Posts Tagged ‘Harmonization’

Most normal Americans have never heard of the “Base Erosion and Profit Shifting” project being pushed by the tax-loving bureaucrats at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

But in the world of tax policy, BEPS is suddenly attracting a lot of attention, mostly because the business community has figured out it’s a scheme that would require them to pay more money to greedy governments.

I’m happy that BEPS is finally getting some hostile attention, but I wonder why it took so long. I started criticizing the project from the moment it was announced. Given the OECD’s dismal track record of promoting statist policy, there was zero chance that this project would result in good policy proposals.

Though I will say that the Wall Street Journal quickly recognized that the BEPS scheme was a ruse for tax increases on the business community.

And the editors of the paper have continued their criticisms as BEPS has morphed from bad concept to specific policy. Here are some passages from an editorial earlier this week.

…the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development this week released its final proposals for combatting “base erosion and profit shifting,” or BEPS. …The OECD claims governments lose anywhere between $100 billion and $240 billion in revenue each year to such legal strategies, and it has spent two years concocting complex rules and new compliance burdens to stop it. Perhaps the worst of the OECD’s ideas is…country-by-country reports to every jurisdiction in which a company operates would detail operations in that area, and where it has paid tax on any relevant profits.

The WSJ is particularly concerned about proposals to require sharing of information with irresponsible and corrupt governments.

Ostensibly this…data would be kept confidential. Fat chance about that, especially if a high-taxing government thinks it has spotted an opportunity to grab more revenue or indulge some political grandstanding. A related proposal would require companies to hand over their so-called master files to governments. Those files, which detail global operations and intra-company transfers, are essentially guides to proprietary business strategies. Passing them to the authorities, and especially governments that run state-owned enterprises competing with multinational firms, is an invitation to mischief.

The OECD’s proposals also will mean higher compliance costs.

Companies could also be forced to spend years in courts and arbitration challenging potential new instances of the double taxation the current global tax system was developed to avoid. …Underlying all of this is the belief that the fiscal problems of the world result from insufficient tax collection, when the real culprit is anemic growth.

The final point in the above passage deserves special attention. Economic growth in many industrialized nations is relatively anemic because of bad government policy. And since people are earning less income and businesses are earning fewer profits, this means less revenue for government.

But rather than fix the policies that are causing sub-par growth, the politicians want to impose higher tax rates.

Needless to say, this will simply lead to less taxable income, making it even harder to collect revenue (this is the core insight of the Laffer Curve).

It’s also worth citing what the Wall Street Journal wrote over the summer on the BEPS issue. The editors started with an important observation about companies being able to invest in high-tax nations because they can protect some of their profits.

The global war on low tax rates entered a new stage… Hang onto your wallets—and your proprietary corporate data. …Governments have noticed that companies try to protect themselves from rapacious tax policies. …This is all legal for now, and a good thing too. Shielding profits from growth-killing taxes helps make investment and job creation in high-tax jurisdictions more economical.

And the editorial also warns about the dangers of giving dodgy governments access to more information, particularly when some of them will be incapable of protecting data from hackers.

The compliance burden these rules would impose counts as a new tax in itself. Despite some attempts to allow companies to file only one global disclosure in the jurisdiction of the corporate headquarters, in practice firms are likely to have to submit multiple, overlapping documents around the world. Sensitive corporate financial information would then be shared among global tax collectors. If you believe the OECD’s claim that all this will be kept confidential, have a chat with any of the millions of federal employees whose personnel files Uncle Sam allowed China to hack.

By the way, I don’t doubt for one second that companies push the envelope as they try to protect their shareholders’ money from government.

But less money for government is a good outcome. Particularly when politicians are imposing taxes – like the corporate income tax – that hurt workers by impeding capital investment.

The main thing to understand, at least from an American perspective, is that businesses have a big incentive to shift money out of the United States because politicians have saddled our economy with the world’s highest corporate tax rate, combined with the globe’s most punitive worldwide tax system.

Dealing with those problems is the right approach, not some money grab from an international bureaucracy. I shared these ideas in this brief presentation I made to an audience on Capitol Hill.

For what it’s worth, the chart I shared is all the evidence you could ever want that governments aren’t suffering from a lack of corporate tax revenue.

Moreover, while I don’t like OECD schemes to enable higher tax burdens, the BEPS project won’t equally affect all businesses.

Let’s look at how the project specifically disadvantages American companies (above and beyond the self-imposed damage from Washington).

Aparna Mathur of the American Enterprise Institute explains how BEPS will make a bad system even worse for US-based multinationals.

The U.S. has much to lose from a shift to this system. …the U.S. today has the highest corporate tax rate in the OECD. Under BEPS, this would affect the real decisions of firms to locate jobs and capital investment in the U.S.. In a recent report Michael Mandel points out that the BEPS principles will give multinationals a strong incentive to move high-paying creative and research jobs out of the U.S. since that is the easiest way to take advantage of low tax rates. …The current U.S. system of corporate taxation has many flaws. …the changes envisaged under the OECD’s BEPS project would make matters even worse.

This doesn’t sound good.

Some people have complained about corporate inversions, but it doesn’t hurt America when a company technically redomiciles in a nation with better tax law. After all, the jobs, factories, and headquarters generally remain in the United States.

But the way BEPS is structured, companies will have to move economic activity out of America.

Last but not least, Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center identifies some major systematic flaws in the BEPS project. She starts by pointing out what the OECD wants.

Europe’s largest welfare states…are leading the charge through the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to raise corporate tax rates globally. …The underlying assumption behind the base erosion and profit shifting, or BEPS, project is that governments aren’t seizing enough revenue from multinational companies. …Its solution is to force those companies that wisely structured their operations to benefit from low-tax jurisdictions to declare more income in high-tax nations.

And then she explains what will be the inevitable result of higher tax burdens.

Far from filling government coffers in order to continue funding massive redistributive welfare regimes, BEPS will strangle global economic output and erode tax bases even further. …Corporations provide an easy political target for tax-hungry politicians, but the burden of corporate taxes falls on ordinary citizens. Employees, shareholders, and investors will bear the brunt of the OECD’s corporate tax grab, all because European politicians refuse to accept responsibility for building bigger governments than their economies can sustain.

So what is the Obama White House doing to protect American companies from this global tax grab?

The good news is that some folks from the Treasury Department have complained that the project is targeting U.S. multinationals.

The bad news is that the minor grousing from the United States hasn’t had an impact. Not that we should be surprised. Because of a shared belief in statism, the Obama Administration has worked to expand the OECD’s power to push bad tax policy around the world.

P.S. Since today’s topic is arcane yet important international tax issues, allow me to share an update on the horribly misguided FATCA law. As is so often the case, the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal is the source of great wisdom.

Or, in this case, maybe it would be best to write “the source of great sadness and frustration.”

America is the only country that taxes citizens on their global earnings, and in 2010 Washington exacerbated that by passing the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or Fatca. As this law comes into force, it is doing immense harm to…the 8.7 million U.S. citizens living abroad, who have essentially been declared guilty of financial crimes unless they can prove otherwise. …American leadership overseas, from volunteer organizations to the business world, has diminished. No one wants an American involved when their citizenship attracts a maze of rules, regulations, potential fines and criminal penalties. …It’s painful to witness the anguish of patriotic Americans as they contemplate giving up their U.S. citizenship, as record numbers have been doing. In 2014, 3,417 renounced their citizenship, a 266% increase over 2012, before Fatca came fully into effect.

Interestingly, the way to solve the FATCA problem is the same way to deal with the corporate inversion issue.

Simply shift to a territorial system.

The best solution is for the U.S. to join the rest of the world in taxing based on residency rather than citizenship. …Doing so would advance American fairness, mobility and economic competitiveness.

Sadly, only a handful of lawmakers, most notably Senator Rand Paul, are making noise on this issue.

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If you want to pinpoint the leading source of bad economic policy proposals, I would understand if someone suggested the Obama Administration.

But looking to Europe might be even more accurate.

For instance, I’d be hard pressed to identify a policy more misguided than continent-wide eurobonds, which I suggested would be akin to “co-signing a loan for your unemployed alcoholic cousin who has a gambling addiction.”

And now there’s another really foolish idea percolating on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

The U.K.-based Financial Times has a story about calls for greater European centralization from Italy.

Italy’s finance minister has called for deeper eurozone integration in the aftermath of the Greek crisis, saying a move “straight towards political union” is the only way to ensure the survival of the common currency. …Italy and France have traditionally been among the most forceful backers of deeper European integration but other countries are sceptical about supporting a greater degree of political convergence. …Italy is calling for a wide set of measures — including the swift completion of banking union, the establishment of a common eurozone budget and the launch of a common unemployment insurance scheme — to reinforce the common currency. He said an elected eurozone parliament alongside the existing European Parliament and a European finance minister should also be considered. “To have a full-fledged economic and monetary union, you need a fiscal union and you need a fiscal policy,” Mr Padoan said.

This is nonsense.

The United States has a monetary union and an economic union, yet our fiscal policy was very decentralized for much of our nation’s history.

And Switzerland has a monetary and economic union, and its fiscal policy is still very decentralized.

Heck, the evidence is very strong that decentralized fiscal systems lead to much better outcomes.

So why is Europe’s political elite so enamored with a fiscal union and so opposed to genuine federalism?

There’s an ideological reason and a practical reason for this bias.

The ideological reason is that statists strongly prefer one-size-fits-all systems because government has more power and there’s no jurisdictional competition (which they view as a “race to the bottom“).

The practical reason is that politicians from the weaker European nations see a fiscal union as a way of getting more transfers and redistribution from nations such as Germany, Finland, and the Netherlands.

In the case of Italy, both reasons probably apply. Government debt already is very high in Italy and growth is virtually nonexistent, so it’s presumably just a matter of time before the Italians will be looking for Greek-style bailouts.

But the Italian political elite also has a statist ideological perspective. And the best evidence for that is the fact that Signore Padoan used to be a senior bureaucrat at the Paris-based OECD.

The Italian finance minister…served as former chief economist of the OECD.

You won’t be surprised to learn that French politicians also have been urging a supranational government for the eurozone. And presumably for the same reasons of ideology and self-interest.

But here’s the man-bites-dog part of the story.

The German government also seems open to the idea, as reported by the U.K.-based Independent.

France and Germany have agreed a new plan for closer eurozone political unionThe new Franco-German agreement would see closer cooperation between the 19 countries.

Wow, don’t the politicians in Berlin know that a fiscal union is just a scheme to extract more money from German taxpayers?!?

As I wrote three years ago, this approach “would involve putting German taxpayers at risk for the reckless fiscal policies in nations such as Greece, Italy, and Spain.

But maybe the Germans aren’t completely insane. Writing for Bloomberg, Leonid Bershidsky explains that the current German position is to have a supranational authority with the power to reject national budgets.

The German perspective on a political and fiscal union is a little more cautious. Last year, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and a fellow high-ranking member of the CDU party, Karl Lamers, called for a euro zone parliament (not elected, but comprising European Parliament members from euro area countries) and a budget commissioner with the power to reject national budgets if they contravene a certain set of rules agreed by euro members.

And since the German approach is disliked by the Greeks, then it can’t be all bad.

Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, Schaeuble’s most eloquent hater, pointed out in a recent article for Germany’s Die Zeit that, in the Schaeuble-Lamers plan, the budget commissioner is endowed only with “negative” powers, while a true federation — like Germany itself — elects a parliament and a government to formulate positive policies.

But “can’t be all bad” isn’t the same as good.

Simply stated, any sort of eurozone government almost surely will morph over time into a transfer union. And that means more handouts, more subsidies, more harmonization, more bailouts, more centralization, and more bureaucracy.

So you can see why Europe’s political elite may be even more foolish than their American counterparts.

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One would think that Europeans might finally be realizing that an ever-growing welfare state and an ever-rising tax burden are a form of economic suicide.

The most obvious bit of evidence is to look at what’s happening in Greece. Simply stated, public policy for too long has punished workers and producers while rewarding looters and moochers. The result is economic collapse, bailouts, and the destruction of cultural capital.

But Greece is just the tip of the iceberg. Many other European nations are heading in the same direction and it shows up in the economic data. Living standards are already considerably lower than they are in the United States. Yet instead of the “convergence” that’s assumed in conventional economic theory, the Europeans are falling further behind instead of catching up.

There are some officials sounding the alarm.

In a column for the Brussels Times, Philippe Legrain, the former economic adviser to the President of the European Commission, has a glum assessment of the European Union.

In 2007, the EU accounted for 31 per cent of the world economy, measured at market prices. This year, it will account for only 22 per cent, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Eight years ago, the EU’s economy was a fifth bigger than the US’s; this year it is set to be smaller than America’s. …Continued economic decline seems inevitable.

But it seems that the folks who recognize that there is a problem are greatly out-numbered by those who want to make the problem worse.

For instance, one would think that any sentient adult would understand that the overall burden of government spending in Europe is a problem, particularly outlays for redistribution programs that undermine incentives for productive behavior.

Yet, as reported by the EU Observer, some statists at the European Commission want to mandate the amounts of redistribution in member nations.

The European Commission is to push for minimum standards on social protection across member states… Employment commissioner Marianne Thyssen Tuesday (9 June) said she wants to see minimum unemployment benefits, a minimum income, access to child care, and access to basic health care in all 28 countries. …The commission will look into whether “enough people are covered in member states when they have an unemployment problem; how long are they protected. What is the level of the unemployment benefit in comparison with the former wage they earned,” said Thyssen. …”The aim is to have an upper convergence…”

This is a horrible idea. It’s basically designed to impose a rule that forces nations to be more like France and Greece.

Instead of competition, innovation, and diversity, Europe would move even further in the direction of one-size-fits-all centralization.

Though I give her credit for admitting that the purpose of harmonization is to force more spending, what she calls “upper convergence.” So we can add Ms. Thyssen to our list of honest statists.

And speaking of centralization, some politicians want to go beyond mandates and harmonization and also have EU-wide taxes and spending.

Here are some of the details from a report in the U.K.-based Guardian.

German and French politicians are calling for a…eurozone treasury equipped with a eurozone finance chief, single budget, tax-raising powers, pooled debt liabilities, a common monetary fund, and separate organisation and representation within the European parliament. …They call for the setting up of “an embryo euro area budget”, “a fiscal capacity over and above national budgets”, and harmonised corporate taxes across the bloc. The eurozone would be able to borrow on the markets against its budget, which would be financed from a kind of Tobin tax on financial transactions and also from part of the revenue from the new business tax regime.

By the way, this initiative to impose another layer of taxes and spending in Europe isn’t being advocated by irrelevant back-bench politicians. It’s being pushed by Germany’s Vice Chancellor and France’s Economy Minister!

Thankfully, not everyone in Europe is economically insane. Syed Kamall, a member of the European Parliament form the U.K.’s Conservative Party, is unimpressed with this vision of greater centralization, harmonization, and bureaucratization.

Here’s some of what he wrote in a column for the EU Observer.

The socialist dream that these two politicians propose would soon turn into a nightmare not just for the Eurozone, but for the entire EU. …Their socialist vision of harmonised taxation and more social policies sounds utopian on paper but it fails to accept a basic fact: that Europe is not the world, and Europe cannot close itself off from the world. …After several decades of centralisation in the EU, we have seen the results: …a failure to keep up with growing economic competitiveness in many parts of the world. …Specific proposals such as harmonised corporate taxes are nothing new from the socialists, but they would reduce European competitiveness. …With greater harmonisation Europe’s tax rate would only be as low as the highest-taxing member. …

Syed’s point about Europe not being the world is especially relevant because the damage of one-size-fits-all centralization manifests itself much faster when jobs and capital can simply migrate to other jurisdictions.

And while the Europeans are trying to undermine the competitiveness of other nations with various tax harmonization schemes, that’s not going to arrest Europe’s decline.

Simply stated, Europe is imposing bad policy internally at a much faster rate than it can impose bad policy externally.

P.S. Let’s close with some humor sent to me by the Princess of the Levant.

It features the libertarian character from Parks and Recreation.

And I even found the YouTube clip of this scene.

Which is definitely worth watching because of how Swanson explains the tax system.

I particularly like the part about the capital gains tax. It’s a good way of illustrating double taxation.

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Over the years, I’ve shared some ridiculous arguments from our leftist friends.

Paul Krugman, for instance, actually wrote that “scare stories” about government-run healthcare in the United Kingdom “are false.” Which means I get to recycle that absurd quote every time I share a new horror story about the failings of the British system.

Today we have some assertions from a statist that are even more absurd


“Taxes for thee, but not for me!”

Pascal Saint-Amans is a bureaucrat at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. He has spent his entire life sucking at the public teat. After spending many years with the French tax authority, he shifted to the OECD in 2007 and now is in charge of the bureaucracy’s Centre for Tax Policy Administration.

I don’t know why he made the shift, but perhaps he likes the fact that OECD bureaucrats get tax-free salaries, which nicely insulates him from having to deal with the negative consequences of the policies he advocates for folks in the private sector.

Anyhow, Saint-Amans, acting on behalf of the uncompetitive nations that control the OECD, is trying to create one-size-fits-all rules for international taxation and he just wrote a column for the left-wing Huffington Post website. Let’s look at a few excerpts, starting with his stated goal.

To regain the confidence and trust of our citizens, there is a pressing need for action. To this end, the OECD’s work…will pave the way for rehabilitating the global tax system.

You probably won’t be too surprised to learn that the OECD’s definition of “rehabilitating” in order to regain “confidence and trust” does not include tax cuts or fundamental reform. Instead, Monsieur Saint-Amans is referring to the bureaucracy’s work on “tax base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS) and automatic exchange of information.”

I’ve already explained that “exchange of information” is wrong, both because it forces low-tax jurisdictions to weaken their privacy laws so that high-tax governments can more easily double tax income that is saved and invested, and also because such a system necessitates the collection of personal financial data that could wind up in the hands of hackers, identity thieves, and – perhaps most worrisome – under the control of governments that are corrupt and/or venal.

The OECD’s palatial headquarters – funded by U.S. tax dollars

So let’s focus on the OECD’s “BEPS” plan, which is designed to deal with the supposed crisis of “massive revenue losses” caused by corporate tax planning.

I explained back in March why the BEPS proposal was deeply flawed and warned that it will lead to “formula apportionment” for multinational firms. That’s a bit of jargon, but all you need to understand is that the OECD wants to rig the rules of international taxation so that high-tax nations such as France can tax income earned by companies in countries with better business tax systems, such as Ireland.

In his column, Monsieur Saint-Amans tries to soothe the business community. He assures readers that he doesn’t want companies to pay more tax as a punishment. Instead, he wants us to believe his BEPS scheme is designed for the benefit of the business community.

Naturally, the business community feels like it’s in the cross-hairs. …But the point of crafting new international tax rules is not to punish the business community. It is to even the playing field and ensure predictability and fairness.

And maybe he’s right…at least in the sense that high tax rates will be “even” and “predictable” at very high rates all around the world if government succeed in destroying tax competition.

You’re probably thinking that Saint-Amans has a lot of chutzpah for making such a claim, but that’s just one example of his surreal rhetoric.

He also wants readers to believe that higher business tax burdens will “foster economic growth.”

The OECD’s role is to help countries foster economic growth by creating such a predictable environment in which businesses can operate.

I guess we’re supposed to believe that nations such as France grow the fastest and low-tax economies such as Hong Kong and Singapore are stagnant.

Yeah, right. No wonder he doesn’t even try to offer any evidence to support his absurd claims.

But I’ve saved the most absurd claim for last. He actually writes that a failure to confiscate more money from the business community could lead to less government spending – and he wants us to believe that this could further undermine prosperity!

Additionally, in some countries the resulting lack of tax revenue leads to reduced public investment that could promote growth.

Wow. I almost don’t know how to respond to this passage. Does he think government should be even bigger in France, where it already consumes 57 percent of the country’s economic output?

Presumably he’s making an argument that the burden of government spending should be higher in all nations.

If so, he’s ignoring research on the negative impact of excessive government spending from international bureaucracies such as the International Monetary FundWorld Bank, and European Central Bank. And since most of those organizations lean to the left, these results should be particularly persuasive.

He’s also apparently unaware of the work of scholars from all over the world, including the United StatesFinland, AustraliaSwedenItaly, Portugal, and the United Kingdom.

Perhaps he should peruse the compelling data in this video, which includes a comparison of the United States and Europe.

Not that I think it would matter. Saint-Amans is simply flunky for high-tax governments, and I imagine he’s willing to say and write ridiculous things to keep his sinecure.

Let’s close by reviewing some analysis of the OECD’s BEPS scheme. The Wall Street Journal is correctly skeptical of the OECD’s anti-tax competition campaign. Here’s what the WSJ wrote this past July.

…the world’s richest countries have hit upon a new idea that looks a lot like the old: International coordination to raise taxes on business. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on Friday presented its action plan to combat what it calls “base erosion and profit shifting,” or BEPS. This is bureaucratese for not paying as much tax as government wishes you did. The plan bemoans the danger of “double non-taxation,” whatever that is, and even raises the specter of “global tax chaos” if this bogeyman called BEPS isn’t tamed. Don’t be fooled, because this is an attempt to limit corporate global tax competition and take more cash out of the private economy.

P.S. High-tax nations have succeeded in eroding tax competition in the past five years. The politicians generally claimed that they simply wanted to better enforce existing law. Some of them even said they would like to lower tax rates if they collected more revenue. So what did they do once taxpayers had fewer escape options? As you can probably guess, they raised personal income tax rates and increased value-added tax burdens.

P.P.S. If you want more evidence of the OECD’s ideological mission.

It has allied itself with the nutjobs from the so-called Occupy movement to push for bigger government and higher taxes.

The OECD is pushing a “Multilateral Convention” that is designed to become something akin to a World Tax Organization, with the power to persecute nations with free-market tax policy.

It supports Obama’s class-warfare agenda, publishing documents endorsing “higher marginal tax rates” so that the so-called rich “contribute their fair share.”

The OECD advocates the value-added tax based on the absurd notion that increasing the burden of government is good for growth and employment.

It even concocts dishonest poverty numbers to advocate more redistribution in the United States.

P.P.P.S. I should take this opportunity to admit that Monsieur Saint-Amans probably could get a job in the private sector. His predecessor, for instance, got a lucrative job with a big accounting firm, presumably because “he had ‘value’ to the private sector only because of his insider connections with tax authorities in member nations.” See, it’s very lucrative to be a member of the parasite class.

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After the financial crisis, the consensus among government officials was that we needed more regulation.

This irked me in two ways.

1. I don’t want more costly red tape in America, particularly when the evidence is quite strong that the crisis was caused by government intervention. Needless to say, the politicians ignored my advice and imposed the costly Dodd-Frank bailout bill.

2. I’m even more worried about global regulations that force all nations to adopt the same policy. The one-size-fits-all approach of regulatory harmonization is akin to an investment strategy of putting all your retirement money into one stock.

I talked about this issue in Slovakia, as a conference that was part of the Free Market Road Show. The first part of my presentation was a brief description of cost-benefit analysis. I think that’s an important issue, and you can click here is you want more info about that topic.

But today I want to focus on the second part of my presentation, which begins at about the 3:40 mark. Simply stated, there are big downsides to putting all your eggs in one regulatory basket.

The strongest example for my position is what happened with the “Basel” banking rules. International regulators were the ones who pressured financial institutions to invest in both mortgage-backed securities and government bonds.

Those harmonized regulatory policies didn’t end well.

Sam Bowman makes a similar point in today’s UK-based City AM.

Financial regulations like the Basel capital accords, designed to make banks act more prudentially,  did the opposite – incentivising banks to load up on government-backed mortgage debt and, particularly in Europe, government bonds. Unlike mistakes made by individual firms, these were compounded across the entire global financial system.

The final sentence of that excerpt is key. Regulatory harmonization can result in mistakes that are “compounded across the entire global financial system.”

And let’s not forget that global regulation also would be a vehicle for more red tape since politicians wouldn’t have to worry about economic activity migrating to jurisdictions with more sensible policies – just as tax harmonization is a vehicle for higher taxes.

P.S. For a more learned and first-hand explanation of how regulatory harmonization can create systemic risk, check out this column by a former member of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

P.P.S. Politicians seem incapable of learning from their mistakes. The Obama Administration is trying to reinflate the housing bubble, which was a major reason for the last financial crisis. This Chuck Asay cartoon neatly shows why this is misguided.

Asay Housing Cartoon

P.P.S. Don’t forget that financial regulation is just one small piece of the overall red tape burden.

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I’m not a big fan of the German government. Angela Merkel has a disturbing desire to impose fiscal and political union on the European continent. And even the supposedly free market Free Democratic Party seems perfectly comfortable with a gradual descent into statism.

No wonder I mocked the Washington Post for labeling Germany a “fiscally conservative” nation.

But everything’s relative in the world of public policy. Compared to some basket cases in Europe, Germany is a laissez-faire paradise.

Here’s a fascinating report from an English-language news site in Europe.

Two Belgian government ministers have complained…that..Belgian companies are facing unfair competition. The two Belgian cabinet ministers were in Hannover (Germany) on Monday. They decided on their visit after often hearing in Belgium that it was cheaper to get Belgian cattle processed in Germany than at home.

So what is the unfair competition from Germany? Are there special tariffs or trade barriers that are artificially raising costs on Belgian products?

Nope, the Belgians are complaining that Germany doesn’t have a minimum wage and that regulations are not sufficiently onerous. Oh, the horror.

The Belgian ministers say that the most striking thing is that this can happen legally because there is no general minimum wage in Germany: “The company is not violating any regulations, because there are no regulations and that must stop” Mr Vande Lanotte told the VRT. The Belgians insist Belgian companies are the subject of unfair competition. Economy Minister Vande Lanotte says that in principle everybody should be treated in the same way: “Belgian companies cannot compete with their German competitors and this has ramifications.”

Gasp, there “are no regulations.” What sort of vicious dog-eat-dog system are the Germans running?!?

The answer, of course, is that Germany has lots of red tape.

More statist than France?!?

But apparently not as much intervention as Belgium. And you’ll notice that the “principle” that “everybody should be treated the same way” is really a stalking horse for the argument that there should be regulatory harmonization.

But the harmonization always means that everyone has to impose more onerous rules. Belgium doesn’t harmonize with Germany’s comparatively market-oriented policy. Instead, Germany is supposed to harmonize with the more statist and interventionist model of the Belgians.

In this sense, regulatory harmonization is like tax harmonization. It always means a heavier burden of government, not a lighter burden. Low-tax jurisdictions are badgered and harassed to make their tax systems worse so that fiscal hell-holes such as France don’t face “unfair competition.”

In an ideal world, the Germans would tell the Belgians to go jump in a lake.

But thanks to the never-ending pressure for regulation, harmonization, and centralization in Europe, it’s not that simple. The Brussels bureaucrats may decide to force Germany to adopt bad policy.

Mr Vande Lanotte intends to raise the issue of the absence of a minimum wage in many German sectors with the European Commission.

P.S. Germany also is better than the United States, at least on the issue of minimum wage mandates. Germany doesn’t have a minimum wage law. Obama, meanwhile, wants to saw off the bottom rungs of the economic ladder by pushing the U.S. minimum wage requirement even higher.

P.P.S. This story helps to explain why I want Belgium to split apart. If it became two nations, one Dutch and one French, I suspect we’d get better policy because they would then compete with each other instead of nagging Germany to become more statist.

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Several months ago, I wrote a rather wonky post explaining that the western world became rich in large part because of jurisdictional competition. Citing historians, philosophers, economists, and other great thinkers, I explained that the rivalry made possible by decentralization and diversity played a big role in both economic and political liberalization.

In other words, it’s not just a matter of tax competition and tax havens (though you know how I feel about those topics).

Now I want to provide another argument in favor of the jurisdictional differences that are encouraged by national sovereignty. Simply stated, it’s the idea of diversification. Reduce risk by making sure one or two mistakes won’t cause a catastrophe.

This isn’t my insight. The author of The Black Swan understands that this simple principle of financial investment also applies to government. He recently explained his thinking in a short interview with Foreign Policy. The magazine began with a few sentences of introduction.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has made a career of going against the grain, and he has been successful enough that the title of his book The Black Swan is a catchphrase for global unpredictability far beyond its Wall Street origins. …His newest project is helping governments get smarter about risks.

The rest of the article is Taleb in his own words. Here are some of my favorite passages, beginning with some praise for Switzerland’s genuine federalism and strong criticism of the EU bureaucracy in Brussels.

The most stable country in the history of mankind, and probably the most boring, by the way, is Switzerland. It’s not even a city-state environment; it’s a municipal state. Most decisions are made at the local level, which allows for distributed errors that don’t adversely affect the wider system. Meanwhile, people want a united Europe, more alignment, and look at the problems. The solution is right in the middle of Europe — Switzerland. It’s not united! It doesn’t have a Brussels! It doesn’t need one.

But it’s important to understand why he likes Switzerland and dislikes the European Union: Small is beautiful. More specifically, decentralized decision making means less systemic risk.

We need smaller, more decentralized government. On paper, it might appear much more efficient to be large — to have economies of scale. But in reality, it’s much more efficient to be small. …an elephant can break a leg very easily, whereas you can toss a mouse out of a window and it’ll be fine. Size makes you fragile.

Taleb elaborates on this theme, echoing many of the thinkers I cited in my wonky September post.

The European Union is a horrible, stupid project. The idea that unification would create an economy that could compete with China and be more like the United States is pure garbage. What ruined China, throughout history, is the top-down state. What made Europe great was the diversity: political and economic. Having the same currency, the euro, was a terrible idea. It encouraged everyone to borrow to the hilt.

Because it’s a short article, he doesn’t cite many specific examples, so let me elaborate. One of the reasons for the financial crisis is that the world’s financial regulators thought it would be a good idea if everybody agreed to abide the same rules for weighing risks. This resulted in the Basel rules that tilted the playing field in favor of mortgage-backed securities, thus helping to create and pump up the housing bubble. And we know how that turned out.

But that’s just part of the story. The regulatory cartel also decided to provide a one-size-fits-all endorsement of government debt. Now we’re in the middle of a sovereign debt crisis, so we see how that’s turning out.

Unfortunately, governments seem drawn to harmonization like moths to a flame. To make matters worse, the corporate community often has the same instinct. Their motive often is somewhat benign. They like the idea of one rulebook rather than having to comply with different policies in every nations.

But mistakes made for benign reasons can be just as bad as mistakes made for malignant reasons.

P.S. Last but not least, it’s worth noting that Taleb is not a big fan of democracy.

I have a negative approach to democracy. I think it should be primarily a mechanism by which people can remove a bad leader

I don’t know if this is because he recognizes the danger of untrammeled majoritarianism, much like Thomas Sowell, George Will, and Walter Williams. But if you want more information on why 51 percent of the people shouldn’t be allowed to oppress 49 percent of the people, here’s a very good video.

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