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Archive for the ‘International bureaucracy’ Category

The great thing about the Economic Freedom of the World is that it’s like the Swiss Army Knife of global policy. No matter where you are or what issue you’re dealing with, EFW will offer insight about how to generate more prosperity.

Since today’s focus is Central America, let’s look at the EFW data.

As you can see, it’s a mixed bag. Some nations are in the top quartile, such as Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Panama, though none of them get high absolute scores. Mexico, by contrast, has a lot of statism and is ranked only #88, which means it is in the third quartile. And Belize is a miserable #122 and stuck in the bottom quartile (where Cuba also would be if that backwards country would be ranked if it produced adequate statistics).

One of the great challenges for development in central America (as well as other parts of the developing world) is figuring out how to get poor and middle-income nations to make the jump to the next level.

Mary Anastasia O’Grady of the Wall Street Journal has a column on how to get more growth in Central America. She focuses on Guatemala, but what she writes is applicable for all neighboring countries.

…faster economic growth is part of what’s needed for the region… To succeed, it will have to break with the State Department’s conventional wisdom that underdevelopment is caused by a paucity of taxes and regulation. It will also have to climb down from its view that trade is a zero-sum game. Policy makers might start by reading a new report on micro, small and medium-sized businesses in Guatemala by the Kirzner Center for Entrepreneurship at Francisco Marroquin University in Guatemala City. It measures—by way of household surveys in 179 municipalities and interviews with industry experts—“attitudes, activities and aspirations of the entrepreneur.” …the GEM study ranks Guatemala No. 1 for its positive view of entrepreneurship as a career choice. Guatemala also ranks high (No. 9) for the percentage of the population engaged in new businesses, defined as less than 3½ years old. And it ranks 12th in terms of the percentage of the population who “are latent entrepreneurs and who intend to start a business within three years.”

She explains that Guatemalan entrepreneurship is hampered by excessive taxation and regulation.

Yet Guatemalan eagerness to run a business has not translated into prosperity for the nation… The country ranks a lowly 59th in entrepreneurs’ expectations that they will create six or more jobs in five years. It also sinks to near the bottom of the pack (62nd) in creating business-service companies. …The World Bank’s 2017 “Doing Business” survey provides many clues about why the informal economy is so large. Guatemala ranks 88th out of 190 countries world-wide for ease of running an enterprise, but in key categories that make up the index it performs much worse. The survey finds that it takes 256 hours to comply with the tax code. The total tax take is 35.2% of profits. It takes almost 20 days to start a legal enterprise and costs 24% of per capita income. To enforce a contract it takes more than 1,400 days and costs more than 26% of the claim.

The good news is that we know the answers that will generate prosperity. The bad news is that Guatemala gets a lot of bad advice.

The obvious solution is an overhaul of the tax, regulatory and legal systems in order to increase economic freedom. A lower tax rate and a simpler code would give companies an incentive to operate legally, thereby broadening the base and improving access to credit. Instead the Guatemalan authorities—encouraged by the State Department and the International Monetary Fund—spend their resources trying to impose a complex, costly system in an economy of mostly informal businesses with a much-smaller number of legal, productive entrepreneurs. Recently the United Nations International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala recommended a new tax to fight “impunity.” This is no way to attract capital or raise revenue.

Speaking of bad advice, let’s now contrast the sensible recommendations of Ms. O’Grady to the knee-jerk statism of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In a new report on Costa Rica’s tax system, the OECD urged ever-higher fiscal burdens for the country. Including destructive class warfare.

Costa Rica’s tax revenues are…insufficient to finance the country’s current spending needs. …In addition to raising more tax revenue…, Costa Rica needs to…enhance the redistributive role of its tax system. …the role of the personal income tax (PIT) should be strengthened as it currently raises little revenue and does not contribute to reducing inequality. …Collecting greater revenues from the PIT, by lowering the income threshold above which PIT has to be paid as well as by introducing additional PIT brackets and gradually raising the top PIT rate, could contribute to reducing income inequality.

But the OECD doesn’t merely want to hurt successful taxpayers.

The bureaucracy is proposing other taxes that target everyone in the country. Including a pernicious value-added tax.

Costa Rica does not have a modern VAT system in place. …Costa Rica’s priority should be to introduce a well-designed and broad-based VAT system…to be able to generate additional revenues… There is scope to improve the environmental effectiveness of tax policy while also increasing revenue.

So why is the OECD so dogmatically in favor of higher taxes in Costa Rica?

Are revenues less than 5 percent of GDP, indicating that the country is unable to finance genuine public goods such as rule of law?

Is the government so starved of revenue that Costa Rico can’t replicate the formula – a public sector consuming about 10 percent of economic output – that enabled the western world to become rich?

Of course not. The report openly acknowledges that the Costa Rican tax system already consumes more than 23 percent of GDP.

The obvious conclusion if that the burden of government in Costa Rica should be downsized. And that’s true whether you think that the growth-maximizing size of government, based on the experience of the western world, is 5 percent-10 percent of GDP. Or whether you limit yourself to modern data and think the growth-maximizing size of government, based on Hong Kong and Singapore, is 15 percent-20 percent of economic output.

Here’s another amazing part of the report, as in amazingly bad and clueless.

The OECD actually admits that rising levels of government debt are the result of spending increases.

…significant increases in expenditures have not been matched by increases in tax revenues. …Between 2008 and 2013, overall government spending increased as a result of higher public sector remuneration as well as higher government transfers to finance public sector social programmes.

What’s particularly discouraging, as you just read, is that the higher spending wasn’t even in areas, such as infrastructure, where there might arguably be a potential for some long-run economic benefit.

Instead, the government has been squandering money on bureaucrat compensation and the welfare state.

Here’s another remarkable admission in the OECD report.

The high tax burden is a key driver of the informal economy in Costa Rica. The IMF estimated the size of the informal economy in Costa Rica at approximately 42% of GDP in the early 2000s… Past work from the IMF showed that rigidities in the labor market and the high tax burden were the most important drivers of informality.

Yet does the OECD reach the logical conclusion that Costa Rica needs deregulation and lower tax rates? Of course not.

The Paris-based bureaucrats instead want measures to somehow force workers into the tax net.

Bringing more taxpayers within the formal economy should be a key priority. …the tax burden in Costa Rica is borne by a small number of taxpayers. This puts a limit on the amount of tax revenue that can be raised…and puts a limit to the impact of the tax system in reducing inequality.

Ironically, the OECD report actually includes a table showing why the IMF is right in this instance. As you can see, social insurance taxes create an enormous wedge between what it costs to employ a worker and how much after-tax income a worker receives.

In other words, the large size of the underground economy is a predictable consequence of high tax rates.

Let’s conclude with the sad observation that the OECD’s bad advice for Costa Rica is not an anomaly. International bureaucracies are routinely urging higher tax burdens.

Indeed, I joked a few years ago in El Salvador that the nation’s air force should shoot down any planes with IMF bureaucrats in order to protect the country from bad economic advice.

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If I was Captain Ahab in a Herman Melville novel, my Moby Dick would be the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. I have spent more than 15 years fighting that Paris-based bureaucracy. Even to the point that the OECD threatened to throw me in a Mexican jail.

So when I had a chance earlier today to comment on the OECD’s statist agenda, I could barely contain myself

Notwithstanding the glitch at the beginning (the perils of a producer talking in my ear), I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to castigate the OECD.

Indeed, returning to my Moby Dick analogy, I’m increasingly hopeful that the harpoons I keep throwing at the OECD may finally draw some blood.

In his budget, President Trump has proposed to cut overall spending for international organizations. And we’re talking about a real budget cut, not the phony kind of cut where spending merely grows at a slightly slower rate.

The budget doesn’t specify funding levels for the various bureaucracies, but various Administration officials have told me that their goal is to completely defund the Paris-based bureaucracy.

To quote Chris Matthews, this definitely sends a thrill up my leg.

But I’m trying not to get too excited. It’s still up to Congress to decide OECD funding, and the bureaucrats in Paris have been very clever about currying favor with the members of the subcommittee that doles out cash for international organizations.

Though as I mentioned in the interview, the OECD didn’t do itself any favors by openly trashing Trump last year. Even if they have their doubts about Trump, I suspect most GOPers in Congress aren’t happy that the bureaucrats in Paris were trying to tilt the election for Hillary Clinton.

Here are some examples.

The OECD’s number-two bureaucrat, Doug Frantz, actually equated America’s president with the former head of Germany’s National Socialist Workers Party.

The Deputy Secretary General of the OECD has described…Donald Trump as a “lunatic” whose political rise mirrors that of Hitler and Mussolini. …Speaking on RTÉ’s This Week, Doug Frantz said…“if you look at the basis ‘us and them’ that Donald Trump sets up, that Hitler set up, that Mussolini set up, then you can begin to at least be concerned and I’m concerned: I think any right-minded person should be concerned…The person who sits in the White House is the most powerful person in the world and if that person is someone who follows every whim and appeals to the most base instincts of a population, then we’re all under real threat”.

And another news report caught the OECD’s Secretary General, Angel Gurria, basically asserting that Trump is racist.

Angel Gurria, secretary general of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development  and former Mexican foreign minister, says the word “racist” can be applied to Donald Trump. …Gurria tells UpFront’s Mehdi Hasan: “I would tend to agree with those who say that this is not only misinformed, but yes, I think the word racist can be applied. I think that because the American public is wise, it will then act in consequence,” Gurria adds.

By the way, I’m making sure to share these partisan statements with lots of people in Congress and the Administration.

In an ideal world, lawmakers would defund the OECD because it is an egregious waste of money. But if they defund the bureaucracy because its top two officials tried to interfere with the US election, I’ll still be happy with the final outcome.

I’ll close by recycling the video on the OECD that I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

P.S. In the interest of fairness, I’ll acknowledge that the OECD occasionally produces good work. I’ve even favorably cited research from the bureaucracy on issues such as government spending, tax policy, and expenditure limits.

But even if the bureaucracy ended its statist advocacy agenda and gave staff economists carte blanche to produce good papers, that still wouldn’t change my view that American tax dollars should not be funding the OECD. Though I confess it would be a much less attractive target if it returned to its original mission of collecting statistics and publishing studies.

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Since I’ve written that the International Monetary Fund is the Dumpster Fire of the Global Economy” and “the Dr. Kevorkian of Global Economic Policy,” I don’t think anyone could call me a fan of that international bureaucracy.

But I’ve also noted that the real problem with organizations like the IMF is that they have bad leadership. The professional economists at international bureaucracies often produce good theoretical and empirical work. That sensible research doesn’t make much difference, though, since the actual real-world policy decisions are made by political hacks with a statist orientation.

For instance, the economists at the IMF have produced research on the benefits of smaller government and spending caps. But the political leadership at the IMF routinely ignores that sensible research and instead has a dismal track record of pushing for tax increases.

Hope springs eternal, though, so I’m going to share some new IMF research on tax policy that is very sound. It’s from the second chapter of the bureaucracy’s newest Fiscal Monitor. Here are some excerpts, starting with an explanation of why the efficient allocation of resources is so important for prosperity.

A top challenge facing policymakers today is how to raise productivity, the key driver of living standards over the long term. …The IMF’s policy agenda has therefore emphasized the need to employ all policy levers, and in particular to promote growth-friendly fiscal policies that will boost productivity and potential output. Total factor productivity (TFP) at the country level reflects the productivity of individual firms…aggregate TFP depends on firms’ individual TFP and also on how available resources (labor and capital) are allocated across firms. Indeed, the poor use of existing resources within countries—referred to here as resource misallocation—has been found to be an important source of differences in TFP levels across countries and over time. …What is resource misallocation? Simply put, it is the poor distribution of resources across firms, reducing the total output that can be obtained from existing capital and labor.

The chapter notes that creative destruction plays a vital role in growth.

Baily, Hulten, and Campbell (1992) find that 50 percent of manufacturing productivity growth in the United States during the 1980s can be attributed to the reallocation of factors across plants and to firm entry and exit. Similarly, Barnett and others (2014) find that labor reallocation across firms explained 48 percent of labor productivity growth for most sectors in the U.K. economy in the five years prior to 2007.

And a better tax system would enable some of that growth by creating a level playing field.

Simply stated, you want people in the private sector to make decisions based on what makes economic sense rather than because they’re taking advantage of some bizarre quirk in the tax code.

Potential TFP gains from reducing resource misallocation are substantial and could lift the annual real GDP growth rate by roughly 1 percentage point. …Upgrading the design of their tax systems can help countries chip away at resource misallocation by ensuring that firms’ decisions are made for business and not tax reasons. Governments can eliminate distortions that they themselves have created. …For instance, the current debt bias feature of some tax systems not only distorts financing decisions but hampers productivity as well, especially in the case of advanced economies. …Empirical evidence shows that greater tax disparity across capital asset types is associated with higher misallocation.

One of the main problems identified by the IMF experts is the tax bias for debt.

And since I wrote about this problem recently, I’m glad to see that there is widespread agreement on the economic harm that is created.

Corporate debt bias occurs when firms are allowed to deduct interest expenses, but not returns to equity, in calculating corporate tax liability. …Several options are available to eliminate the distortions arising from corporate debt bias and from tax disparities across capital asset types, including the allowance for corporate equity system and a cash flow tax. …In the simplest sense, a CFT is a tax levied on the money entering the business less the money leaving the business. A CFT entails immediate expensing of all investment expenditures (that is, 100 percent first-year depreciation allowances) and no deductibility of either interest payments or dividends. Therefore, if it is well designed and implemented, a CFT does not affect the decision to invest or the scale of investment, and it does not discriminate across sources of financing.

By the way, regular readers may notice that the IMF economists favor a cash-flow tax, which is basically how the business side of the flat tax operates. There is full expensing in that kind of system, and interest and dividends are treated equally.

This is also the approach in the House Better Way tax plan, so the consensus for cash-flow taxation is very broad (though the House wants a destination-based approach, which is misguided for several reasons).

But let’s not digress. There’s one other aspect of the IMF chapter that is worthy of attention. There’s explicit discussion of how high tax rates undermine tax compliance, which is music to my ears.

Several studies have shown that tax policy and tax administration affect the prevalence of informality and thus productivity. Colombia provides an interesting case study on the effect of taxation on informality. A 2012 tax reform that reduced payroll taxes was found to incentivize a shift of Colombian workers out of informal into formal employment. Leal Ordóñez (2014) finds that taxes and regulations play an important role in explaining informality in Mexico. For Brazil, Fajnzylber, Maloney, and Montes-Rojas (2011) show that tax reductions and simplification led to a significant increase in formal firms with higher levels of revenue and profits. While a higher tax burden contributes to the prevalence of informality… For 130 developing countries, a higher corporate tax rate is found to increase the prevalence of cheats among small manufacturing firms, lowering the share of sales reported for tax purposes.

In closing, I should point out that the IMF chapter is not perfect.

For instance, even though it cites research about how high tax rates reduce compliance, the chapter doesn’t push for lower rates. Instead, it endorses more power for national tax authorities. Makes me wonder if the political folks at the IMF imposed that recommendation on the folks who wrote the chapter?

Regardless, the overall analysis of the chapter is quite sound. It’s based on a proper understanding that growth is generated by the efficient allocation of labor and capital, and it recognizes that bad tax policy undermines that process by distorting incentives for productive behavior.

The next step is convince Ms. Lagarde and the rest of the IMF’s leadership to read the chapter. They get tax-free salaries, so is it too much to ask that they stop pushing for higher taxes on the rest of us?

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The recipe for growth and prosperity isn’t very complicated.

Adam Smith provided a very simple formula back in the 1700s.

For folks who prefer a more quantitative approach, the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World uses dozens of variables to rank nations based on key indices such as rule of law, size of government, regulatory burden, trade openness, and stable money.

One of the heartening lessons from this research is that countries don’t need perfect policy. So long as there is simply “breathing room” for the private sector, growth is possible. Just look at China, for instance, where hundreds of millions of people have been lifted from destitution thanks to a modest bit of economic liberalization.

Indeed, it’s remarkable how good policy (if sustained over several decades) can generate very positive results.

That’s a main message in this new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

The first part of the video, narrated by Abir Doumit, reviews success stories from around the world, including Hong Kong, Singapore, Chile, Estonia, Taiwan, Ireland, South Korea, and Botswana.

Pay particular attention to the charts showing how per-capita economic output has grown over time in these jurisdictions compared to other nations. That’s the real test of what works.

The second part of the video exposes the scandalous actions of international bureaucracies, which are urging higher fiscal burdens in developing nations even though no poor nation has ever become a rich nation with bigger government. Never.

Yet bureaucracies such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are explicitly pushing for higher taxes in poor nations based on the anti-empirical notion that bigger government is a strategy for growth.

I’m not joking.

As Ms. Doumit remarks in the video, these bureaucracies never offer a shred of evidence for this bizarre hypothesis.

And what’s especially frustrating is that the big nations of the western world (i.e., the ones that control the international bureaucracies) all became rich when government was very small.

And while the bureaucracies never provide any data or evidence, the Center for Freedom and Prosperity’s video is chock full of substantive information. Consider, for instance, this chart showing that there was almost no redistribution spending in the western world as late as 1930.

Unfortunately, the burden of government spending in western nations has metastasized starting in the 1930s. Total outlays now consume enormous amounts of economic output and counterproductive redistribution spending is now the biggest part of national budgets.

But at least western nations became rich first and then made the mistake of adopting bad fiscal policy (fortunately offset by improvements in other areas such as trade liberalization).

The international bureaucracies are trying to convince poor nations, which already suffer from bad policy, that they can succeed by imposing additional bad fiscal policy and then magically hope that growth will materialize.

And having just spent last week observing two conferences on tax and development at the United Nations in New York City, I can assure you that this is what they really think.

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I’ve been at the United Nations this week for both the 14th Session of the Committee of Experts on International Cooperation in Tax Matters as well as the Special Meeting of ECOSOC on International Cooperation in Tax Matters.

As you might suspect, it would be an understatement to say this puts me in the belly of the beast (for the second time!). Sort of a modern-day version of Daniel in the Lion’s Den.

These meetings are comprised of tax collectors from various nations, along with U.N. officials who – like their tax-free counterparts at other international bureaucracies – don’t have to comply with the tax laws of those countries.

In other words, there’s nobody on the side of taxpayers and the private sector (I’m merely an observer representing “civil society”).

I could share with you the details of the discussion, but 99 percent of the discussion was boring and arcane. So instead I’ll touch on two big-picture observations.

What the United Nations gets wrong: The bureaucracy assumes that higher taxes are a recipe for economic growth and development.

I’m not joking. I wrote last year about how many of the international bureaucracies are blindly asserting that higher taxes are pro-growth because government supposedly will productively “invest” any additional revenue. And this reflexive agitation for higher fiscal burdens has been very prevalent this week in New York City. It’s unclear whether participants actually believe their own rhetoric. I’ve shared with some of the folks the empirical data showing the western world became rich in the 1800s when fiscal burdens were very modest. But I’m not expecting any miraculous breakthroughs in economic understanding.

What the United Nations fails to get right: The bureaucracy does not appreciate that low rates are the best way of boosting tax compliance.

Most of the discussions focused on how tax laws, tax treaties, and tax agreements can and should be altered to extract more money from the business community. Participants occasionally groused about tax evasion, but the real focus was on ways to curtail tax avoidance. This is noteworthy because it confirms my point that the anti-tax competition work of international bureaucracies is guided by a desire to collect more revenue rather than to improve enforcement of existing law. But I raise this issue because of a sin of omission. At no point did any of the participants acknowledge that there’s a wealth of empirical evidence showing that low tax rates are the most effective way of encouraging tax compliance.

I realize that these observations are probably not a big shock. So in hopes of saying something worthwhile, I’ll close with a few additional observations

  • I had no idea that people could spend so much time discussing the technicalities of taxes on international shipping. I resisted the temptation to puncture my eardrums with an ice pick.
  • From the moment it was announced, I warned that the OECD’s project on base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS) was designed to extract more money from the business community. The meeting convinced me that my original fears were – if possible – understated.
  • A not-so-subtle undercurrent in the meeting is that governments of rich nations, when there are squabbles over who gets to pillage taxpayers, are perfectly happy to stiff-arm governments from poor nations.
  • The representative from the U.S. government never expressed any pro-taxpayer or pro-growth sentiments, but he did express some opposition to the notion that profits of multinationals could be divvied up based on the level of GDP in various nations. I hope that meant opposition to “formula apportionment.”
  • Much of the discussion revolved around the taxation of multinational companies, but I was still nonetheless surprised that there was no discussion of the U.S. position as a very attractive tax haven.
  • The left’s goal (at least for statists from the developing world) is for the United Nations to have greater power over national tax policies, which does put the UN in conflict with the OECD, which wants to turn a multilateral convention into a pseudo-International Tax Organization.

P.S. The good news is that the folks at the United Nations have not threatened to toss me in jail. That means the bureaucrats in New York City are more tolerant of dissent than the folks at the OECD.

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I must be perversely masochistic because I have the strange habit of reading reports issued by international bureaucracies such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, United Nations, and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

But one tiny silver lining to this dark cloud is that it’s given me an opportunity to notice how these groups have settled on a common strategy of urging higher taxes for the ostensible purpose of promoting growth and development.

Seriously, this is their argument, though they always rely on euphemisms when asserting that politicians should get more money to spend.

  • The OECD, for instance, has written that “Increased domestic resource mobilisation is widely accepted as crucial for countries to successfully meet the challenges of development and achieve higher living standards for their people.”
  • The Paris-based bureaucrats of the OECD also asserted that “now is the time to consider reforms that generate long-term, stable resources for governments to finance development.”
  • The IMF is banging on this drum as well, with news reports quoting the organization’s top bureaucrat stating that “…economies need to strengthen their fiscal frameworks…by boosting…sources of revenues.” while also reporting that “The IMF chief said taxation allows governments to mobilize their revenues.”
  • And the UN, which has “…called for a tax on billionaires to help raise more than $400 billion a year” routinely categorizes such money grabs as “financing for development.”

As you can see, these bureaucracies are singing from the same hymnal, but it’s a new version.

In the past, the left agitated for higher taxes simply in hopes for having more redistribution.

And they’ve urged higher taxes because of spite and hostility against those with high incomes.

Some folks on the left also have supported higher taxes on the theory that the economy’s performance is boosted when deficits are smaller.

But now, they are advocating higher taxes (oops, excuse me, I mean they are urging “resource mobilization” to generate “stable resources” so there can be “financing for development” in order to “strengthen fiscal frameworks”) on the theory that bigger government is the way to get more growth.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn, however, that these reports from international bureaucracies never provide any evidence for this novel hypothesis. None. Zero. Zilch. Nada. The null set.

They simply assert that governments will be able to make presumably wonderful growth-generating “investments” if politicians can squeeze more money from the private sector.

And I strongly suspect that this absence of evidence is deliberate. Simply stated, international bureaucracies are willing to produce shoddy research (just look at what the IMF and OECD wrote about the relationship between growth and inequality), but there’s a limit to how far data can be tortured and manipulated.

Especially when there’s so much evidence from real scholars that economic performance is weakened when government gets bigger.

Not to mention that most sentient beings can look around the world and look at the moribund economies of nations with large governments (such as France, Italy, and Greece) and compare them with the better performance of places with smaller government (such as Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Singapore).

But if you read the aforementioned reports from the international bureaucracies, you’ll notice that some of them focus on getting more growth in poor nations.

Perhaps, some statists might argue, government is big enough in Europe, but not big enough in poorer regions such as sub-Saharan Africa.

So let’s look at the numbers. Is it true that governments in the developing world don’t have enough money to provide core public goods?

The answer is no.

But before sharing those numbers, let’s look at some historical data. A few years ago, I shared some research demonstrating that countries in North America and Western Europe became rich in the 1800s and early 1900s when the burden of government spending was very modest.

One would logically conclude from this data that today’s poor nations should copy that approach.

Yet here’s the data from the International Monetary Fund on government expenditures in various poor regions of the world. As you can see, the burden of government spending in these areas is two or three times larger than it was in America and other nations that when they made the move from agricultural poverty to middle class prosperity.

The bottom line is that small government and free markets is the recipe for growth and prosperity in all nations.

Just don’t expect international bureaucracies to share that recipe since one of the obvious conclusions is that we therefore don’t need parasitical bodies like the IMF, OECD, World Bank, and UN.

P.S. Unsurprisingly, Hillary Clinton also has adopted the mantra of higher-taxes → bigger government → more growth.

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I have a love-hate relationship with corporations.

On the plus side, I admire corporations that efficiently and effectively compete by producing valuable goods and services for consumers, and I aggressively defend those firms from politicians who want to impose harmful and destructive forms of taxes, regulation, and intervention.

On the minus side, I am disgusted by corporations that get in bed with politicians to push policies that undermine competition and free markets, and I strongly oppose all forms of cronyism and coercion that give big firms unearned and undeserved wealth.

With this in mind, let’s look at two controversies from the field of corporate taxation, both involving the European Commission (the EC is the Brussels-based bureaucracy that is akin to an executive branch for the European Union).

First, there’s a big fight going on between the U.S. Treasury Department and the EC. As reported by Bloomberg, it’s a battle over whether European governments should be able to impose higher tax burdens on American-domiciled multinationals.

The U.S. is stepping up its effort to convince the European Commission to refrain from hitting Apple Inc. and other companies with demands for possibly billions of euros… In a white paper released Wednesday, the Treasury Department in Washington said the Brussels-based commission is taking on the role of a “supra-national tax authority” that has the scope to threaten global tax reform deals. …The commission has initiated investigations into tax rulings that Apple, Starbucks Corp., Amazon.com Inc. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. received in separate EU nations. U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew has written previously that the investigations appear “to be targeting U.S. companies disproportionately.” The commission’s spokesman said Wednesday that EU law “applies to all companies operating in Europe — there is no bias against U.S. companies.”

As you can imagine, I have a number of thoughts about this spat.

  • First, don’t give the Obama Administration too much credit for being on the right side of the issue. The Treasury Department is motivated in large part by a concern that higher taxes imposed by European governments would mean less ability to collect tax by the U.S. government.
  • Second, complaints by the US about a “supra-national tax authority” are extremely hypocritical since the Obama White House has signed the Protocol to the Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters, which effectively would create a nascent World Tax Organization (the pact is thankfully being blocked by Senator Rand Paul).
  • Third, hypocrisy by the US doesn’t change the fact that the European Commission bureaucrats are in the wrong because their argument is based on the upside-down notion that low tax burdens are a form of “state aid.”
  • Fourth, Europeans are in the wrong because the various national governments should simply adjust their “transfer pricing” rules if they think multinational companies are playing games to under-state profits in high-tax nations and over-state profits in low-tax nations.
  • Fifth, the Europeans are in the wrong because low corporate tax rates are the best way to curtail unproductive forms of tax avoidance.
  • Sixth, some European nations are in the wrong if they don’t allow domestic companies to enjoy the low tax rates imposed on multinational firms.

Since we’re on the topic of corporate tax rates and the European Commission, let’s shift from Brussels to Geneva and see an example of good tax policy in action. Here are some excerpts from a Bloomberg report about how a Swiss canton is responding in the right way to an attack by the EC.

When the European Union pressured Switzerland to scrap tax breaks for foreign companies, Geneva had most to lose. Now, the canton that’s home to almost 1,000 multinationals is set to use tax to burnish its appeal. Geneva will on Aug. 30 propose cutting its corporate tax rate to 13.49 percent from 24.2 percent…the new regime will improve the Swiss city’s competitive position, according to Credit Suisse Group AG. “I could see Geneva going up very high in the ranks,” said Thierry Boitelle, a lawyer at Bonnard Lawson in the city. …A rate of about 13 percent would see Geneva jump 13 places to become the third-most attractive of Switzerland’s 26 cantons.

This puts a big smile on my face.

Geneva is basically doing the same thing Ireland did many years ago when it also was attacked by Brussels for having a very low tax rate on multinational firms while taxing domestic firms at a higher rate.

The Irish responded to the assault by implementing a very low rate for all businesses, regardless of whether they were local firms or global firms. And the Irish economy benefited immensely.

Now it’s happening again, which must be very irritating for the bureaucrats in Brussels since the attack on Geneva (just like the attack on Ireland) was designed to force tax rates higher rather than lower.

As a consequence, in one fell swoop, Geneva will now be one of the most competitive cantons in Switzerland.

Here’s another reason I’m smiling.

The Geneva reform will put even more pressure on the tax-loving French.

France, which borders the canton to the south, east and west, has a tax rate of 33.33 percent… Within Europe, Geneva’s rate would only exceed a number of smaller economies such as Ireland’s 12.5 percent and Montenegro, which has the region’s lowest rate of 9 percent. That will mean Geneva competes with Ireland, the Netherlands and the U.K. as a low-tax jurisdiction.

Though the lower tax rate in Geneva is not a sure thing.

We’ll have to see if local politicians follow through on this announcement. And there also may be a challenge from left-wing voters, something made possible by Switzerland’s model of direct democracy.

Opposition to the new rate from left-leaning political parties will probably trigger a referendum as it would only require 500 signatures.

Though I suspect the “sensible Swiss” of Geneva will vote the right way, at least if the results from an adjoining canton are any indication.

In a March plebiscite in the neighboring canton of Vaud, 87.1 percent of voters backed cutting the corporate tax rate to 13.79 percent from 21.65 percent.

So I fully expect voters in Geneva will make a similarly wise choice, especially since they are smart enough to realize that high tax rates won’t collect much money if the geese with the golden eggs fly away.

Failure to agree on a competitive tax rate in Geneva could result in an exodus of multinationals, cutting cantonal revenues by an even greater margin, said Denis Berdoz, a partner at Baker & McKenzie in Geneva, who specializes in tax and corporate law. “They don’t really have a choice,” said Berdoz. “If the companies leave, the loss could be much higher.”

In other words, the Laffer Curve exists.

Now let’s understand why the development in Geneva is a good thing (and why the EC effort to impose higher taxes on US-based multinational is a bad thing).

Simply stated, high corporate tax burdens are bad for workers and the overall economy.

In a recent column for the Wall Street Journal, Kevin Hassett and Aparna Mathur of the American Enterprise Institute consider the benefits of a less punitive corporate tax system.

They start with the theoretical case.

If the next president has a plan to increase wages that is based on well-documented and widely accepted empirical evidence, he should have little trouble finding bipartisan support. …Fortunately, such a plan exists. …both parties should unite and demand a cut in corporate tax rates. The economic theory behind this proposition is uncontroversial. More productive workers earn higher wages. Workers become more productive when they acquire better skills or have better tools. Lower corporate rates create the right incentives for firms to give workers better tools.

Then they unload a wealth of empirical evidence.

What proof is there that lower corporate rates equal higher wages? Quite a lot. In 2006 we co-wrote the first empirical study on the direct link between corporate taxes and manufacturing wages. …Our empirical analysis, which used data we gathered on international tax rates and manufacturing wages in 72 countries over 22 years, confirmed that the corporate tax is for the most part paid by workers. …There has since been a profusion of research that confirms that workers suffer when corporate tax rates are higher. In a 2007 paper Federal Reserve economist Alison Felix used data from the Luxembourg Income Study, which tracks individual incomes across 30 countries, to show that a 10% increase in corporate tax rates reduces wages by about 7%. In a 2009 paper Ms. Felix found similar patterns across the U.S., where states with higher corporate tax rates have significantly lower wages. …Harvard University economists Mihir Desai, Fritz Foley and Michigan’s James R. Hines have studied data from American multinational firms, finding that their foreign affiliates tend to pay significantly higher wages in countries with lower corporate tax rates. A study by Nadja Dwenger, Pia Rattenhuber and Viktor Steiner found similar patterns across German regions… Canadian economists Kenneth McKenzie and Ergete Ferede. They found that wages in Canadian provinces drop by more than a dollar when corporate tax revenue is increased by a dollar.

So what’s the moral of the story?

It’s very simple.

…higher wages are relatively easy to stimulate for a nation. One need only cut corporate tax rates. Left and right leaning countries have done this over the past two decades, including Japan, Canada and Germany. Yet in the U.S. we continue to undermine wage growth with the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world.

The Tax Foundation echoes this analysis, noting that even the Paris-based OECD has acknowledged that corporate taxes are especially destructive on a per-dollar-raised basis.

In a landmark 2008 study Tax and Economic Growth, economists at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) determined that the corporate income tax is the most harmful tax for economic growth. …The study also found that statutory corporate tax rates have a negative effect on firms that are in the “process of catching up with the productivity performance of the best practice firms.” This suggests that “lowering statutory corporate tax rates can lead to particularly large productivity gains in firms that are dynamic and profitable, i.e. those that can make the largest contribution to GDP growth.”

Sadly, there’s often a gap between the analysis of the professional economists at the OECD and the work of the left-leaning policy-making divisions of that international bureaucracy.

The OECD has been a long-time advocate of schemes to curtail tax competition and in recent years even has concocted a “base erosion and profit shifting” initiative designed to boost the tax burden on businesses.

In a study for the Institute for Research in Economic and Fiscal Issues (also based, coincidentally, in Paris), Pierre Bessard and Fabio Cappelletti analyze the harmful impact of corporate taxation and the unhelpful role of the OECD.

…the latest years have been marked by an abundance of proposals to reform national tax codes to patch these alleged “loopholes”. Among them, the Base Erosion and Profit Shifting package (BEPS) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is the most alarming one because of its global ambition. …The OECD thereby assumes, without any substantiation, that the corporate income tax is both just and an efficient way for governments to collect revenue.

Pierre and Fabio point out that the OECD’s campaign to impose heavier taxes on business is actually just a back-door way of imposing a higher burden on individuals.

…the whole value created by corporations is sooner or later transferred to various individuals, may it be as dividends (for owners and shareholders), interest payments (for lenders), wages (for employees) and payments for the provided goods and services (for suppliers). Second, corporations as such do not pay taxes. …at the end of the day the burden of any tax levied on them has to be carried by an individual.

This doesn’t necessarily mean there shouldn’t be a corporate tax (in nations that decide to tax income). After all, it is administratively simpler to tax a company than to track down potentially thousands – or even hundreds of thousands – of shareholders.

But it’s rather important to consider the structure of the corporate tax system. Is it a simple system that taxes economic activity only one time based on cash flow? Or does it have various warts, such as double taxation and deprecation, that effectively result in much higher tax rates on productive behavior?

Most nations unfortunately go with the latter approach (with place such as Estonia and Hong Kong being admirable exceptions). And that’s why, as Pierre and Fabio explain, the corporate income tax is especially harmful.

…the general consensus is that the cost per dollar of raising revenue through the corporate income tax is much higher than the cost per dollar of raising revenue through the personal income tax… This is due to the corporate income tax generating additional distortions. … Calls by the OECD and other bodies to standardize corporate tax rules and increase tax revenue in high-tax countries in effect would equate to calls for higher prices for consumers, lower wages for workers and lower returns for pension funds. Corporate taxes also depress available capital for investment and therefore productivity and wage growth, holding back purchasing power. In addition, the deadweight losses arising from corporate income taxation are particularly high. They include lobbying for preferential rates and treatments, diverting attention and resources from production and wealth creation, and distorting decisions in corporate financing and the choice of organizational form.

From my perspective, the key takeaway is that income taxes are always bad for prosperity, but the real question is whether they somewhat harmful or very harmful. So let’s close with some very depressing news about how America’s system ranks in that regard.

The Tax Foundation has just produced a very helpful map showing corporate tax rates around the world. All you need to know about the American system is that dark green is very bad (i.e., a corporate tax rate that is way above the average) and dark blue is very good.

And to make matters worse, the high tax rate is just part of the problem. A German think tank produced a study that looked at other major features of business taxation and concluded that the United States ranked #94 out of 100 nations.

It would be bad to have a high rate with a Hong Kong-designed corporate tax structure. But we have something far worse, a high rate with what could be considered a French-designed corporate tax structure.

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