Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Privacy’ Category

It’s time to criticize my least-favorite international bureaucracy.

Regular readers probably know that I’m not talking about the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, or World Bank.

Those institutions all deserve mockery, but I think the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is – on a per-dollar basis – the bureaucracy that is most destructive to human progress and economic prosperity.

One example of the organization’s perfidy is the OECD’s so-called Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) initiative, which is basically a scheme to extract more money from companies (which means, of course, that the real cost is borne by workers, consumers, and shareholders).

I’ve written (several times) about the big-picture implications of this plan, but let’s focus today on some very troubling specifics of BEPS.

Doug Holtz-Eakin, in a column for the Wall Street Journal, explains why we should be very worried about a seemingly arcane development in BEPS’ tax treatment of multinationals. He starts with a very important analogy.

Suppose a group of friends agree to organize a new football league. It would make sense for them to write rules governing the gameplay, the finances of the league, and the process for drafting and trading players. But what about a rule that requires each team to hand over its playbook to the league? No team would want to do that. The playbook is a crucial internal-strategy document, laying out how the team intends to compete. Yet this is what the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development wants: to force successful global companies, including U.S. multinationals, to hand over their “playbooks” to foreign governments.

Here’s specifically what’s troubling about BEPS.

…beginning next year the BEPS rules require U.S.-headquartered companies that have foreign subsidiaries to maintain a “master file” that provides an overview of the company’s business, the global allocation of its activities and income, and its overall transfer pricing policies—a complete picture of its global operations, profit drivers, supply chains, intangibles and financing. In effect, the master file is a U.S. multinational’s playbook.

And, notwithstanding assurances from politicians and bureaucrats, the means that sensitive and proprietary information about U.S. firms will wind up in the wrong hands.

Nothing could be more valuable to a U.S. company’s competitors than the information in its master file. But the master file isn’t subject to any confidentiality safeguards beyond those a foreign government decides to provide. A foreign government could hand the information over to any competitor or use it to develop a new one. And the file could be hacked.

Doug recommends in his column that Congress take steps to protect American companies and Andy Quinlan of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity has the same perspective.

Here’s some of what Andy wrote for The Hill.

It is…time for Congress to take a more assertive role in the ongoing efforts to rewrite global tax rules. …(BEPS) proposals drafted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development…threaten the competitiveness of U.S.-based companies and the overall American economy. …We know the Paris-based OECD’s aim is to raid businesses – in particular American businesses – for more tax revenue… The fishing expeditions are being undertaken in part so that bureaucrats can later devise new and creative ways to suck even more wealth out of the private sector. …American companies forced to hand proprietary data to governments – like China’s – that are known to engage in corporate espionage and advantage their state-owned enterprises will be forced to choose between forgoing participation to vital markets or allowing competitors easy access to the knowledge and techniques which fuel their success.

You would think that the business community would be very alarmed about BEPS. And many companies are increasingly worried.

But their involvement may be a too-little-too-late story. That’s because the business group that is supposed to monitor the OECD hasn’t done a good job.

Part of the problem, as Andy explains, is that the head of the group is from a company that is notorious for favoring cronyism over free markets.

The Business and Industry Advisory Committee…has been successfully co-opted by the OECD bureaucracy. At every stage in the process, those positioned to speak on behalf of the business community told any who wished to push back against the boneheaded premise of the OECD’s work to sit down, be quiet, and let them seek to placate hungry tax collectors with soothing words of reassurance about their noble intentions and polite requests for minor accommodations. That go-along-to-get-along strategy has proven a monumental failure. Much of the blame rests with BIAC’s chair, Will Morris. Also the top tax official at General Electric – whose CEO Jeffrey Immelt served as Obama’s “job czar” and is a dependable administration ally – and a former IRS and Treasury Department official, Morris is exactly the kind of business representative tax collectors love.

Ugh, how distasteful. But hardly a surprise given that GE is a big supporter of the corrupt Export-Import Bank.

I’m not saying that GE wants to pay more tax, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the top brass at the company decided to acquiesce to BEPS as an implicit quid pro quo for all the subsidies and handouts that the firm receives.

In any event, I’m sure the bureaucrats at the OECD are happy that BIAC didn’t cause any problems, so GE probably did earn some brownie points.

And what about the companies that don’t feed at the public trough? Weren’t they poorly served by BIAC’s ineffectiveness?

Yes, but the cronyists at GE presumably don’t care.

But enough speculation about why BIAC failed to represent the business community. Let’s return to analysis of BEPS.

Jason Fichtner and Adam Michel of the Mercatus Center explain for U.S. News & World Report that the OECD is pushing for one-size-fits-all global tax rules.

The OECD proposal aims to centralize global tax rules and increase effective tax rates on international firms. U.S. technology firms such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple will likely be harmed the most. …the OECD as a special interest group for tax collectors. Over the past 25 years, they have built an international tax cartel in an effort to keep global tax rates artificially high. The group persistently advocates for increased revenue collection and more centralized control. The OECD has waged a two-decade campaign against low tax rates by blacklisting sovereign countries that don’t comply with OECD directives.

Like the others, Fichtner and Michel worry about the negative consequences of the BEPS plan.

The centralization of tax information through a new international country-by-country reporting requirement will pressure some countries to artificially expand their tax base.  A country such as China could increase tax revenue by altering its definition of so-called value creation… Revenue-hungry states will be able to disproportionately extract tax revenue from global companies using the newly centralized tax information. …while a World Bank working paper suggests there is a significant threat to privacy and trade secrets. Country-by-country reporting will complicate international taxation and harm the global economy.

Instead of BEPS, they urge pro-growth reforms of America’s self-destructive corporate tax system.

…the United States should focus on fixing our domestic corporate tax code and lower the corporate tax rate. The U.S. [has] the single highest combined corporate tax rate in the OECD. …Lower tax rates will reduce incentives for U.S. businesses to shift assets overseas, grow the economy and increase investment, output and real wages. Lowering tax rates is the most effective way policymakers can encourage innovation and growth.  The United States should not engage in any coordinated attempt to increase global taxes on economic activity. …The United States would be better off rejecting the proposal to raise taxes on the global economy, and instead focus on fixing our domestic tax code by substantially lowering our corporate tax rate.

By the way, don’t forget that BEPS is just one of the bad anti-tax competition schemes being advanced by the bureaucrats in Paris.

David Burton of the Heritage Foundation has just produced a new study on the OECD’s Multilateral Convention, which would result in an Orwellian nightmare of massive data collection and promiscuous data sharing.

Read the whole thing if you want to be depressed, but this excerpt from his abstract tells you everything you need to know.

The Protocol amending the Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters will lead to substantially more transnational identity theft, crime, industrial espionage, financial fraud, and the suppression of political opponents and religious or ethnic minorities by authoritarian and corrupt governments. It puts Americans’ private financial information at risk. The risk is highest for American businesses involved in international commerce. The Protocol is part of a contemplated new and extraordinarily complex international tax information sharing regime involving two international agreements and two Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) intergovernmental initiatives. It will result in the automatic sharing of bulk taxpayer information among governments worldwide, including many that are hostile to the United States, corrupt, or have inadequate data safeguards.

I wrote about this topic last year, citing some of David’s other work, as well as analysis by my colleague Richard Rahn.

The bottom line is that the OECD wants this Multilateral Convention to become a World Tax Organization, with the Paris-based bureaucracy serving as judge, jury, and executioner.

That’s bad for America. Indeed, it’s bad for all nations (though it is in the interest of politicians from high-tax nations).

Read Full Post »

Politicians hate cash.

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s explore the animosity to cash.

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

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

And some countries are actually moving in this direction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Though the article notes that there is some resistance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on that later.

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

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

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

And that won’t end well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

Citing the work of David Burton and Richard Rahn, I warned last July about the dangerous consequences of allowing governments to create a global tax cartel based on the collection and sharing of sensitive personal financial information.

I was focused on the danger to individuals, but it’s also risky to let governments obtain more data from businesses.

Remarkably, even the World Bank acknowledges the downside of giving more information to governments.

Here are some blurbs from the abstract of a new study looking at what happens when companies divulge more data.

Relying on a data set of more than 70,000 firms in 121 countries, the analysis finds that disclosure can be a double-edged sword. …The findings reveal the dark side of voluntary information disclosure: exposing firms to government expropriation.

And here are some additional details from the full report.

…disclosure has important costs in allowing exposure to government expropriation… We show that accounting information disclosure can be detrimental to firm development… Such disclosure allows corrupt bureaucrats to gain access to firm-level information and use it for endogenous harassment. …once firm information is disclosed, the threat of government expropriation is widespread. Information disclosure thus allows rent-seeking bureaucrats to gain access to the disclosed information and use it to extract bribes. …Our paper offers a vivid illustration that an important hindrance to institutional development—here in the form of adopting information disclosure—is government expropriation. …The results are thus supportive of Acemoglu and Johnson (2005) on the overwhelming importance of constraining government expropriation in facilitating economic development.

Yet this doesn’t seem to bother advocates of bigger government.

Indeed, they’re using a Paris-based international bureaucracy to push a “base erosion and profit shifting” initiative designed to produce global rules that would give governments far greater access to business data.

Their goal is to extract more money openly with tax policy rather than surreptitiously with bribes, but the net effect will be just as bad for the global economy.

A new study from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity has the disturbing details.

Under direction of the G20, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) began two years ago a major initiative on “base erosion and profit shifting” (BEPS). …Through the BEPS project, the OECD is continuing its war against tax competition.

For all intents and purposes, politicians from high-tax nations are using the G20 and OECD to undermine the liberalizing force of tax competition.

They want to rewrite international tax policy to prop up nations with uncompetitive tax systems.

[BEPS] would…lead to an overall higher tax environment as politicians freed from the pressures of global tax competition inevitably raise rates to levels last seen in the early 1980s, when reforms by Reagan and Thatcher sparked a global reduction in corporate tax rates that has continued to this day. Through tax competition, the average corporate tax rate of OECD nations declined from almost 50% in 1981 to 25% in 2015. …The [BEPS] Action Plan…considers the benefits of tax competition to be the real problem, explaining that “there is a reduction of the overall tax paid by all parties involved as a whole.” The prospect of there being less money to be spent by politicians is perceived as a problem to be solved.

Even though there’s no evidence of a problem, even from the perspective of revenue-hungry politicians.

The OECD’s BEPS Report itself undercuts the argument that there is a pressing need for a global response when it acknowledges that “revenues from corporate income taxes as a share of GDP have increased over time.” Likewise, the Action Plan admits when discussing hybrid mismatch that “it may be difficult to determine which country has in fact lost tax revenue.”

So BEPS isn’t a response to the nonexistent problem of falling revenue. Instead, the real goal is to make it easier to impose higher tax rates and change other rules to raise additional revenue.

Even if the required policies have very troubling implications. As part of this new campaign against tax competition, here’s some of what the OECD is seeking.

Proposed recommendations for transfer-pricing documentation and country-by-country reporting, for instance, feature broad reporting requirements that go far beyond what is required for purposes of tax collection. …Information contained in the local and master files are particularly vulnerable, since it would take a breach in only a single jurisdiction for it to be exposed. The OECD makes assurances for the confidentiality of these reports, but they are empty promises. Such government assurances of privacy protection are contradicted by experience and the long history of leaks of taxpayer information. In the United States alone tax data has frequently been exposed thanks to inadequate safeguards, or even released by officials to attack political opponents. …Even without malicious intent, governments are ill equipped to protect sensitive information from outside access. …As poor as the United States has proven at protecting privacy, there are likely to be nations even more vulnerable. Through the master file and other reporting mechanisms, BEPS will demand of corporations propriety information and other sensitive data that they have every right to keep private.

Requiring more information is just one part of BEPS.

There are many other elements, all of which are designed to facilitate higher tax burdens. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal warned that, “this is an attempt to limit corporate global tax competition and take more cash out of the private economy.”

But as bad as BEPS is now, the study from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity explains it will get worse over time.

Of particular relevance for understanding the BEPS initiative is the pattern demonstrated by the OECD during the course of this campaign. After each recommendation was widely adopted – typically under duress in the case of low-tax jurisdictions – the OECD immediately pushed a new requirement that was more radical and invasive than the last. First was a call to adopt a certain number of Tax Information Exchange Agreements and a standard of information exchange upon request, then a peer-review process whereby tax policies are judged according to the standards of high-tax welfare states. Then, after years of meetings and costly compliance efforts, the old standard for information exchange upon request was replaced with a call for global automatic exchange.

The OECD’s strategy of moving the goalposts is worth noting because the BEPS project almost certainly will evolve in ways that enable ever-higher tax burdens.

I predicted back in 2013 that the end result will be “global formula apportionment,” a system that would enable dramatically higher tax burdens on the business community.

And I’m sticking with that prediction, in part because that’s what would be in the interests of politicians from high-tax nations. If national governments were able to tax on the basis of what companies sold inside their borders, regardless of how much income actually was being earned, there would be very little competitive pressure to keep tax rates reasonable.

Politicians could push corporate tax rates back up to 50 percent, or even higher.

The folks on the left certainly would like that kind of system. Here are some excerpts from a CNN story.

It’s time for a complete overhaul of the global tax system to ensure each company pays their fair share, says Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz. …”Multinational corporations act and therefore should be taxed as single and unified firms. It is time for our [political] leaders to be bold,” Stiglitz said. …Stiglitz said that creating a new worldwide tax system is realistic, but all nations would have to work together to agree rules and close loopholes. The group of economists said in a statement that it was critical to “curb tax competition to prevent a race to the bottom.” Developed nations should take the first step by agreeing on a minimum rate of corporate tax, possibly under the auspices of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. …The economists also suggest establishing an intergovernmental tax body within the United Nations that would combat abusive tax practices.

The bottom line is that politicians and statist interest groups both want to extract more money from the productive sector of the economy.

And OECD bureaucrats have been assigned the task of crafting rules to undermine tax competition so that companies can’t escape those higher burdens.

Developing new rules is actually the easy part. The hard part is when the bureaucrats try to rationalize how higher tax rates and bigger government are somehow good for the global economy.

Particularly since economists who work at the OECD have written that lower tax rates and tax competition result in better economic performance.

P.S. To add insult to injury, American taxpayers provide the biggest share of the OECD’s budget. This means that our tax dollars are being used to generate policies that will result in higher tax burdens. Which is why I’ve argued, on a per-dollar-spent basis, that subsidies to the OECD are the most destructively wasteful part of the federal budget.

P.P.S. And to add insult upon insult, OECD bureaucrats get tax-free salaries, so they are insulated from the negative effects of policies they’re trying to impose on the rest of the world.

Read Full Post »

It’s not uncommon for people to accuse libertarians of using “scare tactics” and “hyperbole.”

They say we present “worst-case scenarios” of what happens when government gets involved, such as when I warn that a value-added tax would become a revenue machine for big government or when I point out that advocates of gun control won’t be satisfied until they ban private ownership of weapons.

But I think these “slippery slope” concerns have merit because, well, the slope very often is slippery.

Consider the federal income tax, which started as a simple 2-page form with a top rate of 7 percent, but now has become a 75,000-page monstrosity with confiscatory rates.

Consider the Clean Water Act, which was enacted to regulate “navigable waterways,” but now has metastasized to the extent that the government now tries to regulate ponds on private property and control the building of houses on dry land.

Consider money laundering laws, which began ostensibly to stop crooks from using ill-gotten gains, but now have become a multi-billion dollar burden that require banks to spy on all customers.

Consider Medicaid, which the Washington Post reported, “was supposed to be a very small program with annual expenditures of about $1 billion,” but now costs taxpayers nearly $500 billion per year.

This list could continue for a long time, but let’s stop with old examples and now look at a new example.

After the 9-11 terrorist attacks, politicians claimed that government needed vast new powers to deal with potential threats. Given the environment that existed at the time, laws such as the PATRIOT Act were enacted.

So has the government used its new powers in a targeted way, focusing solely on bad people who want to kill Americans?

Hardly. The folks at Reason report that extraordinary laws enacted to fight terrorism are now mostly being used to enforce drug prohibition.

When the security state types pushed for passage of the Patriot Act, one of the measures on which they insisted was the inclusion of “sneak and peek” warrants. …Of course, it didn’t take long for law enforcement to discover this security state tool and start putting it to very different use—mostly in the enforcement of drug prohibition.

The article then cites some of the work of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Out of the 3,970 total requests from October 1, 2009 to September 30, 2010, 3,034 were for narcotics cases and only 37 for terrorism cases (about .9%). Since then, the numbers get worse. The 2011 report reveals a total of 6,775 requests. 5,093 were used for drugs, while only 31 (or .5%) were used for terrorism cases. The 2012 report follows a similar pattern: Only .6%, or 58 requests, dealt with terrorism cases. The 2013 report confirms the incredibly low numbers. Out of 11,129 reports only 51, or .5%, of requests were used for terrorism. The majority of requests were overwhelmingly for narcotics cases, which tapped out at 9,401 requests.

Wow. Less than 1 percent of these warrants are for fighting terrorism.

And notice how the number of sneak-and-peek warrants has jumped so dramatically. The government expanded its power and we were told that our rights would be protected because the new power would be used in rare circumstances for the extraordinary task of fighting terror.

Now that new power is being used promiscuously for all sorts of purposes.

By the way, it doesn’t happen only in America. Check out these excerpts from a story in the U.K.-based Times.

Sajid Javid, the culture secretary, said that the [BBC’s] use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) will be included in a wider investigation into enforcement of the TV licence fee, which was launched in response to concerns that too many people were being prosecuted for not paying the £145.50 charge. Ripa, which was introduced to combat serious crime and terrorism, has been under scrutiny after it emerged that it was used by police to obtain journalists’ sources. Yesterday, MPs on the Commons’ culture, media and sport committee said that the BBC had used the surveillance powers against people suspected of evading the licence fee… Ministers have raised concerns that 180,000 people a year are prosecuted, while the BBC argues that removing the threat of criminal action would cost it millions of pounds a year in lost revenue. …John Whittingdale, chairman of the culture committee, said…“Most people regarded Ripa as a fairly draconian measure which was necessary to tackle organised crime and terrorism. Not paying your licence fee hardly falls into that category.” The BBC…said that it was “perfectly legal”. …A BBC spokesman said: “Legislation explicitly grants the BBC the right to use these powers to detect unlicensed use of television receivers...”

Yes, you read correctly. A “draconian” measure to fight terrorism is being used to investigate people who watch TV.

I’m not sure which example is worse, the U.S. government using anti-terror laws to go after potheads or the U.K. government using anti-terror laws to go after the horrible crime of …gasp… untaxed televisions.

But maybe this post could be part of my U.K. vs. U.S. government stupidity contest.

Though this isn’t a laughing matter. If government bureaucrats are already misusing new powers granted last decade, just think how they’ll be abusing those powers next decade.

P.S. Since today’s column indirectly deals with terrorism, it’s a good opportunity for me to recycle some Osama bin Laden jokes, as well as these satirical examples of terror alert levels in Europe.

P.P.S. I shared some amusing cartoons a few days ago as part of my election analysis. Here’s one that definitely belongs in that collection.

He’s already won “man of the year” from libertarians, so Republicans may as well give him awards as well.

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senator Paul battles the statists

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

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

No wonder the DC establishment doesn’t like him.

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

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

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

Fortunately, Senator Paul has a different perspective.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keynesian Miracle Cartoon

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

People are getting increasingly agitated about being spied on by government.

The snoops at the National Security Agency have gotten the most attention, and those bureaucrats are in the challenging position of trying to justify massive invasions of our privacy when they can’t show any evidence that this voyeurism has stopped a single terrorist attack.

And let’s not forget that some politicians and bureaucrats want to track our driving habits with GPS devices. Their immediate goal is taxing us (gee, what a surprise), but does anyone doubt that the next step would be a database of our movements?

But the worst example of government spying may be the web of laws and regulations that require banks to monitor our bank accounts and to share millions of reports about our financial transactions with the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.

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.

As you might expect, 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.

And it’s encouraging banks to treat customers like crap. Check out this ridiculous example included in a BBC report.

Stephen Cotton went to his local HSBC branch this month to withdraw £7,000 from his instant access savings account to pay back a loan from his mother. A year before, he had withdrawn a larger sum in cash from HSBC without a problem. But this time it was different, as he told Money Box: “When we presented them with the withdrawal slip, they declined to give us the money because we could not provide them with a satisfactory explanation for what the money was for. They wanted a letter from the person involved.” Mr Cotton says the staff refused to tell him how much he could have: “So I wrote out a few slips. I said, ‘Can I have £5,000?’ They said no. I said, ‘Can I have £4,000?’ They said no. And then I wrote one out for £3,000 and they said, ‘OK, we’ll give you that.’ ” He asked if he could return later that day to withdraw another £3,000, but he was told he could not do the same thing twice in one day.

Here’s another absurd story.

Peter from Wiltshire, who wanted his surname withheld, had a similar experience. He wanted to take out £10 000 cash from HSBC, some to pay to his sons and some to fund his long-haul travel plans. Peter phoned up the day before to give HSBC notice and everything seemed to be fine. The next day he got a call from his local branch asking him to pay his sons via a bank payment and to provide booking receipts for his holidays. Peter did not have any booking receipts to show.

And another.

Belinda Bell is another customer who was initially denied her cash, in her case to pay her builder. She told Money Box she had to provide the builder’s quote.

Why is the bank treating customers like dirt? Well, because they’re pressured to act that way thanks to anti-money laundering laws, which basically require them to act as if unusual transactions are criminal. In other words, customers are guilty until they prove themselves innocent.

HSBC has said…”We ask our customers about the purpose of large cash withdrawals when they are unusual and out of keeping with the normal running of their account. Since last November, in some instances we may have also asked these customers to show us evidence of what the cash is required for.” “The reason being we have an obligation to protect our customers, and to minimise the opportunity for financial crime…” Money Box asked other banks what their policy is on large cash withdrawals. They all said they reserved the right to ask questions about large cash withdrawals.

They’ve “reserved the right”?!? I think Mr. Cotton was spot on when he groused, “You shouldn’t have to explain to your bank why you want that money. It’s not theirs, it’s yours.”

A few politicians also are unhappy about pointless government-mandated spying.

Douglas Carswell, the Conservative MP for Clacton, is alarmed… “All these regulations which have been imposed on banks…infantilises the customer. In a sense your money becomes pocket money and the bank becomes your parent.”

Not let’s look at an example of how anti-money laundering laws lead to foolish intervention in the United States.

We’ll start with a feel-good story from Wired about an entrepreneur coming up with a service that’s desired by consumers.

Mike Caldwell spent years turning digital currency into physical coins. That may sound like a paradox. But it’s true. He takes bitcoins — the world’s most popular digital currency — and then he mints them here in the physical world. …by moving the digital currency into the physical realm, he also prevents hackers from stealing the stuff via an online attack. …You send him bitcoins via the internet, and he sends you back metal coins via the U.S. Postal Service. To spend bitcoins, you need a secret digital key — a string of numbers and letters — and when Caldwell makes the coins, he hides this key behind a tamper-resistant strip. …Caldwell takes a fee of about $50 on each coin he mints.

But our silver cloud has a dark lining.

…he received a letter from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FINCEN, the arm of the Treasury Department that dictates how the nation’s anti-money-laundering and financial crime regulations are interpreted. According to FINCEN, Caldwell needs to rethink his business. “They considered my activity to be money transmitting,” Caldwell says. And if you want to transmit money, you must first jump through a lot of state and federal regulatory hoops Caldwell hasn’t jumped through.

And since the hoops are very expensive, we have yet another example of foolish red tape killing a business.

Running afoul of FINCEN is a risky proposition. In the spring, the Department of Homeland Security seized two bank accounts belonging to Mt. Gox. The reasoning behind the $5 million seizure: Mt. Gox, like Caldwell, hadn’t registered itself as a money transmission business. …Because he runs a bitcoin-only business, Caldwell says there’s no Casascius bank account for authorities to seize. But he adds that he has no desire to anger the feds, whether he agrees with them or not. So he’s cranking out his last few orders.

I’m not saying, by the way, that bitcoins are necessarily a good way to hold wealth.

But I do believe that it’s good to see the evolution of private forms of money as a hedge against bad government policy. As I wrote back in 2011, “I have no way of knowing how well this system will work and how insulated it will be from government interference, but I very much hope it will be successful. Governments will never behave if they think people have no escape options.”

Unfortunately, politicians and bureaucrats are in the process of trying to shut down that escape option.

P.S. Switching to a different topic, I don’t know if there are any big policy implications, but I was fascinated to find this map in my twitter feed. It shows the first word that pops up when you ask why a country is so ____?

Europe Google Results

Here are my observations, for what it’s worth. Luxembourg and Switzerland are tax havens, so it’s no surprise that they are rich. Other nations should mimic their successful policies.

Norway, meanwhile, is rich because of oil.

I had no idea the Italians were supposed to be racist, though obviously this map merely shows what Google users are searching for, not what’s actually true.

I’m mystified that Macedonia is “important,” though I suspect Greece was similarly labeled because it is the first domino of the European debt crisis. Hardly something to be proud of.

I’m also surprised that Lithuanians are perceived as suicidal. Isn’t that a Swedish stereotype?

Croatia is beautiful, I’ll agree, at least along the coast.

The neglected people from Montenegro don’t even get a word! Heck, even the Kosovars and Moldovans have Google words.

I won’t comment on the stereotype about France, other than to say that the nation did get in the top-10 on a poll for attractiveness.

P.P.S. Since we’re discussing European stereotypes, here’s some politically incorrect terrorism humor from a British friend.

P.P.P.S. Speaking of stereotypes, here’s some polling data on how the Europeans see each other. I’m not sure how to interpret these results, other than to say that trustworthy people apparently are arrogant and lack compassion.

P.P.P.P.S. It goes without saying that I can’t resist the temptation to share these satirical maps on how the Greeks and Brits view their European neighbors.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Since the main topic of this post is money laundering, let’s end with a joke about how President Obama dealt with these foolish laws.

Read Full Post »

Last June, in response to a question about indiscriminate spying by the National Security Agency, I made two simple points about the importance of judicial oversight and cost-benefit analysis.

I want – at a minimum – there to be judicial oversight whenever the government spies on American citizens, but I also think some cost-benefit analysis is appropriate. Just because a court has the power to approve snooping, that doesn’t mean it’s a sensible use of law enforcement resources.

Nothing since then has changed my mind.

Indeed, I’m perhaps even more skeptical of untrammeled government power and ability to spy on citizens for the simple reason that I don’t trust politicians.

Just look at how the White House turned the supposedly professional IRS into a partisan political operation. The government had power, ostensibly for a legitimate reason, but politicians and bureaucrats then used the power is a grossly improper fashion.

On the other hand, I know there are people out there who hate America. And they don’t just hate us because we’re intervening in the Middle East. I suspect many of them would want to kill us even if we had a perfect libertarian foreign policy of non-intervention and peaceful global commerce.

Now we learn from a report in the Washington Post that government has become bigger and more powerful and that our privacy has been violated as part of the NSA’s spying, yet there have been no benefits. As is zero. Nada. Zilch.

Here are some excerpts.

An analysis of 225 terrorism cases inside the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has concluded that the bulk collection of phone records by the National Security Agency “has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism.” In the majority of cases, traditional law enforcement and investigative methods provided the tip or evidence to initiate the case, according to the study by the New America Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit group.

But perhaps, you may be thinking, this is merely the predictable conclusion of a group that is predisposed to be skeptical. That’s a fair concern, but the article also has some very compelling corroborating evidence.

The study, to be released Monday, corroborates the findings of a White House-appointed review group, which said last month that the NSA counterterrorism program “was not essential to preventing attacks” and that much of the evidence it did turn up “could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional [court] orders.”

So not only do outsiders find little to no value in NSA spying, but even hand-picked insiders couldn’t come up with any evidence to show that the program was effective.

But you won’t be surprised to learn that defenders of the NSA have come up with a can’t-miss way of defining success.

Senior administration officials…say it has been valuable in knocking down rumors of a plot and in determining that potential threats against the United States are nonexistent. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. calls that the “peace of mind” metric.

Yes, your eyes did not deceive you.You actually read correctly. The government wants us to acquiesce to a loss of privacy because we will learn that there are no threats and we’ll have “peace of mind.”

That has to be the lamest justification for government power that I’ve ever read.

This is even more preposterous than asserting that we should squander $1 trillion per year on anti-poverty programs, not because that redistribution will help the poor, but rather because it makes leftists feel better about themselves.

That being said, supporters do have a somewhat powerful comeback.

Michael Morell, a former acting CIA director and a member of the panel, said the program “needs to be successful only once to be invaluable.”

Indeed, I suspect this is the main reason why ordinary people might support the NSA.

But I disagree with Mr. Morell because he asserts that a single example of success would be invaluable. The article, for instance, cites one “victory” for the NSA surveillance program.

…the program provided evidence to initiate only one case, involving a San Diego cabdriver, Basaaly ­Moalin, who was convicted of sending money to a terrorist group in Somalia. Three co-conspirators were also convicted. The cases involved no threat of attack against the United States.

I’m glad that a foreign terrorist attack was blocked, but is that really “invaluable”? Does that “victory” justify a very expensive and very intrusive NSA monitoring regime?

As I’ve acknowledged before, I don’t know enough about terrorism to offer an informed viewpoint. But I have studied a similar issue, money laundering laws, and that research leads me to be very suspicious about the NSA.

These laws were put in place with the excuse that government would collect and analyze large amounts of data to help deter crime.

All the evidence, however, shows that these laws are a costly failure. The invade our privacy, hurt the poor, impose high regulatory costs, and have little or no impact on underlying crimes.

Just something to keep in mind when people argue that government should have more power and authority.

P.S. At least the revelations about NSA spying have generated some first-rate political humor.

P.P.S. Keep in mind that the NSA is just one cog in the machinery of government. So if you’re worried about the NSA’s intrusion and power, then you should also worry about the power of the IRS. If you’re concerned about the IRS’s authority, then you also should fret about the Obamacare exchanges. And if you think the Obamacare exchanges give the government too much knowledge and power, then you should be agitated about “know-your-customer” laws that require banks to spy on their customers. And if you’re not happy about those money-laundering rules, then you surely should be dismayed about asset-forfeiture rules. And if you don’t approve of government stealing property, then maybe you don’t like government accumulation of power for the Drug War. And if the failed War on Drugs rubs you the wrong way, then perhaps you…I better stop now. I think you get the point.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,128 other followers

%d bloggers like this: