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Posts Tagged ‘Tax Compliance’

It’s time to criticize my least-favorite international bureaucracy.

Regular readers probably know that I’m not talking about the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, or World Bank.

Those institutions all deserve mockery, but I think the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is – on a per-dollar basis – the bureaucracy that is most destructive to human progress and economic prosperity.

One example of the organization’s perfidy is the OECD’s so-called Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) initiative, which is basically a scheme to extract more money from companies (which means, of course, that the real cost is borne by workers, consumers, and shareholders).

I’ve written (several times) about the big-picture implications of this plan, but let’s focus today on some very troubling specifics of BEPS.

Doug Holtz-Eakin, in a column for the Wall Street Journal, explains why we should be very worried about a seemingly arcane development in BEPS’ tax treatment of multinationals. He starts with a very important analogy.

Suppose a group of friends agree to organize a new football league. It would make sense for them to write rules governing the gameplay, the finances of the league, and the process for drafting and trading players. But what about a rule that requires each team to hand over its playbook to the league? No team would want to do that. The playbook is a crucial internal-strategy document, laying out how the team intends to compete. Yet this is what the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development wants: to force successful global companies, including U.S. multinationals, to hand over their “playbooks” to foreign governments.

Here’s specifically what’s troubling about BEPS.

…beginning next year the BEPS rules require U.S.-headquartered companies that have foreign subsidiaries to maintain a “master file” that provides an overview of the company’s business, the global allocation of its activities and income, and its overall transfer pricing policies—a complete picture of its global operations, profit drivers, supply chains, intangibles and financing. In effect, the master file is a U.S. multinational’s playbook.

And, notwithstanding assurances from politicians and bureaucrats, the means that sensitive and proprietary information about U.S. firms will wind up in the wrong hands.

Nothing could be more valuable to a U.S. company’s competitors than the information in its master file. But the master file isn’t subject to any confidentiality safeguards beyond those a foreign government decides to provide. A foreign government could hand the information over to any competitor or use it to develop a new one. And the file could be hacked.

Doug recommends in his column that Congress take steps to protect American companies and Andy Quinlan of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity has the same perspective.

Here’s some of what Andy wrote for The Hill.

It is…time for Congress to take a more assertive role in the ongoing efforts to rewrite global tax rules. …(BEPS) proposals drafted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development…threaten the competitiveness of U.S.-based companies and the overall American economy. …We know the Paris-based OECD’s aim is to raid businesses – in particular American businesses – for more tax revenue… The fishing expeditions are being undertaken in part so that bureaucrats can later devise new and creative ways to suck even more wealth out of the private sector. …American companies forced to hand proprietary data to governments – like China’s – that are known to engage in corporate espionage and advantage their state-owned enterprises will be forced to choose between forgoing participation to vital markets or allowing competitors easy access to the knowledge and techniques which fuel their success.

You would think that the business community would be very alarmed about BEPS. And many companies are increasingly worried.

But their involvement may be a too-little-too-late story. That’s because the business group that is supposed to monitor the OECD hasn’t done a good job.

Part of the problem, as Andy explains, is that the head of the group is from a company that is notorious for favoring cronyism over free markets.

The Business and Industry Advisory Committee…has been successfully co-opted by the OECD bureaucracy. At every stage in the process, those positioned to speak on behalf of the business community told any who wished to push back against the boneheaded premise of the OECD’s work to sit down, be quiet, and let them seek to placate hungry tax collectors with soothing words of reassurance about their noble intentions and polite requests for minor accommodations. That go-along-to-get-along strategy has proven a monumental failure. Much of the blame rests with BIAC’s chair, Will Morris. Also the top tax official at General Electric – whose CEO Jeffrey Immelt served as Obama’s “job czar” and is a dependable administration ally – and a former IRS and Treasury Department official, Morris is exactly the kind of business representative tax collectors love.

Ugh, how distasteful. But hardly a surprise given that GE is a big supporter of the corrupt Export-Import Bank.

I’m not saying that GE wants to pay more tax, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the top brass at the company decided to acquiesce to BEPS as an implicit quid pro quo for all the subsidies and handouts that the firm receives.

In any event, I’m sure the bureaucrats at the OECD are happy that BIAC didn’t cause any problems, so GE probably did earn some brownie points.

And what about the companies that don’t feed at the public trough? Weren’t they poorly served by BIAC’s ineffectiveness?

Yes, but the cronyists at GE presumably don’t care.

But enough speculation about why BIAC failed to represent the business community. Let’s return to analysis of BEPS.

Jason Fichtner and Adam Michel of the Mercatus Center explain for U.S. News & World Report that the OECD is pushing for one-size-fits-all global tax rules.

The OECD proposal aims to centralize global tax rules and increase effective tax rates on international firms. U.S. technology firms such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple will likely be harmed the most. …the OECD as a special interest group for tax collectors. Over the past 25 years, they have built an international tax cartel in an effort to keep global tax rates artificially high. The group persistently advocates for increased revenue collection and more centralized control. The OECD has waged a two-decade campaign against low tax rates by blacklisting sovereign countries that don’t comply with OECD directives.

Like the others, Fichtner and Michel worry about the negative consequences of the BEPS plan.

The centralization of tax information through a new international country-by-country reporting requirement will pressure some countries to artificially expand their tax base.  A country such as China could increase tax revenue by altering its definition of so-called value creation… Revenue-hungry states will be able to disproportionately extract tax revenue from global companies using the newly centralized tax information. …while a World Bank working paper suggests there is a significant threat to privacy and trade secrets. Country-by-country reporting will complicate international taxation and harm the global economy.

Instead of BEPS, they urge pro-growth reforms of America’s self-destructive corporate tax system.

…the United States should focus on fixing our domestic corporate tax code and lower the corporate tax rate. The U.S. [has] the single highest combined corporate tax rate in the OECD. …Lower tax rates will reduce incentives for U.S. businesses to shift assets overseas, grow the economy and increase investment, output and real wages. Lowering tax rates is the most effective way policymakers can encourage innovation and growth.  The United States should not engage in any coordinated attempt to increase global taxes on economic activity. …The United States would be better off rejecting the proposal to raise taxes on the global economy, and instead focus on fixing our domestic tax code by substantially lowering our corporate tax rate.

By the way, don’t forget that BEPS is just one of the bad anti-tax competition schemes being advanced by the bureaucrats in Paris.

David Burton of the Heritage Foundation has just produced a new study on the OECD’s Multilateral Convention, which would result in an Orwellian nightmare of massive data collection and promiscuous data sharing.

Read the whole thing if you want to be depressed, but this excerpt from his abstract tells you everything you need to know.

The Protocol amending the Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters will lead to substantially more transnational identity theft, crime, industrial espionage, financial fraud, and the suppression of political opponents and religious or ethnic minorities by authoritarian and corrupt governments. It puts Americans’ private financial information at risk. The risk is highest for American businesses involved in international commerce. The Protocol is part of a contemplated new and extraordinarily complex international tax information sharing regime involving two international agreements and two Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) intergovernmental initiatives. It will result in the automatic sharing of bulk taxpayer information among governments worldwide, including many that are hostile to the United States, corrupt, or have inadequate data safeguards.

I wrote about this topic last year, citing some of David’s other work, as well as analysis by my colleague Richard Rahn.

The bottom line is that the OECD wants this Multilateral Convention to become a World Tax Organization, with the Paris-based bureaucracy serving as judge, jury, and executioner.

That’s bad for America. Indeed, it’s bad for all nations (though it is in the interest of politicians from high-tax nations).

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Politicians hate cash.

That may seem an odd assertion given that they love spending money (other people’s money, of course, as illustrated by this cartoon).

But what I’m talking about is the fact that politicians get upset when there’s not 100 percent compliance with tax laws.

They hate tax havens since the option of a fiscal refuge makes confiscatory taxation impractical.

They hate the underground economy because that means hard-to-tax economic activity.

And they hate cash because it gives consumers an anonymous payment mechanism.

Let’s explore the animosity to cash.

It’s basically because a cashless society is an easier-to-tax society, as expressed by an editorial from the U.K.-based Financial Times.

…unlike electronic money, it cannot be tracked. That means cash favours anonymous and often illicit activity; its abolition would make life easier for a government set on squeezing the informal economy out of existence. …Value added tax, for example, could be automatically levied. …Greece, in particular, could make lemonade out of lemons, using the current capital controls to push the country’s cash culture into new habits.

And some countries are actually moving in this direction.

J.D. Tuccille looks at this issue in an article for Reason.

Peter Bofinger of the German Council of Economic Experts…wants to abolish the use of cash… He frets that old-fashioned notes enable undeclared work and black markets, and stand in the way of central bank monetary policy. So rather than adjust policy to be more palatable to the public, he’d rather leave no shadows in which the public can hide from his preferred policies. The idea is to make all economic activity visible so that people have to submit to control. Denmark, which has the highest tax rates in Europe and a correspondingly booming shadow economy, is already moving in that direction. …the Danmarks Nationalbank will stop internal printing of banknotes and minting of coins in 2016. After all, why adjust tax and regulatory policy to be acceptable to constitutents when you can nag them and try to reinvent the idea of money instead?

By the way, some have proposed similar policies in the United States, starting with a ban on $100 bills.

Which led me to paraphrase a line from the original version of Planet of the Apes.

Notwithstanding my attempt to be clever, the tide is moving in the wrong direction. Cash is beginning to vanish in Sweden, as reported by the New York Times.

…many of the country’s banks no longer accept or dispense cash. Bills and coins now represent just 2 percent of Sweden’s economy, compared with 7.7 percent in the United States and 10 percent in the euro area. This year, only a fifth of all consumer payments in Sweden have been made in cash, compared with an average of 75 percent in the rest of the world, according to Euromonitor International. …Cash machines, which are controlled by a Swedish bank consortium, are being dismantled by the hundreds

Though the article notes that there is some resistance.

Not everyone is cheering. Sweden’s embrace of electronic payments has alarmed consumer organizations and critics who warn of a rising threat to privacy and increased vulnerability to sophisticated Internet crimes. …The government has not sought to stem the cashless tide. If anything, it has benefited from more efficient tax collection, because electronic transactions leave a trail; in countries like Greece and Italy, where cash is still heavily used, tax evasion remains a big problem. Leif Trogen, an official at the Swedish Bankers’ Association, acknowledged that banks were earning substantial fee income from the cashless revolution.

What matters, by the way, is not the degree to which consumers prefer to use alternatives to cash.

That’s perfectly fine, and it explains much of what we see on this map.

The problem is when governments use coercion to limit and/or abolish cash so that politicians have more power. And (gee, what a surprise) this is why the French are trying to crack down on cash.

Writing for the U.K.-based Telegraph, Matthew Lynn mentions the new policy and France and also explores some worrisome implications of this anti-cash trend.

France is banning the use of cash for transactions worth more than €1,000…part of a growing movement among academics and now governments to gradually ban the use of cash completely. …it is a “barbarous relic”, as some publications loftily dismiss it. The trouble is, cash is also incredibly efficient. And it is a crucial part of a free society. There is no convincing case for abolition. …When it comes to creeping state control, it is no surprise to find the French out in front. …A cashless economy would be far easier to both tax and control. But hold on. Is that something we really want? In reality, cash is far too valuable to be given up lightly. In truth, the benefits of abolition are largely oversold. While terrorists and criminals may well use cash to buy weapons, or deal in drugs, it is very hard to believe that they would not find some other way of financing their operations if it was abolished. Are there really any cases of potential jihadists being foiled because they couldn’t find two utility bills (less than three months old, of course) in a false name to open an account?

Amen. Banning cash to stop terrorists is about as foolish as thinking that gun control will thwart jihadists.

In any event, we need to consider trade-offs. Chris Giles highlighted that issue in a piece for the Financial Times.

…an unfortunate rhetorical echo of Maoist China. It is illiberal… Some argue there would be beneficial side effects from abolishing notes and coins through the regularisation of illegal activities. Really? …Cash would have to be abolished everywhere and the BoE does not have those powers, thankfully. The anonymity of cash helps to free people from their governments and some criminality is a price worth paying for liberty.

Though I suppose we should grudgingly give politicians credit for cleverly trying exploit fear to expand their power.

But never forget we’re talking about a bad version of clever. If they succeed, that will be bad news for freedom.  J.D. Tuccille of Reason explains in a second article why a growing number of people prefer to use cash.

Many Americans happily and quietly avoid banks and trendy purchasing choices in favor of old-fashioned paper money. Lots of business gets done that way…the Albuquerque Journal pointed out that over a third of households in the city either avoid banks entirely (the “unbanked”) or else keep a checking account but do much of their business through cash, check-cashing shops, pawn shops, money orders, and other “alternative financial products” (the “underbanked”). A few weeks earlier, the Kansas City Star reported a similar local situation… In both cities, the phenomenon is growing. …Twenty-six percent cite privacy as a reason for keeping clear of banks – bankers say that increased federal reporting and documentation requirements drive many customers away. “A lot of people are afraid of Uncle Sam,” Greg Levenson, president and CEO of Southwest Capital Bank, told the Albuquerque Journal. …It’s a fair bet that those who “have managed to earn income in the shadow economy” and want to keep their income unreported to the feds and undiminished by fees are heavily overrepresented among the unbanked. …most people aren’t idiots. When they avoid expensive, snoopy financial institutions, it’s because they’ve decided the benefits outweigh the costs.

Very well said, though I’d augment what he wrote by noting that some of these folks probably would like to be banked but are deterred by high costs resulting from foolish government money-laundering laws.

More on that later.

Let’s stay with the issue of whether cash should be preserved. A business writer from the U.K. is very uneasy about the notion of a society with no cash.

…tax authorities have become increasingly keen on tracking everything and everyone to make absolutely certain that no assets slip under their radars. The Greeks have been told that, come 2016, they must begin to declare all cash over €15,000 held in safes or mattresses, and all precious stones, gold and the like worth more than €30,000. Anyone else think there might be a new tax coming on all that stuff? …number-crunchers…are maddened by the fact that even as we are provided with lots of simple digital payment methods we still like to use cash: the demand for £20 and £50 notes has been rising. …They are maddened because “as untraceable bearer instruments, it is not possible to locate where banknotes are being held at any one time”… Without recourse to physical cash, we are all 100% dependent on the state-controlled digital world for our financial security. Worse, the end of cash is also the end of privacy: if you have to pay for everything digitally, every transaction you ever make (and your location when you make it) will be on record. Forever. That’s real repression.

She nails it. If politicians get access to more information, they’ll levy more taxes and impose more control.

And that won’t end well.

Last but not least, the Chairman of Signature Bank, Scott Shay, warns about the totalitarian temptations that would exist in a cash-free world. Here’s some of what he wrote in a column for CNBC.

In 2010, Visa and MasterCard, bowed to government pressure — not even federal or state law — and banned all online-betting payments from their systems. This made it virtually impossible for these gambling sites to continue operating regardless of their jurisdiction or legality. It is not too far-fetched to wonder if the day might come when the health records of an overweight individual would lead to a situation in which they find that any sugary drink purchase they make through a credit or debit card is declined. …You might think then that the person can always pay cash and remain outside the purview of these technologies. This may be the case for the moment, but we are well on the road to becoming a cashless society. …there is…a sinister risk…a cashless society would certainly give governments unprecedented access to information and power over citizens.

And, he warns, that information will lead to mischief.

Currently, we have little evidence to indicate that governments will refrain from using this power. On the contrary, the U.S. government is already using its snooping prowess and big-data manipulation in some frightening ways. …the U.S. government is becoming very fond of seizing money from citizens first and asking questions later via “civil forfeiture.” Amazingly, the government is permitted by law to do this even if it is only government staff members who have a suspicion, not proof, of wrongdoing. …In recent years, it made it increasingly difficult for companies to operate or individuals to transact by adding compliance hurdles for banks wishing to deal with certain categories of clients. By making it too expensive to deal with certain clients or sending the signal that a bank should not deal with a particular client or type of client, the government can almost assuredly keep that company or person out of the banking system. Banks are so critically dependent on government regulatory approval for their actions… It is easy to imagine a totalitarian regime using these tools to great harm.

Some folks will read Shay’s piece and downplay his concerns. They’ll say he’s making a slippery slope argument.

But there are very good reasons, when dealing with government, to fear that the slope actually is slippery.

Let’s close by sharing my video on the closely related topic of money laundering. These laws and regulations have been imposed supposedly to fight crime.

But we’ve slid down the slope. These policies have been a failure in terms of hindering criminals and terrorists, but they’ve given government a lot of power and information that is being routinely misused.

P.S. The one tiny sliver of good news is that bad money laundering and know-your-customer rules have generated an amusing joke featuring President Obama.

P.P.S. If politicians want to improve tax compliance in a non-totalitarian fashion, there is a very successful recipe for reducing the underground economy.

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If you owned a restaurant and wanted to generate more income and boost your bottom line, would you double your prices thinking that this would double your revenue?

Of course not. You would understand that a lot of your patrons would simply dine elsewhere. And if they didn’t have other restaurants available, many of them would simply eat at home.

But now imagine you’re a politicians and you want more tax revenue so you can try to buy more votes and redistribute more money to the special interests that fund your campaign.

Would you assume that doubling a tax rate would lead to twice as much revenue?

Based on the shoddy methodology of the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), which is in charge of the revenue-estimating process on Capitol Hill, the answer is yes.

To be fair, the bureaucrats at the JCT probably wouldn’t say that tax revenue would double, but their model basically assumes that tax policy doesn’t affect the economy’s overall performance. So even if there’s a huge increase in the tax burden, they assume overall economic output won’t be affected.

This obviously is an absurd assumption. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that taxes impact economic performance. Low-tax economies like Hong Kong and Singapore, for instance, routinely outperform medium-tax economies like the United States. Similarly, differences in tax policy are one of the reasons why the United States generally grows faster than (or doesn’t grow as slowly as) Europe’s high-tax welfare states.

The lesson that should be learned is that the JCT should not estimate the revenue impact of a change in tax policy simply by looking at the change in the tax rate and the current trendline for taxable income. To get a more accurate answer, the bureaucrats also should try to estimate the degree to which taxable income will change.

This is the essential insight of the Laffer Curve. You can’t calculate changes in tax revenue simply by looking at changes in tax rates. You also have to consider the resulting changes in taxable income.

So it’s an empirical question whether a shift in a tax rate will cause revenues to change a little or a lot, just as it’s an empirical issue whether revenues will go up or down.

It depends on how sensitive taxpayers are to changes in tax rates. Some types of taxpayers are very responsive, while other aren’t.

Now let’s consider two implications.

First, you presumably shouldn’t want to be at the revenue-maximizing point of the Laffer Curve. Unless, of course, you think giving politicians an extra $1 to spend is worth destroying $5 or $10 of income for households.

Second, you definitely don’t want to be on the revenue-losing side of the Laffer Curve. That means households are losing so much income that politicians actually have less money to spend, a lose-lose scenario.

Politicians, though, often can’t resist the temptation to raise tax burdens all the way to the short-run revenue-maximizing point.

Many of them simply don’t care if the private economy suffers several dollars of lost output per dollar of additional tax revenue. All that matters is that they have the ability to buy more votes with other people’s money.

But what’s really amazing is that some of them are so short-sighted and greedy that they raise the tax burden by so much that revenues actually fall.

And that’s what is happening in New York, where the tax burden on cigarettes has become so high that tax revenues are falling. Here are some excerpts from a story in the Syracuse newspaper.

The number of state-taxed cigarette packs sold in New York has plummeted by 54 percent in the past decade. …more smokers are buying cigarettes in ways that avoid New York’s $4.35 per pack tax, the highest in the nation. They cross state lines, shop from black market vendors and travel to Native American outlets to save $6 per pack or more, experts say. New York is losing big. In the past five years, the state’s cigarette tax collections have dropped by about $400 million…off-the-tax-grid shopping options add up to as much as $1.3 billion in uncollected state cigarette taxes each year, according to a study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

It’s not just happening in New York.

I’ve already written about massive Laffer Curve effects from excessive tobacco taxation in Michigan, Ireland, Bulgaria, and Quebec, and Washington.

And the article notes that Oklahoma’s non-compliance rate is even higher.

About 35 percent of smokers in Oklahoma buy cigarettes in ways that avoid state taxes, compared with about one-third of smokers in New York who do the same, experts said.

Needless to say, politicians hate it when the sheep don’t willingly line up to be fleeced. So they’re trying to change policy in ways that divert more money into their greedy hands.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that they’re not very successful.

a federal court in 2011 ruled in the state’s favor and paved the way for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to try to collect the state tax from Native American nations by making their wholesalers pick up the cost. Instead, many nations abandoned the wholesale route and stopped selling name-brand cigarettes. They began stocking their stores with significantly cheaper ones made by Indian-owned manufacturers, experts said, like Seneca-brand cigarettes.

And even when policy changes are “successful,” that doesn’t necessarily translate into more loot that politicians can use to buy votes.

When taxes become extortion, people will evade when they can’t avoid.

…the illegal trade of cigarettes has grown, especially in New York City where smokers are supposed to pay an extra $1.50 per pack on top of the state tax. A recent study by New York University estimated as many as 15 percent of New York City cigarettes sales avoided the state tax.

The Germans call it Schadenfreude when you take pleasure from another person’s misfortune. Normally, I would think people who feel this way have a character flaw.

But not in this case. I confess that get a certain joy from this story because politicians are being punished for their greed. I like the fact that they have less money to waste.

We can call it the revenge of the Laffer Curve!

P.S. Years ago, the JCT actually estimated that a 100 percent tax rate would generate more tax revenue. I realize it’s only a small sign of progress, but I don’t think the bureaucrats would make that assertion today.

P.P.S. Here’s my as-yet-unheeded Laffer Curve lesson for President Obama, based on the fact that rich taxpayers paid five times as much tax after Reagan reduced the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent.

P.P.P.S. And here’s something that’s downright depressing. Some leftists are so resentful of successful people that they want higher tax rates even if the result is less revenue. And you’ll notice at the 4:20 mark of this video that President Obama is one of those people.

P.P.P.P.S. Speaking of leftists, here’s my response when one of them argued against the Laffer Curve.

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Why does the tax code require more than 10,000,000 words and more than 75,000 pages?

There are several reasons and none of them are good. But if you had to pick one cause for all the mess, it would be the fact that politicians have worked with interest groups and lobbyists to create myriad deductions, credits, exclusions, preferences, exemptions, and other loopholes.

This is a great deal for the lobbyists, who get big fees. It’s a great scam for politicians, who get lots of contributions. And it’s a great outcome for interest groups, who benefit from back-door industrial policy that distorts the economy.

But it’s not great for the American people or the American economy.

Writing for Reason, Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center explains that the net result is a Byzantine tax code that imposes very harsh compliance costs on the productive sector.

According to a 2012 study from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Treasury Department, …corporations alone spent $104 billion complying with the tax code in 2012. …The cost to individuals may be even higher. According to a 2013 study by Jason Fichtner and Jacob Feldman of the Mercatus Center, Americans face nearly $1 trillion annually in hidden tax-compliance costs. …Why does tax compliance cost so much? The answer is largely that the Internal Revenue Code…is riddled with exclusions, exemptions, deductions, preferential rates, and credits.

And she also points to a solution.

Genuine reform would cut out loopholes that tilt the playing field in favor of those with political connections. It would also aim to provide lower tax rates, fewer tax brackets, and less double taxation of income that is saved and invested. Such measures would be good for growth, but they would also mean taking on the interest groups that benefit from swapping tax preferences for campaign cash.

Since I want to rip up the tax code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax, this is music to my ears.

Of course, achieving genuine tax reform won’t be easy.

There’s the obvious political obstacle since all the groups that benefit from the current system (politicians, lobbyists, bureaucrats, cronyists, interest groups, and other insiders) will fiercely resist reform.

There’s also a policy obstacle because many people oppose loopholes in theory but they haven’t paid sufficient attention to the nuts-and-bolts details.

With that in mind, let’s set out a set of guiding principles for the elimination of tax loopholes and the creation of a neutral tax system.

1. A loophole exists when income isn’t taxed – In libertarian Nirvana, the central government is so small that there’s no need for an income tax. Until we get to that point, though, we’re stuck with the internal revenue code and the goal should be to collect revenue (hopefully a modest amount) in a way that minimizes the economic damage per dollar collected. And that means a tax code that doesn’t have loopholes, which are best defined as provisions that enable people to avoid any tax based on how they earn income or how they spend income. In a neutral system, all income is taxed one time.

2. The economy performs better without a loophole-riddled tax code – Most people understand that high tax rates are bad for growth because they penalize people for earning income. They also generally understand that double taxation of saving and investment is bad for growth because it creates a bias against capital formation. But there’s not nearly enough appreciation of the fact that loopholes in the code are bad for growth since they are a back-door form of industrial policy that exist for the purpose of incentivizing people to make decisions on the basis of tax rather than on the basis of what makes economic sense. A neutral tax system means less economic damage.

3. It’s not a loophole to protect income from double taxation or to require income to be measured correctly – The bad news is that the current system forces taxpayers to overstate their income and it also imposes multiple layers of tax on income that is saved and invested. The good news is that there are provisions in the tax code – such as IRAs, 401(k)s, deferral, bonus depreciation – that seek to mitigate these biases. These parts of the system oftentimes are needlessly complex and they frequently will alleviate penalties in a discriminatory manner, but they are not loopholes. In a neutral system, all income is taxed only one time.

4. Loopholes should be eliminated as part of a plan to lower tax rates, not in order to give politicians more money – If loopholes are a corrupt and distorting dark cloud, the silver lining to that cloud is that all the special favors in the tax code deprive the government of tax revenue. Even the most egregious of loopholes, such as ethanol, have this redeeming feature. This is why loopholes should only be eliminated as part of an overall tax reform plan that also lowers tax rates and reduces double taxation. A neutral tax system shouldn’t enable bigger government.

There are some important implications that follow from these four guiding principles.

As a practical matter, we can now identify provisions in the tax code that are clearly loopholes, such as the healthcare exclusion, the municipal bond exemption, and the state and local tax deduction (the mortgage interest deduction is misguided, but isn’t technically a loophole since one of the goals of tax reform is to give business investment the same tax-income-only-one-time treatment now reserved for residential real estate).

We also know that the capital gains tax rate isn’t a “preferential” loophole, but instead is the mitigation of a penalty that shouldn’t exist. Similarly, it’s not a loophole when companies deduct expenses when calculating income. And you’re not getting some sort of handout simply because Uncle Sam isn’t imposing double taxation on your retirement account. At the risk of repeating myself, all income should be taxed in a neutral system, but only one time.

Let’s close by looking at a few secondary – but still important – implications of a neutral tax code.

First, getting rid of loopholes won’t put a burden on poor and middle-income taxpayers for the simple reason that an overwhelming share of the benefits of these provisions go to high-income taxpayers.

I’ve already shown how the vast majority of charitable deductions are taken by those making more than $200,000 per year.

The same is true for the state and local tax deduction and the healthcare exclusion.

And the Washington Post just editorialized that the home mortgage interest deduction is a boon for rich taxpayers as well.

The mortgage interest deduction is also a significant cause of after-tax income inequality: The top 20 percent of earners get 75 percent of the benefits; the top 1 percent get 15 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office. …Specifically, 10 metropolitan “hot spot” counties (among them Los Angeles in California and Fairfax in Virginia) with the greatest number of mortgages larger than $500,000 accounted for 45.1 percent of all such mortgages nationally. Just eight California urban and suburban counties accounted for 40 percent of the national total. Outside of such tony coastal precincts, the only big-mortgage hot spots were resort destinations such as Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., and Vail, Colo. — where many homes are vacation places, not primary residences.

To be sure, the Post is misguided in that it wants to restrict tax preferences in order to finance a larger burden of government spending.

So I’m not expecting the editors to join a coalition for pro-growth tax reform.

The second implication is that a neutral tax system means less corruption.

To cite one example, consider the oleaginous way that politicians deal with so-called tax extenders. Marc Short and Andy Koenig explain in a column they wrote for the New York Times.

Congress will soon take up the so-called tax extenders package, which has more than 50 tax breaks affecting a variety of industries and issues. …this bill mostly helps the wealthy and the well connected.

The fact that rich insiders benefit is no surprise, but what makes “tax extenders” so odious is that what began in 1988 as a supposedly one-time fix now has become a regular part of the process, a scam that gives lobbyists and politicians a way of generating fees and contributions.

The first tax-extender package…opened a door that lobbyists and lawmakers were all too willing to run through. …A 2014 analysis by Americans for Tax Fairness found that more than one out of every 10 lobbyists in Washington focused specifically on the extenders package. Given that this bill comes up about every year or two, special interests constantly have the opportunity to demand new handouts.

By the way, some of the extenders actually are good policy. They’re in the mitigation-of-penalties category I discussed above.

But those good provisions should be made permanent and the bad provisions should be jettisoned.

Unfortunately, that’s not in the interests of the politicians and lobbyists who benefit from an annual extender package, so the problem doubtlessly will fester.

Last but not least, let’s consider the moral component.

For those of us who believe in justice, it is ethically offensive that some rich and powerful taxpayer get better treatment simply because they know how to manipulate the political process.

This violates the important principle that the law should treat everyone alike. Yet another reason to have a simple and fair flat tax.

P.S. At the risk of being a nit-picker about my own writing, I should confess that a flat tax is not a purely neutral tax system. There will still be a penalty on earning income. But the penalty presumably will be modest if there is a low rate and that penalty won’t be exacerbated by penalties and loopholes that distort how people earn income and spend income.

P.P.S. Here, in one image, is all you really need to know about the economics of taxation.

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I’m happy that many of the presidential candidates are proposing big tax cuts.

Bobby Jindal and Donald Trump have large tax cuts, and Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio are proposing smaller – but still significant – reductions in the federal tax burden.

All of these plans, to be credible, should be accompanied by proposals for a sustained reduction in the burden of government spending (with real enforcement mechanisms).

But there’s something else that needs to be part of the discussion. Yes, we need tax cuts and smaller government, but we also need radical tax simplification.

Consider this depressing chart showing the number of pages in the instruction manual for the IRS’s 1040 tax form.

Or the number of sections in the tax law, which has skyrocketed in the past four decades.

I think it’s fair to say that complexity is a proxy for corruption (and even the World Bank agrees with me). Our tax code is a Byzantine mess because interest groups and lobbyists conspire with politicians to swap loopholes for campaign cash.

Some say that this problem could be solved by restricting the First Amendment and limiting people’s ability to participate in the political process. But that’s naive. So long as we have a convoluted tax code, insiders will figure out how to curry favor with the political elite and manipulate the system to their advantage.

Rather than trashing the Constitution, we should be trashing the internal revenue code.

I have lots of economic arguments for fundamental tax reform and I can wax poetic about the harm of high tax rates and double taxation of saving and investment.

But this new chart from the Tax Foundation, showing the ever-growing number of words in the tax code, is probably the single most compelling argument for a simple and fair flat tax.

Wow. It doesn’t seem to matter which party is in power. It doesn’t seem to matter who controls the White House or who controls Congress. Just as the number of pages in the tax code keeps expanding, so does the number of words.

And I think all of us know that this relentless growth in complexity is not good for ordinary taxpayers.

The only winners are the cronyists, politicians, and other insiders who get rich by using the coercive power of government.

And don’t forget that a complicated tax code means a very powerful IRS, and we’ve seen how that leads to venal corruption.

Now let’s circle back to where we started. I mentioned that many presidential candidates have proposed big tax plans that reduce the amount of money flowing to Washington. Many of those plans also include partial reforms of the tax code.

All of these components are desirable in that they both reduce the tax burden and simplify the tax system. And I could list other attractive partial reforms that are in the various tax plans.

But I can’t help but wonder why no candidate has explicitly embraced the gold standard of tax reform.

By the way, I’m ecumenical on a replacement system. There are other plans that satisfy the goals of real reform.

My only caveat, for those who advocate a national sales tax or value-added tax, is that we first need to repeal the 16th Amendment and replace it with something so ironclad that politicians could never do a bait and switch and saddle the American people with both an income tax and a consumption tax.

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Europe is suffering from economic stagnation caused in part by excessive fiscal burdens.

So what are European policy makers doing to address this problem?

If you think the answer might have something to do with a shift to responsible fiscal policy, you obviously have no familiarity with Europe’s political elite. But if you have paid attention to their behavior, you won’t be surprised to learn that they’re lashing out at jurisdictions with better policy.

Here are a few blurbs from a story in the Economic Times.

The European Union published its first list of international tax havens on Wednesday… “We are today publishing the top 30 non-cooperative jurisdictions consisting of those countries or territories that feature on at least 10 member states’ blacklists,” EU Economic Affairs Commissioner Pierre Moscovici told a news conference. 

This is a misguided exercise for several reasons, but here are the ones that merit some discussion.

1. I can’t resist starting with a philosophical point. Low-tax jurisdictions and so-called tax havens should be emulated rather than persecuted. Their modest fiscal burdens are strongly correlated with high levels of prosperity. It’s high-tax nations that should be blacklisted and shamed for their destructive policies.

2. This new EU blacklist is particularly nonsensical because there’s no rational (even from a leftist perspective) methodology. Jurisdictions get added to the blacklist if 10 or more EU nations don’t like their tax laws. Some nations, as cited in official EU documents, even use “the level of taxation for blacklisting purposes.”

3. As has always been the case with anti-tax competition campaigns, the entire exercise reeks of hypocrisy. Big European nations such as Luxembourg and Switzerland were left off the blacklist, and the United States also was omitted (though the EU figured it was okay to pick on the U.S. Virgin Islands for inexplicable reasons).

By the way, I’m not the only person to notice the hypocrisy. Here are some excerpts from a report in the U.K.-based Guardian.

A blacklist of the world’s 30 worst-offending tax havens, published on Wednesday by the European commission, includes the tiny Polynesian island of Niue, where 1,400 people live in semi-subsistence — but does not include Luxembourg, the EU’s wealthy tax avoidance hub. …the new register does not include countries such as the Netherlands, Ireland.

And Radio New Zealand made a similar point it its report.

Anthony van Fossen, an adjunct research fellow at Australia’s Griffith University, says the list seems to be picking on smaller, easy-to-target tax havens and ignoring major ones like Singapore, Switzerland and Luxembourg. “The list is very strange in that some major havens are ignored, particularly the havens in the European Union itself, and many minor havens, including some in the Pacific Islands are highlighted.”

The more one investigates this new EU project, the more irrational it appears.

Some of the larger and more sensible European nations, including Sweden, Germany, Denmark, and the United Kingdom, didn’t even participate. Or, if they did, they decided that every jurisdiction in the world has “tax good governance.”

But other nations put together incomprehensible lists, featuring some well-known low-tax jurisdictions, but also places that have never before been considered “tax havens.” Is Botswana really a hiding spot for French taxpayers? Do Finnish taxpayers actually protect their money in Tajikistan? Is Bolivia actually a haven for the Portuguese? Do the Belgians put their funds in St. Barthelemy, which is part of France? And do Greeks put their money in Bosnia?!?

As you can see from this map, the Greeks also listed nations such as Saudi Arabia and Paraguay. No wonder the nation is such a mess. It’s governed by brain-dead government officials.

I’ve saved the best evidence for the end. If you really want to grasp the level of irrationality in the EU blacklist, it’s even been criticized by the tax-loving (but not tax-paying) bureaucrats at the OECD. Here are some details from a report out of Cayman.

‘As the OECD and the Global Forum we would like to confirm that the only agreeable assessment of countries as regards their cooperation is made by the Global Forum and that a number of countries identified in the EU exercise are either fully or largely compliant and have committed to AEOI, sometimes even as early adopters’, the email states. …‘We have already expressed our concerns (to the EU Commission) and stand ready to further clarify to the media the position of the affected jurisdictions with regard to their compliance with the Global Forum standards’, Mr Saint-Amans and Ms Bhatia wrote.

Needless to say, being compliant with the OECD is nothing to celebrate. It means a jurisdiction has been bullied into surrendering its fiscal sovereignty and agreeing to serve as a deputy tax collector for high-tax governments.

But having taken that unfortunate step, it makes no sense for these low-tax jurisdictions to now be persecuted by the EU.

P.S. Let’s add to our collection of libertarian humor (see here and here for prior examples).

This image targets the Libertarian Party, but I’ve certainly dealt many times with folks that assert that all libertarians should “grow up” and accept big government.

For what it’s worth, if growing up means acquiescing to disgusting government overreach, I prefer to remain a child.

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Who benefits most from the death tax?

There are two obvious answers.

First, politicians presumably benefit since they get more money to spend. Yes, it’s true that the tax discourages capital formation and may actually lose revenue in the long run, but politicians aren’t exactly famous for thinking past the next election cycle.

Second, there are some statists who are motivated by envy and resentment. These are the folks who make class-warfare arguments about the death tax being necessary to prevent the “rich” from accumulating more wealth, even though evidence shows large family fortunes dissipate over time.

Both of those answers are correct, but they don’t fully explain why this pernicious levy still exists.

Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner has a must-read piece for the American Enterprise Institute. He reveals the groups that actually are spending time and money to defend this odious version of double taxation.

…about two-thirds of Americans tell pollsters that they oppose the death tax. …But some segments of the population feel differently — most notably, the estate-planning industry. A survey by an industry magazine in 2011 found that 63 percent of estate-planning attorneys opposed repeal of the estate tax. That’s fitting. The death tax forces people to engage in complex and expensive estate planning. Lobbying disclosure forms show that the insurance industry is lobbying on the issue these days. The Association for Advanced Life Underwriting, which represents companies that sell estate-planning products, lobbied on the issue last year, as it has for years. Last decade, AALU funded a group called the Coalition for America’s Priorities, which attacked estate tax repeal as a tax break for Paris Hilton. …When the estate tax was last before Congress, the life insurance industry revved up the troops, spending $10 million a month on lobbying in the first half of 2010. In that stretch, only three industries spent more, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

I concur with Tim.

Indeed, I remember giving a speech back in the 1990s to a group of estate-planning professionals. In my youthful naiveté, I expected that these folks would very much appreciate my arguments against the death tax.

Instead, the reception was somewhat frosty.

Though not nearly as hostile, I must confess, as the treatment I got when speaking about the flat tax to a group of tax lobbyists for big corporations.

In both cases, I was surprised because I mistakenly assumed that my audiences actually cared about the best interests of their clients or employers.

In reality, they cared about what made them rich instead (economists and other social scientists call this the principal-agent problem).

But I’m digressing. Let’s look at more of Tim’s article. He cites the Clintons to make a key point about rich people being able to avoid the tax so long as they cough up enough money to the estate-planning industry.

Those same techniques, however, often are not available to farmers, small business owners, and others who are victimized by the levy.

The Clintons may be stupid-rich, but they aren’t stupid — they’re using estate-planning techniques to avoid the estate tax. Bloomberg News reported in 2014 that the Clinton family home has been divided, for tax purposes, into two shares, and those shares have been placed in a special trust that will shield Chelsea from having to pay the estate tax on the full value of the home when she inherits it. Also, the Clintons have created a life insurance trust — a common tool wealthy people use to provide liquidity for heirs to pay the estate tax. The Clintons’ games, and the estate-planning industry’s interest in the tax, highlights how the tax fails at its stated aims of preventing the inheritance of wealth and privilege. Instead, the estate tax forces the wealthy to play games in order to pass on their wealth. These games don’t add anything to the economy, they just enrich the estate-planning industry. Those whose wealth is tied up in a small or medium-sized business, on the other hand, aren’t always capable of playing the estate planning games. They’re the victims.

The bottom line is that the tax should be abolished for reasons of growth.

But it also should be repealed because it’s unfair to newly successful entrepreneurs, investors, and business owners, all of whom generally lack access to the clever tax-planning tools of those with established wealth.

And it should be repealed simply because it would be morally satisfying to reduce the income of those who benefit from – and lobby for – bad government policy.

P.S. The U.S. death tax is more punitive than the ones imposed by even France and Venezuela.

P.P.S. It’s particularly hypocritical for the Clintons to support the death tax on others while taking steps to make sure it doesn’t apply to them.

P.P.P.S. In a truly repugnant development, there are efforts in the U.K. to apply the death tax while people are still alive.

P.P.P.P.S. On a more positive note, a gay “adoption” in Pennsylvania helped one couple reduce exposure to that state’s death tax.

P.P.P.P.P.S. If you live in New Jersey, by contrast, the best choice is to move before you die.

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