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More than two years ago, I shared a couple of humorous images showing the languorous lifestyle of lazy bureaucrats.

While those images were amusing, they didn’t really capture the true nature of bureaucracy.

For a more accurate look at life inside Leviathan, here’s a video showing an unfortunate woman trying to get a permit from a government agency.

It should probably be accompanied by a trigger warning lest it cause flashbacks for readers who have been in the same situation.

Very well done, I think you’ll agree. I especially like the subtle features of the video, such as the bureaucrat’s competitive desire to show his coworker that he won’t let a mere citizen prevail. And the part at the end showing the disappointment by all the bureaucrats also was a good touch.

Sadly, the story in the video isn’t just satire.

First, there are many absurd rules that require people to get permission from bureaucrats in order to work. All those laws and rules should be repealed. If consumers value certification and training, that can be handled by the private sector.

Second, it does seem as if bureaucrats relish the opportunity to torment taxpayers. I recall having to make four trips to the DMV when helping my oldest kid get his learner’s permit. Each time, I was told an additional bit of paperwork that was required, but at no point was I told all the forms and paperwork needed. Hence I had the pleasure of waiting in lines over and over again.

Though I did learn as time passed. By the time my last kid needed his permit, it only took two trips.

Since we’re on the topic of bureaucrat humor, regular readers know about the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame. Well, just as the Baseball Hall of Fame has a committee that looks back in time to find players who were overlooked and deserve membership, we need something to recognize deserving bureaucrats who somehow escaped my attention.

And if we travel back in time to 2013, John Beale of the Environmental Protection Agency clearly can make a strong case that he belongs in the Hall of Fame.

The EPA’s highest-paid employee and a leading expert on climate change was sentenced to 32 months in federal prison Wednesday for lying to his bosses and saying he was a CIA spy working in Pakistan so he could avoid doing his real job. …Beale told the court…that he got a “rush” and a “sense of excitement” by telling people he was worked for the CIA. …He perpetrated his fraud largely by failing to show up at the EPA for months at a time, including one 18-month stretch starting in June 2011 when he did “absolutely no work,” as his lawyer acknowledged in a sentencing memo filed last week.

Though, in his defense, he wasn’t goofing off all the time.

He also spent time trying to learn about new ways to hinder the private sector.

…he used the time “trying to find ways to fine tune the capitalist system” to discourage companies from damaging the environment. “I spent a lot of time reading on that,” said Beale.

For what it’s worth, he probably spent most of his time figuring out how to bilk colleagues.

Nor was that Beale’s only deception, according to court documents. In 2008, Beale didn’t show up at the EPA for six months, telling his boss that he was part of a special multi-agency election-year project relating to “candidate security.” He billed the government $57,000 for five trips to California that were made purely “for personal reasons,” his lawyer acknowledged. (His parents lived there.) He also claimed to be suffering from malaria that he got while serving in Vietnam. According to his lawyer’s filing, he didn’t have malaria and never served in Vietnam. He told the story to EPA officials so he could get special handicap parking at a garage near EPA headquarters. …Beale took 33 airplane trips between 2003 and 2011, costing the government $266,190. On 70 percent of those, he traveled first class and stayed at high end hotels, charging more than twice the government’s allowed per diem limit. But his expense vouchers were routinely approved by another EPA official

Not surprisingly, the EPA took years to figure out something was amiss.

After all, why care about malfeasance when you’re spending other people’s money?

Beale was caught when he “retired” very publicly but kept drawing his large salary for another year and a half.

Heck, I’m surprised the EPA’s leadership didn’t award themselves bonuses for incompetence, like their counterparts at the VA and IRS.

P.S. Here’s a new element discovered inside the bureaucracy, and a letter to the bureaucracy from someone renewing a passport.

Whenever mass shootings occur, some people quickly jump to conclusions before there’s any evidence.

Folks on the right are occasionally guilty of immediately assuming Islamic terrorism, which is somewhat understandable. Folks on the left, meanwhile, are sometimes guilty of instinctively assuming Tea Party-inspired violence (I’m not joking).

I confess that I’m prone to do something similar. Whenever there is a terrorist attack, I automatically wonder if we’ll find out welfare payments and other goodies from the government helped subsidize the evil actions.

In my defense, there’s a reason I think this way. Whether we’re talking about Jihadi John or the Tsarnaev brothers, there are lots of examples of dirtbag terrorists getting handouts from taxpayers.

It happens a lot in other nations. And it’s now happening with disturbing frequency in the United States.

It’s even gotten to the point where I’ve created a special terror wing in the Moocher Hall of Fame. And, as more evidence accumulates, the medieval savage who drove a truck through a Christmas market in Germany may be eligible for membership.

Here’s some of what we know, as reported by the Daily Caller.

Berlin truck attack terrorist Anis Amri used several different identities to claim multiple welfare checks simultaneously in different cities around Germany. Amri, the Tunisian refugee who killed 12 and injured 48 at a Christmas market in Berlin Dec. 19… The investigation was closed in November because Amri’s whereabouts were unknown. …Welfare is a common way for terrorists to fund their activities in Europe.

The U.K.-based Express reveals that the terrorist was very proficient at ripping off taxpayers before deciding to kill them.

Despite being shot dead in Italy just days after the attack, the Tunisian refugee is now under investigation for fraud after conning German authorities into handing over cash to fund his terror exploits. After travelling from Tunisia to Europe in 2011, he used up to eight different aliases and several different nationalities – at times even claiming to be from Egypt or Lebanon. Reports claim Amri carried several different false identity documents and used aliases to collect welfare in cities across Germany.

The story also has details on how welfare payments subsidized previous terrorist actions.

Welfare fraud was key to funding terror attacks in Brussels in March and in Paris last year. Terrorists collected around £45,000 in benefits which they used to pay for the brutal attacks in the major European cities. …Meanwhile, Danish authorities came under fire recently after it emerged 36 Islamic State fighters continued to receive benefits for months after leaving the country to join other members of the brutal regime in Syria and Iraq.

And while I’m not sure RT is a legitimate news source, it says Amri used 14 identities for mooching.

Anis Amri, the Tunisian man accused of driving a truck into a crowd of Christmas market shoppers in Berlin, used at least 14 different identities, a German police chief said. …Among other things, this allowed the man to receive social benefits under different names in different municipalities, the police chief said.

A close associate (and suspected co-conspirator) of Amri also was mooching off the system according to news reports.

A spokeswoman for the office of Germany’s chief prosecutor on Wednesday said authorities have taken a second Tunisian suspect into custody following raids in Berlin on Tuesday. …However, she added that there was insufficient evidence to charge the suspect. In a separate statement, the federal prosecutor’s office announced the man had been charged with committing social welfare fraud and would remain in custody. …the suspect had previously been detained on suspicion of supplying explosives intended for a prospective attack in Dusseldorf. …The 26-year-old suspect allegedly had dinner with Amri at a restaurant the night before the attack, according to Köhler. The suspect allegedly met Amri in late 2015. “Süddeutsche Zeitung” reported that the two men traveled together from Italy to Germany that year.

Gee, sounds like a model citizen. Merkel must be proud of her caring and sharing welfare state.

Last but not least, a story in the U.K.-based Telegraph has some added details on the sordid history of welfare-funded terrorism in Europe.

The jihadists suspected of carrying out the bomb and gun attacks in Paris and Brussels used British benefits payments to fund international terrorism, a court has heard. …Zakaria Bouffassil, 26, from Birmingham is accused of handing over the cash which had been withdrawn from the bank account of Anouar Haddouchi, a Belgian national, who had been claiming benefits while living in the West Midlands with his wife. Kingston Crown Court heard how thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money continued to be paid into Haddouchi’s bank account, even after he had left Britain for Syria and had begun fighting for Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (Isil). …On the opening day of their trial, jurors heard how some of the most notorious and wanted terrorists in Europe had used British taxpayers’ money to fund their activities in Syria and elsewhere.

Though I suppose I shouldn’t say “sordid history.” This is more like societal suicide.

After all, we’re not talking about welfare payments for a tiny fraction of terrorists. It really is a theme.

I linked to some examples above, and if you want more evidence, click here, here, here, here, and here.

By the way, I’m not claiming that welfare causes terrorism. Though I do wonder if Mickey Kaus has a point when he does make that link.

…extreme anti-social terrorist ideologies (radical Islam, in particular) seem to breed in “oppositional” cultures supported by various government welfare benefits. …The social logic is simple: Ethnic differences make it easy for those outside of, for example, French Arab neighborhoods to discriminate against those inside, and easy for those inside to resent the mainstream culture around them. Meanwhile, relatively generous welfare benefits enable those in the ethnic ghetto to stay there, stay unemployed, and seethe. Without government subsidies, they would have to overcome the prejudice against them and integrate into the mainstream working culture. Work, in this sense, is anti-terrorist medicine.

I don’t particularly like government-provided welfare of any kind, but I definitely think there should be strict rules against handouts for immigrants. And if that makes them less susceptible to terrorist ideologies, that’s a big fringe benefit.

P.S. It goes without saying that politicians aren’t trying to subsidize terrorism. It’s just a byproduct of bad policy. They do, however, explicitly and deliberately subsidize terrorism insurance for big companies. A rather unique example of corporate welfare.

For the next four years, I suspect I’m going to suffer a lot of whiplash as I yank myself back and forth, acting as both a critic and supporter of Donald Trump’s policy.

This happened a lot during the campaign, as Trump would say very good things one day and then say very bad things the next day.

And now that he’s President-Elect Trump, that pattern is continuing. Consider his approach to American businesses. In the space of just a few minutes, he manages to be a Reaganesque tax cutter and an Obamaesque cronyist.

I discussed this bizarre mix in a recent interview with Dana Loesch.

I guess the only way to make sense of Trump’s policy is that it’s a random collection of carrots and sticks. The carrots are policies to encourage companies to create jobs in America, and Trump is proposing both good carrots such as a much lower corporate tax rate and bad carrots such as special Solyndra-style handouts (except, instead of loot for green energy, firms get loot for maintaining production in America).

And the sticks are all bad, ranging for public shaming to explicit protectionism.

As I said during the interview, Trump is probably scoring political points, but what we should really care about is whether policy is moving in the right direction.

The Wall Street Journal is rather skeptical, opining that Republican-backed cronyism will be just as bad as Democrat-backed cronyism.

A giant flaw in President Obama’s economic policy has been the politicized allocation of capital, from green energy to housing. Donald Trump suffers from a similar industrial-policy temptation, as we’ve seen…with his arm-twisting of Carrier to change its decision to move a plant to Mexico from Indiana. …A mercantilist Trump trade policy that jeopardized those exports would throw far more Americans out of work than the relatively low-paying jobs he’s preserved for now in Indianapolis. Mr. Trump’s Carrier squeeze might even cost more U.S. jobs if it makes CEOs more reluctant to build plants in the U.S. because it would be politically difficult to close them. Mr. Trump has now muscled his way into at least two corporate decisions about where and how to do business. But who would you rather have making a decision about where to make furnaces or cars? A company whose profitability depends on making good decisions, or a branding executive turned politician who wants to claim political credit? The larger point is that America won’t become more prosperous by forcing companies to make noneconomic investments.

Here’s some of what Tyler Cowen wrote about Trump’s approach.

One of Donald Trump’s most consistent campaign promises has been to prevent U.S. businesses from moving good jobs to Mexico… Economists might regard this as a misguided form of protectionism, but in fact, it’s worse than that: If instituted, it could prove a major step toward imposing capital controls on the American economy and politicizing many business decisions. …Using the law to forbid factory closures would have serious negative consequences. For one thing, those factories may be losing money and end up going bankrupt. For another, stopping the closure of old plants would lock the U.S. into earlier technologies and modes of production, limiting progress and economic advancement. An alternative policy would prohibit companies from cutting American production and expanding in Mexico… The end result would be that Asian, European and Mexican investors would gain at the expense of U.S. companies. …Furthermore, if we limit the export of American capital to Mexico, the biggest winner would be China, as one of its most significant low-wage competitors — Mexico — suddenly would be hobbled.

Those are all very practical and sensible arguments against protectionism.

But Tyler points out that Trump’s agenda could lead to something even worse.

…a policy limiting the ability of American companies to move funds outside of the U.S. would create a dangerous new set of government powers. Imagine giving an administration the potential to rule whether a given transfer of funds would endanger job creation or job maintenance in the United States. That’s not exactly an objective standard, and so every capital transfer decision would be subject to the arbitrary diktats of politicians and bureaucrats. It’s not hard to imagine a Trump administration using such regulations to reward supportive businesses and to punish opponents. Even in the absence of explicit favoritism, companies wouldn’t know the rules of the game in advance, and they would be reluctant to speak out in ways that anger the powers that be. …It also could bring the kind of crony capitalist nightmare scenarios described by Ayn Rand in her novel “Atlas Shrugged,” a book many Republican legislators would be well advised to now read or reread.

Tyler’s best-case scenario is that Trump doesn’t try to change policy and instead just uses the bully pulpit to…well, be a bully.

…public jawboning  also would be an unfortunate form of politicizing the economy, but at least there wouldn’t be new laws or regulations to back it up in a systematic way.

Though I’ll close by noting that this best-case scenario is still a very bad case.

The mere fact that politicians think they have the right to interfere with the internal decisions of companies is a dangerous development.

It’s cronyism on steroids.

And even if Trump somehow restrains himself (how likely is that?!?), sooner or later that bad mentality will lead to bad policy.

Yes, I’m making a slippery-slope argument. But not just because I’m a libertarian who is paranoid about government power.

My fear is based on lots of real-world evidence. It turns out that slippery slopes are very slippery.

The bottom line is that politicians don’t even do a good job of running the government. Let’s not allow them to run private companies as well. And that’s true whether they have an R after their names or a D after their names.

Last year, I shared some remarkable research from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development about the negative relationship between government spending and economic performance.

The economists at the Paris-based bureaucracy looked at data from its member nations (primarily Europe, North America, and the Pacific Rim), discovered that the countries with bigger government experienced less growth, and concluded that there would be much more prosperity if those nations merely reduced government modestly.

So you can imagine what sort of numbers that study would have generated if a few jurisdictions with genuinely modest-sized government, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, were part of the data.

But that’s a separate issue. Today’s topic is about a study from another international bureaucracy. The European Central Bank has new research looking at the impact specifically of excessive pay for government bureaucrats. Here are the key findings from the nontechnical summary at the beginning of the paper.

…there are benefits from government wage bill reform that go beyond the objective of fiscal consolidation. …a rationalisation of government wages and employment policies can generate favourable labour market effects in the medium to longer term through competitiveness and efficiency gains. Competitiveness gains materialise through the spillovers effects of public wage moderation on the determination of private sector wages. …An important aspect of the debate on public wage bill restraint concerns how long such policies can be sustained over time. …Additional margins of short-term adjustment include the moderation of still high public-to-private wages gaps, or a possible continuation of the downsizing trend in public employment, depending on the country-specific situation. …Finally, the paper argues that reforms affecting public sector personnel are most effective and have more sustained effects when the measures implemented are of a structural nature… Some examples are…measures to streamline the size and scope of government.

Wow, an international bureaucracy writing about the economic benefits that accrue if policy makers “streamline the size and scope of government.” Be still, my beating heart!

If you’re a policy wonk, you’ll like the fact that the study is filled with lots of interesting data and charts.

…aggregate data show that the euro area government wage differential with respect to the private sector increased from 20% in 2007 to 25% in 2009, and subsequently fell to 23% in 2014.

Here’s the relevant chart. The blue line, which links to the left axis, shows the degree to which bureaucrats are overpaid compared to the private sector. For the past 10 years, the “pay premium” has been in the 20 percent-25 percent range.

This problem of excessive pay for the bureaucracy has been a growing problem.

…general government compensation of employees grew faster than nominal GDP over the whole 2007-2014 crisis period

Though once the “austerity” era began about 2010, there was a bit of reform to bureaucrat compensation (in Europe, “fiscal consolidation” mostly meant higher taxes, but some spending restraint), particularly in nations that were forced to make changes because investors were becoming increasingly reluctant to lend them more money..

Here’s a chart showing bureaucrat pay as a share of GDP, with the blue bar showing the amount of economic output consumed by government workers in 2010 and the yellow dots showing the level in 2014. Some countries increased the relative burden of bureaucrat compensation and others reduced it, but what strikes me as noteworthy is that Germany and the Czech Republic deserve praise for keeping the burden low (honorable mention for Luxembourg and Slovakia) while Denmark stands out for being absurdly extravagant.

For a longer-term perspective, at least with regards to the size of the bureaucracy, here’s a table showing the share of the population getting a paycheck from government. Fascinating data. I especially like the columns on the right, which show that Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom deserve credit for reducing over time the amount of bureaucrats relative to the private sector. The nations that have moved farthest in the wrong direction, by contrast, are Greece (gee, what a surprise), Spain, Portugal, and Finland.

Now let’s get to the meat of the study, which looks at the economic impact of less bureaucracy.

The authors cite some of the existing academic research, much of which focuses on the degree to which excessive pay for the public sector causes economy-wide distortions that make nations less competitive and result in slower growth. Basically, excessive pay for bureaucrats forces private employers to increase pay as well, but in ways that aren’t sustainable based on underlying levels of productivity.

A seminal work Alesina et al. (2002) found that reducing public wage expenditure generates reductions in private wages per employee, which improves competitiveness, increasing profits, investment, and economic growth. …A key argument is that public wage restraint may set in motion a labour market adjustment through the inter-linkages with private wages. …The literature has found robust evidence of significant interrelations between public and private sector wages per employee. A wealth of recent empirical papers provides evidence of a direct causal relationship between these variables. …The empirical literature tends to find that public employment crowds-out private sector employment.

But when fiscal pressures force politicians to cut back on the excessive pay for government employees, this enables the private sector to have pay levels that are consistent with sustainable long-run growth.

The authors share some of their new findings.

…the recent consolidation period has contributed to some competitiveness gains in the euro area, in view of the evidence provided on the partial correction of the public-private wage premium. …Overall, the restraint in public wages directly reduced unit labour cost (ULC) growth in the euro area during the 2010-2014 period. …The existence of distortions in public-private wage gaps…can be particularly harmful for competitiveness given that public sector activities are concentrated in non-tradable sectors, which are less exposed to international competition. …There is evidence that the recent public wage restraint has driven the partial correction of the existing positive public-private wage premium in the euro area.

The authors close by discussing some policy implications.

Well-designed government wages and employment policies and reforms may generate overall economy competitiveness gains and increase the efficiency of the labour market. …public employment adjustments can affect GDP and total economy employment positively if there are large inefficiencies in the government sector… In addition, if a public pay gap exists, the latter positive effect of public wage restraint becomes amplified as labour market inefficiencies are also reduced.

This is helpful research. It’s not often that a government bureaucracy releases a study showing that overpaid bureaucrats hinder overall economic performance.

Though I hasten to add that the study only looked at the macroeconomic effect of excessive pay. As I argue near the end of this video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, the additional problem is that various bureaucracies are engaging in activities that are economically harmful. In the case of the United States, the Department of Agriculture, Department of Education, and Department of Housing and Urban Development would be just a few examples of agencies where programmatic spending surely is more damaging that bureaucrat compensation.

The good news is that the ECB study also recognizes the need for structural reform. That’s why there was a reference to the need to “streamline the size and scope of government.”

The bad news is that politicians don’t care about this consensus.

I wrote yesterday to praise the Better Way tax plan put forth by House Republicans, but I added a very important caveat: The “destination-based” nature of the revised corporate income tax could be a poison pill for reform.

I listed five concerns about a so-called destination-based cash flow tax (DBCFT), most notably my concerns that it would undermine tax competition (folks on the left think it creates a “race to the bottom” when governments have to compete with each other) and also that it could (because of international trade treaties) be an inadvertent stepping stone for a government-expanding value-added tax.

Brian Garst of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity has just authored a new study on the DBCFT. Here’s his summary description of the tax.

The DBCFT would be a new type of corporate income tax that disallows any deductions for imports while also exempting export-related revenue from taxation. This mercantilist system is based on the same “destination” principle as European value-added taxes, which means that it is explicitly designed to preclude tax competition.

Since CF&P was created to protect and promote tax competition, you won’t be surprised to learn that the DBCFT’s anti-tax competition structure is a primary objection to this new tax.

First, the DBCFT is likely to grow government in the long-run due to its weakening of international tax competition and the loss of its disciplinary impact on political behavior. … Tax competition works because assets are mobile. This provides pressure on politicians to keep rates from climbing too high. When the tax base shifts heavily toward immobile economic activity, such competition is dramatically weakened. This is cited as a benefit of the tax by those seeking higher and more progressive rates. …Alan Auerbach, touts that the DBCFT “alleviates the pressure to reduce the corporate tax rate,” and that it would “alter fundamentally the terms of international tax competition.” This raises the obvious question—would those businesses and economists that favor the DBCFT at a 20% rate be so supportive at a higher rate?

Brian also shares my concern that the plan may morph into a VAT if the WTO ultimately decides that is violates trade rules.

Second, the DBCFT almost certainly violates World Trade Organization commitments. …Unfortunately, it is quite possible that lawmakers will try to “fix” the tax by making it into an actual value-added tax rather than something that is merely based on the same anti-tax competition principles as European-style VATs. …the close similarity of the VAT and the DBCFT is worrisome… Before VATs were widely adopted, European nations featured similar levels of government spending as the United States… Feeding at least in part off the easy revenue generate by their VATs, European nations grew much more drastically over the last half century than the United States and now feature higher burdens of government spending. The lack of a VAT-like revenue engine in the U.S. constrained efforts to put the United States on a similar trajectory as European nations.

And if you’re wondering why a VAT would be a bad idea, here’s a chart from Brian’s paper showing how the burden of government spending in Europe increased once that tax was imposed.

In the new report, Brian elaborates on the downsides of a VAT.

If the DBCFT turns into a subtraction-method VAT, its costs would be further hidden from taxpayers. Workers would not easily understand that their employers were paying a big VAT withholding tax (in addition to withholding for income tax). This makes it easier for politicians to raise rates in the future. …Keep in mind that European nations have corporate income tax systems in addition to their onerous VAT regimes.

And he points out that those who support the DBCFT for protectionist reasons will be disappointed at the final outcome.

…if other nations were to follow suit and adopt a destination-based system as proponents suggest, it will mean more taxes on U.S. exports. Due to the resulting decline in competitive downward pressure on tax rates, the long-run result would be higher tax burdens across the board and a worse global economic environment.

Brian concludes with some advice for Republicans.

Lawmakers should always consider what is likely to happen once the other side eventually returns to power, especially when they embark upon politically risky endeavors… In this case, left-leaning politicians would see the DBCFT not as something to be undone, but as a jumping off point for new and higher taxes. A highly probable outcome is that the United States’ corporate tax environment becomes more like that of Europe, consisting of both consumption and income taxes. The long-run consequences will thus be the opposite of what today’s lawmakers hope to achieve. Instead of a less destructive tax code, the eventual result could be bigger government, higher taxes, and slower economic growth.

Amen.

My concern with the DBCFT is partly based on theoretical objections, but what really motivates me is that I don’t want to accidentally or inadvertently help statists expand the size and scope of government. And that will happen if we undermine tax competition and/or set in motion events that could lead to a value-added tax.

Let’s close with three hopefully helpful observations.

Helpful Reminder #1: Congressional supporters want a destination-based system as a “pay for” to help finance pro-growth tax reforms, but they should keep in mind that leftists want a destination-based system for bad reasons.

Based on dozens of conversations, I think it’s fair to say that the supporters of the Better Way plan don’t have strong feelings for destination-based taxation as an economic principle. Instead, they simply chose that approach because it is projected to generate $1.2 trillion of revenue and they want to use that money to “pay for” the good tax cuts in the overall plan.

That’s a legitimate choice. But they also should keep in mind why other people prefer that approach. Folks on the left want a destination-based tax system because they don’t like tax competition. They understand that tax competition restrains the ability of governments to over-tax and over-spend. Governments in Europe chose destination-based value-added taxes to prevent consumers from being able to buy goods and services where VAT rates are lower. In other words, to neuter tax competition. Some state governments with high sales taxes in the United States are pushing a destination-based system for sales taxes because they want to hinder consumers from buying goods and services from states with low (or no) sales taxes. Again, their goal is to cripple tax competition.

Something else to keep in mind is that leftist supporters of the DBCFT also presumably see the plan as being a big step toward achieving a value-added tax, which they support as the most effective way of enabling bigger government in the United States.

Helpful Reminder #2: Choosing the right tax base (i.e., taxing income only one time, otherwise known as a consumption-base system) does not require choosing a destination-based approach.

The proponents of the Better Way plan want a “consumption-base” tax. This is a worthy goal. After all, that principle means a system where economic activity is taxed only one time. But that choice is completely independent of the decision whether the tax system should be “origin-based” or “destination-based.”

The gold standard of tax reform has always been the Hall-Rabushka flat tax, which is a consumption-base tax because there is no double taxation of income that is saved and invested. It also is an “origin-based” tax because economic activity is taxed (only one time!) where income is earned rather than where income is consumed.

The bottom line is that you can have the right tax base with either an origin-based system or a destination-based system.

Helpful Reminder #3: The good reforms of the Better Way plan can be achieved without the downside risks of a destination-based tax system.

The Tax Foundation, even in rare instances when I disagree with its conclusions, always does very good work. And they are the go-to place for estimates of how policy changes will affect tax receipts and the economy. Here is a chart with their estimates of the revenue impact of various changes to business taxation in the Better Way plan. As you can see, the switch to a destination-based system (“border adjustment”) pulls in about $1.2 trillion over 10 years. And you can also see all the good reforms (expensing, rate reduction, etc) that are being financed with the various “pay fors” in the plan.

I am constantly asked how the numbers can work if “border adjustment” is removed from the plan. That’s a very fair question.

But there are lots of potential answers, including:

  • Make a virtue out of necessity by reducing government revenue by $1.2 trillion.
  • Reduce the growth of government spending to generate offsetting savings.
  • Find other “pay fors” in the tax code (my first choice would be the healthcare exclusion).
  • Reduce the size of the tax cuts in the Better Way plan by $1.2 trillion.

I’m not pretending that any of these options are politically easy. If they were, the drafters of the Better Way plan probably would have picked them already. But I am suggesting that any of those options would be better than adopting a destination-based system for business taxation.

Ultimately, the debate over the DBCFT is about how different people assess political risks. House Republicans advocating the plan want good things, and they obviously think the downside risks in the future are outweighed by the ability to finance a larger level of good tax reforms today. Skeptics appreciate that those proponents want good policy, but we worry about the long-run consequences of changes that may (especially when the left sooner or late regains control) enable bigger government.

P.S. This is not the first time that advocates of good policy have bickered with each other. During the 2016 nomination battle, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz plans proposed tax reform plans that fixed many of the bad problems in the tax code. But they financed some of those changes by including value-added taxes in their plans. In the short run, either plan would have been much better than the current system. But I was critical because I worried the inclusion of VATs would eventually give statists a tool to further increase the burden of government.

The Republicans in the House of Representatives, led by Ways & Means Chairman Kevin Brady and Speaker Paul Ryan, have proposed a “Better Way” tax plan that has many very desirable features.

And there are many other provisions that would reduce penalties on work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship. No, it’s not quite a flat tax, which is the gold standard of tax reform, but it is a very pro-growth initiative worthy of praise.

That being said, there is a feature of the plan that merits closer inspection. The plan would radically change the structure of business taxation by imposing a 20 percent tax on all imports and providing a special exemption for all export-related income. This approach, known as “border adjustability,” is part of the plan to create a “destination-based cash flow tax” (DBCFT).

When I spoke about the Better Way plan at the Heritage Foundation last month, I highlighted the good features of the plan in the first few minutes of my brief remarks, but raised my concerns about the DBCFT in my final few minutes.

Allow me to elaborate on those comments with five specific worries about the proposal.

Concern #1: Is the DBCFT protectionist?

It certainly sounds protectionist. Here’s how the Financial Times described the plan.

The border tax adjustment would work by denying US companies their current ability to deduct import costs from their taxable income, meaning companies selling imported products would effectively be taxed on the full value of the sale rather than just the profit. Export revenues, meanwhile, would be excluded from company tax bases, giving net exporters the equivalent of a subsidy that would make them big beneficiaries of the change.

Charles Lane of the Washington Post explains how it works.

…the DBCFT would impose a flat 20 percent tax only on earnings from sales of output consumed within the United States… It gets complicated, but the upshot is that the cost of imported supplies would no longer be deductible from taxable income, while all revenue from exports would be. This would be a huge incentive to import less and export more, significant change indeed for an economy deeply dependent on global supply chains.

That certainly sounds protectionist as well. A tax on imports and a special exemption for exports.

But proponents say there’s no protectionism because the tax is neutral if the benchmark is where products are consumed rather than where income is earned. Moreover, they claim exchange rates will adjust to offset the impact of the tax changes. Here’s how Lane explains the issue.

…the greenback would have to rise 25 percent to offset what would be a new 20 percent tax on imported inputs — propelling the U.S. currency to its highest level on record. The international consequences of that are unforeseeable, but unlikely to be totally benign for everyone. Bear in mind that many other countries — China comes to mind — can and will manipulate exchange rates to protect their own short-term interests.

For what it’s worth, I accept the argument that the dollar will rise in value, thus blunting the protectionist impact of border adjustability. It would remain to be seen, though, how quickly or how completely the value of the dollar would change.

Concern #2: Is the DBCFT compliant with WTO obligations?

The United States is part of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and we have ratified various agreements designed to liberalize world trade. This is great for the global economy, but it might not be good news for the Better Way plan because WTO rules only allow border adjustability for indirect taxes like a credit-invoice value-added tax. The DBCFT, by contrast, is a version of a corporate income tax, which is a direct tax.

The column by Charles Lane explains one of the specific problems.

Trading partners could also challenge the GOP plan as a discriminatory subsidy at the World Trade Organization. That’s because it includes a deduction for wages paid by U.S.-located firms, importers and exporters alike — a break that would obviously not be available to competitors abroad.

Advocates argue that the DBCFT is a consumption-base tax, like a VAT. And since credit-invoice VATs are border adjustable, they assert their plan also should get the same treatment. But the WTO rules say that only “indirect” taxes are eligible for border adjustability. The New York Times reports that the WTO therefore would almost surely reject the plan.

Michael Graetz, a tax expert at the Columbia Law School, said he doubted that argument would prevail in Geneva. “W.T.O. lawyers do not take the view that things that look the same economically are acceptable,” Mr. Graetz said.

A story in the Wall Street Journal considers the potential for an adverse ruling from the World Trade Organization.

Even though it’s economically similar to, and probably better than, the value-added taxes (VATs) many other countries use, it may be illegal under World Trade Organization rules. An international clash over taxes is something the world can ill afford when protectionist sentiment is already running high. …The controversy is over whether border adjustability discriminates against trade partners. …the WTO operates not according to economics but trade treaties, which generally treat tax exemptions on exports as illegal unless they are consumption taxes, such as the VAT. …the U.S. has lost similar disputes before. In 1971 it introduced a tax break for exporters that, despite several revamps, the WTO ruled illegal in 2002.

And a Washington Post editorial is similarly concerned.

Republicans are going to have to figure out how to make such a huge de facto shift in the U.S. tax treatment of imports compliant with international trade law. In its current iteration, the proposal would allow corporations to deduct the costs of wages paid within this country — a nice reward for hiring Americans and paying them well, which for complex reasons could be construed as a discriminatory subsidy under existing World Trade Organization doctrine.

Concern #3: Is the DBCFT a stepping stone to a VAT?

If the plan is adopted, it will be challenged. And if it is challenged, it presumably will be rejected by the WTO. At that point, we would be in uncharted territory.

Would that force the folks in Washington to entirely rewrite the tax system? Would they be more surgical and just repeal border adjustability? Would they ignore the WTO, which would give other nations the right to impose tariffs on American exports?

One worrisome option is that they might simply turn the DBCFT into a subtraction-method value-added tax (VAT) by tweaking the law so that employers no longer could deduct  expenses for labor compensation. This change would be seen as more likely to get approval from the WTO since credit-invoice VATs are border adjustable.

This possibility is already being discussed. The Wall Street Journal story about the WTO issue points out that there is a relatively simple way of making the DBCFT fit within America’s trade obligations, and that’s to turn it into a value-added tax.

One way to avoid such a confrontation would be to revise the cash flow tax to make it a de facto VAT.

The Economist shares this assessment.

…unless America switches to a full-fledged VAT, border adjustability may also be judged to breach World Trade Organisation rules.

Steve Forbes is blunt about this possibility.

One tax initiative that should be strangled before it sees the light of day is to give a tax rebate to exporters and to impose taxes on imports. …It’s a bad idea. Why do we want to make American consumers pay more for products while subsidizing foreign buyers? It also could put us on the slippery slope to our own VAT.

And that’s not a slope we want to be on. Unless the income tax is fully repealed (sadly not an option), a VAT would be a recipe for turning America into a European-style welfare state.

Concern #4: Does the DBCFT undermine tax competition and give politicians more ability to increase tax burdens?

Alan Auerbach, an academic from California who previously was an adviser for John Kerry and also worked at the Joint Committee on Taxation when Democrats controlled Capitol Hill, is the main advocate of a DBCFT (the New York Times wrote that he is the “principal intellectual champion” of the idea).

He wrote a paper several years ago for the Center for American Progress, a hard-left group closely associated with Hillary Clinton. Auerbach explicitly argued that this new tax scheme is good because politicians no longer would feel any pressure to lower tax rates.

This…alternative treatment of international transactions that would relieve the international pressure to reduce rates while attracting foreign business activity to the United States. It addresses concerns about the effect of rising international competition for multinational business operations on the sustainability of the current corporate tax system. With rising international capital flows, multinational corporations, and cross-border investment, countries’ tax rates and tax structures are of increasing importance. Indeed, part of the explanation for declining corporate tax rates abroad is competition among countries for business activity. …my proposed reforms…builds on the [Obama] Administration’s approach…and alleviates the pressure to reduce the corporate tax rate.

This is very troubling. Tax competition is a very valuable liberalizing force in the world economy. It partially offsets the public choice pressures on politicians to over-tax and over-spend. If governments no longer had to worry that taxable activity could escape across national borders, they would boost tax rates and engage in more class warfare.

Also, it’s worth noting that the so-called Marketplace Fairness Act, which is designed to undermine tax competition and create a sales tax cartel among American states, uses the same “destination-based” model as the DBCFT.

Concern #5: Does the DBCFT create needless conflict and division among supporters of tax reform?

As I pointed out in my remarks at the Heritage Foundation, there’s normally near-unanimous support from the business community for pro-growth tax reforms.

That’s not the case with the DBCFT.

The Washington Examiner reports on the divisions in the business community.

Major retailers are skeptical of the House Republican plan to revamp the tax code, fearing that the GOP call to border-adjust corporate taxes could harm them even if they win a significant cut to their tax rate. As a result, retailers, oil refiners and other industries that import goods to sell in the U.S. could provide a major obstacle to the Republican effort to reform taxes. …The effect of the border adjustment, retailers fear, would be that the goods they import to sell to consumers would face a 20 percent mark-up, one that would force retailers like Walmart, the Home Depot and Sears…to raise prices and lose customers.

A story from CNBC highlights why retailers are so concerned.

…retailers are nervous. Very nervous. …About 95 percent of clothing and shoes sold in the U.S. are manufactured overseas, which means imports make up a vast majority of many U.S. retailers’ merchandise. …If the GOP plan were adopted as it’s currently laid out, Gap pays 20 percent corporate tax on the $5 profit from the sweater, or $1. Plus, 20 percent tax on the $80 cost it paid for that sweater from the overseas supplier, or $16. That means the tax goes from $1.75 to $17 for that sweater, more than three times the profit on that sweater. Talk about a hit to margins. …Retailers certainly aren’t taking a lot of comfort in the economic theory of dollar appreciation. …the tax reform plan will dilute specialty retailers’ earnings by an average of 132 percent. …Athletic manufacturers could take a 40 percent earnings hit… Gap, Carter’s , Urban Outfitters , Fossil and Under Armour are most at risk under the plan.

And here’s another article from the Washington Examiner that explains why folks in the energy industry are concerned.

…the border adjustment would raise costs for refiners that import oil. In turn, that could raise prices for consumers. The border adjustment would amount to a $10-a-barrel tax on imported crude oil, raising costs for drivers buying gasoline by up to 25 cents a gallon, the energy analyst group PIRA Energy Group warned this week. The report warned of a “potential huge impact across the petroleum industry,” even while noting that the tax reform plan faces many obstacles to passage.

Concern #6: What happens when other nations adopt their versions of a DBCFT?

Advocates of the DBCFT plausibly argue that if the WTO somehow approves their plan, then other nations will almost certainly copy the new American system.

That will be a significant blow to tax competition, which would be very bad news for the global economy.

But is also has negative implications for the fight to protect America from a VAT. The main selling point for advocates of the DBCFT is that we need a border-adjustable tax to offset the supposed advantage that other nations have because of border-adjustable VATs (both Paul Krugman and I agree that this is nonsense, but it still manages to be persuasive for some people).

So what happens when other nations turn their corporate income taxes into DBCFTs, which presumably will happen? We’re than back where we started and misguided people will say we need our own VAT to balance out the VATs in other nations.

The bottom line is that a DBCFT is not the answer to America’s wretched business tax system. There are simply too many risks associated with this proposal. I’ll elaborate tomorrow in Part II and also explain some good ways of pursuing tax reform without a DBCFT.

It’s time to channel the wisdom of Frederic Bastiat.

There are many well-meaning people who understandably want to help workers by protecting them from bad outcomes such as pay reductions, layoffs and discrimination.

My normal response is to remind them that the best thing for workers is a vibrant and growing economy. That’s the kind of environment that produces tight labor markets and more investment, both of which then lead to higher pay.

Even statists sort of understand that this is true, but it’s sometimes difficult to get them to grasp the implications. They oftentimes are drawn to specific forms of government intervention, even if you explain that there are adverse unintended consequences.

Let’s explore this issue further.

In a column for the New York Times, Megan McGrath writes about a big new mining project in a remote part of Australia that “has the potential to create 10,000 jobs.” While that’s obviously good news, she worries that the company “will repeat the mistakes made by companies during the last mining boom by using workplace practices that hurt workers and their families.”

And what are these mistaken “workplace practices”? Apparently she thinks it is terrible that workers don’t want to move to the outback and instead prefer to continue living in cities and suburbs. So she think it is bad that they fly in for multi-week shifts, stay in temporary housing, and then fly back (at company expense) to their homes.

Employees…fly to remote mines from major cities to work weeks at a time, and fly home for several days off before starting the cycle again. These so-called fly-in, fly-out jobs, which offer hefty pay, are widely known here as “fifo.” At the peak of the boom in 2012, …more than 100,000 of these held fifo positions.

Though it seems these workers are making very rational decisions on how to maximize the net benefits of these positions.

…fifo workers in the last boom were young, undereducated men lured by salaries that far surpassed what they could earn for similar work outside the industry — up to $100,000 a year to shift earth and drive trucks. The average full-time mining employee in 2016 earned $1,000 more per week than other Australians.

So what’s the downside? Why are workers supposedly being exploited by these lucrative jobs?

According to McGrath, the mining camps don’t have a lot of amenities.

…fifo life comes at a steep price. The management in many mines controls the transient workers’ schedules — setting times for meals, showers and sleep. The workers often can’t visit nearby towns and recreational facilities such as gyms and swimming pools because of a lack of transportation. Many employees have to share beds. They work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, up to three weeks at a time.

That doesn’t sound great, but this also explains why the mining companies have to pay a boatload of money to attract workers. This is a well-established pattern that is familiar to labor economists. If working conditions are unpalatable, then employers have to compensate with more remuneration.

But Ms. McGrath doesn’t think workers should get extra cash. She would rather the mining company compensate workers indirectly.

A lot can be done to improve life in the camps. Shorter swings would help workers maintain bonds with their families. More stable living situations, with less sharing of living spaces, would increase a sense of value and belonging. Workers should be encouraged to visit nearby towns to reduce their isolation. The Adani megamine could be in operation for 60 years, experts say. Roads for the mine and the region should be improved so employees can move with their families to existing townships and drive to work.

Of course, she doesn’t admit that she wants workers to get less cash compensation, but that would be the real-world impact of her proposed policies.

She says that the mining companies should “put people ahead of profits.” But that’s a vacuous statement. Projects like this new mine only exist because investors expect to earn a return. Otherwise, they wouldn’t take the enormous risk of sinking so much capital into such endeavors.

All this new investment is good news for unemployed or under-employed Australians since they’ll now have an opportunity to compete for jobs that pay very well, particularly for workers without a lot of education.

By the way, if workers really valued all the things that are on Ms. McGrath’s list, the company would offer those fringe benefits instead of higher wages. But that’s obviously not the case. The market has spoken.

By the way, I can’t resist pointing out that she also does not understand tax policy. In a sensible system, companies calculate their taxable profit by adding up their total revenue and then subtracting all their costs. What’s left is profit, a slice of which is then grabbed by government.

But that’s not enough for Ms. McGrath. She apparently believes that mining companies shouldn’t be allowed to subtract many of the costs associated with so-called fifo workers when calculating their annual profit. I’m not joking.

Mining companies are encouraged through tax incentives to use the transient workers. Some costs associated with a fifo worker — meals, transportation and airline tickets — can be claimed as production expenses, helping to lower a company’s tax bill.

I hope the Australian government isn’t dumb enough to buy this argument. Allowing a firm to subtract costs when calculating profit is simply common sense. And if doesn’t matter if those costs reflect fifo costs, investment expenditures, luxury travel, or band costumes.

For what it’s worth, if the government does get pressured into forcing companies to pay tax on these various business expenses, one very safe prediction is that the net effect will be to lower the wages offered to workers. Or, if the mandates, taxes, and regulations reach a certain level, the business will simply close down or new projects will be abandoned.

And those options obviously are not good news for workers.

Let’s now shift from the specific example of fifo workers to the broader issue of labor regulation. What happens if governments listen to people like Ms. McGrath and impose all sorts of rules that prevent flexible labor markets? According to recent scholarly research from three European economists, the consequence is more unemployment.

They start by pointing out that European nations with mandates and red tape have a lot more unemployment (particularly when the economy is weak) than countries with lightly regulated labor markets.

The Great Recession has brought a substantial increase in unemployment in Europe. Overall, unemployment rate in the euro area has grown from 8 percent in 2008 to 12 percent in 2014. The change in unemployment has been very heterogenous. In northern Europe, unemployment did not grow substantially or even fell: in Germany, for example, unemployment rate has actually declined from 7 to 5 percent. At the same time, in Greece unemployment has grown from 8 to 26 percent, in Spain — from 8 to 24 percent, and in Italy — from 6 to 13 percent. Why has unemployment dynamics been so different in European countries? The most common explanation is the difference in labor market institutions that prevents wages from adjusting downward. If wages cannot decline, negative aggregate demand shocks (such as the Great Recession) result in growth of unemployment.

The three economists wanted some way to test the impact of regulation, so they looked at the labor market for immigrants in Italy since some of them work in the formal (regulated) economy and some of them work in the shadow (unregulated) economy.

While this argument is straightforward, it is not easy to test empirically. Cross-country studies of labor markets are subject to comparability concerns. The same problems arise in comparing labor markets in different industries within the same country. In order to construct a convincing counterfactual for a regulated labor market, one needs to study a non-regulated labor market in the same sector within the same country. This is precisely what we do in this paper through comparing formal and informal markets in Italy over the course of 2004-12. We use a unique dataset, a large annual survey of immigrants working in Lombardy carried out by ISMU Foundation since 2004. …Our data cover 4000 full-time workers every year; one fifth of them works in the informal sector. The dataset is therefore sufficiently large to allow us comparing the evolution of wages in the formal and in the informal sector controlling for occupation, skills and other individual characteristics.

And what did they find?

In the absence of regulation, labor markets can adjust. The bad news for workers is that they get less pay. But the good news is that they’re more likely to still have jobs.

Our main result is presented in Figure 1. We do find that the wage differential between formal and informal sector has increased after 2008. Moreover, while the wages in the informal sector decreased by about 20 percent in 2008-12, the wages in the formal sector virtually did not fall at all. This is consistent with the view that there is substantial downward stickiness of wages in the regulated labor markets. …we find that both before and during the crisis, undocumented immigrants (those without a regular residence permit) are 9 percentage points more likely than documented immigrants to be in the labor force

Here’s the relevant chart from the study.

And here are some concluding thoughts from the study.

…despite the substantial growth of unemployment in 2008-12, the wages in the formal labor market have not adjusted. In the meanwhile, the wages in the unregulated informal labor market have declined substantially. The wage differential between formal and informal market that has been constant in 2004-08 has grown rapidly in 2008-12 from 18 to 35 percentage points. …These results are consistent with the view that regulation is responsible for lack of wage adjustment and increase in unemployment during the recessions.

For what it’s worth (and this is an important point), this helps explain why the Great Depression was so awful. Hoover and Roosevelt engaged in all sorts of interventions designed  to “help” workers. But the net effect of these policies was to prevent markets from adjusting. So what presumably would have been a typical recession turned into a decade-long depression.

So what’s the moral of the story? Good intentions aren’t good if they lead to bad results. Which brings me back to my original point about helping workers by minimizing government intervention.

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