Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Financial Privacy’ Category

More than ten years ago, I narrated this video in hopes of convincing politicians and bureaucrats that anti-money laundering laws (and associated regulations) were a costly and intrusive failure.

Sadly, my efforts to bring sanity to so-called AML policy (sometimes known as know-your-customer rules, or KYC) have been just as much of a failure as my efforts to get a flat tax. Or my campaign for a spending cap.

I can’t event get my left-leaning friends to care about this issue, even though poor people are disproportionately harmed when governments impose AML mandates on financial institutions.

Worst of all, not only is AML policy not getting better, there are constant efforts to make it more onerous.

The most-recent example is a proposed regulation, which Andrea O’Sullivan discusses in an article for Reason.

…the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department have proposed expanding what is called the “travel rule” to capture international funds transfers above $250. Currently, financial institutions are required to make certain reports on customers when they send international transactions in excess of $3,000. This has been the threshold since the travel rule was first adopted in the U.S. in 1996… surveilled people are suspected of no crime, nor are they given any opportunity to opt out of this data collection. Still, the government preemptively requires that their transactions be tagged and tracked as if they had done something wrong. …it’s worrying that government agencies don’t even consider personal privacy when proposing new regulations. …By law, federal agencies must issue cost-benefit analyses that weigh the trade-offs of a proposed new rule to industry and society. The travel rule analysis only considers the costs that would be imposed on banks on regulators. The extreme cost to privacy for millions of Americans is not even an afterthought… America’s financial surveillance system…creates compliance and hacking risks for institutions that must store this data. And it doesn’t even work very well. Criminals are routinely able to get the finance they need despite this web of data tracking. Meanwhile, innocent people may have trouble making transactions or get caught in the hassle of some overzealous agent. It’s a big mess.

This is an absurd proposal. The odds of any criminal being caught by added red tape are trivially small. Yet the bureaucrats at the Federal Reserve and Treasury are pushing this new regulation because they don’t care about costs that are borne by others.

Ideally, the entire reporting regime should be scrapped. As an interim measure, the $3,000 figure should be adjusted for the inflation that’s occurred since 1996, which would push the reporting limit to about $5,000.

Since we’re on the topic of inflation and reporting requirements, Prof. Randall Holcombe wrote an article for the Foundation for Economic Education about the anti-privacy reporting rules for other financial transactions.

…the Currency and Foreign Transactions Reporting Act of 1970 requires that financial institutions must keep records of cash transactions summing to more than $10,000 in one day and report suspicious transactions to the federal government. …because the limit is stated as a dollar amount ($10,000), inflation lowers the real value of that limit year after year. Adjusting for inflation, $10,000 in 1970, when the Act was passed, would be $65,000 today. …it appears to me the Act violates the Fourth Amendment, which states in part, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…”

Let’s close with a story in the Wall Street Journal that highlights how ordinary people are victimized by AML laws.

Mary Ann Liegey, a retired teacher in Manhasset, N.Y., was shocked in March when she received a letter from her local parish: “Your $20 check payable to St. Mary’s Church…was returned due to Frozen/Blocked Account.” The 75-year-old Ms. Liegey discovered that Citigroup Inc. had blocked her checking and trust accounts after she didn’t respond to a notice asking her for personal information to verify the accounts—part of the bank’s efforts to comply with government-mandated rules referred to as “know your customer,” or KYC. The rules are designed to make it harder for money launderers, terrorists and other criminals to finance illicit activities, hide funds or move dirty money around the globe. …The difficulty and complexity of these reviews are exacerbated by advances in technology that have fundamentally changed the ways people interact with banks. More customers are opening accounts or interacting through mobile apps rather than by walking into a branch and presenting physical identification.

Ms. Liegey isn’t the only victim.

There’s also Mr. Laderer.

Bill Laderer, who owns a landscaping business in Sea Cliff, N.Y., groused that Capital One Financial Corp. suddenly cut off his credit card because he hadn’t provided an employee identification number for his business, which has operated since 1941.

And Ms. Griffit.

Donna Griffit has had a Citigroup account for her California-based business, which helps startups craft pitches, for more than a decade. At the beginning of February, she got a letter saying the bank needed unspecified information from her by month’s end or her account could be closed. When she called the bank a few days later, no one could figure out what was needed, and the bank said it would get back to her, she recalled. She thought it was resolved. But in June, she discovered her account had been frozen.

I’ll close with this excerpt, which shows that all of us are actually victims because banks are spending lots of money to comply with AML/KYC laws.

Needless to say, those costs are passed along to customers.

…the average spending on KYC-related procedures for corporate and asset-manager clients by financial institutions with more than $10 billion in revenue grew to $150 million last year, with each having about 300 employees directly involved, up from just 68 a year prior.

What makes these laws so perverse is that they impose high costs on both individuals and businesses.

Yet they don’t reduce crime.

They don’t reduce terrorism.

They don’t stop drug dealers.

They don’t stop the mafia.

The bottom line is that you don’t help law enforcement by creating haystacks of data and then expect them to find needles.

Nonetheless, politicians support these laws because they can tell their constituents that they’re fighting bad people.

P.S. A recent aspect of AML/KYC laws is that there are proposals to ban cash (including the $100 bill).

P.P.S. In my campaign to be a global money launderer, I have one victory and one defeat.

P.P.P.S. Statists frequently demagogue against so-called tax havens for supposedly being hotbeds of dirty money, but take a look at this map put together by the Institute of Governance and you’ll find only one low-tax jurisdiction among the 28 nations listed.

P.P.P.P.S. You probably didn’t realize you could make a joke involving money laundering, but here’s one starring President Obama.

Read Full Post »

Ever since the bureaucrats at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development launched their attack on so-called harmful tax competition back in the 1990s, I’ve warned that the goal has been to create a global tax cartel.

Sort of an “OPEC for politicians.”

Supporters of the initiative said I was exaggerating, and that the OECD, acting on behalf of the high-tax nations that dominate its membership, simply wanted to reduce tax evasion. Indeed, some advocates even said that the effort could lead to lower tax rates.

That was a nonsensical claim. I actually read the various reports issued by the Paris-based bureaucracy. It was abundantly clear that the effort was based on a pro-tax harmonization theory known as “capital export neutrality.”

And, as I documented in my first study on the topic back in 2000, the OECD basically admitted the goal of the project was to enable higher taxes and bigger government.

  • Low-tax policies “unfairly erode the tax bases of other countries and distort the location of capital and services.”
  • Tax competition is “re-shaping the desired level and mix of taxes and public spending.”
  • Tax competition “may hamper the application of progressive tax rates and the achievement of redistributive goals.”

The OECD’s agenda was so radical that it even threatened low-tax jurisdiction with financial protectionism if they didn’t agree to help welfare states enforce their punitive tax laws.

At first, there was an effort to push back against the OECD’s tax imperialism – thanks in large part to the creation of the pro-competition Center for Freedom and Prosperity, which helped low-tax jurisdictions fight back (I almost got thrown in a Mexican jail as part of the fight!).

But then Obama got to the White House and sided with Europe’s big welfare states. Lacking the ability to resist the world’s most powerful nations, low-tax jurisdictions around the world were forced to weaken their human rights laws on privacy so it would be easier for high-tax countries to track and tax flight capital.

Once that happened, was the OECD satisfied?

Hardly. Any victory for statism merely serves as a springboard for the next campaign to weaken tax competition and prop up big government.

Indeed, the bureaucrats are now trying to impose minimum corporate tax rates. Let’s look at some excerpts from a report in the U.K.-based Financial Times.

…large multinationals could soon face a global minimum level of corporate taxation under new proposals from the OECD… The Paris-based organization called…for the introduction of a safety net to enable home countries to ensure their multinationals cannot escape taxation, even if other countries have offered them extremely low tax rates. …The proposals would…reduce incentives for countries to lower their tax rates… The OECD said: “A minimum tax rate on all income reduces the incentive for…tax competition among jurisdictions.”

Sadly, the Trump Administration is not fighting this pernicious effort.

Indeed, Trump’s Treasury Department is largely siding with the OECD, ostensibly because a one-size-fits-all approach is less bad than the tax increases that would be imposed by individual governments (but also because the U.S. has a bad worldwide tax system and our tax collectors also want to reach across borders to grab more money).

In any event, we can safely (and sadly) assume that this effort will lead to a net increase in the tax burden on businesses.

And that means bad news for workers, consumers, and shareholders.

Moreover, if this effort succeeds, then the OECD will move the goalposts once again and push for further forms of tax harmonization.

I’ll conclude by recycling a couple of videos produced by the Center for Freedom and Prosperity. Here’s my analysis of the OECD.

By the way, the OECD bureaucrats, who relentlessly push for higher taxes on you and me, get tax-free salaries!

And here’s my explanation of why tax competition should be celebrated rather than persecuted.

I also recommend this short speech that I delivered earlier this year in Europe, as well as this 2017 TV interview.

Last but not least, here are two visuals that help to explain why the OECD’s project is economically misguided.

First, here’s the sensible way to think about the wonky issue of “capital export neutrality.”

Yes, it would be nice if people could make economic decisions without having to worry about taxes. And sometimes people make inefficient decisions that only make sense because they don’t want governments to grab too much of their money.

But the potential inefficiencies associated with tax planning are trivial compared to the economic damage caused by higher tax rates, more double taxation, and a bigger burden of government spending.

Now let’s consider marginal tax rates. Good policy says they should be low. The OECD says they should be high.

Needless to say, people will be less prosperous if the OECD succeeds.

That’s why I fight on this issue, notwithstanding personal attacks.

P.S. Senator Rand Paul is one of the few lawmakers in Washington fighting on the right side of this issue.

P.P.S. If you want even more information, about 10 years ago, I narrated a three-part video series on tax havens, and even a video debunking some of Obama’s demagoguery on the topic.

Read Full Post »

I’m not a big fan of so-called anti-money laundering (AML) requirements.

And things are getting worse because these laws and rules increasingly are part of a Byzantine web of extraterritorial mandates – meaning nations trying to impose their laws on things that happen outside their borders.

Bruce Zagaris, a lawyer with special expertise in international legal issues, just wrote a study on this issue for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation.

Here’s how he frames the issue.

From the introduction of anti-money laundering laws in 1986, the United States government has led international efforts to prevent and prosecute money laundering…the U.S.’s unilateralism in the financial enforcement arena has alienated smaller jurisdictions and led to a substantial increase of costs for cross-border transactions. This article examines the trade-offs of the U.S.’s unilateral approach and argues for a rebalancing of the expanding financial enforcement regime. …under the “territorial” theory of extraterritorial jurisdiction, the U.S. has proactively asserted that it has the right to regulate criminal acts occurring outside the U.S. as long as they produce effects within the United States. …A criminal statute which Congress intends to have extraterritorial application may reach a defendant who has never even entered the U.S. if s/he participated in a conspiracy in which a co-conspirator’s activities occurred within the U.S.

In part, this is a problem of the United States trying to dictate policy in other nations.

But what goes around, comes around. As Bruce explains,the European Commission is trying to coerce American territories into changing their policies.

On February 13, 2019, the European Commission blacklisted 23 jurisdictions for their weak regulation of AML/CTF policy, increasing the level of oversight that European banks would have to overcome in conducting business with said jurisdictions. The list included four U.S. territories – Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the Virgin Islands… The U.S. Treasury Department immediately and swiftly condemned the blacklist, noting that it had “significant concerns about the substance of the list and the flawed process by which it was developed.” The Treasury further stated that it did not expect U.S. financial firms to pay any heed to the blacklist.

All this cross-border bullying would be bad news even if the underlying laws were reasonable.

But Bruce concludes by explaining that this is not the case.

The result of over-aggressive application of extraterritorial jurisdiction by the U.S. and the EU for anti-money laundering and prosecution of financial institutions and officials, together with the use of informal organizations, such as FATF, to establish new AML/CFT standards, has led to increasing exclusion of countries (called de-risking) and other depositors, especially in small jurisdictions. It has also led to substantial increase of costs for cross-border transactions, as financial institutions must increase AML due diligence, including Know Your Customer, Customer Due Diligence, and the requirement to report suspicious transactions, as well as be subject to prosecution and regulatory enforcement actions. National laws and international standards should have a cost-effect requirement, especially as they continually impose new requirements on the private sector and impede normal commerce and privacy.

All this extraterritoriality has economic implications.

Richard Rahn, in a column for the Washington Times, opines about the CF&P report.

…rarely do government leaders fully think through the effects of their actions — extraterritorial application of law being a prime example. …Noted legal scholar Bruce Zagaris, who specializes in international financial crime, has written a new paper for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation… the United States has proactively asserted it “has the right to regulate criminal acts by non-U.S. citizens occurring outside the U.S., as long as they produce effects in the U.S.” As can easily be seen, such a definition is a never-ending slippery-slope, which is causing great conflicts among governments. As a result of the increasingly expansive view of U.S. courts to take cases and enforce judgments extraterritorially, courts and legislatures in other countries are also asserting extraterritorial enforcement authority.

Richard explains why this is bad news for those who care about economic growth.

…It is difficult enough for businesses and individuals in any one jurisdiction to understand all the laws and regulations that apply to them, but once governments begin to extend their laws and regulations to foreign jurisdictions, the global financial and legal system begins to melt down. Laws and regulations are often in conflict, so those who are engaged in multiple legal jurisdictions are increasingly at risk — which causes them to rationally de-risk by withdrawing investment from those entities least able to defend themselves. The result is slower world growth and job creation. …Clear global rules need to be established as to when extraterritorial application of laws is justified and not justified. Issues like dual criminality in tax, anti-money laundering and terrorist finance need to be addressed to bring some rationality and fairness to the system. And finally, procedures need to be established so that any jurisdiction can challenge a rule that does not meet a reasonable cost-benefit test.

I’ll close by making two points.

First, politicians and bureaucrats claim that laws and regulations against money laundering are designed to fight crime. Don’t believe them. Money laundering is mostly a problem in “onshore” nations. The real motive is to undermine financial privacy so governments can track – and tax – capital around the world.

Second, American politicians and bureaucrats are playing with fire. The more we try to bully other nations to enforce our bad tax laws, the greater the risk that other governments no longer will use the dollar as a reserve currency. That would be costly to the U.S. economy.

P.S. Senator Rand Paul is one of the few heroes on this issue.

P.P.S. Click here for a good summary article on why laws should be limited by borders.

Read Full Post »

When I write about the benefits of trade, I periodically point out that America has a trade deficit because it has a foreign investment surplus.

And since investment is a key driver of economic growth and rising wages, that’s a good outcome.

It basically means that foreigners who earn dollars by exporting to America are helping to finance America’s future prosperity by then plowing that money back into our financial markets (see this video for more details).

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that politicians are making cross-border investment more difficult.

They are using tax and regulatory policies to hinder the flow of money, just like they use protectionist policies to hinder the flow of goods and services.

A new report from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, authored by Bruce Zagaris, explains this unfortunate development. He starts by explaining some of the bad policies imposed by Washington.

The ever-growing complexity and reach of the U.S. tax system impinges on the ability of U.S. taxpayers to live abroad, work abroad, open bank accounts abroad, or conduct business abroad. …These developments create a challenging environment, with taxpayers being subject to onerous – and sometimes conflicting – requirements. The complex array of obligations put taxpayers in legal jeopardy as governments threaten to impose sanctions on investors and businesses… The U.S. has even proactively prosecuted individuals and companies for cross-border tax activities that do not violate American laws. …The paperwork and reporting requirements for cross-border economic activity are extensive. …The icing on the cake of intrusiveness and costly compliance is the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act.

FATCA is horrid legislation, perhaps the single worst part of the internal revenue code.

And bad policy from the U.S. has given other nations an excuse to adopt similar bad rules – aided and abetted by statist international bureaucracies such as the European Commission and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The difficulties caused by extraterritorial taxation are exacerbated by similar moves by other nations, often implemented as a response to aggressive policies by the United States. … the OECD has developed compliance and enforcement initiatives. …extraterritorial tax rules also are impinging on corporations. …The EU has taken a series of aggressive steps to impose tax on cross-border transactions. …Overly aggressive tax compliance and enforcement initiatives erode globalization, impede the ability of normal commerce and the movement of people, capital, and goods, and threaten privacy.

I especially like Bruce’s conclusion. All of the rules that stifle and hinder cross-border investment only exist because politicians have adopted bad tax laws.

Most of the policies reviewed above are only necessary because governments not only tax income, but also impose extra layers of tax on income that is saved an invested, exacerbated by decisions to impose such tax laws on income earned outside national borders. In a neutral, territorial tax system that taxes economic activity only one time, such as the Hall-Rabushka flat tax, almost all international tax conflicts disappear.

Amen. If we had a flat tax, there would be no case to be made for these bad policies.

Writing for the Washington Times, Richard Rahn of the Institute for Global Economic Growth cites this new study as he warns that an ever-expanding web of global tax rules is throwing sand in the gears of the global economy.

Global economic growth, particularly foreign investment, is slowing. One reason is likely the growing complexity of engaging in cross-border financial transactions. Major companies, banks and other financial institutions have been required to pay, in some cases, multi-billion-dollar fines to various governments for some alleged tax or other violation. The question is: Why is this occurring when virtually all of these institutions have compliance officers, tax lawyers, accountants, auditors, etc.? Much of the problem seems to stem from the ever-changing regulations and laws among countries, which are increasingly impossible to understand and comply with, even by the most sophisticated businesses. …The Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation has just published an important paper by the highly regarded international tax lawyer Bruce Zagaris, titled “Why the U.S. and the Worldwide Tax Systems Have Run Amok.” …Overly complex and even incomprehensible rules govern many international wealth and business transfers, as well as very onerous reporting requirements for people that have foreign interests. …In his paper, Mr. Zagaris details the problems caused by FATCA and a number of other international tax-related rules and regulations. Many of the rules and regulations would never meet basic cost-benefit analysis. They create much pain for little or no gain.

I would modify that last sentence.

The only “gain” from all these tax rules is a comparatively small amount of additional tax revenue for politicians (Obama originally promised $100 billion annually from FATCA and the actual law is projected to collect than $1 billion per year).

Yet there is great pain imposed on the private sector.

Moreover, laws to hinder cross-border capital flows are especially disadvantageous for the United States, as illustrated by this chart from Bruce’s report.

Sadly, damage to the productive sector of the economy is not something that politicians lose sleep over.

After all, they wouldn’t be imposing risky extraterritorial policies if they actually cared about what’s best for the nation.

Read Full Post »

I’ve written repeatedly about how anti-money laundering (AML) laws are pointless, expensive, intrusive, discriminatory, and ineffective.

And they especially hurt poor people according to the World Bank.

That’s a miserable track record, even by government standards.

Now it’s time to share two personal stories to illustrate how AML laws work in practice.

Episode 1

Last decade, I wrote an article for a U.K.-based publication that focused on the insurance industry. I didn’t even realize they paid, so I was obviously happy when a check arrived in the mail.

The only catch was that the check was in British pounds and various charges and conversion fees would have consumed almost all the money if I tried to deposit the money in my local bank.

But that wasn’t too much of a problem since I had an upcoming trip to give a speech in England.

I figured I would swing by the British bank where the magazine had an account, show them my passport, and get my cash.

Oh, such youthful naiveté.

Here’s what actually happened. I stopped by a branch and was told that I couldn’t cash the check because anti-money laundering rules required that I have an address in the U.K. (my hotel didn’t count).

Needless to say, I was a bit irritated. Though I didn’t give up. In hopes that my experience was an anomaly (i.e., a particularly silly teller with a bureaucratic mindset), I stopped at another branch of the bank.

But that didn’t work. I got the same excuse about AML requirements.

And I was similarly thwarted at a third branch. By the way, the tellers sympathized with my plight, but they said the government was being very strict.

So I figured the way to get around this regulatory barrier would be to sign the check and have a friend deposit the money in her account and then give me some cash.

But her bank said this was also against the AML rules.

Fortunately, we got lucky when we went to another branch of her bank. A teller basically acknowledged that government’s rules made it impossible for me to get my money and she decided to engage in a much-appreciated act of civil disobedience.

This episode was annoying, but the silver lining is that I was in the U.K. to speak at an international economic crime conference in Cambridge on the topic of money laundering.

So I began my speech a day or two later by pseudo-confessing that I had just violated the nation’s silly and counterproductive laws on money laundering (I said “this may have happened to me” to give me some legal wiggle room since the audience was dominated by government officials, and I didn’t want to take any risks).

Episode 2

Today, I had my second incident with anti-money laundering laws.

I have a friend from the Caribbean who now operates a small Dubai-based business and he asked me if I could use Western Union to wire some money to an employee in the Dominican Republic.

I’ve done this for him a couple of times in the past (it is far cheaper to send money from the U.S.), so I stopped by a branch this morning, filled out the paperwork and sent the money.

Or, to be more accurate, I thought I sent the money.

As I was walking out, I got a text from Western Union saying that they put a hold on the transfer and that I needed to call a 1-800 number to answer some questions.

So I made the call and was told that they blocked the transfer because they were trying to “protect me” from potential consumer fraud.

It’s possible that this was a potential reason, but I immediately suspected that Western Union was actually trying to comply with the various inane and counter-productive AML laws and regulations imposed by Washington.

My suspicions were warranted. Even though I explained that I wasn’t a victim of fraud and answered 10 minutes of pointless questions (how long did I know my friend in Dubai? when did I last see him? what would the employee use the money for?), Western Union ultimately decided to reject the transfer.

Why? I assume because AML laws and regulations require companies to flag “unusual transactions,” and financial institutions would rather turn away business rather than risk getting some bureaucrat upset.

So my unblemished track record of being a successful “money launderer” came to an end.

But here’s the real bottom line.

Other than wasting about 30 minutes, I didn’t lose anything. But a small business owner will now have to pay $150 more for a transaction, and an employee from a poor country will have to wait longer to get money.

In some sense, even Western Union is a victim. The company lost the $20 fee for my transaction. But that’s probably trivial compared to the money that they pay for staffers who have the job of investigating whether various transfers satisfy Uncle Sam’s onerous rules.

Even my “successful” example of money laundering in Episode 1 was costly. I lost about two hours of my day.

And if I wasn’t for the nice teller who decided to break the law, I probably would have lost out on about $100. Perhaps not worst outcome in the world, but now think about how poor people suffer when they suffer similar losses thanks to these policies.

Remember, by the way, all these costs aren’t offset by any benefits. There is zero evidence that AML laws reduce underlying crime rates (which was the rationale for these laws being imposed in the first place!).

P.S. You may not think AML policy lends itself to humor, but here’s an amusing anecdote involving our former President.

P.P.S. Some folks on the left use AML arguments to justify their “war on cash,” and they’re pushing to restrict cash as an interim measure.

P.P.P.S. Leftist politicians frequently accuse so-called tax havens of being sanctuaries for dirty money, but those low-tax jurisdictions have much better track records than onshore nations.

Read Full Post »

Beginning in the 1980s, money-laundering laws were enacted in hopes of discouraging criminal activity by making it harder for crooks to use the banking system. Unfortunately, this approach has been an expensive failure.

Amazingly, some politicians actually want to make these laws even worse. I wrote last year about some intrusive, expensive, and pointless legislation proposed by Senators Grassley, Feinstein, Cornyn, and Whitehouse.

Now there’s another equally misguided set of proposals from Senators Rubio and Wyden, along with Representatives Pearce, Luetkemeyer, and Maloney. They want to require complicated and needless ownership data from millions of small businesses and organizations.

David Burton of the Heritage Foundation has a comprehensive report on the legislation. Here’s some of what he wrote.

Congress is seriously considering imposing a beneficial ownership reporting regime on American businesses and other entities, including charities and churches. …the House and Senate bills…share three salient characteristics. First, they would impose a large compliance burden on the private sector, primarily on small businesses, charities, and religious organizations. Second, they create hundreds of thousands—potentially more than one million—inadvertent felons out of otherwise law-abiding citizens. Third, they do virtually nothing to achieve their stated aim of protecting society from terrorism or other forms of illicit finance. …Furthermore, the creation of this expensive and socially damaging reporting edifice is unnecessary. The vast majority of the information that the proposed beneficial ownership reporting regime would obtain is already provided to the Internal Revenue Service.

Richard Rahn criticizes this new proposal in his weekly column.

…what would you think of a member of Congress who proposes to put a new regulation on the smallest of businesses that does not meet a cost-benefit test, denies basic privacy protections and, because of its vagueness and ambiguity, is likely to cause very high numbers of otherwise law-abiding Americans to be felons? …Some bureaucrats and elected officials argue that the government needs to know who the “beneficial owners” are of even the tiniest of businesses in order to combat “money-laundering,” tax evasion or terrorism. …Should the church ladies who run the local non-profit food bank be put in jail for their failure to submit the form to the Feds that would give them the exemption from the beneficial ownership requirement? …Given how few people are actually convicted of money-laundering, the overwhelming evidence is that 99 percent of the people being forced to submit to these costly and time-consuming proposed regulations will not be guilty of money-laundering, terrorism or whatever, and thus should not be harassed by government.

Writing for the Hill, J.W. Verret, an expert in business law from George Mason University Law School, highlights some of the serious problems with this new regulatory scheme.

Legislation under consideration in Congress, the Counter Terrorism and Illicit Finance Act, risks tying entrepreneurs’ hands with even more red tape. In fact, it could destroy any benefit some small businesses stand to gain from the tax reform legislation passed last year. It would require corporations and limited liability companies with fewer than 20 employees to file a form with the Treasury Department at the time of formation, and update it annually, listing the names of all beneficial owners and individuals exercising control. …Given the substantial penalties, this will impose a massive regulatory tax on small businesses as they spend money on lawyers that should go toward workers’ pay. …It is unlikely someone on a terrorist watch list would provide their real name on the required form, and Treasury will probably never have sufficient resources to audit names in real time.

Professor Verret explains some of the practical problems and tradeoffs with these proposals.

…some individual money laundering investigations would be easier with a small business registry available. But IRS tax fraud investigations would be much easier with access to taxpayers’ bank account login information — would we tolerate the associated costs and privacy violations? …How is the term “beneficial owner” defined? How is “control” defined? As a professor of corporate law, I have given multiple lectures on those very questions. What if your company is owned, in part, by another company? Or there is a chain of ownership through multiple intermediary companies? What if a creditor of the company, though not currently a shareholder or beneficial owner, obtains the contractual right to convert their debt contract into ownership equity at some point in the future? …for the average small business owner, navigating those complexities against the backdrop of a potential three year prison sentence will often require legal counsel. Companies affected by this legislation should conservatively expect to spend at least $5,000 on a corporate lawyer to help navigate the complexities of the new filing requirements.

Needless to say, squandering $5,000 or more for some useless paperwork is not a recipe for more entrepreneurship.

So how do advocates for this type of legislation respond?

Clay Fuller of the American Enterprise Institute wants us to have faith that bad people will freely divulge their real identities and that bureaucrats will make effective use of the information.

It is time to weed out illicit financing and unfair competition from criminals and bad actors. …Passing the House Financial Services Committee’s Counter Terrorism and Illicit Finance Act should be a priority for the 115th Congress. …Dictators, terrorists and criminals have been freeriding on the prosperity and liberty of the American economy for too long. Officials at FinCEN are sure that beneficial ownership legislation will exponentially increase conviction rates. We should give law enforcement what they need to do their jobs.

Gee, all that sounds persuasive. I’m also against dictators, terrorists, and criminals.

But if you read his entire column, you’ll notice that he offers zero evidence that this costly new legislation actually would catch more bad guys.

And since we already know that anti-money laundering laws impose heavy costs and catch almost no bad guys, wouldn’t it be smart to figure out better ways of allocating law enforcement resources?

I don’t know if we should be distressed or comforted, but other parts of the world also are hamstringing their financial industries with similar policies.

Here’s some analysis from Europe.

…a new reportfrom Consult Hyperion, commissioned by Mitek, reveals that the average UK bank is currently wasting £5 million each year due to manual and inefficient Know Your Customer (KYC) processes, and this annual waste is expected to rise to £10 million in three years. …Key Findings…Inefficient KYC processes cost the average bank £47 million a year…Total costs for KYC processes range from £10 to £100 per check…In the UK, 25% of applications are abandoned due to KYC friction… The cost of KYC checks is much too high, placing too much reliance on inefficient and error-prone manual processes,” said Steve Pannifer, author of the report and COO at Consult Hyperion.

And here’s an update from Asia.

Anti-money laundering and know-your-customer compliance have become leading concerns at financial institutions in Asia today. … we estimate that AML compliance budgets across the six Asian markets in this study total an estimated US$1.5 billion annually for banks alone. …A majority of respondents (55%) indicated that AML compliance has a negative impact on their firms’ business productivity. …An additional 15% felt that AML compliance actually threatens their firms’ ability to do business. …Eighty-two per cent of survey respondents saw overall AML compliance costs increasing in 2016, with one third projecting that costs will rise by 20% or more.

The bottom line is that laws and regulations dealing with money laundering are introduced with high hopes of reducing crime.

And when there’s no effect on criminal activity, proponents urge ever-increasing levels of red tape. And when that doesn’t work, they propose new levels of regulation. And still nothing changes.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Here’s the video I narrated on this topic. It’s now a bit dated, but everything I said is even more true today.

Let’s close with a surreal column in the Washington Post from Dana Milbank. He was victimized by silly anti-money laundering policies, but seems to approve.

I did not expect that my wife and I would be flagged as possible financiers of international terrorism. …The teller told me my account had been blocked. My wife went to an ATM to take out $200. Denied. Soon I discovered that checks I had written to the au pair and my daughter’s volleyball instructor had bounced. …I began making calls to the bank and eventually got an explanation: The bank was looking into whether my wife and I were laundering money, as they are required to by the Bank Secrecy Act as amended by the Patriot Act. …the bank seemed particularly suspicious that my wife was the terrorist… The bank needed answers. Did she work for the government? How much money does she make? Is she a government contractor? …a week later they came back with a new threat to freeze the account and a more peculiar question: Is my wife politically influential?

Sounds like an awful example of a bank being forced by bad laws to harass a customer.

Heck, it is an awful example of that happening.

But in a remarkable display of left-wing masochism, Milbank approves.

The people who flagged us were right to do so. …Citibank, though perhaps clumsy, was doing what it should be doing. “Know your customer” regulations are important because they prevent organized-crime networks, terrorists and assorted bad guys from moving money. Banking regulations generally are a hassle, and expensive. But they protect us — not just from terrorists such as my wife and me but from financial institutions that would otherwise exploit their customers and jeopardize economic stability the way they did before the 2008 crash.

I guess we know which way Milbank would have responded to this poll question from 2013.

But he would be wrong because money-laundering laws don’t stop terrorism.

We’re giving up freedom and imposing high costs on our economy, yet we’re not getting any additional security in exchange.

And I can’t resist commenting on his absurd assertion that money laundering played a role in the 2008 crash. Does he think that mafia kingpins somehow controlled the Federal Reserve and insisted on easy-money policies and artificially low interest rates? Does he think ISIS operatives were somehow responsible for reckless Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac subsidies?

Wow, I thought the people who blamed “tax havens” for the financial crisis deserved the prize for silliest fantasies. But Milbank gives them a run for their money.

P.S. You probably didn’t realize you could make a joke involving money laundering, but here’s one featuring former President Obama.

Read Full Post »

I haven’t written in any detail about “jury nullification” since late 2010 and it’s time to rectify that sin of omission.

Nullification occurs when a jury votes not guilty because a law is either unjust or wrongly applied, not because a defendant is actually innocent. And I know that’s what I would do if I was on a jury and the government was persecuting someone for engaging is self-defense or getting nabbed by a revenue camera.

The bottom line is that Walter Williams is right when he says that it is immoral to obey bad laws.

Let’s review some expert opinions.

Writing on the editorial page of the New York Times, a former prosecutor urges jury nullification.

Earlier this year, prosecutors charged Julian P. Heicklen, a retired chemistry professor, with jury tampering because he stood outside the federal courthouse in Manhattan providing information about jury nullification to passers-by. …The prosecutors who charged Mr. Heicklen said that “advocacy of jury nullification, directed as it is to jurors, would be both criminal and without constitutional protections no matter where it occurred.” The prosecutors in this case are wrong. The First Amendment exists to protect speech like this — honest information that the government prefers citizens not know. …Jury nullification is not new; its proponents have included John Hancock and John Adams. The doctrine is premised on the idea that ordinary citizens, not government officials, should have the final say as to whether a person should be punished. As Adams put it, it is each juror’s “duty” to vote based on his or her “own best understanding, judgment and conscience, though in direct opposition to the direction of the court.” …Nullification has been credited with helping to end alcohol prohibition and laws that criminalized gay sex. Last year, Montana prosecutors were forced to offer a defendant in a marijuana case a favorable plea bargain after so many potential jurors said they would nullify that the judge didn’t think he could find enough jurors to hear the case.

A column in the Washington Post by Professor Glenn Reynolds at the University of Tennessee argues that juries have an obligation to rein in bad prosecutors.

Despite the evidence, those responsible for convicting you may choose to let you go, if they think that sending you to jail would result in an injustice. That can happen through what’s called “prosecutorial discretion,” where a prosecutor decides not to bring or pursue charges against you because doing so would be unfair, even though the evidence is strong. Or it can happen through “jury nullification,” where a jury thinks that the evidence supports conviction but then decides to issue a “not guilty” verdict because it feels that a conviction would be unjust. …Prosecutorial discretion is regularly applied and generally regarded as a standard part of criminal justice. …So-called jury nullification, on the other hand, gets far less respect. Though it is clearly within the power of juries to refuse to convict whenever they choose, judges and prosecutors tend to view this practice with hostility. …there has been a massive shift of power toward prosecutors, the result of politics, over-criminalization, institutional leverage and judges’ failure to provide supervision. It’s time to redress the balance.

By the way, Glenn has proposed ways (see postscript of this column) of addressing this imbalance, which is tied to over-criminalization.

And here’s another column in the Washington Post arguing in favor of jury empowerment.

As I tried cases, I gained enormous respect for the seriousness with which jurors approached their work. …These jurors had no problem convicting anyone of a violent offense, if the government proved its case. For drug crimes, however, it was a different story. …they frequently voted “not guilty” in nonviolent drug cases, no matter how compelling the evidence. …When I started teaching law, I published an article in the Yale Law Journal situating these D.C. jurors in a long line of jurors…who refused to convict American patriots of sedition against the British crown; jurors who acquitted people guilty of violating the Fugitive Slave Act; and jurors who would not punish gay people for “sodomy” for having consensual sex.

Amen. Juries should pursue justice, not act as rubber stamps when prosecutors act as cogs for an unjust regime.

Now let’s look at a real-world example, as reported by the New York Times.

As much as chocolate and watches, Switzerland is known for bank secrecy. …it also made Swiss banks targets for an assault by the United States government… Bank Frey was among the very few to defy the legal onslaught. And Mr. Buck…was the bank’s public face, responsible for landing and then managing American accounts. That put Mr. Buck in the government’s cross hairs. In 2013, a federal grand jury indicted him for conspiring to help Americans avoid taxes. …But things didn’t go as prosecutors had planned… The crux of the defense was that the responsibility to pay taxes and declare income did not rest with Mr. Buck. It was his clients who had decided not to pay taxes. He was under no obligation to tattle… Prosecutors branded him as a crucial cog in an international tax-evasion scheme. …Then it was Mr. Agnifilo’s turn. …“Stefan Buck has nothing whatsoever, nothing whatsoever, to do with the choice that an American taxpayer makes” to not declare offshore assets. …The jury deliberated for a little more than a day. …the verdict: not guilty.

The story doesn’t mention jury nullification, but I’m assuming – from a technical legal perspective – the prosecutors had an open-and-shut case against Mr. Buck. After all, he did “conspire” to help Americans protect their income from the IRS.

But the jury decided that conviction would be absurd because a Swiss person on Swiss soil has no obligation to help enforce bad U.S. tax policy. So they voted not guilty because that was the only moral choice.

And the good news is that this is becoming a pattern.

In October 2014, one of UBS’s top executives, Raoul Weil, went on trial in Florida. Federal prosecutors accused him of helping clients hide billions. Mr. Weil’s lawyers argued he had no knowledge of or responsibility for what had happened. The jury deliberated for barely an hour before acquitting him. The same week, a Los Angeles jury acquitted an Israeli banker who faced similar accusations. The Americans’ pursuit of foreign bankers no longer looked invincible.

The even-better news is that these nullification decisions by juries may now lead to some “prosecutorial discretion.”

The Justice Department had now lost the three cases it had tried against foreign bankers who helped Americans avoid taxes. Dozens more cases are pending. Those who represent accused Swiss bankers say they expect Mr. Buck’s verdict to embolden defendants and to cause prosecutors to think twice before bringing new charges.

In other words, the bad law will still exist but hopefully will have little or no impact because prosecutors are less likely to file charges and juries won’t convict when they do.

That’s a victory for liberty, though it surely would be best – as we discussed just a few days ago – if politicians repealed the bad laws that make unjust prosecutions possible.

P.S. I’ve confessed mixed feelings about potential nullification in cases of vigilante justice.

P.P.S. In my younger days, I assumed that cops and prosecutors were the good guys, helping to maintain an orderly society. I still think that most of them want to do what’s right, but I also now realize that our Founding Fathers were very wise to include strong protections for defendants in our Constitution. Simply stated, some cops and some prosecutors are bad and those bad apples are why I favor strengthening the Fourth Amendment and have become more skeptical of the death penalty.

P.P.P.S. Even if you’re a law-abiding person, you should support civil liberties.

Read Full Post »

The late Mancur Olsen was a very accomplished academic economist who described the unfortunate tendency of vote-seeking governments to behave like “stationary bandits,” seeking to extract the maximum amount of money from taxpayers.

I’m not nearly as sophisticated, so I simply refer to this process as “goldfish government.”

Tax competition is a way of discouraging this self-destructive behavior. Politicians are less likely to over-tax and over-spend if they know that jobs and investment can migrate from high-tax nations to low-tax jurisdictions (borders can be a hassle, but they are beneficial since they presumably represent a limit on the reach of a government’s power).

This is why I’m a big fan of so-called tax havens.

I want politicians to be afraid that the geese with the golden eggs may fly away. This is one of the reasons why “offshore” nations play a very valuable role in the global economy.

But it’s important to realize that there’s also a moral argument for tax havens.

Ask yourself whether you would want the government to have easy access to your nest egg (whether it’s a lot or a little) if you lived in Russia? Or Venezuela? Or China? Or Zimbabwe?

Ask yourself whether you trust the bureaucracy to protect the privacy of your personal financial information if you lived in a country with corruption problems like Mexico? Or India? Or South Africa?

Here’s a story from France24 that underscores my point.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared Sunday that businessmen who move assets abroad are committing “treason”, adding that his government should put an end to the practice. “I am aware that some businessmen are attempting to place their assets overseas. I call on the government not to authorise any such moves, because these are acts of treason,” Erdogan said in televised comments to party members in the eastern town on Mus.

Allow me to translate. What Erdogan is saying is “I don’t want escape options for potential victims of expropriation.” For all intents and purposes, he’s basically whining that he can’t steal money that is held offshore.

Which, of course, is why offshore finance is so important.

Professor Tyler Cowen elaborates in a Bloomberg column.

I’d like to speak up for offshore banking as a significant protection against tyranny and unjust autocracy. It’s not just that many offshore financial institutions, such as hedge funds registered in the Cayman Islands, are entirely legal, but also that the practice of hiding wealth overseas has its upside. …offshore…accounts make it harder for autocratic governments to confiscate resources from their citizens. That in turn limits the potential for tyranny.

Tyler looks at some of the research and unsurprisingly finds that there’s a lot of capital flight from unstable regimes.

A recent study shows which countries are most likely to use offshore banking, as measured by a percentage of their gross domestic product. …The top five countries on this list, measured as a percentage of GDP, are United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Argentina, based on estimates from 2007. In all of those cases the risk of arbitrary political confiscations of wealth is relatively high. …When I consider that list of countries, I don’t think confidential offshore banking is such a bad thing. …consider some of the countries that are not major players in the offshore wealth sweepstakes. China and Iran, for instance, have quite low percentages of their GDPs held in offshore accounts, in part because they haven’t been well integrated into global capital markets. …Are we so sure it would be bad for more Chinese and Iranian wealth to find its way into offshore banks? The upshot would be additional limits on the power of the central leaders to confiscate wealth and to keep political opposition in line.

So what’s the bottom line?

Simple. People need ways of protecting themselves from greedy government.

From the vantage point of Western liberalism, individuals should be free from arbitrary confiscations of their wealth, connected to threats against their life and liberty, even if those individuals didn’t earn all of that wealth justly or honestly. There is even a “takings clause” built into the U.S. Constitution. On top of these moral issues, such confiscations may scare off foreign investment and slow progress toward the rule of law.

By the way, the moral argument shouldn’t be limited to nations with overtly venal governments that engage in wealth expropriation. What about the rights of people in nations – such as Argentina and Greece – where  governments wreck economies because of blind incompetence? Shouldn’t they have the ability to protect themselves from wealth destruction?

I actually raised some of these arguments almost 10 years ago in this video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

P.S. There’s lots of evidence that politicians raise tax rates when tax competition is weakened.

P.P.S. Which is why I’m very happy that Rand Paul is leading the fight against a scheme for a global tax cartel.

Read Full Post »

I wrote a four-part series about how governments are waging a war against cash, with the first two columns looking at why politicians are so interested in taking this radical step.

  • In Part I, I looked at the argument that cash should be banned or restricted so governments could more easily collect additional tax revenue.
  • In Part II, I reviewed the argument that cash should be curtailed so that governments could more easily impose Keynesian-style monetary policy.

Part III and Part IV are also worth reading, though I confess you’ll just get additional evidence to bolster what I wrote in the first two columns.

Today, let’s look at a real-world example of what happens when a government seeks to curtail cash. It happened in India last November, and I wrote about the disruption that was caused when the government banned certain notes.

But maybe the short-run costs were acceptable because there are long-run benefits. That’s certainly possible, but the evidence suggests that the Indian government is doing long-run damage.

Derek Scissors of the American Enterprise Institute has a new column on what’s happening with India’s economy. He is not impressed.

There is certainly a long-standing and extensive corruption problem. The discussion of “black money” has become so absurd, however, that it has little relation to corruption. …Taking currency notes out of circulation in a surprise move late last year was said to target black money inside the country. Seizure of cash was justified by a huge amount of hidden funds. …For political reasons, black money is being wildly exaggerated as an economic issue. …Directly related to hoping there is trillions in black money is wanting to tax those mythical trillions. All governments chase revenue but India’s pursuit seems especially misguided. …Good policy enhances competition and individual economic rights for the sake of greater productivity and personal income. Being obsessed with black money, tax revenue, and GDP growth does nothing to enhance competition or individual rights and leaves ordinary Indians worse off.

India’s central bank is even more critical, bluntly stating that the plan failed, as reported by the BBC.

Indians returned almost all of the high-currency notes banned in last year’s shock government crackdown on illegal cash, the central bank says. It said 15.28tn rupees ($242bn) – or 99% – of the money had made its way back into the banking system. Ministers had hoped the move would make it difficult for hoarders of undeclared wealth to exchange it for legal tender. The news that it did not will raise questions about the policy, which brought chaotic scenes across India. …Many low-income Indians, traders and ordinary savers who rely on the cash economy were badly hit. …As per the RBI data, it’s safe to say that demonetisation has been a failure of epic proportions. …Agriculture, the rural economy and property – which rely largely on cash transactions – were sectors hit by the ban. It also contributed to a slowdown in economic growth.

Indeed, the former head of the central bank warned the government ahead of time that the plan wouldn’t work. Here are some details from a Bloomberg story.

Raghuram Rajan was governor of the Reserve Bank of India in February 2016, when he was asked by the government for his views on demonetization… “Although there may be long-term benefits, I felt the likely short-term economic costs would outweigh them, and felt there were potentially better alternatives to achieve the main goals,” he wrote in the book. “I made these views known in no uncertain terms.” …speculation has raged over who thought up the policy, with the debate getting more divisive last week as a slew of data showed demonetization contributed to a growth slump without meeting its targets. …the cash ban devastated small businesses. More than 1.5 million jobs were said to be lost and newspapers reported deaths linked to the decision.

Rajan correctly observed that the best way to boost tax compliance is with low tax rates.

“It’s not that easy to flush out the black money,” Rajan had said, using the local term for cash stashed away illegally to avoid tax. He added that he’d rather focus on the incentives for black money, such as tax rates.

Amen. This is a point I’ve made over and over and over and over again.

Meanwhile, the Indian Express also has a column, written by a former Chief Economist at the World Bank, on how demonetization has been a failure.

…a wealth of analysis and data have become available. Demonetisation’s half-anniversary is a good time to take stock of this historic decision. The verdict is clear. It was a monetary policy blunder. It achieved next to nothing, and inflicted a large cost on the poor and the informal sector. …demonetisation took the wind out of India’s sails. My calculation is that around 1.5 percentage points of growth were lost to it.

A column in the Harvard Business Review pours cold water on the notion that demonetization is an effective way of reducing corruption.

The original reason given for the drastic demonetization action was to expose the so-called “black” market, fueled by money that is illegally gained and undeclared for tax purposes. …banks were estimated to have received 14.97 trillion rupees (around $220 billion) by the December 30 deadline, or 97% of the 15.4 trillion rupees’ worth of currency demonetized. …These rates of deposits defied expectations that vast troves of undeclared wealth would not find their way back to the banks and that black marketeers would lose this money since they would not be able to deposit their undeclared cash without being found out. This didn’t happen.

It probably “didn’t happen” because the government was wildly wrong when it claimed that cash was the problem.

…when corrupt people need places to park their ill-gotten gains, cash normally is not at the top of their list. Only a tiny proportion of undeclared wealth is held in cash. In an analysis of income-tax probes, the highest level of illegal money detection in India was found to be in 2015–2016, and the cash component was only about 6%. The remaining was invested in business, stocks, real estate, jewelry, or “benami” assets, which are bought in someone else’s name.

Indeed, the Washington Post reports that the new notes already are being used for illegal purposes.

For the first few weeks of demonetization, it was common to meet Indians who felt that their collective suffering and inconvenience was justified because it would ultimately usher in a less corrupt, more equal India. But as the initiative enters its second month, more and more reports are emerging of seizures of vast quantities of hoarded cash in the new notes. Like water reaching the sea, the corrupt, it seems, have found ways to navigate around the government’s new obstacles. …A sense is building that while millions of Indians languish in ATM lines, the old black money system is simply restarting itself with the new notes.

The real story is that the corruption is caused by government, not cash.

The biggest question is how people are getting their hands on such huge stashes of the new currency. …one way: visiting your local politician.

What’s especially disappointing is that the United States government took money from American taxpayers and used those funds to encourage India’s failed policy.

And here are some excerpts from a report by the Hindu.

The United States on Wednesday described India’s demonetisation drive as an “important and necessary” step to curb illicit cash and actions. “…this was, we believe, an important and necessary step to crack down on illegal actions,” Mark Toner, State Department spokesperson, said in response to a question. …Acknowledging that the move inconvenienced people, Mr. Toner said it was “a necessary one to address the corruption.”

It’s worth pointing out that the U.S. government was encouraging India’s bad policy during the waning days of the Obama Administration, so it’s possible that taxpayers no longer will be funding bad policy now that Trump is in the White House.

I hope there’s a change, but I won’t hold my breath. The permanent bureaucracy has a statist orientation and it takes a lot of work for political appointees to shift policy in a different direction. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think that will happen

P.S. The Indian government also is hurting the nation – and poor people – with a value-added tax. Bloomberg has a report on some of the misery.

Before Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced the country’s new goods and services tax on July 1, Ansari said he was earning 6,000 rupees ($93) a day selling leather jackets, wallets, bags and belts. But India’s new tax classified leather products as luxury items and raised the rate to 28 percent — more than double the 13.5 percent tax levied until June 30. Since then, his business has collapsed. “My business is down nearly 75 percent,” Ansari said… India’s vast informal economy — which accounts for more than 90 percent of the workforce — is struggling under India’s new tax rates…broader pain being felt by many small-and-medium-sized businesses in India’s informal sector, said K.E. Raghunathan, president of the All India Manufacturers Organisation.

The bottom line is that India needs more economic liberty, building on some good reforms in the 1990s. Unfortunately, politicians today are delivering bigger government.

P.P.S. If you want to read about some symptoms of India’s bloated government, the country has a member in the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame, it also produced the most horrifying example of how handouts create bad incentives, and it mistreats private schools to compensate for the wretched failure of government schools.

P.P.P.S. Here’s a very powerful factoid. America has many immigrant populations that earn above-average incomes. But, by far, Indian-Americans are the most successful.

Just imagine, then, how fast India would grow and how rich the people would be with Hong Kong-style economic liberty?

Read Full Post »

Republicans promised voters all sorts of pro-growth reforms. They assured us that they learned a lesson about the dangers of expanding government and calling it “compassionate conservatism.”

Give us control of both Congress and the White House, they said before the election, and we’ll move our agenda to limit government and drain the swamp in Washington.

  • Repeal Obamacare!
  • Cut tax rates!
  • Slash wasteful spending!
  • Reform entitlements!
  • Eliminate senseless red tape!

Of course, now that they’re in power, they’re getting cold feet. It now appears there will be reform of the disastrous Obamacare law, but not full repeal. Moreover, tax cuts are being jeopardized by a risky scheme for a $1 trillion “border-adjustable” tax hike. Based on Trump’s recent address to Congress, I’m also not holding my breath for much-needed spending cuts and entitlement reform. And it’s unclear whether we’ll see much progress cutting back on the mountains of regulation hindering economic vitality.

Even the easy promises may not be fulfilled.

The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) is an odious law enacted back in 2010 when the left controlled all the levers of power. It’s horrible legislation that threatens the rest of the world with financial protectionism (a 30 percent levy on all money flowing out of the United States) unless foreign governments and foreign financial institutions agree to serve as deputy tax collectors for America’s anti-competitive worldwide tax system.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the Republican platform endorses the repeal of this onerous law.

But will GOPers deliver on that promise? Especially if the left unleashes the kind of demagoguery we often see in Congress and that we saw from Obama during the 2008 campaign?

I guess time will tell, but if the goal is good policy (and keeping promises), this law deserves to be tossed in the trash.

I’ve previously explained that FATCA is so brutal that it has led many overseas Americans to give up their citizenship simply because FATCA made their lives miserable. They couldn’t open bank accounts. They had trouble finding places to manage their investments. Even retirement accounts became a nightmare.

Some people said that these difficulties were just temporary and would disappear once everyone learned how the law operated.

Hardly. Let’s start with some data from a Bloomberg story that should be a wake-up call for the crowd in Washington.

The number of Americans renouncing their citizenship rose to a new record of 5,411 last year, up 26 percent from 2015, according to the latest government data. …Since Fatca came into being, annual totals for Americans renouncing citizenship have reached their four highest historic levels.

And here’s a chart showing this dismal trend.

The Wall Street Journal opines on this issue today.

…the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (Fatca) became law in 2010 to go after fat cats stashing money abroad, these pages have reported that it has led the IRS to treat law-abiding Americans as criminals. …Under Fatca, Americans must now report overseas holdings of more than $50,000 even if they owe no taxes, or else face crushing fines. For foreign financial institutions, the penalty for not giving the IRS what it wants to know about their American clients is a 30% withholding penalty on any U.S.-sourced payment to these institutions. …With the GOP controlling Congress and White House, the time is ripe for Republicans to make good on their pledge and give Fatca the heave-ho.

Amazingly, even the “taxpayer advocate” at the IRS recognizes the law is a disgrace, reversing the presumption of innocence in the Constitution.

The IRS has adopted an enforcement-oriented regime with respect to international taxpayers. Its operative assumption appears to be that all such taxpayers should be suspected of fraudulent activity, unless proven otherwise.

This is a remarkable development. I’ve groused before that the IRS’s taxpayer advocate has a bad habit of advocating for the IRS rather than the American people, so FATCA must be really bad to generate a report that actually defends the rights of taxpayers.

It’s also bad news for financial institutions.

An article in the Economist has some very remarkable admissions, including the fact that compliance costs will be at least twice as high as the tax revenue that ostensibly is being generated.

FATCA’s intrusiveness has caused concern among banks and fund managers. It raises big questions about data privacy. Compliance costs, mostly borne overseas, are likely to be at least double the revenue that the law will generate for America. The necessary overhauls of systems and procedures and the extra digging around to identify American clients could add $100m or more to a large bank’s administrative costs. No wonder bankers have dubbed FATCA the Fear And Total Confusion Act. An OECD tax official describes the law as “awful, in a way, like a nuclear bomb” but also sees it as “a remarkable leap forward for transparency”. …A further concern is the risk of misuse of information by corrupt administrations, or rogue government employees, such as the sale of personal financial data to would-be kidnappers.

It’s also revealing that an OECD bureaucrat thinks that an “awful…nuclear bomb” can be seen as a “remarkable leap forward.” I guess that’s the attitude we should expect from leftist bureaucrats who are exempt from paying tax on their own bloated salaries.

But I call it disgusting and I desperately hope that Trump gets rid of the subsidies that American taxpayers send to this parasitical Paris-based bureaucracy.

But I’m digressing.

Let’s now focus on how the law is an attack on the sovereignty of other nations (and how it creates a precedent that will be used to attack America’s fiscal sovereignty).

Some leftists justify this wretched law by saying it only targets so-called tax havens. But Trinidad and Tobago is hardly in that category. Yet because FATCA applies to the entire world, a senior official in that country very much hopes Trump will follow through on promises in the Republican platform to repeal the misguided legislation.

Kamla Persad-Bissessar, the leader of the opposition coalition in parliament, recently…discovered that the GOP had called for repeal of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or Fatca, which is best understood as a license for IRS imperialism. …Mrs. Persad-Bissessar wrote Donald Trump in January asking if he will keep this promise. …Mrs. Persad-Bissessar, a former prime minister, wants to know because the Trinidad and Tobago parliament is now considering changing the nation’s laws to accommodate Fatca.

Repeal would be good for T&T, but it also would be good for the USA.

Americans have an even bigger stake in the answer. …the law has become another example of gross federal overreach, adding another burden on Americans overseas who are already paying taxes where they live. The 2010 law has almost no parallel anywhere, for good reason. While most nations limit their taxes to income earned within their borders, the U.S. is among the smaller group of nations that taxes its citizens on global income. …The roughly eight million Americans working overseas have been hit hardest by this bad law. Some foreign banks and financial institutions have responded simply by refusing to take American customers, on grounds that Fatca requirements are more trouble than the business is worth. For similar reasons others do not want Americans as business partners. Many others of modest means who owe no U.S. taxes can still find themselves hit by hefty fines and penalties because they have fallen afoul of the reporting requirements.

Heck, even if the law isn’t repealed, Trump can defang it.

…the whole Fatca edifice has been built on the intergovernmental agreements that Treasury has negotiated with more than 100 countries—agreements for which there is no statutory authority or Congressional ratification. Mr. Trump could take the teeth out of Fatca by announcing he has suspended negotiations for future agreements and won’t enforce the ones we have. …Let’s hope President Trump gives the answer that Americans deserve, by making clear he intends to deliver on the GOP pledge to dismantle a bad law that never should have been passed.

Amen.

The law is also running into problems in Israel, another nation that hardly fits the “tax haven” definition. A Forbes columnist has a dismal assessment of this intrusive and destructive law.

…the Israeli High Court’s temporary injunction against the enforcement of America’s controversial global tax law FATCA should serve as “a wake-up call” for other nations to rethink enforcing this “toxic, flawed and imperialistic legislation,” according to the boss of a leading independent financial firm that advises high-net-worth individuals (HNWI’s) and expats globally. …“Justice Meltzer’s action should be championed,” deVere’s Green asserts, who is an outspoken critic of FATCA. “His wise caution should serve as a wake-up call for other countries to rethink enforcing this toxic, flawed, damaging legislation that is being imposed on sovereign states around the world by the U.S.” …FATCA could indeed be described as a “masterclass” in fiscal imperialism and unintended consequences. But also of concern is that the US is increasingly secret in matters of financial data. It’s no wonder some have labelled it “horrific” and a nightmare for financial institutions. …Perhaps unsurprisingly there a growing trend and an overwhelming number of U.S. citizens are giving up their American citizenship (citizenship abdications), which has been revealed by the U.S. Treasury Department. And, according to a survey conducted in early 2015 by deVere itself almost three quarters (73%) of Americans living overseas expressed the view that they were tempted to relinquish their U.S. passports.

Canada also is unhappy that the U.S. is engaging in an extraterritorial revenue grab.

Some 7m Americans outside the country (1m of them in Canada), along with an unknown number of “US persons”, are now caught in FATCA’s net. …Ms Hillis is fighting back through the courts. She and Gwen Deegan, an artist who has lived in Canada since she was five, filed a suit claiming that the Canadian government’s co-operation with FATCA violates a tax treaty and constitutional protections against discrimination. …If Ms Hillis and Ms Deegan win in court, Canada’s government will face an awkward choice between complying with the decision and exposing Canadian banks to huge penalties. The Alliance for the Defence of Canadian Sovereignty, which is paying the women’s legal expenses, has harvested donations from China, Vatican City and beyond.

These examples are why I wrote back in 2011 that Obama united the world…in opposition to bad US policy.

An article from CNBC highlights how bad the law is.

With an estimated 9 million Americans currently living overseas, the U.S expatriate community is comprised of a wide variety of people from all walks of life. ..The one nagging truth that is both common and unique to all of these individuals? They remain effectively fettered to the U.S. tax system. Unlike almost every other tax regime in the world, the U.S. taxes its citizens no matter where they reside. Thus, even if you expect never to return, you should expect to have to file an annual tax return. …As many expats can attest, it has become more difficult to open or maintain a bank account overseas without having to sign an IRS Form W-9 or other U.S. tax-related documentation. This increasingly common bank procedure is a result of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, which requires foreign banks and other financial institutions, among other things, to gather and report information to the IRS about their U.S. customers or face stiff tax-withholding penalties on U.S. investments.

The last sentence is that excerpt deserves some attention. The FATCA law is so onerous that it is advantageous for many to simply not invest in the American economy.

And that means less growth and prosperity for the rest of us.

But that’s just part of the story.

Because the United States has imposed this awful law on the rest of the world, other nations now want to do the same thing. Indeed, the tax-aholics at the OECD have modified a Multilateral Convention and turned it into an Orwellian regime for promiscuous collection and sharing of data by almost every government. This scheme, sometimes referred to as the Global Account Tax Compliance Act because of its similarity to FATCA (I call it a nascent World Tax Organization), will boomerang on America because of the presumption that we’re obliged to change our tax and privacy laws so that foreign governments can tax investments in the United States.

Thankfully, Senator Rand Paul heroically is blocking this evil pact.

Let’s close with a semi-amusing description of FATCA.

But if you prefer my more dour approach, here’s what I said a few years ago about FATCA for a Chinese network.

I’ve been criticizing this awful legislation from the beginning. Hopefully Congress and the Trump Administration will give me one less thing to worry about.

Read Full Post »

Back in 2009, I shared the results of a very helpful study by Pierre Bessard of Switzerland’s Liberal Institute (by the way, “liberal” in Europe means pro-market or “classical liberal“).

Pierre ranked the then-30 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development based on their tax burdens, their quality of governance, and their protection of financial privacy.

Switzerland was the top-ranked nation, followed by Luxembourg, Austria, and Canada.

Italy and Turkey were tied for last place, followed by Poland, Mexico, and Germany.

The United States, I’m ashamed to say, was in the bottom half. Our tax burden was (and still is) generally lower than Europe, but there’s nothing special about our quality of governance compared to other developed nations, and we definitely don’t allow privacy for our citizens (though we’re a good haven for foreigners).

Pierre’s publication was so helpful that I’ve asked him several times to release an updated version.

I don’t know if it’s because of my nagging, but the good news is that he’s in the final stages of putting together a new Tax Oppression Index. He just presented his findings at a conference in Panama.

But before divulging the new rankings, I want to share this slide from Pierre’s presentation. He correctly observes that the OECD’s statist agenda against tax competition is contrary to academic research in general, and also contrary to the Paris-based bureaucracy’s own research!

Yet the political hacks who run the OECD are pushing bad policies because Europe’s uncompetitive governments want to prop up their decrepit welfare states. And what’s especially irksome is that the bureaucrats at the OECD get tax-free salaries while pushing for higher fiscal burdens elsewhere in the world.

But I’m digressing. Let’s look at Pierre’s new rankings.

As you can see, Switzerland is still at the top, though now it’s tied with Canada. Estonia (which wasn’t part of the OECD back in 2009) is in third place, and New Zealand and Sweden also get very high scores.

At the very bottom, with the most oppressive tax systems, are Greece and Mexico (gee, what a surprise), followed by Israel and Turkey.

The good news, relatively speaking, is that the United States is tied with several other nations for 11th place with a score of 3.5.

So instead of being in the bottom half, as was the case with the 2009 Tax Oppression Index, the U.S. is now in the top half.

But that’s not because we’ve improved policy. It’s more because the OECD advocates of statism have been successful in destroying financial privacy in other nations. Even Switzerland’s human rights laws on privacy no longer protect foreign investors.

As such, Pierre’s new index basically removes financial privacy as a variable and augments the quality of governance variable with additional data about property rights and the rule of law.

P.S. When measuring the tax burden, the reason that America ranks above most European nations is not because they impose heavier taxes on rich people and businesses (indeed, the U.S. has a much higher corporate tax rate). Instead, we rank above Europe because they impose very heavy taxes on poor and middle-income taxpayers (mostly because of the value-added tax, which helps to explain why I am so unalterably opposed to that destructive levy).

P.P.S. Also in 2009, Pierre Bessard authored a great defense of tax havens for the New York Times.

Read Full Post »

President Trump says he wants to roll back the burden of regulation. Give the morass of red tape that is strangling the economy, this is a very worthy goal.

It’s also a daunting task. Fixing the sprawling regulatory state is the modern version of cleaning the Augean stables and I’m not brimming with confidence that Trump and his appointees have Herculean powers.

That being said, if they’re deciding where to focus their deregulatory efforts, cost-benefit analysis would be a very useful guide. Simply stated, go after the red tape that imposes the highest costs while yielding the fewest benefits.

And if that’s the approach, so-called anti-money laundering regulations should be on the chopping block. Banks and other financial institutions are now being forced to squander billions of dollars in order to comply with laws, rules, and red tape that require them to spy on all their customers. The ostensible purpose of AML policies is to discourage criminal behavior, but experts have concluded that this approach has been a failure.

To the extent that AML policies have had an impact, it’s been negative. In addition to high costs and inefficiency, the laws and regulations have disproportionately harmed poor people.

Richard Rahn, in a column for the Washington Times, says AML laws are the modern version of prohibition, well-meaning in theory but counter-productive in practice.

Money laundering fits under the definition of vague law because, unlike murder or robbery, it is not a crime of an act but one of “intent.” …This leads to many problems and substantial prosecutorial abuse. It is not only banks and financial institutions that are supposed to know the source of their clients’ funds, but also such diverse people as car dealers, pawnbrokers, real estate agents, and on and on. Often, it is not considered good enough to know the source of a customer’s funds (often a near-impossibility), but the source of the funds of the customer’s customer. …The result is that banks and other financial institutions increasingly refuse to open accounts for low-income people… There is a very high fixed cost for banks and others to do “due diligence” on their customers — the costs being roughly the same for a $5,000 deposit, a $500,000 deposit or a $5,000,000 deposit. Given the massive penalties banks and other financial institutions are subject to for making even an unintentional mistake, their safest course of action is to drop small customers. …Recent academic and think tank studies show the situation only getting worse — all cost and no gain. …the poor, including poor countries, and the honest pay a huge price for all of the additional compliance costs, which reduces productive global capital formation and real incomes.

And the price isn’t trivial for the nations that get targeted, as I pointed out in testimony to the Organization for American States.

A working paper from the Center for Global Development digs into the numbers.

The past fifteen years have seen an unprecedented level of attention on anti-money laundering…issues by financial regulators…the total value of fines levied by regulators peaked at $15 billion in 2014 in the US alone. …Between 2010 and 2015, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international group tasked with setting common AML standards across the globe, added over fifty different countries to an internationally-recognized list of high risk countries. …there are growing concerns that this increase in regulatory activity is leading to a chilling effect on cross-border economic activity as banks limit their exposure to high risk clients or jurisdictions, a process known as ‘de-risking’… This contraction of the correspondent banking network has sounded a number of alarm bells, as these services are seen as being crucial for most cross-border services… The ICC survey reported that over 40% of respondents felt that AML and know-your-customer (KYC) requirements were a significant impediment to trade finance, with nearly 70% reporting they declined transactions that year…a large number of money transfer companies in the US, the UK and Australia have lost access to banking services as a result of banks’ desire to reduce their exposure to regulatory risk, potentially leading to a reduction to a decrease in formal remittances to developing countries, a critical source of development finance… The combined effect of all of these pressures should be leading to declines in the aggregate flow of cross-border payments.

And here are the results of the new empirical research in the study.

The combination of large scale fines, higher compliance costs and international naming-and-shaming has – anecdotally – led many banks to withdraw from certain lines of business or geographic areas, to the potential detriment of cross-border economic activity. …We find evidence that greylisting by the FATF is consistent with up to a 10% reduction in the number of payments received by an affected country. …Issues of economic impact aside, these results suggest there is more work to be done on assessing both the effectiveness and the efficiency of the global AML/CFT regulatory regime. …First, the reduction in payments received by countries subject to greater regulatory scrutiny raises the spectre of potential losses to these countries. Second, that there is either no effect or a positive effect of FATF greylisting on the number of payments leaving a designated country suggests that increased scrutiny may not do much to prevent illicit money from leaving high risk countries and entering the international financial system at large.

In other words, lots of costs, mostly borne by poor people and poor nations, but no evidence that criminals and terrorists are being stopped.

Rather than imposing lots of red tape and requiring banks to spy on everybody, it would be much better if the government followed normal rules in the fight against crime. By all means, it should investigate real crimes, collect evidence and build cases (within proper limits), and work to punish those who inflict harm on others.

But don’t squander resources in ways that aren’t effective.

Some have suggested that it would make sense to have banks monitor a discrete list of potential bad guys rather than promiscuously spy on all customers.

That might be a step in the right direction, but this story from the UK-based Times shows that this approach leaves something to be desired.

A controversial “blacklist” used by British banks to identify terrorists and potential money launderers has grown so bloated that it includes details of a three-year-old member of the royal family… World-Check, a database of more than two million “high-risk” individuals including criminals and senior politicians, is used by 49 of the world’s 50 biggest banks to carry out compliance checks on existing and potential clients. Customers who are flagged up face extra scrutiny and their accounts…hundreds of individuals were included partly on the basis of unverified blog posts and even far-right or extremist websites.

Wow. Since some of my leftist friends consider International Liberty a “far-right” and “extremist” website, this doesn’t bode well for me. I guess I’m lucky that I still have a bank account.

Here’s more from the story.

Thousands of others were listed on the database, which dates from 2014, only because they were relatives or friends of minor public figures. …Maud Windsor…was listed at nine months old. The apparent justification was that she was a family member of a “politically exposed person” (PEP), a reference to her father, who is the son of Prince Michael of Kent and 43rd in line to the throne. …Other British PEPs on the database include Sir Neil Cossons, a historian and former chairman of English Heritage. …Heather Wheeler, a Conservative MP listed on the database, told parliament this year that her bank of 30 years informed her that she was “high risk” and that it “would not deal with me anymore and that it was closing my account.”

These absurd results are driven by government policies that force financial institutions to treat all customers as potential crooks.

And given the huge fines that are being levied on banks and other firms, you can understand why they drop customers and charge high fees. They are forced to act defensively.

Thomson Reuters, the media company that makes millions of pounds compiling and selling the database, does not inform individuals if they are included and banks have no obligation to tell clients why they have been denied services. …Many financial institutions have become risk-averse… “You have an arms race where there’s this immense pressure to build a ‘robust’ database,” one expert on World-Check said. “They’ll pack this database with as many names of individuals as possible. You end up getting a ton of false positives.”

And some of those “false positives” are mentioned in this video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

P.S. Statists frequently demagogue against so-called tax havens for supposedly being hotbeds of dirty money, but take a look at this map put together a few years ago by the Institute of Governance and you’ll find only one supposed haven among the 28 nations listed.

P.P.S. You probably didn’t realize you could make a joke involving money laundering, but here’s one featuring former President Obama.

P.P.P.S. But when you look at the real-world horror stories that result from these laws, you realize that the current system on money laundering is no laughing matter.

P.P.P.P.S. And you won’t be surprised to learn that the statists have learned the wrong lesson. They see that AML laws have been a failure and think the right response is to go nuclear and ban cash entirely.

Read Full Post »

The War against Cash is a battle that shouldn’t even exist. But politicians don’t like cash because it’s hard to control something that people can freely trade back and forth. So folks on the left are arguing that governments should ban or restrict paper money.

  • 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.
  • In Part IV, a few months ago, there was additional discussion of the dangers that would be unleashed if politicians banned cash.

Now let’s add a fifth installment in this series, and we’ll focus on the destructive turmoil resulting from India’s decision earlier this month to ban “large” notes.

The Financial Times explains what happened.

India unexpectedly scrapped all larger-denomination banknotes overnight… Prime Minister Narendra Modi said 500 and 1,000 rupee notes — worth around $7.50 and $15, respectively — would cease to be legal tender from midnight on Tuesday. The announcement stunned Indians, who were given four hours’ notice that much of their cash would be “mere paper”. RBI data suggests that the Rs500 and Rs1,000 notes account for 86 per cent of the value of all cash in circulation in India at present. …The shock move is the latest step by Mr Modi’s administration to crack down on the vast shadow economy, which remains beyond the reach of India’s tax authorities.

Before delving into why this is an unfortunate development, I can’t resist pointing out that banknotes worth $7.50 and $15 are neither large nor inappropriate for an economy at India’s level of development.

When the United States had a similar level of per-capita GDP (back in the late 1800s), there were $500 and $1000 notes. Yet America didn’t have serious problems with corruption and tax evasion. So why should the existence of far smaller bills be a problem in India today?

I’ll return to that question in the conclusion, but let’s first look at the impact of Prime Minister Modi’s unilateral attack on currency. A column in the New York Times explains why the policy does more harm than good.

On Nov. 8, the Indian government announced an immediate ban on two major bills that account for the vast majority of all currency in circulation. …In the two weeks after the measure was announced, millions of Indians stricken with small panic rushed out to banks; A.T.M.s and tellers soon ran dry. Some 98 percent of all transactions in India, measured by volume, are conducted in cash. …So far its effects have been disastrous for the middle- and lower-middle classes, as well as the poor. And the worst may be yet to come.

The ripple effect of the policy is large and unpleasant.

…demonetization is a ham-fisted move that will put only a temporary dent in corruption, if even that, and is likely to rock the entire economy. …Anyone seeking to convert more than 250,000 rupees (about $3,650) must explain why they hold so much cash, or failing that, must pay a penalty. The requirement has already spawned a new black market to service people wishing to offload: Large amounts of illicit cash are broken into smaller blocks and deposited by teams of illegal couriers. Demonetization is mostly hurting people who aren’t its intended targets. Because sellers of certain durables, such as jewelry and property, often insist on cash payments, many individuals who have no illegal money build up cash reserves over time. Relatively poor women stash away cash beyond their husbands’ reach.

As is so often the case, the bogeyman of terrorism is being used as a rationale for bad policy, even though everyone realizes that terrorists won’t be affected.

When the government announced demonetization, it also justified the measure as a way to curb terrorism financing that relies on counterfeit rupee notes… Catching fake notes already in circulation neither helps trap the terrorists who minted them nor prevents more such money from being injected into the economy. It simply inconveniences the people who use it as legal tender, the vast majority of whom had no hand in its creation.

I’m sympathetic, by the way, to the notion that the government should fight counterfeiting. Crooks printing up fake notes is even worse than central banks printing up too many real notes.

In any event, this indirect attack on the shadow economy imposes considerable costs on regular Indians.

In a country like India, where the illegal economy is so intimately intertwined with the mainstream economy, one inept government intervention against shadow activities can do a lot of harm to the vast majority, who are just trying to make a legitimate living.

Writing for Bloomberg, Elaine Ou has a negative assessment of this proposal.

India is conducting a big test of the idea that getting rid of cash can help address crime and corruption. Unfortunately, it might achieve nothing more than a lot of inconvenience. Criminals and corrupt officials often conduct business in cash, because it’s hard to trace. So in a sense it’s logical to assume that abolishing cash will help reduce criminal activity. …This rationale has led Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to declare a surprise cancellation of the nation’s two highest-denomination notes, effectively invalidating 86 percent of total currency in circulation. Anyone with outstanding notes must either deposit them in a bank — potentially incurring a tax — or exchange them for replacements in strictly limited sums.

Ms. Ou explains that the policy will be traumatic for the hundreds of millions of Indians who don’t have bank accounts.

In a country where most transactions are conducted in cash, many people have been unable to pay for necessities like food or medical services. Banks have had to work overtime to handle the exchange, bringing other financial services to a halt. It’s certainly likely that the sheer trauma will leave people less keen to hoard rupees, creating a big incentive to move economic activity out of cash and into banks. Except that a huge number of Indians don’t have a bank account.

In any event, she points out, banning cash won’t have much impact on corruption since politicians and public officials have plenty of ways to extort wealth from the productive sector.

…the prevalence of cash is far from a foolproof indicator of criminality and corruption. Consider Nigeria, which is perceived as one the world’s most corrupt countries and has a currency-to-GDP ratio even lower than Sweden’s… Nigerians have abandoned cash because they have so little trust in government-issued currency. Instead of using banks, they tend to transact in mobile airtime minutes. …Those with more substantial wealth put it in foreign currency. By undermining faith in its cash notes, India may go the way of Nigeria. Villagers are already resorting to barter. …corrupt public officials were believed to have their wealth in real estate and gold.

A news report highlights the real-world impact of the Indian government’s bad policy. Starting with the impact on a poor single mother.

With demonetisation, Sayyed’s family has been forced to cut costs across the board to make sure their limited cash resources don’t get exhausted faster than the banks can exchange money. “Last week it took me four hours of waiting in line to get my old notes exchanged,” said Sayyed. “And because no one had change for a Rs 2,000 note, I had to buy ration on credit for six whole days.” Vegetables and foodgrains, says Sayyed, have grown more expensive in the past 10 days, because of the impact of demonetisation on wholesalers and retailers.

And the impact on a small-business owner.

His salon, which charges Rs 40 for a haircut, used to make anywhere between Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,200 on the weekend. But now, he said, that has fallen to Rs 500. …How is he coping with this liquidity crunch? Not by going cashless. In part because he doesn’t have a bank account. “I tried to open one but they wanted too many proofs of identity,” Sharma said.

By the way, Sharma is a victim of pointless anti-money laundering laws, something even the World Bank recognizes as being particularly harmful for the poor.

A farmer also has been hit hard.

It has been three weeks since Vedagiri’s single acre of land had been tilled and paddy seedlings had been sown. …“The cooperative bank cannot lend us money now, so for the whole of last week, our crop has been standing without pesticides,” said Vedagiri. Several times last week, Vedagiri and the other farmers of Royalpattu were turned away by bank employees. New currency notes have been slow to reach most rural cooperative banks across India. While sowing the crop, Vedagiri had employed 20 labourers. But he has been unable to pay any of them since he had not still received the rest of the money…Vedagiri does not know how he will get through this cropping season without incurring a loss.

Bloomberg reports on some of the bizarre unintended consequences of this bad policy.

Indian ingenuity is being stretched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cash ban to crackdown on unaccounted money. India’s cash economy has been thrown into turmoil since Modi announced last week that 500 and 1,000 rupee notes would cease to be legal tender and would have to be deposited at banks by year-end, leaving about one-seventh of currency in circulation. …Here are some unintended consequences. Indian defense jets are on standby to airlift cash from mints across India to remote corners of the country. …wealthy Indians rushed to make costly purchases with unaccounted cash. One luxury watch outlet in north-west Mumbai saw 45 units of Rolex watches sold on a single day, according to a representative of a watchmaker, who was present when the sales took place. Demand matched what the shop would usually sell in a month and the store had to turn away customers… A new gold rush also emerged soon after Modi’s announcement. “Jewelers who had shut shop for the day on Nov. 8 had to reopen their stores within a couple of hours and were selling gold up to 4 a.m.,” Chirag Thakkar, a director at gold wholesaler Amrapali Group, said by phone… Customers paid as much as 52,000 rupees per 10 grams, almost double the current prices, he said. …About half of an estimated 9.3 million trucks under the All India Motor Transport Congress were off the road eight days after the announcement as drivers abandoned vehicles mid-way into their trips after running out of cash, according to Naveen Gupta, secretary general of the group. India’s roads carry about 65 percent of the country’s freight. Drivers don’t have enough money for food, truck maintenance and to make payments at border check posts. …Compounding the problem of pumping new money into the system is the need to reconfigure the country’s 220,000 cash machines so that they can dispense the new 500 and 2,000 rupee notes, which do not fit into existing ATM cash trays.

To be fair, some of these costs are transitory in nature, so it’s important to distinguish between those consequences and others that might linger.

Though the part of this story that doesn’t make sense is that the government plans on issuing new high-value banknotes. So the Prime Minister is not actually banning large banknotes (or even all non-digital currency), which is the usual goal of the war-on-cash crowd.

So why did the Modi cause so much turmoil with an overnight ban rather than allow for an orderly transition? I’m assuming that the answer has something to do with inconveniencing those with large cash holdings, some of whom will be crooks or counterfeiters or corrupt public officials.

As already noted, the battle against counterfeit currency surely is worthwhile.

But I have considerable doubts about whether this currency swap will have much impact on the shadow economy or public corruption.

And that brings me back to the rhetorical question I posed early in this column about why the United States didn’t have massive problems with crime and public corruption back in the late 1800s (when our per-capita GDP was akin to India’s today according to the Maddison data), even though we had banknotes that were far more valuable ($500 and $1000 compared to $7.50 and $15).

The answer, at least in part, is that the United States had a very tiny government. Government spending consumed at most 10 percent of economic output, with most of that spending at the state and local level. And there was no income tax.

And since people weren’t penalized for earning money and creating wealth, there was no incentive to be part of the shadow economy. And since government was small, there weren’t that many favors to distribute, so there wasn’t much need to bribe politicians or bureaucrats.

If Prime Minister Modi wants a vibrant, above-ground economy with minimal corruption, maybe that’s the path he should follow.

Let’s close with a very sage warning from Richard Fernandez’s column in PJ Media.

Money in its various forms has become the new battleground between a State that needs to reward its constituencies with and the actual economy which produces most of the real goods and services required to do it. The sad experience of command economies suggests in end the Real always wins over the Official.  As Ramesh Thakur said of India’s demonitization policy: “a better solution would have been to shift the balance of economic decision-making away from the state to firms and consumers; simplify, rationalize and reduce taxes; cut regulations and curtail officials’ discretionary powers; eliminate loopholes; and widen the tax net.”

And my favorite Russian-Irish-Californian economist also has a very apt summary of this issue.

Remember, if the answer is more government, you’ve asked a very silly question.

P.S. If he wants more future prosperity, Modi also should make sure the government no longer attacks private schools.

P.P.S. And it also would be a good idea to reform civil service rules so that it doesn’t take two decades to get rid of no-show bureaucrats.

Read Full Post »

Beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, the federal government (as well as other governments around the world) began to adopt policies based on the idea that crime could be reduced if you somehow could make it very difficult for criminals to use the money they illegally obtain. So we now have a a bunch of laws and regulations that require financial institutions to spy on their customers in hopes that this will inhibit money laundering.

But while the underlying theory may sound reasonable, such laws in practice have been a failure. There’s no evidence that these laws, which impose heavy costs on business and consumers, have produced a reduction in criminal activity.

Instead, the only tangible result seems to be more power for government and reduced access to financial services for poor people.

And now we have even more evidence that these laws don’t make sense. In a thorough study for the Heritage Foundation, David Burton and Norbert Michel put a price tag on the ridiculous laws, regulations, and mandates that are ostensibly designed to make it hard for crooks to launder cash, but in practice simply undermine legitimate commerce and make it hard for poor people to use banks.

Oh, and these rules also are inconsistent with a free society. Here are the principles they say should guide the discussion.

The United States Constitution’s Bill of Rights, particularly the Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Amendments, together with structural federalism and separation of powers protections, is designed to…protect…individual rights. The current financial regulatory framework is inconsistent with these principles. …Financial privacy can allow people to protect their life savings when a government tries to confiscate its citizens’ wealth, whether for political, ethnic, religious, or “merely” economic reasons. Businesses need to protect their private financial information, intellectual property, and trade secrets from competitors in order to remain profitable. Financial privacy is of deep and abiding importance to freedom, and many governments have shown themselves willing to routinely abuse private financial information.

And here are the key findings about America’s current regulatory morass, which violates the above principles.

The current U.S. framework is overly complex and burdensome… Reform efforts also need to focus on costs versus benefits. The current framework, particularly the anti-money laundering (AML) rules, is clearly not cost-effective. As demonstrated below, the AML regime costs an estimated $4.8 billion to $8 billion annually. Yet, this AML system results in fewer than 700 convictions annually, a proportion of which are simply additional counts against persons charged with other predicate crimes. Thus, each conviction costs approximately $7 million, potentially much more.

By the way, the authors note that their calculations represent “a significant underestimate of the actual burden” because they didn’t include foregone economic activity, higher consumer prices for financial services, lower returns for shareholders of financial institutions, higher financial expenses for unbanked individuals, and other direct and indirect costs.

And what are the offsetting benefits? Can all these costs be justified?

Hardly. David and Norbert point out that we’re all paying more and getting very little in return for the higher burdens.

The original goal of the BSA/AML rules was to reduce predicate crimes, such as illegal drug distribution, rather than money laundering itself. Judged by this standard, very little empirical evidence suggests that the rules have worked as designed. In fact, even though BSA/AML rules have been expanded consistently throughout the past four decades, it remains difficult to discern any net benefit of the overall BSA/AML regulatory framework. Even though there is no clear evidence that the rules materially reduce crime, the BSA/AML bureaucracy began relentlessly expanding internationally—primarily through the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)—more than two decades ago. One comprehensive study reports that even though the FATF proceeds as if these rules have produced only public benefits, “[t]o date there is no substantial effort by any international organization, including the International Monetary Fund, to assess either the costs or benefits of” this regulatory framework. In fact, BSA/AML regulations have been sharply criticized as a costly, ineffective approach to reducing crime. …compliance costs are high for financial companies, with a disproportionate burden falling on smaller firms…, where hiring even one additional employee can lower the return on assets by more than 20 basis points. Other research suggests that the increasing compliance burden in the banking industry is at least partly responsible for the trend toward consolidation and the disappearance of smaller banks. …an American Bankers Association (ABA) publication highlights a small bank that reports it has to dedicate more than 15 percent of its employees to compliance-related tasks. An ABA survey also suggests that the cumulative cost associated with compliance has caused banks to offer fewer services and raise fees, thus harming consumers. …the BSA/AML regime has been a highly inefficient law enforcement tool. At the very least, a high degree of skepticism about further expansion of these and similar requirements is in order. Given the billions of dollars spent annually by the private sector on the existing elaborate and costly AML bureaucracy, a serious data-driven cost-benefit analysis of the existing system is warranted.

If anything, I think they’re being too nice.

The cost-benefit analysis already exists. The laws and regulations don’t work.

Let’s expand our look at the issue. The Wall Street Journal notes that the current approach has myriad negative consequences as banks sever relationships with customers (in a process called “derisking”) because they don’t want to deal with the hassle, expense, and liability of money-laundering red tape.

…financial firms, faced with strict penalties over counterterror and anti-money-laundering rules, have severed accounts of thousands of customers in recent years over fears of heightened risk. The consequences of shuttered accounts were detailed this week in a Wall Street Journal investigation showing how money-transfer firms whose bank accounts have been closed have been pushed out of the global banking system. In addition, nonprofit organizations operating in Syria and Lebanon have faced challenges after losing their bank accounts. …In February of this year, more than 50 nonprofits asked the U.S. Treasury to publicly affirm that nonprofit organizations aren’t inherently high risk. …Two studies by the World Bank in late 2015 found that money-service businesses—which include money transmitters—and foreign banks were both seeing account closures at increasing rates.

Amen.

This process has made life much more difficult for people and businesses seeking to engage in legitimate commerce.

Not to mention that the government abuses the enormous powers it has accumulated, as we can see from the Obama Administration’s odious “Operation Choke Point.”

Another report from the WSJ explains that the rules actually make it harder for law enforcement to monitor the people who might actually be doing bad things.

U.S. banks have closed thousands of accounts held by people and organizations considered suspicious, high-risk or difficult to monitor—including money-transfer firms, foreign banks and nonprofits working abroad. Closing accounts for fear their customers may be up to no good evicts from the financial system the innocent as well as those the U.S. government would most like to watch, a consequence not anticipated by Washington. Comptroller of the Currency Thomas Curry this month acknowledged the potential danger. “Transactions that would have taken place legally and transparently may be driven underground,” he told an international conference of bankers and regulators in Washington. …Fearing steep financial penalties for failing to spot a wayward customer, many banks now shun anyone who looks risky. That leaves ostracized companies to seek alternatives—such as toting bags of cash overseas—a practice that allows hundreds of millions of dollars to leave the global banking system… “The whole flow of money goes underground, and that becomes counterproductive to the original purpose of being able to track” it, said Dilip Ratha, head economist of the World Bank’s unit that studies remittances. “It’s a bit paradoxical.” U.S. officials said they didn’t intend banks to close whole categories of customer accounts.

So potential bad guys are harder to track.

And financial institutions waste lots of money (which translates into higher costs for consumers).

Risky accounts should be managed, officials said, not avoided altogether. …Western Union said it now spends $200 million a year watching for suspicious activity… J.P. Morgan Chase & Co….now has about 9,000 employees dedicated to anti-money-laundering and has cut off thousands of customers viewed as higher-risk. …Jaikumar Ramaswamy, a Bank of AmericaCorp. compliance executive and former federal prosecutor, said, “I’m surprised at how much of my time is spent not focusing on the guilty but chasing the innocent.” Instead of looking for needles in haystacks, he said, the system demands banks “turn over every piece of hay.”

The good news is that some nations are looking to adopt a more rational approach, as evidenced by this Bloomberg report from 2015.

The U.K. government said it will look to relax anti-money laundering controls as part of a plan to save British companies 10 billion pounds ($15.4 billion) over the next five years. …The government said it wants to protect the country without putting “disproportionate burdens” on legitimate businesses. …“This new review is about making sure the rules we have to protect our strong financial services industry from abuse are not unintentionally holding back new and existing British business,” Business Secretary Sajid Javid said. “I want firms to come forward and tell us where regulation is unclear or its enforcement ineffective.”

Though, as reported by the Times, the U.K. government has a bizarrely inconsistent approach to these issues. Even to the point of threatening to steal people’s property unless they can somehow prove that it was purchased with innocent money.

People who amass suspicious quantities of wealth in Britain will be ordered to prove that it was not obtained through corruption, under proposals being considered by the Home Office. New “unexplained wealth orders”, which would reverse the burden of proof to compel the recipient to justify the source of the questionable cash.

Sigh.

Here’s a novel idea. Why doesn’t law enforcement engage in actual, old-fashioned police work. In other words, instead of having costly burdens imposed on everybody, governments should use the approach which historically has successfully reduced crime – i.e., policies that increase the likelihood of apprehension and/or severity of punishment.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

Instead, we actually get politicians and policy makers coming up with schemes to expand the burden of money laundering laws. Some of them want to ban the $100 bill, or perhaps even ban cash entirely. All so government can more closely monitor the private financial choices of innocent people.

If you want more information, here’s a video I narrated on this topic for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

Last but not least, let’s return to the Heritage study, which includes this very important warning about a very risky and dangerous treaty that may be considered by the U.S. Senate.

…the willingness to impose costs on the private sector and to violate the privacy interests of ordinary people should be less in the case of information sharing for tax purposes than for the purposes of preventing terrorism or crime. Moreover, tax-information-sharing programs are quite often a veiled attempt to stifle tax competition from low-tax jurisdictions. Tax competition is salutary and limits the degree to which governments can impose unwarranted taxation. …The U.S. Senate is currently considering the “Protocol Amending the Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters,” which would impose a wide variety of new information-reporting requirements on financial institutions to help foreign governments collect their taxes. A second treaty—worse than this protocol—is the follow-on OECD treaty known as the “Multilateral Competent Authority Agreement on Automatic Exchange of Financial Account Information.” This follow-on treaty implements both the protocol and the 311-page OECD “Standard for Automatic Exchange of Financial Account Information in Tax Matters.” Together, the protocol, the Multilateral Competent Authority Agreement, and the OECD Standard constitute the three main parts of a new automatic information-exchange regime being promoted by the OECD and international tax bureaucrats. If the U.S. ratifies the protocol and implements the new OECD standard, Washington would automatically, and in bulk, ship private financial and tax information—including Social Security and other tax identification numbers—to Argentina, China, Colombia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Russia, and nearly 70 other countries. In other words, foreign governments that are hostile to the U.S., corrupt, or have inadequate data safeguards, would automatically have access to private financial (and other) information of some U.S. taxpayers and most foreigners with accounts in the U.S.

A truly awful pact. And keep in mind it also would be the genesis of a World Tax Organization.

P.S. Since we closed by discussing the intersection of tax and money laundering, I should point out that statists frequently demagogue against so-called tax havens for supposedly being hotbeds of dirty money, but take a look at this map put together a few years ago by the Institute of Governance and you’ll find only one low-tax jurisdiction among the 28 nations listed.

P.P.S. You probably didn’t realize you could make a joke involving money laundering, but here’s one starring President Obama.

P.P.P.S. But when you look at the real-world horror stories that result from these laws, you realize that the current system on money laundering is no laughing matter.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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!

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Although it doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it warrants, one of the greatest threats to liberty and prosperity is the potential curtailment and elimination of cash.

As I’ve previously noted, there are two reasons why statists don’t like cash and instead would prefer all of us to use digital money (under their rules, of course, not something outside their control like bitcoin).

First, tax collectors can’t easily monitor all cash transactions, so they want a system that would allow them to track and tax every possible penny of our income and purchases.

Second, Keynesian central planners would like to force us to spend more money by imposing negative interest rates (i.e., taxes) on our savings, but that can’t be done if people can hold cash.

To provide some background, a report in the Wall Street Journal looks at both government incentives to get rid of high-value bills and to abolish currency altogether.

Some economists and bankers are demanding a ban on large denomination bills as one way to fight the organized criminals and terrorists who mainly use these notes. But the desire to ditch big bills is also being fueled from unexpected quarter: central bank’s use of negative interest rates. …if a central bank drives interest rates into negative territory, it’ll struggle to manage with physical cash. When a bank balance starts being eaten away by a sub-zero interest rate, cash starts to look inviting. That’s a particular problem for an economy that issues high-denomination banknotes like the eurozone, because it’s easier for a citizen to withdraw and hoard any money they have got in the bank.

Now let’s take a closer look at what folks on the left are saying to the public. In general, they don’t talk about taxing our savings with government-imposed negative interest rates. Instead, they make it seem like their goal is to fight crime.

Larry Summers, a former Obama Administration official, writes in the Washington Post that this is the reason governments should agree on a global pact to eliminate high-denomination notes.

…analysis is totally convincing on the linkage between high denomination notes and crime. …technology is obviating whatever need there may ever have been for high denomination notes in legal commerce. …The €500 is almost six times as valuable as the $100. Some actors in Europe, notably the European Commission, have shown sympathy for the idea and European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi has shown interest as well.  If Europe moved, pressure could likely be brought on others, notably Switzerland. …Even better than unilateral measures in Europe would be a global agreement to stop issuing notes worth more than say $50 or $100.  Such an agreement would be as significant as anything else the G7 or G20 has done in years. …a global agreement to stop issuing high denomination notes would also show that the global financial groupings can stand up against “big money” and for the interests of ordinary citizens.

Summers cites a working paper by Peter Sands of the Kennedy School, so let’s look at that argument for why governments should get rid of all large-denomination currencies.

Illegal money flows pose a massive challenge to all societies, rich and poor. Tax evasion undercuts the financing of public services and distorts the economy. Financial crime fuels and facilitates criminal activities from drug trafficking and human smuggling to theft and fraud. Corruption corrodes public institutions and warps decision-making. Terrorist finance sustains organisations that spread death and fear. The scale of such illicit money flows is staggering. …Our proposal is to eliminate high denomination, high value currency notes, such as the €500 note, the $100 bill, the CHF1,000 note and the £50 note. …Without being able to use high denomination notes, those engaged in illicit activities – the “bad guys” of our title – would face higher costs and greater risks of detection. Eliminating high denomination notes would disrupt their “business models”.

Are these compelling arguments? Should law-abiding citizens be forced to give up cash in hopes of making life harder for crooks? In other words, should we trade liberty for security?

From a moral and philosophical perspective, the answer is no. Our Founders would be rolling in their graves at the mere thought.

But let’s address this issue solely from a practical, utilitarian perspective.

The first thing to understand is that the bad guys won’t really be impacted. The head the The American Anti-Corruption Institute, L. Burke Files, explains to the Financial Times why restricting cash is pointless and misguided.

Peter Sands…has claimed that removal of high-denomination bank notes will deter crime. This is nonsense. After more than 25 years of investigating fraudsters and now corrupt persons in more than 90 countries, I can tell you that only in the extreme minority of cases was cash ever used — even in corruption cases. A vast majority of the funds moved involved bank wires, or the purchase and sale of valuable items such as art, antiquities, vessels or jewellery. …Removal of high denomination bank notes is a fruitless gesture akin to curing the common cold by forbidding use of the term “cold”.

In other words, our statist friends are being disingenuous. They’re trying to exploit the populace’s desire for crime fighting as a means of achieving a policy that actually is designed for other purposes.

The good news, is that they still have a long way to go before achieving their goals. Notwithstanding agitation to get rid of “Benjamins” in the United States, that doesn’t appear to be an immediate threat. Additionally, according to SwissInfo, is that the Swiss government has little interest in getting rid of the CHF1,000 note.

The European police agency Europol, EU finance ministers and now the European Central Bank, have recently made noises about pulling the €500 note, which has been described as the “currency of choice” for criminals. …But Switzerland has no plans to follow suit. “The CHF1,000 note remains a useful tool for payment transactions and for storing value,” Swiss National Bank spokesman Walter Meier told swissinfo.ch.

This resistance is good news, and not just because we want to control rapacious government in North America and Europe.

A column for Yahoo mentions the important value of large-denomination dollars and euros in less developed nations.

Cash also has the added benefit of providing emergency reserves for people “with unstable exchange rates, repressive governments, capital controls or a history of banking collapses,” as the Financial Times noted.

Amen. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why I like bitcoin. People need options to protect themselves from the consequences of bad government policy, regardless of where they live.

By the way, if you’ll allow me a slight diversion, Bill Poole of the University of Delaware (and also a Cato Fellow) adds a very important point in a Wall Street Journal column. He warns that a fixation on monetary policy is misguided, not only because we don’t want reckless easy-money policy, but also because we don’t want our attention diverted from the reforms that actually could boost economic performance.

Negative central-bank interest rates will not create growth any more than the Federal Reserve’s near-zero interest rates did in the U.S. And it will divert attention from the structural problems that have plagued growth here, as well as in Europe and Japan, and how these problems can be solved. …Where central banks can help is by identifying the structural impediments to growth and recommending a way forward. …It is terribly important that advocates of limited government understand what is at stake. …calls for a return to near-zero or even negative interest rates…will do little in the short run to boost growth, but it will dig the federal government into a deeper fiscal hole, further damaging long-run prospects. It needs to be repeated: Monetary policy today has little to offer to raise growth in the developed world.

Let’s close by returning to the core issue of whether it is wise to allow government the sweeping powers that would accompany the elimination of physical currency.

Here are excerpts from four superb articles on the topic.

First, writing for The American Thinker, Mike Konrad argues that eliminating cash will empower government and reduce liberty.

Governments will rise to the occasion and soon will be making cash illegal.  People will be forced to put their money in banks or the market, thus rescuing the central governments and the central banks that are incestuously intertwined with them. …cash is probably the last arena of personal autonomy left. …It has power that the government cannot control; and that is why it has to go. Of course, governments will not tell us the real reasons.  …We will be told it is for our own “good,” however one defines that. …What won’t be reported will be that hacking will shoot up.  Bank fraud will skyrocket. …Going cashless may ironically streamline drug smuggling since suitcases of money weigh too much. …The real purpose of a cashless society will be total control: Absolute Total Control. The real victims will be the public who will be forced to put all their wealth in a centralized system backed up by the good faith and credit of their respective governments.  Their life savings will be eaten away yearly with negative rates. …The end result will be the loss of all autonomy.  This will be the darkest of all tyrannies.  From cradle to grave one will not only be tracked in location, but on purchases.  Liberty will be non-existent. However, it will be sold to us as expedient simplicity itself, freeing us from crime: Fascism with a friendly face.

Second, the invaluable Allister Heath of the U.K.-based Telegraph warns that the desire for Keynesian monetary policy is creating a slippery slope that eventually will give governments an excuse to try to completely banish cash.

…the fact that interest rates of -0.5pc or so are manageable doesn’t mean that interest rates of -4pc would be. At some point, the cost of holding cash in a bank account would become prohibitive: savers would eventually rediscover the virtues of stuffed mattresses (or buying equities, or housing, or anything with less of a negative rate). The problem is that this will embolden those officials who wish to abolish cash altogether, and switch entirely to electronic and digital money. If savers were forced to keep their money in the bank, the argument goes, then they would be forced to put up with even huge negative rates. …But abolishing cash wouldn’t actually work, and would come with terrible side-effects. For a start, people would begin to treat highly negative interest rates as a form of confiscatory taxation: they would be very angry indeed, especially if rates were significantly more negative than inflation. …Criminals who wished to evade tax or engage in illegal activities would still be able to bypass the system: they would start using foreign currencies, precious metals or other commodities as a means of exchange and store of value… The last thing we now need is harebrained schemes to abolish cash. It wouldn’t work, and the public rightly wouldn’t tolerate it.

The Wall Street Journal has opined on the issue as well.

…we shouldn’t be surprised that politicians and central bankers are now waging a war on cash. That’s right, policy makers in Europe and the U.S. want to make it harder for the hoi polloi to hold actual currency. …the European Central Bank would like to ban €500 notes. …Limits on cash transactions have been spreading in Europe… Italy has made it illegal to pay cash for anything worth more than €1,000 ($1,116), while France cut its limit to €1,000 from €3,000 last year. British merchants accepting more than €15,000 in cash per transaction must first register with the tax authorities. …Germany’s Deputy Finance Minister Michael Meister recently proposed a €5,000 cap on cash transactions. …The enemies of cash claim that only crooks and cranks need large-denomination bills. They want large transactions to be made electronically so government can follow them. Yet…Criminals will find a way, large bills or not. The real reason the war on cash is gearing up now is political: Politicians and central bankers fear that holders of currency could undermine their brave new monetary world of negative interest rates. …Negative rates are a tax on deposits with banks, with the goal of prodding depositors to remove their cash and spend it… But that goal will be undermined if citizens hoard cash. …So, presto, ban cash. …If the benighted peasants won’t spend on their own, well, make it that much harder for them to save money even in their own mattresses. All of which ignores the virtues of cash for law-abiding citizens. Cash allows legitimate transactions to be executed quickly, without either party paying fees to a bank or credit-card processor. Cash also lets millions of low-income people participate in the economy without maintaining a bank account, the costs of which are mounting as post-2008 regulations drop the ax on fee-free retail banking. While there’s always a risk of being mugged on the way to the store, digital transactions are subject to hacking and computer theft. …the reason gray markets exist is because high taxes and regulatory costs drive otherwise honest businesses off the books. Politicians may want to think twice about cracking down on the cash economy in a way that might destroy businesses and add millions to the jobless rolls. …it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the politicians want to bar cash as one more infringement on economic liberty. They may go after the big bills now, but does anyone think they’d stop there? …Beware politicians trying to limit the ways you can conduct private economic business. It never turns out well.

Last, but not least, Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, explores the downsides of banning cash in a column for USA Today.

…we need to restore the $500 and $1000 bills. And the reason is that people like Larry Summers have done a horrible job. …What is a $100 bill worth now, compared to 1969? According to the U.S. Inflation Calculator online, a $100 bill today has the equivalent purchasing power of $15.49 in 1969 dollars. …And although inflation isn’t running very high at the moment, this trend will only continue. If the next few decades are like the last few, paper money in current denominations will become basically useless. …to our ruling class this isn’t a bug, but a feature. Governments want to get rid of cash… But at a time when, almost no matter where you look in the world, the parts of it controlled by the experts and technocrats (like Larry Summers) seem to be doing badly, it seems reasonable to ask: Why give them still more control over the economy? What reason is there to think that they’ll use that control fairly, or even competently? Their track record isn’t very impressive. Cash has a lot of virtues. One of them is that it allows people to engage in voluntary transactions without the knowledge or permission of anyone else. Governments call this suspicious, but the rest of us call it something else: Freedom.

Amen. Glenn nails it.

Banning cash is a scheme concocted by politicians and bureaucrats who already have demonstrated that they are incapable of competently administering the bloated public sector that already exists.

The idea that they should be given added power to extract more of our money and manipulate our spending is absurd. Laughably absurd if you read Mark Steyn.

P.S. I actually wouldn’t mind getting rid of the government’s physical currency, but only if the result was a system that actually enhanced liberty and prosperity. Unfortunately, I don’t expect that to happen in the near future.

Read Full Post »

I wrote yesterday that governments want to eliminate cash in order to make it easier to squeeze more money from taxpayers.

But that’s not the only reason why politicians are interested in banning paper money and coins.

They also are worried that paper money inhibits the government’s ability to “stimulate” the economy with artificially low interest rates. Simply stated, they’ve already pushed interest rates close to zero and haven’t gotten the desired effect of more growth, so the thinking in official circles is that if you could implement negative interest rates, people could be pushed to be good little Keynesians because any money they have in their accounts would be losing value.

I’m not joking.

Here’s some of what Kenneth Rogoff, a professor at Harvard and a former economist at the International Monetary Fund, wrote for the U.K.-based Financial Times.

Getting rid of physical currency and replacing it with electronic money would…eliminate the zero bound on policy interest rates that has handcuffed central banks since the financial crisis. At present, if central banks try setting rates too far below zero, people will start bailing out into cash.

And here are some passages from an editorial that also was published in the FT.

…authorities would do well to consider the arguments for phasing out their use as another “barbarous relic”…even a little physical currency can cause a lot of distortion to the economic system. The existence of cash — a bearer instrument with a zero interest rate — limits central banks’ ability to stimulate a depressed economy.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports that the Willem Buiter of Citi (the same guy who endorsed military attacks on low-tax jurisdictions) supports the elimination of cash.

Citi’s Willem Buiter looks at this problem, which is known as the effective lower bound (ELB) on nominal interest rates. …the ELB only exists at all due to the existence of cash, which is a bearer instrument that pays zero nominal rates. Why have your money on deposit at a negative rate that reduces your wealth when you can have it in cash and suffer no reduction? Cash therefore gives people an easy and effective way of avoiding negative nominal rates. …Buiter’s solution to cash’s ability to allow people to avoid negative deposit rates is to abolish cash altogether.

So are they right? Should cash be abolished so central bankers and governments have more power to manipulate the economy?

There’s a lot of opposition from very sensible people, particularly in the United Kingdom where the idea of banning cash is viewed as a more serious threat.

Allister Heath of the U.K.-based Telegraph worries that governments would engage in more mischief if a nation got rid of cash.

Many of our leading figures are preparing to give up on sound money. The intervention I’m most concerned about is Bank of England chief economist Andrew Haldane’s call for a 4pc inflation target, as well as his desire to abolish cash, embrace a purely electronic currency and thus make it easier for the Bank to impose substantially negative interest rates… Imagine that banks imposed -4pc interest rates on savings today: everybody would pull cash out and stuff it under their mattresses. But if all cash were digital, they would be trapped and forced to hand over their money. …all spending would become subject to the surveillance state, dramatically eroding individual liberty. …Money is already too loose – turning on the taps would merely further fuel bubbles at home and abroad.

Also writing for the Telegraph, Matthew Lynn expresses reservations about this trend.

As for negative interest rates, do we really want those? Or have we concluded that central bankers are doing more harm than good with their attempts to manipulate the economy? …a banknote is an incredibly efficient way to handle small transactions. It is costless, immediate, flexible, no one ever needs a password, it can’t be hacked, and the system doesn’t ever crash. More importantly, cash is about freedom. There are surely limits to the control over society we wish to hand over to governments and central banks? You don’t need to be a fully paid-up libertarian to question whether…we really want the banks and the state to know every single detail of what we are spending our money on and where. It is easy to surrender that freedom – but it will be a lot harder to get back.

Merryn Somerset Webb, a business writer from the U.K., is properly concerned about the economic implications of a society with no cash.

…at the beginning of the financial crisis, there was much talk about financial repression — the ways in which policymakers would seek to control the use of our money to deal with out-of-control public debt. …We’ve seen capital controls in the periphery of the eurozone… Interest rates everywhere have been at or below inflation for seven years — and negative interest rates are now snaking their nasty way around Europe… This makes debt interest cheap for governments…and it and forces once-prudent savers to move their money into the kind of risky assets that are supposed to drive growth (and tax receipts).

Amen. She’s right that low interest rates are good news for governments and not very good news for people in the productive sector.

Last but not least, Chris Giles wrote a column for the FT and made one final point that is very much worth sharing.

Mr Haldane’s proposal to ban cash has all the hallmarks of a public official confusing what is convenient for the central bank with what is in the public interest.

Especially since the central bankers are probably undermining long-run economic prosperity with short-run tinkering.

Moreover, the option to engage in Keynesian monetary policy also gives politicians an excuse to avoid the reforms that actually would boost economic performance. Indeed, it’s quite likely that an easy-money policy exacerbates the problems caused by bad fiscal and regulatory policy.

Let’s conclude by noting that maybe the right approach isn’t to give politicians and central bankers more control over money, but rather to reduce government’s control over money. That’s one of the arguments I made in this video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

P.S. By the way, Ryan McKaken at the Mises Institute identifies a third reason why politicians would prefer a cash-free society.

…the elimination of physical cash makes it easier for the state to keep track of private persons, and it assists central banks in efforts to punish saving and expand the money supply by implementing negative interest rate schemes. A third advantage of the elimination of physical cash would be to more easily control people and potential dissidents through the freezing of their bank accounts.

Excellent point. We’ve already seen how asset forfeiture allows governments to steal people’s bank accounts without any conviction of wrongdoing. Imagine the damage politicians and bureaucrats could do if they had even more control over our money.

Read Full Post »

Politicians hate cash.

That may seem an odd assertion given that they love spending money (other people’s money, of course, as illustrated by this cartoon).

But what I’m talking about is the fact that politicians get upset when there’s not 100 percent compliance with tax laws.

They hate tax havens since the option of a fiscal refuge makes confiscatory taxation impractical.

They hate the underground economy because that means hard-to-tax economic activity.

And they hate cash because it gives consumers an anonymous payment mechanism.

Let’s explore the animosity to cash.

It’s basically because a cashless society is an easier-to-tax society, as expressed by an editorial from the U.K.-based Financial Times.

…unlike electronic money, it cannot be tracked. That means cash favours anonymous and often illicit activity; its abolition would make life easier for a government set on squeezing the informal economy out of existence. …Value added tax, for example, could be automatically levied. …Greece, in particular, could make lemonade out of lemons, using the current capital controls to push the country’s cash culture into new habits.

And some countries are actually moving in this direction.

J.D. Tuccille looks at this issue in an article for Reason.

Peter Bofinger of the German Council of Economic Experts…wants to abolish the use of cash… He frets that old-fashioned notes enable undeclared work and black markets, and stand in the way of central bank monetary policy. So rather than adjust policy to be more palatable to the public, he’d rather leave no shadows in which the public can hide from his preferred policies. The idea is to make all economic activity visible so that people have to submit to control. Denmark, which has the highest tax rates in Europe and a correspondingly booming shadow economy, is already moving in that direction. …the Danmarks Nationalbank will stop internal printing of banknotes and minting of coins in 2016. After all, why adjust tax and regulatory policy to be acceptable to constitutents when you can nag them and try to reinvent the idea of money instead?

By the way, some have proposed similar policies in the United States, starting with a ban on $100 bills.

Which led me to paraphrase a line from the original version of Planet of the Apes.

Notwithstanding my attempt to be clever, the tide is moving in the wrong direction. Cash is beginning to vanish in Sweden, as reported by the New York Times.

…many of the country’s banks no longer accept or dispense cash. Bills and coins now represent just 2 percent of Sweden’s economy, compared with 7.7 percent in the United States and 10 percent in the euro area. This year, only a fifth of all consumer payments in Sweden have been made in cash, compared with an average of 75 percent in the rest of the world, according to Euromonitor International. …Cash machines, which are controlled by a Swedish bank consortium, are being dismantled by the hundreds

Though the article notes that there is some resistance.

Not everyone is cheering. Sweden’s embrace of electronic payments has alarmed consumer organizations and critics who warn of a rising threat to privacy and increased vulnerability to sophisticated Internet crimes. …The government has not sought to stem the cashless tide. If anything, it has benefited from more efficient tax collection, because electronic transactions leave a trail; in countries like Greece and Italy, where cash is still heavily used, tax evasion remains a big problem. Leif Trogen, an official at the Swedish Bankers’ Association, acknowledged that banks were earning substantial fee income from the cashless revolution.

What matters, by the way, is not the degree to which consumers prefer to use alternatives to cash.

That’s perfectly fine, and it explains much of what we see on this map.

The problem is when governments use coercion to limit and/or abolish cash so that politicians have more power. And (gee, what a surprise) this is why the French are trying to crack down on cash.

Writing for the U.K.-based Telegraph, Matthew Lynn mentions the new policy and France and also explores some worrisome implications of this anti-cash trend.

France is banning the use of cash for transactions worth more than €1,000…part of a growing movement among academics and now governments to gradually ban the use of cash completely. …it is a “barbarous relic”, as some publications loftily dismiss it. The trouble is, cash is also incredibly efficient. And it is a crucial part of a free society. There is no convincing case for abolition. …When it comes to creeping state control, it is no surprise to find the French out in front. …A cashless economy would be far easier to both tax and control. But hold on. Is that something we really want? In reality, cash is far too valuable to be given up lightly. In truth, the benefits of abolition are largely oversold. While terrorists and criminals may well use cash to buy weapons, or deal in drugs, it is very hard to believe that they would not find some other way of financing their operations if it was abolished. Are there really any cases of potential jihadists being foiled because they couldn’t find two utility bills (less than three months old, of course) in a false name to open an account?

Amen. Banning cash to stop terrorists is about as foolish as thinking that gun control will thwart jihadists.

In any event, we need to consider trade-offs. Chris Giles highlighted that issue in a piece for the Financial Times.

…an unfortunate rhetorical echo of Maoist China. It is illiberal… Some argue there would be beneficial side effects from abolishing notes and coins through the regularisation of illegal activities. Really? …Cash would have to be abolished everywhere and the BoE does not have those powers, thankfully. The anonymity of cash helps to free people from their governments and some criminality is a price worth paying for liberty.

Though I suppose we should grudgingly give politicians credit for cleverly trying exploit fear to expand their power.

But never forget we’re talking about a bad version of clever. If they succeed, that will be bad news for freedom.  J.D. Tuccille of Reason explains in a second article why a growing number of people prefer to use cash.

Many Americans happily and quietly avoid banks and trendy purchasing choices in favor of old-fashioned paper money. Lots of business gets done that way…the Albuquerque Journal pointed out that over a third of households in the city either avoid banks entirely (the “unbanked”) or else keep a checking account but do much of their business through cash, check-cashing shops, pawn shops, money orders, and other “alternative financial products” (the “underbanked”). A few weeks earlier, the Kansas City Star reported a similar local situation… In both cities, the phenomenon is growing. …Twenty-six percent cite privacy as a reason for keeping clear of banks – bankers say that increased federal reporting and documentation requirements drive many customers away. “A lot of people are afraid of Uncle Sam,” Greg Levenson, president and CEO of Southwest Capital Bank, told the Albuquerque Journal. …It’s a fair bet that those who “have managed to earn income in the shadow economy” and want to keep their income unreported to the feds and undiminished by fees are heavily overrepresented among the unbanked. …most people aren’t idiots. When they avoid expensive, snoopy financial institutions, it’s because they’ve decided the benefits outweigh the costs.

Very well said, though I’d augment what he wrote by noting that some of these folks probably would like to be banked but are deterred by high costs resulting from foolish government money-laundering laws.

More on that later.

Let’s stay with the issue of whether cash should be preserved. A business writer from the U.K. is very uneasy about the notion of a society with no cash.

…tax authorities have become increasingly keen on tracking everything and everyone to make absolutely certain that no assets slip under their radars. The Greeks have been told that, come 2016, they must begin to declare all cash over €15,000 held in safes or mattresses, and all precious stones, gold and the like worth more than €30,000. Anyone else think there might be a new tax coming on all that stuff? …number-crunchers…are maddened by the fact that even as we are provided with lots of simple digital payment methods we still like to use cash: the demand for £20 and £50 notes has been rising. …They are maddened because “as untraceable bearer instruments, it is not possible to locate where banknotes are being held at any one time”… Without recourse to physical cash, we are all 100% dependent on the state-controlled digital world for our financial security. Worse, the end of cash is also the end of privacy: if you have to pay for everything digitally, every transaction you ever make (and your location when you make it) will be on record. Forever. That’s real repression.

She nails it. If politicians get access to more information, they’ll levy more taxes and impose more control.

And that won’t end well.

Last but not least, the Chairman of Signature Bank, Scott Shay, warns about the totalitarian temptations that would exist in a cash-free world. Here’s some of what he wrote in a column for CNBC.

In 2010, Visa and MasterCard, bowed to government pressure — not even federal or state law — and banned all online-betting payments from their systems. This made it virtually impossible for these gambling sites to continue operating regardless of their jurisdiction or legality. It is not too far-fetched to wonder if the day might come when the health records of an overweight individual would lead to a situation in which they find that any sugary drink purchase they make through a credit or debit card is declined. …You might think then that the person can always pay cash and remain outside the purview of these technologies. This may be the case for the moment, but we are well on the road to becoming a cashless society. …there is…a sinister risk…a cashless society would certainly give governments unprecedented access to information and power over citizens.

And, he warns, that information will lead to mischief.

Currently, we have little evidence to indicate that governments will refrain from using this power. On the contrary, the U.S. government is already using its snooping prowess and big-data manipulation in some frightening ways. …the U.S. government is becoming very fond of seizing money from citizens first and asking questions later via “civil forfeiture.” Amazingly, the government is permitted by law to do this even if it is only government staff members who have a suspicion, not proof, of wrongdoing. …In recent years, it made it increasingly difficult for companies to operate or individuals to transact by adding compliance hurdles for banks wishing to deal with certain categories of clients. By making it too expensive to deal with certain clients or sending the signal that a bank should not deal with a particular client or type of client, the government can almost assuredly keep that company or person out of the banking system. Banks are so critically dependent on government regulatory approval for their actions… It is easy to imagine a totalitarian regime using these tools to great harm.

Some folks will read Shay’s piece and downplay his concerns. They’ll say he’s making a slippery slope argument.

But there are very good reasons, when dealing with government, to fear that the slope actually is slippery.

Let’s close by sharing my video on the closely related topic of money laundering. These laws and regulations have been imposed supposedly to fight crime.

But we’ve slid down the slope. These policies have been a failure in terms of hindering criminals and terrorists, but they’ve given government a lot of power and information that is being routinely misused.

P.S. The one tiny sliver of good news is that bad money laundering and know-your-customer rules have generated an amusing joke featuring President Obama.

P.P.S. If politicians want to improve tax compliance in a non-totalitarian fashion, there is a very successful recipe for reducing the underground economy.

Read Full Post »

I’m not a big fan of international bureaucracies.

Regular readers know that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is the worst institution from my perspective, followed by the International Monetary Fund.

Some folks ask why the United Nations isn’t higher on the list?

My answer is simple. The UN has a very statist orientation and it routinely advocates bad policy, but it is too incompetent to do much damage.

The OECD and IMF, by contrast, have some capacity to undermine global growth by encouraging more statism.

That being said, the UN occasionally does something that is so obnoxious that I can’t resist commenting. Especially since my tax dollars pay a big share of that bureaucracy’s bloated budget.

What has me irked is that the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development just released its annual Trade and Development Report.

You would think an institution that focuses on trade and development would be advocating free markets and small government.

But UNCTAD takes the opposite approach.

Here’s how the bureaucrats frame the issue in the report. Keep in mind that “market liberalism” is their term for free markets (in other words, classical liberalism).

Back in 1964, the international community recognized that “If privilege, extremes of wealth and poverty, and social injustice persist, then the goal of development is lost”. Yet, almost everywhere in recent years, the spread of market liberalism has coincided with highly unequal patterns of income and wealth distribution. A world where its 85 wealthiest citizens own more than its bottom three and a half billion was not the one envisaged 50 years ago. …the past three decades have demonstrated that delivery is unlikely with a one-size-fits-all approach to economic policy that cedes more and more space to the profitable ambitions of global firms and market forces. …the moment is right to propose another international “New Deal” that can realize the promise of “prosperity for all”.

But not only does UNCTAD utilize class-warfare rhetoric, they also try to support their ideological agenda with historical illiteracy.

I’ve pointed out that the western world became rich when government was very small and markets were liberated.

But the statists at the UN want us to think that big government deserves the credit.

None of today’s developed countries depended on market forces for their structural transformation and its attendant higher levels of employment, productivity and per capita incomes. Rather, they adopted country-specific measures to manage those forces, harnessing their creative side to build productive capacities and provide opportunities for dynamic firms and entrepreneurs, while guiding them in a more socially desired direction. They also used different forms of government action to mitigate the destructive tendencies of those same market forces. This approach of managing the market, not idolizing it, was repeated by the most rapidly growing emerging market economies − from the small social democratic economies of Northern Europe to the giant economies of East Asia − in the decades following the end of the Second World War.

Wow. They even want us to think big government deserves the credit for prosperity in Hong Kong and Singapore.

So you know the bureaucrats are either very stupid or very dishonest. I suspect the latter, but it doesn’t matter. All we need to know is that they are willing to make very preposterous claims to advance their agenda.

And what is their agenda? Well, a major theme is that politicians in developing nations need “policy space” to enable bigger government.

For instance, UNCTAD doesn’t like free trade but does like industrial policy (aka, crony capitalism).

Policy space is…reduced by free trade agreements… Along with the proliferation of trade agreements and their expansion into trade-related areas, there has been a global revival of interest in industrial policy.

But a big focus of the report is that tax competition is a threat to the “policy space” of politicians.

Fiscal space goes hand in hand with policy space. …strengthening government revenues is key. …This…allows for higher growth-enhancing public spending… The need for reclaiming and expanding fiscal space faces particular challenges in an increasingly globalizing economy. …A major problem is that globalization has affected the ability of governments to mobilize domestic revenues. …the increased mobility of capital and its greater use of fiscal havens have considerably altered the conditions for taxing income − both personal and corporate − and wealth. The dominant agenda of market liberalism has led to a globalized economy that encourages tax competition among countries, at times pushing them to a “race to the bottom”.

Gasp, how horrible! Politicians don’t have as much “policy space” to impose punitive taxes.

That’s the best advertisement for tax competition I’ve ever read, even if it is unintentional.

So what do the UN bureaucrats want to solve this supposed problem? Simple, just destroy financial privacy and fiscal sovereignty so that politicians have carte blanche to expand taxes.

…a number of developments aimed at improving transparency and exchange of information for tax purposes have taken place. They include a declaration by G20 leaders to promote information sharing… an OECD Action Plan on base erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS), increased monitoring by several national tax authorities…and numerous bilateral tax treaties (BTTs) and tax information exchange agreements (TIEAs). …these initiatives are steps in the right direction.

With BEPS, indiscriminate information sharing, and more power for national tax police, UNCTAD has put together a trifecta of bad policies.

And to add insult to injury, all the bureaucrats at the UN get tax-free salaries while they concoct schemes to enable higher taxes on the rest of us.

Geesh, no wonder I sometimes have perverse fantasies about them.

And I’m very grateful that Senator Rand Paul is leading the fight against their evil ideas.

P.S. On a more pleasant topic, the “Beltway Bandits” just played in the softball world series in Las Vegas. We competed in the 55+ grouping and finished with three wins and two losses.

Not bad, but not good enough to win any trophies. But we got to play in replica Major League stadiums, which was a fun experience.

I can now say I’ve hit home runs in Dodger Stadium and Wrigley Field, and also doubled off the Green Monster at Fenway. Sounds impressive so long as nobody asks any follow-up questions!

IMAG0135

P.P.S. Here’s something else that I found amusing.

Bill Clinton not only understands the inversion issue, but he’s also willing to publicly explain why Obama is wrong.

During an interview with CNBC on Tuesday, former President Bill Clinton called to cut corporate taxes and give companies a break on money stashed overseas, dinging President Barack Obama’s latest effort to combat corporate tax-dodging. When asked what should be done about corporate inversion transactions, Clinton responded with a host of GOP talking points about the tax burden on big business. “America has to face the fact that we have not reformed our corporate tax laws,” Clinton told CNBC, according to a transcript. “We have the highest overall corporate tax rates in the world. And we are now the only OECD country that also taxes overseas earnings on the difference between what the companies pay overseas and what they pay in America.”

But I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. This isn’t the first time he’s had sensible things to say on the issue of corporate taxation.

Read Full Post »

It’s a bad idea when governments demand information on your bank accounts and investments so they can impose economically destructive double taxation.

It’s a worse idea when they also demand the right to tax economic activity in other jurisdictions (otherwise known as “worldwide taxation“).

And it’s the worst possible development when governments decide that they should impose a global network of data collection and dissemination as part of a scheme of worldwide double taxation.

Yet that’s exactly what’s happening. High-tax nations, working through the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, want to impose a one-size-fits-all system of “automatic information exchange” that would necessitate the complete evisceration of financial privacy.

David Burton of the Heritage Foundation explains the new scheme for giving governments more access to peoples’ private financial information.

…the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released the full version of the global standard for automatic exchange of information. The Standard for Automatic Exchange of Financial Account Information in Tax Matters calls on governments to obtain detailed account information from their financial institutions and exchange that information automatically with other jurisdictions on an annual basis.

I think this is bad policy, regardless. It is based on imposing and enforcing bad tax policy.

But David goes one step farther. He warns that this global network of tax police includes many unsavory nations.

It is one thing to exchange financial account information with Western countries that generally respect privacy and are allied with the United States. It is an entirely different matter to exchange sensitive financial information about American citizens or corporations with countries that do not respect Western privacy norms, have systematic problems with corruption or are antagonistic to the United States. States that fall into one of these problematic categories but are participating in the OECD automatic exchange of information initiative include Colombia, China and Russia. …The Obama administration enthusiastically supports the OECD initiative.

Moreover, David wisely does not believe we should trust the Obama Administration’s hollow assurances that other nations won’t misuse the data.

…even the administration has realized important privacy issues at are stake. Robert B. Stack, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for International Tax Affairs, has testified that “the United States will not enter into an information exchange agreement unless the Treasury Department and the IRS are satisfied that the foreign government has strict confidentiality protections…” Leaving these determinations to a tax agency with little institutional interest in anything other than raising tax revenue is dangerous. There is little doubt sensitive financial information about American citizens and businesses can and will be used by some governments for reasons that have nothing to do with tax administration, such as identifying political opponents’ financial resources or industrial espionage. In addition, individuals in corrupt governments may use the information for criminal purposes such as identity theft, to access others’ funds or to identify potential kidnapping victims. It is naïve to think otherwise. …The Senate should not ratify this protocol. The risks to American citizens and American businesses are too great.

David is exactly right, but too restrained and polite in his assessment.

Richard Rahn, my colleague at Cato, is more blunt in his analysis. Here’s some of what he wrote for the Washington Times.

Do you want the Obama administration sharing all of your financial information with the Russian, Chinese and Saudi Arabian governments? You may be thinking, not even President Obama would go that far. Not so… The rationale behind this despicable idea is to more effectively enable governments, such as that of France and the United States, to identify tax evaders. This might sound like a good idea until one realizes that every individual and business will be stripped of all of their financial privacy if this becomes the law of the land… all of the information that financial institutions now report to the U.S. government to try to ensure income-tax compliance, including your account balances, interest, dividends, proceeds from the sale of financial assets — would be shared with foreign governments. This would apply not only for individuals, but also for both financial and nonfinancial businesses, plus trust funds and foundations. 

Richard then explains that we can’t even trust the bureaucrats at the IRS.

The United States and other governments will, of course, claim that your sensitive financial information will remain confidential — and that you can trust the governments. After the recent Internal Revenue Service scandals — which recur every decade or so — why would anyone believe anything the IRS says? Remember, the IRS leaked information on some of Mitt Romney’s donors during the 2012 presidential campaign. It was blatantly illegal, and the IRS (i.e., you the taxpayer) paid a small fine, but no one went to jail. Many U.S. presidents have misused the IRS, starting at least as far back as Franklin Roosevelt, and the American people are always told “never again,” which is the beginning of the new lie.

And he logically concludes it would be even more foolish to trust foreign tax bureaucracies.

Particularly the tax authorities of the many nations that abuse human rights and persecute minorities, as well the tax police in nations that are too incompetent to be trusted with sensitive data.

…just think what is going to happen when all of those corrupt officials in foreign governments get ahold of it. Some will use the information for identity theft and to raid bank accounts, others for industrial espionage, some to identify potential kidnapping victims and some for political purposes. The potential list goes on and on. The U.S. Treasury Department says it will insist on strict confidentiality protections. (Lois Lerner, please call your office.) If you are a Ukrainian-American who donates to Ukrainian free-market and democratic causes, would you really think that Vladimir Putin’s team, having your financial information, would not misuse it? If you are an American Jew who donates to Israeli causes, do you really think that all of those in the Saudi government who now have full access to your confidential financial information are not going to misuse it? The Chinese are well known for using malware against their opponents. Just think of all the mischief they could cause if they had access to all of the sensitive financial information of human rights advocates in America.

Richard draws the appropriate conclusion. Simply stated, there’s no way we should have a global regime of automatic information exchange simply because a handful of high-tax nations want to remake global tax policy so they can prop up their decrepit welfare states.

As Lord Acton famously reminded us, governments are prone to misuse information and power. The instrument behind this information-sharing ploy is the OECD, which started out as a statistical collection and dissemination agency to promote free trade among its members. It has now morphed into an international agency promoting big government and higher taxes, and the destruction of financial freedom — while at the same time, by treaty, its staff salaries are tax-exempt. No hypocrisy there. Thinking Republicans and Democrats should unite around opposition to this terrible treaty and defund the OECD. Those who vote for it will deservedly be easy marks for their political opponents.

And kudos to Richard for urging the defunding of the OECD. It is absurd that American tax dollars are funding a Paris-based bureaucracy that constantly urges policies that would undermine the U.S. economy.

Especially when they’re insulated from the negative effects of the policies they push. Since they’re on the public teat, they don’t suffer when the private economy is battered. And they don’t even have to pay tax on their very generous salaries.

P.S. I’m very glad to report that at least one lawmaker is doing the right thing. Senator Rand Paul is leading the fight to block proposals that would put Americans at risk by requiring the inappropriate collection and sharing of private financial information.

P.P.S. By way of background, the OECD scheme is part of an effort to cripple tax competition so that high-tax nations can impose higher tax rates and finance bigger government. To learn more about tax competition (and tax havens), watch this four-part video series.

P.P.P.S. The OECD scheme is basically a multilateral version of the horrid “FATCA” legislation signed by Obama back in 2010.

P.P.P.P.S. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think a global tax database is even worse than an Obamacare database on our sex lives.

Read Full Post »

Senator Rand Paul is being criticized and condemned by the Washington establishment.

That’s almost certainly a sign that he’s doing the right thing. And given the recent events in Russia and Ukraine, we should say he’s doing a great thing.

Rand PaulThis is because Senator Paul is waging a lonely battle to stop the unthinking and risky move to a world where governments – including corrupt and evil regimes – collect and share our private financial information.

I’ve written about this topic many times and warned about the risks of letting unsavory governments have access to personal information, but the Obama Administration – with the support of some Republicans who think government power is more important than individual rights – is actively pushing this agenda.

The White House has even endorsed the idea of the United States being part of a so-called Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters, even though that would require the sharing of large amounts of personal financial data with thuggish and corrupt regimes such as Argentina, Azerbaijan, China, Greece, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, and Saudi Arabia!

I’m sure Vladimir Putin very much appreciates this insider access so he can monitor dissidents and track political opponents. His government even signed onto a recent G-20 Communique that endorsed automatic information-sharing.

Heck, there’s even a Russian heading up the Financial Action Task Force, which is endlessly pushing to give governments untrammeled access to private information. FATF even wants banks and other financial institutions to spy on customers, regardless of whether there’s the slightest evidence of any wrongdoing.

The general mindset in Washington is that we should all bury our heads in the sand and blithely allow this massive accumulation of power and information by governments. After all, Putin and other thugs would never abuse this system, right?

Senator Paul battles the statists

Fortunately, at least one lawmaker is trying to throw sand in the gears. Like Horatius at the bridge, who single-handedly thwarted an invasion of Rome in 509 BC, Senator Paul is objecting to this massive invasion of privacy.

He has this old-fashioned appreciation for the Constitution and doesn’t think government should have carte blanche to access private financial data. He even – gasp! – thinks that government power should be restrained by the 4th Amendment and that there should be due process legal protections for individuals.

No wonder the DC establishment doesn’t like him.

One example of this phenomenon is that Senator Paul has placed a “hold” on some tax treaties. Here are some excerpts from a recent article in Politico.

Paul for years has single-handedly blocked an obscure U.S.-Swiss tax treaty that lawmakers, prosecutors, diplomats and banks say makes the difference between U.S. law enforcement rooting out the names of a few hundred fat-cat tax evaders — and many thousands more. …International tax experts for years have seethed over Paul’s block on the Swiss and several other tax treaties. These sorts of mundane tax protocols used to get approved by unanimous consent without anyone batting an eyelash — until Paul came to town.

These pacts are “mundane” to officials who think there shouldn’t be any restrictions on the power of governments.

Fortunately, Senator Paul has a different perspective.

Kentucky’s tea party darling says the treaty infringes on privacy rights. …Paul, a libertarian Republican widely believed to be eyeing a 2016 presidential run, says his hold stems from concerns about Fourth Amendment protections against “unreasonable search and seizure.” “These are people that are alleged, not convicted of doing anything wrong,” Paul said a few weeks ago. “I don’t think you should have everybody’s information from their bank. There should be some process: accusations and proof that you’ve committed a crime.”

The article also notes that Senator Paul is one of the few lawmakers to fight back against the egregious FATCA legislation.

Paul’s protest is also linked to his abhorrence of the soon-to-take-effect Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, which will force foreign banks to disclose U.S. account information to the IRS, and domestic banks to reciprocate to other nations’ revenue departments. …the senator has legislation to repeal FATCA and hesitates to support a treaty that enables a law he views as U.S. government overreach.

I don’t know how long Senator Paul can withstand the pressure in his lonely fight for individual rights, but I’m glad he’s waging the battle.

Even the Swiss government and Swiss banks have thrown in the towel, having decided that they have no choice but to weaken their nation’s human rights laws on financial privacy because of threats of financial protectionism by the United States.

So let’s give three cheers to our modern-day Horatius, a very rare elected official who is doing the right thing for the right reason.

For more information on the importance of financial privacy, here’s my video on the moral case for tax havens.

P.S. I shared some good jokes about Keynesian economics a few weeks ago.

Now, via Cafe Hayek, I have a great cartoon showing the fancy equation that left-wing economists use when they tell us that the economy will grow faster if there’s a bigger burden of government spending.

Keynesian Miracle Cartoon

Now you can see how the Congressional Budget Office puts together its silly estimates.

Indeed, Chuck Asay even produced a cartoon on CBO’s fancy methodology.

The next step is to find the secret equation that CBO uses when it publishes nonsensical analysis implying that growth is maximized when tax rates are 100 percent.

But to be fair, the politicians who pay their salaries want them to justify bigger government, so should we expect anything else?

Read Full Post »

Time for another great moment in red tape.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that banks treat customers poorly in part because of bad laws and regulations from Washington.

Money laundering laws were adopted beginning about 30 years ago based on the theory that we could lower crime rates by making it more difficult for crooks to utilize the financial system. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, at least in theory. But these laws have become very expensive and intrusive, yet they’ve had no measurable impact on crime rates. …politicians and bureaucrats have decided to double down on failure and they’re making anti-money laundering laws more onerous, imposing ever-higher costs in hopes of having some sort of positive impact. This is bad for banks, bad for the poor, and bad for the economy.

You may think that only cranky libertarians are unhappy about this system.

But that’s not the case. Three professors with expertise in criminology, justice, sociology, and public policy wrote a detailed assessment of policies on anti-money laundering (AML) and combating the financing of terrorism (CFT).

Given the establishment pedigree of the authors, the finding of the report are rather shocking. The report’s introduction hints that the whole apparatus should be called into question.

To date there is no substantial effort by any international organization, including the IMF, to assess either the costs or benefits of an AML/CFT regime.  The FATF system has proceeded as if  it produces only public and private goods, not public or private “bads” or adverse by-products  against which the “goods” have to be weighed.   The Fund staff itself has raised questions about whether its substantial investment in the 3rd round has yielded adequate returns. It is not known what value that investment produced for the FATF or the Fund’s core objectives.  There needs to be more open acknowledgement of actual and potential financial costs of AML/CFT controls, their potential misuse by authoritarian rulers, and possible adverse effects on populations that rely on remittances and the informal economy, as well as potential negative impacts on NGOs and parts of civil society.

And when you dig into the details of the report, you find some surprisingly blunt language.

Basically, there’s no evidence that these policies work, and lots of evidence that they impose real harm.

Benefits of the FATF AML/CFT system have not been demonstrated. Although there may be benefits known to international organizations, governments, regulators, and intelligence agencies, no systematic efforts have been made by the FATF network of IOs or countries or institutions to demonstrate benefits. …Standards and Methodology proceed as if the implementation of an effective AML/CFT regime delivers only public and private goods and imposes no public or private “bads.” This study has learned of no significant effort by any of the standard-setting or assessor bodies to undertake a cost-benefit analysis… Little consideration has been given, they say, to the costs of implementing an AML/CFT regime, and little evidence has been adduced to demonstrate that the costs produce commensurate benefits in their own or indeed in any other jurisdiction. …Costs are substantial whether construed broadly or narrowly. …Moreover, an AML/CFT regime generates substantial costs on the financial sector in terms of money-laundering compliance staff and software procurement. Entire industries have grown around consulting and advising businesses and governments on AML/CFT compliance… Particularly strong views were expressed by bankers about excessive costs of misplaced demands upon the financial industry for surveillance of customers.

The report notes that poor people are among the biggest victims.

AML laws and regulations may adversely affect access of marginal groups whom FATF documents describe as subject to “financial exclusion” from the formal financial system. The more onerous the burdens placed on individuals, companies, and NPOs in countries where there is a substantial informal and cash economy, the more likely they are to opt out of the formal economy for reasons of cost. …Money laundering and counter-terrorism measures can reduce the volume of overseas remittances to the most vulnerable populations in the poorest countries. …Administrative and financial costs imposed on voluntary associations, most of which are very small and poorly funded, can threaten the survival of small associations

By the way, the World Bank also has acknowledged that these counterproductive laws are very bad for poor people, oftentimes disenfranchising them from the banking system

Last but not least, kudos to the authors for making the very relevant point that the destruction of financial privacy is a boon for authoritarian governments.

Numbers of experienced assessors have observed that a fully functioning AML/CFT regime in some countries has provided tools for authoritarian rulers to repress their political opponents by denying them banking or other facilities, increasing surveillance over their accounts, and prosecuting or penally taxing them for  non-disclosure, in addition to opening up more opportunities for illegal extortion for private gain. This weapon can be applied against persons/organizations already in the formal financial system.

It’s worth pointing out that this also explains why it’s so dangerous to have governments collecting and sharing tax information.

But let’s stick to the issue of money laundering. Now let’s look at two case studies to get a sense of how these laws impose real-world harm.

We’ll begin with an article in The Economist, which looks at how Western Union’s ability to provide financial services has been hampered by heavy-handed (yet ineffective) laws and regulation.

It seems like this is a company providing a very valuable service, particularly to the less fortunate.

Western Union’s services are essential for people who do not have bank accounts or are working far from home. …Western Union helps to bolster trade and disperse the world’s wealth.

But the statists don’t care.

Someone, somewhere, may want to transfer money for a nefarious purpose. And rather than the government do its job and investigate actual crimes, politicians and bureaucrats have decided that it’s easier to make Western Union spy on all customers.

…these laudable activities conflict with another pressing goal: impeding money laundering. Rules to that end require financial institutions to know who their customers are and how they obtained their money. These requirements transform the virtues of Western Union’s model—the openness and breadth of its network and its willingness to process vast numbers of small transactions—into liabilities.

And the heavy boot of government came down on the company, forcing Western Union to incur heavy expenses that make the system far more expensive for consumers.

Western Union struck a far-reaching compliance agreement with Arizona’s attorney-general in 2010. It agreed to adopt 73 changes to its systems and procedures, to install an external monitor to keep tabs on its conduct and to fund the creation of a new enforcement entity, the Southwest Border Anti-Money Laundering Alliance. Many of the recommendations were highly detailed. Western Union has, for example, set up a system to monitor transactions that takes into account factors such as the seasonality of marijuana harvests and illegal immigration. It is conducting background checks on agents and their families. Such efforts have turned out to be difficult and expensive. …Western Union’s shares have been jolted several times. Earlier this month Western Union said it would be subject to independent monitoring for an extra four years. It faces big fines and criminal prosecutions if it fails to meet the stipulations in the compliance agreement.

Let’s look at another real-world consequence of the AML/CFT regime.

You’ve heard of “driving while black,” which describes the suspicion and hostility that blacks sometimes experience, particularly when driving in ritzy neighborhoods.

Well, DWB has a cousin. It’s BWR, otherwise know as “banking while Russian.” And the stereotype has unpleasant consequences for innocent people.

Here are some passages from a story in the New York Times.

We had sold our apartment in Moscow, jumped through an assortment of Russian tax hoops and transferred the proceeds to the United States, where we now lived. It made me nervous to have all that money sitting in one virtual clump in the bank — but not nearly as nervous as having the card connected to it not work. The experience was also humiliating. In one moment, I had gone from being a Citigold client to a deadbeat immigrant who couldn’t pay for her son’s diapers. I called Citibank as soon as I got home. …”Who closed it?” I was working hard not to sound belligerent. “And where is my money?” …It was Citibank. “I see that because your transactions indicated there may be an attempt to avoid complying with currency regulations, Citibank has closed your account,” the woman informed me. …“Why wasn’t I notified?” “The cashier’s check will serve as your notice.” Citibank had fired me as a client.

Why would a bank not want customers?

Because the government makes some clients too costly and too risky, even though there’s no suggestion of wrongdoing.

Other than ethnicity.

I wasn’t entirely surprised. This had happened to other Russian-Americans I know, including one of my closest friends and my father. My friend had opened her account at a local bank in the United States when she got her first job, at age 13. Her accounts were summarily closed in 2008, while she was working in Russia. The bank, which had been bought by Sovereign in the meantime, would not state a reason for firing a client of 27 years. My father, who immigrated to the United States in 1981, had his accounts closed by BankBoston in 2000, when he was a partner in a Moscow-based business. His lawyers pressed the bank on the issue and were eventually told that because Russians had been known to launder money, the bank applied “heightened scrutiny” to accounts that had a Russia connection. It had closed “many” accounts because of what it considered suspicious activity. Like other kinds of ethnic profiling, these policies of weeding out Russian-Americans who have money are hardly efficient.

But the main thing to understand is that the entire system is inefficient.

Laws were adopted with the promise they would reduce crime. But just like you don’t stop crime by having cops hang out at Dunkin’s Donuts, you also don’t stop crime by creating haystacks of financial data and then expecting to make it easier to find needles.

For more information, here’s my video on the government’s failed money laundering policies.

P.S. This map shows you the countries considered most at risk of dirty money, which should make you wonder why anyone is foolish enough to think that higher costs on American banks will make a difference.

P.P.S. You probably didn’t realize there was such a thing as money laundering humor, but you’ll enjoy this joke featuring President Obama.

Read Full Post »

One of the many differences between advocates of freedom and supporters of statism is how they view “rights.”

Libertarians, along with many conservatives, believe in the right to be left alone and to not be molested by government. This is sometimes referred to in the literature as “negative liberty,” which is just another way of saying “the absence of coercive constraint on the individual.”

Statists, by contrast, believe in “positive liberty.” This means that you have a “right” to things that the government will give you (as explained here by America’s second-worst President). Which means, of course, that the government has an obligation to take things from somebody else. How else, after all, will the government satisfy your supposed right to a job, education, healthcare, housing, etc.

Sometimes, the statists become very creative in their definition of rights.

You may laugh at these examples, particularly the ones that focus on seemingly trivial issues.

But don’t laugh too hard, because our friends on the left are busy with very grandiose plans for more “positive liberty.”

The EU Observer reports on efforts in Europe to create expanded rights to other people’s money.

Austerity programmes agreed with the troika of international lenders (the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) are in breach of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, according to a German legal expert. …under the EU charter of fundamental rights, a legal text which became binding for member states in 2009, several austerity measures enshrined in the MoUs can be fought in courts. …His study highlights that the MoUs “have seriously limited the autonomy of employers and trade unions to negotiate wages.” …Education and health care reforms prescribed in the memorandums are also questionable because they are focusing too much on cutting budgets, he said. …He noted that the concept of “financial stability” was put above all other considerations. “But financial stability cannot be achieved without social stability,” he said.

But it’s not just one oddball academic making these claims.

…the Council of Europe’s social rights committee noted that public policies since 2009 have been unable to stem a generalised increase in poverty on the continent. The committee identified some 180 violations of European Social Charter provisions on access to health and social protection across 38 European countries. In the bailed-out countries, the committee found several breaches – particularly in terms of wages and social benefits. Ireland was found in breach of the social charter for not ensuring the minimum levels of sickness, unemployment, survivor’s, employment injury and invalidity benefits. Greece and Cyprus have “inadequate” minimum unemployment, sickness, maternity and old age benefits, as well as a restrictive social security system. Spain also pays too little to workers on sick leave.

This crazy thinking also exists in the United States. A former Carter Administration official, now a law professor at Georgetown, has written that countries with good policy must change their systems in order to enable more tax revenue in nations with bad policy.

Do states like Switzerland, which provide a tax haven for wealthy citizens of developing countries, violate internationally recognized human rights? …bank secrecy has a significant  human rights impact if governments of developing countries are deprived of resources needed to meet basic economic rights guaranteed by the United Nations Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. …The Covenant explicitly recognizes individual rights to adequate food, clothing, and housing (Article 11); health care, clean water, and sanitation (Article 12); and education (Article 13). The Covenant also imposes obligations on member states to implement these rights.

And the right to redistribution isn’t just part of the U.N. mission.

There’s also a European set of Maastricht Principles which supposedly obligates nations to help each expand the burden of government.

Articles 19 and 20 of The Maastricht Principles call on states to “refrain from conduct which nullifies or impairs the enjoyment and exercise of economic . . . rights of persons outside their territories . . . or which impairs the ability of another State to comply with that State’s . . . obligations as regards economic rights.” …recognizing the fact that secrecy for offshore accounts makes it difficult for developing countries to implement Covenant obligations. It therefore seems indisputable that offshore accounts impede the fulfillment of internationally recognized human rights.

You may be thinking that all this sounds crazy. And you’re right.

You may be thinking that it’s insane to push global schemes for bigger government at the very point when the welfare state is collapsing. And you’re right.

You may be thinking that it’s absurd to trample national sovereignty in pursuit of bad policy. And you’re right.

And you may be thinking this is a complete bastardization of what America’s Founding Fathers had in mind. And you’re right.

But you probably don’t understand that this already is happening. The IRS’s awful FATCA legislation, for instance, is basically designed for exactly the purpose of coercing other nations into enforcing bad American tax policy.

Even more worrisome is the OECD’s Orwellian Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters, which is best viewed as a poisonous acorn that will grow into a deadly World Tax Organization oak tree.

P.S. And the Obama Administration already is pushing policies to satisfy the OECD’s statist regime. The IRS recently pushed through a regulation that says American banks have to put foreign tax law above U.S. tax law.

P.P.S. Statists may be evil, but they’re not stupid. They understand that tax havens and tax competition are a threat to big government.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: