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Posts Tagged ‘Jurisdictional Competition’

According to bureaucrats at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, so-called tax havens are terrible and should be shut down. Their position is grossly hypocritical since they get tax-free salaries while pushing for higher taxes on everyone else, but not very surprising since the OECD’s membership is dominated by increasingly uncompetitive European welfare states.

Many economists, by contrast, view tax havens favorably since they discourage politicians from over-taxing and over-spending (thus protecting nations from “goldfish government“).

I agree with this economic argument for tax havens, but I also think there’s a very strong moral argument for these jurisdictions since there are so many evil and incompetent governments in the world.

But I don’t want to rehash the argument about the desirability of tax havens in this column. Instead, we’re going to focus on a nation that is becoming the world’s premier “offshore” center.

But it’s not a Caribbean island or a micro-state in Europe.

Instead, as noted in a recent Bloomberg editorial, the United States is now the magnet for global investment.

…the U.S. is becoming one of the world’s best places to hide money from the tax collector. …Congress rejected the Obama administration’s repeated requests to make the necessary changes to the tax code. As a result, the Treasury cannot compel U.S. banks to reveal information such as account balances and names of beneficial owners. The U.S. has also failed to adopt the so-called Common Reporting Standard, a global agreement under which more than 100 countries will automatically provide each other with even more data than FATCA requires. …the U.S. is rapidly becoming the new Switzerland. Financial institutions catering to the global elite, such as Rothschild & Co. and Trident Trust Co., have moved accounts from offshore havens to Nevada, Wyoming and South Dakota. New York lawyers are actively marketing the country as a place to park assets. …From a certain perspective, all this might look pretty smart: Shut down foreign tax havens and then steal their business.

The Economist also identified the U.S. as a haven.

America seems not to feel bound by the global rules being crafted as a result of its own war on tax-dodging. It is also failing to tackle the anonymous shell companies often used to hide money. …All this adds up to “another example of how the US has elevated exceptionalism to a constitutional principle,” says Richard Hay of Stikeman Elliott, a law firm. …America sees no need to join the CRS. …reciprocation is patchy. It passes on names and interest earned, but not account balances; it does not look through the corporate structures that own many bank accounts to reveal the true “beneficial” owner; and data are only shared with countries that meet a host of privacy and technical standards. That excludes many non-European countries. …The Treasury wants more data-swapping and corporate transparency, and has made several proposals to bring America up to the level of the CRS. But most need congressional approval, and politicians are in no rush to enact them. …Meanwhile business lobbyists and states with lots of registered firms, led by Delaware, have long stymied proposed federal legislation that would require more openness in corporate ownership. (Incorporation is a state matter, not a federal one.) …America is much safer for legally earned wealth that is evading taxes… It has shown little appetite for helping enforce foreign tax laws.

And here are some passages from a recent column in Forbes.

…foreign financial institutions are required to report the identities and assets of United States taxpayers to the IRS. Meanwhile, U.S. financial institutions cannot be compelled to reveal the same information to foreign countries. Additionally, the United States has not adopted the Common Reporting Standard. …So, the United States government obtains tax and wealth information from other countries, but fails to share information about what occurs in the U.S. with those other counties. …the U.S. is among the top five best countries for setting up anonymous shell companies. Tax havens deliver a set of benefits including secrecy, potential tax minimization, and the ability of the wealthy to access their monies from anywhere in the world. For a substantial percentage of the global super-rich, the United States is regularly unmatched.

Here’s some of what was reported by the U.K.-based Financial Times.

South Dakota is best known for its vast stretches of flat land and the Mount Rushmore monument… Yet despite its small town feel, Sioux Falls has become a magnet for the ultra-wealthy who set up trusts to protect their fortunes from taxes… Assets held in South Dakotan trusts have grown from $32.8bn in 2006 to more than $226bn in 2014, according to the state’s division of banking. The number of trust companies has jumped from 20 in 2006 to 86 this year. The state’s role as a prairie tax haven has gained unwanted attention… The Boston Consulting Group estimates that there is $800bn of offshore wealth in the US, nearly half of which comes from Latin America. …Bruce Zagaris, a Washington-based lawyer at Berliner, Corcoran & Rowe, says the US offshore industry is even bigger than people realise. “I think the US is already the world’s largest offshore centre. It has done a real good job disabling competition from Swiss banks.”

If this sounds like the United States is hypocritical, that’s a very fair accusation.

Indeed, it was the topic of an entire panel at an Offshore Alert conference. If you have a lot of interest in this topic, here’s the video.

This is an odd issue where I agree with statists (though only with regard to which jurisdictions are “havens”). For instance, the hard-left Tax Justice Network has calculated that the United States is not the biggest offshore jurisdiction. But America is close to the top.

In the TJN’s most-recent Financial Secrecy Index, the United States ranks #2. They think that’s a bad thing (indeed, one of their top people actually asserted that all income belongs to the government), but I’m happy we’ve risen in the rankings.

TJN also has specific details about U.S. law and I think they’ve put together a reasonably accurate summary.

The bottom line is that America is a haven, though it’s probably worth noting that we’ve risen in the rankings mostly because other nations have been coerced into weakening their human rights laws on financial privacy, not because the United States has improved.

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, TJN and I part ways on whether it’s good for the United States to be a tax haven.

I already explained at the start of this column why I like tax havens and tax competition. Simply stated, it’s good for taxpayers and the global economy when governments are forced to compete.

But there’s also a good-for-America argument. Here’s the data from the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis on indirect investment in the U.S. economy. As you can see, cross-border flows of passive investment have skyrocketed. It’s unknown how much of this increase is due to overall globalization and how much is the result of America’s favorable tax and privacy rules for foreigners.

But there’s no question the U.S. economy benefits enormously from foreigners choosing to invest in America.

All of which helps to explain why it would be a big mistake for the United States to ratify the OECD’s Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters.

Unless, of course, one thinks it would be good to undermine American competitiveness by creating a global tax cartel to enable bigger government.

P.S. The OECD doesn’t like me, but I don’t like them either.

P.P.S. The TJN folks and OECD bureaucrats claim that their goal is to reduce tax evasion. My response is that a global tax cartel is a destructive way of achieving that goal. There’s a much better option available.

P.P.P.S. Rand Paul is one of the few heroes on this issue.

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If I was a citizen of the United Kingdom, I would have voted to leave the European Union for the simple reason that even a rickety lifeboat is better than a slowly sinking ship.

More specifically, demographic changes and statist policies are a crippling combination for continental Europe, almost surely guaranteeing a grim future, and British voters wisely decided to escape. Indeed, I listed Brexit as one of the best things that happened in 2016.

This doesn’t mean the U.K. has ideal policies, but Brexit was a good idea precisely because politicians in London will now have more leeway and incentive to liberalize their economy.

Though I wonder whether Prime Minister May and the bumbling Tories will take advantage of the situation.

The Financial Times has a report that captures the real issue driving Brexit discussions. Simply stated, the European Union is scared that an independent U.K. will become more market-friendly and thus put competitive pressure on E.U. welfare states.

The EU is threatening sanctions to stop Britain undercutting the continent’s economy after Brexit…the bloc wants unprecedented safeguards after the UK leaves to preserve a “level playing field” and counter the “clear risks” of Britain slashing taxes or relaxing regulation. Brussels…wants…to enforce restrictions on taxation…and employment rights. …the EU negotiators highlight the risk of Britain ‘undermining Europe as an area of high social protection’…the UK is “likely to use tax to gain competitiveness” and note it is already a low-tax economy with a “large number of offshore entities”. …On employment and environmental standards, the EU negotiators highlight the risk of Britain “undermining Europe as an area of high social protection”.

In case you don’t have a handy statism-to-English dictionary handy, you need to realize that “level playing field” means harmonizing taxes and regulations at very high level.

Moreover, “employment rights” means regulations that discourage hiring by making it very difficult for companies to get rid of workers.

And “high social protection” basically means a pervasive and suffocating welfare state.

To plagiarize from the story’s headline, these are all policies that belong in a bonfire.

And the prospect of that happening explains why the politicians and bureaucrats in continental Europe are very worried.

…senior EU diplomats, however, worry that the political expectations go beyond what it is possible to enforce or agree. “This is our big weakness,” said one. Theresa May, the British prime minister, last year warned the EU against a “punitive” Brexit deal, saying Britain would fight back by setting “the competitive tax rates and the policies that would attract the world’s best companies and biggest investors”.

Sadly, Theresa May doesn’t seem very serious about taking advantage of Brexit. Instead, she’s negotiating like she has the weak hand.

Instead, she has the ultimate trump card of a “hard Brexit.” Here are four reasons why she’s in a very strong position.

First, the U.K. has a more vibrant economy. In the latest estimates from the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World, the United Kingdom is #6.

And how does that compare to the other major economies of Europe?

Well, Germany is #23, Spain is #36, France is #52, and Italy is #54.

So it’s easy to understand why the European Union is extremely agitated about the United Kingdom becoming even more market oriented.

Indeed, the only area where the U.K. is weak is “size of government.” So if Brexit led the Tories to lower tax rates and shrink the burden of government spending, it would put enormous pressure on the uncompetitive welfare states on the other side of the English Channel.

Second, the European Union is horrified about the prospect of losing membership funds from the United Kingdom. That’s why there’s been so much talk (the so-called divorce settlement) of ongoing payments from the U.K. to subsidize the army of bureaucrats in Brussels. A “hard Brexit” worries British multinational companies, but it worries European bureaucrats even more.

Third, the European Union has very few options to punitively respond because existing trade rules (under the World Trade Organization) are the fallback option if there’s no deal. In other words, any protectionist schemes (the “sanctions” discussed in the FT article) from Brussels surely would get rejected.

Fourth, European politicians may hate the idea of an independent, market-oriented United Kingdom, but the business community in the various nations of continental Europe will use its lobbying power to fight against self-destructive protectionist policies and other punitive measures being considered by the spiteful political class.

P.S. Here’s a Brexit version of the Bayeux Tapestry that probably won’t be funny unless one is familiar with the ins and outs of British politics.

P.P.S. Here are some easier-to-understand versions of Brexit humor.

P.P.P.S. And here’s some mockery of senior politicians of the European Commission.

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When Ronald Reagan slashed tax rates in America in the 1980s, the obvious direct effect was more prosperity in America.

But the under-appreciated indirect effect of Reaganomics was that it helped generate more prosperity elsewhere in the world.

Not because Americans had higher income and could buy more products from home and abroad (though that is a nice fringe benefit), but rather because the Reagan tax cuts triggered a virtuous cycle of tax competition. Politicians in other countries had to lower their tax rates because of concerns that jobs and investment were migrating to America (Margaret Thatcher also deserves some credit since she also dramatically reduced tax rates and put even more competitive pressure on other nations to do the same thing).

If you look at the data for developed nations, the average top income tax rate in 1980 was more than 67 percent. It’s now closer to 40 percent.

And because even countries like Germany and France enacted supply-side reforms, the global economy enjoyed a 25-year renaissance of growth and prosperity.

Unfortunately, there’s been some slippage in the wrong direction in recent years, probably caused in part be the erosion of tax competition (politicians are more likely to grab additional money if they think targeted victims don’t have escape options).

But we may be poised for a new virtuous cycle of tax competition, at least with regards to business taxation. A big drop in the U.S. corporate tax rate will pressure other nations to lower their taxes as well. And if new developments from China and Europe are accurate, I’ve been underestimating the potential positive impact.

Let’s start with news from China, where some officials are acting as if dropping the U.S. corporate tax rate to 20 percent is akin to economic warfare.

U.S. tax cuts—the biggest passed since those during the presidency of Ronald Reagan three decades ago—have Beijing in a bind. Prominent in the new tax policy are generous reductions in the corporate tax and a rationalization of the global tax scheme. Both are expected to draw capital and skilled labor back to the United States. …In April, Chinese state-controlled media slammed the tax cuts, accusing the U.S. leadership of risking a “tax war”… On April 27, state-run newspaper People’s Daily quoted a Chinese financial official as saying, “We’ve made our stance clear: We oppose tax competition.” …Beijing has good reason to be afraid. …“Due to the tax cut, the capital—mostly from the manufacturing industry—will flow back to the U.S.,” Chen said.

While Chinese officials are worried about tax competition, they have a very effective response. They can cut tax rates as well.

…the Communist Party had promised to implement financial policy that would be more beneficial for the general public, but has not put this into practice. Instead, Beijing has kept and expanded a regime whereby heavy taxes do not benefit the people…, but are used to prop up inefficient state-owned enterprises… Chinese officials and scholars are considering the necessity of implementing their own tax reforms to keep up with the Trump administration. …Zhu Guangyao, a deputy minister of finance, said in a meeting that it was “indeed impossible” to “ignore the international effects” of the American tax cut, and that “proactive measures” needed to be taken to adjust accordingly. …a Chinese state-run overseas publication called “Xiakedao” came out with a report saying that while Trump’s tax cuts put pressure on China, the pressure “can all the same be transformed into an opportunity for reform.” It remains to be seen whether communist authorities are willing to accept a hit to their tax revenue to balance the economy and let capital flow into the hands of the private sector.

The Wall Street Journal also has a story on how China’s government might react to U.S. tax reform.

…economic mandarins in Beijing are focusing on a potentially… immediate threat from Washington— Donald Trump’s tax overhaul. In the Beijing leadership compound of Zhongnanhai, officials are putting in place a contingency plan to combat consequences for China of U.S. tax changes… What they fear is…sapping money out of China by making the U.S. a more attractive place to invest.

Pardon me for digressing, but isn’t it remarkable that nominally communist officials in China clearly understand that lower tax rates will boost investment while some left-leaning fiscal “experts” in America still want us to believe that lower tax won’t help growth.

But let’s get back to the main point.

An official involved in Beijing’s deliberations called Washington’s tax plan a “gray rhino,” an obvious danger in China’s economy that shouldn’t be ignored. …While the tax overhaul isn’t directly aimed at Beijing, …China will be squeezed. Under the tax plan now going through the U.S. legislative process, America’s corporate levy could drop to about 20% from 35%. Over the next few years, economists say, that could spur manufacturers—whether American or Chinese—to opt to set up plants in the U.S. rather than China.

It’s an open question, though, whether China will respond with bad policy or good policy.

Imposing capital controls to limit the flow of money to the United States would be an unfortunate reaction. Using American reform as an impetus for Chinese reform, by contrast, would be serendipitous.

The sweeping overhaul of the U.S. tax code, estimated to result in $1.4 trillion in U.S. cuts over a decade, is also serving as a wake-up call for Beijing, which for years has dragged its feet on revamping China’s own rigid tax system. Chinese businesses have long complained about high taxes, and the government has pledged to reduce the levies on them. …Chinese companies face a welter of other taxes and fees their U.S. counterparts don’t, including a 17% value-added tax. …Chinese employers pay far-higher payroll taxes. Welfare and social insurance taxes cost between 40% and 100% of a paycheck in China. World Bank figures for 2016 show that total tax burden on Chinese businesses are among the highest of major economies: 68% of profits, compared with 44% in the U.S. and 40.6% on average world-wide. The figures include national and local income taxes, value-added or sales taxes and any mandatory employer contributions for welfare and social security.

I very much hope Chinese officials respond to American tax cuts with their own supply-side reforms. I’ve applauded the Chinese government in the past for partial economic liberalization. Those policies have dramatically reduced poverty and been very beneficial for the country.

Lower tax rates could be the next step to boost living standards in China.

By the way, the Chinese aren’t the only ones paying attention to fiscal developments in the United States. The GOP tax plan also is causing headaches in Europe, as reported by CNN.

Germany, France, Britain, Spain and Italy have written to Treasury Sec. Steven Mnuchin… The letter argues that proposed changes to the U.S. tax code could give American companies an advantage over foreign rivals. …They said the provision could also tax the profits of foreign businesses that do not have a permanent base in the U.S. …The finance ministers said they opposed another measure in the Senate bill that could benefit American companies.

I have two responses. First, I actually agree with some of the complaints in the letter about selected provisions in the tax bill (see, for instance, Veronique de Rugy’s analysis in National Review about the danger of the BAT-like excise tax). We should be welcoming investment from foreign companies, not treating them like potential cash cows for Uncle Sam.

That being said, European officials are throwing stones in a glass house. They are the ones pushing the OECD’s initiative on “base erosion and profit shifting,” which is basically a scheme to extract more money from American multinational firms. And let’s also remember that the European Commission is also going after American companies using the novel argument that low taxes are a form of “state aid.”

Second, I think the Europeans are mostly worried about the lower corporate rate. German officials, for instance, have already been cited for their fear of a “ruinous era of tax competition.” And politicians at the European Parliament have been whining about a “race to the bottom.”

So I’ll give them the same advice I offered to China. Respond to Americans tax cuts by doing the right thing for your citizens. Boost growth and wages with lower tax rates.

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Mancur Olson (1932-1998) was a great economist who came up with a very useful analogy to help explain the behavior of many governments. He pointed out that a “roving bandit” has an incentive to maximize short-run plunder by stealing everything from victims (i.e. a 100 percent tax rate), whereas a “stationary bandit” has an incentive to maximize long-run plunder by stealing just a portion of what victims produce every year (i.e., the revenue-maximizing tax rate).

Tyler Cowen of George Mason University elaborates on this theory in this very helpful video.

As you can see, Olson’s theory mostly is used to analyze and explain the behavior of autocratic governments. Now let’s apply these lessons to political behavior in modern democracies.

I wrote last year about a field of economic theory called “public choice” to help explain how and why the democratic process often generates bad results. Simply stated, politicians and special interests have powerful incentives to use government coercion to enrich themselves while ordinary taxpayers and consumers have a much smaller incentive to fight against that kind of plunder.

But what’s the best way to think about these politicians and interest groups? Are they roving bandits or stationary bandits?

The answer is both. To the extent that they think their power is temporary, they’ll behave like roving bandits, extracting as much money from taxpayers and consumers as possible.

Though if you think of democracies as duopolies, with two parties and rotating control of government, then each party will also behave like a stationary bandit, understanding that it’s not a good idea to strangle the goose that lays the golden eggs.

And this is one of the reasons why I’m a big fan of “tax competition.” Simply stated, politicians and special interests constrain their greed when they know that potential victims have the ability to escape.

Here’s a report from the Wall Street Journal that is a perfect example of my argument.

Germany could reduce its corporate tax rate in the wake of similar moves in the U.K. and the U.S., German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said. Europe’s largest economy should simplify its complex tax system for companies in order to…remain competitive internationally, Mr. Schäuble told The Wall Street Journal in an interview. He also said that while Germany opposed beggar-thy-neighbor tax competition between mature industrial nations, Berlin would also consider cutting tax rates if necessary.

And such steps may be necessary. In other words, Germany may reduce tax rates, not because politicians want to do the right thing, but rather because they fear they’ll lose jobs and investment (i.e., sources of tax revenue) to other jurisdictions.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has said he would like to cut the corporate tax rate from 35% to 15% as part of a broader tax overhaul. In November, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May said the main corporate rate there should fall from 20% to 17% by 2020. These followed announcements about corporate tax-rate cuts by Japan, Canada, Italy and France.

Let’s look at another example.

I made the economic case for Brexit in large part because the European Union is controlled by anti-tax competition bureaucrats and politicians in Brussels.

Well, it appears that the British vote for independence is already paying dividends as seen by comments from the U.K.’s Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Philip Hammond warned yesterday that the Government will come out fighting with tax cuts if the EU tries to wound Britain by refusing a trade deal. …Yesterday, Mr Hammond was asked by a German newspaper if the UK could become a tax haven by further lowering corporation tax in order to attract businesses if Brussels denies a deal. In his strongest language yet on Brexit, the Chancellor said he was optimistic a reciprocal deal on market access could be struck… But he added: …‘In this case, we could be forced to change our economic model and we will have to change our model to regain competitiveness. And you can be sure we will do whatever we have to do. …We will change our model, and we will come back, and we will be competitively engaged.’ …Earlier this year Mrs May committed Britain to having the lowest corporation tax of the world’s 20 biggest economies. The intention is a rate of 17 per cent by 2020.

In other words, yet another case of politicians doing the right thing because of tax competition.

The stationary bandits described by Olson are being forced to adopt better tax policy.

So it’s very appropriate to close with some wise counsel from a Wall Street Journal editorial.

The EU needs more tax competition from government vying to stimulate business investment. …The real tax-policy scandal is that so few European governments understand there’s a cause-and-effect relationship between oppressive tax rates and low economic growth.

P.S. Since we’re looking at tax competition, Europe, and bandits, keep in mind there’s considerable academic work showing that Europe became a rich continent precisely because there were many small nations that competed with each other. Those jurisdictions felt pressure to adopt good policy because the various leaders wanted lots of economic activity to tax. All of which helps to explain why modern statists are so hostile to decentralization and federalism.

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There’s a somewhat famous quote from Adam Smith (“there is a great deal of ruin in a nation“) about the ability of a country to survive and withstand lots of bad public policy. I’ve tried to get across the same point by explaining that you don’t need perfect policy, or even good policy. A nation can enjoy a bit of growth so long as policy is merely adequate. Just give the private sector some “breathing room,” I’ve argued.

Growth will be weaker with bad policy, of course, but if a nation already is relatively rich, then perhaps voters don’t really care.

But there’s a catch. If you add demographic change to the equation, then bad policy can be a recipe for crisis rather than slow growth. This is one of the reasons why I’m worried about the long-run outlook for Europe, with particular concern about Eastern Europe (by the way, we also have to worry in America).

Welfare State Wagon CartoonsSimply stated, you have to pay attention to the ratio of producers to consumers. And that’s why demographics is important. Falling birthrates and increasing lifespans will wreak havoc with Europe’s tax-and-transfer welfare states.

But there’s another form of demographic change that also can have a big impact. Migration patterns can alter the economic vitality of a jurisdiction. I’ve written about the exodus of French entrepreneurs who move to other countries with better tax systems, and the same thing happens with migration between American states.

And you probably won’t be surprised to learn that Illinois is usually on the losing end.

The Wall Street Journal opines on the state’s grim outlook.

…taxpayers are fleeing the Land of Lincoln in record numbers. According to the Census Bureau, Illinois now leads the nation for the steepest population decline. Between July 2015 and July 2016, Illinois lost some 114,000 people in net migration to other states, with total population decline of 37,508 (including births and deaths). For the third year in a row it was the only state to have lost population among the nine in its Great Lakes and Mid-America region.

But what’s really important, the WSJ explains, is that Illinois is losing people who are net producers and contributors.

…the average person moving out of the state earns some $20,000 more than the average person moving in. According to IRS data for tax year 2014 (filed in 2015), the average income of the taxpayer leaving Illinois was $76,824 while the average income of the new arrival was $56,689. That gap is widening and the differential can be traced to policy decisions as the state staggers under pension debt and an entrenched Democratic-public union machine in Springfield. In an effort to cover growing debt, in January 2011 state lawmakers raised the personal income tax rate to 5% from 3% and the corporate income tax to 9.5% from 7.3%. …The exodus accelerated to 73,500 from July 2011 to July 2012, 67,300 in 2012-2013, 95,000 in 2013-2014, 105,000 in 2014-2015 and 114,000 this year.

The class-warfare tax hike in 2011 was a terrible signal to investors and entrepreneurs.

Illinois already was losing both taxpayers and taxable income during the first decade of the century and the tax increase accelerated the process.

And keep in mind that the state also has a gigantic unfunded liability because of absurd promises of lavish pensions and fringe benefits for state and local government employees.

It’s almost as if the politicians in Springfield want to make the state unattractive.

Though the situation isn’t totally hopeless. Voters elected an anti-tax governor in 2014 and there’s a possibility that the destructive tax increase of 2011 won’t be renewed.

The Wall Street Journal makes a very wise recommendation to the Governor.

Democrats are trying to shake Mr. Rauner down for a repeat. He needs to hold firm to stop the state’s population exodus.

Needless to say, it would be a good idea to let the tax hike expire. That being said, that simply gets the state back to where it was in 2010, which wasn’t exactly a strong position.

The bottom line is that Illinois may have passed the tipping point and entered a death spiral. Sort of akin to being the Greece of America.

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Back in 2012, I wrote a detailed article explaining that Europe became rich in part because Europe didn’t exist.

The geographic landmass of Europe existed, of course, but the continent was characterized by massive political fragmentation. And this absence of centralized authority, many scholars concluded, meant lots of inter-government rivalry, a process that gave the private economy room to prosper.

Europe benefited from decentralization and jurisdictional competition. More specifically, governments were forced to adopt better policies because labor and capital had significant ability to cross borders in search of less oppression. …the intellectual history of this issue is enormous, and the common theme is that big, centralized states hinder development. …sovereignty should be celebrated. Not because national governments are good, but because competition between governments is the best protector of liberty and civilization. …promotion of better tax policy is just the tip of the iceberg.

I mention this because I’m currently in Maastricht, a city in the Netherlands that is (in)famous for hosting the meeting that led to the creation of the European Union.

But today, it is the European Students for Liberty meeting in Maastricht, in this case for a regional conference on “The Future of Europe.”

I’m here to give a speech on “Ensuring Sustainable Prosperity in Europe,” but that’s a topic for another day. Instead, I want to highlight Clemens Schneider’s speech on “Patchwork Continent – A History of Federalism in Europe.”

Clemens is with the Prometheus Institute, a German think tank, and he discussed how federalism was critical to Europe’s development.

What made his presentation especially fascinating is that he suggested that 1356 was a very important year in the history of Europe.

Clemens based his claim on two historical events that advanced the principles of decentralization and federalism.

First, he cited the “Golden Bull” of 1356. What’s that, you ask? Wikipedia gives us the details about this remarkable development in the history of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Golden Bull of 1356 was a decree issued by the Imperial Diet at Nuremberg and Metz (Diet of Metz (1356/57)) headed by the Emperor Charles IV which fixed, for a period of more than four hundred years, important aspects of the constitutional structure of the Holy Roman Empire. It was named the Golden Bull for the golden seal it carried. …the Bull cemented a number of privileges for the Electors, confirming their elevated role in the Empire. It is therefore also a milestone in the establishment of largely independent states in the Empire, a process to be concluded only centuries later, notably with the Peace of Westphalia of 1648.

In other words, what was important about the Golden Bull is that signified that the Holy Roman Empire no longer was an Empire. Instead, independent (and competing) principalities became the defining feature of European polity.

Second, he cited the creation of the Hanseatic League in the same year. Once again, Wikipedia has a good description.

The Hanseatic League…was a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and their market towns. It dominated Baltic maritime trade (c. 1400–1800) along the coast of Northern Europe. …The Hanseatic cities had their own legal system and furnished their own armies for mutual protection and aid. Despite this, the organization was not a state… Much of the drive for this co-operation came from the fragmented nature of existing territorial government, which failed to provide security for trade. Over the next 50 years the Hansa itself emerged with formal agreements for confederation and co-operation covering the west and east trade routes. The principal city and linchpin remained Lübeck; with the first general Diet of the Hansa held there in 1356, the Hanseatic League acquired an official structure.

I’m not sure whether it would be accurate to say this is an example of private governance, but the Hanseatic League definitely was an example of voluntary cooperation among sovereign cities wanting peaceful trade.

Schneider basically argued in favor of this “confederalist” approach and cited Switzerland and the United States as positive examples (at least during their early years).

All of which is quite consistent with my view that centralization is the enemy of liberty. We need to make governments compete with each other. And when that happens, we’re more likely to get good policy.

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I’ve previously written about the bizarre attack that the European Commission has launched against Ireland’s tax policy. The bureaucrats in Brussels have concocted a strange theory that Ireland’s pro-growth tax system provides “state aid” to companies like Apple (in other words, if you tax at a low rate, that’s somehow akin to giving handouts to a company, at least if you start with the assumption that all income belongs to government).

This has produced two types of reactions. On the left, the knee-jerk instinct is that governments should grab more money from corporations, though they sometimes quibble over how to divvy up the spoils.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, for instance, predictably tells readers of the New York Times that Congress should squeeze more money out of the business community.

Now that they are feeling the sting from foreign tax crackdowns, giant corporations and their Washington lobbyists are pressing Congress to cut them a new sweetheart deal here at home. But instead of bailing out the tax dodgers under the guise of tax reform, Congress should seize this moment to…repair our broken corporate tax code. …Congress should increase the share of government revenue generated from taxes on big corporations — permanently. In the 1950s, corporations contributed about $3 out of every $10 in federal revenue. Today they contribute $1 out of every $10.

As part of her goal to triple the tax burden of companies, she also wants to adopt full and immediate worldwide taxation. What she apparently doesn’t understand (and there’s a lot she doesn’t understand) is that Washington may be capable of imposing bad laws on U.S.-domiciled companies, but it has rather limited power to impose bad rules on foreign-domiciled firms.

So the main long-run impact of a more onerous corporate tax system in America will be a big competitive advantage for companies from other nations.

The reaction from Jacob Lew, America’s Treasury Secretary, is similarly disappointing. He criticizes the European Commission, but for the wrong reasons. Here’s some of what he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, starting with some obvious complaints.

…the commission’s novel approach to its investigations seeks to impose unfair retroactive penalties, is contrary to well established legal principles, calls into question the tax rules of individual countries, and threatens to undermine the overall business climate in Europe.

But his solutions would make the system even worse. He starts by embracing the OECD’s BEPS initiative, which is largely designed to seize more money from US multinational firms.

…we have made considerable progress toward combating corporate tax avoidance by working with our international partners through what is known as the Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) project, agreed to by the Group of 20 and the 35 member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

He then regurgitates the President’s plan to replace deferral with worldwide taxation.

…the president’s plan directly addresses the problem of U.S. multinational corporations parking income overseas to avoid U.S. taxes. The plan would make this practice impossible by imposing a minimum tax on foreign income.

In other words, his “solution” to the European Commission’s money grab against Apple is to have the IRS grab the money instead. Needless to say, if you’re a gazelle, you probably don’t care whether you’re in danger because of hyenas or jackals, and that’s how multinational companies presumably perceive this squabble between US tax collectors and European tax collectors.

On the other side of the issue, critics of the European Commission’s tax raid don’t seem overflowing with sympathy for Apple. Instead, they are primarily worried about the long-run implications.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center offers some wise insight on this topic, both with regards to the actions of the European Commission and also with regards to Treasury Secretary Lew’s backward thinking. Here’s what she wrote about the never-ending war against tax competition in Brussels.

At the core of the retroactive penalty is the bizarre belief on the part of the European Commission that low taxes are subsidies. It stems from a leftist notion that the government has a claim on most of our income. It is also the next step in the EU’s fight against tax competition since, as we know, tax competition punishes countries with bad tax systems for the benefit of countries with good ones. The EU hates tax competition and instead wants to rig the system to give good grades to the high-tax nations of Europe and punish low-tax jurisdictions.

And she also points out that Treasury Secretary Lew (a oleaginous cronyist) is no friend of American business because of his embrace of worldwide taxation and BEPS.

…as Lew’s op-ed demonstrates, …they would rather be the ones grabbing that money through the U.S.’s punishing high-rate worldwide-corporate-income-tax system. …In other words, the more the EU grabs, the less is left for Uncle Sam to feed on. …And, as expected, Lew’s alternative solution for avoidance isn’t a large reduction of the corporate rate and a shift to a territorial tax system. His solution is a worldwide tax cartel… The OECD’s BEPS project is designed to increase corporate tax burdens and will clearly disadvantage U.S. companies. The underlying assumption behind BEPS is that governments aren’t seizing enough revenue from multinational companies. The OECD makes the case, as it did with individuals, that it is “illegitimate,” as opposed to illegal, for businesses to legally shift economic activity to jurisdictions that have favorable tax laws.

John O’Sullivan, writing for National Review, echoes Veronique’s point about tax competition and notes that elimination of competition between governments is the real goal of the European Commission.

…there is one form of European competition to which Ms. Vestager, like the entire Commission, is firmly opposed — and that is tax competition. Classifying lower taxes as a form of state aid is the first step in whittling down the rule that excludes taxation policy from the control of Brussels. It won’t be the last. Brussels wants to reduce (and eventually to eliminate) what it calls “harmful tax competition” (i.e., tax competition), which is currently the preserve of national governments. …Ms. Vestager’s move against Apple is thus a first step to extend control of tax policy by Brussels across Europe. Not only is this a threat to European taxpayers much poorer than Apple, but it also promises to decide the future of Europe in a perverse way. Is Europe to be a cartel of governments? Or a market of governments? A cartel is a group of economic actors who get together to agree on a common price for their services — almost always a higher price than the market would set. The price of government is the mix of tax and regulation; both extract resources from taxpayers to finance the purposes of government. Brussels has already established control of regulations Europe-wide via regulatory “harmonization.” It would now like to do the same for taxes. That would make the EU a fully-fledged cartel of governments. Its price would rise without limit.

Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal offers some sound analysis, starting with his look at the real motives of various leftists.

…attacking Apple is a politically handy way of disguising a challenge to the tax policies of an EU member state, namely Ireland. …Sen. Chuck Schumer calls the EU tax ruling a “cheap money grab,” and he’s an expert in such matters. The sight of Treasury Secretary Jack Lew leaping to the defense of an American company when in the grips of a bureaucratic shakedown, you will have no trouble guessing, is explained by the fact that it’s another government doing the shaking down.

And he adds his warning about this fight really being about tax competition versus tax harmonization.

Tax harmonization is a final refuge of those committed to defending Europe’s stagnant social model. Even Ms. Vestager’s antitrust agency is jumping in, though the goal here oddly is to eliminate competition among jurisdictions in tax policy, so governments everywhere can impose inefficient, costly tax regimes without the check and balance that comes from businesses being able to pick up and move to another jurisdiction. In a harmonized world, of course, a check would remain in the form of jobs not created, incomes not generated, investment not made. But Europe has been wiling to live with the harmony of permanent recession.

Even the Economist, which usually reflects establishment thinking, argues that the European Commission has gone overboard.

…in tilting at Apple the commission is creating uncertainty among businesses, undermining the sovereignty of Europe’s member states and breaking ranks with America, home to the tech giant… Curbing tax gymnastics is a laudable aim. But the commission is setting about it in the most counterproductive way possible. It says Apple’s arrangements with Ireland, which resulted in low-single-digit tax rates, amounted to preferential treatment, thereby violating the EU’s state-aid rules. Making this case involved some creative thinking. The commission relied on an expansive interpretation of the “transfer-pricing” principle that governs the price at which a multinational’s units trade with each other. Having shifted the goalposts in this way, the commission then applied its new thinking to deals first struck 25 years ago.

Seeking a silver lining to this dark cloud, the Economist speculates whether the EC tax raid might force American politicians to fix the huge warts in the corporate tax system.

Some see a bright side. …the realisation that European politicians might gain at their expense could, optimists say, at last spur American policymakers to reform their barmy tax code. American companies are driven to tax trickery by the combination of a high statutory tax rate (35%), a worldwide system of taxation, and provisions that allow firms to defer paying tax until profits are repatriated (resulting in more than $2 trillion of corporate cash being stashed abroad). Cutting the rate, taxing only profits made in America and ending deferral would encourage firms to bring money home—and greatly reduce the shenanigans that irk so many in Europe. Alas, it seems unlikely.

America desperately needs a sensible system for taxing corporate income, so I fully agree with this passage, other than the strange call for “ending deferral.” I’m not sure whether this is an editing mistake or a lack of understanding by the reporter, but deferral is no longer an issue if the tax code is reformed to that the IRS is “taxing only profits made in America.”

But the main takeaway, as noted by de Rugy, O’Sullivan, and Jenkins, is that politicians want to upend the rules of global commerce to undermine and restrict tax competition. They realize that the long-run fiscal outlook of their countries is grim, but rather than fix the bad policies they’ve imposed, they want a system that will enable higher ever-higher tax burdens.

In the long run, that leads to disaster, but politicians rarely think past the next election.

P.S. To close on an upbeat point, Senator Rand Paul defends Apple from predatory politicians in the United States.

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