And here’s his conclusion.

Scandinavia, as a wag in The Economist once put it, is a great place to be born — but only if you are average.  …That’s Scandinavia for you, folks: Bland, wholesome, individual-erasing mush. But, hey, at least we’re all united in being slowly digested by the system.

Indeed, the Nordic focus on equality is so pervasive that it leads to unbelievably stupid policies.

P.S. There are some really creepy examples of failed government-run health care in Sweden.

P.P.S. Though Sweden has wised up in many regards. After the crisis of the early 1990s, the country was a role model of spending restraint. Here’s a video on some of Sweden’s pro-market reforms in recent decades.

P.P.P.S. The single-most compelling piece of evidence about the superiority of the American system is that Swedes in America earn far more than Swedes in Sweden.

P.P.P.P.S. The second-most compelling piece of evidence about the limits of Nordic statism is that these nations became prosperous before big welfare state were imposed. I call this the paradox of Wagner’s Law.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Even Denmark is trying to cut back on the welfare state. Though that will be bad news for Lazy Robert.

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The United States is burdened with some very bad policies that hinder growth and undermine competitiveness. But sometimes you can win a race if your rivals have policies that are even more self-destructive.

And that’s a good description of why the U.S. economy is out-performing Europe and why people in the United States enjoy higher living standards than their European counterparts.

In 2010, I shared data showing that Americans had far higher levels of consumption than Europeans.

In 2012, I updated the numbers and showed once again that people in America far ahead of folks in Europe.

And here are the most recent numbers from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, showing “average individual consumption” for various member nations of that international bureaucracy.

The average for all OECD nations is 100, and the average for eurozone nations is 96, so the U.S. score of 147 illustrates how much better off Americans are than citizens of other countries.

The only nations that are even close to the United States have oil (like Norway) or are low-tax international financial centers (such as Luxembourg and Switzerland).

So why is the United States doing better than Europe?

There are two responses.

First, notwithstanding what I’ve just written, it’s a bit misleading to compare the U.S. to Europe. Simply stated, there are vast differences among European nations in terms of policies and living standards, much more than you find between and among American states.

There are nations such as Switzerland and Finland, for instance, that rank above the United States in Economic Freedom of the World. But there are also highly statist and moribund countries such as France, Italy, and Greece, as well as transition economies in Eastern Europe that are still trying to catch up after decades of communist oppression.

So overall America-vs-Europe comparisons should be accompanied by a grain of salt.

Second, now that we’ve ingested some salt, let’s draw some general conclusions about the role of public policy. Most important, nations with bigger governments and more intervention (as is the case for many European countries) generally don’t grow as fast or have the same living standards as nations with smaller governments and more reliance on competitive markets.

The comparisons can get complicated because there are a wide range of policies that impact economic performance (many people focus on fiscal policy, but trade, regulation, monetary policy, and the rule of law are equally important). Comparisons also can get confusing because there are some relatively rich nations with bad policy and some relatively poor nations with good policy, which is why it is important to look at how rich or poor nations are (or were) when there were significant changes in policy.

For instance, many nations in Western Europe became relatively rich in the 1800s and early 1900s when the overall burden of government was very small. Now they’ve adopted welfare states and growth is much slower (or, in some cases, nonexistent), but they’re oftentimes still in better shape than nations (such as Estonia and Chile) that only recently have liberalized their economies.

Now that we’ve gone through all this background, let’s look at a couple of stories that make me pessimistic about Europe’s future because they capture the mentality that seems dominant among continental policy makers.

First, one of the bright spots for the continent is that there’s been vigorous corporate tax competition. In other words, politicians have been under pressure to lower tax burdens on the business community because of concerns that jobs and investment will migrate to nations with better policy.

As you can imagine, this irks the political class (even though lower rates haven’t resulted in less revenue!).

So you won’t be surprised to learn that there’s a new push for tax harmonization in Europe. Here are some of the details from a news report.

France, Germany and Italy have joined forces to outlaw tax competition between EU countries in a letter to the European Commission. …the language and tone in the joint letter to the new Economic and Taxation Commissioner, Pierre Moscovici, is much more aggressive than in the past. …the letter from the finance ministers of the eurozone’s three largest economies says that “the lack of tax harmonisation in the European Union is one of the main causes allowing aggressive tax planning, base erosion and profit-shifting to develop”. …Vanessa Mock, commission spokeswoman said Mr Moscovici “welcomes these significant contributions to the work being carried out by the commission”.

Hmmm…., the Frenchmen who is the Economic and Taxation Commissioner “welcomes” a call from the governments of France, Germany, and Italy to outlaw tax competition. I’m shocked, shocked, by this development.

But as one British politician explained, this approach of higher business taxes will further undermine European economic vitality.

Now let’s shift to our second story, which illustrates the self-serving greed of the political elite at the European Commission.

Here are some passages from a story on the spectacular golden parachutes offered to outgoing senior Eurocrats. And we’ll focus on the former President of the European Council since he’s such a deserving target of ridicule.

Herman Van Rompuy will be entitled to more than £500,000 for doing nothing at the taxpayer’s expense over the next three years, after finishing his term as president of Europe. After standing down on Monday, the former president of the European Council will be paid £133,723 a year, 55 per cent of his basic salary, until December 2017 – to ease him back into life outside the world of Brussels officialdom.

Gee, how kind of European taxpayers to “ease him back” into the real world.

Except, of course, Van Rompuy’s never been in the real world. He’s had his snout in the public trough his entire life.

And he also gets to pay far less tax on this money compared to the poor slobs in the private sector who are footing the bill for this official largesse.

…The “transitional allowance” does not require Mr Van Rompuy to do any work at all and the cash will be paid under reduced rates of EU “community” tax, which are far lower than taxation in his native country of Belgium. …Mr Van Rompuy has not been a stranger to controversy over the perks of EU officialdom since he took the post in December 2009. He was widely criticised four years ago for using his official motorcade of five limousines as a taxi service to take his family on 325-mile round trip to Paris airport en route to a private holiday in the Caribbean. …The cost of Mr Van Rompuy’s retirement is part of a much larger bill for the handover of the administration in EU as former European Commissioners serving in the last Brussels executive pocket “transitional allowances” worth around £30million.

This scam has been in operation for several years, and keep in mind that excessive pay and lavish perks for commissioners are matched by excessive pay and lavish perks for member of the European Parliament (including taxpayer-financed penile implants).

And lavish pay and perks for European Union bureaucrats.

And don’t forget these are the folks who are pushing for bigger government and higher taxes on a pan-European basis. Like many of our politicians in Washington, they think the private sector is some sort of piñata that is capable of producing endless amounts of revenue to finance ever-expanding government.

Even though the evidence from Greece, Italy, Spain, etc, confirms that Margaret Thatcher was right when she warned that the problem with big government is that sooner or later you run out of other people’s money.

P.S. European bureaucrats have decided taxpayer-financed tourism is a human right. And they also use taxpayer money to produce self-aggrandizing comic books.

P.P.S. The European political elite are so bad that even President Obama has felt compelled to oppose some of their tax initiatives.

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I’ve written about the success of Hong Kong (particularly when compared to nations such as Cuba, France, and China), but haven’t paid as much attention to Singapore.

But it’s time to correct that oversight. I’m motivated to write about Singapore because of a story that reveals one of the unique features of that jurisdiction: The bureaucracy gets monetarily rewarded if the economy prospers.

Here are some passages from a Bloomberg report.

In Singapore, civil-servant bonuses rise and fall with the economy’s performance… The nation…links civil servants’ bonuses to how well the $298 billion economy does. …Civil servants are typically paid a variable incentive twice a year, on top of a fixed one-month bonus. The mid-year payment was skipped in 2009, when the economy contracted during the global recession. …“Singapore may be one of the few countries that explicitly pegs bonuses to growth,” said Vishnu Varathan, an economist in Singapore at Mizuho Bank Ltd.

Wow. Think of what that might mean if applied in the United States. Would we get as many crazy growth-sapping regulations from bureaucracies such as the EPA, IRS, and EEOC if the paper pushers knew they would lose bonuses?

To be honest, I’m not actually sure that this system makes much difference in Singapore or, if it does work there, whether it would work the same way in the United States (where bureaucrats seem to get bonuses based on bad behavior!).

But one thing we can say with certainty is that Singapore is an economic success story.

Look at the rankings for per-capita gross national income from the World Bank. You’ll notice a few trends, such as it’s good to be a tax haven (Monaco, Liechtenstein, Bermuda, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Isle of Man, etc) or to have a lot of oil (Qatar, Kuwait, Norway, UAE, etc).

But you’ll also notice that Singapore is one of the world’s most prosperous jurisdictions, regardless of which methodology is used.

So why is Singapore so rich?

Well, there aren’t many natural resources other than ocean access, so the only reasonable explanation is that the country has good economic policy.

And if you look at the latest data from Economic Freedom of the World, you’ll see that Singapore ranks second for economic liberty.

I’m particularly impressed by the nation’s fiscal policy. The corporate tax rate is just 17 percent and the top tax rate for households is only 20 percent. In other words, there’s no Obama-Hollande class warfare against successful taxpayers.

Equally important, the burden of government spending is very small by world standards, averaging less than 20 percent of economic output since 1990 according to the IMF.

And the one time government spending climbed significantly about 20 percent of GDP (during the Asian financial crisis), the government then did a remarkable job of implementing the Golden Rule of spending restraint.

Singapore’s fiscal discipline between 1998 and 2003 was particularly impressive as spending was cut (genuine cuts, not the make-believe cuts you find in Washington) by an average of 9 percent each year.

But the statistic that matters most is that the burden of government spending dropped to 12 percent of GDP by 2007, a reduction of almost 16 percentage points (even larger than Sweden’s budget cutting between 1992 and 2001).

Government spending in Singapore has since 2007 slowly climbed back to about 18 percent of economic output, but that’s still quite good by modern standards (though much larger than government was in America back in the 1800s and early 1900s).

Let’s close by preemptively dealing with the statist argument that relatively small government somehow prevents the provision of genuine public goods.

Earlier this month, I shared some remarkable data from a study published by the European Central Bank. That research showed that “countries with small public sectors report the ‘best’ economic performance” and also receive the highest scores for providing public goods in a cost-efficient manner (referred to as “public sector efficiency”).

Looking at country groups, “small” governments post the highest efficiency amongst industrialised countries. Differences are considerable as “small” governments on average post a 40 percent higher scores than “big” governments. …This illustrates that the size of government may be too large in many industrialised countries, with declining marginal products being rather prevalent.

But as part of that post, I groused that the researchers were only looking at OECD member nations. Yet none of those countries have small public sectors.

I can’t help but wonder what the results would have been if Hong Kong and Singapore also were added to the mix. After all, I don’t consider the United States to have a “small” government. Same for Japan, Switzerland, and Australia. Those are simply nations where government isn’t as big and bloated as it is in France, Italy, Sweden, and Greece.

Well, I’m happy to report that I found another study from the European Central Bank that broadens the net to include some nations from Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America.

Singapore was one of the nations in the study and you won’t be surprised to learn that it received the highest score for “public sector efficiency.” But not merely the highest score, Singapore’s 2.39 was dramatically higher than the scores in the earlier study for the nations that supposedly had “small” governments (even though the actual burden of government spending in those countries is almost two times larger than it is in Singapore).

So what’s the bottom line?

The first ECB study clearly concluded that “small” government is more efficient and productive than either “medium” government or “big” government.

Based on the second ECB study, we can conclude that it’s even better if government is…well, I guess we’ll have to use the term “smaller than small.”

So congratulations to Singapore for readjusting the rankings. Now if we can find a jurisdiction where government consumes just 5 percent of GDP, we’ll be able to complete the research and finally figure out the “correct” size of government.

P.S. As I noted back in 2009, Singapore is a multi-ethnic (like Bermuda) and multi-religious society, yet diversity isn’t a problem when government doesn’t practice favoritism.

P.P.S. By the way, I’m not claiming Singapore is an ideal society. It is only #39 in a ranking of total freedom, which includes measures of personal liberty. And Singapore’s version of privatized Social Security is far from perfect since government controls the investment of private savings. In other words, Singapore isn’t libertarian Nirvana. But it is reaping the rewards of being more pro-market than almost all other nations.

P.P.P.S. If you read this far, you deserve a reward. Here are a couple of Thanksgiving-themed cartoons.

We’ll start with Henry Payne’s look at another example of Obama governing by “executive order.”

And here’s Rick McKee’s contribution. But since I’m not partisan, I’ll simply say that McKee has identified the first member of the Moocher Hall of Fame.

P.P.P.P.S. At this time last year, there were a bunch of great Thanksgiving-themed cartoons about the Obamacare disaster.

P.P.P.P.P.S. And if you want some serious Thanksgiving-themed policy analysis, I strongly recommend this video on how the Pilgrims were saved by property rights.

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I don’t know whether it’s because I’m a libertarian or because I’m an economist, but I get very frustrated by the issue of corporate inversions.

It galls me to hear demagogic politicians like Obama make absurd statements about “unpatriotic” corporations that re-domicile overseas when the problem is entirely the result of bad policy that penalizes U.S.-domiciled firms trying to compete in global markets.

1. The United States imposes the world’s highest corporate tax rate.

2. The United States is one of the few countries to impose “worldwide tax” on domestic firms.

3. The United States maintains very anti-competitive tax rules.

So when politicians grouse about “Benedict Arnold” companies, my reaction is to be happy that companies are taking steps to protect workers, consumers, and shareholders.

But, given what he’s done on amnesty and Obamacare, you won’t be surprised to learn that the President has unilaterally changed policy to make inversions more difficult.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the President’s bad policy doesn’t change reality.

An editorial in the Wall Street Journal looks at the latest example of an American company getting a new address.

Ireland-based drug company Actavis on Monday announced a $66 billion agreement to buy California’s Allergan , maker of the Botox anti-wrinkle treatment. …the tax savings…could be hundreds of millions a year beginning in 2015.

The folks at the WSJ make the obvious point about bad American tax laws.

…the deal highlights how desperately U.S. tax policy needs a makeover. …As if a combined state and local corporate tax rate of 40%—the highest in the industrialized world—isn’t harsh enough, the U.S. is also one of the few countries in which the government demands to be paid even on earnings that have already been taxed in foreign jurisdictions. Given this competitive disadvantage for U.S.-based firms, it’s no coincidence that both of the suitors that have been seeking to acquire Allergan are based overseas.

And what’s really remarkable is that both the suitors used to be U.S.-based companies!

Both Actavis and Valeant used to be based in the U.S. but moved their headquarters offshore in so-called inversion transactions in which they adopted the home country of businesses they acquired. Moving offshore allows businesses to invest more in the U.S., as Actavis has already done with its recent purchase of New York’s Forest Laboratories.

But hold on a second, didn’t the Obama Administration enact rules to prevent inversions?

President Obama views such rational decisions as unpatriotic, because he wants to tax both foreign and U.S. operations. So this fall Treasury Secretary Jack Lew reinterpreted longstanding tax regulations to make it more expensive to execute such deals—a punishment for companies that didn’t exit the U.S. when they had the chance. …Mr. Lew has decided the best response to foreign tax competition is to bolt the door to prevent more corporate escapes.

But here’s the catch. The White House and Treasury Department did make it more costly for companies to re-domicile, but the Administration can’t actually prohibit cross-border mergers.

So let’s summarize the net effect.

Before the Obama Administration imposed new rules, American-based companies would acquire foreign-based companies and use that maneuver to technically re-domicile in a nation with less punitive corporate taxation. But there’s very little risk of American jobs being lost.

After the rule changes, American-based companies are the ones being acquired by their overseas competitors. This means the White House can’t argue that the change in domicile isn’t real. And it means that there’s a far higher probability of jobs going overseas.

I guess the White House thinks this is a victory.

Let’s now step back and put this issue in context. This is the educational part of today’s column.

Here are some slides from a presentation by Professor Dick Harvey at Villanova University School of Law. He presents lots of information, but here are the three slides that are probably most interesting to non-tax geeks.

First, here’s the key thing to know about inversions. They’re a do-it-yourself version of territorial taxation.

And since territorial taxation is the right policy, nobody should be upset about inversions.

Second,  here’s a look at how many inversions occur each year. As you can see, we’re in the midst of another wave.

You’ll notice that these waves roughly coincide with periods featuring corporate tax rate reductions in other nations.

So the lesson is that bad American policy is making it more and more difficult for U.S.-domiciled firms to compete in global markets.

Third, here’s a slide showing where companies are re-domiciling.

Some of my favorite places, particularly Cayman, Bermuda, Switzerland, and Hong Kong!

Now let’s zoom out even further and consider the leftist view that multinational corporations are getting away with some sort of scam because of so-called stateless income.

Sinclair Davidson, a professor at Australia’s RMIT University, writes about the issue. Here are a few excerpts from his scholarly paper.

It is commonly argued that the corporate income tax system is ‘broken’. …The latest theoretical argument suggesting that the corporate income tax base is likely to be eroded is the ‘stateless income doctrine’.

But there’s an itsy-bitsy problem with this theory, as Sinclair explains.

…there is no evidence to support the view that the corporate income tax base is being eroded. At best, the concern about the tax base is not so much that it is being eroded, but rather that multinational corporations do not pay tax in every host economy.

He also points out that companies are obeying the law, which is a point I’ve also made on this topic.

…there is little evidence of any wrongdoing by any of the three corporations that are regularly singled out for abuse. It is true that these corporations do not pay as much tax in the UK or the US as those governments would like them to pay, but they pay as much tax as is required by the laws that those governments have passed. …‘None of this required a Senate “investigation” to  discover because Apple is constantly inspected by the IRS and other tax authorities. These tax collectors are well aware of Apple’s corporate structure, which has remained essentially the same since 1980. An Apple executive said Tuesday that the company’s annual US tax return adds up to a stack of paperwork more than two feet high. …These corporations are fully compliant with the tax law in the jurisdictions in which they operate.

So what’s his bottom line?

There is no such thing as ‘stateless income’, rather there is income that the governments of the UK and the US do not tax because under their own legal systems that income is not sourced in their economy. When these governments complain about stateless income, the question rather should be, ‘Why do the owners of intellectual property not locate their property in your economy?’. An implicit assumption of the stateless income doctrine is that multinational corporations maximise their value to society only when they pay tax. Of course, this is not the case. … It is one thing to point out that multinational corporations do not pay tax in some jurisdictions but that says nothing about the actual corporate  income tax base. … So-called ‘stateless income’ is a return on intellectual property.

Amen.

Let’s close with another perspective on the issue. Stewart Dompe and Adam Smith of Johnson and Wales University in North Carolina have a column in The Freeman.

…the United States is unique in that it taxes corporations at 35 percent regardless of where the income is earned, and hence regardless of whether the corporation benefited from any public goods. Payment without benefit is simply bad business. Avoiding particularly high tax rates like those of the United States can yield significant savings for companies—and their shareholders. Charlotte-based Chiquita Brands International, for instance, hopes to save $60 million via its recent acquisition of Ireland-based Fyffes PLC. Burger King’s merger, according to analyst estimates, could cut its overall tax bill by 13 percent. …Populist themes like “economic patriotism” may appeal to voters, but such arguments are nonsensical: Firms are ultimately responsible to their shareholders. As Judge Learned Hand wrote, “Any one may so arrange his affairs that his taxes shall be as low as possible; he is not bound to choose that pattern which will best pay the Treasury; there is not even a patriotic duty to increase one’s taxes.” If anything, firms have a moral responsibility to minimize their taxable liabilities. The legal structure of a firm establishes the relationship between shareholders, who own the capital, and managers that make operating decisions. Executives have a fiduciary responsibility to pay the lowest tax possible because they are the stewards of their shareholders’ wealth.

I particularly like their conclusion.

This competition among legal regimes is a powerful constraint on government—and that is a good thing for all of us. America has the second-highest corporate tax rate in the world—the highest when state taxes are included. The solution to this problem lies not in closing loopholes or imitating poor Oliver pleading for more, but in offering a simpler, more competitive tax system.

They hit the nail on the head. As I argued just yesterday, we need to restrain the greed of the political class.

But the fight isn’t limited to national capitals. International bureaucracies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development also are promoting schemes to squeeze more money out of companies – which, of course, means harming workers, consumers, and shareholders.

The pro-tax crowd can concoct all sorts of theories, such as stateless income, but this assault on companies is happening because government have spent themselves into a fiscal ditch and they want taxpayers to pay the price for this profligacy.

P.S. If you read this far, you deserve a reward. You can enjoy a good Michael Ramirez cartoon about inversions by clicking here, and there are several additional cartoons included in this post.

P.P.S. But if you’re a glutton for punishment, you can watch my video on international corporate taxation instead.

P.P.P.S. One final point worth sharing is that folks who try to complain about “low tax burdens” on the foreign-source income of American multinationals need to remember that they pay a lot of tax to foreign governments.

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