Archive for the ‘Tax Competition’ Category

I’ve previously written about the bizarre attack that the European Commission has launched against Ireland’s tax policy. The bureaucrats in Brussels have concocted a strange theory that Ireland’s pro-growth tax system provides “state aid” to companies like Apple (in other words, if you tax at a low rate, that’s somehow akin to giving handouts to a company, at least if you start with the assumption that all income belongs to government).

This has produced two types of reactions. On the left, the knee-jerk instinct is that governments should grab more money from corporations, though they sometimes quibble over how to divvy up the spoils.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, for instance, predictably tells readers of the New York Times that Congress should squeeze more money out of the business community.

Now that they are feeling the sting from foreign tax crackdowns, giant corporations and their Washington lobbyists are pressing Congress to cut them a new sweetheart deal here at home. But instead of bailing out the tax dodgers under the guise of tax reform, Congress should seize this moment to…repair our broken corporate tax code. …Congress should increase the share of government revenue generated from taxes on big corporations — permanently. In the 1950s, corporations contributed about $3 out of every $10 in federal revenue. Today they contribute $1 out of every $10.

As part of her goal to triple the tax burden of companies, she also wants to adopt full and immediate worldwide taxation. What she apparently doesn’t understand (and there’s a lot she doesn’t understand) is that Washington may be capable of imposing bad laws on U.S.-domiciled companies, but it has rather limited power to impose bad rules on foreign-domiciled firms.

So the main long-run impact of a more onerous corporate tax system in America will be a big competitive advantage for companies from other nations.

The reaction from Jacob Lew, America’s Treasury Secretary, is similarly disappointing. He criticizes the European Commission, but for the wrong reasons. Here’s some of what he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, starting with some obvious complaints.

…the commission’s novel approach to its investigations seeks to impose unfair retroactive penalties, is contrary to well established legal principles, calls into question the tax rules of individual countries, and threatens to undermine the overall business climate in Europe.

But his solutions would make the system even worse. He starts by embracing the OECD’s BEPS initiative, which is largely designed to seize more money from US multinational firms.

…we have made considerable progress toward combating corporate tax avoidance by working with our international partners through what is known as the Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) project, agreed to by the Group of 20 and the 35 member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

He then regurgitates the President’s plan to replace deferral with worldwide taxation.

…the president’s plan directly addresses the problem of U.S. multinational corporations parking income overseas to avoid U.S. taxes. The plan would make this practice impossible by imposing a minimum tax on foreign income.

In other words, his “solution” to the European Commission’s money grab against Apple is to have the IRS grab the money instead. Needless to say, if you’re a gazelle, you probably don’t care whether you’re in danger because of hyenas or jackals, and that’s how multinational companies presumably perceive this squabble between US tax collectors and European tax collectors.

On the other side of the issue, critics of the European Commission’s tax raid don’t seem overflowing with sympathy for Apple. Instead, they are primarily worried about the long-run implications.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center offers some wise insight on this topic, both with regards to the actions of the European Commission and also with regards to Treasury Secretary Lew’s backward thinking. Here’s what she wrote about the never-ending war against tax competition in Brussels.

At the core of the retroactive penalty is the bizarre belief on the part of the European Commission that low taxes are subsidies. It stems from a leftist notion that the government has a claim on most of our income. It is also the next step in the EU’s fight against tax competition since, as we know, tax competition punishes countries with bad tax systems for the benefit of countries with good ones. The EU hates tax competition and instead wants to rig the system to give good grades to the high-tax nations of Europe and punish low-tax jurisdictions.

And she also points out that Treasury Secretary Lew (a oleaginous cronyist) is no friend of American business because of his embrace of worldwide taxation and BEPS.

…as Lew’s op-ed demonstrates, …they would rather be the ones grabbing that money through the U.S.’s punishing high-rate worldwide-corporate-income-tax system. …In other words, the more the EU grabs, the less is left for Uncle Sam to feed on. …And, as expected, Lew’s alternative solution for avoidance isn’t a large reduction of the corporate rate and a shift to a territorial tax system. His solution is a worldwide tax cartel… The OECD’s BEPS project is designed to increase corporate tax burdens and will clearly disadvantage U.S. companies. The underlying assumption behind BEPS is that governments aren’t seizing enough revenue from multinational companies. The OECD makes the case, as it did with individuals, that it is “illegitimate,” as opposed to illegal, for businesses to legally shift economic activity to jurisdictions that have favorable tax laws.

John O’Sullivan, writing for National Review, echoes Veronique’s point about tax competition and notes that elimination of competition between governments is the real goal of the European Commission.

…there is one form of European competition to which Ms. Vestager, like the entire Commission, is firmly opposed — and that is tax competition. Classifying lower taxes as a form of state aid is the first step in whittling down the rule that excludes taxation policy from the control of Brussels. It won’t be the last. Brussels wants to reduce (and eventually to eliminate) what it calls “harmful tax competition” (i.e., tax competition), which is currently the preserve of national governments. …Ms. Vestager’s move against Apple is thus a first step to extend control of tax policy by Brussels across Europe. Not only is this a threat to European taxpayers much poorer than Apple, but it also promises to decide the future of Europe in a perverse way. Is Europe to be a cartel of governments? Or a market of governments? A cartel is a group of economic actors who get together to agree on a common price for their services — almost always a higher price than the market would set. The price of government is the mix of tax and regulation; both extract resources from taxpayers to finance the purposes of government. Brussels has already established control of regulations Europe-wide via regulatory “harmonization.” It would now like to do the same for taxes. That would make the EU a fully-fledged cartel of governments. Its price would rise without limit.

Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal offers some sound analysis, starting with his look at the real motives of various leftists.

…attacking Apple is a politically handy way of disguising a challenge to the tax policies of an EU member state, namely Ireland. …Sen. Chuck Schumer calls the EU tax ruling a “cheap money grab,” and he’s an expert in such matters. The sight of Treasury Secretary Jack Lew leaping to the defense of an American company when in the grips of a bureaucratic shakedown, you will have no trouble guessing, is explained by the fact that it’s another government doing the shaking down.

And he adds his warning about this fight really being about tax competition versus tax harmonization.

Tax harmonization is a final refuge of those committed to defending Europe’s stagnant social model. Even Ms. Vestager’s antitrust agency is jumping in, though the goal here oddly is to eliminate competition among jurisdictions in tax policy, so governments everywhere can impose inefficient, costly tax regimes without the check and balance that comes from businesses being able to pick up and move to another jurisdiction. In a harmonized world, of course, a check would remain in the form of jobs not created, incomes not generated, investment not made. But Europe has been wiling to live with the harmony of permanent recession.

Even the Economist, which usually reflects establishment thinking, argues that the European Commission has gone overboard.

…in tilting at Apple the commission is creating uncertainty among businesses, undermining the sovereignty of Europe’s member states and breaking ranks with America, home to the tech giant… Curbing tax gymnastics is a laudable aim. But the commission is setting about it in the most counterproductive way possible. It says Apple’s arrangements with Ireland, which resulted in low-single-digit tax rates, amounted to preferential treatment, thereby violating the EU’s state-aid rules. Making this case involved some creative thinking. The commission relied on an expansive interpretation of the “transfer-pricing” principle that governs the price at which a multinational’s units trade with each other. Having shifted the goalposts in this way, the commission then applied its new thinking to deals first struck 25 years ago.

Seeking a silver lining to this dark cloud, the Economist speculates whether the EC tax raid might force American politicians to fix the huge warts in the corporate tax system.

Some see a bright side. …the realisation that European politicians might gain at their expense could, optimists say, at last spur American policymakers to reform their barmy tax code. American companies are driven to tax trickery by the combination of a high statutory tax rate (35%), a worldwide system of taxation, and provisions that allow firms to defer paying tax until profits are repatriated (resulting in more than $2 trillion of corporate cash being stashed abroad). Cutting the rate, taxing only profits made in America and ending deferral would encourage firms to bring money home—and greatly reduce the shenanigans that irk so many in Europe. Alas, it seems unlikely.

America desperately needs a sensible system for taxing corporate income, so I fully agree with this passage, other than the strange call for “ending deferral.” I’m not sure whether this is an editing mistake or a lack of understanding by the reporter, but deferral is no longer an issue if the tax code is reformed to that the IRS is “taxing only profits made in America.”

But the main takeaway, as noted by de Rugy, O’Sullivan, and Jenkins, is that politicians want to upend the rules of global commerce to undermine and restrict tax competition. They realize that the long-run fiscal outlook of their countries is grim, but rather than fix the bad policies they’ve imposed, they want a system that will enable higher ever-higher tax burdens.

In the long run, that leads to disaster, but politicians rarely think past the next election.

P.S. To close on an upbeat point, Senator Rand Paul defends Apple from predatory politicians in the United States.

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Like all good libertarians, I hate waiting in government-mandated lines. Heck, you don’t even have to be a curmudgeonly libertarian to have unpleasant thoughts about the Post Office or Department of Motor Vehicles (not to mention the virtual lines that exist for people stuck on hold after calling the IRS or some other inefficient bureaucracy).

And it must be doubly irritating to wait in line to get bureaucratic approval for things that shouldn’t require any sort of government permission in the first place.

Since I have to do a bit of travel, I’m especially resentful of the lines I face for customs and immigration when I cross borders. In some cases, these restrictions can even turn “Heaven into Hell.”

My aversion to government-mandated lines is so strong that I’m a big fan of the European Union’s “Schengen Zone” that has made crossing many European borders as simple as crossing from one American state to another (and regular readers know that I’m normally very reluctant to say anything nice about the policies concocted by the crowd in Brussels).

Given all this, I was very interested to see that the leading bureaucrat of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has said that borders are “the worst invention ever.”

Was he making a libertarian argument about the value of making it easier for people to travel and/or move? Let’s investigate. Here’s some of what was reported about Juncker’s comments in the U.K.-based Daily Mail.

EU chief Jean-Claude Juncker risked widening divisions with European leaders today by saying borders were the ‘worst invention ever’. He called for all borders across Europe to be opened, despite the chaos caused over the last year from the flood in refugees fleeing Syria and the wave of terror attacks hitting various continent’s cities. …Mr Juncker also said a stronger EU was the best way of beating the rising trend of nationalism cross Europe. In another extraordinary remark, he appeared to warn of war on the continent if the EU disintegrates as he echoed the warning from the former French president Francois Mitterrand, who said nationalism added to nationalism would end in war.

Writing for the American Enterprise Institute, Michael Barone offered a different perspective.

He starts with the observation that Juncker’s home country of Luxembourg is rich because of borders.

Juncker comes from Luxembourg, a 998-square mile country… If you look up Luxembourg in lists of world economic statistics, you’ll find it rated No. 2 in gross domestic product per capita. That’s thanks to what Juncker called politicians’ worst invention ever, borders. Luxembourg is a financial haven and headquarters of the world’s largest steel company, Arcelor Mittal. Without their borders and national laws, the 576,000 Luxembourgers wouldn’t be as affluent as they are.

Barone is correct. Luxembourg is only a very successful tax haven because it has the right to have tax laws inside its borders that are attractive relative to the tax laws that exist in adjoining nations such as France and Germany.

For those who care about foreign policy, Barone also pushes back at the notion the European Union somehow has prevented World War III.

Juncker said, “We have to fight against nationalism, we have the duty not to follow populists but to block the avenue of populists.” Such is the faith of the Eurocrats: The EU exists to prevent another war between France and Germany. Never mind that the chance of such a war has been zero since 1945, 71 years ago. …Juncker was denouncing Austria and other nations for erecting border controls to keep out Muslim refugees. Evidently he believes that World War III will somehow break out if they are kept out.

This is surely right. The people in Western Europe no longer have any interest in fighting each other. And to the extent any international organization deserves credit for that, it would be NATO (even if it no longer serves a purpose).

Let’s now shift back to the role of borders and the size and power of government.

If you want a really good libertarian-oriented explanation of why borders are valuable, let’s go back in time to 2004. Professor Andy Morriss wrote an article for The Freeman that explains borders are good for liberty because they limit the powers of governments.

Borders come from property rights and are essential to a free society…are wonderful things. Lorain and Cuyahoga counties in Ohio must compete for my family’s residence. Choosing to live where we do is related to the taxes charged by the communities where we might have lived.

The value of borders, Andy explains, is that they represent a territorial restriction on the power of government and people can cross those borders if they think governments are being too greedy and oppressive.

Investors make similar choices. …Choosing bad policies produces an exodus; choosing good policies leads to immigration of both capital and people. …the competition offered on local taxation policy and other regulatory issues is important in restraining governments from infringing liberty. …National borders are also important sources of liberty. …without borders we would not have the competition among jurisdictions that restricts attempts to abridge liberty. …Jurisdictions…compete to attract people and capital. This competition motivates governments to act to preserve liberty.

He cites the example of how Delaware became the leading jurisdiction for company formation (and also a very good tax haven for foreigners).

…states compete for corporations, with Delaware the current market leader. Delaware corporate law offers companies the combination of a mostly voluntary set of default rules and an expert decision-making body (the Court of Chancery). As a result, many corporations, large and small, choose to incorporate in Delaware, making it their legal residence. (Their actual headquarters need not be physically located there.) Corporations get a body of liberty-enhancing rules; Delaware gets tax revenue and employment in the corporate services and legal fields. That state’s position is no accident. At the beginning of the twentieth century, New Jersey was the market leader in corporate law. When New Jersey’s legislature made ill-advised changes to its corporations statute that reduced shareholder value, Delaware seized the opportunity and offered essentially the older version of New Jersey’s law.

Borders also are good, Andy explains, because they create natural experiments that allow us the compare the success of market-oriented jurisdictions with the failure of statist jurisdictions.

Statists are correct that competition among jurisdictions will make clear the costs of the policies they promote. …The former divide between East and West Berlin is a fine example of the impact of cross-border comparisons. East Germans could see the difference in outcomes between the two societies, and East Germany had to resort to increasingly costly and desperate measures to prevent its citizens from voting against communism with their feet. …Competition between the two Germanys exposed the cost of East German policies.

In an observation that could have been taken from today’s headlines, he also notes that uncompetitive governments try to prop up their inefficient welfare states by clamping down on pro-market policies in other nations.

To prevent cross-border competition from exposing the costs of their favorite policies, …special interests attempt to forestall it. …High-tax, heavy-regulatory jurisdictions in the European Union are waging just such a fight now, arguing, for example, that Ireland’s low taxes are “unfair” competition.

He’s exactly right. Which is precisely why it’s so important to block efforts to replace tax competition with tax harmonization.

Andy’s conclusion hits the nail on the head. We may not like having to wait in lines and fill out forms to cross borders, but the alternative would be worse.

Even though borders can be an excuse for reducing liberty, a world with lots of borders is nonetheless a far friendlier world for liberty than one with fewer borders. They promote competition for people and money, which tends to restrain the state from grabbing either. Borders offer chances to arbitrage regulatory restrictions, making them less effective. Without borders these constraints on the growth of the state would vanish.

Before closing, let’s look at an example of how governments are forced to dismantle bad policy because of the the jurisdictional competition that only exists because of borders. It’s from an academic study written by Jayme Lemke, a scholar from the Mercatus Center. Here are some excerpts from the abstract.

Married women in the early nineteenth century United States were not permitted to own property, enter into contracts without their husband’s permission, or stand in court as independent persons. This severely limited married women’s ability to engage in formal business ventures, collect rents, administer estates, and manage bequests through wills. By the dawn of the twentieth century, legal reform in nearly every state had removed these restrictions by extending formal legal and economic rights to married women.

Why did states grant economic liberty and property rights to women?

Was it because male legislators suddenly stopped being sexist?

Maybe that played a role, but it turns out that people moved to states that eliminated these statist restrictions and that pressured other states to also reform.

…what forces impelled legislators to undertake the costs of action? …interjurisdictional competition between states and territories in the nineteenth century was instrumental in motivating these reforms. Two conditions are necessary for interjurisdictional competition to function: (1) law-makers must hold a vested interest in attracting population to their jurisdictions, and (2) residents must be able to actively choose between the products of different jurisdictions. Using evidence from the passage of the Married Women’s Property Acts, I find that legal reforms were adopted first and in the greatest strength in those regions in which there was active interjurisdictional competition.

The moral of the story is that competition between states improved the lives of women by forcing governments to expand economic liberty.

And since even the New York Times has published columns showing that feminist-type government interventions actually hurt women, perhaps the real lesson (especially for our friends on the left) is that you help people by expanding freedom, not by expanding the burden of government.

P.S. There is a wealth of scholarly evidence that the western world became rich because of borders and jurisdictional competition.

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Working the world of public policy, I’m used to surreal moments.

Such as the assertion that there are trillions of dollars of spending cuts in plans that actually increase spending. How do you have a debate with people who don’t understand math?

Or the oft-repeated myth that the Reagan tax cuts for the rich starved the government of revenue. How can you have a rational discussion with people who don’t believe IRS data?

And let’s not overlook my personal favorite, which is blaming so-called tax havens for the financial crisis, even though places such as the Cayman Islands had nothing to do with the Fed’s easy-money policy or with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac subsidies.

These are all example of why my hair is turning gray.

But I’ll soon have white hair based on having to deal with the new claim from European bureaucrats that countries are guilty of providing subsidies if they have low taxes for companies.

I’m not joking. This is basically what’s behind the big tax fight between Apple, Ireland, and the European Commission.

Here’s what I said about this issue yesterday.

There are three things about this interview are worth highlighting.

  • First, the European Commission is motivated by a desire for more tax revenue. Disappointing, but hardly surprising.
  • Second, Ireland has benefited immensely from low-tax policies and that’s something that should be emulated rather than punished.
  • Third, I hope Ireland will respond with a big corporate tax cut, just as they did when their low-tax policies were first attacked many years ago.

I also chatted with the folks from the BBC.

I’ll add a few comments on this interview as well.

Here’s an interview from the morning, which was conducted by phone since I didn’t want to interrupt my much-needed beauty sleep by getting to the studio at the crack of dawn.

Once again, here are a few follow-up observations.

  • First, I realize I’m being repetitive, but it’s truly bizarre that the European Commission thinks that low taxes are a subsidy. This is the left-wing ideology that the government has first claim on all income.
  • Second, it’s a wonky point, but Europe’s high-tax nations can use transfer pricing rules if they think that Apple (or other companies) are trying to artificially shift income to low-tax countries like Ireland.
  • Third, the U.S. obviously needs to reform its wretched corporate tax system, but that won’t solve this problem since it’s about an effort to impose more tax on Apple’s foreign-source income.

The Wall Street Journal opined wisely on this issue, starting with the European Commission’s galling decision to use anti-trust laws to justify the bizarre assertion that low taxes are akin to a business subsidy.

Even by the usual Brussels standards of economic malpractice, Tuesday’s €13 billion ($14.5 billion) tax assault on Apple is something to behold. …Apple paid all the taxes it owed under existing tax laws around the world, which is why it hasn’t been subject to enforcement proceedings by revenue authorities. …Brussels now wants to use antitrust law to tell Ireland and other low-tax countries how to apply their own tax laws. …Brussels is deploying its antitrust gnomes to claim that taxes that are “too low” are an illegal subsidy under EU state-aid rules.

This is amazing. A subsidy is when government officials use coercion to force taxpayers (or consumers) to pay more in order to line the pockets of a company or industry. The Export-Import Bank would be an example of this odious practice, as would ethanol handouts.

Choosing to tax at a lower rate is not in this category. It’s a reduction in government coercion.

That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re necessarily talking about good policy since there are plenty of preferential tax laws that should be wiped out as part of a shift to a simple and fair flat tax.

I’m simply pointing out that lower taxes are not “state aid.”

The WSJ also points out that it’s not uncommon for major companies to seek clarification rulings from tax authorities.

Brussels points to correspondence between Irish tax officials and Apple executives to claim that Apple enjoyed favors not available to other companies, which would be tantamount to a subsidy. But all Apple received from Dublin, in 1991 and 2007, were letters confirming how the tax authorities would treat various transactions under the Irish laws that applied to everyone. If anyone in Brussels knew more about tax law, they’d realize such “comfort letters” are common practice around the world.

Indeed, the IRS routinely approves “advance pricing agreements” with major American taxpayers.

This doesn’t mean, by the way, that governments (the U.S., Ireland, or others) treat all transactions appropriately. But it does mean that Ireland isn’t doing something strange or radical.

The editorial also makes the much-needed point that the Obama White House and Treasury Department are hardly in a position to grouse, particularly because of the demagoguery and rule-twisting that have been used to discourage corporate inversions.

As for the U.S., the Treasury Department pushed back against these tax cases, which it rightly views as a protectionist threat to the rule of law. But it’s hard to believe that Brussels would have pulled this stunt if Treasury enjoyed the global respect it once did. President Obama and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew have also contributed to the antibusiness political mood by assailing American companies for moving to low-tax countries.


It’s also worth noting that the Obama Administration has been supportive of the OECD’s BEPS initiative, which also is designed to increase corporate tax burdens and clearly will disadvantage US companies.

A story from the Associated Press reveals the European Commission’s real motive.

The European Commission says…it should help protect countries from unfair tax competition. When one country’s tax policy hurts a neighbor’s revenues, that country should be able to protect its tax base.

Wow, think about what this implies.

We all recognize, as consumers, the benefits of having lots of restaurants competing for our business. Or several cell phone companies. Or lots of firms that make washing machines. Competition helps us by leading to lower prices, higher quality, and better service. And it also boosts the overall economy because of the pressure to utilize resources more efficiently and productively.

So why, then, should the European Commission be working to protect governments from competition? Why is it bad for a country with low tax rates to attract jobs and investment from nations with high tax rates?

The answer, needless to say, is that tax competition is a good thing. Ever since the Reagan and Thatcher tax cuts got the process started, there have been major global reductions in tax rates, both for households and businesses, as governments have competed with each other (sadly, the US has fallen way behind in the contest for good business taxation).

Politicians understandably don’t like this liberalizing process, but the tax competition-induced drop in tax rates is one of the reason why the stagflation of the 1960s and 1970s was replaced by comparatively strong growth in the 1980s and 1990s.

Let’s close by looking at one final story.

Bloomberg has a report on the Apple-Ireland-EC controversy. Here are some relevant passages.

Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan on Tuesday vowed to fight a European Commission ruling… The country’s corporate tax regime is a cornerstone of its economic policy, attracting Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. to Dublin. …While the Apple ruling doesn’t directly threaten the 12.5 percent rate, the government has promised to stand by executives it says are helping the economy. “To do anything else, it would be like eating the seed potatoes,” Noonan told broadcaster RTE on Tuesday, adding a failure to fight the case would hurt future generations.

Kudos to Noonan for understanding that a short-term grab for more revenue will be bad news if the tradeoff is a more onerous tax system that reduces future growth.

I wish Hillary Clinton was capable of learning the same lesson.

Also, it’s worth noting that Apple is just the tip of the iceberg. If the EC succeeds, many other American companies will be under the gun.

The iPhone-maker is one of more than 700 U.S. companies that have units there, employing a combined 140,000 people, according to the American Chamber of Commerce in Ireland.

And when politicians – either here or overseas – raise taxes on companies, never forget that they’re actually raising taxes on worker, consumers, and shareholders.

P.S. Just in case you think the Obama Administration is sincere about defending Apple and other American companies, don’t forget that these are the folks who included a global corporate minimum tax scheme in the President’s most recent budget.

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I have a love-hate relationship with corporations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This puts a big smile on my face.

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

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

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

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

Here’s another reason I’m smiling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words, the Laffer Curve exists.

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

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

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

They start with the theoretical case.

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

Then they unload a wealth of empirical evidence.

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

So what’s the moral of the story?

It’s very simple.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Okay, I’ll admit the title of this post is an exaggeration. There are lots of things you should know – most bad, though some good – about international bureaucracies.

That being said, regular readers know that I get very frustrated with the statist policy agendas of both the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

I especially object to the way these international bureaucracies are cheerleaders for bigger government and higher tax burdens. Even though they ostensibly exist to promote greater levels of prosperity!

I’ve written on these issues, ad nauseam, but perhaps dry analysis is only part of what’s needed to get the message across. Maybe some clever image can explain the issue to a broader audience (something I’ve done before with cartoons and images about the rise and fall of the welfare state, the misguided fixation on income distribution, etc).

It took awhile, but I eventually came up with (what I hope is) a clever idea. And when a former Cato intern with artistic skill, Jonathan Babington-Heina, agreed to do me a favor and take the concept in my head and translate it to paper, here are the results.

I think this hits the nail on the head.

Excessive government is the main problem plaguing the global economy. But the international bureaucracies, for all intents and purposes, represent governments. The bureaucrats at the IMF and OECD need to please politicians in order to continue enjoying their lavish budgets and exceedingly generous tax-free salaries.

So when there is some sort of problem in the global economy, they are reluctant to advocate for smaller government and lower tax burdens (even if the economists working for these organizations sometimes produce very good research on fiscal issues).

Instead, when it’s time to make recommendations, they push an agenda that is good for the political elite but bad for the private sector. Which is exactly what I’m trying to demonstrate in the cartoon,

But let’s not merely rely on a cartoon to make this point.

In an article for the American Enterprise Institute, Glenn Hubbard and Kevin Hassett discuss the intersection of economic policy and international bureaucracies. They start by explaining that these organizations would promote jurisdictional competition if they were motivated by a desire to boost growth.

…economic theory has a lot to say about how they should function. …they haven’t achieved all of their promise, primarily because those bodies have yet to fully understand the role they need to play in the interconnected world. The key insight harkens back to a dusty economics seminar room in the early 1950s, when University of Michigan graduate student Charles Tiebout…said that governments could be driven to efficient behavior if people can move. …This observation, which Tiebout developed fully in a landmark paper published in 1956, led to an explosion of work by economists, much of it focusing on…many bits of evidence that confirm the important beneficial effects that can emerge when governments compete. …A flatter world should make the competition between national governments increasingly like the competition between smaller communities. Such competition can provide the world’s citizens with an insurance policy against the out-of-control growth of massive and inefficient bureaucracies.

Using the European Union as an example, Hubbard and Hassett point out the grim results when bureaucracies focus on policies designed to boost the power of governments rather than the vitality of the market.

…as Brexit indicates, the EU has not successfully focused solely on the potentially positive role it could play. Indeed, as often as not, one can view the actions of the EU government as being an attempt to form a cartel to harmonize policies across member states, and standing in the way of, rather than advancing, competition. …an EU that acts as a competition-stifling cartel will grow increasingly unpopular, and more countries will leave it.

They close with a very useful suggestion.

If the EU instead focuses on maximizing mobility and enhancing the competition between states, allowing the countries to compete on regulation, taxation, and in other policy areas, then the union will become a populist’s dream and the best economic friend of its citizens.

Unfortunately, I fully expect this sage advice to fall upon deaf ears. The crowd in Brussels knows that their comfortable existence is dependent on pleasing politicians from national governments.

And the same is true for the bureaucrats at the IMF and OECD.

The only practical solution is to have national governments cut off funding so the bureaucracies disappear.

But, to cite just one example, why would Obama allow that when these bureaucracies go through a lot of effort to promote his statist agenda?

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While Switzerland is one of the world’s most market-oriented nations, ranked #4 by Economic Freedom of the World, it’s not libertarian Nirvana.

Government spending, for instance, consumes about one-third of economic output. That may be the second-lowest level among all OECD nations (fast-growing South Korea wins the prize for the smallest public sector relative to GDP), but it’s still far too high when compared to Hong Kong and Singapore.*

Moreover, while the Swiss tax code is benign compared to what exists in other European nations, it also is not perfect. One of the warts is a wealth tax, which is a very pernicious levy that drains capital from the private sector.

Let’s look at some excerpts from a report in the Wall Street Journal, starting with a description of the Swiss system.

Switzerland has taxed wealth since the late 18th century. Its 26 cantons in 2014 levied taxes on net wealth with rates varying from 0.13% in the lighter taxing German-speaking parts to 1% in French-speaking Geneva. Swiss wealth taxes are also special because they apply from wealth as low as 25,000 Swiss francs, ensuring large swaths of the middle class incur them. Typical taxpayers pay a rate of just over 0.5%.

Here are the wealth tax rates in the various cantons, based on a recent study of the system.

As noted in the WSJ story, that study contains strong evidence that the tax is hurting Switzerland.

…according to a new paper, …taxing wealth leads declared wealth to disappear. Based on experience in Switzerland, which uses wealth taxes the most, reported wealth falls around 20 times as much in response to an increase in a wealth tax as it does to an equivalent increase in a tax on capital income, such as dividends or capital gains. …Economists at the University of Lausanne and Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that a 0.1 percentage point increase in Swiss wealth taxes caused a 3.5% reduction in reported wealth. That’s equivalent to 100,000 Swiss francs going missing for a person worth 3 million francs. …they conclude in a study investigating changes in wealth tax rates on Swiss taxpayers’ reported wealth from 2001 to 2012.

Why is there such a big response?

For the same reason that class-warfare taxes don’t work very well in the United States. Simply stated, taxpayers have considerable ability to rearrange their financial affairs when governments try to tax capital (or capital income). And that ability is especially pronounced for those with higher levels of income and wealth.

Individuals have greater control over their reported wealth–especially financial wealth such as bank deposits, stock and bonds–than their reported income.

By the way, the story also included this nugget of good news.

Thanks primarily to tax competition, many nations have eliminated wealth taxes over the past 20 years.

…only five members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development still levy annual taxes on individuals’ total financial and non-financial wealth… That is down from 14 nations two decades ago.

And if you want more good news, the Swiss cantons also are lowering their tax rates on wealth.

Here’s another map from the study. It shows that a couple of French-speaking cantons have imposed very small increases in the tax since 2003, while the vast majority of cantons have moved in the other direction, in some cases slashing their wealth tax rates by substantial amounts.

Since I’m a big fan of Switzerland, let’s close with some more good news about the Swiss tax system. Not only are tax rates on wealth dropping, but there’s no capital gains tax. And there are no taxes on interest.

So while there is a wealth tax, which is a very unfortunate and destructive imposition, the Swiss avoid many other forms of double taxation on income that is saved and invested.

*The burden of government spending also is excessive in Hong Kong and Singapore. Based on historical data, economic performance will be maximized if total government spending is less than 10 percent of GDP.

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When I was younger, my left-wing friends said conservatives unfairly attacked them for being unpatriotic and anti-American simply because they disagreed on how to deal with the Soviet Union.

Now the shoe is on the other foot.

Last decade, a Treasury Department official accused me of being disloyal to America because I defended the fiscal sovereignty of low-tax jurisdictions.

And just today, in a story in the Washington Post about the Center for Freedom and Prosperity (I’m Chairman of the Center’s Board of Directors), former Senator Carl Levin has accused me and others of “trading with the enemy” because of our work to protect and promote tax competition.

Here’s the relevant passage.

Former senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.)…said in a recent interview that the center’s activities run counter to America’s values and undermine the nation’s ability to raise revenue. “It’s like trading with the enemy,” said Levin, whose staff on a powerful panel investigating tax havens regularly faced public challenges from the center. “I consider tax havens the enemy. They’re the enemy of American taxpayers and the things we try to do with our revenues — infrastructure, roads, bridges, education, defense. They help to starve us of resources that we need for all the things we do. And this center is out there helping them to accomplish that.”

Before even getting into the issue of tax competition and tax havens and whether it’s disloyal to want limits on the power of governments, I can’t resist addressing the “starve us of resources” comment by Levin.

He was in office from 1979-2015. During that time, federal tax receipts soared from $463 billion to $3.2 trillion. Even if you only count the time the Center for Freedom and Prosperity has existed (created in late 2000), tax revenues have jumped from $2 trillion to $3.2 trillion.

At the risk of understatement, Senator Levin has never been on a fiscal diet. And he wasn’t bashful about spending all that revenue. He received an “F” rating from the National Taxpayers Union every single year starting in 1993.

Let’s now address the main implication of the Washington Post story, which is that it’s somehow wrong or improper for there to be an organization that defends tax competition and fiscal sovereignty, particularly if some of its funding comes from people in low-tax jurisdictions.

The Post offer[s] an inside look at how a little-known nonprofit, listing its address as a post office box in Alexandria, became a persistent opponent of U.S. and global efforts to regulate the offshore world. …the center met again and again with government officials and members of the offshore industry around the world… Quinlan and Mitchell launched the center in October 2000. …The center had two stated goals. Overseas, the center set out to persuade countries on the blacklist not to cooperate with the OECD, which it derided as a “global tax cartel.” In Washington, the center lobbied the Bush administration to withdraw its support for the OECD and also worked to block anti-tax haven legislation on Capitol Hill. To spread the word, the center testified before Congress, published reports and opinion pieces in leading financial publications, and drafted letters to lawmakers and administration officials. Representatives of the center crisscrossed the globe and sponsored discussions in 2000 and 2001, traveling to London, Paris, the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, Panama, Barbados and the British Virgin Islands.

To Senator Levin and other folks on the left, I guess this is the fiscal equivalent of “trading with the enemy.”

In reality, this is a fight over whether there should be any limits on the fiscal power of governments. On one side are high-tax governments and international bureaucracies like the OECD, along with their ideological allies. They want to impose a one-size-fits-all model based on the extra-territorial double-taxation of income that is saved and invested, even if it means blacklisting and threatening low-tax jurisdictions (the so-called tax havens).

On the other side are proponents of good tax policy (including many Nobel Prize-winning economists), who believe that income should not be taxed more than one time and that the power to tax should be constrained by national borders.

And, yes, that means we sometimes side with Switzerland or Panama rather than the Treasury Department. Our patriotism is to the ideals of the Founding Fathers, not to the bad tax policy of the U.S. government.

In any event, I’m proud to say that the Center’s efforts have been semi-successful.

In May 2001, the center claimed a key victory. In a dramatic departure from the Clinton administration, Paul O’Neill, the incoming Treasury Secretary appointed by Bush, announced that the United States would back away from the reforms pushed by the OECD. …fewer than half of the nations on the OECD blacklist pledged to become more transparent in their tax systems, a victory for anti-tax forces such as the center.

Even the other side says the Center is effective.

…said Elise Bean, former staff director and chief counsel of Levin’s Homeland Security Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which started investigating tax havens in 2001. “They travel all around the world and they have had a tremendous impact.” …“They were very effective at painting the OECD’s work as end-times are here for tax competition, and we’re going to have European tax rates imposed upon the whole world if the OECD’s work continued,” said Will Davis, the former head of OECD public affairs in Washington.

What’s most impressive is that all this was accomplished with very little funding.

Tax returns for the center and a foundation set up in its name reported receiving at least $1.4 million in revenue from 2003 to 2010.

In other words, the Center and its affiliated Foundation managed to thwart some of the world’s biggest and most powerful governments with a very modest budget averaging about $175,000 per year. And I don’t even get compensation from the Center, even though I’m the one who almost got thrown in a Mexican jail for opposing the OECD!

So while Senator Levin had decades of experience spending other people’s money in a promiscuous fashion, I work for an organization, the Cato Institute, that is ranked as the most cost-effective major think tank, and I’m on the Board of a small non-profit that has a track record of achieving a lot with very little money.

Yet another example of why we should be thankful that tax competition makes it more difficult for politicians to extract more revenue from the economy’s productive sector.

P.S. I mentioned to the Post reporters that the world’s biggest tax haven is the United States, but that important bit of information was omitted from the article. Which is a shame since it would have given me a chance to laud Senator Rand Paul for blocking a very dangerous agreement that would undermine America’s attractive tax laws for overseas investors.

P.P.S. If politicians really want to hurt tax havens, they should adopt a flat tax. That would dramatically boost tax compliance.

P.P.P.S. All things considered, I think the reporters who put together the story were reasonably fair, though there was a bit of editorializing such as referring to one low-tax jurisdiction as a “notorious tax haven.” When they write about France, do they ever refer to it as a “notorious tax hell”?

Also, when writing about trips the Center arranged for congressional staff to low-tax jurisdictions, the article stated, “The staffers reported receiving from $900 to $2,360 for the trips”, which makes it sound as if the staffers got paid. That’s wrong. The sentence should have read, “The staffers reported that the Center’s travel and lodging expenses ranged from $900 to $2,360 for the trips.”

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