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Posts Tagged ‘Fiscal Policy’

What’s the worst loophole (properly defined) in the cluttered internal revenue code?

I think the deduction for state and local taxes is very bad policy since it enables higher tax burdens in states such as California, New Jersey, and Illinois. The exemption for municipal bond interest is another misguided provision since it makes it easier for states to finance spending with debt.

Special favors in the tax code for ethanol also deserve scorn and disdain, and I’m also not a fan of the charitable deduction or the ways in which housing gets preferential treatment.

But if I had to pick just one tax preference to repeal, it would be the so-called healthcare exclusion. This is the policy that enables employers to deduct the cost of health insurance policies they buy for their employees.

You may think that deduction is reasonable. After all, employers also can deduct the wages and salaries they pay their employees. But here’s the catch. Employees pay tax on their wages and salaries, but they don’t have to pay tax on the value of their health insurance, even though such policies obviously are a form of compensation.

Moreover, since this type of compensation is shielded from both income taxes and payroll taxes, the playing field is therefore very tilted, which generates some very perverse results.

First, some background. As part of a broader analysis of the non-taxation of fringe benefits, Scott Greenberg of the Tax Foundation explains how government has created a big incentive to take income in the form of fringe benefits rather than wages and salaries.

…eighty years ago, it was relatively uncommon to offer workers compensation other than their regular wages and salaries. In 1929, only 1.9 percent of employee pay took the form of fringe benefits. By 2014, fringe benefits had risen to 19.2 percent of worker compensation.

Here’s a chart looking at the historical data.

Greenberg says this distortion in the tax code is unfair.

…the growing trend of unreported fringe benefits is “inequitable and inefficient.” This claim is spot on. For an illustration, imagine two employees, one of whom makes a salary of $100,000, and one of whom makes a salary of $80,000 and benefits worth $20,000, which largely go unreported. Although both workers receive the same overall compensation, the first employee is subject to a significantly higher tax burden than the second, which seems plainly unfair.

Moreover, the distortion lures people into making economically foolish choices.

Furthermore, this arrangement incentivizes companies to shift more compensation towards benefits, to help employees avoid taxes. This leads to an inefficient allocation of resources, towards services that employers might not have been willing to pay for in the absence of tax incentives.

He’s correct

Writing for the Weekly Standards, Ike Brannon looks specifically at the biggest tax-free fringe benefit.

…allowing employers to provide health insurance tax-free to their workers is terrible policy, a truism that any honest economist—whether liberal, conservative, or otherwise—would agree with. …First, workers end up with more health insurance than they would ever purchase on their own (since tax-free health insurance is worth more than income that’s taxed at 30%-50%), which gives people less take-home pay to spend as they see fit. Second, more generous health insurance entails lower co-pays as well as other provisions that insulate the worker from the actual cost of their health care. As a result, people become less sensitive to prices when seeking health care, and they consume more of it—most of which does nothing to improve health outcomes, numerous studies have shown.

For further details on this unfortunate tax preference, A. Barton Hinkle looks at the evolution of the health exclusion in a column for Reason.

…the original sin of the American health-care marketplace…was committed back in World War 2, when inflation led workers to demand higher wages – which many employers could not afford to pay because of price controls. …With wages frozen, employers needed another way to compete for labor made scarce by the draft. So some began offering health coverage. The practice took root, spread, and outlasted the war. In 1949 the National Labor Relations Board ruled that health benefits counted as wages for the purpose of union negotiations. Five years later, the IRS ruled that health coverage was not taxable income. The result was a double incentive for employers to offer fatter health benefits in lieu of fatter paychecks. …The result: a skyrocketing, ultimately unsustainable increase in national outlays for health care. …In short, for decades the federal government has encouraged employers to provide gold-plated health-care plans.

Joe Antos of the American Enterprise Institute explains how the “healthcare exclusion” is bad fiscal policy, bad health policy, and bad economic policy.

If we hope to move to an efficient healthcare system that is fair to everyone, Congress will have to take on the largest subsidy in the tax code. …Premiums paid for employment-based health insurance are excluded from federal income and payroll taxes.

When describing provisions that allow people to keep more of their own money, I would prefer to say largest distortion rather than largest subsidy, but I realize I’m being pedantic. Regardless of word choice, the net effect of this preference is negative.

The tax exclusion…fuels the rapid growth of health spending, contributes to stagnating wage growth, and disadvantages low-wage workers. Because there is no limit on how much can be excluded from taxes, workers are encouraged to buy more expensive coverage than they would otherwise…makes consumers less sensitive to prices and promotes the use of medical services, including services that may not provide much value to the patient.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the problems associated with the exclusion.

The exclusion has caused a shift in compensation from taxable cash wages to greater health benefits which are not taxed. Between 1999 and 2015, the average employer contribution for family coverage nearly tripled while wage rates increased by only about half.

By the way, our leftists friends should oppose the exclusion for class-warfare reasons.

…workers in higher tax brackets benefit the most from the exclusion. The Joint Committee on Taxation found that the average savings for tax filers with incomes less than $30,000 was about $1,650 compared to about $4,580 for those with incomes over $200,000.

To deal with these negative effects, Antos proposes a modified version of the “Cadillac tax” from Obamacare combined with tax credits for consumers who purchase their own health insurance.

That’s better than the status quo, but the ideal solution is a flat tax, which would eliminate the deduction provided to employers for compensation in the form of fringe benefits.

In their book on tax reform, Professors Hall and Rabushka explain the obvious beneficial consequence of a level playing field for all forms of compensation.

The flat tax eliminates the distortion toward fringe benefits created by the fact that employers can deduct them, thereby receiving a subsidy that can be passed on to their employees. The best alternative, and one we expect your employer to select, is to offer you higher pay in exchange for lower fringes. You can then use the extra cash to buy whatever combination of benefits you desire.

This will make the healthcare marketplace much more efficient.

Here’s what I wrote about the healthcare exclusion way back in 2009, as part of a column on government-created inefficiency in the health sector.

…social engineering in the tax code created this mess. Specifically, most of us get some of our compensation in the form of health insurance policies from our employers. And because that type of income is exempt from taxation, this encourages so-called Cadillac health plans.  …our gold-plated health plans now mean we use insurance for routine medical costs. This means, of course, we have the paperwork issues discussed above, but that’s just a small part of the problem. Even more problematic, our pre-paid health care system is somewhat akin to going to an all-you-can-eat restaurant. We have an incentive to over-consume since we’ve already paid. Except this analogy is insufficient. When we go to all-you-can-eat restaurants, at least we know we’re paying a certain amount of money for an unlimited amount of food. Many Americans, by contrast, have no idea how much of their compensation is being diverted to purchase health plans. …this messed-up approach causes inefficiency and higher costs. We consumers don’t feel any need to be careful shoppers since we perceive that our health care is being paid by someone else. Should we be surprised, then, that normal market forces don’t seem to be working? (though it is worth noting that costs keep falling and quality keeps rising in the few areas – such as laser-eye surgery and cosmetic surgery – that are not covered by insurance) Imagine if auto insurance worked this way? Or homeowner’s insurance? Would it make sense to file insurance forms to get an oil change? Or to buy a new couch? That sounds crazy. The system would be needlessly bureaucratic, and costs would rise because we would act like we were spending other people’s money.  But that’s what would probably happen if government intervened in the same way it does in the health-care sector.

By the way, to make sure politicians don’t get a windfall of new revenue, the healthcare exclusion should only be repealed as part of a reform that also lowers tax rates.

Here’s a video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that highlights how the healthcare exclusion is a major cause of the third-party payer problem.

And if you like videos, I strongly recommend this Reason TV explanation of how simple and affordable healthcare can be in the absence of government-created third-party payer.

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We can learn a lot of economic lessons from Europe.

Today, we’re going to focus on another lesson, which is that higher taxes lead to more red ink. And let’s hope Hillary Clinton is paying attention.

I’ve already made the argument, using European fiscal data to show that big increases in the tax burden over the past several decades have resulted in much higher levels of government debt.

But let’s now augment that argument by considering what’s happened in recent years.

There’s been a big fiscal crisis in Europe, which has forced governments to engage in austerity.

But the type of austerity matters. A lot.

Here’s some of what I wrote back in 2014.

…austerity is a catch-all phrase that includes bad policy (higher taxes) and good policy (spending restraint). But with a few notable exceptions, European nations have been choosing the wrong kind of austerity (even though Paul Krugman doesn’t seem to know the difference).

And when I claim politicians in Europe have chosen the wrong kind of austerity, that’s not hyperbole.

As of 2012, there were €9 of tax hikes for every €1 of supposed spending cuts according to one estimate. That’s even worse than some of the terrible budget deals we’ve seen in Washington.

At this point, a clever statist will accuse me of sour grapes and state that I’m simply unhappy that politicians opted for policies I don’t like.

I’ll admit to being unhappy, but my real complaint is that higher tax burdens don’t work.

And you don’t have to believe me. We have some new evidence from an international bureaucracy based in Europe.

In a working paper for the European Central Bank, Maria Grazia Attinasi and Luca Metelli crunch the numbers to determine if and when “austerity” works in Europe.

…many Euro area countries have adopted fiscal consolidation measures in an attempt to reduce fiscal imbalances…in most cases, fiscal consolidation did not result, at least in the short run, in a reduction in the debt-to-GDP ratio…calls for a more temperate approach to fiscal consolidation have increased on the ground that the drag of fiscal restraint on economic growth could lead to an increase rather than a decrease in the debt-to-GDP ratio, as such fiscal consolidation may turn out to be self-defeating. …The aim of this paper is to investigate the effects of fiscal consolidation on the general government debt-to-GDP ratio in order to assess whether and under which conditions self defeating effects are likely to materialise and whether they tend to be short-lived or more persistent over time.

Now let’s look at the results of their research.

It turns out that austerity does work, but only if it’s the right kind. The authors find that spending cuts are successful and higher tax burdens backfire.

The main finding of our analysis is that…In the case of revenue-based consolidations the increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio tends to be larger and to last longer than in the case of spending-based consolidations. The composition also matters for the long term effects of fiscal consolidations. Spending-based consolidations tend to generate a durable reduction of the debt-to-GDP ratio compared to the pre-shock level, whereas revenue-based consolidations do not produce any lasting improvement in the sustainability prospects as the debt-to-GDP ratio tends to revert to the pre-shock level. …strategy is more likely to succeed when the consolidation strategy relies on a durable reduction of spending, whereas revenue-based consolidations do not appear to bring about a durable improvement in debt sustainability.

Unfortunately, European politicians generally have chosen the wrong approach.

This is an important policy lesson also in view of the fact that revenue-based consolidations tend to be the preferred form of austerity, at least in the short run, given also the political costs that a durable reduction in government spending entail.

Here are a few important observations from the study’s conclusion.

…the findings of our analysis are in line with those of the literature on successful consolidation, namely that the composition of fiscal consolidation matters and that a durable reduction in the debt-to-GDP ratio is more likely to be achieved if consolidation is implemented on the expenditure side, rather than on the revenue side. In particular, when fiscal consolidation is implemented via an increase in taxation, the debt-to-GDP ratio reverts back to its pre-shock level only in the long run, thus failing to generate an improvement in the debt ratio, and producing what we call a self-defeating fiscal consolidation. …fiscally stressed countries benefit from an immediate reduction in the level of debt when reducing spending.

In other words, restraining the growth of spending is the best way to reduce red ink. Heck, it’s the only way.

When debating my leftists friends, I frequently share this table showing nations that have obtained very good results with multi-year periods of spending restraint.

My examples are from all over the world and cover all sorts of economic conditions. And the results repetitively show that when you deal with the underlying problem of too much government, you automatically improve the symptom of red ink.

I then ask my statist pals to show me a similar table of data for countries that have achieved good results with higher taxes.

I’m still waiting for an answer.

Which is why the only good austerity is spending restraint.

P.S. Paul Krugman is remarkably sloppy and inaccurate when writing about austerity. Check out his errors when commenting on the United Kingdom, Germany, and Estonia.

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There’s a very powerful statement, variously attributed to Alexis de Toqueville, Benjamin Franklin, or Alexander Tytler, that basically warns that democracy is doomed when people figure out they can vote themselves money.

There’s no evidence that any of them actually spoke or wrote those words, though I guess it doesn’t matter that the quote didn’t originate with someone like Franklin. What does matter is that it accurately captures something very important, which is the tendency for governments to over-tax and over-spend once people decide that it’s okay to use government coercion to take other people’s money.

But it’s still nice to be able to cite something accurate. With this in mind, I came up with my Theorem of Societal Collapse. And I think it’s actually more accurate than the vote-themselves-money quote because democracy doesn’t necessarily lead to statism. What leads to bad outcomes is democracy combined with bad values.

And a pervasive belief in redistributionism is a bad value. Heck, it’s a self-destructive value. Consider Greece. When you add together the people getting welfare and disability to the people getting pension payments to the people on the government payroll, it turns out that a majority of people in the country are riding in the wagon of government dependency.

That’s bad. But what makes the Greek situation so hopeless is that those are the same people who vote. Which means there’s very little chance of getting a government that would implement good policy.

After all, why would the recipients of other people’s money vote for politicians who support limits on redistribution?

But I’m not just blaming voters. Politicians also deserve scorn and disdain because they are the ones who often seek votes by promising to take other people’s money.

Some observers would like to believe that these politicians will use their supposed superior expertise and knowledge about public policy to make appropriate tradeoffs and prevent the system from becoming over-burdened.

But that’s somewhat naive.

Indeed, there’s an entire school of thought in economics, known as “public choice,” which is based on making real-world assumptions about the self-interested behavior of politicians and interest groups. Here’s a partial description from the Library of Economics and Liberty.

As James Buchanan artfully defined it, public choice is “politics without romance.” The wishful thinking it displaced presumes that participants in the political sphere aspire to promote the common good. …public officials are portrayed as benevolent “public servants” who faithfully carry out the “will of the people.” …public choice, like the economic model of rational behavior on which it rests, assumes that people are guided chiefly by their own self-interests… As such, voters “vote their pocketbooks,” supporting candidates and ballot propositions they think will make them personally better off; bureaucrats strive to advance their own careers; and politicians seek election or reelection to office. Public choice, in other words, simply transfers the rational actor model of economic theory to the realm of politics. …collective decision-making processes allow the majority to impose its preferences on the minority.

In other words, both voters and politicians can have an incentive for ever-larger government, even if the end result is Greek-style fiscal chaos because taxes and spending reach ruinous levels.

I call this “Goldfish Government” because some think that a goldfish lacks the ability to control its appetite and therefore will eat itself to death when presented with unlimited food.

Indeed, public choice scholars explicitly recognize that unconstrained democracy can lead to bad results.

Public choice scholars have identified…deep…problems with democratic decision-making processes.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that their research suggests ways to compensate for the natural tendency of ever-expanding government.

Like that founding father of the American constitutional republic, public choice recognizes that men are not angels and focuses on the importance of the institutional rules… If, for example, democratic governments institutionally are incapable of balancing the public budget, a constitutional rule that limits increases in spending and taxes to no more than the private sector’s rate of growth will be more effective.

Hmmm…., a rule that limits the government so it doesn’t grow faster than the private sector.

Sounds like an idea worth embracing.

But while I like anything that builds support for the Golden Rule, I’m not sure it’s a sufficient condition for good policy.

Simply stated, we have too many examples of nations that followed the Golden Rule for several years, only to then fall off the wagon with a new splurge of spending.

There are two ways to deal with this problem. First, make the spending restraint part of a jurisdiction’s constitution, as we see in Switzerland and Hong Kong.

Second, augment the internal constraint of a spending cap with the external constraint of tax competition. Bluntly stated, destructive tax policies will be less likely when politicians are afraid that taxpayers will move across borders.

I spoke about this topic at a recent conference in Slovakia.

I also discuss the critical role of demographic change toward the end of my speech.

P.S. America’s Founding Fathers had the right solution. They set up a democratic form of government, but they strictly limited the powers of the central government. This system worked remarkably well for a long period, but then the Supreme Court decided that the enumerated powers listed in the Constitution were just a suggestion.

P.P.S. While it’s bad news to combine democracy with bad value, I want to emphasize that the problem is bad values. Most non-democratic societies have policies that are so evil and destructive (think Cuba and North Korea) that they make France seem like a beacon of economic liberty.

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I sometimes wonder if I was put on this planet to defend tax competition and tax havens.

I argue for fiscal sovereignty, good tax policy, and financial privacy to the denizens of Capitol Hill, both in writing and in person.

I make the same arguments for readers of the New York Times, as well as readers of big-box store magazines.

My affection for low-tax jurisdictions is so strong that I ran the risk of getting thrown in a Mexican jail and also was accused of disloyalty to America by a bureaucrat for the Treasury Department.

Though I much prefer the hardship duty of arguing for tax competition and tax havens in places such as Bermuda, Antigua, Monaco, the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, and the Cayman Islands. Yes, I’m willing to go the extra mile in the fight for economic liberty.

And, if nothing else, my intensity on these issues makes me quotable, at least to writers for the Economist.

Not one to mince words, Daniel Mitchell of the right-wing Cato Institute denounces the OECD’s push to co-ordinate global tax enforcement as “the devil’s spawn” and possibly even a step towards the fiscal equivalent of…the World Trade Organisation. Tax havens “should not have to enforce the burdensome tax laws of other countries”, he thunders. “Having grown rich with the tax policies of their choosing, the OECD countries are pulling up the ladder and saying, ‘you can’t do the same to attract investment’. It’s fiscal imperialism.”

But I’m not the only one with sensible views on these issues.

A different article in the Economist highlights some benefits made possible by “tax havens.”

Offshore centres oil the financial interface between larger economies, insists Alasdair Robertson of Maples. Grant Stein of Walkers, another Cayman firm, thinks of it as “the plumbing that connects the global financial system”. …They enjoy support from some fierce ideological warriors, including libertarians at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC. …many offshore transactions are about tax neutrality, not cheating. …“It’s not about evasion but about avoiding an extra, gratuitous layer of tax,” says John Collis of Conyers Dill & Pearman, a Bermuda law firm. Such structures offer legal neutrality too. In a joint venture in, say, the BVI, no shareholder has a home advantage; all get a sophisticated, predictable common-law system with a small but well-regarded local commercial court and Britain’s Privy Council as the ultimate arbiter. …Some offshore champions consider tax competition a good thing because it discourages countries from trying to tax their way out of trouble.

Writing for Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, David Dodwell explains the valuable role of low-tax jurisdictions.

…offshore centres like Panama, the British Virgin Islands, Singapore, Hong Kong, Jersey, Lichtenstein or Switzerland serve a multitude of valuable roles. …Offshore financial centres have always acted as safe havens against such chaos or personal insecurity, and should be allowed to continue to do so. Is Hong Kong to be stigmatised as a tax haven because it offers a company low and simple tax arrangements compared with France, or Italy or India or wherever?

He uses his own experiences as an example.

When I settled permanently in Hong Kong, I did so not just because the work was interesting… I did so because I escaped onerous British taxes, and horrendous, stressful weeks completing nonsensically complex tax returns for Britain’s Inland Revenue. When I uplifted my Financial Times pension from Britain and placed it in a Hong Kong trust, I did so perfectly legally and transparently because if I had the pension sent to me monthly from Britain, it would be taxed. This was a pension built on a lifetime of hard-earned labour that had already been taxed once. I saw no justification for Britain’s inland revenue to tax me a second time. Was I acting unethically by eliminating a tax obligation to the British Government? …Building savings, and providing long-term security to my family…is not something I think I should feel embarrassed about. Nor should governments that create complex and burdensome personal and corporate tax regimes be surprised if people relocate to other jurisdictions where operating overheads are less onerous, and tax rules more simple and comprehensible.

He concludes with some wise words on the value of low-tax jurisdictions for the rest of the world.

As trade has exploded over the past four decades, so companies have become progressively more international, with operations sprawling across many economy and tax jurisdictions. Choosing a single low-tax base from which to coordinate such potentially messy production networks makes eminent good sense. So too is a zero-tax offshore location valuable as a way of avoiding double taxation for companies operating in more than one economy. …Use of such centres makes incorporation simpler, gives access to tried and tested legal systems including for arbitration, and tax-neutral treatment of investment. All legitimate reasons.

In a piece for the Financial Times that focuses primarily on British offshore financial centers, Richard Hay explains why so-called tax havens are so valuable.

Many of those who benefit from offshore centres — including millions receiving workplace pensions — are not aware of the key role they play in their financial affairs. Such financial centres facilitate trade, investment and economic growth. Globalisation has contributed to a doubling of world gross domestic product over the past two decades. Much of the benefit has accrued to developing countries, where dramatic declines in poverty have resulted from connecting local workforces to world consumers. …The true appeal of the UK offshore centres lies in their widely trusted British-inspired laws, courts, and professionals. The predictability and security offered by British institutions make such jurisdictions magnets for investors seeking reliable structures for international investment.

He cites one example of how Jersey (one of the Channel Islands, not the over-taxed New Jersey in the United States) produces big benefits for the United Kingdom.

UK offshore centres support British jobs, increase financing available for investment in the country and elevate the rate of return for savings. A 2013 study conducted by Capital Economics, a research consultancy, found that Jersey supports more than 140,000 British jobs — six times as many as the entire UK steel industry. The study found that Jersey’s contribution generates £2.5bn a year in tax for the exchequer, as much as the UK loses through all tax avoidance, onshore and offshore, combined.

And workers are big beneficiaries.

International investment is pooled in funds in tax-neutral countries like the Cayman Islands. Cost-efficient facilities afforded by such centres boost saving and pension returns, improving the lives of ordinary workers in retirement and easing the welfare burden on cash-strapped governments. Such pooled funds are liable to tax in the countries where their income and gains are earned, and again when received by the ultimate investors.

In a column for City A.M., James Quarmby highlights some of the practical and appropriate business reasons for utilizing so-called tax havens.

…the truth is that the major OFCs are extremely well regulated and have been so for many years. It is far harder to set up a company in Jersey than in the UK, for instance, because of its rigorous “know your client” rules. …most people use companies in OFCs for quite mundane, non-tax reasons. If you are trading or investing internationally, an offshore company is an essential building block for your business. …Experienced business people will tell you that there are certain emerging markets where, under no circumstances, would you want to resolve an investors’ dispute – you would much rather resolve it in a Cayman court where you could be sure of a fair fight. …Another reason for using an OFC is the bi-lateral treaties many of them have entered into with other countries. Mauritius, for instance, has excellent treaties with India and as a consequence it is now the world’s most important financial gateway to the sub-continent. Hong Kong, for similar reasons, is the gateway into China… OFCs are a vital part of our globalised world – without them international trade and investment would seriously suffer, global GDP would be lower, and the world would be a poorer place.

By the way, there is an effective and pro-growth way to boost tax compliance, as explained in another article in the Economist.

Getting rich people to pay their dues is an admirable ambition, but this attack is both hypocritical and misguided. It may be good populist politics, but leaders who want to make their countries work better should focus instead on cleaning up their own back yards and reforming their tax systems. …governments should not bash companies for trying to reduce their tax bills, if they do so legally. In the end, tax systems must be reformed. …Governments also need to lower corporate tax rates. Tapping companies is inefficient: firms pass the burden on to others. …Nor do corporate taxes raise much money: barely more than 2% of GDP (8.5% of tax revenue) in America and 2.7% in Britain. …a lower rate on a broader base…would be more efficient and would probably raise more revenue.

Pierre Bessard of Switzerland’s Liberales Institut looks at the big picture in his monograph on Individual Rights and the Fight Against Tax Evasion. He starts by noting that the entire anti-tax competition campaign is an illegitimate exercise of “might makes right.”

…the G20 as a body lacks democratic or legal legitimacy and is in effect a cartel of governments… The G20…is clearly a departure from the rule of law in international affairs and replaces negotiations with political pressure under the (explicit or implicit) threat of economic and financial sanctions.

He then explains that anti-tax competition advocates rely on laughable arguments about the supposed desirability of bigger government.

To make the G20 governments’ war against citizens protecting wealth and resources in “tax havens” more palatable, the OECD  has initially argued that governments “need every tax dollar legally due to combat the world recession”. As this argument lost its credibility as the evidence  increasingly showed that Keynesian-style fiscal interventionism worsened and prolonged the crisis, the OECD now holds that tax avoidance and tax evasion mean fewer resources “for infrastructure and services such as education and health, lowering standards of living in both developed and developing economies”. This statement, however, contradicts all theoretical and empirical evidence, which shows that a smaller scope and size of government go hand in hand with higher  economic growth and living standards.

And he also explains why tax competition leads to better tax policy and more growth.

By restricting government’s capacity to indefinitely raise the tax burden, the diversity of jurisdictions and systems unquestionably contributes to greater prosperity. The most obvious consequence of tax competition is its beneficial impact on saving, since lower taxes encourage capital accumulation. This in turn leads to more investment, more jobs and more economic welfare. …Experience shows that “tax havens”…play at most a preventive or corrective role of arbitrage in the face of excessive taxation. In general, tax competition from “tax havens” leads to a better balance between public services and the tax burden. …From an economic perspective, the use of “tax havens” facilitates capital accumulation and improves economic prosperity in the high-tax countries where the capital is eventually repatriated to be invested in factors of production. “Tax havens” therefore increase the efficiency of international  capital markets and thus the efficiency of capital allocation to the most productive investments, thereby contributing to raise overall living standards. As a result, “tax havens” benefit all residents, whether they make use of them directly or not. They serve to channel capital and avoid double or even triple taxation in high-tax countries and lead to better economic performance in those countries.

The bottom line is that tax competition protects individuals by at least partially constraining the greed of the political class.

…tax diversity is an essential condition for the preservation of individual liberty. Competition tends to restrict the predatory potential of the territorial monopoly on the use of coercion (which defines government). …An individual’s freedom of choice and legitimate rights to the fruits of his or her labor and property are thus better protected in a world with strong tax competition.

And Pierre closes by noting the powerful intellectual lineage in favor of systems diversity as a driver and protector of liberty.

…jurisdictional competition and the advantages of smaller, open territorial monopolies controlled by governments are important ideas of the intellectual liberal tradition. Such diverse thinkers as David Hume, Adam Smith, Montesquieu, Alexis de Tocqueville, Immanuel Kant, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and Turgot insisted on the role of institutional diversity and the right to exit for individual freedom.

P.S. Pierre also wrote a superb column a few years ago about tax competition, fiscal sovereignty, and financial privacy for the New York Times.

P.P.S. Here’s my video on the economic case for tax havens.

P.P.P.S. Let’s not forget that the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is the international bureaucracy most active in the fight to destroy tax competition. The is doubly outrageous because, 1) our tax dollars subsidize the OECD, and 2) those bureaucrats get tax-free salaries!

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As I’ve repeatedly explained, governments generally get in fiscal trouble because politicians can’t resist spending lots of money when the economy is buoyant and therefore generating lots of tax revenue.

And this is why I’m a huge fan of spending caps. If outlays can’t grow faster than, say, 3 percent annually, that make it difficult for politicians to enact unsustainable spending commitments (as we’ve seen in Greece, Alberta, Puerto Rico, California, and Alaska) in years when there is extra revenue.

Now I have a new example, and it’s extra painful because the politicians literally want me to pay for their profligacy.

Here’s part of what was recently written in the Washington Post about the supposed budget hardships in my home county of Fairfax in Virginia.

Virginia’s largest municipality is fraying around the edges. A population that is growing older, poorer and more diverse is sharpening the need for basic services…even as a sluggish local economy maintains a chokehold on the revenue stream. Since the 2008 recession, local officials have whittled away at programs to the tune of $300 million. …Since 2008, the county has eliminated 700 jobs. Libraries operate on shorter schedules and with fewer books, class sizes have swelled past 32 students in some schools… County agencies are stretching out vehicle maintenance — including for school buses and fire engines — and officials say aging athletic courts and deteriorating playgrounds await nearly $20 million in repairs. …The county slashed $3.8 million in summer school funding in 2015 and is trying to use $374,000 less in paper this year.

But all this budget “slashing” apparently isn’t enough to balance the budget.

…there is no fat left to trim. Instead, they are searching for ways to raise taxes… The county is searching for new revenue to cover some of what officials estimate are hundreds of millions of dollars worth of unmet needs. …“We’ve been punting for seven years now,” said John C. Cook (R-Braddock), a county supervisor. “There’s really nothing easy left to cut.” …the County Board of Supervisors will decide whether to raise residential property taxes by as much as four cents — to $1.13 per $100 of assessed value.

Gee, sounds like the government has “cut spending to the bone” and imposed “savage austerity,” which means higher taxes are the only option, right?

Not exactly, Professor Don Boudreaux of George Mason University digs through the data and exposes the truth.

What budget cuts?  In fiscal year 2016 Fairfax County’s government will spend $7.13 billion dollars – the highest inflation-adjusted annual expenditure in County history.  And this real expenditure is the highest in County history even on a per-capita basis.  …Fairfax County’s government today spends, per county resident, 168 percent more real dollars than it spent in 1975, 144 percent more than in 1986, 30 percent more than in 2001, and 1.6 percent more than in 2008 – the year that your reporter suggests marks the beginning of Fairfax County’s budget austerity. …it is emphatically not true that the Fairfax leviathan has cut its spending or suffered budget cuts.  Quite the opposite.

Don included a table of data, which I’ve put into a chart.

Let me know if you can find where spending was “slashed.”

Remember, this is inflation-adjusted spending, and also per-capita-adjusted spending, which means we can do apples-to-apples comparisons.

And the comparison that really matters is that the local government is now spending more than twice as much as it did 30 years ago.

  • Are the schools more than twice as good? No.
  • Are the roads more than twice as good? No.
  • Are the parks more than twice as good? No.

So where did all the money go? Beats me, though I’m going to take a wild guess that the country bureaucracy is now far bigger and getting paid much more.

In other words, the same theorem of government that explains the behavior of Washington also applies at the local level.

P.S. Let’s close with a very appropriate joke about the type of people who create fiscal crises.

A father told his 3 sons when he sent them to the university: “I feel it’s my duty to provide you with the best possible education, and you do not owe me anything for that. However, I want you to appreciate it. As a token, please each put $1,000 into my coffin when I die.”

And so it happened. His sons became a doctor, a lawyer, and a financial planner, each very successful financially. When their father’s time had come and they saw their father in the coffin, they remembered his wish.

First, it was the doctor who put 10 $100 bills onto the chest of the deceased.

Then, came the financial planner, who also put $1,000 there.

Finally, it was the heartbroken lawyer’s turn.He dipped into his pocket, took out his checkbook, wrote a check for $3,000, put it into his father’s coffin, and took the $2,000 cash.

He later went on to become a member of Congress…

If you want more jokes about politicians, click here.

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If you follow the contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, most of the tax discussion is about who has the best plan to squeeze the rich with ever-higher tax rates.

For those motivated by spite and envy, Bernie Sanders “wins” that debate since he wants bigger increases in the tax rates on investors, entrepreneurs, business owners, and other upper-income taxpayers.

For those of us who don’t earn enough to be affected by changes in the top tax rates, this may not seem to be a relevant discussion. Some of us like the idea of higher tax rates on our well-to-do neighbors because we expect to get a slice of the loot and we think it’s morally okay to use government to take other people’s money. Others of us don’t like those higher rates because we don’t resent success and we also worry about the likely impact on incentives to create jobs and wealth.

But all of us are making a mistake if we think that the policy proposals from Bernie and Hillary won’t mean higher taxes on ordinary Americans.

Here are three basic proposition to help explain why lower-income and middle-income taxpayers are the ones who face the biggest threat.

  1. Hillary and Bernie want government to be much bigger, because of both built-in expansions of entitlements and a plethora of new handouts and subsidies.
  2. There’s not much ability to squeeze more money from the “rich” and America already has the developed world’s most “progressive” tax system.
  3. The only practical way to finance bigger government is with big tax hikes on the middle class, both with higher income taxes and a value-added tax.

There’s not really any controversy about the first proposition. We know the two Democratic candidates are opposed to genuine entitlement reform, so that means the burden of government spending automatically will climb in coming decades. And we also know that Hillary and Bernie also want to create new programs and additional spending commitments, with the only real difference being that Bernie wants government to expand at a faster rate.

So let’s look at my second proposition, which may strike some people as implausible, particularly the assertion that America has the most “progressive” tax system. After all, don’t European nations impose higher tax rates on the “rich” than the United States?

Yes and no, but first let’s deal with the issue of whether the rich are a never-ending spigot of tax revenue. The most important thing to understand is that there’s a huge difference between tax rates and tax revenue. If you don’t believe me, simply look at the IRS data from the 1980s, which shows that upper-income taxpayers paid far more to Uncle Sam at a 28 percent tax rate in 1988 than they paid at a 70 percent tax rate in 1980.

And keep in mind that there are incredibly simple – and totally legal – steps that well-to-do taxpayers can take to dramatically lower their tax exposure.

The bottom line is that high tax rates penalize productive behavior and encourage inefficient tax planning, the net effect being that higher tax rates won’t translate into higher revenue.

Moreover, as shown by a different set of IRS data, the American tax system already is heavily biased against the so-called rich. Even when compared with other countries. There are some nations that impose higher top tax rates than America, to be sure, but that’s only part of the story. The “progressivity” of a tax system is based on what share of the burden is paid by the rich.

And if you look at this data from the Tax Foundation, particularly the two measures of progressivity in columns 1 and 3, you can see that the United States gets a greater share of taxes from the rich than any other developed nation.

By the way, the data is from the middle of last decade, so the numbers are probably different today. But since we’ve taken more people off the tax rolls in the past 10 years in America while also increasing tax rates on upper-income households, I would be shocked if the United States didn’t still have the most “progressive” tax code.

In any event, the most important takeaway from the Tax Foundation data is that America has the most “progressive” tax system not because we impose the highest tax rates on the rich, but rather for the simple reason that the tax burden on lower-income and middle-income taxpayers is comparatively mild.

In other words, the tax burden on the rich in America is not particularly unusual. Some nations impose higher tax rates and some countries impose lower tax rates. But because other taxpayers in the U.S. pay very low effective tax rates, that’s why the overall tax code in the United States is so tilted against the rich.

Which brings us to the third proposition about the middle class being the main target of Hillary and Bernie.

Simply stated, the only practical way of financing bigger government is by raising the tax burden on lower-income and middle-income Americans. As already explained, there’s not much leeway to generate more tax revenue from the “rich.”

In other words, the rest of us have a bulls-eye painted on our backs. Our tax burden is relatively low by world standards and there are simple and effective ways that politicians could grab more of our income.

Let’s look at some of the details. The folks at the Pew Research Group crunched the data for 39 developed nations to compare tax burdens for various types of middle-income households. As you can see, taxpayers in the United States are relatively fortunate, particularly if they have kids.

Here are some excerpts from the article.

…most research has concluded that, at least among developed nations, the U.S. is on the low end of the range.  We looked at 2014 data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s database of benefits, taxes and wages, which has standardized data from 39 countries going back to 2001 and allows comparisons across different family types. …We calculated this for four different family types: a single employed person with no children; two married couples with two children, one with both parents working and the other with one worker; and a single working parent. In all cases, the U.S. was below the 39-nation average – in some cases, well below. …Much of the difference in relative tax burdens among different countries is due to the taxes that fund social-insurance programs, such as Social Security and Medicare in the U.S. These taxes tend to be higher in other developed nations than they are in the U.S.

And here’s the most shocking part of the article. The aforementioned data only considers income taxes and payroll taxes.

…the OECD data don’t include…other national taxes, such as…value-added taxes.

This is a huge omission. The average VAT in Europe is now 21 percent, so the actual tax burden on taxpayers in other nations is actually much higher than shown in the chart prepared by Pew.

Let’s look at the scorecard.

  • Non-rich Europeans pay higher income tax rates.
  • Non-rich Europeans pay higher payroll taxes.
  • Non-rich Europeans pay the value-added tax.

And because all these taxes on lower-income and middle-income people are the only effective and realistic way to finance European-sized government, this is the future Hillary and Bernie want for America. Even though they won’t admit it.

P.S. I can’t resist pointing out that the countries most admired by Bernie Sanders, Denmark and Sweden, both have tax systems that are far less “progressive” than the United States according to the Tax Foundation data. And the reason for that relative lack of progressivity is because of a giant fiscal burden on lower-income and middle-income taxpayers. And that’s what will happen in the United States if entitlements aren’t reformed.

P.P.S. Since I’m a fan of the flat tax, does that mean I like the countries with lower scores in column 3 of the Tax Foundation table? Yes and no. A lower score obviously means that a nation’s tax code isn’t biased against successful taxpayers, but it’s also important to look at the overall size of the public sector. Sweden’s tax system isn’t very progressive, for instance, but everyone pays a lot because of a bloated government. It’s far better to be in Switzerland, which has the right combination of a modest-sized government and a non-discriminatory tax regime.

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I recently wrote a primer on the issue of tax evasion, which is illegal. I made the elementary point that low tax rates and a simple tax code are the best (and only good) way of promoting high levels of tax compliance.

Now let’s shift to the related topic of tax avoidance, which is legal. Unlike evasion, there’s no civil disobedience and no breaking of laws with tax avoidance. It simply means that taxpayers are taking advantage of provisions in the tax code that help protect income from the government.

And we all do it.

All these things I do to lower my taxes are legal.

As Judge Learned Hand correctly opined, nobody has any obligation to deliberately overpay the government.

Tax avoidance also is moral. Tax codes are corrupt and governments waste money, so anything that reduces the flow of revenue to the public sector is helpful.

With that in mind, I want to offer a hearty defense of Mr. Cameron from the United Kingdom. But I’m not referring to David Cameron, the current Prime Minister. Instead, I want to defend Ian Cameron, his late father.

The Financial Times has a summary of what Cameron’s father did to protect against punitive taxation.

Mr Cameron’s father, Ian, was one of the founder investors. Blairmore was incorporated in Panama but based in the Bahamas. The idea was for investors to avoid an extra layer of tax because investors came from lots of jurisdictions and some, at least, would have faced double taxation if the fund had been based in a mainstream jurisdiction — firstly by the country where the fund operated, and then by the investor’s own country when he or she received his profits. …In 1982, when Blairmore was set up, offshore funds were more tax-efficient than UK funds, on which investors had to pay tax annually. …It is also possible that investors avoided paying stamp duty — a tax on the transfer of documents, including share certificates — by using bearer shares, which were exempt from the duty.

I also want to defend David Cameron’s mother, who is still alive and engaging in tax avoidance, as noted by a column in the U.K.-based Times.

He also admitted receiving a lump sum of £200,000 from his mother in 2011, eight months after his father died in September 2010. The handout, which came on top of a £300,00 legacy, could allow Mr Cameron to avoid an £80,000 inheritance tax bill if his mother lives until 2018.

This is perfectly appropriate and legitimate tax planning, and also completely moral and economically beneficial since death taxes shouldn’t exist.

Now let’s consider why David Cameron’s parents decided to engage in tax avoidance. To understand his father’s motives, let’s look at the history of British tax rates, as reported by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in a survey of the U.K. tax system released last November.

In 1978–79, there was a starting rate of 25%, a basic rate of 33% and higher rates ranging from 40% to 83%. In addition, an investment income surcharge of 15% was applied to those with very high investment income, resulting in a maximum income tax rate of 98%.

In other words, David Cameron’s father had to deal with a tax code that basically stole all his money above a certain threshold. Much of his income was earned when the top rate was 98 percent. And when he set up his offshore structures, even after Thatcher’s early reforms, his top tax rate could have been as high as 75 percent.

I frequent use “confiscatory” when talking about tax systems that grab, say, 50 percent of the additional income being earned by taxpayers, but I’m simply expressing outrage at excessive taxation. In the case of 1970’s-era England, even a leftist presumably would agree that word applies to a system that seizes 75 percent-98 percent of a taxpayer’s income (though some British statists nonetheless will applaud because they think all income belongs to the government and some American leftists also will applaud because of spite).

By the way, let’s not forget that David Cameron’s father was presumably also aware that there was lots of double taxation in the United Kingdom because of other levies such as the corporate income tax, death tax, and capital gains tax. So I shudder to think about the effective marginal tax rate that may have applied to him and other taxpayers in the absence of tax planning (maybe they paid more than 100 percent, like the thousands of unfortunate French taxpayers victimized by that nation’s wretched tax system).

The bottom line if that I’m very sympathetic to Cameron’s father, who was simply doing what was best for his family and what was best for the economy.

But I’m not exactly bubbling over with sympathy for the Prime Minister, who appears to be a puerile and shallow hypocrite. I’ve previously shared examples of his government browbeating taxpayers who don’t choose to needlessly give extra money to the government.

And now he’s caught is his own web of demagoguery.

Writing in the U.K.-based Sunday Times, Dominic Lawson has an appropriately jaundiced perspective.

Jimmy Carr must be laughing. In June 2012 the comedian was revealed by The Times as one of a number of showbiz folk to have invested in a scheme that had the effect of minimising the tax paid on their (typically volatile) income. Somehow unable to resist commenting on this story, David Cameron…told journalists that Carr’s behaviour had been “morally wrong”. …In other words: the people are angry and the prime minister wants to be with the pitchfork-waving crowd, not on the other side of the barricades. …now the PM is himself the subject of a whipped-up storm of fury… That is why, in my column of June 24, 2012 (“Cameron’s the clown in this Carr sketch”), there appeared these words: “The prime minister could not resist accusing Carr of ‘morally wrong’ behaviour, a piece of headline-grabbing he will have cause to regret.” …As a result, Cameron has now felt forced to become the first prime minister to make his tax details open to the electorate. It’s a sort of ritual humiliation, but one that will in no way appease those who regard the very idea of personal wealth as immoral. He should never have pandered to them.

Janet Daly of the U.K.-based Telegraph is similarly unimpressed with Cameron’s shallow posturing.

…there is a great mass of voters…who are very susceptible to the impression that Mr Cameron is a rich man who may possibly be a hypocrite when he denounces the tax-avoiding wealthy. …The Prime Minister and his Chancellor had put themselves in the forefront of the assault on “the rich”. This was the modern Conservative party…a major rhetorical revolution that took dangerous liberties with the vocabulary of what was being discussed. The Government began to obscure the difference between tax evasion, which is a crime, and tax avoidance…George Osborne invented a new category of sin called “aggressive tax avoidance”. This was a far nastier, more elaborate form of financial planning… Some kinds of tax avoidance are OK but other kinds are not, and the difference between them is, well, basically a matter of what kind of person you are – which is for the Government to decide. …Mr Cameron says…he has done nothing illegal or unusual… Nor, apparently, have most of the people whose private finances have been revealed to the world in the Panama Papers. …free societies should not create moral “crimes” that can put people beyond the pale when they have done nothing illegal. Mr Cameron may be about to conclude that himself.

By the way, Cameron and his people are not very good liars. Here are some more excerpts from the Times column I cited above, which explained how his mother is transferring assets to David in ways that will avoid the awful death tax.

Government sources pushed back yesterday against claims that the arrangement was a tax dodge. …“Every year hundreds of thousands of parents give money to their children,” a No 10 source said. “To suggest that by giving money to the prime minister there is somehow a tax dodge is extraordinary.” A No 10 spokesman said: “This is in no way linked to tax avoidance and it would be wrong to suggest otherwise.”

This is bollocks, as the English would say. If there was no desire to avoid an unfair and pernicious tax, Cameron’s mother could have left him that money upon her death.

Instead, she made a gift for purposes of hopefully keeping any extra money if her family rather than letting the government grab it. David Cameron should proudly embrace this modest bit of tax avoidance.

It’s definitely what I would do if I ever get to the point where I had enough money to worry about the death tax. Sadly, I don’t expect that to happen because it’s not easy for policy wonks to earn large amounts of money.

But if I ever find a big pot of money that will be around after my death, I know that I’ll want my children and the Cato Institute to be the beneficiaries, not a bunch of greedy and wasteful politicians (sorry to be redundant).

Heck, I’d leave my money to my cats before giving it to the corrupt crowd in Washington.

P.S. Rich leftists often say they want to pay higher taxes, yet they change their tune when presented with the opportunity to voluntarily give more of their money to Washington.

P.P.S. Since I quoted Judge Learned Hand on tax avoidance, I’m almost certain to get feedback from my leftist friends about the quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes about taxes being the price we pay for civilization. Allow me to preempt them by noting that Justice Holmes made that remark when the federal government consumed about 5 percent of our economy. As I wrote in 2013, “I’ll gladly pay for that amount of civilization.”

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