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Archive for the ‘Financial Privacy’ Category

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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