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Archive for the ‘Tobacco’ Category

As a fiscal policy wonk, I’ve come across depressing examples of counterproductive tax provisions (health benefits exclusion, ethanol credits) and spending programs (the entire HUD budget, OECD subsidies).

But the folks who work on regulatory policy may get exposed to the most inane government policies (Fannie-Freddie mandate, EEOC rulings).

For example, consider how the government is undermining public health by going after e-cigarettes.

Sally Satel of the American Enterprise Institute offers a good introduction to the issue.

Strikingly, it is members of the public health establishment that have fanned the pessimism surrounding the battery-powered devices that deliver nicotine without the carcinogenic tar. One leading culprit is the Centers for Disease Control which refuses to acknowledge the steep risk reduction for smokers who switch to non-combustible tobacco, overlooks evidence of immediate gains in respiratory health when e-cigarettes are used as an alternative to smoking, and dramatizes as yet unrealized harm to children. …at the heart of this skepticism in the US is the FDA, who has devised an onerous rule that “deems” e-cigarettes to be tobacco products and thus subject to the same regulatory regime as combustible cigarettes. The rule…places undue regulatory burden and cost on vaping manufacturers. …the agency’s mandate for manufacturers to submit data prior to product approval is deeply misguided. Although patterns of youth uptake, flavor preferences, and nicotine level preferences are important data, they do not trump the benefit to adult smokers’ health. …The regulatory politics of non-combustible nicotine products stand as one of the great paradoxes in public health. While our health agencies now strongly champion harm reduction for opiate misuse, they are making it more and more difficult to improve and save the lives of smokers.

The Orange County Register is not a big fan of what’s been happening.

There’s a strange anti-vaping hysteria hitting governments. …The itch to treat vaping like smoking afflicting so many public health activists and government officials may be well-intentioned, but it is also misguided and harmful to the very goal of reducing smoking which these campaigners claim to champion. …Vapor products offer a way to consume nicotine without inhaling the lethal smoke that causes cancer and kills smokers. It has long been known that it is the smoke from burning tobacco, not the nicotine, that kills smokers. …Flavors are a critical ingredient to the success of tobacco harm reduction. According to a 2013 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, of 4,618 vapers surveyed, more than 91 percent classified themselves as “former” smokers, with the majority saying flavor variety was “very important” to their efforts to quit smoking. The study also found the number of flavors a vaper used was independently associated with quitting smoking. Supporters of flavor bans argue these products appeal to children and will induce them to start smoking cigarettes. But the data fails to bear this out. A 2015 study from the Journal of Nicotine & Tobacco Research found nonsmoking teens’ interest in e-cigarettes was “very low” and didn’t change with the availability of flavors.

Looking at this debate motivated me to write an article on the story behind the story.

In an ideal world, the discussion and debate about how (or if) to tax e-cigarettes, heat-not-burn, and other tobacco harm-reduction products would be guided by science. …In the real world, however, politicians are guided by other factors. There are two things to understand… First, this is a battle over tax revenue. Politicians are concerned that they will lose tax revenue if a substantial number of smokers switch to options such as vaping. …Second, this is a quasi-ideological fight. Not about capitalism versus socialism, or big government versus small government. It’s basically a fight over paternalism, or a battle over goals. For all intents and purposes, the question is whether lawmakers should seek to simultaneously discourage both tobacco use and vaping because both carry some risk (and perhaps because both are considered vices for the lower classes)? Or should they welcome vaping since it leads to harm reduction as smokers shift to a dramatically safer way of consuming nicotine?

I used an analogy from the world of statistics.

…researchers presumably always recognize the dangers of certain types of mistakes, known as Type I errors (also known as a “false positive”) and Type II errors (also known as a “false negative”). …The advocates of high taxes on e-cigarettes and other non-combustible products are fixated on the possibility that vaping will entice some people into the market. Maybe vaping will even act as a gateway to smoking. So, they want high taxes on vaping, akin to high taxes on tobacco, even though the net result is that this leads many smokers to stick with cigarettes instead of making a switch to less harmful products. …At some point in the future, observers may joke that one side is willing to accept more smoking if one teenager forgoes vaping while the other side is willing to have lots of vapers if it means one less smoker.

On the issue of taxes, here’s a 2017 map from the Tax Foundation that shows state excise taxes on vaping.

There has been some pushback against the regulators.

The electronic cigarette industry and its free-market allies are seeing fresh opportunities to ease federal rules on e-cigarettes… More than a dozen conservative groups wrote to congressional leaders…, calling on them to add a pro-vaping provision to a spending measure… A rule issued…by the Obama administration “deems” e-cigarettes to be tobacco products and allows the FDA to retroactively examine all tobacco products on the market in February 2007. …industry advocates say the costly FDA approval process would force most e-cigarette companies to shut down. …The notion of “harm reduction” is the main argument pro-vaping forces use in their push to remove the requirement that tobacco companies retroactively prove their e-cigarettes are safe.

For what it’s worth, the FDA has kicked the can down the road, basically postponing its harsh new regulatory regime until 2022.

In the world of business, that’s just around the corner. Especially since investors and entrepreneurs have relatively long time horizons.

So let’s look at some evidence that hopefully will lead the bureaucrats at the FDA to make rational decisions.

The main argument, as noted in this column in the Wall Street Journal, is that vaping is the most effective way of reducing smoking.

Two major government surveys show that regular e-cigarette use by people who have never smoked is under 1%. Some 4.2% of high-school seniors report smoking conventional cigarettes daily, according to Monitoring the Future, and 9.7% reported smoking at least once in the previous month. These are “the high-risk youth” we need to worry about… Overheated worries about youth vaping are threatening to obscure the massive potential benefits to the nation’s 38 million cigarette smokers. Two million have already quit thanks to e-cigarettes. Vaping products are already the most widely used quit-smoking tool.

And smoking is the real danger to health, as Veronique de Rugy notes in a Reason article.

Tobacco kills 480,000 people a year in the United States. Yet when an innovative alternative that delivers nicotine and eliminates 95 percent of the harm of smoking is available, the wary Food and Drug Administration fails to embrace this revolutionary lifesaving technology. All in the name of the children, of course. Using e-cigarettes, known as vaping, has been around long enough for respected health authorities to conclude after many studies that it is eminently safer than smoking cigarettes. Britain’s Royal College of Physicians called any attempts by public officials to discourage smokers from switching to vaping “unjust, irrational and immoral.” …no one wants teens to vape, but we certainly don’t want them to smoke cigarettes and die an agonizing death later in life. As a parent, I tell my children that they shouldn’t do either. But the truth is that I know, as do they, that if they are going to do something as stupid as committing so much of their money to that sort of activity, vaping is the way to go. The bottom line is that government alarmists should back off. The first step is for the FDA to stick to its plan to postpone regulation until 2022 and create a clear pathway for the permanent approval of these products. It would allow the vaping companies time to establish their products as a safer alternative to cigarettes.

Here’s some scholarly research on the topic.

 US tobacco control policies to reduce cigarette use have been effective, but their impact has been relatively slow. This study considers a strategy of switching cigarette smokers to e-cigarette use (‘vaping’) in the USA to accelerate tobacco control progress. …Compared with the Status Quo, replacement of cigarette by e-cigarette use over a 10-year period yields 6.6 million fewer premature deaths with 86.7 million fewer life years lost in the Optimistic Scenario. Under the Pessimistic Scenario, 1.6 million premature deaths are averted with 20.8 million fewer life years lost. The largest gains are among younger cohorts, with a 0.5 gain in average life expectancy projected for the age 15 years cohort in 2016. …Our projections show that a strategy of replacing cigarette smoking with vaping would yield substantial life year gains, even under pessimistic assumptions regarding cessation, initiation and relative harm.

And the Wall Street Journal opines on the issue.

E-cigarettes do not contain tobacco. They contain nicotine, a chemical derived from tobacco and other plants. Plain English was never a deterrent, though, to regulators on an empire-expanding mission. The Food and Drug Administration this week rolled out new regulations on e-cigarettes based on a 2009 law giving the agency power over products that “contain tobacco.” …Plain English also does not authorize inclusion of e-cigarettes under the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, the deal struck between the cigarette industry and 46 states that settled a bunch of lawsuits by imposing a government-run cartel to jack up the price of cigarettes (in the name of curbing consumption, naturally) and distribute the excess profits to the states and a handful of now-plutocrat trial lawyers. …Lovers of freedom and enemies of regulatory overkill do not exaggerate when they say FDA rules are designed to murder numerous small manufacturers and thousands of “vape” shops that account for about half the electronic-cigarette business.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the bureaucrats at the World Health Organization, who already are pushing for harmonized tobacco taxes, also want to go after vaping.

…who gets a say in what the WHO does is a hotly contest matter. Only thirty members of the public and selected members of the media are treated to limited, stage managed press conferences. Nations like China, with state-owned tobacco monopolies, are warmly welcomed, but anyone with the slightest connection to a private tobacco industry is shown the exit. Large pharmaceutical companies generously fund conference attendees, while their anti-tobacco products like Nicorette gum compete with products that the WHO views unfavorably, like electronic cigarettes. The secretive nature of the conference didn’t go over well with India’s tobacco farmers. After a few minutes of protest outside the convention, 500 farmers were corralled by police and detained inside this local police station. …it’s hard to understand why a $4 billion organization like the WHO feels threatened by the average Indian farmer who lives on $3 a day… Expanding its authority beyond tobacco control, e-cigarettes and vape products now find themselves potentially subject to a worldwide ban. Delegates to the convention have expressed support for “a complete ban on the sale, manufacture, import and export of Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems”.

WHO bureaucrats are not the only ones to misbehave. Here’s a column from the Wall Street Journal exposing misbehavior in the United States.

There are many reasons to criticize the FDA’s action, but its most fundamental flaw—and the one that our legal foundation raises in three lawsuits on behalf of Ms. Manor and nine others—is that the rule was finalized by someone without authority to do so. The rule was not issued or signed by either the secretary of health and human services or the FDA commissioner, both Senate-confirmed officials. Instead, it was issued and signed by Leslie Kux, a career bureaucrat at FDA. …The attempted delegation of rule-making authority to someone not appointed as an “Officer of the United States” violates one of the most important separation-of-powers clauses in the Constitution. …Political accountability matters; that’s why the Framers included the Appointments Clause in Article II of the U.S. Constitution.

Last but not least, here’s a must-watch video on this issue from Prager University.

I’m not a big fan of the Food and Drug Administration, mostly because it delays the adoption of life-saving drugs and denies options for critically ill people.

Now that it’s going after e-cigarettes and other products that help smokers kick the habit, the FDA bureaucracy deserves ever-greater scorn.

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If you owned a restaurant and wanted to generate more income and boost your bottom line, would you double your prices thinking that this would double your revenue?

Of course not. You would understand that a lot of your patrons would simply dine elsewhere. And if they didn’t have other restaurants available, many of them would simply eat at home.

But now imagine you’re a politicians and you want more tax revenue so you can try to buy more votes and redistribute more money to the special interests that fund your campaign.

Would you assume that doubling a tax rate would lead to twice as much revenue?

Based on the shoddy methodology of the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), which is in charge of the revenue-estimating process on Capitol Hill, the answer is yes.

To be fair, the bureaucrats at the JCT probably wouldn’t say that tax revenue would double, but their model basically assumes that tax policy doesn’t affect the economy’s overall performance. So even if there’s a huge increase in the tax burden, they assume overall economic output won’t be affected.

This obviously is an absurd assumption. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that taxes impact economic performance. Low-tax economies like Hong Kong and Singapore, for instance, routinely outperform medium-tax economies like the United States. Similarly, differences in tax policy are one of the reasons why the United States generally grows faster than (or doesn’t grow as slowly as) Europe’s high-tax welfare states.

The lesson that should be learned is that the JCT should not estimate the revenue impact of a change in tax policy simply by looking at the change in the tax rate and the current trendline for taxable income. To get a more accurate answer, the bureaucrats also should try to estimate the degree to which taxable income will change.

This is the essential insight of the Laffer Curve. You can’t calculate changes in tax revenue simply by looking at changes in tax rates. You also have to consider the resulting changes in taxable income.

So it’s an empirical question whether a shift in a tax rate will cause revenues to change a little or a lot, just as it’s an empirical issue whether revenues will go up or down.

It depends on how sensitive taxpayers are to changes in tax rates. Some types of taxpayers are very responsive, while other aren’t.

Now let’s consider two implications.

First, you presumably shouldn’t want to be at the revenue-maximizing point of the Laffer Curve. Unless, of course, you think giving politicians an extra $1 to spend is worth destroying $5 or $10 of income for households.

Second, you definitely don’t want to be on the revenue-losing side of the Laffer Curve. That means households are losing so much income that politicians actually have less money to spend, a lose-lose scenario.

Politicians, though, often can’t resist the temptation to raise tax burdens all the way to the short-run revenue-maximizing point.

Many of them simply don’t care if the private economy suffers several dollars of lost output per dollar of additional tax revenue. All that matters is that they have the ability to buy more votes with other people’s money.

But what’s really amazing is that some of them are so short-sighted and greedy that they raise the tax burden by so much that revenues actually fall.

And that’s what is happening in New York, where the tax burden on cigarettes has become so high that tax revenues are falling. Here are some excerpts from a story in the Syracuse newspaper.

The number of state-taxed cigarette packs sold in New York has plummeted by 54 percent in the past decade. …more smokers are buying cigarettes in ways that avoid New York’s $4.35 per pack tax, the highest in the nation. They cross state lines, shop from black market vendors and travel to Native American outlets to save $6 per pack or more, experts say. New York is losing big. In the past five years, the state’s cigarette tax collections have dropped by about $400 million…off-the-tax-grid shopping options add up to as much as $1.3 billion in uncollected state cigarette taxes each year, according to a study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

It’s not just happening in New York.

I’ve already written about massive Laffer Curve effects from excessive tobacco taxation in Michigan, Ireland, Bulgaria, and Quebec, and Washington.

And the article notes that Oklahoma’s non-compliance rate is even higher.

About 35 percent of smokers in Oklahoma buy cigarettes in ways that avoid state taxes, compared with about one-third of smokers in New York who do the same, experts said.

Needless to say, politicians hate it when the sheep don’t willingly line up to be fleeced. So they’re trying to change policy in ways that divert more money into their greedy hands.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that they’re not very successful.

a federal court in 2011 ruled in the state’s favor and paved the way for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to try to collect the state tax from Native American nations by making their wholesalers pick up the cost. Instead, many nations abandoned the wholesale route and stopped selling name-brand cigarettes. They began stocking their stores with significantly cheaper ones made by Indian-owned manufacturers, experts said, like Seneca-brand cigarettes.

And even when policy changes are “successful,” that doesn’t necessarily translate into more loot that politicians can use to buy votes.

When taxes become extortion, people will evade when they can’t avoid.

…the illegal trade of cigarettes has grown, especially in New York City where smokers are supposed to pay an extra $1.50 per pack on top of the state tax. A recent study by New York University estimated as many as 15 percent of New York City cigarettes sales avoided the state tax.

The Germans call it Schadenfreude when you take pleasure from another person’s misfortune. Normally, I would think people who feel this way have a character flaw.

But not in this case. I confess that get a certain joy from this story because politicians are being punished for their greed. I like the fact that they have less money to waste.

We can call it the revenge of the Laffer Curve!

P.S. Years ago, the JCT actually estimated that a 100 percent tax rate would generate more tax revenue. I realize it’s only a small sign of progress, but I don’t think the bureaucrats would make that assertion today.

P.P.S. Here’s my as-yet-unheeded Laffer Curve lesson for President Obama, based on the fact that rich taxpayers paid five times as much tax after Reagan reduced the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent.

P.P.P.S. And here’s something that’s downright depressing. Some leftists are so resentful of successful people that they want higher tax rates even if the result is less revenue. And you’ll notice at the 4:20 mark of this video that President Obama is one of those people.

P.P.P.P.S. Speaking of leftists, here’s my response when one of them argued against the Laffer Curve.

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What’s the Laffer Curve?

It’s the simple, common-sense observation that there’s not a linear relationship between tax rates and tax revenue.

Folks in the private sector understand this principle. No restaurant owner, for instance, would double meal prices and assume that revenues would climb by 100 percent.

Yet that’s basically the methodology used by the Joint Committee on Taxation when estimating the revenue impact of changes in tax rates.

Which helps to explain why Washington is so often wrong about revenue implications of personal tax rates and corporate tax rates.

The Laffer Curve also applies to tobacco taxation.

Patrick Gleason of Americans for Tax Reform points out in the Wall Street Journal that greedy politicians in New York have pushed cigarette taxes so high that the main beneficiaries are smugglers.

Rampant cigarette smuggling isn’t the problem in New York. It’s a symptom of the problem: sky high tobacco taxes. …New York state levies the highest cigarette tax in the nation, $4.35 per pack, and New York City tacks on an additional $1.50 local tax. All told, the cost of one pack there can run to $12 or more. …The result? Most of the cigarettes smoked in New York, 58%, are smuggled in from out of state… The higher that revenue-hungry politicians raise tobacco taxes, the more profit smugglers can make.

Which means, of course, that the higher tax rates don’t lead to more tax revenue.

…revenue from increases in cigarette taxes often falls short of expectations. Washington, D.C., experienced this firsthand after cigarette taxes were raised by 25%, to $2.50 per pack from $2, in October 2009. City leaders claimed the hike would generate a windfall of additional revenue. By February of 2010, D.C.’s chief financial officer reported that projections were off by $15 million. Revenue from the cigarette tax actually fell by $7 million after the hike. New Jersey should have learned the same lesson. In 2007 the Garden State raised cigarette taxes to $2.575, from $2.40. The new tax generated $52 million less than expected, and revenue from cigarette taxes fell by $22 million. But in 2009 New Jersey raised the tax by another 17.5 cents.

By the way, don’t believe the fall-back excuse that politicians don’t care about revenue because they’re motivated by public health concerns.

Lawmakers can claim they’re raising taxes on cigarettes to reduce smoking and improve public health. That talking point is belied by the recent imposition of taxes on electronic cigarettes, which are saving lives by delivering nicotine in puffs of water vapor instead of chemical-filled smoke. There are more than 15 tax bills pending across the country for currently untaxed e-cigarettes. Hawaii is proposing a tax of 80%, New York of 75%, Oregon of 65% and Ohio of 60%. For politicians, cigarette taxes are—and have always been—about one thing: money.

One last thing. Gleason reports that New York is suing UPS because the company ships cigarettes to New York customers.

New York state and New York City in February announced a $180 million lawsuit against the shipping company UPS over what officials allege was unlawful delivery of nearly 700,000 cartons of cigarettes from 2010-14. …New York state officials claim that the cigarette smuggling via UPS cost the treasury $29.7 million in lost tax revenue. That’s less than 0.03% of the state budget. The $4.7 million allegedly lost by New York City represents less than 0.006% of its budget. For a mere rounding error, state and city officials want to grab $180 million from UPS. That’s $180 million UPS could use to hire new workers, give employees raises, or invest back into its business. The leaders of New York and New York City should drop this silly lawsuit and find a more productive use of their time.

They shouldn’t merely drop the lawsuit. They should be condemned for engaging in a thuggish shakedown.

Returning to the main topic, here’s a video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that reviews real-world examples of the Laffer Curve.

P.S. If local officials are greedy, state officials are ever greedier, and federal officials are greediest, then you can imagine how awful it would be to let international officials impose tobacco taxes.

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When people figure out ways to keep the money they earn in their own pockets, rather than having it confiscated by government, I’m almost always happy.

That’s because governments tend to waste money (should any of us pay for corrupt pork-barrel spending?).

And it’s because government impose bad tax policy (is it fair to have governments tax us more than one time?).

I also object to oppressive tax collection tactics (why do murderers have a presumption of innocence, but not taxpayers?).

With this bit of background, you can understand why I cheer when greedy politicians fail in their efforts to grab more money.

Here are three stories about tax avoidance. The first and third stories should make you smile, while the middle story is a tragic reminder of what happens when you mix bad tax policy with bad enforcement tactics.

Our first story is from the U.K.-based Times, which reports that English shoppers will travel all the way to Belgium to buy cigarettes.

Smokers — and smugglers — are flocking to a small village on the Belgian coast in search of cheap tobacco to beat the taxman. …The savings are substantial. A sleeve of 200 Benson & Hedges Gold costs £45 in Belgium, compared with £90 at a British newsagent; a 50g pouch of Amber Leaf tobacco is on sale for £5.65, about £11 cheaper than at home. Sticking to the recommended allowance of 1kg of tobacco and 800 cigarettes will save a smoker about £400 per trip. However, as there are no limits on the amount of tobacco and alcohol that a person can bring back from an EU country, some day-trippers are pushing that to 3kg of tobacco and 3,000 cigarettes, for combined savings of £1,350.

The folks making the trip resent the way their government (often using Orwellian tactics) is trying to pillage them.

Many smokers are angry at high UK prices and annual rises in duty. A grandmother from the West Midlands tweeted to the Conservative party: “I saved £3,000 for a holiday this year. I won’t pay UK tax to be bullied. Much cheaper to buy abroad.” …An estimated 80 coaches make the trip each week from different parts of the UK. The Times joined a service run by Excalibur Coaches, starting at Elephant and Castle in south London at 5.55am and joining a P&O ferry crossing at Dover. …“There are a lot of English here but the government has made cigarettes so expensive that, with this price difference, people are bound to be tempted.”

I’m glad for these people. The U.K. government has gone way overboard in their efforts to grab more tax. Notwithstanding what the politicians say, it’s not immoral to protect your income from rapacious and untrustworthy government.

There was no suggestion that anyone on the Excalibur coach broke any rules, but trippers are reluctant to speak openly for fear that they will draw the attention of Border Force officers, who are cracking down on the illicit traders.

The same thing happens in the United States, by the way. Excessive tobacco taxes by some state and local governments create big incentives for consumers to seek out cigarettes that are more affordable.

And our second story is about how government over-reaction can lead to horrifying consequences.

First, some background from A. Barton Hinkle, writing for Reason.

Thanks to New York’s laughably high cigarette taxes ($4.35 state plus another $1.60 in the city) and higher prices generally, a pack of smokes in New York City costs $14 or more. That creates a powerful incentive to smuggle smokes in from states such as Virginia, where you can buy a pack for a third of that price. …The robust cigarette smuggling irritates officials in New York, because they miss out on a lot of tax revenue.

And because politicians deploy resources to capture some of that foregone revenue, it leads to enforcement efforts that, in the tragic case of Eric Garner, led to a man’s death.

The writers at National Review have done a superb job of addressing this issue. Let’s start with some observations from Kevin Williamson.

…one must have a permit to sell cigarettes in New York, and New York bans the sale of so-called loosies, single cigarettes sold to those who lack either the means or the desire to purchase an entire pack at the going New York City rate of $12 to $14. …In a sane world, selling cigarettes would not be a crime. …That isn’t an argument for anything-goes lawlessness, but it is an argument that we have too many criminal offenses, and an argument that not everything that is a crime is a danger.

David Harsanyi has some similar thoughts.

Garner wasn’t targeted for death because he was avoiding taxes, but nonetheless, prohibitive cigarette taxes unnecessarily generate situations that make events such as this possible. …In the case of Garner, police were enforcing a law that has nothing to do with violence, not in the short or long term. …New York has by far the highest cigarette taxes in the nation: more than five bucks a pack. Unsurprisingly, the policy has spurred a black market. …The more profitable it becomes to circumvent taxes, the more dangerous this mini-prohibition will be. Garner was selling single cigarettes, incidentally. Does anyone believe that isn’t a waste of time for police and prosecutors?

Another National Review contribution is from Jonah Goldberg.

…you know what reasonable people can’t dispute? New York’s cigarette taxes are partly to blame for Eric Garner’s death. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky made this point Wednesday night on MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, and liberals have been freaking out about it ever since. …anyone with a level head should understand — and agree with — Paul’s point. When you pass a law, you authorize law enforcement to enforce it. …Without laws making cigarettes more expensive, Eric Garner would be alive today, period. …In the war on tobacco, like the war on drugs, if politicians will the ends, they must will the means. This is something that libertarians understand better than everyone else: The state is about violence. You can talk all day about how “government is just another word for those things we do together,” but what makes government work is force, not hugs. If you sell raw-milk cheese even after the state tells you to stop, eventually people with guns will show up at your home or office and arrest you. If you resist arrest, something very bad might happen. You might even die for selling bootleg cheese.

Heck, we’ve even gotten to the point that the bureaucrats at the Food and Drug Administration are conducting raids on dairies for the horrible crime of selling to consumers who prefer unpasteurized milk.

But let’s focus on what Jonah wrote about the state and violence. Charles C. W. Cooke also addressed that issue in his NR column.

Ultimately, “the State” is a synonym for “organized violence.” “If you refuse to pay your taxes,” Representative David Brat recently noted, “you will lose. You will go to jail, and if you fight, you will lose. The government holds a monopoly on violence. Any law that we vote for is ultimately backed by the full force of our government and military.” In consequence, Brat proposed, we should be careful about when and how that violence is utilized. Certainly, civilized nations need laws. But it is one thing to recruit armed men to prevent murder and rape and grievous bodily harm, and it is quite another to do so in order to regulate the manner in which cigarettes may be sold. …Was Garner killed deliberately? No, of course he was not. …Nevertheless, we should all be willing to acknowledge that Garner would never have been so much as approached had the city not wanted its pound of flesh in the first instance. Because there are consequences to all laws — however minor — it is incumbent upon us to ask if those laws are worth the risks that they yield. What, I wonder, would the anti-tax rebels who threw off the British Empire make of the news that a man had lost his life for peacefully selling a “loosie”?

By the way, the National Review writers openly state that the Eric Garner case involves a lot more than taxes. They point out that there are very big issues about race, the proper use of force, and the integrity of the justice system.

But everything they wrote about misguided tobacco taxation is also right on the mark.

Now let’s look at our third story, which is fortunately amusing rather than tragic. It was sent to me from the Public Secrets blog, and it deals with a Spanish theater is taking a rather unusual step to avoid that nation’s crippling value-added tax.

Crippled by colossal tax rates and falling ticket sales, the Spanish cultural sector is taking creative action to cut its tax bill, including one theatre which has changed its main business to pornography to avoid having to pay high taxes. …Theatre director Karina Garantivá said: “It’s scandalous when cultural heritage is being taxed at 21 percent and porn at only at 4 percent. Something is wrong”. Her company, which performs works by the “Spanish Shakespeare” Pedro Calderón de la Barca has decided to circumvent the new, punitive taxes by registering as a distributor of pornographic magazines – and is offering free performances. Punters buying €16 worth of hardcore-swingers magazine Gente Libre from the company receive a ‘free’ ticket to a performance of the highly regarded 17th century comic drama El Mágico Prodigioso.

You have to give them credit for creativity. I previously wrote about a Spanish theater that gave “free” tickets to customers who purchased low-taxed carrots for absurd prices, but I’m guessing the porn angle will be more successful.

Heck, I’m a cultural rube, and even I might be tempted to patronize the theater.

But not because of the porn. Instead, I admire the philosophical approach. Unlike a lot of artists, these folks in Spain apparently aren’t looking for handouts.

Garantivá said: “We don’t want subsidies, we are a private initiative. The best subsidies are fiscal measures that don’t prevent me from doing my work”. …Although the company is presently selling second-hand pornography to escape tax, they may produce their own to sell in future, as their present stock is only 300 magazines. Doing so would be “a stand against the government”, said the director.

And they’re even willing to produce their own porn as a way of saying “bugger off” to government. Given my libertarian principles, maybe I should…um…volunteer to help? Viva la libertad!

Though I won’t be waiting by my phone expecting a call.

All kidding aside, the common theme in all these stories is that people don’t like paying excessive taxes.

We may not all agree about when taxation becomes excessive, but I assume just about everyone will agree that it’s perfectly legitimate to avoid or evade the French tax laws that require some people to pay more than 100 percent of their income to government.

On the other hand, most of us also will have little sympathy for folks who try to avoid or evade when they live in jurisdictions – such as Hong Kong, Bermuda, and Switzerland – that are honest, well-run, and lightly taxed.

My proposal is that we have a simple and fair system like the flat tax so that people have much less reason to evade or avoid.

In the meantime, I’ll continue rooting for taxpayers who thwart the greed of the political class.

So three cheers for French entrepreneurs, American companies, Italian boat owners, California citizens, Greek shop owners, Facebook millionaires, Norwegian butter buyers, New York taxpayers, Bulgarian smokers, foreign cab drivers, New Jersey residents, Australian film stars, and everyone else who does their part to limit the amount of tax revenue flowing to governments.

P.S. There’s at least one tax avoider who doesn’t deserve any support. Actually, there are at least two of them. Make that three. Oops, four and five. Wait, we have six. Seven. Eight…and an entire building of them…well, I think you get the point I’m trying to make.

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The United Nations is not nearly as bad as other international bureaucracies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development or the International Monetary Fund.

But that’s because the U.N. tends to be completely ineffective. So even when the bureaucrats push for bad policy, they don’t have much ability to move the ball in the wrong direction.

But just like a blind squirrel occasionally finds an acorn, the United Nations periodically does something that genuinely would expand the power and burden of government.

And that’s what happening this week in Moscow. Under the “leadership” of the U.N.’s World Health Organization, hundreds of bureaucrats have descended on the city for the “Conference of the Parties (COP6) to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC).”

But this isn’t the usual junket. The bureaucrats are pushing to create “guidelines” for tobacco taxation. Most notably, they want excise taxes to be at least 70 percent of the cost of a pack of cigarettes.

I’m not a smoker and never have been, but this is offensive for several reasons.

1. Enabling bigger government.

If there were five gas stations in your town and the owners all met behind closed doors to discuss pricing, would the result be higher prices or lower prices? Needless to say, the owners would want higher prices. After all, the consumer benefits when there is competition but the owners of the gas stations benefit if there’s a cartel. The same is true with government officials. They don’t like tax competition and would prefer that a tax cartel instead. And when tax rates get harmonized, they always go up and never go down. Which is what you might expect when you create an “OPEC for politicians.”   In their minds, if all governments agree that excise taxes must be 70 percent of the cost of cigarettes, they think they’ll got a lot more tax revenue that can be used to buy votes and expand government.

2. Promoting criminal activity.

In the previous paragraph, I deliberately wrote that politicians “think they’ll get” rather than “will get” a lot more tax revenue. That’s because, in the real world, there’s a Laffer Curve. We have lots of evidence that higher tobacco taxes don’t generate revenue and instead are a boon for smugglers, criminal gangs, and others that are willing to go underground and provide cigarettes in the black market. We saw this in Bulgaria and Romania.  We saw in in Quebec and Michigan. And we saw it in Ireland and Washington, DC. As I explained a couple of years ago, “In many countries, a substantial share of cigarettes are black market or counterfeit. They put it in a Marlboro packet, but it’s not a Marlboro cigarette. Obviously it’s a big thing for organized crime.” And if the WHO succeeds, the problem will get far worse.

3. Eroding national sovereignty.

 Or maybe this section should be called eroding democratic accountability and control. In any event, the issue is that international bureaucracies should not be in the position of seeking to impose one-size-fits-all policies on the world. Particularly when you get perverse results, such as bureaucrats from health ministries and departments supplanting the role of finance ministries and treasury departments. Or when the result is earmarked taxes, which even the IMF warns is problematical since, “Earmarking creates pots of money that can invite corruption and, unchecked, it can lead to a plethora of small nuisance taxes.” And keep in mind the WHO operates in a non-transparent and corrupt fashion.

For more information, Brian Garst of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity has a thorough analysis of the dangers of global taxation.

By the way, the health community will argue that globally coerced tobacco tax hikes are a good idea since the money can be used to fund programs that discourage tobacco use.

Yet we have some experience in this area. Many years ago, state politicians bullied tobacco companies into a giant cash settlement, accompanied by promises that much of the money would be used to fight tobacco use.

But, as NPR reports, politicians couldn’t resist squandering the money in other areas.

So far tobacco companies have paid more than $100 billion to state governments as part of the 25-year, $246 billion settlement. …all across the country hundreds of millions of dollars have gone to states, and the states have made choices not to spend the money on public health and tobacco prevention. …Myron Levin covered the tobacco industry for the Los Angeles Times for many years and is also the founder of the health and safety news site Fair Warning. He says talking states into spending settlement money on tobacco prevention is a tough sell.

Even when the politicians are asked to spend only a tiny fraction of the money on anti-smoking programs.

To help guide state governments, in 2007 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that states reinvest 14 percent of the money from the settlement and tobacco taxes in anti-smoking programs. But most state governments have decided to prioritize other things.

Needless to say, governments around the world will behave like state governments in America. Any additional tax revenue will be used to expand the burden of government spending.

Let’s close with some big-picture analysis. Bureaucracies inevitably seem drawn to mission creep, which occurs when agencies and departments get involved in more and more areas in order to get more staffing and bigger budgets.

But when that happens, the core mission tends to get less attention. For many bureaucracies, that probably doesn’t matter since the core mission probably doesn’t have any value (HUD, anyone?).

But presumably there is a legitimate government role in preventing something like infectious diseases. So why isn’t WHO focused solely on things such as Ebola and SARS rather than engaging in ideological campaigns to expand the size and scope of government?

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What do cigarettes and capital gains have in common?

Well, they both start with the same letter, so maybe the Cookie Monster could incorporate them into his favorite song, but I’m thinking about something else. Specifically, both cigarettes and capital gains tell us something important about tax policy, the Laffer Curve, and the limits of political bullying.

In both cases, there are folks on the left who disapprove of these two “c” words and want to penalize them with high tax rates.

But it turns out that both cigarettes and capital gains are moving targets, so the politicians are grossly mistaken if they think that punitive taxation will generate a windfall of revenue.

I’ve already discussed why it’s senseless to impose high tax rates on capital gains. Simply stated, people can avoid the tax by not selling assets.

This might not be an ideal way of managing one’s investments, and it certainly isn’t good for the economy if it discourages new investment and prevents people from shifting existing investments into more productive uses, but it’s very effective as a strategy for individuals to protect against excessive taxation.

We see something quite similar with cigarettes. People can simply choose to buy fewer smokes.

Michel Kelly-Gagnon of Canada’s Montreal Economic Institute explains why higher tobacco taxes are not a guaranteed source of revenue for the political class.

Tax increases do not in each and every case lead to increases in government revenues. …When taxes on the consumption of a good are too high, you can get to a point where taxable consumption decreases and government revenues diminish rather than increase. Or at any rate, they don’t increase as much as what would be expected given the tax increase. This phenomenon constrains government’s ability to levy taxes. …There have been numerous examples in Canada of excessive taxes having a negative impact on government revenues. As shown by my colleagues Jean-François Minardi and Francis Pouliot in a study published last January ., there’s been three “Laffer moments” when it comes to tobacco tax revenues in Quebec since 1976. Whenever the level of taxation exceeded $15 per carton, the proceeds of the tobacco taxes eventually diminished. These are no isolated incidents. Laffer shows that the theory is confirmed by the experience of Cyprus, Denmark, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Ireland, Latvia, Portugal, and Sweden.

Here’s a chart from his column showing how tax revenue has dropped in Quebec when the tax burden became too onerous.

Michel then acknowledges that some people will be happy about falling revenue because it presumably means fewer smokers.

But that’s not necessarily true.

While it is true that some people are deterred from smoking by tax increases, this is not the case of all smokers. Some avoid taxes by buying contraband cigarettes. Tax increases have no effect on the health of these smokers.

And because the tax burden is so severe, the underground economy for cigarettes is booming.

The folks at Michigan’s Mackinac Center have some remarkable and thorough estimates.

Since 2008, Mackinac Center for Public Policy analysts have periodically published estimates of cigarette smuggling in 47 of the 48 contiguous states. The numbers are quite shocking. In 2012, more than 27 percent of all Michigan in-state consumption was smuggled. In New York, almost 57 percent of all cigarettes consumed in the state were also illicit. This has profound effects on the revenue generated by state (and sometimes local) government. …We estimate nationwide revenue losses due to cigarette smuggling at $5.5 billion, a statistic consistent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ $5 billion estimate for 2009.

Here are the numbers for each state.

If all this evidence isn’t enough for you, I also encourage a look at the impact of higher tobacco taxes in Ireland, the United States, and Bulgaria and Romania.

Heck, even the city of Washington, DC, serves as a perverse role model on the foolishness of over-taxation.

P.S. Since this column focuses on the Laffer Curve and tobacco taxation, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Art Laffer recently put together a Handbook of Tobacco Taxation – Theory and Practice.

P.P.S. Art implies, at least indirectly, that policy makers should set the tax rate on tobacco at the revenue-maximizing level. That is far better than having the rate above the revenue-maximizing level, to be sure, but it rubs me the wrong way. I will repeat to my final day on earth that the growth-maximizing tax rate is far superior to the revenue-maximizing tax rate.

P.P.P.S. I’m currently in Australia for a series of speeches on fiscal policy. But as you can see from this photo, the PotL and I managed to find time to act like shameless tourists.

Tourists in Oz

P.P.P.P.S. Since I’m imitating Crocodile Dundee in the photo, I should close by noting that Paul Hogan (the actor who played Crocodile Dundee) has been harassed by the Australian tax police.

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We all know that alcohol prohibition was great news for organized crime in the 1920s, and we also know that drug prohibition is causing widespread societal destruction today, but taxation also can facilitate criminal behavior. Specifically, there is considerable evidence that punitive taxes on cigarettes promote criminal activity. Here’s a video from Michigan’s Mackinac Center.

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