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Posts Tagged ‘Competitiveness’

Just like with nations, there are many factors that determine whether a state is hindering or enabling economic growth.

But I’m very drawn to one variable, which is whether there’s a state income tax. If the answer is no, then it’s quite likely that it will enjoy better-than-average economic performance (and if a state makes the mistake of having an income tax, then a flat tax will be considerably less destructive than a so-called progressive tax).

Which explains my two main lessons for state tax policy.

Anyhow, I’ve always included Tennessee in the list of no-income-tax states, but that’s not completely accurate because (like New Hampshire) there is a tax on capital income.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the Associated Press reports that Tennessee is getting rid of this last vestige of  income taxation.

The Tennessee Legislature has passed a measure that would reduce and eventually eliminate the Hall tax on investment income. The Hall tax imposes a general levy of 6 percent on investment income, with some exceptions. Lawmakers agreed to reduce it down to 5 percent before eliminating it completely by 2022.

It’s not completely clear if the GOP Governor of the state will allow the measure to become law, so this isn’t a done deal.

That being said, it’s a very positive sign that the state legislature wants to get rid of this invidious tax, which is a punitive form of double taxation.

Advocates are right that this will make the Volunteer State more attractive to investors, entrepreneurs, and business owners.

Keep in mind that this positive step follows the recent repeal of the state’s death tax, as noted in a column for the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Following a four-year phase out, Tennessee’s inheritance tax finally expires on Jan. 1 and one advocacy group is hailing the demise of what it calls the “death tax.” “Tennessee taxpayers can finally breath a sigh of relief,” said Justin Owen, head of the free-market group, the Beacon Center of Tennessee, which successfully advocated for the taxes abolishment in 2012.

On the other hand, New York seems determined to make itself even less attractive. Diana Furchtgott-Roth of the Manhattan Institute writes for Market Watch about legislation that would make the state prohibitively unappealing for many investors.

New York, home to many investment partnerships, now wants to increase state taxes on capital gains… New York already taxes capital gains and ordinary income equally, but apparently that’s not good enough. …The New York legislators want to raise the taxes on carried interest to federal ordinary income tax rates, not just for New York residents, but for everyone all over the world who get returns from partnerships with a business connection to the Empire State. Bills in the New York State Assembly and Senate would increase taxes on profits earned by venture capital, private equity and other investment partnerships by imposing a 19% additional tax.

Diana correctly explains this would be a monumentally foolish step.

If the bill became law, New York would likely see part of its financial sector leave for other states, because many investors nationwide would become subject to taxes that were 19 percentage points higher….No one is going to pick an investment that is taxed at 43% when they could choose one that is taxed at 24%.

Interestingly, even the state’s grasping politicians recognize this reality. The legislation wouldn’t take effect until certain other states made the same mistake.

The sponsors of the legislation appear to acknowledge that by delaying the implementation of the provisions until Connecticut, New Jersey and Massachusetts enact “legislation having an identical effect.”

Given this condition, hopefully this bad idea will never get beyond the stage of being a feel-good gesture for the hate-n-envy crowd.

But it’s always important to reinforce why it would be economically misguided since those other states are not exactly strongholds for economic liberty. This video has everything you need to know about the taxation of carried interest in particular and this video has the key facts about capital gains taxation in general

Not let’s take a look at the big picture. Moody’s just released a “stress test” to see which states were well positioned to deal with an economic downturn.

Is anybody surprised, as reported by the Sacramento Bee, that low-tax Texas ranked at the top and high-tax California and Illinois were at the bottom of the heap?

California, whose state budget is highly dependent on volatile income taxes, is the least able big state to withstand a recession, according to a “stress test” conducted by Moody’s Investor Service. Arch-rival Texas, meanwhile, scores the highest on the test because of “lower revenue volatility, healthier reserves relative to a potential revenue decline scenario and greater revenue and spending flexibility,” Moody’s, a major credit rating organization, says. …California not only suffers in comparison to the other large states, but in a broader survey of the 20 most populous states. Missouri, Texas and Washington score highest, while California and Illinois are at the bottom in their ability to withstand a recession.

Of course, an ability to survive a fiscal stress test is actually a proxy for having decent policies.

And having decent policies leads to something even more important, which is faster growth, increased competitiveness, and more job creation.

Though perhaps this coyote joke does an even better job of capturing the difference between the two states.

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If you look at the methodology behind the major measures of economic liberty, such as Economic Freedom of the World and Index of Economic Freedom, you’ll notice that each nation’s regulatory burden is just as important as the overall fiscal burden.

Yet there doesn’t seem to be adequate appreciation for the importance of restraining red tape. I’ve tried to highlight the problem with some very depressing bits of information.

Unfortunately, these bad numbers are getting worse.

We start with the fact that there’s a natural tendency for more intervention in Washington because of the Obama Administration’s statist orientation.

That’s the bad news. The worse news is that this tendency to over-regulate is becoming more pronounced as Obama’s time in office is winding down.

I’ve already opined on the record levels of red tape emanating from Washington, but it’s getting even worse in the President’s final year.

Here’s what the Wall Street Journal recently wrote about the regulatory wave.

…government-by-decree that is making Mr. Obama the most prolific American regulator of all time. Unofficially, Mr. Obama’s Administration has once again broken its own record by issuing a staggering 82,036 pages of new and proposed rules and instructions in the Federal Register in 2015. …That would not only eclipse Mr. Obama’s record of 81,405 set in 2010; it would also give him six of the seven most prolific years of regulating in the history of the American republic. He’s a champion when it comes to limiting economic freedom, and American workers have the slow growth in jobs and wages to prove it. …His Administration is also in a class by itself in issuing de facto rules as “notices” or “guidance” that are ignored by businesses at their peril. …And there’s much more to come.

Amen. The WSJ is correct to link the regulatory burden with anemic economic performance.

As I point out in this interview, red tape is akin to sand in the economy’s gears.

By the way, I can’t resist emphasizing that the Nordic nations, much beloved by Bernie Sanders and other leftists, generally are more free market than the United States on non-fiscal issues.

In other words, they have a more laissez-faire approach on matters such as regulation.

Now let’s try to quantify the cost of all this red tape.

The Washington Examiner reports on some new research.

The price of the Obama administration’s regulatory burden hit just shy of $200 billion last year, or $784 million for every day his government was open for business, according to a new analysis by American Action Forum.

To make matters worse, as I noted in the interview, I very much suspect the bulk of that new regulation was not accompanied by cost-benefit analysis. So the supposed benefits will be small and the actual costs will be high.

Let’s move from the general to the specific. The Heritage Foundation has a list of the worst regulations from last year. Here are some of the highlights, though lowlights would be a better term.

  • …a ban by New Jersey on sales of tombstones by churches — adopted in March at the behest of commercial monument makers.
  • Certain New York restaurants now have to include warnings on their menus about the sodium content in many popular dishes.
  • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration…expanded its mandate in June by declaring that businesses should allow employees to use whichever restroom corresponds to their “gender identity.”
  • …the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers expanded their own jurisdiction to regulate virtually every wet spot in the nation.

And there are plenty more if you really want to get depressed.

But let’s not dwell on bad news. Instead, we’ll close by highlighting a potentially helpful bit of regulatory reform north of the border. Here are some blurbs from a story in the Washington Examiner.

…look to Canada for lessons from its experiment with regulatory budgeting. What is regulatory budgeting? It’s a process that seeks to use traditional budget concepts to better manage regulatory costs. The goal is to require government departments and agencies to prioritize and manage “regulatory expenditures,”… Regulatory budgeting imposes hard caps on departments and agencies and requires that new regulatory policies fit within their respective budgets. It may not be a silver bullet to the U.S. government’s regulatory profligacy, but with strong political leadership and a proper design, it can arrest the growth of new regulations and bring greater accountability, discipline and transparency to the process. …Departments and agencies are given a “baseline” calculation of regulatory requirements and the costs they impose on individuals and businesses, and then are expected to live within their respective budgets. This means — at least, in the case of the federal experiment — that any new regulatory requirements be offset by eliminating existing ones with equivalent “costs.” An independent, third-party panel verifies the government’s year-over-year compliance.

And it appears this new system is yielding dividends.

Over the past two years, the federal government estimates the system has saved Canadian businesses more than C$32 million in administrative burden, as well as 750,000 hours spent dealing with “red tape.” Most importantly, regulatory budgeting has gradually contributed to a more disciplined regulatory process by rewarding departments and agencies for finding lower-cost options and for making existing requirements smarter and less burdensome.

Hmmm…, maybe I should consider escaping to Canada rather than Australia if (when?) America falls apart.

In addition to this sensible approach on regulatory reform, Canada is now one of the world’s most economically free nations thanks to relatively sensible policies involving spending restraint, corporate tax reform, bank bailouts, the tax treatment of saving, and privatization of air traffic control. Heck, Canada even has one of the lowest levels of welfare spending among developed nations.

Though things are now heading in the wrong direction, which is unfortunate for our northern neighbors.

P.S. While the regulatory burden in the United States is stifling and there are some really inane examples of silly rules (such as the ones listed above), I think Greece and Japan win the record if you want to identify the most absurd specific examples of red tape.

P.P.S. Though I suspect America wins the prize for worst regulatory agency and most despicable regulatory practice.

P.P.P.S. Here’s what would happen if Noah tried to comply with today’s level of red tape when building an ark.

P.P.P.P.S. Just in case you think regulation is “merely” a cost imposed on businesses, don’t forget that bureaucratic red tape is the reason we’re now forced to use inferior light bulbs, substandard toilets, second-rate dishwashers, and inadequate washing machines.

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I don’t care whether it’s called socialism, fascism, or communism, statism is evil and destructive. And going partway down that path with “democratic socialism” may avoid brutality, but the end result is still economic misery.

In hopes of getting this point across, I utilize everything from humor to theoretical analysis.

But my favorite approach, based on decades of experience with one-on-one meetings, public speeches, and private briefings, is to share cross-country comparisons. Such real-world evidence seems to be most persuasive.

So it’s time to add to that collection.

Let’s go back to 2011, when Catherine Rampell was with the New York Times and she wrote a column about a book by World Bank economist Branko Milanovic. She focuses on a powerful visual.

My favorite part of the book was this graph…on the vertical axis, you can see where any given ventile from any country falls when compared to the entire population of the world. …take a look at America. Notice how the entire line for the United States resides in the top portion of the graph? That’s because the entire country is relatively rich. In fact, America’s bottom ventile is still richer than most of the world: That is, the typical person in the bottom 5 percent of the American income distribution is still richer than 68 percent of the world’s inhabitants. …America’s poorest are, as a group, about as rich as India’s richest.

Here’s the graph that grabbed her attention.

I agree with everything Ms. Rampell wrote about that graph, but let me expand the focus by explaining why this is yet another piece of evidence for the proposition that policy makers should focus on growth rather than (in)equality.

From a leftist perspective, the ideal line for such a graph is horizontal because that represents complete income equality. And they naturally think that statist policies are more likely to produce an outcome closer to that redistributionist ideal (hence, their support for politicians such as Obama, Clinton, and Sanders).

But the graph shows why they are so wrong to support ever-larger government.

For instance, ponder the question of which nation produces better outcomes for poor people? Obviously, per-capita output for all income levels is higher in the United States, but the gap is especially huge for those with low incomes.

There doubtlessly are many reasons for the output gap in the chart, but one logical explanation is that the overall burden of government is much lower in the United States (#16 in the economic freedom rankings) than in China (#111), India (#114), and Brazil (#118).

By the way, some people may say it’s unfair to compare the United States with nations from the developing world. But the entire point of this comparison is that these other countries aren’t part of the “first world” in part because their economic policies are characterized by statism rather than capitalism.

But for those who want comparisons among developed nations, I’ve reviewed evidence from the United States and Europe on many occasions and the results always show that the relatively more market-friendly policies in the United States produce higher levels of prosperity than the more statist policies of Europe.

And if you want a more apples-to-apples comparison involving one of the most successful European nations, consider this chart showing the relative prosperity of different income levels in the United States and Sweden.

The bottom line is that it’s very difficult to find any evidence to suggest that any group of people enjoys more prosperity in a nation with a larger burden of government.

Which is why I’m still waiting for a leftist to successfully respond to my two-question challenge (and they actually only need to give an answer to one of the questions).

Another good way of determining whether markets work better than statism is to see how fast nations grow over time.

James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute shares a chart from Max Roser showing long-run changes in per-capita economic output for South Korea and Venezuela.

The amazing takeaway is that Venezuela was about three times richer than South Korea about fifty years ago, but now that ratio is almost reversed.

This is an amazing ratification of the all-important principle that sustained differences in growth have an enormous impact on a nation’s long-run prosperity.

And it shows that nations from the developing world can experience “convergence” and join the first world if they adopt good policies.

They don’t even need great policies. The key is simply to keep the burden of government at modest levels so the private sector has room to grow.

P.S. For those wondering about my juvenile title, I probably watched Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey over 100 times when my kids were young and I’m borrowing a very appropriate line from that film.

P.P.S. For those who want more information about South Korean growth, check out this comparison of that country with its northern neighbor.

P.P.P.S. And for those who want to learn more about Venezuela’s lack of growth, see how that country compares to Chile and Argentina.

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There’s no agreement on the most important variable for state tax competitiveness.

I’m sympathetic to the final option, in part because of my disdain for the income tax. And if an income tax is imposed, I prefer a simple and fair flat tax.

With that in mind, here’s a fascinating infographic I received via email. I don’t know if Reboot Illinois is left wing, right wing, or apolitical, but they did a very good job. I particularly like the map showing zero-income tax states (gray), flat tax states (red), and states with so-called progressive tax schemes (blue).

For what it’s worth, Illinois taxpayers should fight as hard as possible to preserve the state’s flat tax. If the politicians get the power to discriminate among income classes, it will just be a matter of time before all taxpayers are hit by higher rates.

Now let’s shift to the spending side of the fiscal ledger.

Like any good libertarian, I generally focus on the size of government. I compare France with Hong Kong and that tells me that big is bad and small is good.

But regardless of whether a government is large or small, it’s desirable if it spends money efficiently and generates some benefit. I shared, for instance, a fascinating study on “public sector efficiency” from the European Central Bank and was not surprised to see that nations with smaller public sectors got much more bang for the buck (with Singapore easily winning the prize for the most efficient government).

So I was very interested to see that WalletHub put together a report showing each state’s “return on investment” based on how effectively it uses tax monies to achieve desirable outcomes for education, health, safety, economy, and infrastructure, and pollution.

I’m not completely comfortable with the methodology (is it a state government’s fault if the population is more obese and therefore less healthy, for instance, and what about adjusting for demographic factors such as age and race?), but I nonetheless think the study is both useful and interesting.

Here are the best and worst states.

One thing that should stand out is that the best states are dominated by zero-income tax states and flat tax states.

The worst states, by contrast, tend to have punitive tax systems (Alaska is a bit of an outlier because it collects – and squanders – a lot of revenue from oil).

By the way, if you’re a Republican, you can probably give yourself a small pat on the back. The so-called red states do a bit better than the so-called blue states.

P.S. WalletHub put together some fascinating data on which cities get a good return on investment (i.e., bang for the back) for spending on police and education.

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Even though it’s theoretically possible to design a desirable budget deal that includes a tax increase, I’m a big advocate of the no-tax-hike pledge for the simple reason that – in the real world – support for genuine spending restraint and real entitlement reform evaporates once politicians think higher revenues are an option.

Heck, bumping into the Loch Ness Monster while riding my unicorn is more likely than an acceptable budget deal including tax hikes.

Though I confess that my anti-tax resolve sometimes gets a bit wobbly when I think about unsavory tax breaks such as the ethanol credit, the state and local tax deduction, and the healthcare exclusion. I have to remind myself that while these provisions are very odious, they should be repealed as part of tax reform rather than as part of some deal that gives politicians more money to waste.

Now there’s another example of a tax that is very tempting, and it comes from my home state of Connecticut.

When I was growing up, the Nutmeg State didn’t have an income tax and it was a refuge for overtaxed New Yorkers. But then an income tax was imposed in 1991. And ever since politicians got their hands on this new source of revenue, the burden of spending has skyrocketed and Connecticut has become a fiscal dystopia.

So you would think I’d be reflexively hostile to additional tax hikes by the politicians in Hartford. And I should be, but I’m perversely intrigued by a new levy they’re considering. The Wall Street Journal opines on the proposal.

…most Yale University professors are proud to be progressives. Well, they are now getting the chance to live their convictions as Connecticut Democrats attempt to soak Yale’s rich endowment. Democrats in Hartford have proposed taxing the unspent earnings of university endowments with more than $10 billion in assets. Only Yale’s $25.6 billion endowment—the country’s second largest after Harvard—fits the tax bill. Yale’s tax-exempt investments earned $2.6 billion last year, eight times more than the University of Connecticut’s $384 million endowment. Oh, the inequality! …Hartford is already taxing anything that moves. Last year Democrats raised the top individual tax rate to 6.99% and extended a 20% corporate surtax. The tax hikes precipitated General Electric’s decision in January to move its headquarters to Boston. Between 2010 and 2015, Connecticut lost 105,000 residents to other states. For the last five years, it has recorded zero real GDP growth.

Nobody should be double taxed on income that is saved and invested, so my mind tells me that the right approach is to give all taxpayers the treatment now reserved for places like Yale.

But my heart tells me the opposite because it’s galling that Yale is dominated by statists who presumably want higher taxes on the rest of us, so maybe it’s time they swallow some of their own bitter medicine.

But the way, it’s not just state politicians that are salivating to pillage Yale. It’s now being reported that city politicians want a slice of the action.

The mayor of New Haven is backing a push to revisit an 1834 Connecticut statute affecting taxes for Yale University, saying new guidelines are needed to assess liability for the institution… “Since taxing real estate and other property is the only form of municipal taxation allowed by state law, more modern guidelines as to what’s taxable and what’s tax exempt are essential,” New Haven Mayor Toni Harp said this week in testimony supporting the legislation. …The Ivy League university has strongly objected to proposal.

Gee, I wonder if Yale also “strongly objected” to the various big tax hikes that have savaged the state’s investors, entrepreneurs, and small businesses? Or is their battlefield conversion against tax hikes solely a selfish gesture.

Needless to say, I’m sure it’s the latter, which is why part of me is thinking it would be rough justice if the jackals in state and local government descended on Yale.

That being said, I certainly don’t like the idea of these profligate politicians getting their greedy hands on even more money. So if they do impose taxes on Yale, I hope the university will consider a very thoughtful invitation from the Governor of Florida.

Gov. Rick Scott…issued a statement calling on the Ivy League institution to pick up stakes and move on down to sunny Florida. “We would welcome a world-renowned university like Yale to our state and I can commit that we will not raise taxes on their endowment,” Governor Scott said

Hmmm…. Better weather and no state income tax. Sounds like a good deal to me.

And since Florida doesn’t double tax anybody, Yale’s leftist professors could sleep easier at night since they no longer would be hypocrites who work at a school that enjoys tax-free status on its investments while neighbors are being taxed.

P.S. I should add Yale’s anti-tax leftists to my collection of statist hypocrites.

P.P.S. I might be willing to accept a tax hike if it somehow could be designed so that it only applied to advocates of higher taxes.

P.P.P.S. While some tax distortions are destructive, some are simply bizarre.

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I’m never surprised when politicians make absurd statements, but I’m still capable of being shocked when other people make outlandish assertions.

Like the leftist policy wonk who claimed that capitalism is actually coercion, even though free markets are based on voluntary exchange. Or the statist columnist who argued people aren’t free unless they’re entitled to other people’s money, even though that turns some people into unfree serfs.

Now I have another example of upside-down thinking. It deals with the “inversion” issue, which involves American-chartered companies choosing to redomicile overseas.

A column in the Huffington Post implies that Pfizer is some sort of economic traitor for making a sensible business decision to protect the interests of workers, consumers, and shareholders.

Pfizer…wants to turn its back on America by claiming to be an Irish company through an offshore merger, giving it access to Ireland’s low tax rates. The change would only be on paper. The company would still be run from the United States, enjoying all the benefits of being based in America—such as our taxpayer-supported roads, public colleges, and patent protections—without paying its part to support them.

There’s a remarkable level of inaccuracy in that short excerpt. Pfizer wouldn’t be claiming to be an Irish company. It would be an Irish company. And it would still pay tax to the IRS on all U.S.-source income. All that changes with an inversion is that the company no longer would have to pay tax to the IRS on non-U.S. income. Which is money the American government shouldn’t be taxing in the first place!

Here’s more from the article.

Pfizer could walk out on its existing U.S. tax bill of up to $35 billion if its Irish tax maneuver goes forward. That’s what it already owes the American people on about $150 billion in profits it has stashed offshore, much of it in tax havens.

Wrong again. The extra layer of tax on foreign-source income only applies if the money comes back to the United States. Pfizer won’t “walk out” on a tax liability. Everything the company is doing is fully compliant with tax laws and IRS rules.

Here’s another excerpt, which I think is wrong, but doesn’t involve misstatements.

When corporations dodge their taxes, the rest of us have to make up for what’s missing. We pay for it in higher taxes, underfunded public services, or more debt.

The “rest of us” aren’t losers when there’s an inversion. All the evidence shows that we benefit when tax competition puts pressure on governments.

By the way, the author wants Obama to arbitrarily and unilaterally rewrite the rules .

President Obama can stop Pfizer’s biggest cash grab: that estimated $35 billion in unpaid taxes it wants to pocket by changing its mailing address. There are already Treasury Department rules in place to prevent this kind of overseas tax dodge. As now written, however, they wouldn’t apply to Pfizer’s cleverly-crafted deal. The Obama Administration needs to correct those regulations so they cover all American companies trying to exploit the loophole Pfizer is using. It already has the authority to do it.

Needless to say, Pfizer can’t “grab” its own money. The only grabbing in this scenario would be by the IRS. Since I’m not an international tax lawyer, I have no idea if the Obama Administration could get away with an after-the-fact raid on Pfizer, but I will note that the above passage at least acknowledges that Pfizer is obeying the law.

Now let’s look at some analysis from someone who actually understands the issue. Mihir Desai is a Harvard professor and he recently explained the reforms that actually would stop inversions in a column for the Wall Street Journal.

Removing the incentive for American companies to move their headquarters abroad is a widely recognized goal. To do so, the U.S. will need to join the rest of the G-7 countries and tax business income only once, in the country where it was earned. …Currently, the U.S. taxes the world-wide income of its corporations at one of the highest rates in the world, but defers that tax until the profits are repatriated. The result is the worst of all worlds—a high federal statutory rate (35%) that encourages aggressive transfer pricing, a significant restriction on capital allocation that keeps cash offshore, very little revenue for the Treasury, and the loss of U.S. headquarters to countries with territorial tax systems.

In other words, America should join the rest of the world and adopt a territorial tax system. And Prof. Desai is right. If the U.S. government stopped the anti-competitive practice of “worldwide” taxation, inversions would disappear.

That’s a lesson other nations seem to be learning. There’s only a small handful of countries with worldwide tax systems and that group is getting smaller every year.

Japan in 2009 and the United Kingdom in 2010 shifted to a territorial tax regime and lowered their statutory corporate rates. The U.K. did so to stop companies from moving their headquarters abroad; Japan was primarily interested in encouraging its multinationals to reinvest foreign earnings at home.

Professor Desai closes with a broader point about how it’s good for the American economy with multinational firms earn market share abroad.

…it is mistaken to demonize the foreign operations of American multinationals as working contrary to the interests of American workers. Instead the evidence, including research by C. Fritz Foley, James R. Hines and myself, suggests that U.S. companies succeeding globally expand at home—contradicting the zero-sum intuition. Demonizing multinational firms plays to populist impulses today. But ensuring that the U.S. is a great home for global companies and a great place for them to invest is actually the best prescription for rising median wages.

Amen. You don’t get higher wages by seizing ever-larger amounts of money from employers.

This is why we should have a territorial tax system and a much lower corporate tax rate.

Which is what Wayne Winegarden of the Pacific Research Institute argues for in Forbes.

…why would a company consider such a restructuring? The answer: the uncompetitive U.S. corporate income tax code. Attempts to punish companies that are pursuing corporate inversions misdiagnose the problem and, in so doing, make a bad situation worse. The problem that needs to be solved is the uncompetitive and overly burdensome U.S. corporate income tax code. The U.S. corporate income tax code puts U.S. companies at an unsustainable competitive disadvantage compared to their global competitors. The corporate income tax code in the U.S. imposes the highest marginal tax rate among the industrialized countries (a combined federal and average state tax rate of 39.1 percent), is overly-complex, difficult to understand, full of special interest carve-outs, taxes the same income multiple times, and taxes U.S. companies based on their global income.

Mr. Winegarden also makes the key point that a company that inverts still pays tax to the IRS on income earned in America.

…a corporate inversion does not reduce the income taxes paid by U.S. companies on income earned in the U.S. Following a corporate inversion, the income taxes owed by the former U.S. company on its income earned in the U.S. are precisely the same. What is different, however, is that the income that a company earns outside of the U.S. is no longer taxable.

Let’s now return to the specific case of Pfizer.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center explains in National Review why the entire inversion issue is a classic case of blame-the-victim by Washington.

Almost 50 companies have chosen to “invert” over the last ten years. More than in the previous 20 years. …there are very good reasons for companies to do this. …for American businesses operating overseas, costs have become increasingly prohibitive. …Europe now sports a corporate-tax rate below 24 percent, while the U.S. remains stubbornly high at 35 percent, or almost 40 percent when factoring in state taxes. …it’s the combination with America’s worldwide taxation system that leaves U.S.-based corporations so severely handicapped. Unlike almost every other nation, the U.S. taxes American companies no matter where their income is earned. …So if a U.S.-based firm does business in Ireland they don’t simply pay the low 12.5 percent rate that everyone else pays, but also the difference between that and the U.S. rate.

Veronique explains why Pfizer made the right choice when it recently merged with an Irish company.

That’s a sensible reason to do what Pfizer has done recently with its attempt to purchase the Irish-based Allergan and relocate its headquarters there. The move would allow them to compete on an even playing field with every other company not based in the U.S. Despite the impression given by critics, they’ll still pay the U.S. rate when doing business here.

And she takes aim at the politicians who refuse to take responsibility for bad policy and instead seek to blame the victims.

…politicians and their ideological sycophants in the media wish to cast the issue as a moral failure on the part of businesses instead of as the predictable response to a poorly constructed corporate-tax code. …Clinton wants to stop the companies from moving with an “exit tax.” Clinton isn’t the first to propose such a silly plan. Lawmakers and Treasury officials have made numerous attempts to stop businesses from leaving for greener pastures and each time they have failed. Instead, they should reform the tax code so that businesses don’t want to leave.

Let’s close with an observation about the Pfizer controversy.

Perhaps the company did make a “mistake” by failing to adequately grease the palms of politicians.

Consider the case of Johnson Controls, for instance, which is another company that also is in the process of redomiciling in a country with better tax law.

Brent Scher of the Washington Free Beacon reports that the company has been a big donor to the Clinton Foundation, which presumably means it won’t be targeted if she makes it to the White House.

Hillary Clinton has spent the past few months going after Johnson Controls for moving its headquarters overseas, but during a campaign event on Monday, her husband Bill Clinton said that it is one of his “favorite companies.” …He described Johnson Controls as “one of my favorite companies” and praised the work it had done in the clean energy sector during an event in North Carolina on Monday. …Johnson Controls has contributed more than $100,000 to the Clinton Foundation and also partnered with it on numerous projects over the past eight years and as recently as 2015. Some of the Clinton Foundation projects included multi-million commitments from Johnson Controls. Bill Clinton pointed out in his speech that his foundation has done business with Johnson Controls—something that Hillary Clinton is yet to mention.

For what it’s worth, the folks at Johnson Controls may have made a wise “investment” by funneling money into the Clinton machine, but they shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking that this necessarily protects them. If Hillary Clinton ever decides that it is in her interest to throw the company to the wolves, I strongly suspect she won’t hesitate.

Though it’s worth pointing out that Burger King didn’t get attacked very much by the White House when it inverted to Canada, perhaps because Warren Buffett, a major Obama ally, was involved with the deal.

But wouldn’t it be nice if we had a reasonable tax code so that companies didn’t have to worry about currying favor with the political class?

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John Cowperthwaite deserves a lot of credit for Hong Kong’s prosperity. As a British appointee, he took a hands-off policy and allowed the colony’s economy to thrive. He didn’t even want the government to collect statistics since that would give interventionists data that might be used to argue for interventionism.

I have mixed feelings about that approach. I constantly use statistics because they so often show that free markets and small government produce the best outcomes. I even use data to show that Hong Kong’s economy should be emulated.

On the other hand, there are some statistics that cause a lot of mischief.

I’ve argued, for instance, that we should focus on how national prosperity is generated (gross domestic income) rather than how it is allocated (gross domestic product). If we changed the focus to GDI, the debate would more naturally focus on pro-growth policies to boost wages, small business income, and corporate profits rather than the misguided policies (such as Keynesian economics) that are enabled by a focus on GDP.

That being said, there’s a good argument that the worst government statistic is the “trade deficit.”

This is a very destructive piece of data because people instinctively assume a “deficit” is bad. Yet I have a trade deficit every year with my local grocery store. I’m always buying things from them and they never buy anything from me. Does that mean I’m a “loser”? Of course not. Voluntary exchange, by definition, means that both parties gain from any transaction. And this principle applies when voluntary exchange occurs across national borders.

Moreover, people oftentimes don’t realize that the necessary and automatic flip side of a “trade deficit” is a “capital surplus.” In other words, when foreign companies acquire dollars by selling to American consumers, they frequently decide that investing in the American economy is the best use of that money. And the huge amount of investment from overseas is a sign of comparative prosperity and vitality, not a sign of weakness.

And for any readers who nonetheless think protectionism might be a good idea, I challenge them to answer these eight questions.

I’m confident that both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders wouldn’t be able to successfully answer any of them. Yet it appears they’ve gained some traction with voters by calling for protectionism.

That’s quite unfortunate. If the pro-trade policy consensus in America breaks down, that would create dangerous opportunities for politicians and bureaucrats to rig the game in favor of special interests while also imposing higher costs of taxpayers and consumers.

Let’s dig into the issue.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Mort Kondracke and Matthew Slaughter combine to produce a strong defense of trade.

…the four leading presidential candidates…oppose the U.S. ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership. All four demonize trade the same way. …Where is the leader with the courage to tell the truth? To say that trade made this nation great, and that trade barriers will destroy far more jobs than they can ever “save.” …America’s exporters and importers are among the country’s most dynamic companies, paying their workers about 15%-20% more than workers earn elsewhere in the economy. The overall gains are large. Trade and related activities—spurred by accords such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, or Nafta, have boosted annual U.S. income today by about 10 percentage points of GDP relative to what it would have been otherwise. This translates into an aggregate gain of about $1.8 trillion in 2015—thousands of dollars per U.S. household every year. …creative destruction—the movement of people and capital from weaker businesses to stronger ones and new opportunities—is how many of the gains from trade arise. …For generations, American presidents of both parties have spoken about the benefits of trade. “Economic isolation and political leadership are wholly incompatible,” warned John Kennedy. “A creative, competitive America is the answer to a changing world,” said Ronald Reagan. “We should always remember: protectionism is destructionism.”

By the way, I think Kondracke and Slaughter paint with too broad a brush. Both Cruz and Clinton are far less protectionist than Trump and Sanders. Though the authors are correct in noting that they’ve been reluctant (especially in the case of Clinton) to vigorously defend free trade.

The great legal scholar Richard Epstein (also my former debating partner) writes about the dangers of protectionism.

There are of course major difference between the insidious Trump and buffoonish Sanders. …Still, the real selling point of each boils down to one issue: In the indecorous language of the pollster, Pat Caddell, Americans feel “they have been screwed” by free trade. …free trade is in retreat as protectionism becomes the common thread across the both political parties. It is as though the economic unwisdom of the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act is back.

Richard makes a very important point that politicians often support protectionism in an attempt to hide the damage they do with other misguided policies.

Free trade offers an uncompromising indictment of, and a powerful corrective for, America’s unsound economic policies. …the reason that local businesses outsource from the United States is the same reason why foreign businesses are reluctant to expand operations here. Our regulatory and labor environment is hostile to economic growth and there are no signs of that abating anytime soon. …the steady decline in freedom and productivity inside the United States has continued apace. Ironically, the strong likelihood that the next American president will expand protectionist practices will only make matters worse: firms, both foreign and domestic, are more reluctant to invest in the United States…free trade gives the federal government and the individual states strong incentives to clean up their act so that they can once again be attractive to foreign investment.

My buddy Ross Kaminsky explains in the American Spectator that free trade is good because it is part of the competitive process that boosts living standards, particularly for the poor.

…in trade, as in any economic endeavor, there are losers in the short run. Capitalism is, after all, fundamentally a system of creative destruction. But if there is any area of agreement among economists of all political stripes…it is that free trade provides large net benefits to the societies that engage in it, even if other nations do not lower trade barriers to the same degree. Furthermore, the benefits of trade accrue in large measure to the lower economic echelons of society in an extension of Schumpeter’s profound observation that “the capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort.”

And Ross echoes Richard Epstein’s point about the real problem being anti-growth policies that make America less competitive.

Trade is complex and like all complex things politicians will dumb it down in a way that benefits them, generally by lying to the public and creating a frothy anger against those “damn furiners” instead of pointing fingers at the true culprits: unions, regulators, and politicians of all stripes.

Ross and Richard are right. If politicians really want more jobs in America, they should be adopting policies to boost U.S. competitiveness.

And we don’t need giant steps. Yes, a flat tax would be great, but even incremental reforms such as a lower corporate tax rate or the right tax treatment of business investment would yield big dividends.

Let’s add a few more voices to the discussion.

In an editorial, the Wall Street Journal debunks Donald Trump’s protectionist tirade against China.

The real-estate developer recently added Japan to his most-wanted list of job killers… “They’re killing us. You know what we sell to Japan? Practically nothing.” Is $116 billion worth of annual goods and services exports to Japan practically nothing? Japan is the fourth largest U.S. export market in goods after Canada, Mexico and China. …The best way to boost American exports is to remove trade barriers with new trade agreements. U.S. farm producers would particularly benefit from the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Japan and 10 other countries. Japanese tariffs on beef would fall to 9% in the 16th year of the deal from 38.5% while the 20% tariff on ground pork would be eliminated in six years. Japan’s 21.3% levy on poultry and eggs would be abolished in six to 13 years.

Writing for the Washington Post, David Ignatius defends trade in general and trade agreements in particular.

…the revolt against free trade that has captured both parties could do the most long-term damage. …there’s strong evidence that trade has benefited the U.S. economy and created whole new industries in which the United States is dominant. That’s the essence of the “creative destruction” that makes a market economy so potent: It relentlessly pushes innovation and change. …The bipartisan protectionism of Trump and Sanders has focused its attacks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership… Robert Z. Lawrence and Tyler Moran estimate that between 2017 and 2026, when TPP would have its major impact, the costs to displaced workers would be 6 percent of the benefits to the economy — or an 18-to-1 benefit-to-cost ratio. …David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson…noted that the pact would promote trade in knowledge industries where the United States has a big advantage and that “killing the TPP would do little to bring factory work back to America.”

Ignatius also makes a very important observation that protectionists want us to be scared of nations that have much bigger problems than the United States.

Trump, the businessman, seems weirdly out of touch with real economic trends. He speaks of Japan as though it were an economic powerhouse, when it has actually suffered a two-decades-long slump; he describes a surging China, when the numbers show its growth is sagging.

Amen. Japan has huge problems and China still has quite a way to go before it becomes a developed nation.

Let’s close with some good news. Politicians may be engaging in anti-trade demagoguery, and there may be some voters that are motivated by hostility to voluntary exchange, but that doesn’t mean the protectionists have won.

Indeed, pro-trade sentiment has never been higher by some measures. Here’s some amazingly positive polling data from Gallup.

P.S. One final point. The growing burden of government spending and taxation since World War II have been very unfortunate, but the good news is that we have strong evidence that the economic damage of worsening fiscal policy has been offset by the economic gains from trade liberalization. It would be tragic to see that reversed.

P.P.S. Fans of Richard Epstein may enjoy this video of him reminiscing about Barack Obama’s undistinguished tenure at the University of Chicago Law School, as well as this video of him dismantling George Soros in a debate that took place at Cato.

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