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Posts Tagged ‘Competitiveness’

There’s an old saying that you shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds you. Unfortunately, politicians in Washington don’t follow that advice.

Let me explain. All economic theories – even Marxism and socialism – agree that capital formation is a necessary condition for long-run growth and higher wages.

The Marxists and the socialists are misguided in thinking that government has the capacity to be in charge of saving and investing, but at least they recognize that you have to set aside some of today’s income to finance tomorrow’s growth. And they even understand that capital formation leads to more productivity and higher wages.

The politicians, however, act as if they don’t understand the importance of saving and investment. Or, based on the policies we get from Washington, maybe they simply don’t care about the well-being of workers, savers, and investors.

Which is a very short-sighted attitude since capital formation leads to a bigger tax base (i.e., more income that they can tax), which is something they presumably should care about!

I’m pondering this conundrum because of a thought-provoking column. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Thomas Duesterberg and Donald Norman explore the very important question of why corporations are in very strong shape while investment is lagging.

Corporate profits and cash flow are strong, cash on the books of American firms is at record highs… Yet capital investment, which is one of the main pillars of growing productivity and rising living standards, is historically weak. …In 2014, real gross domestic product was 8.7% above the level it reached just before the onset of the great recession in late 2007, …yet gross private investment was just 3.9% higher. Private investment net of depreciation—an even better measure of keeping up production and innovation capacity—was $524 billion in 2013 (the last year for which we have good data), compared with $860 billion in 2006.

Why is this a problem?

For the simple reason that less investment means lower productivity. And lower productivity translates into stagnant wages.

Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that labor productivity grew at an average rate of just 1.5% a year between 2005 and 2014, and by 0.7% a year since 2011. These numbers compare poorly with the average annual growth rates of 3.3% between 1948 and 1973, and 3.2% between 1996 and 2004.

So why has investment been weak?

You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that bad government policy is at the top of the list. Having the world’s highest corporate tax rate obviously doesn’t help.

…one clear factor—noted by many economic analysts—is corporate tax rates, including effective tax rates. These rates can sway decisions about where companies locate new production or research facilities.

Mindless regulation and red tape also puts a costly burden on the economy’s productive sector.

Regulation is also a growing burden. For example, a 2012 study by NERA Economic Consulting notes that the number of major regulations in the manufacturing sector has grown at the compound annual rate of 7.6% since 1998, compared with only 2.2% average annual growth in GDP. …in the World Economic Forum’s annual “Global Competitiveness Report.” …in the category for “burden of government regulation” the latest report ranks the U.S. 82nd of 144.

America also is falling behind in trade.

More than 400 regional free trade agreements have come into effect since 1995, but the United States is party to just two of these and to 10 smaller-scale bilateral agreements. Europe has 38 separate FTAs, and Mexico has added Europe and all of Latin America to its arsenal, which is one reason cited by Audi recently in locating its newest plant there instead of in the U.S.

Last but not least, the overall policy environment in Washington is creating “regime uncertainty.”

A number of studies—including one at Stanford led by Nicholas Bloom and Scott Baker, and at the University of Chicago led by Steven Davis—have employed sophisticated models to chart what is seen as a secular trend in growth of uncertainty that is tied to growth in government regulation, spending, taxes…major shifts in monetary policy probably also contribute to uncertainty.

In other words, investment is lagging both because of the bad policies that have been imposed and because of the expectation/fear that there will be additional burdens coming from Washington.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that corporations are sitting on record piles of cash. Simply stated, it doesn’t make much sense to invest if there’s little hope of future profits.

And don’t be surprised that banks also are sitting on record piles of cash for the same reason.

When I share this kind of information with some of my leftist friends, I frequently get a visceral response about how they won’t shed any tears just because there are fewer profitable opportunities for “fatcat investors” and “rich corporations.”

That reaction doesn’t bother me, at least in the sense that I never lose sleep about the financial health of Warren Buffett or General Electric.

But then I ask my statist friends whether we should be concerned about the “collateral damage” that occurs when lower levels of investment result in less productivity growth, which translates into stagnant wages for ordinary Americans.

Here’s the bottom line. If you punish investors, you also punish workers. This is why, as Walter Williams has explained, the class-warfare mentality is so destructive.

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Even small differences in economic growth make a big difference to living standards over time.

I frequently share this chart, which highlights how long it takes to double economic output based on different growth rates.

I also use real-world examples to show how some nations become much richer than other nations within just a few decades because of better policy and faster growth.

Here’s another way to approach the issue. Let’s use a hypothetical example to reinforce the importance of growth. If we went back to 1870 and assumed our economy’s nominal growth rate was one percentage point slower than it actually was (in other words, averaging 4.76 percent each year rather than 5.76 percent), our living standards today would be only 1/4th of current levels.

That’s a huge difference in national prosperity. We’d be about the level of Kazakhstan today!

In a column for the Wall Street Journal last week, Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy and businessman Louis Woodhill used the same approach to make a similar point about the incredible importance of long-run growth. They go back even further in time and come up with an even more sobering example.

The recovery that began in 2009 is the weakest in postwar history. Millions have dropped out the labor force, frustrated by lack of opportunity. Lower-income workers are underemployed, middle-incomes have not advanced as in the past, and government dependency has increased. …ignored is what really matters: rapid, sustained economic growth. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the U.S. economy will grow by a meager 2.3% over the next decade… At this growth rate, Americans face a future of stagnation, inequality and despair. Here’s why: From 1790 to 2014, U.S. GDP in real dollars grew at an average annual rate of 3.73%. Had America grown at the CBO’s “economic speed limit” of 2.3% for its entire history, GDP would be $780 billion today instead of more than $17 trillion. And GDP per capita would be $2,433, lower than Papua New Guinea’s.

This is why (good) economists are so fixated on economic growth. It’s vital for our long-run living standards.

Which means, of course, that we’re also fixated on the importance of free markets and small government. We understand that an economy will grow much faster if the burden of government is constrained (think Hong Kong or Singapore).

But if the public sector is bloated, with high levels of spending, taxation, regulation, cronyism, and protectionism, then it’s very difficult for the productive sector of the economy to flourish.

Let’s augment our understanding by comparing two nations, Estonia and Croatia, that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

Estonia has been a role model for pro-growth reform. According to Economic Freedom of the World, the small Baltic nation quickly moved to reduce the burden of government (including a flat tax) and Estonia consistently has been in the top 20 of all nations.

Croatia, by contrast, has lagged. While its economic freedom score has improved, the progress has been modest and Croatia has never been ranked higher than #70.

So what are the real-world results of what happened in these two nations?

The simple answer is that good policy yields good results. Here’s a chart, based on IMF data, showing per-capita GDP in both Estonia and Croatia.

The most relevant lesson, which I highlighted, is that Croatia was much richer at the beginning of the post-Soviet period.

But Estonia quickly caught up because of its reforms. And over the past 10 years, Croatia has fallen significantly behind.

The key takeaway is that growth matters. And if you want growth, you need economic freedom.

Which brings us back to the aforementioned Wall Street Journal column. Cassidy and Woodhill are totally correct to worry about the “new normal” of anemic growth.

Fortunately, we know the policies that will rejuvenate the economy. And maybe we’ll get a chance to implement those policies after the 2016 election.

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There are some things in life that are guaranteed to make me smile.

Georgia Bulldog victories are on that list, of course, and I also relish occasional moments of glory on the softball field.

Shifting to the world of public policy, nothing warms my heart and brings a smile to my face faster than news that taxpayers have successfully escaped the greedy and grasping claws of government.

I cheered when successful French taxpayers moved across the border when Francois Hollande imposed a 75 percent class-warfare tax rate. And I was overjoyed when elitist French politicians whined that the geese with the golden eggs were escaping.

I was happy to learn about consumers traveling across borders to escape punitive air-travel taxes in places such as England and the Netherlands.

I applauded when Toyota moved hundreds of jobs from high-tax California to low-tax Texas. And when oppressed taxpayers successfully escaped from New Jersey. Or from Detroit.

I also was glad to find out that Americans can dramatically reduce their tax bills by moving to Puerto Rico, which is a completely legal tax haven for U.S. citizens.

I’m even happy when American companies use “inversions” to get out from under America’s insanely punitive approach to business taxation. I’ll also defend individual Americans who reluctantly give up their passports to protect themselves from confiscatory taxation.

The common theme in all these examples is that politicians were unable to seize as much money as they hoped because taxpayers had the ability to shift economic activity to jurisdictions with better policy.

This is why tax competition is so praiseworthy – and also why we need to be so concerned about sinister efforts to create cartels for the purpose of replacing this liberalizing process with an “OPEC for politicians.”

But I’m guilty of digressing. Today, we simply want to focus on good news.

And I know this Bloomberg story made me feel all warm and fuzzy. Here are some excerpts about the looming decision of at least one bank to escape excessive English taxes.

HSBC, Europe’s largest bank, has faced calls to move its domicile away from the British capital after the government increased the levy on bank’s balance sheets for an eighth time this year. HSBC is hit the hardest by the tax and paid 750 million pounds ($1.1 billion) last year. Both the Labour and Conservative parties have pledged a more onerous tax regime for banks in their manifestos for the May 7 U.K. election. “Banks and pay are still easy cannon fodder for politicians,” said Jonathan Tyce, senior banks analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence in London. “The lines between the Labour and Conservative parties are more blurred than usual and either way, it doesn’t look promising for banks or bankers.” …Standard Chartered Plc, another British bank that like HSBC makes most of its profit in Asia, is also being urged by Aberdeen Asset Management Plc, its second-largest shareholder, to relocate to Asia because of the cost of being in London.

Good. I hope both banks leave.

While I have grudgingly admitted that David Cameron’s government has done a decent job of restraining spending in recent years, taxpayers haven’t reaped many dividends. Yes, there have been some very successful reductions in the corporate tax rate and a modest reduction in the top tax rate on personal income, but these reforms were more than offset by big tax hikes when Cameron first took power.

P.S. If I understand correctly, HSBC didn’t get a bailout during the financial crisis. But if I’m wrong and the bank did mooch off taxpayers, then I’m much less sympathetic.

P.P.S. Shifting to another topic, I like to share examples of how some nations enjoy faster growth than others, mostly because these comparison invariably help to show why small government and free markets are the best route to prosperity.

To echo this point, here’s a very enlightening chart I just saw on Twitter, which shows per-capita economic output for a group of nations that were all roughly equal back in 1997.

What’s remarkable is that a couple of those nations dramatically boosted living standards in a very short period of time while others have stagnated.

And since I’ve written about the good reforms in Estonia and Poland and complained about bad policy in Venezuela and South Africa, you can understand why this is yet another example of why leftists have no good response to my two-part challenge.

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Free trade is a good moral concept for the simple reason that politicians and bureaucrats should not be allowed to interfere with voluntary transactions between consenting adults.

It’s also a good economic concept for the simple reason that protectionists can’t provide good answers to simple questions.

And free trade is a good geopolitical concept because it is far better than foreign aid as a mechanism for generating prosperity in less-developed nations.

Writing for the Economic Times of India, Bjorn Lomborg of the Copenhagen Consensus Center writes about the benefits of open markets among nations.

With one simple policy—more free trade—we could make the world $500 trillion better off and lift 160 million people out of extreme poverty. …reducing trade barriers not only makes the world richer, it is a great enabler for reducing poverty, curtailing hunger, improving health and restoring the environment. …Freer trade essentially means that each country can focus on doing what it does best, making all countries better off.

The good news is that global trade has been substantially liberalized. Protectionist barriers are much lower than they were a few decades ago.

Indeed, shifts to freer trade have helped compensate for growing fiscal burdens in the post-WWII era.

But we also have bad news. There are still sectors where trade taxes and other protectionist policies inhibit voluntary exchange, most notably for agriculture and textiles.

Lomborg cites data about the huge gains that would be possible if these sectors were liberalized.

The direct economic benefits would be a 1.1 per cent increase in global GDP. This sounds modest. But because it would impact the entire world economy, by 2030 we would be about $1.5 trillion richer every year. Open economies also grow faster. In the last 50 years, countries as diverse as South Korea, Chile and India have seen their rate of growth shoot up by 1.5 per cent per annum on average, shortly after liberalisation. If Doha can be completed, it is estimated that the global economy will grow by an extra 0.6 per cent for the next few decades. By 2030, such dynamic growth would make the world economy $11.5 trillion larger each year, leaving us 10 per cent more resources to fix all other problems. …By the end of the century, free trade could leave our grandkids 20 per cent better off, or with $100 trillion more every year than they would otherwise have had.

Lomborg is making the very important point that even modest increases in growth, sustained over long periods of time, can lead to huge increases in prosperity.

He correctly applies this analysis to the trade sector, but it’s a lesson that has universal applicability. It’s why we need better tax policy, a lower burden of government spending, less regulation and red tape, and better rule of law to limit government corruption.

But today’s focus is trade, so let’s look at a great video from Marginal Revolution University. Here’s Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason University talking about the benefits of trade.

By the way, I didn’t notice it at first, but Tyler’s video doesn’t focus on international trade. He simply explains the benefit of trade among people.

But this also helps to explain why free trade across borders is good for growth. If it’s good for two people inside Virginia to engage in voluntary exchange, and if it’s good for a person in Virginia and a person in Ohio to engage in voluntary exchange, then it’s also true that it’s good for a person in Virginia and a person in Ireland to engage in voluntary exchange.

Another subtle yet important secondary point from the video is that central planning is folly because no single bureaucrat, or group of bureaucrats, will ever have the necessary knowledge (much less incentive) to properly allocate resources. To elaborate, you just listened to Prof. Cowen explain that one of the big benefits of trade is that people can specialize in things where they have a comparative advantage. And when people specialize, they develop greater knowledge in particular fields, which further increases their productivity. Yet it’s impossible for that diffuse knowledge to be centralized, much less used properly.

Which is why centrally planned economies such as North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela are such disasters.

And this also explains why nations that normally rely on markets get such bad results when politicians take control of specific sectors of the economy. Just consider the failures of Obamacare and the U.K.’s government-run healthcare system.

But let’s get back to the issue of trade.

Politicians sometimes make arguments about “economic patriotism.” If that simply meant, for instance, that they wanted a lower corporate tax rate to make American companies and workers more competitive, that would be fine.

But as we’ve seen with Obama, language about patriotism oftentimes is a ruse to push for protectionism and other bad policies.

And one of the reasons why the protectionism-patriotism argument doesn’t make sense is that it presumes a contest among nations. Yet as Walter Williams wisely explained, trade ultimately is between private individuals.

P.S. The MRU videos are great tutorials about economics. In prior posts, I’ve shared videos explaining how taxes destroy economic value, highlighting the valuable role of market-based prices, and revealing the destructive impact of government subsidies. They’re all worth a few minutes of your time.

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In my 2012 primer on fundamental tax reform, I explained that the three biggest warts in the current system.

1. High tax rates that penalize productive behavior.

2. Pervasive double taxation that discourages saving and investment.

3. Corrupt loopholes and cronyism that bribe people to make less productive choices.

These problems all need to be addressed, but I also acknowledged additional concerns with the internal revenue code, such as worldwide taxation and erosion of constitutional freedoms an civil liberties.

In a perfect world, we would shrink government to such a small size that there was no need for any sort of broad-based tax (remember, the United States prospered greatly for most of our history when there was no income tax).

In a good world, we could at least replace the corrupt internal revenue code with a simple and fair flat tax.

In today’s Washington, the best we can hope for is incremental reform.

But some incremental reforms can be very positive, and that’s the best way of describing the “Economic Growth and Family Fairness Tax Reform Plan” unveiled today by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Senator Mike Lee of Utah.

The two GOP senators have a column in today’s Wall Street Journal, and you can read a more detailed description of their plan by clicking here.

But here are the relevant details.

What’s wrong with Rubio-Lee

In the interest of fairness, I’ll start with the most disappointing feature of the plan. The top tax rate will be 35 percent, only a few percentage points lower than the 39.6 percent top rate that Obama imposed as a result of the fiscal cliff.

Even more troubling, that 35 percent top tax rate will be imposed on any taxable income above $75,000 for single taxpayers and $150,000 for married taxpayers.

Since the 35 percent and 39.6 percent tax rates currently apply only when income climbs above $400,000, that means a significant number of taxpayers will face higher marginal tax rates.

That’s a very disappointing feature in any tax plan, but it’s especially unfortunate in a proposal put forth my lawmakers who wrote in their WSJ column that they want to “lower rates for families and individuals.”

What’s right with Rubio-Lee

This will be a much longer section because there are several very attractive features of the Rubio-Lee plan.

Some households, for instance, will enjoy lower marginal tax rates under the new bracket structure, particularly if those households have lots of children (there’s a very big child tax credit).

But the really attractive features of the Rubio-Lee plan are those that deal with business taxation, double taxation, and international competitiveness.

Here’s a list of the most pro-growth elements of the plan.

A 25 percent tax rate on all business income – This means that the corporate tax rate is being reduced from 35 percent (the highest in the world), but also that there will be a 25 percent maximum rate on all small businesses that file using Schedule C as part of a 1040 tax return.

Sweeping reductions in double taxation – The Rubio-Lee plans eliminates the capital gains tax, the double tax on dividends, and the second layer of tax on interest.

Full expensing of business investment – The proposal gets rid of punitive “depreciation” rules that force businesses to overstate their income in ways that discourage new business investment.

Territorial taxation – Businesses no longer will have to pay a second layer of tax on income that is earned – and already subject to tax – in other nations.

No death tax – Income should not be subject to yet another layer of tax simply because someone dies. The Rubio-Lee plan eliminates this morally offensive form of double taxation.

In addition, it’s worth noting that the Rubio-Lee plan eliminate the state and local tax deduction, which is a perverse part of the tax code that enables higher taxes in states like New York and California.

Many years ago, while working at the Heritage Foundation, I created a matrix to grade competing tax reform plans. I updated that matrix last year to assess the proposal put forth by Congressman Dave Camp, the former Chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee.

Here’s another version of that matrix, this time including the Rubio-Lee plan.

As you can see, the Rubio-Lee plan gets top scores for “saving and investment” and “international competitiveness.”

And since these components have big implications for growth, the proposal would – if enacted – generate big benefits. The economy would grow faster, more jobs would be created, workers would enjoy higher wages, and American companies would be far more competitive.

By the way, if there was (and there probably should be) a “tax burden” grade in my matrix, the Rubio-Lee plan almost surely would get an “A+” score because the overall proposal is a substantial tax cut based on static scoring.

And even with dynamic scoring, this plan will reduce the amount of money going to Washington in the near future.

Of course, faster future growth will lead to more taxable income, so there will be revenue feedback. So the size of the tax cut will shrink over time, but even a curmudgeon like me doesn’t get that upset if politicians get more revenue because more Americans are working and earning higher wages.

That simply means another opportunity to push for more tax relief!

What’s missing in Rubio-Lee

There are a few features of the tax code that aren’t addressed in the plan.

The health care exclusion is left untouched, largely because the two lawmakers understand that phasing out that preference is best handled as part of a combined tax reform/health reform proposal.

Some itemized deductions are left untouched, or simply tweaked.

And I’m not aware of any changes that would strengthen the legal rights of taxpayers when dealing with the IRS.

Let’s close with a reminder of what very good tax policy looks like.

To their credit, Rubio and Lee would move the tax code in the direction of a flat tax, though sometimes in a haphazard fashion.

P.S. There is a big debate on the degree to which the tax code should provide large child credits. As I wrote in the Wall Street Journal last year, I much prefer lower tax rates since faster growth is the most effective long-run way to bolster the economic status of families.

But even the flat tax has a generous family-based allowance, so it’s largely a political judgement on how much tax relief should be dedicated to kids and how much should be used to lower tax rates.

That being said, I think the so-called reform conservatives undermine their case when they argue child-oriented tax relief is good because it might subsidize the creation of future taxpayers to prop up entitlement programs. We need to reform those programs, not give them more money.

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Last September, I wrote that America’s business tax system is a nightmare that simultaneously undermines the competitiveness of American companies while also causing lots of irritation in other nations.

Both of those bad things happen because politicians in Washington think the IRS should be able to tax income that is earned (and already subject to tax) in other countries. This approach, known as “worldwide taxation,” is contrary to good tax policy.

Indeed, all good tax reform plans, such as the flat tax, are based on “territorial taxation,” which is the common-sense principle that governments should only tax activity inside national borders.

Given the self-inflicted wound of worldwide taxation, particularly when combined with the world’s highest corporate tax rate, it’s easy to understand why some companies engage in “inversions” and become foreign-domiciled firms. Simply stated, that’s their best option if they care about the best interests of their workers, customers, and shareholders.

Well, the same problem exists for households. And it exists for the same reason. The United States also imposes “worldwide taxation” on individual taxpayers. But it’s even worse, because there are specific laws, such as the infamous Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, that impose absurdly high costs on Americans with cross-border economic activity, particularly those who live and work in other nations.

And just as our senselessly punitive corporate tax system drives corporations to re-domicile, the same is true for the personal tax code. As CNN reports, record numbers of Americans are officially giving up their citizenship.

The number of Americans choosing to give up their passports hit a record 3,415 last year, up 14% from 2013, and 15 times more than in 2008, when only 231 people renounced their citizenship. Experts say the recent surge is coming from expats who no longer want to deal with complicated tax paperwork, a burden that has only gotten worse in recent years. Unlike most countries, the U.S. taxes all citizens on income, no matter where it is earned or where they live. The mountain of paperwork can be so complicated that expats are often forced to fork over high fees to hire an accountant… “More and more are considering renouncing,” said Vincenzo Villamena of Online Taxman, an accountant who specializes in expat taxes. “There are a lot of uncertainties about FATCA…I don’t think we’ve seen the full effect that FATCA can have on people’s lives.” As both expats and financial institutions rush to understand the new law, some banks have chosen to kick out their Americans clients rather than comply. If a bank mistakenly fails to report accounts held by Americans outside the U.S. — even checking and savings accounts — they can face steep penalties.

Here’s a chart from the CNN article.

As you can see, there was a pause in 2012, perhaps because people were waiting to see what happened in the election.

But ever since, the number of people escaping U.S. citizenship has jumped dramatically.

To better understand how bad tax law is hurting people with U.S. passports, let’s look at the plight of Americans in Canada, as reported by the Vancouver Sun.

…many Ameri-Canadians are feeling rising anger, fear and even hatred toward their powerful country of origin. …The U.S. is the only major country to tax based on citizenship, not residency. …open displays of American pride in Canada are becoming even less likely as Ameri-Canadians seek shelter from the long reach of FATCA. …In addition, the flow of Americans leaving the U.S. for Canada more than doubled in the decade up until 2011, according to Statistics Canada. …Now — with FATCA causing investigators to scour the globe to hunt down more than seven million broadly defined “U.S. persons” it claims should be paying taxes to Uncle Sam — even more people in Canada with U.S. connections are finding another reason to bury their American identities.

Now let’s be even more focused and look at the impact on a single Englishman who happens to be the Mayor of London.

Johnson was characteristically forthright, describing FATCA as “outrageous”, and a “terrible doctrine of taxation.” Born in New York and having never given up his US citizenship, the London mayor cannot escape the clutches of FATCA, which requires that foreign financial institutions report the financial information of Americans. Those affected include many so-called “accidental Americans” like Johnson… What has seemingly brought FATCA to the front of Boris’s mind is the sale of his UK home, on which he is liable to pay tax in America. …What it does do – because of its host of serious, unintended, adverse consequences – is brand Americans, and accidental Americans choosing to live or work overseas, as financial pariahs. …Similarly, American businesses working in international markets are now often branded with a leprosy-like status. Clearly, this can only be detrimental to the country’s global competitiveness, and could, in turn, hit American jobs and the long-term growth of the economy. Questions should be asked about the imperialist characteristics of FATCA. Governments and foreign financial institutions have been coerced into complying with its expensive, burdensome, privacy-infringing, sovereignty-violating regulations by the US – or they have to face heavy penalties and the prospect of being effectively frozen out of US markets. And all this to “recover” an estimated $1bn (£637m) per year, which is enough, according to reports, to run the federal government for less than two hours.

As you can see, FATCA is a major problem.

And not just for specific taxpayers. The law is also bad for economic growth since it throws sand in the gears of global commerce.

Here are some excerpts from another news report, which includes some of my thoughts on the FATCA issue.

Critics say the FATCA has gone too far, is too draconian and is imposing an undue hardship on Americans living overseas. So says Dan Mitchell of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington. He says the law is “causing lots of headaches and heartaches around the world, not only for foreign financial institutions but also for overseas Americans, who are now being treated as Pyrrhus because financial institutions view them as too costly to service.” The U.S. is one of the few countries that tax its citizen on the basis of nationality, not residency. And faced with a larger tax bill, thousands of Americans living overseas would rather give up their passports then pay a new tax to Uncle Sam. The Taxpayer Advocate’s Office of the IRS has reported that the FATCA “has the potential to be burdensome, overly broad and detrimental to taxpayer rights.” Mitchell says, “An American living and working in some other country is required to not only pay tax to that country where they live but also file a tax return to the U.S. No other civilized country does that.”

By the way, I didn’t say that the law was causing overseas Americans to be treated as “Pyrrhus.” I said they were being viewed as “pariahs.” But that’s the risk you take when doing oral interviews.

Returning to matters of substance, you’ll also be happy to know that FATCA is making people more vulnerable to identity theft. It’s gotten so bad that even the IRS was forced to issue an official warning.

The Internal Revenue Service today issued a fraud alert for international financial institutions complying with the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA). Scam artists posing as the IRS have fraudulently solicited financial institutions seeking account holder identity and financial account information. …These fraudulent solicitations are known as “phishing” scams. These types of scams are typically carried out through the use of unsolicited emails and/or websites that pose as legitimate contacts in order to deceptively obtain personal or financial information. Financial institutions or their representatives that suspect they are the subject of a “phishing” scam should report the matter to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) at 800-366-4484, or through TIGTA’s secure website. Any suspicious emails that contain attachments or links in the message should not be opened.

Gee, nice of them to be so concerned about potential victims.

Though perhaps it would be better if we didn’t have intrusive laws in the first place.

The law is even so destructive that the Associated Press reported that it might be used as a weapon against the Russians!

As the United States attempts to punish Russia for its actions in Ukraine, the Treasury Department is deploying an economic weapon that could prove more costly than sanctions: the Internal Revenue Service. This summer, the U.S. plans to start using a new law that will make it more expensive for Russian banks to do business in America. “It’s a huge deal,” says Mark E. Matthews, a former IRS deputy commissioner. “It would throw enormous uncertainty into the Russian banking community.” …beginning in July, U.S. banks will be required to start withholding a 30 percent tax on certain payments to financial institutions in other countries — unless those foreign banks have agreements in place… But after Russia annexed Crimea and was seen as stoking separatist movements in eastern Ukraine, the Treasury Department quietly suspended negotiations in March. With the July 1 deadline approaching, Russian banks are now concerned that the price of investing in the United States is about to go up. …For Russia, the penalties could be more damaging to its economy than U.S. sanctions, said Brian L. Zimbler, managing partner of the Moscow office of Morgan Lewis, an international law firm. …The 2010 law is known as FATCA.

So what’s the bottom line?

As you can see, America’s worldwide tax system is bad policy, and it’s a nightmare for millions of innocent people thanks to ill-considered laws such as FATCA.

What’s really remarkable – in a bad way – is the complete lack of proportionality.

Back during the 2008 campaign, Obama claimed that laws like FATCA would generate $100 billion per year. From the perspective of tax collectors, that amount of money may have justified an onerous law.

But when the dust settled, the revenue estimators predicted that FATCA would bring in less than $1 billion per year.

In other words, the amount of money the IRS will collect is dwarfed by the damage to the overall economy and the harm to millions of taxpayers. Not to mention all the negative feelings against America that have been generated by this absurd law.

Yet very few politicians are willing to fight FATCA because they’re afraid that their opponents will engage in demagoguery and accuse them of being in favor of tax evasion. Senator Rand Paul is an admirable exception.

P.S. Since this has been such a depressing discussion, here is some good IRS humor to lighten the mood.

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If nothing else, our leftist friends deserve credit for chutzpah.

All around the world, we see concrete evidence that big government leads to stagnation and decay, yet statists repeatedly argue that further expansions in taxes and spending will be good for growth.

During Obama’s recent state-of-the-union address, he pushed for class warfare policies to finance bigger government, claiming such policies would be an “investment” in the future.

But it’s not just Obama. Hillary Clinton, on several occasions (see here, here, here, and here), has explicitly argued that higher tax rates and bigger government are good for growth.

The statists at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (financed with our tax dollars) actually argue that higher taxes and more spending will somehow enable more prosperity, both in the developing world and in the industrialized world.

And some left-wing “charities” are getting in on this scam. Oxfam, for instance, now argues that higher tax rates and bigger government are necessary for growth and development in poor nations. And Christian Aid makes the same dodgy argument.

The Oxfam/Christian Aid argument is especially perverse.

If they actually think that bloated public sectors are the key to faster growth in the developing world, shouldn’t they provide at least one example of a jurisdiction that has become rich following that approach?

Let’s examine this issue more closely.

Here are some excerpts from a column in the most recent issue of Cayman Financial Review. Written by the Cato Institute’s Marian Tupy, it looks at the challenge of boosting prosperity in sub-Saharan Africa.

Marian starts with some good news. The 21st Century, at least so far, has seen genuine progress.

Real gross domestic product has been ticking along at an average annual rate of 4.8 percent, while per capita income has grown by roughly 40 percent. …The benefits to ordinary people have been impressive. The share of Africans living on less than $1.25 per day fell from 56 percent in 1990 to 48 percent in 2010. …If the current trend continues, Africa’s poverty rate will fall to 24 percent by 2030. In addition, per-capita caloric intake has increased from 2,150 kcal in 1990 to 2,430 kcal in 2013. …Moreover, between 1990 and 2012, the percentage of the population with access to clean drinking water increased from 48 percent to 64 percent. Many African countries have also seen dramatic falls in infant and child mortality. Over the last decade, for example, child mortality in Senegal, Rwanda, Uganda, Ghana, and Kenya declined at a rate exceeding 6 percent per year.

This is very good news.

And foreign investment deserves some of the credit. When western multinationals enter a nation, they play a vital role in creating (relatively) high-paying and building a nation’s capital stock.

Particularly since the overall economic and policy climate in many sub-Saharan nations is very dismal.

As you can see from the accompanying map, based on the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World, most nations in the region are either in the most economically repressed category (red) or the next-t0-last category (yellow).

In either case, these countries obviously have far too much taxes, spending, regulation, and intervention.

Needless to say, these policies make it difficult for local businesses and entrepreneurs to succeed, which means the jobs and prosperity made possible by foreign investment are absolutely vital.

But Marian warns that this progress could come to a halt if African nations fall victim to class-warfare proposals that seek to demonize multinational firms as part of a push to expand tax collections.

…future growth could be at risk if economic conditions on the continent deteriorate.  And that may happen if policy makers decide to adopt a more hostile approach to entrepreneurs and investors. Specifically, African governments are urged to take a stance against so-called tax havens, which are alleged to deprive the former of significant chunks of tax revenue. …Oxfam, a British charity, has argued that…tax maneuvering by multinational companies is entrenching poverty and weakening developing countries’ economies. According to Oxfam, “Developing countries lose an estimated $100 billion to $160 billion annually to corporate tax dodging.” As such, Oxfam has urged the G20 to rewrite international tax laws so that “developing countries are not taken advantage of by the rich.”

The problem with this ideology, as Marian explains, is that foreign companies won’t have nearly as much incentive to create jobs and growth in Africa if tax policy becomes more onerous.

Africa has one of the world’s riskiest business environments. Government accountability and transparency are low. The rule of law and protection of property rights are weak. Corruption is high. In a sense, low taxes compensate domestic and foreign investors for shortcomings of the business environment that are more difficult to address: a low tax rate can be legislated overnight, but corruption-free bureaucracy takes generations to accomplish. What’s true for corporations is also true for individuals. Many wealthy Africans continue to work and create wealth in the difficult African business environment in part because they know that at least a portion of their wealth is safe from inflation and predation.

But the most important part of Marian’s article is the section where he debunks the notion that bigger government somehow leads to more prosperity.

…the argument in favor of higher tax revenues assumes that government spending is an efficient driver of economic growth. This is a common misperception in the West, which is now being applied, with potentially disastrous consequences, to the developing world. In America, for example, Hillary Clinton has argued that more revenue improves economic development and the “rich people … [who] do not contribute [jeopardize]… the growth of their own countries.” She has urged “the wealthy across the Americas to pay their ‘fair share’ of taxes in order to eliminate poverty and promote economic opportunity for all.” Is the former Secretary of State correct? Are developing nations suffering from inadequate levels of public spending? Is there a need for more revenue to finance bigger government so that national economies can grow faster?

Marian looks at the actual data.

And he makes the absolutely essential point that western nations became rich when government was very small and there was virtually no redistribution.

According to the International Monetary Fund, government outlays consume, on average, about 27 percent of economic output in sub-Saharan nations….the burden of government spending averaged only about 10 percent of economic output in North America and Western Europe through the late 1800s and early 1900s – the period when the nations in these regions enjoyed huge increases in living standards and evolved from agricultural poverty to middle-class prosperity. If the goal is to have African nations copy the successful growth spurts of western nations (keeping in mind that per-capita economic output today in sub-Saharan Africa is roughly equal to per-capita GDP levels in Western nations in the late 1800s), then the latter’s experience implies that high levels of government spending are not necessary. Indeed, too much spending presumably hinders growth by leading to the misallocation of labor and capital. Moreover, it should be pointed out that the United States and other currently rich countries also had no income taxes when they made their big improvements in economic status.

In other words, the best recipe for African prosperity is the one that worked for the western world.

Sub-Saharan Africa needs small government and free markets.

And, yes, there is a role for government in providing the rule of law and other core public goods, but African nations already collect more than enough revenue to finance these legitimate roles.

Here’s the bottom line.

Of course, not all government spending is bad for growth. Upholding the rule of law and protecting property rights costs money, but helps growth. Historically, African governments have been at their weakest when providing for these “night watchman” functions of the state. And their economies suffered as a result. Were African governments to focus on a set of narrow, clearly defined goals, they would find plenty of revenue to finance their accomplishment – without having to resort to punitive tax policies that are likely to undermine Africa’s long term economic prospects.

P.S. Since today’s topic dealt with tax havens, that’s my excuse to share this interview with the folks at the Mises Institute. I wax poetic about why tax havens are a liberalizing force in the global economy, while also touching on issues such as double taxation, corporate inversions, financial privacy, and FATCA.

For more information, here’s my video series on tax competition and tax havens.

P.P.S. On a completely separate topic, I’ve often made the point that the “Obama recovery” is very anemic.

Well, here’s some new evidence from the Wall Street Journal.

Wow, less than half the growth we got under Reaganomics.

Seems like a good opportunity for me to reissue my two-part challenge to the left. To date, not a single statist has successfully responded.

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