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Archive for the ‘Tax avoidance’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Foreign Relations Committee unfortunately has approved the GATCA Protocol.

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

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

Taxpayers all over the world owe him their gratitude.

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

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

But she closes with the good news.

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I wrote last month about Secretary of State John Kerry being a giant hypocrite because he’s been a critic of so-called tax havens, yet he and his family benefits immensely from investments in various low-tax jurisdictions.

But perhaps that’s something that Obama requires when selecting people for that position. It turns out that Kerry’s predecessor also utilized tax havens.

Earlier this year, the New York Post editorialized about Hillary Clinton’s attack against tax havens, which they found to be absurd since the Clinton family benefits significantly from places such as the Cayman Islands.

Hillary Clinton last week lunged into her most flagrant fit of hypocrisy yet. …she took new aim at the rich — including their use of tax dodges. She told MSNBC: “We can go after some of these schemes … the kind of…routing income through the Bahamas or the Cayman Islands or wherever.” Huh. …the Clintons’ family wealth has grown big-time thanks to firms with significant holdings in places like . . . the Caymans. As The Daily Caller notes, Bill Clinton spent years as a partner in his (now-ex-) buddy Ron Burkle’s investment fund Yucaipa Global — registered in the Cayman Islands. …It’s a family thing: Chelsea Clinton’s hubby, Marc Mezvinsky, is a partner in a hedge fund with multiple holdings incorporated in the Cayman Islands.

This isn’t to criticize Cayman, by the way. It’s one of the best jurisdictions in the world if you want high levels of honest governance and very sensible tax and regulatory policies.

But shouldn’t politicians practice what they preach? So why aren’t Kerry and Clinton instead investing in France or Greece to show their support for high tax burdens?

By the way, the editorial also cited the Clinton family’s house, which is owned by a trust to help dodge the death tax, something that I also called attention to back in 2014.

Let’s shift from taxes to the environment. Writing for Real Clear Politics, Ed Conard takes aim at the moral preening of Leonardo DiCaprio.

Time Magazine released its list of the top 100 Most Influential People and placed Leonardo DiCaprio on the cover of its magazine for the personal example he sets on climate change. How Ironic! …According to the leaked Sony documents for example, DiCaprio took six private roundtrip flights from Los Angeles to New York over a 6-week period and, a private jet to the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland. Pictures of him vacationing on big yachts… What hypocrisy! He enjoys the very luxuries that he admonishes others not to indulge.

Oh, wait, he buys carbon offsets, the modern version of purchasing an indulgence.

But Mr. Conard is not very impressed by that bit of moral preening.

So who really paid for DiCaprio’s grossly polluting ways? The rest of the world of course, not DiCaprio. …A person’s consumption is their true cost to the rest of society, not their income, nor their unspent wealth. Does the tax DiCaprio imposes on himself for polluting the world reduce his polluting consumption? Hardly! In fact, it encourages more of it. …DiCaprio, and others like him, buy carbon offsets to sooth their guilt—guilt they never needed to incur in the first place. …they sooth their guilt by voting to spend someone else’s income helping others. They think they have done a good deed when they have really done nothing at all.

I’m not sure I agree that carbon is pollution, and I also don’t like referring to consumption as a cost, but he’s right on the money about DiCaprio being a fraud or a phony (something that Michelle Fields exposed in a recent interview).

Let’s now shift back to taxes.

When I was in Montreal last year for a conference on tax competition, one of the highlights was hearing Governor Sam Brownback talk about his pro-growth tax policy. My least favorite part of the conference, by contrast, was hearing Margaret Hodge, a politician from the United Kingdom, pontificate about the evils of tax avoidance.

And the reason that was such an unpleasant experience is that she’s a glaring hypocrite. Here are some excerpts from a report published by the International Business Times.

Labour’s Margaret Hodge was, according to The Times, among the beneficiaries in 2011 of the winding-up of a Liechtenstein trust that held shares in the private steel-trading business set up by her father. The Times reports that just under 96,000 Stemcor shares handed to Hodge in 2011 came from the tiny principality, which is renowned for low tax rates. Three quarters of the shares in the family’s Liechtenstein trust had previously been held in Panama, which Ms Hodge described last month as “one of the most secretive jurisdictions” with “the least protection anywhere in the world against money laundering”.

Let’s close by identifying one more hypocritical “champagne socialist” from the United Kingdom, as reported by the U.K.-based Telegraph.

Dame Vivienne is now accused of hypocrisy over tax avoidance allegations that put her in direct conflict with one of the Green Party’s main policies. The most recent company accounts show Dame Vivienne’s main UK business is paying £2 million a year to an offshore company set up in Luxembourg for the right to use her name on her own fashion label. Tax experts have described the arrangement as “tax avoidance” that cheats the UK Treasury out of about £500,000 a year. The model is similar to one used by Starbucks, the coffee chain, which found itself at the centre of a protest over its use of Luxembourg to reduce its tax bill in the UK. …One City accountant, who studied the accounts of Vivienne Westwood Ltd, said: “This has to be tax avoidance. Why else would you make these payments to a company in Luxembourg? It makes the Green Party hypocrites for taking her money and Westwood a hypocrite for backing a party with policies she does not appear to endorse.”

So we can add Ms. Hodge and Ms. Vivienne to the list of American leftists who also utilize tax havens to minimize their tax burdens.

And all of the people above, as well as those above, will be charter members of the Statist Hall of Fame whenever I get around to setting up that page.

And there are a lot more that deserve to be mocked for their statist hypocrisy.

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The value-added tax is a very dangerous levy for the simple reason that giving a big new source of revenue to Washington almost certainly would result in a larger burden of government spending.

That’s certainly what happened in Europe, and there’s even more reason to think it would happen in America because we have a looming, baked-in-the-cake entitlement crisis and many politicians don’t want to reform programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare. They would much rather find additional tax revenues to enable this expansion of the welfare state. And their target is the middle class, which is why they very much want a VAT.

The most frustrating part of this debate is that there are some normally rational people who are sympathetic to the VAT because they focus on theoretical issues and somehow convince themselves that this new levy would be good for the private sector.

Here are the four most common economic myths about the value-added tax.

Myth 1: The VAT is pro-growth

Reihan Salam implies in the Wall Street Journal that taxing consumption is good for growth.

Mr. Cruz has roughly the right idea. He has come out in favor of a growth-friendly tax on consumption… Rather sneakily, he’s calling his consumption tax a “business flat tax,” but everyone knows that it’s a VAT.

And a different Wall Street Journal report asserts there’s a difference between taxing income and taxing consumption.

…a VAT taxes what people consume rather than how much they earn.

Reality: The VAT penalizes all productive economic activity

I don’t care whether proponents change the name of the VAT, but they are wrong when they say that taxes on consumption are somehow better for growth than taxes on income. Consider two simple scenarios. In the first example, a taxpayer earns $100 but loses $20 to the income tax. In the second example, a taxpayers earns $100, but loses $20 to the VAT. In one case, the taxpayer’s income is taxed when it is earned and in the other case it is taxed when it is spent. But in both cases, there is an identical gap between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption. The economic damage is identical, with the harm rising as the marginal tax rate (either income tax rate or VAT rate) increases.

Advocates for the VAT generally will admit that this is true, but then switch the argument and say that there’s pervasive double taxation in the internal revenue code and that this tax bias against saving and investment does far more damage, per dollar collected, than either income taxes imposed on wages or VATs imposed on consumption.

They’re right, but that’s an argument against double taxation, not an argument for taxing consumption instead of taxing income. They then sometimes assert that a VAT is needed to make the numbers add up if double taxation is to be eliminated. But a flat tax does the same thing, and without the risk of giving politicians a new source of revenue.

Myth 2: The VAT is pro-savings and pro-investment

As noted in a recent Wall Street Journal story, advocates claim this tax is an economic elixir.

Supporters of a VAT…say it is better for economic growth than an income tax because it doesn’t tax savings or investment.

Reality: The VAT discourages saving and investment

The superficially compelling argument for this assertion is that the VAT is a tax on consumption, so the imposition of such a tax will make saving relatively more attractive. But this simple analysis overlooks the fact that another term for saving is deferred consumption. It is true, of course, that people who save usually earn some sort of return (such as interest, dividends, or capital gains). This means they will be able to enjoy more consumption in the future. But that does not change the calculation. Instead, it simply means there will be more consumption to tax. In other words, the imposition of a VAT does not alter incentives to consume today or consume in the future (i.e., save and invest).

But this is not the end of the story. A VAT, like an income tax or payroll tax, drives a wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax income. This means, as already noted above, that a VAT also drives a wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption – and this is true for current consumption and future consumption. This tax wedge means less incentive to earn income, and if there is less total income, this reduces both total saving and total consumption.

Again, advocates of a VAT generally will admit this is correct, but then resort to making a (correct) argument against double taxation. But why take the risk of a VAT when there are very simple and safe ways to eliminate the tax bias against saving and investment.

Myth 3: The VAT is pro-trade.

My normally sensible friend Steve Moore recently put forth this argument in the American Spectator.

…a better way to do this…is through a “border adjustable”…tax, meaning that it taxes imports and relieves all taxes on exports. …The guy who gets this is Ted Cruz. His tax plan…would not tax our exports. Cruz is right when he says this automatically gives us a 16% advantage.

Reality: The protectionist border-adjustability argument for a VAT is bad in theory and bad in reality.

For mercantilists worried about trade deficits, “border adjustability” is seen as a positive feature. But not only are they wrong on trade, they do not understand how a VAT works. Protectionists seem to think a VAT is akin to a tariff. It is true that the VAT is imposed on imports, but this does not discriminate against foreign-produced goods because the VAT also is imposed on domestic-produced goods.

Under current law, American goods sold in America do not pay a VAT, but neither do German-produced goods that are sold in America. Likewise, any American-produced goods sold in Germany are hit be a VAT, but so are German-produced goods. In other words, there is a level playing field. The only difference is that German politicians seize a greater share of people’s income.

So what happens if America adopts a VAT? The German government continues to tax American-produced goods in Germany, just as it taxes German-produced goods sold in Germany. There is no reason to expect a VAT to cause any change in the level of imports or exports from a German perspective. In the United States, there is a similar story. There is now a tax on imports, including imports from Germany. But there is an identical tax on domestically-produced goods. And since the playing field remains level, protectionists will be disappointed. The only winners will be politicians since they have more money to spend.

I explain this issue in greater detail in this video, beginning about 5:15, though I hope the entire thing is worth watching.

Myth 4: the VAT is pro-compliance

There’s a common belief, reflected in this blurb from a Wall Street Journal report, that a VAT has very little evasion or avoidance because it is self enforcing.

…governments like it because it tends to bring in more revenue, thanks in part to the role that businesses play in its collection. Incentivizing their efforts, businesses receive credits for the VAT they pay.

Reality: Any burdensome tax will lead to avoidance and evasion and that applies to the VAT.

I’m always amused at the large number of merchants in Europe who ask for cash payments for the deliberate purpose of escaping onerous VAT impositions. But my personal anecdotes probably are not as compelling as data from the European Commission.

To give an idea of the magnitude, here are some excerpts from a recent Bloomberg report.

Over the next two years, the Brussels-based commission will seek to streamline cross-border transactions, improve tax collection on Internet sales… In 2017, the EU plans to propose a single European VAT area, a reform of rates and add specifics to its anti-fraud strategy. …“We face a staggering fiscal gap: the VAT revenues are 170 billion euros short of what they could be,” EU Economic Affairs and Tax Commissioner Pierre Moscovici said. “It’s time to have this money back.”

For what it’s worth, the Europeans need to learn that burdensome levels of taxation will always encourage noncompliance.

Though, to be fair, much of the “tax gap” for the VAT in Europe exists because governments have chosen to adopt “destination-based” VATs rather than “origin-based” VATs, largely for the (ineffective) protectionist reasons outlined in Myth 3. And this creates a big opportunity to escape the VAT by classifying sales as exports, even if the goods and services ultimately are consumed in the home market.

P.S. At the risk of being wonky, it should be noted that there are actually two main types of value-added tax. In both cases, businesses collect the tax, and the tax incidence is similar (households actually bear the cost), but there are different collection methods. The credit-invoice VAT is the most common version (ubiquitous in Europe, for instance), and it somewhat resembles a sales tax in its implementation, albeit with the tax imposed at each stage of the production process. The subtraction-method VAT, by contrast, relies on a tax return sort of like the corporate income tax. The Joint Committee on Taxation has a good description of these two systems.

Under the subtraction method, value added is measured as the difference between an enterprise’s taxable sales and its purchases of taxable goods and services from other enterprises. At the end of the reporting period, a rate of tax is applied to this difference in order to determine the tax liability. The subtraction method is similar to the credit-invoice method in that both methods measure value added by comparing outputs (sales) to inputs (purchases) that have borne the tax. The subtraction method differs from the credit-invoice method principally in that the tax rate is applied to a net amount of value added (sales less purchases) rather than to gross sales with credits for tax on gross purchases (as under the credit-invoice method). The determination of the tax liability of an enterprise under the credit-invoice method relies upon the enterprise’s sales records and purchase invoices, while the subtraction method may rely upon records that the taxpayer maintains for income tax or financial accounting purposes.

P.P.S. Another wonky point is that the effort by states to tax Internet sales is actually an attempt to implement and enforce the kind of “destination-based” tax regime mentioned above. I explain that issue in this presentation on Capitol Hill.

P.P.P.S. You can enjoy some amusing – but also painfully accurate – cartoons about the VAT by clicking here, here, and here.

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I recently wrote a primer on the issue of tax evasion, which is illegal. I made the elementary point that low tax rates and a simple tax code are the best (and only good) way of promoting high levels of tax compliance.

Now let’s shift to the related topic of tax avoidance, which is legal. Unlike evasion, there’s no civil disobedience and no breaking of laws with tax avoidance. It simply means that taxpayers are taking advantage of provisions in the tax code that help protect income from the government.

And we all do it.

All these things I do to lower my taxes are legal.

As Judge Learned Hand correctly opined, nobody has any obligation to deliberately overpay the government.

Tax avoidance also is moral. Tax codes are corrupt and governments waste money, so anything that reduces the flow of revenue to the public sector is helpful.

With that in mind, I want to offer a hearty defense of Mr. Cameron from the United Kingdom. But I’m not referring to David Cameron, the current Prime Minister. Instead, I want to defend Ian Cameron, his late father.

The Financial Times has a summary of what Cameron’s father did to protect against punitive taxation.

Mr Cameron’s father, Ian, was one of the founder investors. Blairmore was incorporated in Panama but based in the Bahamas. The idea was for investors to avoid an extra layer of tax because investors came from lots of jurisdictions and some, at least, would have faced double taxation if the fund had been based in a mainstream jurisdiction — firstly by the country where the fund operated, and then by the investor’s own country when he or she received his profits. …In 1982, when Blairmore was set up, offshore funds were more tax-efficient than UK funds, on which investors had to pay tax annually. …It is also possible that investors avoided paying stamp duty — a tax on the transfer of documents, including share certificates — by using bearer shares, which were exempt from the duty.

I also want to defend David Cameron’s mother, who is still alive and engaging in tax avoidance, as noted by a column in the U.K.-based Times.

He also admitted receiving a lump sum of £200,000 from his mother in 2011, eight months after his father died in September 2010. The handout, which came on top of a £300,00 legacy, could allow Mr Cameron to avoid an £80,000 inheritance tax bill if his mother lives until 2018.

This is perfectly appropriate and legitimate tax planning, and also completely moral and economically beneficial since death taxes shouldn’t exist.

Now let’s consider why David Cameron’s parents decided to engage in tax avoidance. To understand his father’s motives, let’s look at the history of British tax rates, as reported by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in a survey of the U.K. tax system released last November.

In 1978–79, there was a starting rate of 25%, a basic rate of 33% and higher rates ranging from 40% to 83%. In addition, an investment income surcharge of 15% was applied to those with very high investment income, resulting in a maximum income tax rate of 98%.

In other words, David Cameron’s father had to deal with a tax code that basically stole all his money above a certain threshold. Much of his income was earned when the top rate was 98 percent. And when he set up his offshore structures, even after Thatcher’s early reforms, his top tax rate could have been as high as 75 percent.

I frequent use “confiscatory” when talking about tax systems that grab, say, 50 percent of the additional income being earned by taxpayers, but I’m simply expressing outrage at excessive taxation. In the case of 1970’s-era England, even a leftist presumably would agree that word applies to a system that seizes 75 percent-98 percent of a taxpayer’s income (though some British statists nonetheless will applaud because they think all income belongs to the government and some American leftists also will applaud because of spite).

By the way, let’s not forget that David Cameron’s father was presumably also aware that there was lots of double taxation in the United Kingdom because of other levies such as the corporate income tax, death tax, and capital gains tax. So I shudder to think about the effective marginal tax rate that may have applied to him and other taxpayers in the absence of tax planning (maybe they paid more than 100 percent, like the thousands of unfortunate French taxpayers victimized by that nation’s wretched tax system).

The bottom line if that I’m very sympathetic to Cameron’s father, who was simply doing what was best for his family and what was best for the economy.

But I’m not exactly bubbling over with sympathy for the Prime Minister, who appears to be a puerile and shallow hypocrite. I’ve previously shared examples of his government browbeating taxpayers who don’t choose to needlessly give extra money to the government.

And now he’s caught is his own web of demagoguery.

Writing in the U.K.-based Sunday Times, Dominic Lawson has an appropriately jaundiced perspective.

Jimmy Carr must be laughing. In June 2012 the comedian was revealed by The Times as one of a number of showbiz folk to have invested in a scheme that had the effect of minimising the tax paid on their (typically volatile) income. Somehow unable to resist commenting on this story, David Cameron…told journalists that Carr’s behaviour had been “morally wrong”. …In other words: the people are angry and the prime minister wants to be with the pitchfork-waving crowd, not on the other side of the barricades. …now the PM is himself the subject of a whipped-up storm of fury… That is why, in my column of June 24, 2012 (“Cameron’s the clown in this Carr sketch”), there appeared these words: “The prime minister could not resist accusing Carr of ‘morally wrong’ behaviour, a piece of headline-grabbing he will have cause to regret.” …As a result, Cameron has now felt forced to become the first prime minister to make his tax details open to the electorate. It’s a sort of ritual humiliation, but one that will in no way appease those who regard the very idea of personal wealth as immoral. He should never have pandered to them.

Janet Daly of the U.K.-based Telegraph is similarly unimpressed with Cameron’s shallow posturing.

…there is a great mass of voters…who are very susceptible to the impression that Mr Cameron is a rich man who may possibly be a hypocrite when he denounces the tax-avoiding wealthy. …The Prime Minister and his Chancellor had put themselves in the forefront of the assault on “the rich”. This was the modern Conservative party…a major rhetorical revolution that took dangerous liberties with the vocabulary of what was being discussed. The Government began to obscure the difference between tax evasion, which is a crime, and tax avoidance…George Osborne invented a new category of sin called “aggressive tax avoidance”. This was a far nastier, more elaborate form of financial planning… Some kinds of tax avoidance are OK but other kinds are not, and the difference between them is, well, basically a matter of what kind of person you are – which is for the Government to decide. …Mr Cameron says…he has done nothing illegal or unusual… Nor, apparently, have most of the people whose private finances have been revealed to the world in the Panama Papers. …free societies should not create moral “crimes” that can put people beyond the pale when they have done nothing illegal. Mr Cameron may be about to conclude that himself.

By the way, Cameron and his people are not very good liars. Here are some more excerpts from the Times column I cited above, which explained how his mother is transferring assets to David in ways that will avoid the awful death tax.

Government sources pushed back yesterday against claims that the arrangement was a tax dodge. …“Every year hundreds of thousands of parents give money to their children,” a No 10 source said. “To suggest that by giving money to the prime minister there is somehow a tax dodge is extraordinary.” A No 10 spokesman said: “This is in no way linked to tax avoidance and it would be wrong to suggest otherwise.”

This is bollocks, as the English would say. If there was no desire to avoid an unfair and pernicious tax, Cameron’s mother could have left him that money upon her death.

Instead, she made a gift for purposes of hopefully keeping any extra money if her family rather than letting the government grab it. David Cameron should proudly embrace this modest bit of tax avoidance.

It’s definitely what I would do if I ever get to the point where I had enough money to worry about the death tax. Sadly, I don’t expect that to happen because it’s not easy for policy wonks to earn large amounts of money.

But if I ever find a big pot of money that will be around after my death, I know that I’ll want my children and the Cato Institute to be the beneficiaries, not a bunch of greedy and wasteful politicians (sorry to be redundant).

Heck, I’d leave my money to my cats before giving it to the corrupt crowd in Washington.

P.S. Rich leftists often say they want to pay higher taxes, yet they change their tune when presented with the opportunity to voluntarily give more of their money to Washington.

P.P.S. Since I quoted Judge Learned Hand on tax avoidance, I’m almost certain to get feedback from my leftist friends about the quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes about taxes being the price we pay for civilization. Allow me to preempt them by noting that Justice Holmes made that remark when the federal government consumed about 5 percent of our economy. As I wrote in 2013, “I’ll gladly pay for that amount of civilization.”

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I’m hoping the “Panama Papers” issue will quickly fade from the news (as happened after a similar data theft from BVI in 2013)  for the simple reason that even left-leaning reporters will get bored when they discover it is mostly a story about internationally active investors legally using structures designed for cross-border investment.

Yes, statists have a broader agenda of trying to make tax avoidance somehow shameful and illegitimate. But I doubt they’ll make much progress since no rational person (not even Bono or Donald Trump) voluntarily pays more to the government than is legally required.

Instead, I’m hoping that advocates of economic liberty can use this non-controversy controversy to our advantage by explaining that good tax policy is the best way to encourage both growth and compliance.

I often explain, for instance, that the best way to “hurt” tax havens is for onshore countries to have lower tax rates and less double taxation.

But is it really possible to have a simple tax system that accomplishes all these things? Some folks say no. They argue that there are competing goals in tax policy and that lawmakers are in the unenviable position of having to choose among goals that are mutually inconsistent.

Indeed, a writer for The Economist has a column that purports to show the existence of a “trilemma.”

…the trilemma, under which three options are available, but only two at most can be selected. In this case, it is a simple tax system; independent national tax policies; and the existence of multinational companies and investors.

Here’s my amateur depiction of this supposed trilemma, which ostensibly allows only two out of the three goals to be achieved.

And why does the author think these three things can’t simultaneously exist?

…simple tax systems are the best; they do not distort behaviour. But countries also like to set their own tax policies… The existence of national tax policies also allows economies like Ireland to offer themselves as an attractive place to do business… But that freedom also means that multinational companies and investors can arrange their affairs so as to minimise their tax charge. Governments react to that possibility with a series of carrots and sticks; tax breaks to persuade companies to stay and regulations designed to close loopholes that multinationals try to exploit… This makes the tax system more complex.

This may sound superficially persuasive, but it’s wrong.

And it’s not just wrong in theory. There are real-world examples that show that the trilemma is false.

  • Hong Kong has a simple tax system, an independent national tax policy, and lots of multinational companies and investors.
  • The Cayman Islands has a simple tax system, an independent national tax policy, and lots of multinational companies and investors.
  • Switzerland has a simple tax system, an independent national tax policy, and lots of multinational companies and investors.
  • Estonia has a simple tax system, an independent national tax policy, and lots of multinational companies and investors.

So why is the author wrong?

For the simple reason that he omitted one word. The trilemma can be switched from false to true by adding “high” before “tax.”

To be fair, perhaps this is what the author actually meant since he writes at one point about the level of taxes needed to finance ever-expanding welfare states.

…a world of simple taxes, and independent tax policies, would probably undermine the tax base governments need to fund the welfare states

So there actually is a real lesson to be learned and a real trilemma to analyze. If nations have high taxes, they can’t also have simple tax systems that are appealing to companies and investors.

By the way, the author makes a very good point, noting that tax rates would be more punitive if politicians didn’t have to worry that jobs and investment could cross national borders.

…without…tax competition, one suspects the global tax take would creep higher and higher.

Actually, this is not something “one suspects.” It is a 99.9999 percent certainty. Heck, the OECD even admitted at the very beginning of its anti-tax competition project that the goal was to enable high tax rates and large fiscal burdens. Here’s what the (tax-free!) bureaucrats wrote on page 14 of their 1998 report about the impact of “harmful tax competition.”

Since I’ve pointed out that the OECD has an unseemly pattern of dishonest data manipulation, I feel compelled to give them credit for being uncharacteristically truthful in this instance.

P.S. Let’s take a look at some other trilemmas.

From what I can tell, the most famous trilemma in economics is the Impossible Trinity, which says you can’t simultaneously have fixed exchange rates, open capital flows, and an independent monetary policy. Instead, you have to pick only two of the three options. I try to steer clear of monetary policy issues, but this makes sense.

And it’s definitely true that you can spark an argument among libertarians by raising the possibility, as put forth by an economist from Sweden, that there is a trilemma regarding immigration policy. Is it really true that you can’t simultaneously have limited government, open borders, and democracy? Do you really have to pick two of the three options? For what it’s worth, I would change “democracy” to “majoritarianism.”

Though if you prefer non-policy trilemmas, there’s the one circulates in the business world. It hypothesizes that you can’t have a process for producing a product that is good, cheap, and fast. You have to pick two of the three options. I suspect this is true in the short run, but one of the great thing about capitalism is that markets over time generally make things cheaper, better, and faster.

Last but not least, while searching for good examples of trilemmas, I found this one about communism. It’s amusing, obviously, but can someone truly be both communist and intelligent? Maybe that was possible 100 years ago, before all the horrors that have been unleashed by communism, but is that possible today? Though maybe that’s the point of the trilemma. You can be a smart communist, but only if you actually understand that the system doesn’t work and you’re willing to make dishonest arguments. But, if that’s the case, are you really a communist, or are you some sort of sleazy, power-hungry opportunist?

P.P.S. For those who appreciate politically incorrect humor, here’s another trilemma that you may find amusing.

P.P.P.S. Returning to our original topic, I can’t resist sharing a blurb from this story about New Jersey’s fiscal problems.

The decision by billionaire hedge-fund manager David Tepper to quit New Jersey for tax-friendly Florida could complicate estimates of how much tax money the struggling state will collect, the head of the Legislature’s nonpartisan research branch warned lawmakers. …New Jersey relies on personal income taxes for about 40 percent of its revenue, and less than 1 percent of taxpayers contribute about a third of those collections.

Gee, what a surprise. A state that punishes success over time has less successful people.

But let’s now match this story to our aforementioned tax trilemma. I don’t know if New Jersey’s tax system is simple, but Tepper’s escape means we now have more evidence that high-tax policy is not compatible with attracting and retaining investors.

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I wrote a couple of days ago about the “Panama Papers” issue and touched on the key issues. I explained that this non-scandal scandal is simply another chapter in the never-ending war by high-tax governments against tax competition, fiscal sovereignty, and financial privacy.

Here are a few of the other points I made: .

I touched on some of these topics in this interview with Neil Cavuto.

Let’s look at what some others have written on this issue.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center looks at some reactions from onshore politicians, which range from illogical to extremist.

The French finance minister, for instance, already put Panama back on the list of countries that aren’t sufficiently willing to help enforce onerous French tax law. That’s despite France’s removal of Panama from its list of uncooperative states and territories in 2012 after reaching a bilateral agreement on precisely that issue. President Barack Obama, on the other hand, recognizes that most of the activities reported in the stolen pages are legal. As such, he wants to do something that might be even more radical than what France has done. He proposes making it illegal to legally reduce one’s tax burden. Falling back on some generic and zero-sum concept of tax fairness, he told reporters that we “shouldn’t make it legal to engage in transactions just to avoid taxes” and that he wants to enforce “the basic principle of making sure everyone pays their fair share.”

So France wants to punish Panama, even though Panama already has agreed to help enforce bad French tax laws. Meanwhile, President Obama reflexively wants to punish taxpayers who have the temerity and gall to not voluntarily over-pay their taxes (an issue where Donald Trump actually said something sensible).

As an economist, Veronique highlights the most important issue (assuming, of course, one wants more prosperity).

If you want more global trade and more global investments, international bureaucracies such as the Organisation for Co-operation and Economic Development and governments around the world shouldn’t make it harder to operate international businesses and engage in cross-border investment and business.

Then she looks at discouraging developments from her home country.

For years, France has punished its entrepreneurs and businesses with high taxes and terrible laws. As a result, last year alone, some 10,000 French millionaires called it quits and moved abroad. However, rather than reform its tax laws and streamline its government, it wants to put its grabby hands on some cash… But it won’t work in the long run. France and other high-tax nations can try very hard to destroy tax competition, financial privacy and the sovereignty of countries with better tax structures, but they still won’t be able to afford their big and broken welfare states. …That’s the real financial scandal.

Amen. This is a simple matter of math and demographics.

The Wall Street Journal also has opined on the controversy, wondering about the fact that some folks on the left are fixating on legal tax avoidance.

The papers…purport to document the dealings of the Mossack Fonseca law firm, which appears to have helped wealthy clients establish shell companies in Panama, a rare remaining bastion of bank secrecy. …The fact that an individual created such a company, or opened bank accounts in Panama, is not proof of any wrongdoing… That’s not stopping the media from jumping to conclusions, many are oddly focusing on tax avoidance.

There’s a reason for the fixation on tax avoidance, of course. Politicians realize that they need to demonize legal tax if they want to impose big tax hikes by shutting down loopholes (both the real ones and the fake ones).

In any event, the editors agree that the real issue from Panama Papers is the presumably dodgy accumulation of assets by politicians.

The mistake now would be to narrow the focus prematurely, zeroing in on tax avoidance that is a hobbyhorse of the political class but in this case is a distraction. The real news here are the incomes and far-flung bank accounts of the political class.

The WSJ is right.

I touch on that issue in this interview with CNBC, explaining that it should be a non-story that international investors use international structures, but hitting hard on the fact that politicians so often manage to obtain a lot of wealth during their time in public “service.”

The bottom line is that if we’re going to have a crusade for transparency, it should focus on government officials, who have a track record of unethical behavior, not on the investors and entrepreneurs who actually earn their money by using capital to boost growth.

I should have dug into my files and provided a few examples of the hypocritical American politicians who have utilized tax havens. Such as…ahem…the current Secretary of the Treasury.

Speaking of hypocrisy, Seth Lipsky of the New York Sun identifies another strange example of double standards, in this case involving privacy.

The New York Times…defended Apple when the iPhone maker refused to help the FBI break into the iPhone that had been used by the Islamist terrorists who slew 14 innocent people in San Bernardino. It even praised Apple for refusing to help. Yet it’s joining in the feeding frenzy over what are coming to be known as the Panama Papers…calling for major investigations into money laundering and tax evasion.

I was sympathetic to Apple’s legal argument, even though I also wished the company would have helped the FBI (albeit without giving the government any details that could have been used to create a backdoor into all of our iPhones).

But Mr. Lipsky is right that the privacy-loving defenders of Apple have a remarkably inconsistent approach to the issue.

Where were most of the do-gooders…when the FBI was frantically trying to gain access to the infamous iPhone? It might be able to tell us to whom the killers had been talking and whether they were planning more attacks. …Apple…got cheered by all the right people. The Gray Lady…praised Apple for refusing to help. …So why are the do-gooders who are so protective of iPhone data when it belongs — or relates — to terrorists nonetheless so delighted about the disclosure of data when the data belong to the rich? Or relates to their property? Property rights, it seems, just don’t interest the do-gooders. They don’t believe individuals have a right to property or to due process before their stuff is taken.

This is a great point.

What it basically shows is that leftists (“do-gooders” to Seth) have more sympathy for medieval butchers who kill innocent people than they have for over-burdened taxpayers who actually want to preserve their money so it is used to promote prosperity rather than to fatten government budgets.

By the way, I can’t resist sharing another excerpt.

…tax havens can serve a benign purpose. They put pressure on law-abiding governments to keep taxation within non-abusive limits, something that is increasingly rare in the age of socialism.

Bingo. This is why everyone – especially those of us who aren’t rich – should applaud low-tax jurisdictions.

Just imagine how high taxes would be if politicians thought all of us were captive customers!

Let’s look at one final interview on the topic. But I’m not sharing this BBC interview because I said anything new or different. Instead, I want to use this opportunity to grouse about media bias. You’ll notice that I was out-numbered 2-to-1 in the discussion (3-to-1 if you include the host).

But I’m not upset I was in the minority. That’s so common that I barely notice when it happens.

What did irk me, though, was the allocation of time. Both statists got far more ability to speak, turning a run-of-the-mill example of bias into an irritating experience.

On the other hand, I did get to point out that the OECD bureaucrat was staggeringly hypocritical since she urges higher taxes on everyone else when she (like the rest of her colleagues) gets a tax-free salary. So maybe I should be content having unleashed that zinger.

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Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are basically two peas in a pod on economic policy. The only difference is that Sanders wants America to become Greece at a faster rate.

Folks on the left may get excited by whether we travel 60 mph in the wrong direction or 90 mph in the wrong direction, but this seems like a Hobson’s choice for those of us who would prefer that America become more like Hong Kong or Singapore.

Consider the issue of taxation. Clinton and Sanders both agree that they want to raise tax rates on investors, entrepreneurs, small business owners, and other “rich” taxpayers. The only difference is how high and how quickly.

Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute has a must-read column on this topic in today’s Wall Street Journal.

He starts by speculating whether there’s a rate high enough to satisfy the greed of these two politicians.

Here is a question to ask Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders: What is the best tax rate to impose on high-income earners…? Perhaps they think it is 83%, a rate that economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez hypothesized in 2014… Or maybe it is 90%, which Sen. Sanders told CNBC last May was not out of the question.

He then points out that there were very high tax rates in America between World War II and the Reagan era.

…the U.S. had such rates in the past. From 1936 to 1980, the highest federal income-tax rate was never below 70%, and the top rate exceeded 90% from 1951 to 1963. …The discussion of these rates can easily create the impression that the federal government collected far more money from “the rich” before the Reagan administration.

But rich people aren’t fatted calves awaiting slaughter. They generally are smart enough to figure out ways to avoid high tax rates. And if they’re not smart enough, they know to hire bright lawyers, lobbyists, and accountants who figure out ways to protect their income.

Which is exactly what happened.

The effective tax rates actually paid by the highest income earners during the 1950s and early ’60s were far lower than the highest marginal rates. …In the 1960s, for example, the average rate paid by the top 0.1% of tax filers—the top 10th of the top 1%—ranged from 26.5% to 29.5%, according to a 2007 study by Messrs. Piketty and Saez. Even during the 20 years after the Reagan tax cuts, the top 10th of the top 1% paid an average rate of 23.7% to 33%—essentially the same as in the 1960s.

Gee, sounds like Hauser’s Law – a limit on how much governments can tax – is true, at least for upper-income taxpayers.

And Winship provides some data showing that high tax rate are not the way to collect more revenue.

When average tax rates went up from 27.6% in 1965 to 34% in 1975, revenues went down, from 0.6% to 0.5% of the sum of GDP plus capital gains. When average tax rates declined to 23.7% over the second half of the 1970s and the ’80s, tax revenues from the top went up, reaching 0.8% of GDP plus capital gains in 1990. …in the early 1990s, Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton raised average tax rates at the top, and revenue from the top 0.1% eventually skyrocketed. But the flood of revenue overwhelmingly reflected not the increase in rates but the stock market’s takeoff… Consider: If the higher top tax rates had caused the growth in revenue, then revenues should have fallen when Mr. Clinton cut the top tax rate on capital gains to 20% from 28% in 1997. But revenues from the top 0.1% kept pouring in.

And if you want more detail, check out the IRS data from the 1980s, which shows that rich taxpayers paid a lot more tax when the top rate was dropped from 70 percent to 28 percent.

That was a case of the Laffer Curve on steroids!

No wonder some leftists admit that spite is their real reason for supporting confiscatory tax rates on the rich, not revenue.

But what if the high tax rates are imposed on a much bigger share of the population, not just the traditional target of the “top 1 percent”?

Well, even hardcore statists who favor punitive tax policy admit that this would be a recipe for economic calamity.

Mr. Piketty said, “I firmly believe, that imposing a 70% or 80% marginal rate on large segments of the population (say, 25% of the population, or even 10%, or even a few percentage points) would lead to an economic disaster.” In other words, sayonara increased tax revenue.

Heck, even the European governments with the biggest welfare states rarely impose tax rates at those levels.

And when they do (as in the case of Hollande’s 75 percent tax rate in France), they suffer severe consequences.

Which is why the real difference in taxation between the United States and Europe isn’t the way the rich are taxed. Government is bigger in Europe because of higher tax burdens on the poor and middle class, specifically onerous value-added taxes and top income tax rates that take effect at relatively modest levels of income.

In other words, the rich already pay the lion’s share of tax in the United States. But not because we have 1970s-style tax rates, but because the tax burden is relatively modest for lower- and middle-income people.

Which brings us to Winship’s final point.

Proposals to soak the rich by raising their tax rates are unlikely to yield the revenue windfall that Mr. Sanders or Mrs. Clinton are dangling before voters. Leveling with the American people means…admitting that they will have to raise the money from tax hikes on middle-class voters.

Though he “buried the lede,” as they say in the journalism business. The most important takeaway from his column is that the redistribution agenda being advanced by Clinton and Sanders necessarily will require big tax hikes on the middle class.

Indeed, the “tax-the-rich” rhetoric they employ is simply a smokescreen to mask their real goals.

Which is why I included that argument in my video that provided five reasons why class-warfare taxation is a bad idea.

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