Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Tax evasion’

Why do I relentlessly defend tax competition and tax havens?

Sadly, it’s not because I have money to protect. Instead, I’m motivated by a desire to protect the world from “goldfish government.”

Simply stated, politicians have a “public choice” incentive for never-ending expansions of government, even if they actually understand such policies will lead to Greek-style collapse.

Speaking at a recent conference in Moldova, I explained why tax competition is the best hope for averting that grim outcome.

In my remarks, I basically delivered a results-based argument for tax competition.

Which is why I shared data on lower tax rates and showed these slides on what politicians want compared to what they’ve been pressured to deliver.

Likewise, I also talked about reductions in the tax bias against saving and investment and shared these slides on what politicians want compared to what they’ve been pressured to deliver.

There’s also a theoretical side to the debate about tax competition and tax havens.

In a 2013 article for Cayman Financial Review, I explained (fairly, I think) the other side’s theory.

…there also has been a strain of academic thought hostile to tax competition. It’s called “capital export neutrality” and advocates of the “CEN” approach assert that tax competition creates damaging economic distortions. They start with the theoretical assumption of a world with no taxes. They then hypothesize, quite plausibly, that people will allocate resources in that world in ways that maximise economic output. They then introduce “real world” considerations to the theory, such as the existence of different jurisdictions with different tax rates. In this more plausible world, advocates of CEN argue that the existence of different tax rates will lead some taxpayers to allocate at least some resources for tax considerations rather than based on the underlying economic merit of various options. In other words, people make less efficient choices in a world with multiple tax regimes when compared to the hypothetical world with no taxes. To maximise economic efficiency, CEN proponents believe taxpayers should face the same tax rates, regardless of where they work, save, shop or invest. …One of the remarkable implications of capital export neutrality is that tax avoidance and tax evasion are equally undesirable. Indeed, the theory is based on the notion that all forms of tax planning are harmful and presumably should be eliminated.

And I then explained why I think the CEN theory is highly unrealistic.

…the CEN is flawed for reasons completely independent from preferences about the size of government. Critics point out that capital export neutrality is based on several highly implausible assumptions. The CEN model, for instance, assumes that taxes are exogenous – meaning that they are independently determined. Yet the real-world experience of tax competition shows that tax rates are very dependent on what is happening in other jurisdictions. Another glaring mistake is the assumption that the global stock of capital is fixed – and, more specifically, the assumption that the capital stock is independent of the tax treatment of saving and investment. Needless to say, these are remarkably unrealistic conditions.

Since economists like numbers, I even created an equation to illustrate whether tax competition is a net plus or a net minus.

Basically, the CEN argument is only defensible if the economic inefficiency associated with tax minimization is greater than the economic damage caused by higher tax rates, plus the damage caused by more double taxation, plus the damage caused by a bigger public sector.

Needless to say, honest empirical analysis will never support the CEN approach (as even the OECD admits).

That being said, politicians and special interests are not overly sympathetic to my arguments.

Which is why I very much identify with the guy in this cartoon strip.

P.S. If you want more information, about 10 years ago, I narrated a video on tax competition, a three-part video series on tax havens, and even a video debunking some of Obama’s demagoguery on the topic.

Read Full Post »

She’s not quite as bad as Matt Yglesias, who wants a top tax rate of 90 percent (a rate that Crazy Bernie also likes), but Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is not bashful about wanting to use the coercive power of government to take much larger shares of what others have earned.

And she doesn’t want to take “just” half, which would be bad enough. She wants to go ever further, endorsing a top tax rate on household income of 70 percent.

Those of you with a lot of gray hair may recall that’s the type of punitive tax regime we had in the 1970s (does anybody want a return to the economic misery we suffered during the Nixon and Carter years?).

So it’s very disturbing to think we may get an encore performance.

Here are some excerpts from a Politico report.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is floating an income tax rate as high as 60 to 70 percent on the highest-earning Americans… Ocasio-Cortez said a dramatic increase in taxes could support her “Green New Deal” goal of eliminating the use of fossil fuels within 12 years… “There’s an element where yeah, people are going to have to start paying their fair share in taxes.” …When Cooper pointed out such a tax plan would be a “radical” move, Ocasio-Cortez embraced the label… “I think that it only has ever been radicals that have changed this country,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “Yeah, if that’s what radical means, call me a radical.”

There are many arguments to make against this type of class-warfare policy, but I’ll focus on two main points.

First, this approach isn’t practical, even from a left-wing perspective. Simply stated, upper-income taxpayers have considerable control over the timing, level, and composition of their income, and they can take very simple (and completely legal) steps to protect their money as tax rates increase.

This is one of the reasons why higher tax rates don’t translate into higher tax revenue.

If you don’t believe me, check out the IRS data on what happened in the 1980s when Reagan dropped the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent. Revenues from those making more than $200,000 quintupled.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez wants to run that experiment in reverse. That won’t end well (assuming, of course, that her goal is collecting more revenue, which may not be the case).

Second, higher tax rates on the rich will have negative consequences for the rest of us. This is because there is a lot of very rigorous research that tell us:

And this is just a partial list.

And I didn’t even include the potential costs of out-migration, which doubtlessly would be significant since Ms. Ocasio-Cortez would impose the developed world’s most punitive tax regime on the United States.

I’ll close by recycling this video on the harmful impact of punitive tax rates.

P.S. Today’s column focused on the adverse economic impact of a confiscatory tax rate, but let’s not forget the other side of the fiscal equation. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez wants to finance a “green new deal,” which presumably means a return to Solyndra-style scandals.

P.P.S. There is some encouraging polling data on class-warfare taxation.

Read Full Post »

My long-running feud with the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development could be categorized as a fight over tax compliance.

The bureaucrats at the OECD say that financial privacy must be eviscerated and the fiscal sovereignty must be wiped out so that high-tax governments can track and tax money around the world.

My view is that pro-growth reforms like the flat tax would be a much better approach. With a simple and fair tax code that doesn’t impose extra layers of tax on saving and investment, the IRS no longer would need to know about our bank accounts or investment funds – regardless of whether they are based in Geneva, Illinois, or Geneva, Switzerland.

Though I view better compliance as a secondary benefit. My main goal is to have a tax system that doesn’t impose needlessly high levels of economic damage.

But let’s stick with the compliance issue. Writing for E21, Daniel Di Martino explains that the Italian government makes evasion and avoidance a preferable option because tax rates are too onerous.

Italy’s problem, similar to many of its southern-European neighbors, is an oppressively high tax burden, irresponsible welfare programs that encourage high measured unemployment and increase the debt, and high levels of regulation. …the share of average wages collected by the Italian government via income and social security taxes is among the highest in the OECD at 48 percent. In addition, Italy imposes a value-added tax of 22 percent on most goods and services, one of the highest in Europe. Plus, Italy’s corporate, capital gains, gift, and myriad other taxes are passed on to individuals and borne directly by workers. These high taxes lead to a growing shadow economy, where people underreport work to avoid paying taxes. …many estimates point to more than  $175 billion (€150 billion) in lost tax revenue.

So what’s the best way of addressing that nation’s huge shadow economy?

Simple, less government.

Instead of cracking down on tax evasion and the shadow economy, Italy’s new government needs to rethink long-standing policies to bring a real economic recovery. Taxes need to be lowered so more businesses open and already-existing businesses and individuals come out of the shadows, broadening the tax base and raising revenue. This would allow those in the shadow economy to expand their businesses. Additionally, the welfare state should be trimmed so that people do not have an incentive to stay unemployed and young Italians are less burdened by government debt. Moreover, Italy needs to become more competitive by slashing the number of regulations.

The Institut Economique Molinari in Belgium took a look at the same issue, but included data for all European Union nations.

Economic reasoning and international experience point invariably to common causes that consistently create obstacles to dealings in the official economy: prohibitions, compulsory levies and specific tax measures, as well as fastidious and complex regulations. …As noted by two specialists, “In almost all studies, one of the most important causes (…) is the rise of the tax and social security burdens.” The higher these burdens on labour relations and dealings in the official economy, the less profitable these dealings become and the greater the incentive to trade on the black market. …As long as taxes account for a high share of the final price, opportunities for profit are provided in the underground economy, which moves in on a long‐term basis and comes to account for a significant share of countrywide sales. …Increasing this tax burden can only increase the disconnection between the real production cost of goods and their price on the official market, to such a degree that consumers begin abandoning the official market on a larger scale.

So what’s the answer?

Definitely not more government.

Given the scope of the underground economy, public authorities generally suggest toughening the means of repression so as to collect more tax revenues. The justification for this repression remains the same: it would promote the transfer of all under ground activity to the legal market, thereby creating new tax revenues. Beyond the cost of this repression in terms of resources and bureaucratisation of the economy, this reasoning and the resulting forecasts are erroneous. Though certain activities may no longer be undertaken in the underground economy, they will not be undertaken in the official economy either — in part or even in whole, depending on the specific case — because of the burden of compulsory levies and regulations. …Increased repression by the public authorities, without any change in regulatory and tax frameworks, risks simply destroying economic activities and the associated revenues. The only long‐lasting solution for ending the underground economy consists of dealing with the causes that give rise to it and thus to free the official market from its fiscal and regulatory burdens. …there is no other choice but to lighten tax and regulatory burdens.

Let’s now cross to this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

In an editorial about the current and former Treasury Secretary and their Cayman investments, the Wall Street Journal highlighted hypocrisy. But the best part was the conclusion about bad government policy driving money away from America.

Mr. Mnuchin served as director of Dune Capital, an investment firm he said he registered in the Caymans primarily to “accommodate nonprofits and pensions that want to invest through these off-shore entities.” By contrast, Mr. Lew was personallyinvested in the Citigroup Venture Capital International Growth Partnership II. You know, like that evil profiteer Mitt Romney, the subject of a now infamous Barack Obama campaign ad scoring Mr. Romney for profiting from money in offshore havens such as the Caymans. Mr. Lew’s Cayman company even used the same Ugland House building in the Caymans that President Obama so famously trashed as an “outrage” and “tax scam.” …The Democratic goal…seemed to be to get Mr. Mnuchin to admit that investors go to the Caymans to avoid American taxes. Mr. Mnuchin denied it but needn’t have been so shy. The Caymans have no corporate tax rate. The way to deal with the Caymans is not to punish investors who go there but to get rid of the regulations and high tax rates that send capital offshore.

But it’s not just market-friendly organizations that realize high tax burdens bolster the underground economy.

The International Monetary Fund released a study earlier this year on the shadow economy, which is defined as legal activities that are hidden from government.

The shadow economy includes all economic activities which are hidden from official authorities for monetary, regulatory, and institutional reasons. Monetary reasons include avoiding paying taxes and all social security contributions, regulatory reasons include avoiding governmental bureaucracy or the burden of regulatory framework, while institutional reasons include corruption law, the quality of political institutions and weak rule of law. For our study, the shadow economy reflects mostly legal economic and productive activities that, if recorded, would contribute to national GDP.

And what causes people to hide legal activity from government?

Here are some of the factors that drive the shadow economy according to the IMF.

In other words, people are less likely to comply when they have to endure bad government policy.

…in most cases trade openness, unemployment rate, GDP per capita, size of government, fiscal freedom and control of corruption are highly statistically significant.

And the number one bad government policy is high tax rates.

Let’s close by looking at the other side’s arguments.

Earlier this month, I revealed that the OECD finally admitted that it’s anti-tax competition project was motivated by a desire for class warfare and bigger government.

That’s terrible policy, but I give the bureaucrats in Paris credit for finally being honest.

By contrast, I’m not sure what to say about the bureaucrats in Brussels. The European Commission’s idea of an argument is this vapid video, which attempts to convince viewers that 20 percent of what they like is missing because government isn’t collecting more tax revenue.

In reality, of course, the money isn’t “missing.” It’s still in the private sector, where it actually is providing things that people like, rather than financing the stuff politicians like.

P.S. Speaking of vapid arguments from the European Commission, the bureaucrats actually created an online game designed to brainwash kids into supporting higher tax burdens.

P.P.S. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial mentioned Ugland House in the Cayman Islands. That’s the building that featured in some of Barack Obama’s dishonest demagoguery.

P.P.P.S. I’m still mystified that Republicans continue to send our tax dollars to Paris to subsidize the OECD. Actually, I’m not mystified. This is actually a good example of why they’re called the Stupid Party.

Read Full Post »

I wanted California to decriminalize marijuana because I believe in freedom. Smoking pot may not be a wise choice in many cases, but it’s not the role of government to dictate private behavior so long as people aren’t violating the rights of others.

Politicians, by contrast, are interested in legalization because they see dollar signs. They want to tax marijuana consumption to they can have more money to spend (I half-joked that this was a reason to keep it illegal, but that’s a separate issue).

Lawmakers need to realize, though, that the Laffer Curve is very real. They may not like it, but there’s very strong evidence that imposing lots of taxes does not necessarily mean collecting lots of revenue. Especially when tax rates are onerous.

Here’s some of what the AP recently reported about California’s experiment with taxing pot.

So far, the sale of legal marijuana in California isn’t bringing in the green stuff. Broad legal sales kicked off on Jan. 1. State officials had estimated California would bank $175 million from excise and cultivation taxes by the end of June. But estimates released Tuesday by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office show just $34 million came in between January and March. …it’s unlikely California will reap $175 million by midyear.

And here are some excerpts from a KHTS story.

Governor Jerry Brown’s January budget proposal predicted that $175 million would pour into the state’s coffers from excise and cultivation taxes…analysts believe revenue will be significantly lower… Some politicians argue high taxes are to blame for the revenue shortfalls preventing that prediction from becoming reality, saying the black market is “undercutting” the legal one. …The current taxes on legal marijuana businesses include a 15 percent excise tax on purchases of all cannabis and cannabis products, including medicinal marijuana. The law also added a $9.25 tax for every ounce of bud grown and a $2.75-an-ounce tax on dried cannabis leaves for cultivators.

These results should not have been a surprise.

I’ve been warning – over and over again – that politicians need to pay attention to the Laffer Curve. Simply stated, high tax rates don’t necessarily produce high revenues if taxpayers have the ability to alter their behavior.

That happens with income taxes. It happens with consumption taxes.

And it happens with taxes on marijuana.

Moreover, it’s not just cranky libertarians who make this point. Vox isn’t a site know for rabid support of supply-side economics, so it’s worth noting some of the findings from a recent article on pt taxes.

After accounting for substitution between products by consumers, we find that the tax-inclusive price faced by consumers for identical products increased by 2.3%. We find that the quantity purchased decreased by 0.95%…, implying a short-term price elasticity of -0.43. However, over time, the magnitude of the quantity response significantly increases, and our estimates suggest that the price elasticity of demand is about negative one within two weeks of the reform. We conclude that Washington, the state with the highest marijuana taxes in the country, is near the peak of the Laffer curve – further increases in tax rates may not increase revenue. …tax revenue has historically been one of the many arguments in favour of legalising marijuana…the optimal taxation of marijuana should be designed to take into account responses…excessive taxation might prop up the very black markets that legal marijuana is intended to supplant. As additional jurisdictions consider legalising marijuana and debate over optimal policy design, these trade-offs should be explored and taken into account.

Let’s close by reviewing some interesting passages from a McClatchey report, starting with some observations about the harmful impact of excessive taxes.

Owners of legalized cannabis operations face a range of challenges… But taxes – local, state, federal – present a particular headache. They are a big reason why, in California and other states, only a small percentage of cannabis growers and retailers have chosen to get licensed and come out of the shadows. …In a March report, Fitch Ratings suggested that California may not realize the tax revenue – $1 billion a year – the state projected when Proposition 64, a legalization initiative, was put before voters in 2016. “While it is still too early to assess California’s revenue performance, comparatively high taxes on legal cannabis will likely continue to divert sales to illegal markets, reducing potential tax collections,” Fitch said in its report. …Add it all up, and state-legal cannabis in some parts of California could be taxed at an effective rate of 45 percent, Fitch said in a report last year.

Interestingly, even politicians realize they need to adapt to the harsh reality of the Laffer Curve.

Some state lawmakers blame the taxation for creating a price gap between legal and illegal pot that could doom California’s regulated market. Last month, Assembly members Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, and Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, introduced legislation, AB 3157, that would reduce the state marijuana sales tax rate from 15 percent to 11 percent, and suspend all cultivation taxes until June 2021.

And I can’t resist including one final passage that has nothing to do with taxes. Instead, it’s a reference to the lingering effect of Obama’s dreadful Operation Choke Point.

Davies owns Canna Care, a medical marijuana dispensary in Sacramento. Like other state-legal cannabis businesses nationwide, her pot shop operates largely with cash. Most banks won’t transact with enterprises deemed illegal by the U.S. government. That forces Davies to stuff $10,000 in bills into her purse each month… even lawyers who represent state-legal marijuana businesses face financial risks. Sacramento lawyer Khurshid Khoja recently lost his two bank accounts with Umpqua Bank, after Umpqua started asking him about his state-legal cannabis clients.

The good news is that Trump has partially eased this awful policy. The bad news is that he only took a small step in the right direction.

But let’s get back to our main topic. I’ve written several times on whether our friends on the left are capable of learning about the Laffer Curve. Especially in cases when they imposed a tax in hopes of changing behavior!

What’s happening in California with pot taxes is simply the latest example.

And I’m hoping leftists will apply the lesson to taxes on things that we don’t want to discourage – such as work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

P.S. I’ve pointed out that some leftists want high tax rates on income even if no money is collected. That’s because their real goal is punishing success. I wonder if there are some conservatives who are pushing punitive marijuana taxes because they want to discourage “sin” rather than collect revenue.

Read Full Post »

When I write an everything-you-need-to-know column, it’s not because I’m under any illusions that I’ve actually amassed all the information one could need on a topic. Instead, it’s just a meme.

Today’s column belongs in the latter category. Could there possibly be something that more perfectly captures the essence of California than a story about the over-taxation of legal marijuana?

Marijuana dispensaries across California experienced long lines on the first day of legal recreational pot sales. But advocates warned the legal industry won’t survive without big changes…said Steve DeAngelo, co-founder and CEO of Harborside in Oakland. “At the same time, I’m terrified about what’s going to happen with these taxes.” Harborside has been a medical marijuana dispensary for more than a decade, and is now selling recreational marijuana… “In our shop here, the tax rate has gone from 15 percent all the way up to almost 35 percent for adult consumers,” DeAngelo said. …There is the regular state sales tax of 6 percent, and the regular Alameda County sales tax of 3.25 percent. Then there is a 15 percent state tax on marijuana, and a 10 percent Oakland tax on recreational marijuana. Total taxes: 34.25 percent. …In addition to taxes, marijuana regulations drive up the cost.

Excessive government and lifestyle liberalism. A perfect summation of California.

By the way, even though I’m a social conservative-style teetotaler, I agree with the pot legalization. But I have mixed feelings because I don’t want politicians to get more money to waste.

Though I am happy that people have the option to still use the underground economy.

…”a significant number of people, less affluent consumers, are going to turn to the lower prices of the underground market,” DeAngelo said. …People who are disabled or on fixed incomes may turn to the black market. “They can barely afford cannabis now, much less with a 35 or 40 percent tax increase,” DeAngelo said. When people aren’t buying from a regulated business, the state is getting zero taxes.

Yet another example of the Laffer Curve, which is simply the common-sense notion that marginal tax rates impact incentives.

When taxes are too high, there’s either less taxable activity, or the activity moves where the government can’t tax it. In other words, higher tax rates don’t necessarily mean higher tax revenue.

And it definitely means revenues will never be as high as the pro-tax crowd would like.

Such a simple concept that even some leftists are catching on.

This may lead California to lower tax rates, as has happened in other states.

Colorado, Washington state and Oregon each legalized marijuana at one tax rate and then had to lower the rate to keep people in the legitimate market. DeAngelo believes California will have to do the same. “I don’t think that the current tax rate for cannabis in California is sustainable,” he said.

That last sentence puts me in a good mood. I very much like when greedy politicians are forced to lower tax rates.

For those that want a more detailed and serious look at the economics of taxation and drug prohibition, this column from last November is a good place to start.

And for those who want a closer look at the moral/practical issues of drug prohibition, I recommend this piece from last May.

Read Full Post »

I’ve been at the United Nations this week for both the 14th Session of the Committee of Experts on International Cooperation in Tax Matters as well as the Special Meeting of ECOSOC on International Cooperation in Tax Matters.

As you might suspect, it would be an understatement to say this puts me in the belly of the beast (for the second time!). Sort of a modern-day version of Daniel in the Lion’s Den.

These meetings are comprised of tax collectors from various nations, along with U.N. officials who – like their tax-free counterparts at other international bureaucracies – don’t have to comply with the tax laws of those countries.

In other words, there’s nobody on the side of taxpayers and the private sector (I’m merely an observer representing “civil society”).

I could share with you the details of the discussion, but 99 percent of the discussion was boring and arcane. So instead I’ll touch on two big-picture observations.

What the United Nations gets wrong: The bureaucracy assumes that higher taxes are a recipe for economic growth and development.

I’m not joking. I wrote last year about how many of the international bureaucracies are blindly asserting that higher taxes are pro-growth because government supposedly will productively “invest” any additional revenue. And this reflexive agitation for higher fiscal burdens has been very prevalent this week in New York City. It’s unclear whether participants actually believe their own rhetoric. I’ve shared with some of the folks the empirical data showing the western world became rich in the 1800s when fiscal burdens were very modest. But I’m not expecting any miraculous breakthroughs in economic understanding.

What the United Nations fails to get right: The bureaucracy does not appreciate that low rates are the best way of boosting tax compliance.

Most of the discussions focused on how tax laws, tax treaties, and tax agreements can and should be altered to extract more money from the business community. Participants occasionally groused about tax evasion, but the real focus was on ways to curtail tax avoidance. This is noteworthy because it confirms my point that the anti-tax competition work of international bureaucracies is guided by a desire to collect more revenue rather than to improve enforcement of existing law. But I raise this issue because of a sin of omission. At no point did any of the participants acknowledge that there’s a wealth of empirical evidence showing that low tax rates are the most effective way of encouraging tax compliance.

I realize that these observations are probably not a big shock. So in hopes of saying something worthwhile, I’ll close with a few additional observations

  • I had no idea that people could spend so much time discussing the technicalities of taxes on international shipping. I resisted the temptation to puncture my eardrums with an ice pick.
  • From the moment it was announced, I warned that the OECD’s project on base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS) was designed to extract more money from the business community. The meeting convinced me that my original fears were – if possible – understated.
  • A not-so-subtle undercurrent in the meeting is that governments of rich nations, when there are squabbles over who gets to pillage taxpayers, are perfectly happy to stiff-arm governments from poor nations.
  • The representative from the U.S. government never expressed any pro-taxpayer or pro-growth sentiments, but he did express some opposition to the notion that profits of multinationals could be divvied up based on the level of GDP in various nations. I hope that meant opposition to “formula apportionment.”
  • Much of the discussion revolved around the taxation of multinational companies, but I was still nonetheless surprised that there was no discussion of the U.S. position as a very attractive tax haven.
  • The left’s goal (at least for statists from the developing world) is for the United Nations to have greater power over national tax policies, which does put the UN in conflict with the OECD, which wants to turn a multilateral convention into a pseudo-International Tax Organization.

P.S. The good news is that the folks at the United Nations have not threatened to toss me in jail. That means the bureaucrats in New York City are more tolerant of dissent than the folks at the OECD.

Read Full Post »

The War against Cash is a battle that shouldn’t even exist. But politicians don’t like cash because it’s hard to control something that people can freely trade back and forth. So folks on the left are arguing that governments should ban or restrict paper money.

  • In Part I, we looked at the argument that cash should be banned or restricted so governments could more easily collect additional tax revenue.
  • In Part II, we reviewed the argument that cash should be curtailed so that governments could more easily impose Keynesian-style monetary policy.
  • In Part III, written back in March, we examined additional arguments by people on both sides of the issue and considered the risks of expanded government power.
  • In Part IV, a few months ago, there was additional discussion of the dangers that would be unleashed if politicians banned cash.

Now let’s add a fifth installment in this series, and we’ll focus on the destructive turmoil resulting from India’s decision earlier this month to ban “large” notes.

The Financial Times explains what happened.

India unexpectedly scrapped all larger-denomination banknotes overnight… Prime Minister Narendra Modi said 500 and 1,000 rupee notes — worth around $7.50 and $15, respectively — would cease to be legal tender from midnight on Tuesday. The announcement stunned Indians, who were given four hours’ notice that much of their cash would be “mere paper”. RBI data suggests that the Rs500 and Rs1,000 notes account for 86 per cent of the value of all cash in circulation in India at present. …The shock move is the latest step by Mr Modi’s administration to crack down on the vast shadow economy, which remains beyond the reach of India’s tax authorities.

Before delving into why this is an unfortunate development, I can’t resist pointing out that banknotes worth $7.50 and $15 are neither large nor inappropriate for an economy at India’s level of development.

When the United States had a similar level of per-capita GDP (back in the late 1800s), there were $500 and $1000 notes. Yet America didn’t have serious problems with corruption and tax evasion. So why should the existence of far smaller bills be a problem in India today?

I’ll return to that question in the conclusion, but let’s first look at the impact of Prime Minister Modi’s unilateral attack on currency. A column in the New York Times explains why the policy does more harm than good.

On Nov. 8, the Indian government announced an immediate ban on two major bills that account for the vast majority of all currency in circulation. …In the two weeks after the measure was announced, millions of Indians stricken with small panic rushed out to banks; A.T.M.s and tellers soon ran dry. Some 98 percent of all transactions in India, measured by volume, are conducted in cash. …So far its effects have been disastrous for the middle- and lower-middle classes, as well as the poor. And the worst may be yet to come.

The ripple effect of the policy is large and unpleasant.

…demonetization is a ham-fisted move that will put only a temporary dent in corruption, if even that, and is likely to rock the entire economy. …Anyone seeking to convert more than 250,000 rupees (about $3,650) must explain why they hold so much cash, or failing that, must pay a penalty. The requirement has already spawned a new black market to service people wishing to offload: Large amounts of illicit cash are broken into smaller blocks and deposited by teams of illegal couriers. Demonetization is mostly hurting people who aren’t its intended targets. Because sellers of certain durables, such as jewelry and property, often insist on cash payments, many individuals who have no illegal money build up cash reserves over time. Relatively poor women stash away cash beyond their husbands’ reach.

As is so often the case, the bogeyman of terrorism is being used as a rationale for bad policy, even though everyone realizes that terrorists won’t be affected.

When the government announced demonetization, it also justified the measure as a way to curb terrorism financing that relies on counterfeit rupee notes… Catching fake notes already in circulation neither helps trap the terrorists who minted them nor prevents more such money from being injected into the economy. It simply inconveniences the people who use it as legal tender, the vast majority of whom had no hand in its creation.

I’m sympathetic, by the way, to the notion that the government should fight counterfeiting. Crooks printing up fake notes is even worse than central banks printing up too many real notes.

In any event, this indirect attack on the shadow economy imposes considerable costs on regular Indians.

In a country like India, where the illegal economy is so intimately intertwined with the mainstream economy, one inept government intervention against shadow activities can do a lot of harm to the vast majority, who are just trying to make a legitimate living.

Writing for Bloomberg, Elaine Ou has a negative assessment of this proposal.

India is conducting a big test of the idea that getting rid of cash can help address crime and corruption. Unfortunately, it might achieve nothing more than a lot of inconvenience. Criminals and corrupt officials often conduct business in cash, because it’s hard to trace. So in a sense it’s logical to assume that abolishing cash will help reduce criminal activity. …This rationale has led Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to declare a surprise cancellation of the nation’s two highest-denomination notes, effectively invalidating 86 percent of total currency in circulation. Anyone with outstanding notes must either deposit them in a bank — potentially incurring a tax — or exchange them for replacements in strictly limited sums.

Ms. Ou explains that the policy will be traumatic for the hundreds of millions of Indians who don’t have bank accounts.

In a country where most transactions are conducted in cash, many people have been unable to pay for necessities like food or medical services. Banks have had to work overtime to handle the exchange, bringing other financial services to a halt. It’s certainly likely that the sheer trauma will leave people less keen to hoard rupees, creating a big incentive to move economic activity out of cash and into banks. Except that a huge number of Indians don’t have a bank account.

In any event, she points out, banning cash won’t have much impact on corruption since politicians and public officials have plenty of ways to extort wealth from the productive sector.

…the prevalence of cash is far from a foolproof indicator of criminality and corruption. Consider Nigeria, which is perceived as one the world’s most corrupt countries and has a currency-to-GDP ratio even lower than Sweden’s… Nigerians have abandoned cash because they have so little trust in government-issued currency. Instead of using banks, they tend to transact in mobile airtime minutes. …Those with more substantial wealth put it in foreign currency. By undermining faith in its cash notes, India may go the way of Nigeria. Villagers are already resorting to barter. …corrupt public officials were believed to have their wealth in real estate and gold.

A news report highlights the real-world impact of the Indian government’s bad policy. Starting with the impact on a poor single mother.

With demonetisation, Sayyed’s family has been forced to cut costs across the board to make sure their limited cash resources don’t get exhausted faster than the banks can exchange money. “Last week it took me four hours of waiting in line to get my old notes exchanged,” said Sayyed. “And because no one had change for a Rs 2,000 note, I had to buy ration on credit for six whole days.” Vegetables and foodgrains, says Sayyed, have grown more expensive in the past 10 days, because of the impact of demonetisation on wholesalers and retailers.

And the impact on a small-business owner.

His salon, which charges Rs 40 for a haircut, used to make anywhere between Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,200 on the weekend. But now, he said, that has fallen to Rs 500. …How is he coping with this liquidity crunch? Not by going cashless. In part because he doesn’t have a bank account. “I tried to open one but they wanted too many proofs of identity,” Sharma said.

By the way, Sharma is a victim of pointless anti-money laundering laws, something even the World Bank recognizes as being particularly harmful for the poor.

A farmer also has been hit hard.

It has been three weeks since Vedagiri’s single acre of land had been tilled and paddy seedlings had been sown. …“The cooperative bank cannot lend us money now, so for the whole of last week, our crop has been standing without pesticides,” said Vedagiri. Several times last week, Vedagiri and the other farmers of Royalpattu were turned away by bank employees. New currency notes have been slow to reach most rural cooperative banks across India. While sowing the crop, Vedagiri had employed 20 labourers. But he has been unable to pay any of them since he had not still received the rest of the money…Vedagiri does not know how he will get through this cropping season without incurring a loss.

Bloomberg reports on some of the bizarre unintended consequences of this bad policy.

Indian ingenuity is being stretched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cash ban to crackdown on unaccounted money. India’s cash economy has been thrown into turmoil since Modi announced last week that 500 and 1,000 rupee notes would cease to be legal tender and would have to be deposited at banks by year-end, leaving about one-seventh of currency in circulation. …Here are some unintended consequences. Indian defense jets are on standby to airlift cash from mints across India to remote corners of the country. …wealthy Indians rushed to make costly purchases with unaccounted cash. One luxury watch outlet in north-west Mumbai saw 45 units of Rolex watches sold on a single day, according to a representative of a watchmaker, who was present when the sales took place. Demand matched what the shop would usually sell in a month and the store had to turn away customers… A new gold rush also emerged soon after Modi’s announcement. “Jewelers who had shut shop for the day on Nov. 8 had to reopen their stores within a couple of hours and were selling gold up to 4 a.m.,” Chirag Thakkar, a director at gold wholesaler Amrapali Group, said by phone… Customers paid as much as 52,000 rupees per 10 grams, almost double the current prices, he said. …About half of an estimated 9.3 million trucks under the All India Motor Transport Congress were off the road eight days after the announcement as drivers abandoned vehicles mid-way into their trips after running out of cash, according to Naveen Gupta, secretary general of the group. India’s roads carry about 65 percent of the country’s freight. Drivers don’t have enough money for food, truck maintenance and to make payments at border check posts. …Compounding the problem of pumping new money into the system is the need to reconfigure the country’s 220,000 cash machines so that they can dispense the new 500 and 2,000 rupee notes, which do not fit into existing ATM cash trays.

To be fair, some of these costs are transitory in nature, so it’s important to distinguish between those consequences and others that might linger.

Though the part of this story that doesn’t make sense is that the government plans on issuing new high-value banknotes. So the Prime Minister is not actually banning large banknotes (or even all non-digital currency), which is the usual goal of the war-on-cash crowd.

So why did the Modi cause so much turmoil with an overnight ban rather than allow for an orderly transition? I’m assuming that the answer has something to do with inconveniencing those with large cash holdings, some of whom will be crooks or counterfeiters or corrupt public officials.

As already noted, the battle against counterfeit currency surely is worthwhile.

But I have considerable doubts about whether this currency swap will have much impact on the shadow economy or public corruption.

And that brings me back to the rhetorical question I posed early in this column about why the United States didn’t have massive problems with crime and public corruption back in the late 1800s (when our per-capita GDP was akin to India’s today according to the Maddison data), even though we had banknotes that were far more valuable ($500 and $1000 compared to $7.50 and $15).

The answer, at least in part, is that the United States had a very tiny government. Government spending consumed at most 10 percent of economic output, with most of that spending at the state and local level. And there was no income tax.

And since people weren’t penalized for earning money and creating wealth, there was no incentive to be part of the shadow economy. And since government was small, there weren’t that many favors to distribute, so there wasn’t much need to bribe politicians or bureaucrats.

If Prime Minister Modi wants a vibrant, above-ground economy with minimal corruption, maybe that’s the path he should follow.

Let’s close with a very sage warning from Richard Fernandez’s column in PJ Media.

Money in its various forms has become the new battleground between a State that needs to reward its constituencies with and the actual economy which produces most of the real goods and services required to do it. The sad experience of command economies suggests in end the Real always wins over the Official.  As Ramesh Thakur said of India’s demonitization policy: “a better solution would have been to shift the balance of economic decision-making away from the state to firms and consumers; simplify, rationalize and reduce taxes; cut regulations and curtail officials’ discretionary powers; eliminate loopholes; and widen the tax net.”

And my favorite Russian-Irish-Californian economist also has a very apt summary of this issue.

Remember, if the answer is more government, you’ve asked a very silly question.

P.S. If he wants more future prosperity, Modi also should make sure the government no longer attacks private schools.

P.P.S. And it also would be a good idea to reform civil service rules so that it doesn’t take two decades to get rid of no-show bureaucrats.

Read Full Post »

The value-added tax is a very dangerous levy for the simple reason that giving a big new source of revenue to Washington almost certainly would result in a larger burden of government spending.

That’s certainly what happened in Europe, and there’s even more reason to think it would happen in America because we have a looming, baked-in-the-cake entitlement crisis and many politicians don’t want to reform programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare. They would much rather find additional tax revenues to enable this expansion of the welfare state. And their target is the middle class, which is why they very much want a VAT.

The most frustrating part of this debate is that there are some normally rational people who are sympathetic to the VAT because they focus on theoretical issues and somehow convince themselves that this new levy would be good for the private sector.

Here are the four most common economic myths about the value-added tax.

Myth 1: The VAT is pro-growth

Reihan Salam implies in the Wall Street Journal that taxing consumption is good for growth.

Mr. Cruz has roughly the right idea. He has come out in favor of a growth-friendly tax on consumption… Rather sneakily, he’s calling his consumption tax a “business flat tax,” but everyone knows that it’s a VAT.

And a different Wall Street Journal report asserts there’s a difference between taxing income and taxing consumption.

…a VAT taxes what people consume rather than how much they earn.

Reality: The VAT penalizes all productive economic activity

I don’t care whether proponents change the name of the VAT, but they are wrong when they say that taxes on consumption are somehow better for growth than taxes on income. Consider two simple scenarios. In the first example, a taxpayer earns $100 but loses $20 to the income tax. In the second example, a taxpayers earns $100, but loses $20 to the VAT. In one case, the taxpayer’s income is taxed when it is earned and in the other case it is taxed when it is spent. But in both cases, there is an identical gap between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption. The economic damage is identical, with the harm rising as the marginal tax rate (either income tax rate or VAT rate) increases.

Advocates for the VAT generally will admit that this is true, but then switch the argument and say that there’s pervasive double taxation in the internal revenue code and that this tax bias against saving and investment does far more damage, per dollar collected, than either income taxes imposed on wages or VATs imposed on consumption.

They’re right, but that’s an argument against double taxation, not an argument for taxing consumption instead of taxing income. They then sometimes assert that a VAT is needed to make the numbers add up if double taxation is to be eliminated. But a flat tax does the same thing, and without the risk of giving politicians a new source of revenue.

Myth 2: The VAT is pro-savings and pro-investment

As noted in a recent Wall Street Journal story, advocates claim this tax is an economic elixir.

Supporters of a VAT…say it is better for economic growth than an income tax because it doesn’t tax savings or investment.

Reality: The VAT discourages saving and investment

The superficially compelling argument for this assertion is that the VAT is a tax on consumption, so the imposition of such a tax will make saving relatively more attractive. But this simple analysis overlooks the fact that another term for saving is deferred consumption. It is true, of course, that people who save usually earn some sort of return (such as interest, dividends, or capital gains). This means they will be able to enjoy more consumption in the future. But that does not change the calculation. Instead, it simply means there will be more consumption to tax. In other words, the imposition of a VAT does not alter incentives to consume today or consume in the future (i.e., save and invest).

But this is not the end of the story. A VAT, like an income tax or payroll tax, drives a wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax income. This means, as already noted above, that a VAT also drives a wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption – and this is true for current consumption and future consumption. This tax wedge means less incentive to earn income, and if there is less total income, this reduces both total saving and total consumption.

Again, advocates of a VAT generally will admit this is correct, but then resort to making a (correct) argument against double taxation. But why take the risk of a VAT when there are very simple and safe ways to eliminate the tax bias against saving and investment.

Myth 3: The VAT is pro-trade.

My normally sensible friend Steve Moore recently put forth this argument in the American Spectator.

…a better way to do this…is through a “border adjustable”…tax, meaning that it taxes imports and relieves all taxes on exports. …The guy who gets this is Ted Cruz. His tax plan…would not tax our exports. Cruz is right when he says this automatically gives us a 16% advantage.

Reality: The protectionist border-adjustability argument for a VAT is bad in theory and bad in reality.

For mercantilists worried about trade deficits, “border adjustability” is seen as a positive feature. But not only are they wrong on trade, they do not understand how a VAT works. Protectionists seem to think a VAT is akin to a tariff. It is true that the VAT is imposed on imports, but this does not discriminate against foreign-produced goods because the VAT also is imposed on domestic-produced goods.

Under current law, American goods sold in America do not pay a VAT, but neither do German-produced goods that are sold in America. Likewise, any American-produced goods sold in Germany are hit be a VAT, but so are German-produced goods. In other words, there is a level playing field. The only difference is that German politicians seize a greater share of people’s income.

So what happens if America adopts a VAT? The German government continues to tax American-produced goods in Germany, just as it taxes German-produced goods sold in Germany. There is no reason to expect a VAT to cause any change in the level of imports or exports from a German perspective. In the United States, there is a similar story. There is now a tax on imports, including imports from Germany. But there is an identical tax on domestically-produced goods. And since the playing field remains level, protectionists will be disappointed. The only winners will be politicians since they have more money to spend.

I explain this issue in greater detail in this video, beginning about 5:15, though I hope the entire thing is worth watching.

Myth 4: the VAT is pro-compliance

There’s a common belief, reflected in this blurb from a Wall Street Journal report, that a VAT has very little evasion or avoidance because it is self enforcing.

…governments like it because it tends to bring in more revenue, thanks in part to the role that businesses play in its collection. Incentivizing their efforts, businesses receive credits for the VAT they pay.

Reality: Any burdensome tax will lead to avoidance and evasion and that applies to the VAT.

I’m always amused at the large number of merchants in Europe who ask for cash payments for the deliberate purpose of escaping onerous VAT impositions. But my personal anecdotes probably are not as compelling as data from the European Commission.

To give an idea of the magnitude, here are some excerpts from a recent Bloomberg report.

Over the next two years, the Brussels-based commission will seek to streamline cross-border transactions, improve tax collection on Internet sales… In 2017, the EU plans to propose a single European VAT area, a reform of rates and add specifics to its anti-fraud strategy. …“We face a staggering fiscal gap: the VAT revenues are 170 billion euros short of what they could be,” EU Economic Affairs and Tax Commissioner Pierre Moscovici said. “It’s time to have this money back.”

For what it’s worth, the Europeans need to learn that burdensome levels of taxation will always encourage noncompliance.

Though, to be fair, much of the “tax gap” for the VAT in Europe exists because governments have chosen to adopt “destination-based” VATs rather than “origin-based” VATs, largely for the (ineffective) protectionist reasons outlined in Myth 3. And this creates a big opportunity to escape the VAT by classifying sales as exports, even if the goods and services ultimately are consumed in the home market.

P.S. At the risk of being wonky, it should be noted that there are actually two main types of value-added tax. In both cases, businesses collect the tax, and the tax incidence is similar (households actually bear the cost), but there are different collection methods. The credit-invoice VAT is the most common version (ubiquitous in Europe, for instance), and it somewhat resembles a sales tax in its implementation, albeit with the tax imposed at each stage of the production process. The subtraction-method VAT, by contrast, relies on a tax return sort of like the corporate income tax. The Joint Committee on Taxation has a good description of these two systems.

Under the subtraction method, value added is measured as the difference between an enterprise’s taxable sales and its purchases of taxable goods and services from other enterprises. At the end of the reporting period, a rate of tax is applied to this difference in order to determine the tax liability. The subtraction method is similar to the credit-invoice method in that both methods measure value added by comparing outputs (sales) to inputs (purchases) that have borne the tax. The subtraction method differs from the credit-invoice method principally in that the tax rate is applied to a net amount of value added (sales less purchases) rather than to gross sales with credits for tax on gross purchases (as under the credit-invoice method). The determination of the tax liability of an enterprise under the credit-invoice method relies upon the enterprise’s sales records and purchase invoices, while the subtraction method may rely upon records that the taxpayer maintains for income tax or financial accounting purposes.

P.P.S. Another wonky point is that the effort by states to tax Internet sales is actually an attempt to implement and enforce the kind of “destination-based” tax regime mentioned above. I explain that issue in this presentation on Capitol Hill.

P.P.P.S. You can enjoy some amusing – but also painfully accurate – cartoons about the VAT by clicking here, here, and here.

Read Full Post »

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

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

And we all do it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

When people figure out ways to keep the money they earn in their own pockets, rather than having it confiscated by government, I’m almost always happy.

That’s because governments tend to waste money (should any of us pay for corrupt pork-barrel spending?).

And it’s because government impose bad tax policy (is it fair to have governments tax us more than one time?).

I also object to oppressive tax collection tactics (why do murderers have a presumption of innocence, but not taxpayers?).

With this bit of background, you can understand why I cheer when greedy politicians fail in their efforts to grab more money.

Here are three stories about tax avoidance. The first and third stories should make you smile, while the middle story is a tragic reminder of what happens when you mix bad tax policy with bad enforcement tactics.

Our first story is from the U.K.-based Times, which reports that English shoppers will travel all the way to Belgium to buy cigarettes.

Smokers — and smugglers — are flocking to a small village on the Belgian coast in search of cheap tobacco to beat the taxman. …The savings are substantial. A sleeve of 200 Benson & Hedges Gold costs £45 in Belgium, compared with £90 at a British newsagent; a 50g pouch of Amber Leaf tobacco is on sale for £5.65, about £11 cheaper than at home. Sticking to the recommended allowance of 1kg of tobacco and 800 cigarettes will save a smoker about £400 per trip. However, as there are no limits on the amount of tobacco and alcohol that a person can bring back from an EU country, some day-trippers are pushing that to 3kg of tobacco and 3,000 cigarettes, for combined savings of £1,350.

The folks making the trip resent the way their government (often using Orwellian tactics) is trying to pillage them.

Many smokers are angry at high UK prices and annual rises in duty. A grandmother from the West Midlands tweeted to the Conservative party: “I saved £3,000 for a holiday this year. I won’t pay UK tax to be bullied. Much cheaper to buy abroad.” …An estimated 80 coaches make the trip each week from different parts of the UK. The Times joined a service run by Excalibur Coaches, starting at Elephant and Castle in south London at 5.55am and joining a P&O ferry crossing at Dover. …“There are a lot of English here but the government has made cigarettes so expensive that, with this price difference, people are bound to be tempted.”

I’m glad for these people. The U.K. government has gone way overboard in their efforts to grab more tax. Notwithstanding what the politicians say, it’s not immoral to protect your income from rapacious and untrustworthy government.

There was no suggestion that anyone on the Excalibur coach broke any rules, but trippers are reluctant to speak openly for fear that they will draw the attention of Border Force officers, who are cracking down on the illicit traders.

The same thing happens in the United States, by the way. Excessive tobacco taxes by some state and local governments create big incentives for consumers to seek out cigarettes that are more affordable.

And our second story is about how government over-reaction can lead to horrifying consequences.

First, some background from A. Barton Hinkle, writing for Reason.

Thanks to New York’s laughably high cigarette taxes ($4.35 state plus another $1.60 in the city) and higher prices generally, a pack of smokes in New York City costs $14 or more. That creates a powerful incentive to smuggle smokes in from states such as Virginia, where you can buy a pack for a third of that price. …The robust cigarette smuggling irritates officials in New York, because they miss out on a lot of tax revenue.

And because politicians deploy resources to capture some of that foregone revenue, it leads to enforcement efforts that, in the tragic case of Eric Garner, led to a man’s death.

The writers at National Review have done a superb job of addressing this issue. Let’s start with some observations from Kevin Williamson.

…one must have a permit to sell cigarettes in New York, and New York bans the sale of so-called loosies, single cigarettes sold to those who lack either the means or the desire to purchase an entire pack at the going New York City rate of $12 to $14. …In a sane world, selling cigarettes would not be a crime. …That isn’t an argument for anything-goes lawlessness, but it is an argument that we have too many criminal offenses, and an argument that not everything that is a crime is a danger.

David Harsanyi has some similar thoughts.

Garner wasn’t targeted for death because he was avoiding taxes, but nonetheless, prohibitive cigarette taxes unnecessarily generate situations that make events such as this possible. …In the case of Garner, police were enforcing a law that has nothing to do with violence, not in the short or long term. …New York has by far the highest cigarette taxes in the nation: more than five bucks a pack. Unsurprisingly, the policy has spurred a black market. …The more profitable it becomes to circumvent taxes, the more dangerous this mini-prohibition will be. Garner was selling single cigarettes, incidentally. Does anyone believe that isn’t a waste of time for police and prosecutors?

Another National Review contribution is from Jonah Goldberg.

…you know what reasonable people can’t dispute? New York’s cigarette taxes are partly to blame for Eric Garner’s death. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky made this point Wednesday night on MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, and liberals have been freaking out about it ever since. …anyone with a level head should understand — and agree with — Paul’s point. When you pass a law, you authorize law enforcement to enforce it. …Without laws making cigarettes more expensive, Eric Garner would be alive today, period. …In the war on tobacco, like the war on drugs, if politicians will the ends, they must will the means. This is something that libertarians understand better than everyone else: The state is about violence. You can talk all day about how “government is just another word for those things we do together,” but what makes government work is force, not hugs. If you sell raw-milk cheese even after the state tells you to stop, eventually people with guns will show up at your home or office and arrest you. If you resist arrest, something very bad might happen. You might even die for selling bootleg cheese.

Heck, we’ve even gotten to the point that the bureaucrats at the Food and Drug Administration are conducting raids on dairies for the horrible crime of selling to consumers who prefer unpasteurized milk.

But let’s focus on what Jonah wrote about the state and violence. Charles C. W. Cooke also addressed that issue in his NR column.

Ultimately, “the State” is a synonym for “organized violence.” “If you refuse to pay your taxes,” Representative David Brat recently noted, “you will lose. You will go to jail, and if you fight, you will lose. The government holds a monopoly on violence. Any law that we vote for is ultimately backed by the full force of our government and military.” In consequence, Brat proposed, we should be careful about when and how that violence is utilized. Certainly, civilized nations need laws. But it is one thing to recruit armed men to prevent murder and rape and grievous bodily harm, and it is quite another to do so in order to regulate the manner in which cigarettes may be sold. …Was Garner killed deliberately? No, of course he was not. …Nevertheless, we should all be willing to acknowledge that Garner would never have been so much as approached had the city not wanted its pound of flesh in the first instance. Because there are consequences to all laws — however minor — it is incumbent upon us to ask if those laws are worth the risks that they yield. What, I wonder, would the anti-tax rebels who threw off the British Empire make of the news that a man had lost his life for peacefully selling a “loosie”?

By the way, the National Review writers openly state that the Eric Garner case involves a lot more than taxes. They point out that there are very big issues about race, the proper use of force, and the integrity of the justice system.

But everything they wrote about misguided tobacco taxation is also right on the mark.

Now let’s look at our third story, which is fortunately amusing rather than tragic. It was sent to me from the Public Secrets blog, and it deals with a Spanish theater is taking a rather unusual step to avoid that nation’s crippling value-added tax.

Crippled by colossal tax rates and falling ticket sales, the Spanish cultural sector is taking creative action to cut its tax bill, including one theatre which has changed its main business to pornography to avoid having to pay high taxes. …Theatre director Karina Garantivá said: “It’s scandalous when cultural heritage is being taxed at 21 percent and porn at only at 4 percent. Something is wrong”. Her company, which performs works by the “Spanish Shakespeare” Pedro Calderón de la Barca has decided to circumvent the new, punitive taxes by registering as a distributor of pornographic magazines – and is offering free performances. Punters buying €16 worth of hardcore-swingers magazine Gente Libre from the company receive a ‘free’ ticket to a performance of the highly regarded 17th century comic drama El Mágico Prodigioso.

You have to give them credit for creativity. I previously wrote about a Spanish theater that gave “free” tickets to customers who purchased low-taxed carrots for absurd prices, but I’m guessing the porn angle will be more successful.

Heck, I’m a cultural rube, and even I might be tempted to patronize the theater.

But not because of the porn. Instead, I admire the philosophical approach. Unlike a lot of artists, these folks in Spain apparently aren’t looking for handouts.

Garantivá said: “We don’t want subsidies, we are a private initiative. The best subsidies are fiscal measures that don’t prevent me from doing my work”. …Although the company is presently selling second-hand pornography to escape tax, they may produce their own to sell in future, as their present stock is only 300 magazines. Doing so would be “a stand against the government”, said the director.

And they’re even willing to produce their own porn as a way of saying “bugger off” to government. Given my libertarian principles, maybe I should…um…volunteer to help? Viva la libertad!

Though I won’t be waiting by my phone expecting a call.

All kidding aside, the common theme in all these stories is that people don’t like paying excessive taxes.

We may not all agree about when taxation becomes excessive, but I assume just about everyone will agree that it’s perfectly legitimate to avoid or evade the French tax laws that require some people to pay more than 100 percent of their income to government.

On the other hand, most of us also will have little sympathy for folks who try to avoid or evade when they live in jurisdictions – such as Hong Kong, Bermuda, and Switzerland – that are honest, well-run, and lightly taxed.

My proposal is that we have a simple and fair system like the flat tax so that people have much less reason to evade or avoid.

In the meantime, I’ll continue rooting for taxpayers who thwart the greed of the political class.

So three cheers for French entrepreneurs, American companies, Italian boat owners, California citizens, Greek shop owners, Facebook millionaires, Norwegian butter buyers, New York taxpayers, Bulgarian smokers, foreign cab drivers, New Jersey residents, Australian film stars, and everyone else who does their part to limit the amount of tax revenue flowing to governments.

P.S. There’s at least one tax avoider who doesn’t deserve any support. Actually, there are at least two of them. Make that three. Oops, four and five. Wait, we have six. Seven. Eight…and an entire building of them…well, I think you get the point I’m trying to make.

Read Full Post »

What do cigarettes and capital gains have in common?

Well, they both start with the same letter, so maybe the Cookie Monster could incorporate them into his favorite song, but I’m thinking about something else. Specifically, both cigarettes and capital gains tell us something important about tax policy, the Laffer Curve, and the limits of political bullying.

In both cases, there are folks on the left who disapprove of these two “c” words and want to penalize them with high tax rates.

But it turns out that both cigarettes and capital gains are moving targets, so the politicians are grossly mistaken if they think that punitive taxation will generate a windfall of revenue.

I’ve already discussed why it’s senseless to impose high tax rates on capital gains. Simply stated, people can avoid the tax by not selling assets.

This might not be an ideal way of managing one’s investments, and it certainly isn’t good for the economy if it discourages new investment and prevents people from shifting existing investments into more productive uses, but it’s very effective as a strategy for individuals to protect against excessive taxation.

We see something quite similar with cigarettes. People can simply choose to buy fewer smokes.

Michel Kelly-Gagnon of Canada’s Montreal Economic Institute explains why higher tobacco taxes are not a guaranteed source of revenue for the political class.

Tax increases do not in each and every case lead to increases in government revenues. …When taxes on the consumption of a good are too high, you can get to a point where taxable consumption decreases and government revenues diminish rather than increase. Or at any rate, they don’t increase as much as what would be expected given the tax increase. This phenomenon constrains government’s ability to levy taxes. …There have been numerous examples in Canada of excessive taxes having a negative impact on government revenues. As shown by my colleagues Jean-François Minardi and Francis Pouliot in a study published last January ., there’s been three “Laffer moments” when it comes to tobacco tax revenues in Quebec since 1976. Whenever the level of taxation exceeded $15 per carton, the proceeds of the tobacco taxes eventually diminished. These are no isolated incidents. Laffer shows that the theory is confirmed by the experience of Cyprus, Denmark, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Ireland, Latvia, Portugal, and Sweden.

Here’s a chart from his column showing how tax revenue has dropped in Quebec when the tax burden became too onerous.

Michel then acknowledges that some people will be happy about falling revenue because it presumably means fewer smokers.

But that’s not necessarily true.

While it is true that some people are deterred from smoking by tax increases, this is not the case of all smokers. Some avoid taxes by buying contraband cigarettes. Tax increases have no effect on the health of these smokers.

And because the tax burden is so severe, the underground economy for cigarettes is booming.

The folks at Michigan’s Mackinac Center have some remarkable and thorough estimates.

Since 2008, Mackinac Center for Public Policy analysts have periodically published estimates of cigarette smuggling in 47 of the 48 contiguous states. The numbers are quite shocking. In 2012, more than 27 percent of all Michigan in-state consumption was smuggled. In New York, almost 57 percent of all cigarettes consumed in the state were also illicit. This has profound effects on the revenue generated by state (and sometimes local) government. …We estimate nationwide revenue losses due to cigarette smuggling at $5.5 billion, a statistic consistent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ $5 billion estimate for 2009.

Here are the numbers for each state.

If all this evidence isn’t enough for you, I also encourage a look at the impact of higher tobacco taxes in Ireland, the United States, and Bulgaria and Romania.

Heck, even the city of Washington, DC, serves as a perverse role model on the foolishness of over-taxation.

P.S. Since this column focuses on the Laffer Curve and tobacco taxation, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Art Laffer recently put together a Handbook of Tobacco Taxation – Theory and Practice.

P.P.S. Art implies, at least indirectly, that policy makers should set the tax rate on tobacco at the revenue-maximizing level. That is far better than having the rate above the revenue-maximizing level, to be sure, but it rubs me the wrong way. I will repeat to my final day on earth that the growth-maximizing tax rate is far superior to the revenue-maximizing tax rate.

P.P.P.S. I’m currently in Australia for a series of speeches on fiscal policy. But as you can see from this photo, the PotL and I managed to find time to act like shameless tourists.

Tourists in Oz

P.P.P.P.S. Since I’m imitating Crocodile Dundee in the photo, I should close by noting that Paul Hogan (the actor who played Crocodile Dundee) has been harassed by the Australian tax police.

Read Full Post »

It’s a bad idea when governments demand information on your bank accounts and investments so they can impose economically destructive double taxation.

It’s a worse idea when they also demand the right to tax economic activity in other jurisdictions (otherwise known as “worldwide taxation“).

And it’s the worst possible development when governments decide that they should impose a global network of data collection and dissemination as part of a scheme of worldwide double taxation.

Yet that’s exactly what’s happening. High-tax nations, working through the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, want to impose a one-size-fits-all system of “automatic information exchange” that would necessitate the complete evisceration of financial privacy.

David Burton of the Heritage Foundation explains the new scheme for giving governments more access to peoples’ private financial information.

…the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released the full version of the global standard for automatic exchange of information. The Standard for Automatic Exchange of Financial Account Information in Tax Matters calls on governments to obtain detailed account information from their financial institutions and exchange that information automatically with other jurisdictions on an annual basis.

I think this is bad policy, regardless. It is based on imposing and enforcing bad tax policy.

But David goes one step farther. He warns that this global network of tax police includes many unsavory nations.

It is one thing to exchange financial account information with Western countries that generally respect privacy and are allied with the United States. It is an entirely different matter to exchange sensitive financial information about American citizens or corporations with countries that do not respect Western privacy norms, have systematic problems with corruption or are antagonistic to the United States. States that fall into one of these problematic categories but are participating in the OECD automatic exchange of information initiative include Colombia, China and Russia. …The Obama administration enthusiastically supports the OECD initiative.

Moreover, David wisely does not believe we should trust the Obama Administration’s hollow assurances that other nations won’t misuse the data.

…even the administration has realized important privacy issues at are stake. Robert B. Stack, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for International Tax Affairs, has testified that “the United States will not enter into an information exchange agreement unless the Treasury Department and the IRS are satisfied that the foreign government has strict confidentiality protections…” Leaving these determinations to a tax agency with little institutional interest in anything other than raising tax revenue is dangerous. There is little doubt sensitive financial information about American citizens and businesses can and will be used by some governments for reasons that have nothing to do with tax administration, such as identifying political opponents’ financial resources or industrial espionage. In addition, individuals in corrupt governments may use the information for criminal purposes such as identity theft, to access others’ funds or to identify potential kidnapping victims. It is naïve to think otherwise. …The Senate should not ratify this protocol. The risks to American citizens and American businesses are too great.

David is exactly right, but too restrained and polite in his assessment.

Richard Rahn, my colleague at Cato, is more blunt in his analysis. Here’s some of what he wrote for the Washington Times.

Do you want the Obama administration sharing all of your financial information with the Russian, Chinese and Saudi Arabian governments? You may be thinking, not even President Obama would go that far. Not so… The rationale behind this despicable idea is to more effectively enable governments, such as that of France and the United States, to identify tax evaders. This might sound like a good idea until one realizes that every individual and business will be stripped of all of their financial privacy if this becomes the law of the land… all of the information that financial institutions now report to the U.S. government to try to ensure income-tax compliance, including your account balances, interest, dividends, proceeds from the sale of financial assets — would be shared with foreign governments. This would apply not only for individuals, but also for both financial and nonfinancial businesses, plus trust funds and foundations. 

Richard then explains that we can’t even trust the bureaucrats at the IRS.

The United States and other governments will, of course, claim that your sensitive financial information will remain confidential — and that you can trust the governments. After the recent Internal Revenue Service scandals — which recur every decade or so — why would anyone believe anything the IRS says? Remember, the IRS leaked information on some of Mitt Romney’s donors during the 2012 presidential campaign. It was blatantly illegal, and the IRS (i.e., you the taxpayer) paid a small fine, but no one went to jail. Many U.S. presidents have misused the IRS, starting at least as far back as Franklin Roosevelt, and the American people are always told “never again,” which is the beginning of the new lie.

And he logically concludes it would be even more foolish to trust foreign tax bureaucracies.

Particularly the tax authorities of the many nations that abuse human rights and persecute minorities, as well the tax police in nations that are too incompetent to be trusted with sensitive data.

…just think what is going to happen when all of those corrupt officials in foreign governments get ahold of it. Some will use the information for identity theft and to raid bank accounts, others for industrial espionage, some to identify potential kidnapping victims and some for political purposes. The potential list goes on and on. The U.S. Treasury Department says it will insist on strict confidentiality protections. (Lois Lerner, please call your office.) If you are a Ukrainian-American who donates to Ukrainian free-market and democratic causes, would you really think that Vladimir Putin’s team, having your financial information, would not misuse it? If you are an American Jew who donates to Israeli causes, do you really think that all of those in the Saudi government who now have full access to your confidential financial information are not going to misuse it? The Chinese are well known for using malware against their opponents. Just think of all the mischief they could cause if they had access to all of the sensitive financial information of human rights advocates in America.

Richard draws the appropriate conclusion. Simply stated, there’s no way we should have a global regime of automatic information exchange simply because a handful of high-tax nations want to remake global tax policy so they can prop up their decrepit welfare states.

As Lord Acton famously reminded us, governments are prone to misuse information and power. The instrument behind this information-sharing ploy is the OECD, which started out as a statistical collection and dissemination agency to promote free trade among its members. It has now morphed into an international agency promoting big government and higher taxes, and the destruction of financial freedom — while at the same time, by treaty, its staff salaries are tax-exempt. No hypocrisy there. Thinking Republicans and Democrats should unite around opposition to this terrible treaty and defund the OECD. Those who vote for it will deservedly be easy marks for their political opponents.

And kudos to Richard for urging the defunding of the OECD. It is absurd that American tax dollars are funding a Paris-based bureaucracy that constantly urges policies that would undermine the U.S. economy.

Especially when they’re insulated from the negative effects of the policies they push. Since they’re on the public teat, they don’t suffer when the private economy is battered. And they don’t even have to pay tax on their very generous salaries.

P.S. I’m very glad to report that at least one lawmaker is doing the right thing. Senator Rand Paul is leading the fight to block proposals that would put Americans at risk by requiring the inappropriate collection and sharing of private financial information.

P.P.S. By way of background, the OECD scheme is part of an effort to cripple tax competition so that high-tax nations can impose higher tax rates and finance bigger government. To learn more about tax competition (and tax havens), watch this four-part video series.

P.P.P.S. The OECD scheme is basically a multilateral version of the horrid “FATCA” legislation signed by Obama back in 2010.

P.P.P.P.S. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think a global tax database is even worse than an Obamacare database on our sex lives.

Read Full Post »

I like tax havens for the simple reason that we need some ways of restraining the greed of the political class.

Simply stated, if profligate politicians think that we are “captive customers,” they are much more likely to impose (even) higher tax rates (as we’ve seen in the past couple of years in Europe). But if they think that we have escape options, they’ll probably exercise some self control.

That’s why I defend nations such as Switzerland, which often are persecuted by politicians from high-tax nations.

It’s also why I defend the tax system of the United States.

Huh?!? What do I mean by that?

Well, while there are many bad things about the American tax system (including pervasive double taxation and a very uncompetitive corporate tax system), one of few redeeming features of our tax system is that we are a tax haven.

Not for Americans, of course, but it turns out we have some good rules for foreigners.

Here’s some of what was recently published by the Heartland Institute.

Some international tax experts note a big irony…in continued U.S. government pressure to compel overseas banks to give up information on Americans with bank accounts in the belief those people may be hiding money from the taxman. The irony: Much of the world considers the United States to be one of the world’s biggest tax havens. …”it’s very easy for anybody in the world today to set up, let’s say, a Delaware Corporation. You can do it online. You have to give very little information to get it up and running. And Delaware’s not alone. There are other states where you can do it as well,” said Jim Duggan, a tax, wealth and estate planning attorney with the Duggan Bertsch LLC law firm in Chicago.

Other experts agree.

He’d get no argument from Kevin Packman, chairman of the Offshore Tax Compliance Team at the Holland & Knight international law firm. “There are a number of countries that have said the U.S. is the biggest tax haven in the world,” Packman said. “There’s something to be said for that view.” He noted there are many countries where people are rightly concerned about government moves to impose confiscatory taxes or seize assets. They view the United States as more respectful of property rights and therefore look for ways to move investments into the U.S., including by setting up Delaware or other corporations, and parking money in U.S. banks.

I’ve already noted that Delaware is one of the world’s best tax havens because of its attractive incorporation policies, but we also have very attractive federal tax rules.

Dennis Kleinfeld adds his analysis in an article for Money News.

Tax havens serve two vitally important purposes to everyone lucky enough to have private investment capital. First, they are a source by which foreign capital can be routed into the United States or other countries with tax efficiency.  Second, they represent a safe haven where investors’ private capital can flee from overbearing governments of all kinds — democratic, republic, dictatorship, monarchy and just plain thugs and despots — and with a comfortable level of privacy, confidentiality and secrecy. What is the world’s largest tax haven? …the United States can lay claim to that title.  …the United States would not be able to maintain its economy without large inflows of foreign capital. Foreign investors can invest in the United States virtually tax free — in structures that are legally protected from risks and, currently, with secrecy. With fairly simple planning, a foreign investor can avoid tax on interest as well as gains from sale of securities — all protected by the legal system… As for secrecy, Delaware or Nevada are quite accommodating. In these states, a foreign company or individuals can form a limited liability company and open a bank account, but if the investor does its or his business outside the United States, there is no U.S. tax or reporting.

Just as important, Dennis explains that tax havens are not only good for the American economy, but also for individuals seeking to protect themselves from rapacious government.

There are no investors — the people who actually create investment capital — who have any complaint against offshore tax-haven financial centers. …To politicians, your capital is their means to advance their political goals. Notwithstanding their propaganda of serving the American people, the needs of the people are always subservient to the voracious needs of political advancement.  How can private investors protect themselves from becoming the spoils of war from the marauding armies of politicians fighting for power? For that, investors need tax havens.

By the way, leftists also agree that the United States is a tax haven for non-Americans, so that’s not in dispute.

But there is a big argument about whether it’s good for America to have these policies. I’ve argued over and over again in favor of tax havens as a general principle (I recommend my New York Times piece if you want a good short summary), but it’s also worth noting that America’s tax haven policies have helped to attract trillions of dollars to the U.S. economy.

Costco Poll ResultsBy the way, I suppose it’s time to confess that I lost my recent debate on tax havens for the Costco Connection. Though I argued last month that the magazine phrased the question in a very misleading way, so the fact that the margin was only 51-49 could be an indication that I was actually somewhat persuasive.

And maybe some late-reporting precincts could still turn the tide, so feel free to add your opinion if you still haven’t voted.

But I’m digressing. Let’s conclude by assessing where we stand. Tax experts on the right and left agree that the United States is a tax haven for foreigners who need a safe place to invest their money.

There’s also no doubt that foreigners take advantage of these policies in ways that attract huge amounts of money to the American economy – more than $25 trillion according to the Commerce Department!

P.S. You won’t be surprised to learn that hypocritical leftists love using tax havens to protect their money even though they want to deny that freedom to the rest of us.

P.P.S. I’m such an avid defender of tax havens that I almost wound up in a Mexican jail. That’s dedication!

Read Full Post »

In a recent interview with the BBC, I basically accused UK Prime Minister David Cameron of being a feckless and clueless demagogue who is engaged in a desperate effort to resuscitate his political future.

Two peas in a pod

I shouldn’t have been so kind. Cameron manages to combine bad policy and bad morality in a way that is embarrassing even for a politician.

Writing for the Daily Telegraph, Janet Daley eviscerates Cameron’s puerile approach to fiscal policy, beginning with some mockery of his class-warfare approach to tax enforcement.

David Cameron said something last week that was the precise opposite of the truth…the Prime Minister said was: “If you want a low-tax economy, you have to collect the taxes that are owed.” When what he should have said, of course, was: “If you want to collect the taxes that are owed, you have to have a low-tax economy.” Mr Cameron’s statement was one of the more subtle threats contained in the declaration by the G8 – which was pretty much all they could agree on – that they are now the rightful owners of all the wealth produced by anyone except for certain exemptions that they will, subject to minimal notice, decide upon. His remark, presumably designed to provide moral justification for the unprecedented levels of shared surveillance and breaches of data protection that governments are preparing to launch, actually stood on its head the truth about effective tax collection. Which is that the lower rates of taxation are, the less likely it is that payment of them will be avoided or evaded.

She also makes some very astute points about other issues, including the Laffer Curve.

The introduction of the 50p rate of income tax caused two-thirds of those earning a million pounds per year simply to disappear from the reach of HM Revenue & Customs. Whereas under the previous highest tax level of 40p, 16,000 people were prepared to declare earnings of one million pounds, that number shrank to only 6,000 after Gordon Brown, bless him, raised it to 50p. Result: the Treasury lost £7 billion in revenue.

Ms. Daley also comments on tax compliance and the risks of letting governments destroy financial privacy as part of their efforts to undermine tax competition.

If people regard levels of tax as fair (in the true sense of the word, not the Left-wing sense, which actually means “vindictive”), they will not go to expensive and dangerous lengths to escape from paying. The more punitive and discouraging of wealth-creation taxes are, the more they are avoided by stealth or geographical relocation – or by the even more economically disastrous measure of people being disinclined to increase their own productivity. Ah yes, but isn’t this the problem that those heads of government are determined to address? Rather than lowering taxes to levels that those who are taxed find acceptable, they will simply close off all the avenues of escape. There is to be no more possibility, by international agreement (which is to say, the coercion of smaller, less rich countries), of geographical movement for tax advantage.

She closes by opining on why this is really a debate about the burden of government spending and whether taxpayers exist to feed the spending appetites of politicians.

If you eliminate tax competition – if you create a uniform, universally policed tax standard – it is the poorer countries that suffer because they are deprived of the capacity to attract foreign capital. …What is at the heart of all this is the growth of governments: the treasuries of the world are becoming needier and greedier. …Underlying almost all political debate on this matter now is the unspoken assumption that privately owned wealth is inherently evil, and that its only moral justification is to provide revenue that governments can redistribute. …let me remind you of what you may actually believe, shocking as it may sound in the context of prevailing public discourse. Are you ready? It is not the primary function of business to provide funds for politicians to spend.

Amen. The statists and collectivists that dominate the political elite treat us like a herd of cattle to be milked and slaughtered.

We need tax havens in order to impose at least a tiny bit of restraint on the greed of the political class. These low-tax jurisdictions aren’t a sufficient condition to save us from statism, but they sure as heck are a necessary condition.

P.S. Who moved farther in the wrong direction, U.S. Republicans who went from Reagan to Bush or U.K. Tories who went from Thatcher to Cameron?

Read Full Post »

Because we live in an upside-down world, Switzerland is being persecuted for being a productive, peaceful nation that has a strong human rights policy with regards to privacy.

More specifically, politicians from high-tax nations resent the fact that investors flock to Switzerland to benefit from good policies, and they are pressuring the Swiss government to weaken that nation’s human rights laws so that governments with bad fiscal systems have an easier time of tracking and taxing flight capital.

I’ve resigned myself to this happening for the simple reason that it is well nigh impossible for a small nation (even one as well-armed as Switzerland) to withstand the coercion when all the world’s big nations are trying to impose one-size-fits-all policies designed to make it easier to raise tax rates and expand the size and power of government.

Switzerland v IRSBut, as the Wall Street Journal reports, the Swiss aren’t going down without a fight.

Switzerland’s lower house of Parliament voted 123-63 against the measure, which would have enabled many of the Alpine nation’s banks to sidestep the Swiss banking secrecy laws and start handing information to the U.S. Department of Justice about any past help they may have given to Americans hiding undeclared wealth in Swiss accounts. Earlier Wednesday, the smaller, upper house of Switzerland’s Parliament voted 26-18 in favor of the proposed plan. But in the lower house, lawmakers had raised concerns about the heavy-handedness of the U.S. effort to have them sign off on legislation that might have exposed the country’s banks and bank employees to legal hazards. Lawmakers had also raised concerns about the lack of detail in the plan regarding potential fines for banks that would have opted to participate.

I heartily applaud the lawmakers who rejected the fiscal imperialism of the United States government.

As I stated in my recent BBC interview on tax havens, I believe in sovereignty, and the IRS should have no right to impose bad American tax law on economic activity inside Swiss borders (just as, say, China should have no right to demand that the United States help track down Tiananmen Square protestors that escaped to America).

But I’m not opening champagne just yet, in part because I don’t like the stuff and in part because I fear that this will be a temporary victory.

The Swiss have resisted American demands before, and on more than one occasion, only to eventually back down. And it’s hard to blame them when they’re threatened by odious forms of financial protectionism.

That being said, I’m going to enjoy this moment while it lasts and hope that somehow David can continue to withstand Goliath.

P.S. If you want to understand more about the underlying economic and philosophical implications of this issue, I heartily recommend this New York Times column by Pierre Bessard of Switzerland’s Insitut Liberal.

Read Full Post »

It goes without saying that I’m always ready to defend tax havens when statists are seeking to undermine tax competition, financial privacy, and fiscal sovereignty.

So when the BBC asked if I would debate the topic, I said yes even though I’m in Paris (where supporting liberty is probably a capital crime).

I think the debate went well. Or, to be more precise, I was happy that I got to make my points.

I’ve been in debates on tax havens when I’m outnumbered 3-1, so a fair fight almost seems like a treat.

P.S. If you have a burning desire to watch me debate tax havens, you can see me cross swords with a bunch of different statists by clicking here.

P.P.S. Or if you like watching when I’m outnumbered, here’s my debate against three leftists on state-run TV.

Read Full Post »

I could only use 428 words, but I highlighted the main arguments for tax havens and tax competition in a “Room for Debate” piece for the New York Times.

NYT Tax Haven Room for DebateI hope that my contribution is a good addition to the powerful analysis of experts such as Allister Heath and Pierre Bessard.

I started with the economic argument.

…tax havens are very valuable because they discourage anti-growth tax policy. Simply stated, it is very difficult for governments to impose and enforce confiscatory tax rates when investors and entrepreneurs can shift their economic activity to jurisdictions with better tax policy. Particularly if those nations have strong policies on financial privacy, thus making it difficult for uncompetitive high-tax nations to track and tax flight capital. Thanks to this process of tax competition, with havens playing a key role, top personal income tax rates have dropped from an average of more than 67 percent in 1980 to about 42 percent today. Corporate tax rates also have plummeted, falling from an average of 48 percent to 24 percent. …Lawmakers also were pressured to lower or eliminate death taxes and wealth taxes, as well as to reduce the double taxation of interest, dividends and capital gains. Once again, tax havens deserve much of the credit because politicians presumably would not have implemented these pro-growth reforms if they didn’t have to worry that the geese with the golden eggs might fly away to a confidential account in a well-run nation like Luxembourg or Singapore.

Since I didn’t have much space, here’s a video that elaborates on the economic benefits of tax havens, including an explanation of why fiscal sovereignty is a big part of the debate.

My favorite part of the video is when I quote OECD economists admitting the beneficial impact of tax havens.

I also explain for readers of the New York Times that there’s a critical ethical reason to defend low-tax jurisdictions.

Tax havens also play a very valuable moral role by providing high-quality rule of law in an uncertain world, offering a financial refuge for people who live in nations where governments are incompetent and corrupt. …There are also billions of people living in nations with venal and oppressive governments. To cite just a few examples, tax havens offer secure financial services to political dissidents in Russia, ethnic Chinese in Indonesia and the Philippines, Jews in North Africa, gays in Iran and farmers in Zimbabwe.

To elaborate, here’s my video making the moral case for tax havens.

By the way, many of the issues in this video may not resonate for those of us in “first world” nations, but please remember that the majority of people in the world live in countries where basic human rights are at risk or simply don’t exist.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry about the stability of our nations. I close my contribution to the New York Times by warning that the welfare state may collapse.

With more and more nations careening toward fiscal collapse, raising the risk of social chaos and economic calamity, it is more important than ever that there are places where people can protect themselves from bad government. Tax havens should be celebrated, not persecuted.

I didn’t have space to cite the BIS and OECD data showing that most of the world’s big nations – including Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom – face fiscal problems more significant that Greece is dealing with today. Assuming these nations don’t implement desperately needed entitlement reform, the you-know-what is going to hit the fan at some point. Folks with funds in a tax haven will be in much better shape if, or when, that happens.

For more background information on tax competition, here’s a video explaining the ABCs of the issue.

It’s galling, by the way, that the bureaucrats at the OECD pushing for a global tax cartel get tax-free salaries.

And here’s my video debunking some of the common myths about tax havens.

My favorite part of this video is the revelation that a former John Kerry staffer fabricated a number that is still being used by anti-tax haven demagogues.

And speaking of demagogues misusing numbers, you’ll notice the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has a starring role in this video.

I’ve probably exhausted your interest in videos, but if you’re game for one more, click here to learn more about the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a statist international bureaucracy that is active in trying to undermine tax havens as part of it’s efforts to create a global tax cartel to prop up Europe’s welfare states.

Read Full Post »

Using data stolen from service providers in the Cook Islands and the British Virgin Islands, the Washington Post published a supposed exposé of Americans who do business in so-called tax havens.

Cayman April 2013

Another Research Trip to Cayman – One of the Sacrifices I Make in the Fight for Freedom

Since I’m the self-appointed defender of low-tax jurisdictions in Washington, this caught my attention. Thomas Jefferson wasn’t joking when he warned that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” I’m constantly fighting against anti-tax haven schemes that would undermine tax competition, financial privacy, and fiscal sovereignty.

Even if it means a bunch of international bureaucrats threaten to toss me in a Mexican jail or a Treasury Department official says I’m being disloyal to America. Or, in this case, if it simply means I’m debunking demagoguery.

The supposedly earth-shattering highlight of the article is that some Americans linked to offshore companies and trusts have run afoul of the legal system.

Among the 4,000 U.S. individuals listed in the records, at least 30 are American citizens accused in lawsuits or criminal cases of fraud, money laundering or other serious financial misconduct.

But the real revelation is that people in the offshore world must be unusually honest. Fewer than 1 percent of them have been named in a lawsuit, much less been involved with a criminal case.

This is just a wild guess, but I’m quite confident that you would find far more evidence of misbehavior if you took a random sample of 4,000 Americans from just about any cross-section of the population.

We know we would find a greater propensity for bad behavior if we examined 4,000 politicians. And I assume that would be true for journalists as well. And folks on Wall Street. And realtors. And plumbers. Perhaps even think tank employees. Anyhow, you get the point.

Citing a couple of anecdotes, the reporter then tries to imply that low-tax jurisdictions somehow lend themselves to criminal activity.

 Fraud experts say offshore bank accounts and companies are vital to the operation of complex financial crimes. Allen Stanford, who ran a $7 billion Ponzi scheme, used a bank he controlled in Antigua. Bernard Madoff, who ran the largest Ponzi scheme in U.S. history, used a series of offshore “feeder funds” to fuel the growth of his multibillion-dollar house of cards.

The Allen Stanford case was a genuine black eye for the offshore world, but it’s absurd to link Madoff’s criminality to tax havens. The offshore funds that invested with Madoff were victimized in the same way that many onshore funds lost money.

Moreover, there’s no evidence in this article – or from any other source to my knowledge – suggesting that financial impropriety is more likely in low-tax jurisdictions.

We then get some “hard” numbers.

Today, there are between 50 and 60 offshore financial centers around the world holding untold billions of dollars at a time of historic U.S. deficits and forced budget cuts. Groups that monitor tax issues estimate that between $8 trillion and $32 trillion in private global wealth is parked offshore.

So we have offshore wealth of somewhere “between $8 trillion and $32 trillion”? With that level of precision, or lack thereof, perhaps you now understand why the make-believe numbers about alleged tax evasion are about as credible as a revenue estimate from the Joint Committee on Taxation.

Speaking of make-believe numbers, the article mentions one of Washington’s worst lawmakers, a Senator who pushed through a law that has united the world against the United States.

Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) has been holding hearings and conducting investigations into the offshore world for nearly three decades. In 2010, Congress passed the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act requiring that U.S. taxpayers report foreign assets to the government and foreign institutions alert the IRS when Americans open accounts.

He justifies bad policy by claiming that there’s a pot of gold at the end of the tax haven rainbow.

“We can’t afford to lose tens of billions of dollars a year to tax-avoidance schemes,” Levin said. “And many of these schemes involve the shift of U.S. corporate tax revenues earned here in the U.S. to offshore tax havens.”

But FATCA is predicted to collected less than $1 billion per year, and it probably will lose revenue once you include Laffer Curve effects such as lower investment in the American economy from overseas.

The most interesting part of the article, as least from a personal perspective, is that the Center for Freedom and Prosperity is listed as one of the “powerful lobbying interests” fighting to preserve tax competition.

The efforts by Levin and other lawmakers have been opposed by powerful lobbying interests, including the banking and accounting industries and a little-known nonprofit group called the Center for Freedom and Prosperity. CF&P was founded by Daniel J. Mitchell, a former Senate Finance Committee staffer who works as a tax expert for the Cato Institute, and Andrew Quinlan, who was a senior economic analyst for the Republican National Committee before helping start the center. …The center argues that unfettered access to offshore havens leads to lower taxes and more prosperity.

Having helped to start the organization, I wish CF&P was powerful. The Center has never had a budget of more than $250,000 per year, so it truly is a David vs. Goliath battle when we go up against bloated and over-funded bureaucracies such as the IRS and the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The reporter somehow thinks it is big news that the Center has tried to raise money from the business community in low-tax jurisdictions.

According to records reviewed by The Post and ICIJ, the organization’s fundraising pleas have been circulated to offshore entities that make millions by providing anonymity for wealthy clients, many of them U.S. citizens.

Unfortunately, even though these offshore entities supposedly “make millions,” I’m embarrassed to say that CF&P has not been able to convince them that it makes sense to support an organization dedicated to protecting tax competition, financial privacy, and fiscal sovereignty.

But maybe that will change now that the OECD has launched a new attack on tax planning by multinational firms.

Let’s close by returning to the policy issue. The article quotes me defending the right of jurisdictions to determine their own fiscal affairs.

Mitchell, the co-founder of CF&P, added that nations shouldn’t be telling other countries how to conduct their affairs and noted that the United States is one of the worst offenders in the world when it comes to corporate secrecy.

My only gripe is that the reporter mischaracterizes my position. Yes, there are several states that are “tax havens” because of their efficient and confidential incorporation laws, but that means America is “one of the best providers,” not “one of the worst offenders.”

This is something to celebrate. I’m glad the United States is a safe haven for the oppressed people of the world. That’s great news for our economy. I just wish we also were a tax haven for American citizens.

“The United States is one of the biggest tax havens in the world,” Mitchell said. “In general, the United States is impervious to fishing expeditions here, and then the United States turns around and says, ‘Allow us to do fishing expeditions in your country.’”

But I’m not a hypocrite. Other nations should have the sovereign right to maintain pro-growth tax and privacy laws as well.

Other nations shouldn’t feel obliged to enforce bad American tax law, any more than we should feel obliged to enforce any of their bad laws.

P.S. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that “onshore” nations are much more susceptible to dirty money than “offshore” jurisdictions. Which is why you have a hard time finding any tax havens on this map showing the nations with the most money laundering.

P.P.S. On the topic of tax havens, you won’t be surprised to learn that Senator Levin is not the only dishonest demagogue in Washington. If you pay close attention around 1:25 and 2:25 of this video, you’ll see that the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue also has an unfortunate tendency to play fast and loose with the truth.

Read Full Post »

I’ve been very critical of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Most recently, I criticized the Paris-based bureaucracy for making the rather remarkable assertion that a value-added tax would boost growth and employment.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Now the bureaucrats have concocted another scheme to increase the size and scape of government. The OECD just published a study on “Addressing Base Erosion and Profit Shifting” that seemingly is designed to lay the groundwork for a radical rewrite of business taxation.

In a new Tax & Budget Bulletin for Cato, I outline some of my concerns with this new “BEPS” initiative.

…the BEPS report…calls for dramatic changes in corporate tax policy based on the presumption that governments are not seizing enough revenue from multinational companies. The OECD essentially argues that it is illegitimate for businesses to shift economic activity to jurisdictions that have more favorable tax laws. …The core accusation in the OECD report is that firms systematically—but legally—reduce their tax burdens by taking advantage of differences in national tax policies.

Ironically, the OECD admits in the report that revenues have been trending upwards.

…the report acknowledges that “… revenues from corporate income taxes as a share of gross domestic product have increased over time. …Other than offering anecdotes, the OECD provides no evidence that a revenue problem exists. In this sense, the BEPS report is very similar to the OECD’s 1998 “Harmful Tax Competition” report, which asserted that so-called tax havens were causing damage but did not offer any hard evidence of any actual damage.

To elaborate, the BEPS scheme should be considered Part II of the OECD’s anti-tax competition project. Part I was the attack on so-called tax havens, which began back in the mid- to late-1990s.

The OECD justified that campaign by asserting there was a need to fight illegal tax evasion (conveniently overlooking, of course, the fact that nations should not have the right to impose their laws on what happens in other countries).

The BEPS initiative is remarkable because it is going after legal tax avoidance. Even though governments already have carte blanche to change business tax policy.

…governments already have immense powers to restrict corporate tax planning through “transfer pricing” rules and other regulations. Moreover, there is barely any mention of the huge number of tax treaties between nations that further regulate multinational taxation.

So what does the OECD want?

…the OECD hints at its intended outcome when it says that the effort “will require some ‘out of the box’ thinking” and that business activity could be “identified through elements such as sales, workforce, payroll, and fixed assets.” That language suggests that the OECD intends to push global formula apportionment, which means that governments would have the power to reallocate corporate income regardless of where it is actually earned.

And what does this mean? Nothing good, unless you think governments should have more money and investment should be further penalized.

Formula apportionment is attractive to governments that have punitive tax regimes, and it would be a blow to nations with more sensible low-tax systems. …business income currently earned in tax-friendly countries, such as Ireland and the Netherlands, would be reclassified as French-source income or German-source income based on arbitrary calculations of company sales and other factors. …nations with high tax rates would likely gain revenue, while jurisdictions with pro-growth systems would be losers, including Ireland, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Estonia, Luxembourg, Singapore, and the Netherlands.

Since the United States is a high-tax nation for corporations, why should Americans care?

For several reasons, including the fact that it wouldn’t be a good idea to give politicians more revenue that will be used to increase the burden of government spending.

But most important, tax policy will get worse everywhere if tax competition is undermined.

…formula apportionment would be worse than a zero-sum game because it would create a web of regulations that would undermine tax competition and become increasingly onerous over time. Consider that tax competition has spurred OECD governments to cut their corporate tax rates from an average of 48 percent in the early 1980s to 24 percent today. If a formula apportionment system had been in place, the world would have been left with much higher tax rates, and thus less investment and economic growth. …If governments gain the power to define global taxable income, they will have incentives to rig the rules to unfairly gain more revenue. For example, governments could move toward less favorable, anti-investment depreciation schedules, which would harm global growth.

You don’t have to believe me that the BEPS project is designed to further increase the tax burden. The OECD admits that higher taxes are the intended outcome.

The OECD complains that “… governments are often under pressure to offer a competitive tax environment,” and that “failure to collaborate … could be damaging in terms of … a race to the bottom with respect to corporate income taxes.” In other words, the OECD is admitting that the BEPS project seeks higher tax burdens and the curtailment of tax competition.

Writing for Forbes, Andy Quinlan of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity highlights how the BEPS scheme will undermine tax competition and enable higher taxes.

…the OECD wants to undo taxpayer gains made in recent decades thanks to tax competition. Since the 1980′s, average global income taxes on both individuals and corporations have dropped significantly, improving incentives in the productive sector of the economy to generate economic growth. These pro-growth reforms are the result of tax competition, or the pressure to adopt competitive economic policies that is put on governments by an increasingly globalized society where both labor and capital are mobile. Tax competition is the only force working on the side of taxpayers, which explains the organized campaign by global elite to defeat it. …If taxpayers want to preserve gains made thanks to tax competition, they must be weary of the threat posed by global tax cartels though organizations such as the OECD.

Speaking of the OECD, this video tells you everything you need to know.

The final kicker is that the bureaucrats at the OECD get tax-free salaries, so they’re insulated from the negative impact of the bad policies they want to impose on everyone else.

That’s even more outrageous than the fact that the OECD tried to have me thrown in a Mexican jail for the supposed crime of standing in the public lobby of a public hotel.

Anguilla 2013P.S. I just gave a speech to the Anguilla branch of the Society for Trust and Estate Professionals, and much of my remarks focused on the dangers of the BEPS scheme.

I took this picture from my balcony. As you can see, there are some fringe benefits to being a policy wonk.

And I travel to Nevis on Sunday to give another speech.

Tough work, but somebody has to do it. Needless to say, withe possibility of late-season snow forecast for Monday in the DC area, I’m utterly bereft I won’t be there to enjoy the experience.

Read Full Post »

Cigarette butt, to be more specific.

All over the world, governments impose draconian taxes on tobacco, and then they wind up surprised that projected revenues don’t materialize. We’ve seen this in Bulgaria and Romania, and we’ve seen this Laffer Curve effect in Washington, DC, and Michigan.

Even the Government Accountability Office has found big Laffer Curve effects from tobacco taxation.

And now we’re seeing the same result in Ireland.

Here are some details from an Irish newspaper.

…new Department of Finance figures showing that tobacco excise tax receipts are falling dramatically short of targets, even though taxes have increased and the number of people smoking has remained constant…the latest upsurge in smuggling…is costing the state hundreds of millions in lost revenue. Criminal gangs are openly selling smuggled cigarettes on the streets of central Dublin and other cities, door to door and at fairs and markets. Counterfeit cigarettes can be brought to the Irish market at a cost of just 20 cents a pack and sold on the black market at €4.50. The average selling price of legitimate cigarettes is €9.20 a pack. …Ireland has the most expensive cigarettes in the European Union, meaning that smugglers can make big profits by offering them at cheaper prices.

I have to laugh at the part of the article that says, “receipts are falling dramatically short of targets, even though taxes have increased.”

This is what’s called the Fox Butterfield effect, when a leftist expresses puzzlement about something that’s actually common sense. Named after a former New York Times reporter, Irish Tax Kisswho was baffled that more people were in prison at the same time that crime rates were falling, it also shows up in tax policy when statists are surprised that tax revenues don’t automatically rise when tax rates become oppressive.

Ireland, by the way, should know better. About the only good policy left in the Emerald Isle is the low corporate tax rate. And as you can see in this video, that policy has yielded very good results.

My favorite example from that video, needless to say, is what happened during the Reagan years, when the rich paid much more to the IRS after their tax rates were slashed.

P.S. You won’t be surprised to learn that a branch of the United Nations is pushing for global taxation of tobacco. To paraphrase Douglas McArthur, “Bad ideas never die, they become global.”

Read Full Post »

More than two years ago, while writing about the Laffer Curve, I described the “Butterfield Effect.”

A former reporter for the New York Times, Fox Butterfield, became a bit of a laughingstock in the 1990s for publishing a series of articles addressing the supposed quandary of how crime rates could be falling during periods when prison populations were expanding. A number of critics sarcastically explained that crimes rates were falling because bad guys were behind bars and invented the term “Butterfield Effect” to describe the failure of leftists to put 2 + 2 together.

Last year, I was amused to see a New York Times columnist complain that Republicans were being stubborn in their opposition to tax hikes, but she inadvertently provided evidence against her own position.

She obviously wants readers to conclude that bad, mean, wicked Republicans are being too dogmatic because they won’t agree to big tax hikes. But the chart she prepared tells a completely different story. The only budget agreement that actually produced a balanced budget was the 1997 deal, and that deal contained tax cuts rather than tax increases!

I’m thinking this habit of accidentally helping the other side should be called the “Own-Goal Effect,” even though I generally don’t like anything associated with soccer (with one very important exception).

Given the track record of the New York Times in these matters, you won’t be surprised that the self-styled newspaper of record just published a story that combines the Butterfield Effect and the Own-Goal Effect.

Here are a couple of sentences from the recent NYT story, noting that taxpayers in many parts of the world face a tsunami of tax increases.

Taxes on earnings, investment income, sales and a few other things have gone up already in many countries, and further increases are possible, including a huge one in the United States. …“Quite a few countries are trying to increase tax revenue,” said Kevin Cornelius, a partner in Geneva for the Human Capital Practice at Ernst & Young. “The question is who’s raising taxes the slowest. I can’t remember as much tax legislation going through as we’ve seen in the last 24 months.”

Nothing remarkable in that excerpt. My blog is filled with stories about greedy governments seeking to extract more revenue from the economy’s productive sector.

New York Times Tax Competition HeadlineBut notice the headline that the NYT assigned to the article. Channeling the wisdom of Fox Butterfield, it fails to make an obvious causal link. As I have repeatedly noted in my writings about tax competition and tax havens, taxpayers need places to hide their money in order to curtail the ability and incentive of politicians to impose higher tax rates.

Heck, don’t believe me. Greg Mankiw has written the same thing.

In other words, the headline actually should read: “Taxes Trend Higher Worldwide Because there are Few Places to Hide.”

The article includes some discussion of how politicians are trying to shut down escape routes.

A rise in rates is not the only unpleasant matter that taxpayers must contend with. Tax lawyers, accountants and bankers highlight a global game of gotcha being played by revenue authorities. Taxpayers are being asked to provide more detailed information about financial accounts. Americans living or doing business abroad are conspicuous targets in this effort, and on the off chance that they will be less than forthcoming, the Internal Revenue Service is asking foreign financial institutions and tax agencies to join the cause. Elsewhere, vehicles that individuals and families use to shelter income and assets from tax, like trusts, corporations and foundations, are being examined more closely and critically. In certain cases, laws are amended to neutralize the effectiveness of tax-avoidance methods soon after they are devised. Also, foreign visitors’ claims of nonresidence for tax purposes are being treated more skeptically. “We’ve seen a huge amount of tax scrutiny,” said Mr. Cornelius at Ernst & Young. “Authorities are more aggressive in pursuing individuals. There’s more sharing of information across borders. That’s going to continue.”

What a depressing excerpt. And it doesn’t even touch on some of the worst ideas being advanced by the political elite, such as a potential international tax organization. Governments clearly are doing everything they can to pave the way for higher tax rates and a bigger burden of government spending.

To be fair to the author, I don’t detect ideological bias in the story. He inadvertently provides evidence confirming that tax competition is needed to restrain greedy politicians, so he scores a goal against the statists. But, unlike our President and some others who are even more radical, I don’t think he was trying to advance the left-wing narrative that tax competition is bad and that tax havens are evil.

So perhaps he’s only guilty of the “Butterfield Effect” and not the “Own-Goal Effect.”

But he does work at the New York Times, which is tediously left wing (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), so we’ll give the newspaper an award for the “Own-Goal Effect.”

Read Full Post »

If there was a prize for fighting back against tax authorities, the Italians would probably deserve first place. I’m not aware of any other country where tax offices get firebombed. The Italians also believe in passive forms of resistance, with tens of thousands of boat owners sailing away to protect themselves from the government.

But the Spanish are beginning to get into the swing of things, perhaps because they are increasingly upset by the plethora of tax hikes imposed by the supposedly right-of-center government in Madrid.

Here’s part of a report from NPR about a new tax revolt on the Iberian Peninsula.

When the Spanish government hiked sales tax on theater tickets this past summer, Quim Marcé thought his theater was doomed. With one in four local residents unemployed, Marcé knew that even a modest hike in ticket prices might leave the 300-seat Bescanó municipal theater empty.

So what did he do to protect the theater from fiscal destruction?

Taxes are revolting, so why aren’t you?

“We said, ‘This is the end of our theater, and many others.’ But then the next morning, I thought, we’ve got to do something, so that we don’t pay this 21 percent, and we pay something more fair,” says Marcé in Spanish. …He…suddenly had an idea: Instead of selling tickets to his shows, he’d sell carrots. “We sell one carrot, which costs 13 euros [$16] -– very expensive for a carrot. But then we give away admission to our shows for free,” he explains in Spanish. “So we end up paying 4 percent tax on the carrot, rather than 21 percent, which is the government’s new tax rate for theater tickets.” Classified as a staple, carrots are taxed at a much lower rate and were spared new tax hikes that went into effect here on September 1.

Very clever. Senor Marcé is getting lots of praise for his novel approach, though it’s unclear whether the ravenous tax bureaucrats will come up with some sort of ruling to squash the tax revolt.

Spanish media have dubbed this the “Carrot Rebellion,” and the Bescanó theater has won kudos from arts advocates nationwide. Shows are sold out. …Marcé, the theater director, says he consulted a lawyer before launching his carrot sales. He’s got backing from the local mayor too. And no one has stopped him so far. …He says he’s a little worried the government might declare it illegal to sell carrots at theaters. But dozens of foods are considered “staples” and taxed at only 4 percent. So if that happens, Marcé says he might switch to selling tomatoes instead.

And if he has some leftover tomatoes that are rotten, perhaps they can be used – along with spoiled eggs and moldy cabbage – to express appreciation for any tax collectors that happen to visit (I won’t say what the carrots can be used for).

So why doesn’t the title of this post award “three cheers” for this Spanish tax revolt?

Well, as much as I admire non-compliance when tax systems are too onerous, I suspect that these Spaniards are protesting against the idea that they should pay for big government, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they very much support a bloated welfare state if someone else is picking up the tab.

In other words, they’re probably hypocrites, and I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that their Irish and Greek compatriots also are protesting for the wrong reason.

Moreover, it’s not specified in the article, but I’m quite certain that the Spaniards actually are protesting in favor of tax distortions. The 4 percent tax on carrots and other “staples” presumably is a special exception to the normal value-added tax of 21 percent.

If they were protesting the VAT, I would give them three cheers, but if they’re simply protesting the fact that theater tickets are now treated the same as most other forms of consumption, then I’m tempted to give this tax revolt only one cheer.

But I’ll still give them two cheers because I’m in favor of just about anything that will reduce the amount of money diverted to finance government.

That’s because the real fiscal problem, in Spain and the United States, is that government is far too big. And trying to curb the rapacious appetites of politicians with a tax hike is akin to trying to cure a group of alcoholics by giving them the keys to a liquor store.

P.S. The greedy Spanish government may have jacked up some tax rates so high that they could be beyond the revenue-maximizing point, though I doubt the politicians care. Heck, even international bureaucracies such as the IMF have figured out that it’s self-destructive to push tax rates so high that governments lose revenue.

P.P.S. Just to cover my you-know-what, allow me to take this opportunity to stress that maximizing revenue should not be the goal of tax policy. I’m a big fan of the Laffer Curve, to be sure, but policy makers should target the growth-maximizing point.

Read Full Post »

I’ve shared evidence from around the world (England, Italy, the United States, and France) and from various states (IllinoisOregonFlorida,Maryland, and New York) to argue that it is foolish to ignore the Laffer Curve.

Not that it makes any difference. I’m slowly coming the conclusion that my friends on the left will never learn – in large part because they’re more interested in punishing success with class warfare tax policy than they are in collecting extra revenue for government.

But surely there are some statists who are motivated by emotions other than spite, so I refuse to give up. Let’s look at some evidence from Spain to further confirm that high tax rates aren’t necessarily the way to maximize tax revenue (this also is a story showing that tax competition between nations is a good way of disciplining governments that are too greedy, but that’s another issue).

Here are some details from a CNBC report.

Spain’s corporate tax take has tumbled by almost two thirds from pre-crisis levels as small businesses fail and a growing number of big corporations seek profits abroad to compensate for the prolonged downturn at home. …Spain has a headline corporate tax rate of 30 percent, broadly in line with other large European economies. Switzerland, however, has a headline rate of 8.5 percent, and lawyers say deductions can be made to reduce this further. “A fundamental right of EU law is the freedom of establishment. All companies and taxpayers look after their tax affairs, and if they can pay a lower rate somewhere else, it’s better for their business and natural that they would do so,” a global tax lawyer based in Spain said. …Rajoy did eliminate some corporate tax breaks in 2012, a policy he will continue in 2013, and has also brought forward some tax payments, though that could be storing up problems.

Much of the decline in corporate tax revenue can be attributed to Spain’s dismal economy, of course, which has been exacerbated by a bunch of tax hikes imposed by a supposedly right-of-center government.

The one tax rate that hasn’t been increased, though, is the top rate of corporate tax. So how can this be a story about the Laffer Curve?

Well, sometimes standing still is a recipe for defeat. And sometimes moving in the right direction isn’t enough when everybody else is going in the right direction at a faster rate.

Here’s a chart showing changes in the average EU corporate tax rate compared to Spain’s corporate tax rate.

Spain’s corporate tax rate has dropped by five percentage points. That’s progress, but other nations have moved more rapidly in the right direction. Back in 1995, the Spanish corporate rate was slightly lower than the EU average. Now it’s noticeably higher.

And as the excerpt above notes, there are nations such as Switzerland that have far lower tax rates and much better fiscal policy.

To be sure, Spain’s main challenge is the need to dramatically reduce the burden of government spending. That will help long-run growth because more resources will be allocated by private markets.

But Spain also should seek an immediate boost to growth by reducing tax rates on productive behavior. A lower corporate tax rate should be part of the answer.

It also would be a good idea for the United States.

Read Full Post »

Very few people are willing to admit that they favor protectionism. After all, who wants to embrace a policy associated with the Great Depression?

But people sometimes say “I want free trade so long as it’s fair trade.” In most cases, they’re simply protectionists who are too clever to admit their true agenda

In the Belly of the Beast at the European Commission

There’s a similar bit of wordplay that happens in the world of international taxation, and a good example of this phenomenon took place on my recent swing through Brussels.

While in town, I met with Algirdas Šemeta, the European Union’s Tax Commissioner, as part of a meeting arranged by some of his countrymen from the Lithuanian Free Market Institute.

Mr. Šemeta was a gracious host and very knowledgeable about all the issues we discussed, but when I was pontificating about the benefits of tax competition (are you surprised?), he assured me that he felt the same way, only he wanted to make sure it was “fair tax competition.”

But his idea of “fair tax competition” is that people should not be allowed to benefit from better policy in low-tax jurisdictions.

Allow me to explain. Let’s say that a Frenchman, having earned some income in France and having paid a first layer of tax to the French government, decides he wants to save and invest some of his post-tax income in Luxembourg.

In an ideal world, there would be no double taxation and no government would try to tax any interest, dividends, or capital gains that our hypothetical Frenchman might earn. But if a government wants to impose a second layer of tax on earnings in Luxembourg, it should be the government of Luxembourg. It’s a simple matter of sovereignty that nations get to determine the laws that apply inside their borders.

But if the French government wants to track – and tax – that flight capital, it has to coerce the Luxembourg government into acting as a deputy tax collector, and this generally is why high-tax governments (and their puppets at the OECD) are so anxious to bully so-called tax havens into emasculating their human rights laws on financial privacy.

Now let’s see the practical impact of “fair tax competition.” In the ideal world of Mr. Šemeta and his friends, a Frenchman will have the right to invest after-tax income in Luxembourg, but the French government will tax any Luxembourg-source earnings at French tax rates. In other words, there is no escape from France’s oppressive tax laws. The French government might allow a credit for any taxes paid to Luxembourg, but even in the best-case scenario, the total tax burden on our hypothetical Frenchman will still be equal to the French tax rate.

Imagine if gas stations operated by the same rules. If you decided you no longer wanted to patronize your local gas station because of high prices, you would be allowed to buy gas at another station. But your old gas station would have the right – at the very least – to charge you the difference between its price and the price at your new station.

Simply stated, you would not be allowed to benefit from lower prices at other gas stations.

So take a wild guess how much real competition there would be in such a system? Assuming your IQ is above room temperature, you’ve figured out that such a system subjects the consumer to monopoly abuse.

Which is exactly why the “fair tax competition” agenda of Europe’s welfare states (with active support from the Obama Administration) is nothing more than an indirect form of tax harmonization. Nations would be allowed to have different tax rates, but people wouldn’t be allowed to benefit.

For more information, here’s my video on tax competition.

And if you want information about the beneficial impact of “tax havens,” read this excellent column by Pierre Bessard and watch my three-part video series on the topic.

P.S. The Financial Transaction Tax also was discussed at the meeting, and it appears that the European actually intend on shooting themselves in the foot with this foolish scheme. Interestingly, when presented by other participants with some studies showing how the tax was damaging, Mr. Šemeta asked why we he should take those studies seriously since they were produced by people opposed to the tax. Since I’ve recently stated that healthy skepticism is warranted when dealing with anybody in the political/policy world (even me!), I wasn’t offended by the insinuation. But my response was to ask why we should act like the European Commission studies are credible since they were financed by governments that want a new source of revenue.

Read Full Post »

If we want to avoid the kind of Greek-style fiscal collapse implied by this BIS and OECD data, we need some external force to limit the tendency of politicians to over-tax and over-spend.

That’s why I’m a big advocate of tax competition, fiscal sovereignty, and financial privacy (read Pierre Bessard and Allister Heath to understand why these issues are critical).

Simply stated, I want people to have the freedom to benefit from better tax policy in other jurisdictions, especially since that penalizes governments that get too greedy.

I’m currently surrounded by hundreds of people who share my views since I’m in Prague at a meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society. And I’m particularly happy since Professor Lars Feld of the University of Freiburg presented a paper yesterday on “Redistribution through public budgets: Who pays, who receives, and what effects do political institutions have?”.

His research produced all sorts of interesting results, but I was drawn to his estimates on how tax competition and fiscal decentralization are an effective means of restraining bad fiscal policy.

Here are some findings from the study, which was co-authored with Jan Schnellenbach of the University of Heidelberg.

In line with the previous subsections, we find that countries with a higher GDP per employee, i.e. a higher overall labor productivity, have a more unequal primary income distribution. …fiscal competition within a country or trade openness as an indicator of globalization do not exacerbate, but reduce the gap between income classes. …expenditure and revenue decentralization restrict the government’s ability to redistribute income when fiscal decentralization also involves fiscal competition. …fiscal decentralization, when accompanied by high fiscal autonomy, involves significantly less fiscal redistribution. Please also note that fiscal competition induces a more equal distribution of primary income and, even though the distribution of disposable income is more unequal, it is open how the effect of fiscal competition on income distribution should be evaluated. Because measures of income redistribution usu-ally have adverse incentive effects which consequently affect economic growth negatively, fiscal competition might be favorable for countries which have strong egalitarian preferences. A rising tide lifts all boats and might in the long-run outperform countries with more moderate income redistribution even in distributional terms.

The paper includes a bunch of empirical results that are too arcane to reproduce here, but they basically show that the welfare state is difficult to maintain if taxpayers have the ability to vote with their feet.

Or perhaps the better way to interpret the data is that fiscal competition makes it difficult for governments to expand the welfare state to dangerous levels. In other words, it is a way of protecting governments from the worst impulses of their politicians.

I can’t resist sharing one additional bit of information from the Feld-Schnellenbach paper. They compare redistribution in several nations. As you can see in the table reproduced below, the United States and Switzerland benefit from having the lowest levels of overall redistribution (circled in red).

It’s no coincidence that the U.S. and Switzerland are also the two nations with the most decentralization (some argue that Canada may be more decentralized that the U.S., but Canada also scores very well in this measure, so the point is strong regardless).

Interestingly, Switzerland definitely has significantly more genuine federalism than any other nation, so you won’t be surprised to see that Switzerland is far and away the nation with the lowest level of tax redistribution (circled in blue).

One clear example of Switzerland’s sensible approach is that voters overwhelmingly rejected a 2010 referendum that would have imposed a minimum federal tax rate of 22 percent on incomes above 250,000 Swiss Francs (about $262,000 U.S. dollars). And the Swiss also have a spending cap that has reduced the burden of government spending while most other nations have moved in the wrong direction.

While there are some things about Switzerland I don’t like, its political institutions are a good role model. And since good institutions promote good policy (one of the hypotheses in the Feld-Schnellenbach paper) and good policy leads to more prosperity, you won’t be surprised to learn that Swiss living standards now exceed those in the United States. And they’re the highest-ranked nation in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: