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Archive for the ‘Financial Privacy’ Category

The War against Cash continues.

  • In Part I, we looked at the argument that cash should be banned or restricted so governments could more easily collect additional tax revenue.
  • In Part II, we reviewed the argument that cash should be curtailed so that governments could more easily impose Keynesian-style monetary policy.
  • In Part III, written back in March, we examined additional arguments by people on both sides of the issue and considered the risks of expanded government power.

Now it’s time for Part IV.

Professor Larry Summers of Harvard University is President Obama’s former top economic adviser and he’s a relentless advocate of higher taxes and bigger government. If he favors an idea, it doesn’t automatically make it bad, but it’s surely a reason to be suspicious. So you won’t be surprised to learn that he wrote a column for the Washington Post applauding the move in Europe to eliminate €500 notes. Indeed, he wants to ban all large-denomination notes.

There is little if any legitimate use for 500-euro notes. Carrying out a transaction with 20 50-euro notes hardly seems burdensome, and this would represent over $1,000 in purchasing power. Twenty 200-euro notes would be almost $5,000. Who in today’s world needs cash for a legitimate $5,000 transaction? …Cash transactions of more than 3,000 euros have in fact been made illegal in Italy, while France has placed the limit at 1,000 euros. …In contrast to the absence of an important role for 500-euro notes in normal commerce, these bills have a major role facilitating illicit activity, as suggested by their nickname —“Bin Ladens.” …Estimates by the International Monetary Fund and others of total annual money laundering consistently exceed $1 trillion. High-denomination notes also have a substantial role in facilitating tax evasion and capital flight.

Who “needs cash” for transactions, he asks, but isn’t the real issue whether people should have the freedom to use cash if that’s what they prefer?

Also, in dozens of trips to Europe since the adoption of the euro, I’ve never heard anyone refer to the €500 note as a “Bin Laden,” so I suspect that’s an example of Summers trying to demonize something that he doesn’t like.

But perhaps the most important revelation from his column is that he admits there’s no evidence that crime would be stopped by his plan to restrict cash.

To be sure, it is difficult to estimate how much crime would be prevented by stopping the creation of 500-euro notes. It would surely impose some burdens on criminals and might interfere with some transactions, which is not unimportant.

Unsurprisingly, he wants to coerce other governments into restricting high-value notes.

Europe has led on a significant security issue. But its action should be seen as a beginning, not an end. As a first follow-on, the world should demand that Switzerland stop issuing 1,000-Swiss-franc notes. After Europe’s action, these will stand out as the world’s highest-denomination note by a huge margin. Switzerland has a long and unfortunate history with illicit finance. It would be tragic if it were to profit from criminal currency substitution following Europe’s bold step. …There would be a strong case for stopping the creation of notes with values greater than perhaps $50.

Summers isn’t the only academic from Harvard who is agitating to restrict cash. Prof. Kenneth Rogoff (who’s also the former Chief Economist at the IMF) recently wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal explaining his hostility.

…paper currency lies at the heart of some of today’s most intractable public-finance and monetary problems. …There is little debate among law-enforcement agencies that paper currency, especially large notes such as the U.S. $100 bill, facilitates crime: racketeering, extortion, money laundering, drug and human trafficking, the corruption of public officials, not to mention terrorism.

At the risk of bursting his balloon, cash played almost no role in the most notorious terrorist event, the 9-11 attacks. And Rogoff admits that bad guys would use easy substitutes.

There are substitutes for cash—cryptocurrencies, uncut diamonds, gold coins, prepaid cards.

So he then dredges up the argument that cash facilitates tax evasion.

Cash is also deeply implicated in tax evasion, which costs the federal government some $500 billion a year in revenue. According to the Internal Revenue Service, a lot of the action is concentrated in small cash-intensive businesses, where it is difficult to verify sales and the self-reporting of income.

I addressed these issues in Part I of this series, but I’ll simply add that the academic evidence shows that lower tax rates are the best way of boosting tax compliance (as even the IMF has admitted).

To his credit, Rogoff acknowledges that his preferred policy would reduce the rights of individuals.

Perhaps the most challenging and fundamental objection to getting rid of cash has to do with privacy—with our ability to spend anonymously. But where does one draw the line between this individual right and the government’s need to tax and regulate.

His main argument is that our rights should be reduced to give government more power. He especially wants central bankers to have more power to impose Keynesian monetary policy.

Cutting interest rates delivers quick and effective stimulus by giving consumers and businesses an incentive to borrow more. It also drives up the price of stocks and homes, which makes people feel wealthier and induces them to spend more. Countercyclical monetary policy has a long-established record, while political constraints will always interfere with timely and effective fiscal stimulus.

Yes, he’s right. Activist monetary policy does have a long-established track record. It played a key role in causing the Great Depression, the 1970s stagflation, and the recent financial crisis.

Hooray, Federal Reserve!

And Rogoff wants the arsonists at the Fed to have more power to create boom-bust cycles.

In principle, cutting interest rates below zero ought to stimulate consumption and investment in the same way as normal monetary policy, by encouraging borrowing. Unfortunately, the existence of cash gums up the works. If you are a saver, you will simply withdraw your funds, turning them into cash, rather than watch them shrink too rapidly. Enormous sums might be withdrawn to avoid these loses, which could make it difficult for banks to make loans—thus defeating the whole purpose of the policy. Take cash away, however, or make the cost of hoarding high enough, and central banks would be free to drive rates as deep into negative territory as they needed in a severe recession. …if a strong dose of negative rates can power an economy out of a downturn, it could bring inflation and interest rates back to positive levels relatively quickly, arguably reducing vulnerability to bubbles rather than increasing it.

Needless to say, I disagree with Rogoff and agree with Thomas Sowell that an institution that repeatedly screws up shouldn’t be given more power.

Especially since I’m concerned that the option to use bad monetary policy may actually be one of the excuses that politicians use for not fixing the problems that actually are hindering growth.

So, yes, instead of expanding their power, I want to clip the wings of the Federal Reserve and other central banks.

Now let’s consider the harm that would be caused by restricting or banning cash. Two professors from NYU Law School looked at some of the logistical issues of a shift to digital money. The echoed some of the points raised by Summers and Rogoff, but they also pointed out some downsides. Such as government being able to monitor everything we buy.

…centralization of banking under this system would also create a Leviathan with the power to monitor and control the personal finances of every citizen in the country. This is one of the chief reasons why many are loath to give up on hard currency. With digital money, the government could view any financial transaction and obtain a flow of information about personal spending that could be used against an individual in a whole host of scenarios.

It also would cause a mess because so many people around the world rely on dollars, something that’s beneficial to the U.S. Treasury and foreigners from places with untrustworthy central banks.

…a transition to digital currency might come at a large cost for the U.S. in particular, because the dollar remains the world’s de facto reserve currency. The U.S. collects enormous seigniorage revenue that accrues to the economy when the Federal Reserve prints dollars that are exported abroad in exchange for foreign goods and services. These bank notes ultimately end up in countries with less reliable central banks where locals prefer to hold U.S. currency instead of their own. Forfeiting this franchise as the world’s reserve currency might be too costly, as the U.S. currency held abroad exceeds half a trillion dollars, according to reliable estimates.

Professor Larry White of George Mason University (also a Senior Fellow at Cato) writes about what he calls “currency prohibitionists.”

The rhetoric of the anti-high-denomination gang has gotten increasingly shrill.  …Charles Goodhart in September called the European Central Bank and the Swiss National Bank “shameless” for issuing “vastly high-denomination notes,” namely the €500 and SWF 1000, “which are there to finance the drug deals.” …I have an alternative suggestion for removing $100 bills from the illegal drug trades:  Legalize the trade.  …My suggestion would reduce the demand for high-denomination currency.

Nice plug for sensible libertarian policy.

But even if one favors drug prohibition, that doesn’t mean currency prohibition will be effective.

Today’s high-denomination-currency prohibitionists, like today’s drug prohibitionists and yesterday’s alcohol prohibitionists, only think about the supply side.  But does anyone think that banning the $100 bill during Prohibition (when it had a purchasing power more than 11 times today’s, as evaluated using the CPI) and even higher denominations would have put a major dent in the rum-running business, if an army of T-Men couldn’t? …eliminating high denomination, high value notes we would make life harder” for such criminal enterprises.  No doubt.  But we would also make life harder for everyone else.  The rest of us also find high-denomination notes convenient now and again for completely legal and non-controversial purposes, like buying automobiles and carrying vacation cash compactly.  …currency prohibitionists too often regard those who defend high-denomination notes not as intellectually honest but mistaken opponents, but rather as morally suspect characters.  Larry Summers goes out of his way to smear an ECB executive from Luxembourg (who has had the temerity to ask for better evidence before accepting the case for prohibiting high-denomination notes)… The case for prohibiting large-denomination currency, to summarize, is largely based on guilt by association or on wishful thinking about the benefits of allowing greater range of action to discretionary monetary policy.

On the topic of crime and cash, an article for the WSJ debunks one of the left’s main talking points. If using cash is supposed to be a sign of criminal activity, why are the world’s two most cash-friendly nations also two of the safest and crime-free countries?

Are Japan and Switzerland havens for terrorists and drug lords? High-denomination bills are in high demand in both places, a trend that some politicians claim is a sign of nefarious behavior. Yet the two countries boast some of the lowest crime rates in the world. The cash hoarders are ordinary citizens… The current hoarding in Switzerland and Japan thus underscores one of many ways in which cash is a basic tool of economic liberty: It lets people shield themselves from monetary policies that would force their savings into weak economies that can’t attract sufficient spending or investment on their own. These economies need reforms that boost incentives to work and invest, not negative interest rates and cash limits that raid the bank accounts of law-abiding citizens.

A column by Sarah Jeong in Bloomberg explores some of the additional implications of cash restrictions.

…wherever information gathers and flows, two predators follow closely behind it: censorship and surveillance. The case of digital money is no exception. Where money becomes a series of signals, it can be censored; where money becomes information, it will inform on you. …the Department of Justice began to come under fire for Operation Choke Point…the means were highly dubious. …the DOJ got creative, and asked banks and payment processors to comply with government policies, and proactively police “high-risk” activity. Banks were asked to voluntarily shut down the kinds of merchant activities that government bureaucrats described as suspicious. The price of resistance was an active investigation by the Department of Justice. …Where paternalism is bluntly enforced through a bureaucratic game of telephone, unpleasant or even inhumane unintended consequences are bound to result. …the cashless society offers the government entirely new forms of coercion, surveillance, and censorship. …As paper money evaporates from our pockets and the whole country—even world—becomes enveloped by the cashless society, financial censorship could become pervasive, unbarred by any meaningful legal rights or guarantees.

Her observation on Operation Choke Point is very important since that campaign has been a chilling example of how government abuses its power in the financial sector.

Megan McArdle’s Bloomberg column touches on some additional concerns.

What’s not to like? Very little. Except, and I’m afraid it’s a rather large exception, the amount of power that this gives the government over its citizens. Consider the online gamblers who lost their money in overseas operations when the government froze their accounts. Now, what they were doing was indisputably illegal in these here United States, and I am not claiming that they were somehow deeply wronged. But consider how immense the power that was conferred upon the government by the electronic payments system; at a word, your money could simply vanish. …Unmonitored resources like cash…create a sort of cushion between ordinary people and a government with extraordinary powers. Removing that cushion leaves people who aren’t criminals vulnerable to intrusion into every remote corner of their lives. …If we want to move toward a cashless society — and apparently we do — then we also need to think seriously about limiting the ability of the government to use the payments system as an instrument to control the behavior of its citizens.

For what it’s worth, one way of getting the benefits of a cashless world without the risks is with private digital monies such as bitcoin.

Steve Forbes nails the issue.

Gaining attention these days is the idea of abolishing high denominations of the dollar and the euro. This concept graphically displays the astonishing stupidity–and intellectual bankruptcy–of today’s liberal economic policymakers and the economics profession. …The ostensible reason is to help in the fight against terrorists, bribers, drug dealers and tax evaders by making it more inconvenient for these bad guys to move around and store their ill-gotten cash. …The notion that such evildoers as the Mexican drug cartels and ISIS will be seriously disrupted by the absence of the Benjamin–”These sacks of cash are too heavy now. Let’s surrender!”–is so comical… Monetary expert Seth Lipsky pithily points out in the New York Post, “When criminals use guns, the Democrats want to take guns from law-abiding citizens. When terrorists use hundreds, the liberals want to deny the rest of us the Benjamins.”

Excellent point. Politicians should concentrate on restricting the freedom of bad guys, not ordinary citizens.

So what are the implications of the war against cash? They aren’t pretty.

The real reason for this war on cash–start with the big bills and then work your way down–is an ugly power grab by Big Government. People will have less privacy: Electronic commerce makes it easier for Big Brother to see what we’re doing, thereby making it simpler to bar activities it doesn’t like, such as purchasing salt, sugar, big bottles of soda and Big Macs.

Steve raises a good point about tracking certain purchases. Imagine the potential mischief if politicians had a mechanism to easily impose discriminatory taxes on disapproved products.

He also notes that the war on cash is motivated by a desire to more effectively implement an ineffective policy.

Policymakers in Washington, Tokyo and the EU think the reason that their economies are stagnant is that ornery people aren’t spending and investing the way they should. How to make these benighted, recalcitrant beings do what they’re supposed to do? The latest nostrum from our overlords is negative interest rates. If people have to pay fees to store their money, as they do to put their stuff in storage facilities, then, by golly, they might be more inclined to spend it.

And Steve correctly observes that bad monetary policy is now an excuse to not fix the problems that actually are contributing to economic stagnation.

Manipulating the value of money and controlling interest rates, i.e., the price of money, never works. Money measures value. It is a claim on services and is a tool for facilitating commerce and investing. The reason economies around the world are in the ditch–which is fueling anger, discontent and ugly politics–is structural, government-created barriers: unstable money, suffocating rules and too-high rates of taxation.

James Grant, in a column for the Wall Street Journal, is not impressed by the anti-cash agitprop and specifically debunks some of the arguments put forth by Rogoff. He starts with some very sensible observation that politicians should reform drug laws and tax laws rather than restricting our freedom to use cash.

Terrorists traffic in cash, Mr. Rogoff observes. So do drug dealers and tax cheats. Good, compliant citizens rarely touch the $100 bills that constitute a sizable portion of the suspiciously immense volume of greenbacks outstanding—$4,200 per capita. Get rid of them is the author’s message. Then, again, one could legalize certain narcotics to discommode the drug dealers and adopt Steve Forbes’s flat tax to fill up the Treasury. Mr. Rogoff considers neither policy option. Government control is not only his preferred position. It is the only position that seems to cross his mind.

Grant makes the (obvious-to-folks not-in-Washington) point that restricting cash to enable Keynesian monetary policy is akin to throwing good money after bad.

Mr. Rogoff lays the blame for America’s lamentable post-financial-crisis economic record not on the Obama administration’s suffocating tax and regulatory policies. The problem is rather the Fed’s inability to put its main interest rate, the federal funds rate, where it has never been before. In a deep recession, Mr. Rogoff proposes, the Fed ought not to stop cutting rates when it comes to zero. It should plunge right ahead, to minus 1%, minus 2%, minus 3% and so forth. At one negative rate or another, the theory goes, despoiled bank depositors will stop saving and start spending. …What would you do if your bank docked you, say, 3% a year for the privilege of holding your money? Why, you might convert your deposit into $100 bills, rent a safe deposit box and count yourself a shrewd investor. Hence the shooting war against currency. …In the topsy-turvy world of Mr. Rogoff, negative rates would be the reward to impetuousness and the cost of thrift. …Never mind that, in post-crisis America, near 0% interest rates have failed to deliver the promised macroeconomic goods. Come the next crackup, Mr. Rogoff would double down—and down.

And he echoes the insights of Austrian-school scholars about how easy-money policies are the cause of problems rather than the cure.

Interest rates are prices. They impart information. They tell a business person whether or not to undertake a certain capital investment. They measure financial risk. They translate the value of future cash flows into present-day dollars. Manipulate those prices—as central banks the world over compulsively do—and you distort information, therefore perception and judgment. The ultra-low rates of recent years have distorted judgment in a bullish fashion. True, they have not, at least in America, ignited a wave of capital investment—who needs it in a comatose economy? They have rather facilitated financial investment. They have inflated projected cash flows and anesthesized perceptions of risk (witness the rock-bottom yields attached to corporate junk bonds). In so doing, they have raised the present value of financial assets. Wall Street has enjoyed a wonderful bull market. The trouble is that the Fed has become hostage to that very bull market. The higher that asset prices fly, the greater the risk of the kind of crash that impels new rounds of intervention, new cries for government spending, bigger deficits—more “stimulus.”

Let’s close with the good news is that Switzerland doesn’t seem very interested in following Europe and the United States down the primrose path of seeking to curtail monetary freedom.

Manuel Brandenberg, a lawmaker in the Swiss canton of Zug, loves cash. …That belief in bills is shared by many of his compatriots, who have a penchant for hard currency even when electronic options are available. In a country whose wealth managers flourished thanks to banking secrecy, citizens often cherish the untraceable privacy conferred by notes and coins. “Cash is property and cash is freedom,” said Brandenberg… Unlike their neighbors, the Swiss have no plans to reconsider banknote denominations — 10, 20, 50, 100 and 200 francs. Not even the highest of 1,000 francs ($1,040). …The predilection for notes and coins is evident on the streets of Zurich, where a number of stores don’t take plastic — among them Belcafe at Bellevue, a busy transport hub in the center. …Roughly 20 percent of purchases — including large sums for jewelry — were paid in cash, then-Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf told parliament in 2014. …“There’s no reason to change things,” said Rickli. “I don’t want the state to know who goes to what restaurant. That’s none of the government’s business.”

Thank goodness for the “sensible Swiss.” On so many issues, Switzerland is a beacon of common sense and individual freedom.

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The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) arguably is the worst feature of the internal revenue code. It’s an odious example of fiscal imperialism that is based on a very bad policy agenda.

But there is something even worse, a Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters that has existed for decades but recently has been dangerously modified. MCMAATM is a clunky acronym, however, so let’s go with GATCA. That’s because this agreement, along with companion arrangements, would lead to a Global Tax Compliance Act.

Or, as I’ve argued, it would be a nascent World Tax Organization.

And the United States would be the biggest loser. That’s because FATCA was bad legislation that primarily imposed heavy costs on – and caused much angst in – the rest of the world.

GATCA, by contrast, is an international pact that would impose especially heavy costs on the United States and threaten our status as the world’s biggest haven for investment.

Let’s learn more about this bad idea, which will become binding on America if approved by the Senate.

James Jatras explains this dangerous proposal in a column for Accounting Today.

Treasury’s real agenda is…a so-called “Protocol amending the Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters.” The Protocol, along with a follow-up “Competent Authority” agreement, is an initiative of the G20 and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), with the support, unsurprisingly, of the Obama Administration. …the Protocol cannot be repaired. It is utterly inconsistent with any concept of American sovereignty or Americans’ constitutional protections. Ratification of the Protocol would mean acceptance by the United States as a treaty obligation of an international “common reporting standard,” which is essentially FATCA gone global—sometimes called GATCA. Ratifying the Protocol arguably would also provide Treasury with backdoor legal authority to issue regulations requiring FATCA-like reporting to foreign governments by U.S. domestic banks, credit unions, insurance companies, mutual funds, etc. This would mean billions of dollars in costs passed on to American taxpayers and consumers, as well as mandating the delivery of private data to authoritarian and corrupt governments, including China, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Nigeria.

The Foreign Relations Committee unfortunately has approved the GATCA Protocol.

But Rand Paul, like Horatius at the bridge protecting Rome, is throwing sand in the gears and isn’t allowing easy passage by the full Senate.

…the senator is right to insist that the OECD Protocol is dead on arrival.

Taxpayers all over the world owe him their gratitude.

In a column for Investor’s Business Daily, Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center warns that this pernicious and risky global pact would give the IRS power to collect and automatically share massive amounts of our sensitive financial information with some of the world’s most corrupt, venal, and incompetent governments.

During a visit to the World Bank this week, I got a sobering lesson about the degree to which the people working at international bureaucracies, including the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, dislike tax competition. For years, these organizations — which are funded with our hard-earned tax dollars — have bullied low-tax nations into changing their tax privacy laws so uncompetitive nations can track taxpayers and companies around the world. …they never tire of trying to raise taxes on everyone else. Take the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s latest attempt to impose a one-size-fits-all system of “automatic information exchange” that would necessitate the complete evisceration of financial privacy around the world. A goal of the Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters is to impose a global network of data collection and dissemination to allow high-tax nations to double-tax and sometimes triple-tax economic activity worldwide. That would be a perfect tax harmonization scheme for politicians and a nightmare for taxpayers and the global economy.

But she closes with the good news.

Somehow the bureaucrats persuaded the lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to approve it. Thankfully, it’s currently being blocked by Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Mike Lee, R-Utah.

Actually, all that’s being blocked is the ability to ram the Multilateral Convention through the Senate without any debate or discussion.

John Gray explains the procedural issues in a piece for Conservative Review.

Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Mike Lee (R-UT)…aren’t blocking these treaties at all. Instead, they are just objecting to the Senate ratifying them by “unanimous consent.” The Senate leadership has the authority to bring these tax treaties to the floor for full consideration – debate, amendments, and votes. That is what Senators Paul and Lee are asking for. …Unanimous consent means that the process takes all of about 10 seconds; there is no time to review the treaties, there is no time for debate, and not a second of time to offer amendments.  They simply want them to be expedited through the Senate without transparency. …As sitting U.S. Senators, they have the right to ask for debate and amendments to these treaties. …These treaties are dangerous to our personal liberties.  Senator Paul and Senator Lee deserve the transparency and debate they’ve requested.

Amen.

For those of us who want good tax policy, rejecting this pact is vital.

An ideal fiscal system not only has a low rate, but also taxes income only one time and only taxes income earned inside national borders.

Yet the OECD Protocol to the Multilateral Convention is based on the notion that there should be pervasive double taxation of income that is saved and invested, and that these taxes should be levied on an extraterritorial basis.

For fans of the flat tax, national sales tax, or other proposals for tax reform, this would be a death knell.

But this isn’t just a narrow issue of tax policy. On the broader issue of privacy and government power, Professor Niall Ferguson of Harvard makes some very strong points in a column for the South China Morning Post.

I should be a paid-up supporter of the campaign to close down tax havens. I should be glad to see the back of 500-euro bills. …Nevertheless, I am deeply suspicious of the concerted effort to address all these problems in ways that markedly increase the power of states – and not just any states but specifically the world’s big states – at the expense of both small states and the individual.

He cites two examples, starting with the intrusive plan in the U.K. to let anybody and everybody know the owners of property.

The British government announced it will set up a publicly accessible register of beneficial owners (the individuals behind shell companies). In addition, offshore shell companies and other foreign entities that buy or own British property will henceforth be obliged to declare their owners in the new register. No doubt these measures will flush out or deter some villains. But there are perfectly legitimate reasons for a foreign national to want to own a property in Britain without having his or her name made public. Suppose you were an apostate from Islam threatened with death by jihadists, for example.

He also is uncomfortable with the “war against cash.”

…getting rid of bin Ladens is the thin end of a monetary wedge. …a number of economists…argue cash is an anachronism, heavily used in the black and grey economy, and easily replaced in an age of credit cards and electronic payments. But their motive is not just to shut down the mafia. It is also to increase the power of government. Without cash, no payment can be made without being recorded and potentially coming under official scrutiny. Without cash, central banks can much more easily impose negative interest rates, without fearing that bank customers may withdraw their money.

He’s right. The slippery slope is real. Giving governments some power invariably means giving governments a lot of power.

And that’s not a good idea if you’re a paranoid libertarian like me. But even if you have a more benign view of government, ask yourself if it’s a good idea to approve a global pact that is explicitly designed to help governments impose higher tax burdens?

Senators Paul and Lee are not allowing eight treaties to go forward without open debate and discussion. Seven of those pacts are bilateral agreements that easily could be tweaked and approved.

But the Protocol to the Multilateral Convention can’t be fixed. The only good outcome is defeat.

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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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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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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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Why do many people engage in civil disobedience and decide not to comply with tax laws?

Our leftist friends (the ones who think that they’re compassionate because they want to spend other people’s money) assert that those who don’t obey the revenue demands of government are greedy tax evaders who don’t care about society.

And these leftists support more power and more money for the Internal Revenue Service in hopes of forcing higher levels of compliance.

Will this approach work? Are they right that governments should be more aggressive to obtain more obedience?

To answer questions of how to best deal with tax evasion, we should keep in mind three broad issues about the enforcement of any type of law:

1. Presumably there should be some sort of cost-benefit analysis. We don’t assign every person a cop, after all, even though that presumably would reduce crime. Simply stated, it wouldn’t be worth the cost.

2. We also understand that crime reduction isn’t the only thing that matters. We grant people basic constitutional rights, for instance, even though that frequently makes is more difficult to get convictions.

3. And what if laws are unjust, even to the point of leading citizens to engage in jury nullification? Does our legal system lose moral legitimacy when it is more lenient to those convicted of child pornography than it is to folks guilty of forgetting to file paperwork?

Now let’s consider specific tax-related issues.

I’ve written before that “tough on crime” is the right approach, but only if laws are legitimate. And that leads to a very interesting set of questions.

4. Is it appropriate to track down every penny, even if it results in absurdities such as the German government spending 800,000 euros to track down 25,000 euros of unpaid taxes on coffee beans ordered online?

5. Or what about the draconian FATCA law imposed by the United States government, which is only projected to raise $870 million per year, but will impose several times as much cost on taxpayers, drive investment out of American, and also causing significant anti-US resentment around the world?

6. And is there perhaps a good way of encouraging compliance?

The purpose of today’s (lengthy) column is to answer the final question.

More specifically, the right way to reduce tax evasion is to have a reasonable and non-punitive tax code that finances a modest-sized, non-corrupt government. This make tax compliance more likely and more just.

Here’s some of what I wrote back in 2012.

I don’t blame people from France for evading confiscatory taxation. I don’t blame people in corrupt nations such as Mexico for evading taxation. I don’t blame people in dictatorial nations such as Venezuela for evading taxation. But I would criticize people in Singapore,Switzerland, Hong Kong, or Estonia for dodging their tax liabilities. They are fortunate to live in nations with reasonable tax rates, low levels of corruption, and good rule of law.

Let’s elaborate on this issue.

And we’ll start by citing the world’s leading expert, Friedrich Schneider, who made these important points about low tax rates in an article for the International Monetary Fund.

…the major driving forces behind the size and growth of the shadow economy are an increasing burden of tax and social security payments… Several studies have found strong evidence that the tax regime influences the shadow economy. …In the United States, analysis shows that as the marginal federal personal income tax rate increases by one percentage point, other things being equal, the shadow economy grows by 1.4 percentage points.

With this bit of background, let’s look at the magnitude of non-compliance.

The Wall Street Journal reports on the history of dodging greedy governments.

Tax evasion has been around since ancient Mesopotamia, when the Sumerians were cheerfully working the black market. …The Romans were the most efficient tax collectors of all. Unfortunately Emperor Nero (ruling from A.D. 54 to 68) abandoned the high growth, low-tax policies of his predecessors. In their place he created a downward spiral of inflationary measures coupled with excessive taxation. By the third century, widespread tax evasion forced economically stressed Rome to practice expropriation. …Six hundred years later, during the Heian period (794-1185), Japan’s aristocracy acted in a similar manner and with similar consequences. …China’s Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) waged a harsh war against the tax-dodging gentry.

These same fights between governments and taxpayers exist today.

In a column published by the New York Times, we got some first-hand knowledge of the extraordinary steps people take to protect themselves from taxation in China.

In China, businesses have to give out invoices called fapiao to ensure that taxes are being paid. But the fapiao — the very mechanism intended to keep businesses honest — is sometimes the key to cheating on taxes. …My company would disguise my salary as a series of expenses, which would also save me from paying personal income tax. But to show proof of expenses, the accountant needed fapiao. It was my responsibility to collect the invoices. …But evading taxes in China was harder than I expected because everyone else was trying to evade taxes, too. …Though businesses are obligated to give out fapiao, many do not unless customers pester them. They are trying to minimize the paper trail so they too can avoid paying taxes on their true income. …some people are driven to buy fake invoices. It’s not hard; scalpers will sell them on the street, and companies that specialize in printing fake fapiao proliferate.

The author had mixed feelings about the experience.

I couldn’t figure out whether what I was doing was right or wrong. By demanding a fapiao, I was forcing some businesses to pay taxes they would otherwise evade. But all of this was in the service of helping my own company evade taxes. In this strange tale, I was both hero and villain. To me, tax evasion seemed intractable. Like a blown-up balloon, if you push in one part, another swells.

Meanwhile, Leonid Bershidsky, writing for Bloomberg, reviews what people do to escape the grasping hand of government in Greece.

In gross domestic product terms, Greece has the second biggest shadow economy among European Union countries without a Communist past…unreported revenue accounts for 23.3 percent of GDP, or $55.3 billion. …Had it been subject to taxes — at the prevailing 40 percent rate — the shadow economy would have contributed $22 billion to the government’s coffers.

Bershidsky cites some new academic research.

…researchers used loan application data from a big Greek bank. …The bank…regards the reported income figure as a fiction, as do many other banks in eastern and southern Europe. As a result, it uses estimates of “soft” — untaxed — income for its risk-scoring model. Artavanis, Tsoutsoura and Morse recreated these estimates and concluded that the true income of self-employed workers in Greece is 75 percent to 84 percent higher than the reported one.

Greek politician have tried to get more money from the shadow economy but haven’t been very successful.

Even the leftist government of former Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, which came up with unworkable schemes to crack down on tax evasion — from using housewives and tourists to inform on small businesses to a levy on cash withdrawals — failed.

Bershidsky notes that some have called for indirect forms of taxation that are harder to evade.

The researchers suggest the government should sell occupation licenses through the powerful professional associations: a harsh but effective way to collect more money.

Though his conclusion rubs me the wrong way.

The shadow economy — and particularly the contributions of professionals — is an enormous potential resource for governments.

At the risk of editorializing, I would say that the untaxed money is “money politicians would like to use to buy votes” rather than calling it “an enormous potential resource.” Which is a point Bershidsky should understand since he wrote back in 2014 that European governments have spent themselves into a fiscal ditch.

Now let’s shift to the academic world. What do scholars have to say about tax compliance?

Two economists from the University of Rome have authored a study examining the role of fiscal policy on the underground economy and economic performance. They start by observing that ever-higher taxes are crippling economic performance in Europe.

…most European economies have been experiencing feeble growth and increasing levels of public debt. Compliance with the Stability and Growth Pact, and in particular with the primary deficit clause, has required many governments to raise taxes to exceptional high levels, thus hindering business venture and economic recovery.

And those high tax burdens don’t collect nearly as much money as politicians want because taxpayers have greater incentives to dodge the tax collectors.

…between a country’s tax system and the size of its shadow economy is a two-way relationship. …there exists a positive relationship between the dimension of the tax burden on economic activity and the size of the informal economy. …various tax reform scenarios, recently advocated in economic and policy circles as a means to promote growth, such as…ex-ante budget-neutral tax shifts involving reductions of distortionary taxes on labor and business compensated by an increase in the consumption tax or counterbalanced by decreases of government spending. We will see that all these fiscal reforms give rise to a resource reallocation effect from underground to official production or vice versa and have rather different implications in terms of output, fiscal solvency and welfare.

The authors look at the Italian evidence and find that lower tax rates would create a win-win situation.

Our main results can be summarized as follows. …the dimension of the underground sector is substantially decreased by fiscal interventions envisaging sizeable labor tax wedge reductions. Finally, all the considered tax reforms have positive effects on the fiscal consolidation process due to a combination of larger tax revenues and positive output growth. …consider the case in which the decrease of the business tax is met by a public spending cut…an expansionary effect on output, consumption and investments, and, despite the overall reduction of tax revenues, the public-debt-to-output ratio falls. However, we notice that the expansionary effects are…magnified on consumption and investments. In this model, in fact, public spending is a pure waste that crowds out the private component of aggregate demand, therefore it comes as no surprise that a tax cut on business, counterbalanced by a public spending reduction, is highly beneficial for both consumption and investments. …the underground sector shrinks.

The benefits of lower tax rates are especially significant if paired with reductions in the burden of government spending.

When the reduction of the business tax, personal income tax, and employers’ SSC tax rates are financed through a cut in public spending…we observe positive welfare effects… The main difference…is that consumption is significantly higher…due to the fact that this reform leaves the consumption tax unchanged, while public spending is a pure waste that crowds out private consumption. …all the policy changes that lower the labor tax wedge permanently reduce the dimension of the underground sector. Finally, all the considered tax reforms positively contribute to the fiscal consolidation process.

Let’s now look at some fascinating research produced by some other Italian economists.

They look at factors that lead to higher or lower levels of compliance.

…a high quality of the services provided by the State, and a fair treatment of taxpayers increase tax morale. More generally, a high level of trust in legal and political institutions has a positive effect on tax morale. …two further institutional characteristics that are likely to negatively affect an individual’s tax morale: corruption and complexity of the tax system.

By the way, “tax morale” is a rough measure of whether taxpayers willingly obey based on their perceptions of factors such as tax fairness and waste and corruption in government.

And that measure of morale naturally varies across countries.

…we examine how people from different countries react to varying tax rates and levels of efficiency. …We focus our analysis on three countries: Italy, Sweden and UK. …these three countries show differences concerning the two institutional characteristics we are focused on. Italy and Sweden show a high tax burden while UK shows a low one. Whereas, Sweden and UK can be considered efficient states, Italy is not.

By the way, I don’t particularly consider the United Kingdom to be a low-tax jurisdiction. And I don’t think it’s very efficient, especially if you examine the government-run healthcare system.

But everything is relative, I guess, and the U.K. is probably efficient compared to Italy.

Anyhow, here are the results of the study.

Experimental subjects react to institution incentives, no matter the country. More specifically, tax compliance increases as efficiency increases and decreases as the tax rate increases. However, although people’s reaction to changes in efficiency is homogeneous across countries, subjects from different countries react with a different degree to an increase in the tax rate. In particular, participants who live in Italy or Sweden – countries where the tax burden is usually high – react more strongly to an increase in the tax rate than our British subjects. At the same time, subjects in Sweden – where the efficiency of the public service is high – react less to tax rate increases than Italian subjects.

So low tax rates matter, but competent and frugal government also is part of the story.

In all 3 countries, higher tax rates imply lower compliance. This is in line with experimental evidence: as Alm (2012, p. 66) affirms: “most (but not all) experimental studies have found that a higher tax rate leads to less compliance” and “The presence of a public good financed by voluntary tax payments has been found to increase subject tax compliance”. …The stronger negative reaction of Italian subjects to an increase in the tax rate may be due to the fact that in everyday life they suffer from high tax rates combined with inefficiency and corruption. …In fact, in the final questionnaire, 67.5% of Italian participants state that people would be more likely to pay taxes if the government were more efficient (vs 34.4% and 30.3% in UK and Sweden respectively) and 54.6% would comply with their fiscal obligations if they had some control over how tax money were spent (vs 30.8% and 25.8% in UK and Sweden respectively)… No way to impose a high tax burden on citizens if the tax revenue is wasted through inefficiency and corruption.

Here’s one additional academic study from Columbia University. The author recognizes the role of tax rates in discouraging compliance, but focuses on the impact of tax complexity.

Here’s what he wrote about the underlying theory of tax compliance.

The basic theoretical framework for tax evasion was derived…from the Becker model of crime. This approach views tax evasion as a gamble. …when tax evasion is successful, the taxpayer gains by not paying taxes. In other cases, tax evasion is uncovered by tax authorities, and the taxpayer has to pay taxes due and fines. The taxpayer compares the expected gain to the expected loss. …This approach highlights a number of factors that determine whether and to what extent taxes are evaded. These are: the magnitude of potential savings (which, on the margin, is simply equal to the tax rate)… This model therefore highlights…natural policy parameters that can affect evasion. …the marginal gains from tax evasion could be reduced by imposing lower marginal tax rates.

Interestingly, he doesn’t see much difference between (illegal) evasion and (legal) avoidance.

The ideal compliance policy should target both tax avoidance and tax evasion. While there is a legal distinction between the two, from the economic point of view the difference is less explicit. Both types of activity involve a loss of revenue and both involve a loss of economic welfare.

He then brings tax complexity into the equation.

…the appropriate extent of tax enforcement critically depends on the underlying tax structure. In particular, the role of complexity in the tax system as a factor influencing the size of the tax gap, as well as legal but undesirable tax avoidance, are highlighted. Two principal implications of tax complexity are stressed here. First, complexity permits additional ways to shield income from tax and, consequently, complexity increases the overall cost of taxation. … Reasonable simplification can more adequately combat tax evasion and avoidance than traditional enforcement measures.

Here are some of his findings.

Tax avoidance is a function of ambiguity in the tax system. …Administrative investment in enforcement becomes more important when the tax system is more distortionary. One way to reduce the need for costly tax enforcement is to reduce distortions. … Higher complexity induces tax avoidance and other types of substitution responses. A tax system that allows for many different types of avoidance responses is likely to cause stronger behavioral effects and therefore higher excess burden. …Shutting down extra margins of response can be loosely summarized as expanding the tax base by eliminating preferential treatment of some types of income, deductions, and exemptions. …One of the consequences of complexity is that it makes it difficult for honest taxpayers to fulfill their obligations. …The bottom line is that complexity makes relying on penalties a much less appealing approach to enforcement. …From the complexity point of view, itemized deductions add a multitude of tax avoidance and evasion opportunities. …They stimulate avoidance by introducing extra margins with differential tax treatment.

Sounds to me like an argument for a flat tax.

Incidentally (and importantly), he acknowledges that greater enforcement may not be a wise option if the underlying tax law (such as the code’s harsh bias against income that is saved and invested) is overly destructive.

…tax avoidance—letting well enough alone—may be a simple and practical way of addressing shortcomings of an inefficient tax structure. For example, suppose that, as much of the optimal taxation literature suggests, capital incomes should not be taxed, or should only be taxed lightly. In that case, the best policy response would be cutting tax rates imposed on capital income. If it is not politically feasible to pursue such policies explicitly, a similar outcome can be accomplished by reducing enforcement or increasing avoidance opportunities in this area. …The preferred way of dealing with compliance problems is fixing the tax code.

Amen. Many types of tax evasion only exist because the politicians in Washington have saddled us with bad tax policy.

And when tax policy moves in the right direction, compliance improves. Consider what happened in the 1980s when Reagan’s reforms lowered the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent. Rich people paid five times as much to the IRS, in large part because they declared 10 times as much income.

But it’s very unlikely that they actually earned 10 times as much income. Some non-trivial portion of that gain was because of less evasion and less avoidance.

Simply stated, it makes sense to comply with the tax system when rates are low.

Let’s close by addressing one of the ways that leftists want to improve compliance. They want to destroy financial privacy and give governments near-unlimited ability to collect and share financial information about taxpayers, all for the purpose of supposedly bolstering tax compliance.

This agenda, if ultimately successful, will cripple tax competition as a liberalizing force in the global economy.

This would be very unfortunate. Tax rates have fallen in recent decades, for instance, largely because governments have felt pressure to compete for jobs and investment.

That has led to tax systems that are less punitive. And politicians really can’t complain about being pressured to lower tax rates since these reforms generally led to more growth, which generated significant revenue feedback. In other words, the Laffer Curve works.

There’s even some evidence that tax competition leads to less government spending.

But these are bad things from a statist perspective.

This helps to explain why politicians from high-tax governments want to eviscerate tax competition and create some sort of global tax cartel. An “OPEC for politicians” would give them more leeway to impose class-warfare tax policy and buy votes.

The rhetoric they’ll use will be about reducing tax evasion. The real goal will be bigger government.

I’m not joking. Left-wing international bureaucracies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have justified their anti-tax competition efforts by asserting that jurisdictional rivalry “may hamper the application of progressive tax rates and the achievement of redistributive goals.”

I suppose we should give them credit for being honest about their ideological agenda. But for those who want good tax policy (and who also understand why that’s the right way to boost tax compliance), it’s particularly galling that the OECD is being financed with American tax dollars to push in the other direction.

P.S. I don’t know if you’ll want to laugh or cry, but here are some very odd examples of tax enforcement.

P.P.S. Here’s more evidence that high tax rates and tax complexity facilitate corruption.

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