Posts Tagged ‘Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’

I must be perversely masochistic because I have the strange habit of reading reports issued by international bureaucracies such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, United Nations, and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

But one tiny silver lining to this dark cloud is that it’s given me an opportunity to notice how these groups have settled on a common strategy of urging higher taxes for the ostensible purpose of promoting growth and development.

Seriously, this is their argument, though they always rely on euphemisms when asserting that politicians should get more money to spend.

  • The OECD, for instance, has written that “Increased domestic resource mobilisation is widely accepted as crucial for countries to successfully meet the challenges of development and achieve higher living standards for their people.”
  • The Paris-based bureaucrats of the OECD also asserted that “now is the time to consider reforms that generate long-term, stable resources for governments to finance development.”
  • The IMF is banging on this drum as well, with news reports quoting the organization’s top bureaucrat stating that “…economies need to strengthen their fiscal frameworks…by boosting…sources of revenues.” while also reporting that “The IMF chief said taxation allows governments to mobilize their revenues.”
  • And the UN, which has “…called for a tax on billionaires to help raise more than $400 billion a year” routinely categorizes such money grabs as “financing for development.”

As you can see, these bureaucracies are singing from the same hymnal, but it’s a new version.

In the past, the left agitated for higher taxes simply in hopes for having more redistribution.

And they’ve urged higher taxes because of spite and hostility against those with high incomes.

Some folks on the left also have supported higher taxes on the theory that the economy’s performance is boosted when deficits are smaller.

But now, they are advocating higher taxes (oops, excuse me, I mean they are urging “resource mobilization” to generate “stable resources” so there can be “financing for development” in order to “strengthen fiscal frameworks”) on the theory that bigger government is the way to get more growth.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn, however, that these reports from international bureaucracies never provide any evidence for this novel hypothesis. None. Zero. Zilch. Nada. The null set.

They simply assert that governments will be able to make presumably wonderful growth-generating “investments” if politicians can squeeze more money from the private sector.

And I strongly suspect that this absence of evidence is deliberate. Simply stated, international bureaucracies are willing to produce shoddy research (just look at what the IMF and OECD wrote about the relationship between growth and inequality), but there’s a limit to how far data can be tortured and manipulated.

Especially when there’s so much evidence from real scholars that economic performance is weakened when government gets bigger.

Not to mention that most sentient beings can look around the world and look at the moribund economies of nations with large governments (such as France, Italy, and Greece) and compare them with the better performance of places with smaller government (such as Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Singapore).

But if you read the aforementioned reports from the international bureaucracies, you’ll notice that some of them focus on getting more growth in poor nations.

Perhaps, some statists might argue, government is big enough in Europe, but not big enough in poorer regions such as sub-Saharan Africa.

So let’s look at the numbers. Is it true that governments in the developing world don’t have enough money to provide core public goods?

The answer is no.

But before sharing those numbers, let’s look at some historical data. A few years ago, I shared some research demonstrating that countries in North America and Western Europe became rich in the 1800s and early 1900s when the burden of government spending was very modest.

One would logically conclude from this data that today’s poor nations should copy that approach.

Yet here’s the data from the International Monetary Fund on government expenditures in various poor regions of the world. As you can see, the burden of government spending in these areas is two or three times larger than it was in America and other nations that when they made the move from agricultural poverty to middle class prosperity.

The bottom line is that small government and free markets is the recipe for growth and prosperity in all nations.

Just don’t expect international bureaucracies to share that recipe since one of the obvious conclusions is that we therefore don’t need parasitical bodies like the IMF, OECD, World Bank, and UN.

P.S. Unsurprisingly, Hillary Clinton also has adopted the mantra of higher-taxes → bigger government → more growth.

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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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Okay, I’ll admit the title of this post is an exaggeration. There are lots of things you should know – most bad, though some good – about international bureaucracies.

That being said, regular readers know that I get very frustrated with the statist policy agendas of both the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

I especially object to the way these international bureaucracies are cheerleaders for bigger government and higher tax burdens. Even though they ostensibly exist to promote greater levels of prosperity!

I’ve written on these issues, ad nauseam, but perhaps dry analysis is only part of what’s needed to get the message across. Maybe some clever image can explain the issue to a broader audience (something I’ve done before with cartoons and images about the rise and fall of the welfare state, the misguided fixation on income distribution, etc).

It took awhile, but I eventually came up with (what I hope is) a clever idea. And when a former Cato intern with artistic skill, Jonathan Babington-Heina, agreed to do me a favor and take the concept in my head and translate it to paper, here are the results.

I think this hits the nail on the head.

Excessive government is the main problem plaguing the global economy. But the international bureaucracies, for all intents and purposes, represent governments. The bureaucrats at the IMF and OECD need to please politicians in order to continue enjoying their lavish budgets and exceedingly generous tax-free salaries.

So when there is some sort of problem in the global economy, they are reluctant to advocate for smaller government and lower tax burdens (even if the economists working for these organizations sometimes produce very good research on fiscal issues).

Instead, when it’s time to make recommendations, they push an agenda that is good for the political elite but bad for the private sector. Which is exactly what I’m trying to demonstrate in the cartoon,

But let’s not merely rely on a cartoon to make this point.

In an article for the American Enterprise Institute, Glenn Hubbard and Kevin Hassett discuss the intersection of economic policy and international bureaucracies. They start by explaining that these organizations would promote jurisdictional competition if they were motivated by a desire to boost growth.

…economic theory has a lot to say about how they should function. …they haven’t achieved all of their promise, primarily because those bodies have yet to fully understand the role they need to play in the interconnected world. The key insight harkens back to a dusty economics seminar room in the early 1950s, when University of Michigan graduate student Charles Tiebout…said that governments could be driven to efficient behavior if people can move. …This observation, which Tiebout developed fully in a landmark paper published in 1956, led to an explosion of work by economists, much of it focusing on…many bits of evidence that confirm the important beneficial effects that can emerge when governments compete. …A flatter world should make the competition between national governments increasingly like the competition between smaller communities. Such competition can provide the world’s citizens with an insurance policy against the out-of-control growth of massive and inefficient bureaucracies.

Using the European Union as an example, Hubbard and Hassett point out the grim results when bureaucracies focus on policies designed to boost the power of governments rather than the vitality of the market.

…as Brexit indicates, the EU has not successfully focused solely on the potentially positive role it could play. Indeed, as often as not, one can view the actions of the EU government as being an attempt to form a cartel to harmonize policies across member states, and standing in the way of, rather than advancing, competition. …an EU that acts as a competition-stifling cartel will grow increasingly unpopular, and more countries will leave it.

They close with a very useful suggestion.

If the EU instead focuses on maximizing mobility and enhancing the competition between states, allowing the countries to compete on regulation, taxation, and in other policy areas, then the union will become a populist’s dream and the best economic friend of its citizens.

Unfortunately, I fully expect this sage advice to fall upon deaf ears. The crowd in Brussels knows that their comfortable existence is dependent on pleasing politicians from national governments.

And the same is true for the bureaucrats at the IMF and OECD.

The only practical solution is to have national governments cut off funding so the bureaucracies disappear.

But, to cite just one example, why would Obama allow that when these bureaucracies go through a lot of effort to promote his statist agenda?

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There are many reasons why I don’t like the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international bureaucracy that ostensibly represents the developed world but in reality is controlled by European welfare states.

The main problem is that the OECD is financed by mostly left-leaning governments and supports policies that reflect the ideology of those governments. As such, the bureaucracy routinely advocates more statism. Oftentimes with shoddy and dishonest data manipulation.

Adding insult to injury, even though the US is only one of 34 member nations and even though OECD policies frequently are designed to undermine US competitiveness, American taxpayers finance the largest share of the organization’s lavish budget.

That bureaucracy’s new Economic Survey of the United States is a typical example of the OECD’s bias.

Here are the challenges identified by the bureaucrats and their recommendations. Since I’m a helpful person, I’ve added a column to summarize what the OECD is actually suggesting.

For those keeping score at home, the OECD is advocating 10 bad policies, one good policy, and has empty rhetoric on a few others.

I don’t like the support of Dodd-Frank and find it bizarre that the OECD wants to make women less attractive to employers, but the three most offensive and destructive recommendations are:

  1. The proposal for information exchange would make America less attractive for foreign investors.
  2. The proposal for a higher minimum wage would make it harder for low-skilled people to climb the economic ladder.
  3. The massive energy tax would be a heavy blow to American households.

By the way, my favorite part of the report is on page 29, where the OECD has a box showing “Past OECD recommendations on fiscal policy.” One of the recommendations from the 2014 survey was for the US to have more consumption taxation, which is their way of urging a value-added tax on top of the income tax. I’m glad to share that the OECD glumly reports that “No action taken.”

And I suppose it’s good news that the OECD didn’t even bother to include that recommendation this year, or any suggestions for higher income tax rates (though there are other suggestions to boost the overall tax burden).

My next favorite part of the report is where the OECD inadvertently showed that America’s more market-oriented (or less-statist) policies put us ahead of other member nations that generally have bigger burdens of government.

Yet notwithstanding the fact that Americans enjoy much higher living standards than people in nations with more government, the report is an awful compilation of statist proposals to make America more like France.

Which raises the important question of why American taxpayers are financing an organization that basically is a propaganda machine for Obama-style policies?

P.S. It’s possible that the IMF is even worse than the OECD. I confess I’m torn on which one deserves to be abolished first.

P.P.S. In the interest of fairness, the OECD isn’t always wrong. Its economists have concluded that spending caps are the only effective fiscal rule.

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The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) arguably is the worst feature of the internal revenue code. It’s an odious example of fiscal imperialism that is based on a very bad policy agenda.

But there is something even worse, a Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters that has existed for decades but recently has been dangerously modified. MCMAATM is a clunky acronym, however, so let’s go with GATCA. That’s because this agreement, along with companion arrangements, would lead to a Global Tax Compliance Act.

Or, as I’ve argued, it would be a nascent World Tax Organization.

And the United States would be the biggest loser. That’s because FATCA was bad legislation that primarily imposed heavy costs on – and caused much angst in – the rest of the world.

GATCA, by contrast, is an international pact that would impose especially heavy costs on the United States and threaten our status as the world’s biggest haven for investment.

Let’s learn more about this bad idea, which will become binding on America if approved by the Senate.

James Jatras explains this dangerous proposal in a column for Accounting Today.

Treasury’s real agenda is…a so-called “Protocol amending the Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters.” The Protocol, along with a follow-up “Competent Authority” agreement, is an initiative of the G20 and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), with the support, unsurprisingly, of the Obama Administration. …the Protocol cannot be repaired. It is utterly inconsistent with any concept of American sovereignty or Americans’ constitutional protections. Ratification of the Protocol would mean acceptance by the United States as a treaty obligation of an international “common reporting standard,” which is essentially FATCA gone global—sometimes called GATCA. Ratifying the Protocol arguably would also provide Treasury with backdoor legal authority to issue regulations requiring FATCA-like reporting to foreign governments by U.S. domestic banks, credit unions, insurance companies, mutual funds, etc. This would mean billions of dollars in costs passed on to American taxpayers and consumers, as well as mandating the delivery of private data to authoritarian and corrupt governments, including China, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Nigeria.

The Foreign Relations Committee unfortunately has approved the GATCA Protocol.

But Rand Paul, like Horatius at the bridge protecting Rome, is throwing sand in the gears and isn’t allowing easy passage by the full Senate.

…the senator is right to insist that the OECD Protocol is dead on arrival.

Taxpayers all over the world owe him their gratitude.

In a column for Investor’s Business Daily, Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center warns that this pernicious and risky global pact would give the IRS power to collect and automatically share massive amounts of our sensitive financial information with some of the world’s most corrupt, venal, and incompetent governments.

During a visit to the World Bank this week, I got a sobering lesson about the degree to which the people working at international bureaucracies, including the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, dislike tax competition. For years, these organizations — which are funded with our hard-earned tax dollars — have bullied low-tax nations into changing their tax privacy laws so uncompetitive nations can track taxpayers and companies around the world. …they never tire of trying to raise taxes on everyone else. Take the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s latest attempt to impose a one-size-fits-all system of “automatic information exchange” that would necessitate the complete evisceration of financial privacy around the world. A goal of the Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters is to impose a global network of data collection and dissemination to allow high-tax nations to double-tax and sometimes triple-tax economic activity worldwide. That would be a perfect tax harmonization scheme for politicians and a nightmare for taxpayers and the global economy.

But she closes with the good news.

Somehow the bureaucrats persuaded the lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to approve it. Thankfully, it’s currently being blocked by Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Mike Lee, R-Utah.

Actually, all that’s being blocked is the ability to ram the Multilateral Convention through the Senate without any debate or discussion.

John Gray explains the procedural issues in a piece for Conservative Review.

Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Mike Lee (R-UT)…aren’t blocking these treaties at all. Instead, they are just objecting to the Senate ratifying them by “unanimous consent.” The Senate leadership has the authority to bring these tax treaties to the floor for full consideration – debate, amendments, and votes. That is what Senators Paul and Lee are asking for. …Unanimous consent means that the process takes all of about 10 seconds; there is no time to review the treaties, there is no time for debate, and not a second of time to offer amendments.  They simply want them to be expedited through the Senate without transparency. …As sitting U.S. Senators, they have the right to ask for debate and amendments to these treaties. …These treaties are dangerous to our personal liberties.  Senator Paul and Senator Lee deserve the transparency and debate they’ve requested.


For those of us who want good tax policy, rejecting this pact is vital.

An ideal fiscal system not only has a low rate, but also taxes income only one time and only taxes income earned inside national borders.

Yet the OECD Protocol to the Multilateral Convention is based on the notion that there should be pervasive double taxation of income that is saved and invested, and that these taxes should be levied on an extraterritorial basis.

For fans of the flat tax, national sales tax, or other proposals for tax reform, this would be a death knell.

But this isn’t just a narrow issue of tax policy. On the broader issue of privacy and government power, Professor Niall Ferguson of Harvard makes some very strong points in a column for the South China Morning Post.

I should be a paid-up supporter of the campaign to close down tax havens. I should be glad to see the back of 500-euro bills. …Nevertheless, I am deeply suspicious of the concerted effort to address all these problems in ways that markedly increase the power of states – and not just any states but specifically the world’s big states – at the expense of both small states and the individual.

He cites two examples, starting with the intrusive plan in the U.K. to let anybody and everybody know the owners of property.

The British government announced it will set up a publicly accessible register of beneficial owners (the individuals behind shell companies). In addition, offshore shell companies and other foreign entities that buy or own British property will henceforth be obliged to declare their owners in the new register. No doubt these measures will flush out or deter some villains. But there are perfectly legitimate reasons for a foreign national to want to own a property in Britain without having his or her name made public. Suppose you were an apostate from Islam threatened with death by jihadists, for example.

He also is uncomfortable with the “war against cash.”

…getting rid of bin Ladens is the thin end of a monetary wedge. …a number of economists…argue cash is an anachronism, heavily used in the black and grey economy, and easily replaced in an age of credit cards and electronic payments. But their motive is not just to shut down the mafia. It is also to increase the power of government. Without cash, no payment can be made without being recorded and potentially coming under official scrutiny. Without cash, central banks can much more easily impose negative interest rates, without fearing that bank customers may withdraw their money.

He’s right. The slippery slope is real. Giving governments some power invariably means giving governments a lot of power.

And that’s not a good idea if you’re a paranoid libertarian like me. But even if you have a more benign view of government, ask yourself if it’s a good idea to approve a global pact that is explicitly designed to help governments impose higher tax burdens?

Senators Paul and Lee are not allowing eight treaties to go forward without open debate and discussion. Seven of those pacts are bilateral agreements that easily could be tweaked and approved.

But the Protocol to the Multilateral Convention can’t be fixed. The only good outcome is defeat.

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Why do many people engage in civil disobedience and decide not to comply with tax laws?

Our leftist friends (the ones who think that they’re compassionate because they want to spend other people’s money) assert that those who don’t obey the revenue demands of government are greedy tax evaders who don’t care about society.

And these leftists support more power and more money for the Internal Revenue Service in hopes of forcing higher levels of compliance.

Will this approach work? Are they right that governments should be more aggressive to obtain more obedience?

To answer questions of how to best deal with tax evasion, we should keep in mind three broad issues about the enforcement of any type of law:

1. Presumably there should be some sort of cost-benefit analysis. We don’t assign every person a cop, after all, even though that presumably would reduce crime. Simply stated, it wouldn’t be worth the cost.

2. We also understand that crime reduction isn’t the only thing that matters. We grant people basic constitutional rights, for instance, even though that frequently makes is more difficult to get convictions.

3. And what if laws are unjust, even to the point of leading citizens to engage in jury nullification? Does our legal system lose moral legitimacy when it is more lenient to those convicted of child pornography than it is to folks guilty of forgetting to file paperwork?

Now let’s consider specific tax-related issues.

I’ve written before that “tough on crime” is the right approach, but only if laws are legitimate. And that leads to a very interesting set of questions.

4. Is it appropriate to track down every penny, even if it results in absurdities such as the German government spending 800,000 euros to track down 25,000 euros of unpaid taxes on coffee beans ordered online?

5. Or what about the draconian FATCA law imposed by the United States government, which is only projected to raise $870 million per year, but will impose several times as much cost on taxpayers, drive investment out of American, and also causing significant anti-US resentment around the world?

6. And is there perhaps a good way of encouraging compliance?

The purpose of today’s (lengthy) column is to answer the final question.

More specifically, the right way to reduce tax evasion is to have a reasonable and non-punitive tax code that finances a modest-sized, non-corrupt government. This make tax compliance more likely and more just.

Here’s some of what I wrote back in 2012.

I don’t blame people from France for evading confiscatory taxation. I don’t blame people in corrupt nations such as Mexico for evading taxation. I don’t blame people in dictatorial nations such as Venezuela for evading taxation. But I would criticize people in Singapore,Switzerland, Hong Kong, or Estonia for dodging their tax liabilities. They are fortunate to live in nations with reasonable tax rates, low levels of corruption, and good rule of law.

Let’s elaborate on this issue.

And we’ll start by citing the world’s leading expert, Friedrich Schneider, who made these important points about low tax rates in an article for the International Monetary Fund.

…the major driving forces behind the size and growth of the shadow economy are an increasing burden of tax and social security payments… Several studies have found strong evidence that the tax regime influences the shadow economy. …In the United States, analysis shows that as the marginal federal personal income tax rate increases by one percentage point, other things being equal, the shadow economy grows by 1.4 percentage points.

With this bit of background, let’s look at the magnitude of non-compliance.

The Wall Street Journal reports on the history of dodging greedy governments.

Tax evasion has been around since ancient Mesopotamia, when the Sumerians were cheerfully working the black market. …The Romans were the most efficient tax collectors of all. Unfortunately Emperor Nero (ruling from A.D. 54 to 68) abandoned the high growth, low-tax policies of his predecessors. In their place he created a downward spiral of inflationary measures coupled with excessive taxation. By the third century, widespread tax evasion forced economically stressed Rome to practice expropriation. …Six hundred years later, during the Heian period (794-1185), Japan’s aristocracy acted in a similar manner and with similar consequences. …China’s Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) waged a harsh war against the tax-dodging gentry.

These same fights between governments and taxpayers exist today.

In a column published by the New York Times, we got some first-hand knowledge of the extraordinary steps people take to protect themselves from taxation in China.

In China, businesses have to give out invoices called fapiao to ensure that taxes are being paid. But the fapiao — the very mechanism intended to keep businesses honest — is sometimes the key to cheating on taxes. …My company would disguise my salary as a series of expenses, which would also save me from paying personal income tax. But to show proof of expenses, the accountant needed fapiao. It was my responsibility to collect the invoices. …But evading taxes in China was harder than I expected because everyone else was trying to evade taxes, too. …Though businesses are obligated to give out fapiao, many do not unless customers pester them. They are trying to minimize the paper trail so they too can avoid paying taxes on their true income. …some people are driven to buy fake invoices. It’s not hard; scalpers will sell them on the street, and companies that specialize in printing fake fapiao proliferate.

The author had mixed feelings about the experience.

I couldn’t figure out whether what I was doing was right or wrong. By demanding a fapiao, I was forcing some businesses to pay taxes they would otherwise evade. But all of this was in the service of helping my own company evade taxes. In this strange tale, I was both hero and villain. To me, tax evasion seemed intractable. Like a blown-up balloon, if you push in one part, another swells.

Meanwhile, Leonid Bershidsky, writing for Bloomberg, reviews what people do to escape the grasping hand of government in Greece.

In gross domestic product terms, Greece has the second biggest shadow economy among European Union countries without a Communist past…unreported revenue accounts for 23.3 percent of GDP, or $55.3 billion. …Had it been subject to taxes — at the prevailing 40 percent rate — the shadow economy would have contributed $22 billion to the government’s coffers.

Bershidsky cites some new academic research.

…researchers used loan application data from a big Greek bank. …The bank…regards the reported income figure as a fiction, as do many other banks in eastern and southern Europe. As a result, it uses estimates of “soft” — untaxed — income for its risk-scoring model. Artavanis, Tsoutsoura and Morse recreated these estimates and concluded that the true income of self-employed workers in Greece is 75 percent to 84 percent higher than the reported one.

Greek politician have tried to get more money from the shadow economy but haven’t been very successful.

Even the leftist government of former Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, which came up with unworkable schemes to crack down on tax evasion — from using housewives and tourists to inform on small businesses to a levy on cash withdrawals — failed.

Bershidsky notes that some have called for indirect forms of taxation that are harder to evade.

The researchers suggest the government should sell occupation licenses through the powerful professional associations: a harsh but effective way to collect more money.

Though his conclusion rubs me the wrong way.

The shadow economy — and particularly the contributions of professionals — is an enormous potential resource for governments.

At the risk of editorializing, I would say that the untaxed money is “money politicians would like to use to buy votes” rather than calling it “an enormous potential resource.” Which is a point Bershidsky should understand since he wrote back in 2014 that European governments have spent themselves into a fiscal ditch.

Now let’s shift to the academic world. What do scholars have to say about tax compliance?

Two economists from the University of Rome have authored a study examining the role of fiscal policy on the underground economy and economic performance. They start by observing that ever-higher taxes are crippling economic performance in Europe.

…most European economies have been experiencing feeble growth and increasing levels of public debt. Compliance with the Stability and Growth Pact, and in particular with the primary deficit clause, has required many governments to raise taxes to exceptional high levels, thus hindering business venture and economic recovery.

And those high tax burdens don’t collect nearly as much money as politicians want because taxpayers have greater incentives to dodge the tax collectors.

…between a country’s tax system and the size of its shadow economy is a two-way relationship. …there exists a positive relationship between the dimension of the tax burden on economic activity and the size of the informal economy. …various tax reform scenarios, recently advocated in economic and policy circles as a means to promote growth, such as…ex-ante budget-neutral tax shifts involving reductions of distortionary taxes on labor and business compensated by an increase in the consumption tax or counterbalanced by decreases of government spending. We will see that all these fiscal reforms give rise to a resource reallocation effect from underground to official production or vice versa and have rather different implications in terms of output, fiscal solvency and welfare.

The authors look at the Italian evidence and find that lower tax rates would create a win-win situation.

Our main results can be summarized as follows. …the dimension of the underground sector is substantially decreased by fiscal interventions envisaging sizeable labor tax wedge reductions. Finally, all the considered tax reforms have positive effects on the fiscal consolidation process due to a combination of larger tax revenues and positive output growth. …consider the case in which the decrease of the business tax is met by a public spending cut…an expansionary effect on output, consumption and investments, and, despite the overall reduction of tax revenues, the public-debt-to-output ratio falls. However, we notice that the expansionary effects are…magnified on consumption and investments. In this model, in fact, public spending is a pure waste that crowds out the private component of aggregate demand, therefore it comes as no surprise that a tax cut on business, counterbalanced by a public spending reduction, is highly beneficial for both consumption and investments. …the underground sector shrinks.

The benefits of lower tax rates are especially significant if paired with reductions in the burden of government spending.

When the reduction of the business tax, personal income tax, and employers’ SSC tax rates are financed through a cut in public spending…we observe positive welfare effects… The main difference…is that consumption is significantly higher…due to the fact that this reform leaves the consumption tax unchanged, while public spending is a pure waste that crowds out private consumption. …all the policy changes that lower the labor tax wedge permanently reduce the dimension of the underground sector. Finally, all the considered tax reforms positively contribute to the fiscal consolidation process.

Let’s now look at some fascinating research produced by some other Italian economists.

They look at factors that lead to higher or lower levels of compliance.

…a high quality of the services provided by the State, and a fair treatment of taxpayers increase tax morale. More generally, a high level of trust in legal and political institutions has a positive effect on tax morale. …two further institutional characteristics that are likely to negatively affect an individual’s tax morale: corruption and complexity of the tax system.

By the way, “tax morale” is a rough measure of whether taxpayers willingly obey based on their perceptions of factors such as tax fairness and waste and corruption in government.

And that measure of morale naturally varies across countries.

…we examine how people from different countries react to varying tax rates and levels of efficiency. …We focus our analysis on three countries: Italy, Sweden and UK. …these three countries show differences concerning the two institutional characteristics we are focused on. Italy and Sweden show a high tax burden while UK shows a low one. Whereas, Sweden and UK can be considered efficient states, Italy is not.

By the way, I don’t particularly consider the United Kingdom to be a low-tax jurisdiction. And I don’t think it’s very efficient, especially if you examine the government-run healthcare system.

But everything is relative, I guess, and the U.K. is probably efficient compared to Italy.

Anyhow, here are the results of the study.

Experimental subjects react to institution incentives, no matter the country. More specifically, tax compliance increases as efficiency increases and decreases as the tax rate increases. However, although people’s reaction to changes in efficiency is homogeneous across countries, subjects from different countries react with a different degree to an increase in the tax rate. In particular, participants who live in Italy or Sweden – countries where the tax burden is usually high – react more strongly to an increase in the tax rate than our British subjects. At the same time, subjects in Sweden – where the efficiency of the public service is high – react less to tax rate increases than Italian subjects.

So low tax rates matter, but competent and frugal government also is part of the story.

In all 3 countries, higher tax rates imply lower compliance. This is in line with experimental evidence: as Alm (2012, p. 66) affirms: “most (but not all) experimental studies have found that a higher tax rate leads to less compliance” and “The presence of a public good financed by voluntary tax payments has been found to increase subject tax compliance”. …The stronger negative reaction of Italian subjects to an increase in the tax rate may be due to the fact that in everyday life they suffer from high tax rates combined with inefficiency and corruption. …In fact, in the final questionnaire, 67.5% of Italian participants state that people would be more likely to pay taxes if the government were more efficient (vs 34.4% and 30.3% in UK and Sweden respectively) and 54.6% would comply with their fiscal obligations if they had some control over how tax money were spent (vs 30.8% and 25.8% in UK and Sweden respectively)… No way to impose a high tax burden on citizens if the tax revenue is wasted through inefficiency and corruption.

Here’s one additional academic study from Columbia University. The author recognizes the role of tax rates in discouraging compliance, but focuses on the impact of tax complexity.

Here’s what he wrote about the underlying theory of tax compliance.

The basic theoretical framework for tax evasion was derived…from the Becker model of crime. This approach views tax evasion as a gamble. …when tax evasion is successful, the taxpayer gains by not paying taxes. In other cases, tax evasion is uncovered by tax authorities, and the taxpayer has to pay taxes due and fines. The taxpayer compares the expected gain to the expected loss. …This approach highlights a number of factors that determine whether and to what extent taxes are evaded. These are: the magnitude of potential savings (which, on the margin, is simply equal to the tax rate)… This model therefore highlights…natural policy parameters that can affect evasion. …the marginal gains from tax evasion could be reduced by imposing lower marginal tax rates.

Interestingly, he doesn’t see much difference between (illegal) evasion and (legal) avoidance.

The ideal compliance policy should target both tax avoidance and tax evasion. While there is a legal distinction between the two, from the economic point of view the difference is less explicit. Both types of activity involve a loss of revenue and both involve a loss of economic welfare.

He then brings tax complexity into the equation.

…the appropriate extent of tax enforcement critically depends on the underlying tax structure. In particular, the role of complexity in the tax system as a factor influencing the size of the tax gap, as well as legal but undesirable tax avoidance, are highlighted. Two principal implications of tax complexity are stressed here. First, complexity permits additional ways to shield income from tax and, consequently, complexity increases the overall cost of taxation. … Reasonable simplification can more adequately combat tax evasion and avoidance than traditional enforcement measures.

Here are some of his findings.

Tax avoidance is a function of ambiguity in the tax system. …Administrative investment in enforcement becomes more important when the tax system is more distortionary. One way to reduce the need for costly tax enforcement is to reduce distortions. … Higher complexity induces tax avoidance and other types of substitution responses. A tax system that allows for many different types of avoidance responses is likely to cause stronger behavioral effects and therefore higher excess burden. …Shutting down extra margins of response can be loosely summarized as expanding the tax base by eliminating preferential treatment of some types of income, deductions, and exemptions. …One of the consequences of complexity is that it makes it difficult for honest taxpayers to fulfill their obligations. …The bottom line is that complexity makes relying on penalties a much less appealing approach to enforcement. …From the complexity point of view, itemized deductions add a multitude of tax avoidance and evasion opportunities. …They stimulate avoidance by introducing extra margins with differential tax treatment.

Sounds to me like an argument for a flat tax.

Incidentally (and importantly), he acknowledges that greater enforcement may not be a wise option if the underlying tax law (such as the code’s harsh bias against income that is saved and invested) is overly destructive.

…tax avoidance—letting well enough alone—may be a simple and practical way of addressing shortcomings of an inefficient tax structure. For example, suppose that, as much of the optimal taxation literature suggests, capital incomes should not be taxed, or should only be taxed lightly. In that case, the best policy response would be cutting tax rates imposed on capital income. If it is not politically feasible to pursue such policies explicitly, a similar outcome can be accomplished by reducing enforcement or increasing avoidance opportunities in this area. …The preferred way of dealing with compliance problems is fixing the tax code.

Amen. Many types of tax evasion only exist because the politicians in Washington have saddled us with bad tax policy.

And when tax policy moves in the right direction, compliance improves. Consider what happened in the 1980s when Reagan’s reforms lowered the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent. Rich people paid five times as much to the IRS, in large part because they declared 10 times as much income.

But it’s very unlikely that they actually earned 10 times as much income. Some non-trivial portion of that gain was because of less evasion and less avoidance.

Simply stated, it makes sense to comply with the tax system when rates are low.

Let’s close by addressing one of the ways that leftists want to improve compliance. They want to destroy financial privacy and give governments near-unlimited ability to collect and share financial information about taxpayers, all for the purpose of supposedly bolstering tax compliance.

This agenda, if ultimately successful, will cripple tax competition as a liberalizing force in the global economy.

This would be very unfortunate. Tax rates have fallen in recent decades, for instance, largely because governments have felt pressure to compete for jobs and investment.

That has led to tax systems that are less punitive. And politicians really can’t complain about being pressured to lower tax rates since these reforms generally led to more growth, which generated significant revenue feedback. In other words, the Laffer Curve works.

There’s even some evidence that tax competition leads to less government spending.

But these are bad things from a statist perspective.

This helps to explain why politicians from high-tax governments want to eviscerate tax competition and create some sort of global tax cartel. An “OPEC for politicians” would give them more leeway to impose class-warfare tax policy and buy votes.

The rhetoric they’ll use will be about reducing tax evasion. The real goal will be bigger government.

I’m not joking. Left-wing international bureaucracies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have justified their anti-tax competition efforts by asserting that jurisdictional rivalry “may hamper the application of progressive tax rates and the achievement of redistributive goals.”

I suppose we should give them credit for being honest about their ideological agenda. But for those who want good tax policy (and who also understand why that’s the right way to boost tax compliance), it’s particularly galling that the OECD is being financed with American tax dollars to push in the other direction.

P.S. I don’t know if you’ll want to laugh or cry, but here are some very odd examples of tax enforcement.

P.P.S. Here’s more evidence that high tax rates and tax complexity facilitate corruption.

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I don’t know whether Keynesian economics is best described as a perpetual motion machine or a Freddy Krueger movie (or perhaps even the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz), but it’s safe to say I’ll be fighting this pernicious theory until my last breath.

keynesian-fire1That’s because evidence doesn’t seem to have any impact on the debate.

It doesn’t matter that Keynesian spending binges didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s. Or for Japan in the 1990s. Or for Bush or Obama in recent years.

What does matter, by contrast, is that politicians instinctively like Keynesianism because it tells them their vice is a virtue. Instead of being a bunch of hacks that can’t resist overspending in their quest to buy votes, Keynesian theory tells them that they are “compassionate” souls simply trying to “stimulate” the economy.

And to make matters worse, there are plenty of economists (many of whom are on the government teat) who act as enablers, telling politicians that bigger government somehow can jump-start growth.

For instance, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has just issued recommendations for ways to boost a sluggish global economy. Given that the organization’s lavish budget comes from its member governments, you won’t be surprised that it is licking the hand that feeds it and recommending that politicians should get to spend more money.

A stronger collective fiscal policy response is needed to support growth… Governments in many countries are currently able to borrow for long periods at very low interest rates, which in effect increases fiscal space. Many countries have room for fiscal expansion to strengthen demand. …Investment spending has a high-multiplier, while quality infrastructure projects would help to support future growth.

If the OECD is right, there are supposedly a lot of “shovel-ready” infrastructure jobs that would be wise investments, so why not borrow lots of money in today’s low-interest rate environment, finance a bunch of new spending, and magically boost growth at the same time?

Needless to say, I’m very skeptical about the federal government having an infrastructure party. We would get a bunch of bridges to nowhere, lots of fat contracts to line the pockets of unions, some mass transit boondoggles, and more horror stories about cost overruns.

Oh, and don’t forget that the politicians would decide that all sorts of additional categories of spending count as “investment,” so money also would get squandered in other areas as well.

But let’s set that aside and deal with the underlying economic issue of so-called stimulus.

Politicians in America and elsewhere engaged in several years of Keynesian spending when the downturn began in 2008. That didn’t work. In more recent years, they’ve been engaging in lots of Keynesian monetary policy, and that hasn’t been working either.

Now they want to return to the option of more deficit spending.

Why should we believe that a policy that has repeatedly failed in the past somehow will work this time?

If you ask the OECD bureaucrats, they say it will work because they have a model that’s programmed to say more government spending is good for growth.

I’m not joking. Just like the Congressional Budget Office, the OECD uses a model that automatically assumes that more spending will lead to more growth. So you plug in a number for some “stimulus” outlays and the model mechanically cranks out data showing better performance.

Here’s what the OECD is claiming.

Gee, if this is accurate, why don’t we have governments confiscate all the money in the economy, spend it on so-called public investment, and then we can all be rich!

Actually, I shouldn’t joke. Some Keynesian reader might take the idea and run with it.

P.S. What makes all this especially irritating is that American taxpayers are subsidizing the OECD’s statism.

And it’s not just this recent foray into Keynesian economics. Here are other examples of the OECD pushing policies that are directly contrary to the interests of the American people.

Now you can understand why I rank the OECD as the worst international bureaucracy.

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