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Posts Tagged ‘Tax Harmonization’

There are many boring topics in tax policy, such as the debate between expensing and depreciation for business investment.

International tax rules also put most people to sleep, but they’re nonetheless important.

Indeed, the United States government is currently squabbling with several European governments about the appropriate tax policy for U.S.-based tech companies.

A report from the New York Times last July describes the controversy.

France is seeking a 3 percent tax on the revenues that companies earn from providing digital services to French users. It would apply to digital businesses with annual global revenue of more than 750 million euros, or about $845 million, and sales of €25 million in France. That would cover more than two dozen companies, many of them American, including Facebook, Google and Amazon. …Mr. Lighthizer said the United States was “very concerned that the digital services tax which is expected to pass the French Senate tomorrow unfairly targets American companies.” …France’s digital tax adds to the list of actions that European authorities have taken against the tech industry… And more regulation looms. Amazon and Facebook are facing antitrust inquiries from the European Commission. …Britain provided further details about its own proposal to tax tech companies. Starting in 2020, it plans to impose a 2 percent tax on revenue from companies that provide a social media platform, search engine or online marketplace to British users.

For the latest developments, here are excerpts from an article in yesterday’s New York Times.

A growing movement by foreign governments to tax American tech giants that supply internet search, online shopping and social media to their citizens has quickly emerged as the largest global economic battle of 2020. …At the core of the debate are fundamental questions about where economic activity in the digital age is generated, where it should be taxed and who should collect that revenue. …The discussions, which are expected to last months, could end with an agreement on a global minimum tax that all multinational companies must pay on their profits, regardless of where the profits are booked. The negotiations could also set a worldwide standard for how much tax companies must remit to certain countries based on their digital activity. …Mr. Mnuchin expressed frustration on Thursday in Davos that a digital sales tax had become such a focus of discussion at the World Economic Forum. …American tech firms are eager for a deal that would prevent multiple countries from imposing a wide variety of taxes on their activities.

Daniel Bunn of the Tax Foundation has an informative summary of the current debate.

In March of 2018, the European Commission advanced a proposal to tax the revenues of large digital companies at a rate of 3 percent. …The tax would apply to revenues from digital advertising, online marketplaces, and sales of user data and was expected to generate €5 billion ($5.5 billion) in revenues for EU member countries. The tax is inherently distortive and violates standard principles of tax policy. Effectively, the digital services tax is an excise tax on digital services. Additionally, the thresholds make it function effectively like a tariff since most of the businesses subject to the tax are based outside of the EU. …the European Commission was unable to find the necessary unanimous support for the proposal to be adopted. The proposal was laid aside… the French decided to design their own policy. The tax was adopted in the summer of 2019 but is retroactive to January 1, 2019. Similar to the EU proposal, the tax has a rate of 3 percent and applies to online marketplaces and online advertising services. …The United Kingdom proposed a digital services tax at 2 percent as part of its budget in the fall of 2018. The tax has already been legislated and will go into force in April of 2020. …The tax will fall on revenues of search engines, social media platforms, and online marketplaces. …The OECD has been working for most of the last decade to negotiate changes that will limit tax planning opportunities that businesses use to minimize their tax burdens. …The reforms have two general objectives (Pillars 1 and 2): 1) to require businesses to pay more taxes where they have sales, and 2) to further limit the incentives for businesses to locate profits in low-tax jurisdictions. …This week in Davos, the U.S. and France…agreed to continue work on both Pillar 1 and Pillar 2… The burden of proof is on the OECD to show that the price the U.S. and other countries may have to pay in lost revenue or higher taxes on their companies (paid to other countries) will be worth the challenge of adopting and implementing the new rules.

At the risk of over-simplifying, European politicians want the tech companies to pay tax on their revenues rather than their profits (such a digital excise tax would be sort of akin to the gross receipts taxes imposed by some American states).

And they want to use a global formula (if a country has X percent of the world’s Internet users, they would impose the tax on X percent of a company’s worldwide revenue).

Though all you really need to understand is that European politicians view American tech companies as a potential source of loot (the thresholds are designed so European companies would largely be exempt).

For background, let’s review a 2017 article from Agence France-Presse.

…are US tech giants the new robber barons of the 21st century, banking billions in profit while short-changing the public by paying only a pittance in tax? …French President Emmanuel Macron…has slammed the likes of Google, Facebook and Apple as the “freeloaders of the modern world”. …According to EU law, to operate across Europe, multinationals have almost total liberty to choose a home country of their choosing. Not surprisingly, they choose small, low tax nations such as Ireland, the Netherlands or Luxembourg. …Facebook tracks likes, comments and page views and sells the data to companies who then target consumers. But unlike the economy of old, Facebook sells its data to French companies not from France but from a great, nation-less elsewhere… It is in states like Ireland, whose official tax rate of 12.5 percent is the lowest in Europe, that the giants have parked their EU headquarters and book profits from revenues made across the bloc. …France has proposed an unusual idea that has so far divided Europe: tax the US tech giants on sales generated in each European country, rather than on the profits that are cycled through low-tax countries. …the commission wants to dust off an old project…the Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base or CCCTB — an ambitious bid to consolidate a company’s tax base across the EU. …tax would be distributed in all the countries where the company operates, and not according to the level of booked profit in each of these states, but according to the level of activity.

This below chart from the article must cause nightmares for Europe’s politicians.

As you can see, both Google and Facebook sell the bulk of their services from their Irish subsidiaries.

When I look at this data, it tells me that other European nations should lower their corporate tax rates so they can compete with Ireland.

When European politicians look at this data, it tells them that they should come up with new ways of extracting money from the companies.

P.S. The American tech companies are so worried about digital excise taxes that they’re open to the idea of a global agreement to revamp how their profits are taxed. I suspect that strategy will backfire in the long run (see, for instance, how the OECD has used the BEPS project as an excuse to impose higher tax burdens on multinational companies).

P.P.S. As a general rule, governments should be free to impose very bad tax policy on economic activity inside their borders (just as places such as Monaco and the Cayman Islands should be free to impose very good tax policy on what happens inside their borders). That being said, it’s also true that nations like France are designing their digital taxes American companies are the sole targets. An indirect form of protectionism.

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Speaking in Europe earlier this year, I tried to explain the entire issue of tax competition is less than nine minutes.

To some degree, those remarks were an updated version of a video I narrated back in 2010.

You’ll notice that I criticized the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in both videos.

And with good reason. The Paris-based OECD has been trying to curtail tax competition in hopes of propping up Europe’s uncompetitive welfare states (i.e., enabling “goldfish government“).

As I stated in the second video, the bureaucrats sometimes admit this is their goal. In recent years, though, OECD officials have tried to be more clever, even claiming that they’re pushing for higher taxes because that approach somehow is a recipe for higher growth.

Let’s look at a new example of OECD malfeasance.

We’ll start with something that appears to be innocuous. Or even good news. A report from the OECD points out that corporate tax rates are falling.

Countries have used recent tax reforms to lower taxes on businesses… Across countries, the report highlights the continuation of a trend toward corporate income tax rate cuts, which has been largely driven by significant reforms in a number of large countries with traditionally high corporate tax rates. The average corporate income tax rate across the OECD has dropped from 32.5% in 2000 to 23.9% in 2018. …the declining trend in the average OECD corporate tax rate has gained renewed momentum in recent years.

Sounds good, right?

From the OECD’s warped perspective, however, good news for the private sector is bad news for governments.

As a result, the bureaucrats are pushing for policies that would penalize jurisdictions with low tax rates.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is going to propose a global minimum tax that would apply country by country before the next meeting of G‑20 finance ministers and central bankers set for 17 Oct. in Washington, DC. …The OECD’s head of tax policy, Pascal Saint-Amans, said a political push was needed to relaunch the discussions and used the case of the Cayman Islands to explain the proposal. “The idea is if a company operates abroad, and this activity is taxed in a country with a rate below the minimum, the country where the firm is based could recover the difference.” …While this framework is based on an average global rate, Saint-Amans said the OECD is working on a country-by-country basis. Critics of the proposal have said that this would infringe on the fiscal sovereignty of countries.

And as I’ve already noted, the U.S. Treasury Department is not sound on this issue.

This would work in a similar way to the new category of foreign income, global intangible low-tax income (GILTI), introduced for US multinationals by the 2017 US tax reform. GILTI effectively sets a floor of between 10.5% and 13.125% on the average foreign tax rate paid by US multinationals.

There are two aspects of this new OECD effort that are especially disturbing.

In a perverse way, I admire the OECD’s aggressiveness.

Whatever is happening, the bureaucrats turn it into a reason why tax burdens should increase.

The inescapable conclusion, as explained by Dominik Feusi of Switzerland, is that the OECD is trying to create a tax cartel.

Under the pretext of taxing the big Internet companies, a working group of the OECD on behalf of the G-20 and circumventing the elected parliamentarians of the member countries to a completely new company taxation. …The competition for a good framework for the economy, including low corporate taxes, will not be abolished, but it will be useless. However, if countries no longer have to take good care of the environment, because they are all equally bad, then they will increase taxes together. …This has consequences, because wages, wealth, infrastructure and social security in Western countries are based on economic growth. Less growth means lower wages. The state can only spend what was first earned in a free economy… The OECD was…once a platform for sharing good economic policy for the common good. This has become today a power cartel of the politicians… They behave as a world government – but without democratic mission and legitimacy.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center examined the OECD and decided that American taxpayers should stop subsidizing the Paris-based bureaucracy.

Taxpayers are spending millions of dollars every year funding an army of bureaucrats who advocate higher taxes and bigger government around the globe. Last year, the United States sent $77 million to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the largest single contribution and fully 21 percent of the Paris-based bureaucracy’s $370 million annual budget. Add to that several million dollars in additional expenses for special projects and the U.S. mission to the OECD. …despite the OECD’s heavy reliance on American taxpayer funds, the organization persistently works against U.S. interests, arguing for international tax cartels, the end of privacy, redistribution schemes and other big-government fantasies. Take its campaign for tax harmonization, begun as a way to protect high-tax nations from bleeding more capital to lower-tax jurisdictions. …The OECD may recognize competition is good in the private sector, but promotes cartelization policies to protect politicians. …The bureaucrats, abetted by the European Union and the United Nations, even started clamoring for the creation of some kind of international tax organization, for global taxation and more explicit forms of tax harmonization.

These articles are spot on.

As you can see from this interview, I’ve repeatedly explained why the OECD’s anti-market agenda is bad news for America.

Which is why, as I argue in this video, American taxpayers should no longer subsidize the OECD.

It’s an older video, but the core issues haven’t changed.

Acting on behalf of Europe’s uncompetitive welfare states, the OECD relentlessly promotes a statist agenda.

That’s a threat to the United States. It’s a threat to Europe. And it’s a threat to every other part of the globe.

P.S. To add more insult to all the injury, the tax-loving bureaucrats at the OECD get tax-free salaries. Must be nice to be exempt from the bad policies they support.

P.P.S. If you’re not already sick of seeing me on the screen, I also have a three-part video series on tax havens and even a video debunking some of Obama’s demagoguery on the topic.

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Proponents of bigger government sometimes make jaw-dropping statements.

I even have collections of bizarre assertions by both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

What’s especially shocking is when statists twist language, such as when they claim all income is the “rightful property” of government and that people who are allowed to keep any of their earnings are getting “government handouts.”

A form of “spending in the tax code,” as they sometimes claim.

Maybe we should have an “Orwell Award” for the most perverse misuse of language on tax issues.

And if we do, I have two potential winners.

The governor of Illinois actually asserted that higher income taxes are needed to stop people from leaving the state.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker…blamed the state’s flat income tax for Illinois’ declining population. …“The people who have been leaving the state are actually the people who have had the regressive flat income tax imposed upon them, working-class, middle-class families,” Pritzker said. Pritzker successfully got the Democrat-controlled state legislature to pass a ballot question asking voters on the November 2020 ballot if Illinois’ flat income tax should be changed to a structure with higher rates for higher earners. …Pritzker said he’s set to sign budget and infrastructure bills that include a variety of tax increases, including a doubling of the state’s gas tax, increased vehicle registration fees, higher tobacco taxes, gambling taxes and other tax increases

I’ve written many times about the fight to replace the flat tax with a discriminatory graduated tax in Illinois, so no need to revisit that issue.

Instead, I’ll simply note that Pritzker’s absurd statement about who is escaping the state not only doesn’t pass the laugh test, but it also is explicitly contradicted by IRS data.

In reality, the geese with the golden eggs already are voting with their feet against Illinois. And the exodus will accelerate if Pritzker succeeds in killing the state’s flat tax.

Another potential winner is Martin Kreienbaum from the German Finance Ministry. As reported by Law360.com, he asserted that jurisdictions have the sovereign right to have low taxes, but only if the rules are rigged so they can’t benefit.

A new global minimum tax from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is not meant to infringe on state sovereignty…, an official from the German Federal Ministry of Finance said Monday. The OECD’s work plan…includes a goal of establishing a single global rate for taxation… While not mandating that countries match or exceed it in their national tax rates, the new OECD rules would allow countries to tax the foreign income of their home companies if it is taxed below that rate. …”We respect the sovereignty for states to completely, freely set their tax rates,” said Martin Kreienbaum, director general for international taxation at the German Federal Ministry of Finance. “And we restore sovereignty of other countries to react to low-tax situations.” …”we also believe that the race to the bottom is a situation we would not like to accept in the future.”

Tax harmonization is another issue that I’ve addressed on many occasions.

Suffice to say that I find it outrageous and disgusting that bureaucrats at the OECD (who get tax-free salaries!) are tying to create a global tax cartel for the benefit of uncompetitive nations.

What I want to focus on today, however, is how the principle of sovereignty is being turned upside down.

From the perspective of a German tax collector, a low-tax jurisdiction is allowed to have fiscal sovereignty, but only on paper.

So if a place like the Cayman Islands has a zero-income tax, it then gets hit with tax protectionism and financial protectionism.

Sort of like having the right to own a house, but with neighbors who have the right to set it on fire.

P.S. Trump’s Treasury Secretary actually sides with the French and supports this perverse form of tax harmonization.

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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.

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Much to the consternation of some Republicans, I periodically explain that the Trump Administration is – at best – a mixed blessing for supporters of limited government.

It’s not just that Trump is the most protectionist president since Herbert Hoover, though that’s certainly a damning indictment.

The Trump White House also has been very weak on government spending, and the track record on that issue could get even worse since the President supports a new entitlement for childcare.

Yes, there are issues where Trump has been a net plus for economic liberty.

The overall regulatory burden is declining (though the Administration’s record is far from perfect when looking at anti-market interventions).

And the President gets a good mark on tax policy thanks to the Tax Cut and Jobs Act.

But Trump’s grade on that issue may be about to drop thanks to horribly misguided actions by his Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin. Here are some excerpts from a report by France 24.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Wednesday that the US supported a push by France for a minimum corporate tax rate for developed countries worldwide… “It’s something we absolutely support, that there’s not a chase to the bottom on taxation,” Mnuchin said in Paris after talks with Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire. Le Maire said last month a minimum tax rate would be a priority for France during its presidency of the G7 nations this year. …France in particular has railed against Amazon, Google and other technology giants that declare their European income in low-tax countries like Ireland or Luxembourg.

Needless to say, it’s utterly depressing that a Republican (in name only?) Treasury Secretary explicitly condemns tax competition.

Politicians and their flunkies grouse about a “race to the bottom” when tax competition exists, not because tax rates would ever drop to zero (we should be so lucky), but because they don’t like it when the geese with the golden eggs have the ability to fly away.

They like having the option of ever-higher taxes.

In reality, the world desperately needs tax competition to reduce the danger of “goldfish government,” which occurs when vote-seeking politicians can’t resist the temptation to destroy an economy with too much government (see Greece, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, etc).

I’ll close with a remarkable observation.

The Obama Administration supported a scheme that would have required American companies to pay a tax of at least 19 percent on income earned in other jurisdictions, even if tax rates were lower (as in Ireland) or zero (as in Cayman).

This was very bad policy, completely contrary to the principle of “territorial taxation” that is part of all market-friendly tax reforms such as the flat tax.

Yet Trump’s Treasury Secretary, by prioritizing tax revenue over prosperity, is supporting a proposal for global minimum tax rates that is much worse than what the Obama Administration wanted.

And even further to the left compared to the policy supported by Bill Clinton.

P.S. I’m sure the bureaucrats at the European Commission and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are delighted with Mnuchin’s policy, especially since American companies will be the ones most disadvantaged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I have a love-hate relationship with corporations.

On the plus side, I admire corporations that efficiently and effectively compete by producing valuable goods and services for consumers, and I aggressively defend those firms from politicians who want to impose harmful and destructive forms of taxes, regulation, and intervention.

On the minus side, I am disgusted by corporations that get in bed with politicians to push policies that undermine competition and free markets, and I strongly oppose all forms of cronyism and coercion that give big firms unearned and undeserved wealth.

With this in mind, let’s look at two controversies from the field of corporate taxation, both involving the European Commission (the EC is the Brussels-based bureaucracy that is akin to an executive branch for the European Union).

First, there’s a big fight going on between the U.S. Treasury Department and the EC. As reported by Bloomberg, it’s a battle over whether European governments should be able to impose higher tax burdens on American-domiciled multinationals.

The U.S. is stepping up its effort to convince the European Commission to refrain from hitting Apple Inc. and other companies with demands for possibly billions of euros… In a white paper released Wednesday, the Treasury Department in Washington said the Brussels-based commission is taking on the role of a “supra-national tax authority” that has the scope to threaten global tax reform deals. …The commission has initiated investigations into tax rulings that Apple, Starbucks Corp., Amazon.com Inc. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. received in separate EU nations. U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew has written previously that the investigations appear “to be targeting U.S. companies disproportionately.” The commission’s spokesman said Wednesday that EU law “applies to all companies operating in Europe — there is no bias against U.S. companies.”

As you can imagine, I have a number of thoughts about this spat.

  • First, don’t give the Obama Administration too much credit for being on the right side of the issue. The Treasury Department is motivated in large part by a concern that higher taxes imposed by European governments would mean less ability to collect tax by the U.S. government.
  • Second, complaints by the US about a “supra-national tax authority” are extremely hypocritical since the Obama White House has signed the Protocol to the Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters, which effectively would create a nascent World Tax Organization (the pact is thankfully being blocked by Senator Rand Paul).
  • Third, hypocrisy by the US doesn’t change the fact that the European Commission bureaucrats are in the wrong because their argument is based on the upside-down notion that low tax burdens are a form of “state aid.”
  • Fourth, Europeans are in the wrong because the various national governments should simply adjust their “transfer pricing” rules if they think multinational companies are playing games to under-state profits in high-tax nations and over-state profits in low-tax nations.
  • Fifth, the Europeans are in the wrong because low corporate tax rates are the best way to curtail unproductive forms of tax avoidance.
  • Sixth, some European nations are in the wrong if they don’t allow domestic companies to enjoy the low tax rates imposed on multinational firms.

Since we’re on the topic of corporate tax rates and the European Commission, let’s shift from Brussels to Geneva and see an example of good tax policy in action. Here are some excerpts from a Bloomberg report about how a Swiss canton is responding in the right way to an attack by the EC.

When the European Union pressured Switzerland to scrap tax breaks for foreign companies, Geneva had most to lose. Now, the canton that’s home to almost 1,000 multinationals is set to use tax to burnish its appeal. Geneva will on Aug. 30 propose cutting its corporate tax rate to 13.49 percent from 24.2 percent…the new regime will improve the Swiss city’s competitive position, according to Credit Suisse Group AG. “I could see Geneva going up very high in the ranks,” said Thierry Boitelle, a lawyer at Bonnard Lawson in the city. …A rate of about 13 percent would see Geneva jump 13 places to become the third-most attractive of Switzerland’s 26 cantons.

This puts a big smile on my face.

Geneva is basically doing the same thing Ireland did many years ago when it also was attacked by Brussels for having a very low tax rate on multinational firms while taxing domestic firms at a higher rate.

The Irish responded to the assault by implementing a very low rate for all businesses, regardless of whether they were local firms or global firms. And the Irish economy benefited immensely.

Now it’s happening again, which must be very irritating for the bureaucrats in Brussels since the attack on Geneva (just like the attack on Ireland) was designed to force tax rates higher rather than lower.

As a consequence, in one fell swoop, Geneva will now be one of the most competitive cantons in Switzerland.

Here’s another reason I’m smiling.

The Geneva reform will put even more pressure on the tax-loving French.

France, which borders the canton to the south, east and west, has a tax rate of 33.33 percent… Within Europe, Geneva’s rate would only exceed a number of smaller economies such as Ireland’s 12.5 percent and Montenegro, which has the region’s lowest rate of 9 percent. That will mean Geneva competes with Ireland, the Netherlands and the U.K. as a low-tax jurisdiction.

Though the lower tax rate in Geneva is not a sure thing.

We’ll have to see if local politicians follow through on this announcement. And there also may be a challenge from left-wing voters, something made possible by Switzerland’s model of direct democracy.

Opposition to the new rate from left-leaning political parties will probably trigger a referendum as it would only require 500 signatures.

Though I suspect the “sensible Swiss” of Geneva will vote the right way, at least if the results from an adjoining canton are any indication.

In a March plebiscite in the neighboring canton of Vaud, 87.1 percent of voters backed cutting the corporate tax rate to 13.79 percent from 21.65 percent.

So I fully expect voters in Geneva will make a similarly wise choice, especially since they are smart enough to realize that high tax rates won’t collect much money if the geese with the golden eggs fly away.

Failure to agree on a competitive tax rate in Geneva could result in an exodus of multinationals, cutting cantonal revenues by an even greater margin, said Denis Berdoz, a partner at Baker & McKenzie in Geneva, who specializes in tax and corporate law. “They don’t really have a choice,” said Berdoz. “If the companies leave, the loss could be much higher.”

In other words, the Laffer Curve exists.

Now let’s understand why the development in Geneva is a good thing (and why the EC effort to impose higher taxes on US-based multinational is a bad thing).

Simply stated, high corporate tax burdens are bad for workers and the overall economy.

In a recent column for the Wall Street Journal, Kevin Hassett and Aparna Mathur of the American Enterprise Institute consider the benefits of a less punitive corporate tax system.

They start with the theoretical case.

If the next president has a plan to increase wages that is based on well-documented and widely accepted empirical evidence, he should have little trouble finding bipartisan support. …Fortunately, such a plan exists. …both parties should unite and demand a cut in corporate tax rates. The economic theory behind this proposition is uncontroversial. More productive workers earn higher wages. Workers become more productive when they acquire better skills or have better tools. Lower corporate rates create the right incentives for firms to give workers better tools.

Then they unload a wealth of empirical evidence.

What proof is there that lower corporate rates equal higher wages? Quite a lot. In 2006 we co-wrote the first empirical study on the direct link between corporate taxes and manufacturing wages. …Our empirical analysis, which used data we gathered on international tax rates and manufacturing wages in 72 countries over 22 years, confirmed that the corporate tax is for the most part paid by workers. …There has since been a profusion of research that confirms that workers suffer when corporate tax rates are higher. In a 2007 paper Federal Reserve economist Alison Felix used data from the Luxembourg Income Study, which tracks individual incomes across 30 countries, to show that a 10% increase in corporate tax rates reduces wages by about 7%. In a 2009 paper Ms. Felix found similar patterns across the U.S., where states with higher corporate tax rates have significantly lower wages. …Harvard University economists Mihir Desai, Fritz Foley and Michigan’s James R. Hines have studied data from American multinational firms, finding that their foreign affiliates tend to pay significantly higher wages in countries with lower corporate tax rates. A study by Nadja Dwenger, Pia Rattenhuber and Viktor Steiner found similar patterns across German regions… Canadian economists Kenneth McKenzie and Ergete Ferede. They found that wages in Canadian provinces drop by more than a dollar when corporate tax revenue is increased by a dollar.

So what’s the moral of the story?

It’s very simple.

…higher wages are relatively easy to stimulate for a nation. One need only cut corporate tax rates. Left and right leaning countries have done this over the past two decades, including Japan, Canada and Germany. Yet in the U.S. we continue to undermine wage growth with the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world.

The Tax Foundation echoes this analysis, noting that even the Paris-based OECD has acknowledged that corporate taxes are especially destructive on a per-dollar-raised basis.

In a landmark 2008 study Tax and Economic Growth, economists at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) determined that the corporate income tax is the most harmful tax for economic growth. …The study also found that statutory corporate tax rates have a negative effect on firms that are in the “process of catching up with the productivity performance of the best practice firms.” This suggests that “lowering statutory corporate tax rates can lead to particularly large productivity gains in firms that are dynamic and profitable, i.e. those that can make the largest contribution to GDP growth.”

Sadly, there’s often a gap between the analysis of the professional economists at the OECD and the work of the left-leaning policy-making divisions of that international bureaucracy.

The OECD has been a long-time advocate of schemes to curtail tax competition and in recent years even has concocted a “base erosion and profit shifting” initiative designed to boost the tax burden on businesses.

In a study for the Institute for Research in Economic and Fiscal Issues (also based, coincidentally, in Paris), Pierre Bessard and Fabio Cappelletti analyze the harmful impact of corporate taxation and the unhelpful role of the OECD.

…the latest years have been marked by an abundance of proposals to reform national tax codes to patch these alleged “loopholes”. Among them, the Base Erosion and Profit Shifting package (BEPS) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is the most alarming one because of its global ambition. …The OECD thereby assumes, without any substantiation, that the corporate income tax is both just and an efficient way for governments to collect revenue.

Pierre and Fabio point out that the OECD’s campaign to impose heavier taxes on business is actually just a back-door way of imposing a higher burden on individuals.

…the whole value created by corporations is sooner or later transferred to various individuals, may it be as dividends (for owners and shareholders), interest payments (for lenders), wages (for employees) and payments for the provided goods and services (for suppliers). Second, corporations as such do not pay taxes. …at the end of the day the burden of any tax levied on them has to be carried by an individual.

This doesn’t necessarily mean there shouldn’t be a corporate tax (in nations that decide to tax income). After all, it is administratively simpler to tax a company than to track down potentially thousands – or even hundreds of thousands – of shareholders.

But it’s rather important to consider the structure of the corporate tax system. Is it a simple system that taxes economic activity only one time based on cash flow? Or does it have various warts, such as double taxation and deprecation, that effectively result in much higher tax rates on productive behavior?

Most nations unfortunately go with the latter approach (with place such as Estonia and Hong Kong being admirable exceptions). And that’s why, as Pierre and Fabio explain, the corporate income tax is especially harmful.

…the general consensus is that the cost per dollar of raising revenue through the corporate income tax is much higher than the cost per dollar of raising revenue through the personal income tax… This is due to the corporate income tax generating additional distortions. … Calls by the OECD and other bodies to standardize corporate tax rules and increase tax revenue in high-tax countries in effect would equate to calls for higher prices for consumers, lower wages for workers and lower returns for pension funds. Corporate taxes also depress available capital for investment and therefore productivity and wage growth, holding back purchasing power. In addition, the deadweight losses arising from corporate income taxation are particularly high. They include lobbying for preferential rates and treatments, diverting attention and resources from production and wealth creation, and distorting decisions in corporate financing and the choice of organizational form.

From my perspective, the key takeaway is that income taxes are always bad for prosperity, but the real question is whether they somewhat harmful or very harmful. So let’s close with some very depressing news about how America’s system ranks in that regard.

The Tax Foundation has just produced a very helpful map showing corporate tax rates around the world. All you need to know about the American system is that dark green is very bad (i.e., a corporate tax rate that is way above the average) and dark blue is very good.

And to make matters worse, the high tax rate is just part of the problem. A German think tank produced a study that looked at other major features of business taxation and concluded that the United States ranked #94 out of 100 nations.

It would be bad to have a high rate with a Hong Kong-designed corporate tax structure. But we have something far worse, a high rate with what could be considered a French-designed corporate tax structure.

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

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

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

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

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

I think this hits the nail on the head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They close with a very useful suggestion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s specifically what’s troubling about BEPS.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What’s the best way to generate growth and prosperity for the developing world?

Looking at the incredible economic rise of jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore, it’s easy to answer that question. Simply put in place the rule of law, accompanied by free markets and small government.

But that answer, while unquestionably accurate, would mean less power and control for politicians and bureaucrats.

So you probably won’t be surprised to learn that when politicians and bureaucrats recently met to discuss this question, they decided that development could be best achieved with a policy of higher taxes and bigger government.

I’m not joking.

Reuters has a report on a new cartel-like agreement among governments to extract more money from the economy’s productive sector. Here are some key passages from the story.

Rich and poor countries agreed on Thursday to overhaul global finance for development, unlocking money for an ambitious agenda… The United Nations announced the deal on its website… Development experts estimate that it will cost over $3 trillion each year to finance the 17 new development goals… Central to the agreement is a framework for countries to generate more domestic tax revenues in order to finance their development agenda… Under the agreement, the UN Committee of Experts on International Cooperation in Tax Matters will be strengthened, the press release said.

Though there’s not total agreement within this crooks’ cartel. There’s a fight over which international bureaucracy will have the biggest role. Should it be the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is perceived as representing the interests of revenue-hungry politicians from the developed world?

Or should it be the United Nations, which is perceived as representing the interests of revenue-hungry politicians from the developing world?

Think of this battle as being somewhat akin to the fight between various socialist sects (Mensheviks, Trotskyites, Stalinists, etc) as the Soviet Union came to power.

Bloomberg has a story on this squabble.

Responsibility for tax standards should be moved to the UN from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a group of 34 rich countries, according to a position paper endorsed by 142 civil-society groups. …Tove Maria Ryding from the European Network on Debt and Development, [said] “Our global tax decision-making system is anything but democratic, excluding more than half of the world’s nations.”

I’m tempted to laugh about the notion that there’s anything remotely democratic about either the UN or OECD. Both international organizations are filled with unelected (and tax-free) bureaucrats.

But more importantly, it’s bad news for either organization to have any power over the global economy. Both bureaucracies want to replace tax competition with tax harmonization, precisely because of a desire to enable big expansion is the size and power of governments.

This greed for more revenue already has produced some bad policies, including an incredibly risky scheme to collect and share private financial information, as well as a global pact that could be the genesis of a world tax organization.

And there are more troubling developments.

Here are some excerpts from another Bloomberg report.

Step aside, Doctors Without Borders. …A team called Tax Inspectors Without Borders will be…established next week by the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. …Tax Inspectors Without Borders would take on projects or audits either by flying in to hold workshops…or embedding themselves full time in a tax agency for several months… “There is a lot of enthusiasm from developing countries” for this initiative, said John Christensen, the U.K.-based director of the nonprofit Tax Justice Network.

Gee, what a surprise. Politicians and bureaucrats have “a lot of enthusiasm” for policies that will increase their power and money.

But at the risk of repeating myself, the more serious point to make is that bigger government in the developing world is not a recipe for economic development.

The western world became rich when government was very small. As noted above, Hong Kong and Singapore more recently became rich with small government.

But can anyone name a country that became rich with big government?

I’ve posed that question over and over again to my leftist friends and they never have a good answer.

If we want the third world to converge with rich nations, they need to follow the policies that enabled rich nations to become rich in the first place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are some officials sounding the alarm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It features the libertarian character from Parks and Recreation.

And I even found the YouTube clip of this scene.

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

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

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The United States is burdened with some very bad policies that hinder growth and undermine competitiveness. But sometimes you can win a race if your rivals have policies that are even more self-destructive.

And that’s a good description of why the U.S. economy is out-performing Europe and why people in the United States enjoy higher living standards than their European counterparts.

In 2010, I shared data showing that Americans had far higher levels of consumption than Europeans.

In 2012, I updated the numbers and showed once again that people in America far ahead of folks in Europe.

And here are the most recent numbers from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, showing “average individual consumption” for various member nations of that international bureaucracy.

The average for all OECD nations is 100, and the average for eurozone nations is 96, so the U.S. score of 147 illustrates how much better off Americans are than citizens of other countries.

The only nations that are even close to the United States have oil (like Norway) or are low-tax international financial centers (such as Luxembourg and Switzerland).

So why is the United States doing better than Europe?

There are two responses.

First, notwithstanding what I’ve just written, it’s a bit misleading to compare the U.S. to Europe. Simply stated, there are vast differences among European nations in terms of policies and living standards, much more than you find between and among American states.

There are nations such as Switzerland and Finland, for instance, that rank above the United States in Economic Freedom of the World. But there are also highly statist and moribund countries such as France, Italy, and Greece, as well as transition economies in Eastern Europe that are still trying to catch up after decades of communist oppression.

So overall America-vs-Europe comparisons should be accompanied by a grain of salt.

Second, now that we’ve ingested some salt, let’s draw some general conclusions about the role of public policy. Most important, nations with bigger governments and more intervention (as is the case for many European countries) generally don’t grow as fast or have the same living standards as nations with smaller governments and more reliance on competitive markets.

The comparisons can get complicated because there are a wide range of policies that impact economic performance (many people focus on fiscal policy, but trade, regulation, monetary policy, and the rule of law are equally important). Comparisons also can get confusing because there are some relatively rich nations with bad policy and some relatively poor nations with good policy, which is why it is important to look at how rich or poor nations are (or were) when there were significant changes in policy.

For instance, many nations in Western Europe became relatively rich in the 1800s and early 1900s when the overall burden of government was very small. Now they’ve adopted welfare states and growth is much slower (or, in some cases, nonexistent), but they’re oftentimes still in better shape than nations (such as Estonia and Chile) that only recently have liberalized their economies.

Now that we’ve gone through all this background, let’s look at a couple of stories that make me pessimistic about Europe’s future because they capture the mentality that seems dominant among continental policy makers.

First, one of the bright spots for the continent is that there’s been vigorous corporate tax competition. In other words, politicians have been under pressure to lower tax burdens on the business community because of concerns that jobs and investment will migrate to nations with better policy.

As you can imagine, this irks the political class (even though lower rates haven’t resulted in less revenue!).

So you won’t be surprised to learn that there’s a new push for tax harmonization in Europe. Here are some of the details from a news report.

France, Germany and Italy have joined forces to outlaw tax competition between EU countries in a letter to the European Commission. …the language and tone in the joint letter to the new Economic and Taxation Commissioner, Pierre Moscovici, is much more aggressive than in the past. …the letter from the finance ministers of the eurozone’s three largest economies says that “the lack of tax harmonisation in the European Union is one of the main causes allowing aggressive tax planning, base erosion and profit-shifting to develop”. …Vanessa Mock, commission spokeswoman said Mr Moscovici “welcomes these significant contributions to the work being carried out by the commission”.

Hmmm…., the Frenchmen who is the Economic and Taxation Commissioner “welcomes” a call from the governments of France, Germany, and Italy to outlaw tax competition. I’m shocked, shocked, by this development.

But as one British politician explained, this approach of higher business taxes will further undermine European economic vitality.

Now let’s shift to our second story, which illustrates the self-serving greed of the political elite at the European Commission.

Here are some passages from a story on the spectacular golden parachutes offered to outgoing senior Eurocrats. And we’ll focus on the former President of the European Council since he’s such a deserving target of ridicule.

Herman Van Rompuy will be entitled to more than £500,000 for doing nothing at the taxpayer’s expense over the next three years, after finishing his term as president of Europe. After standing down on Monday, the former president of the European Council will be paid £133,723 a year, 55 per cent of his basic salary, until December 2017 – to ease him back into life outside the world of Brussels officialdom.

Gee, how kind of European taxpayers to “ease him back” into the real world.

Except, of course, Van Rompuy’s never been in the real world. He’s had his snout in the public trough his entire life.

And he also gets to pay far less tax on this money compared to the poor slobs in the private sector who are footing the bill for this official largesse.

…The “transitional allowance” does not require Mr Van Rompuy to do any work at all and the cash will be paid under reduced rates of EU “community” tax, which are far lower than taxation in his native country of Belgium. …Mr Van Rompuy has not been a stranger to controversy over the perks of EU officialdom since he took the post in December 2009. He was widely criticised four years ago for using his official motorcade of five limousines as a taxi service to take his family on 325-mile round trip to Paris airport en route to a private holiday in the Caribbean. …The cost of Mr Van Rompuy’s retirement is part of a much larger bill for the handover of the administration in EU as former European Commissioners serving in the last Brussels executive pocket “transitional allowances” worth around £30million.

This scam has been in operation for several years, and keep in mind that excessive pay and lavish perks for commissioners are matched by excessive pay and lavish perks for member of the European Parliament (including taxpayer-financed penile implants).

And lavish pay and perks for European Union bureaucrats.

And don’t forget these are the folks who are pushing for bigger government and higher taxes on a pan-European basis. Like many of our politicians in Washington, they think the private sector is some sort of piñata that is capable of producing endless amounts of revenue to finance ever-expanding government.

Even though the evidence from Greece, Italy, Spain, etc, confirms that Margaret Thatcher was right when she warned that the problem with big government is that sooner or later you run out of other people’s money.

P.S. European bureaucrats have decided taxpayer-financed tourism is a human right. And they also use taxpayer money to produce self-aggrandizing comic books.

P.P.S. The European political elite are so bad that even President Obama has felt compelled to oppose some of their tax initiatives.

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Tax competition is a very important tool for constraining the greed of the political class. Simply stated, politicians are less likely to impose bad tax policy if they are afraid that jobs and investment (and accompanying tax revenue) will move to jurisdictions with better tax policy.

This works to limit revenue grabs by politicians at the state level and it works to control the craving for money on the part of politicians at the national level.

But this doesn’t mean all forms of tax competition are equally desirable.

If a country lowers overall tax rates on personal income or corporate income in hopes of attracting business activity, that’s great for prosperity. If a jurisdiction seeks faster growth by reducing double taxation – such as lowering the tax rate on capital gains or abolishing the death tax, that’s also very beneficial.

Some politicians, however, try to entice businesses with special one-off deals, which means one politically well-connected company gets a tax break while the overall fiscal regime for other companies stays the same (or even gets worse).

That’s corrupt cronyism, not proper tax competition.

With this in mind, let’s consider the growing controversy about tax planning by multinational companies. There’s lot of controversy, both in the United States and in Europe, about whether companies are gaming the system.

The most recent kerfuffle deals with Luxembourg, which is accused of having a very friendly regime for business taxation.

Syed Kamall, a Tory member of the European Parliament, has a column in the Wall Street Journal Europe about the right kind of corporate tax competition.

It seems to have come as a great shock to many in the European Parliament that Luxembourg may have encouraged multinational companies to domicile there to pay lower taxes. I’m not sure where these members of parliament have been living for the past 20 years.

What worries Syed is that many European politicians want to use the news from Luxembourg as an excuse to push tax harmonization.

…an agenda of EU-wide tax harmonization…is rapidly gaining popularity in some quarters despite being exactly the wrong prescription for Europe. …tax harmonization…would hang the “Closed for Business” sign at Europe’s border. Tax competition across the single market helps keep tax rates competitive and drives inward investment. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has said that “the ability [of companies] to choose the location of economic activity offsets shortcomings in government budgeting processes, limiting a tendency to spend and tax excessively.”

By the way, the OECD is a big proponent of tax harmonization, so it’s especially noteworthy that even those bureaucrats admitted that tax competition constrains greedy government.

You can click here for further examples of OECD economists admitting that tax competition is necessary and desirable, notwithstanding the anti-market policies being advocated by the political appointees who run the institution.

And since we’re discussing the merits of tax competition, we should point out that Mr. Kamall also mentioned those benefits.

The clearest example of that came with the tax reductions enacted by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Those tax-rate cuts in the U.K. and U.S. forced other industrialized nations to cut their average top marginal rate for personal income to 42% today from more than 67% in 1980 simply to remain competitive, according to the Adam Smith Institute. Tax competition has driven down the average top rate for corporate income in the developed world to less than 27% today from 48% in 1980. Tax competition in Europe encouraged many EU members from the former Soviet bloc to enact flat taxes, which have benefitted them substantially. …it’s important for leaders to keep making the case that tax-policy competition within the single market has been good for Europe.

And he correctly warns that tax harmonization would be a vehicle for higher tax burdens.

Imposing uniform rates under a harmonized system would turn the EU into a convoy that can move only as fast as the slowest ship. Europe’s tax rate would be only as low as the highest-taxing member. …A harmonized tax system would encourage companies and investors to seek new solutions outside the EU in order to avoid paying what would inevitably be higher, French-style levels of European taxation.

And if you don’t believe Mr. Kamall, just look at what’s happened over the past couple of years in Europe.

Last but not least, Syed points out that there is a pro-growth way of improving tax compliance.

The best way to cut down on tax avoidance is to cut tax rates and simplify tax codes. That way people and companies would be willing and able to pay their money to Europe’s exchequers, rather than paying accountants to find loopholes.

But that would require politicians to be responsible, so don’t hold your breath.

So what’s the bottom line? Is there a good way of identifying the desirable forms of tax competition that should be defended.

The simple answer is that it’s always a good idea to compete with lower tax rates that apply to all taxpayers. That’s true for tax rates on companies and households.

The more complex (but equally important) answer is that it’s also good to compete by having a properly designed tax system. On the business side, that means expensing instead of depreciation and territorial taxation rather than worldwide taxation. For households, it means having the proper definition of income so that there’s no longer pernicious discrimination against saving and investment.

Misguided tax competition, by contrast, exists when there are very narrow preferences that apply to a small handful of powerful taxpayers.

For more information on the general topic, here’s my video on the virtues of tax competition.

P.S. My support for tax competition is so intense that I even try to bring the message to unfriendly audiences, such as Capitol Hill and the New York Times.

P.P.S. Heck, my support for tax competition is so intense that I almost got tossed in a third-world jail. That’s true dedication!

P.P.P.S. In you admire hypocrisy, you’ll be very impressed that many rich statists utilize tax havens to protect their money even though they want you to give more of your income to government.

P.P.P.P.S. Speaking of hypocrisy, the main anti-tax competition international organization gives its bureaucrats tax-free salaries.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Since I just mentioned the OECD, I should note that it has a project to curtail business tax competition. They claim that their intention is to go after misguided forms of tax competition, but I’m not surprised that the real goal is to simply extract more money from companies.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S. I’m not sure how to classify this final bit of information, but it’s surely worth mentioning that Bill Clinton defends corporate tax competition. As does Bono.

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The United Nations is not nearly as bad as other international bureaucracies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development or the International Monetary Fund.

But that’s because the U.N. tends to be completely ineffective. So even when the bureaucrats push for bad policy, they don’t have much ability to move the ball in the wrong direction.

But just like a blind squirrel occasionally finds an acorn, the United Nations periodically does something that genuinely would expand the power and burden of government.

And that’s what happening this week in Moscow. Under the “leadership” of the U.N.’s World Health Organization, hundreds of bureaucrats have descended on the city for the “Conference of the Parties (COP6) to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC).”

But this isn’t the usual junket. The bureaucrats are pushing to create “guidelines” for tobacco taxation. Most notably, they want excise taxes to be at least 70 percent of the cost of a pack of cigarettes.

I’m not a smoker and never have been, but this is offensive for several reasons.

1. Enabling bigger government.

If there were five gas stations in your town and the owners all met behind closed doors to discuss pricing, would the result be higher prices or lower prices? Needless to say, the owners would want higher prices. After all, the consumer benefits when there is competition but the owners of the gas stations benefit if there’s a cartel. The same is true with government officials. They don’t like tax competition and would prefer that a tax cartel instead. And when tax rates get harmonized, they always go up and never go down. Which is what you might expect when you create an “OPEC for politicians.”   In their minds, if all governments agree that excise taxes must be 70 percent of the cost of cigarettes, they think they’ll got a lot more tax revenue that can be used to buy votes and expand government.

2. Promoting criminal activity.

In the previous paragraph, I deliberately wrote that politicians “think they’ll get” rather than “will get” a lot more tax revenue. That’s because, in the real world, there’s a Laffer Curve. We have lots of evidence that higher tobacco taxes don’t generate revenue and instead are a boon for smugglers, criminal gangs, and others that are willing to go underground and provide cigarettes in the black market. We saw this in Bulgaria and Romania.  We saw in in Quebec and Michigan. And we saw it in Ireland and Washington, DC. As I explained a couple of years ago, “In many countries, a substantial share of cigarettes are black market or counterfeit. They put it in a Marlboro packet, but it’s not a Marlboro cigarette. Obviously it’s a big thing for organized crime.” And if the WHO succeeds, the problem will get far worse.

3. Eroding national sovereignty.

 Or maybe this section should be called eroding democratic accountability and control. In any event, the issue is that international bureaucracies should not be in the position of seeking to impose one-size-fits-all policies on the world. Particularly when you get perverse results, such as bureaucrats from health ministries and departments supplanting the role of finance ministries and treasury departments. Or when the result is earmarked taxes, which even the IMF warns is problematical since, “Earmarking creates pots of money that can invite corruption and, unchecked, it can lead to a plethora of small nuisance taxes.” And keep in mind the WHO operates in a non-transparent and corrupt fashion.

For more information, Brian Garst of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity has a thorough analysis of the dangers of global taxation.

By the way, the health community will argue that globally coerced tobacco tax hikes are a good idea since the money can be used to fund programs that discourage tobacco use.

Yet we have some experience in this area. Many years ago, state politicians bullied tobacco companies into a giant cash settlement, accompanied by promises that much of the money would be used to fight tobacco use.

But, as NPR reports, politicians couldn’t resist squandering the money in other areas.

So far tobacco companies have paid more than $100 billion to state governments as part of the 25-year, $246 billion settlement. …all across the country hundreds of millions of dollars have gone to states, and the states have made choices not to spend the money on public health and tobacco prevention. …Myron Levin covered the tobacco industry for the Los Angeles Times for many years and is also the founder of the health and safety news site Fair Warning. He says talking states into spending settlement money on tobacco prevention is a tough sell.

Even when the politicians are asked to spend only a tiny fraction of the money on anti-smoking programs.

To help guide state governments, in 2007 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that states reinvest 14 percent of the money from the settlement and tobacco taxes in anti-smoking programs. But most state governments have decided to prioritize other things.

Needless to say, governments around the world will behave like state governments in America. Any additional tax revenue will be used to expand the burden of government spending.

Let’s close with some big-picture analysis. Bureaucracies inevitably seem drawn to mission creep, which occurs when agencies and departments get involved in more and more areas in order to get more staffing and bigger budgets.

But when that happens, the core mission tends to get less attention. For many bureaucracies, that probably doesn’t matter since the core mission probably doesn’t have any value (HUD, anyone?).

But presumably there is a legitimate government role in preventing something like infectious diseases. So why isn’t WHO focused solely on things such as Ebola and SARS rather than engaging in ideological campaigns to expand the size and scope of government?

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People pay every single penny of tax that politicians impose on corporations.

The investors that own companies obviously pay (more than one time!) when governments tax profits.

The workers employed by companies obviously pay, both directly and indirectly, because of corporate income tax.

And consumers also bear a burden thanks to business taxes that lead to higher prices and reduced output.

Keep these points in mind as we discuss BEPS (“base erosion and profit shifting”), which is a plan to increase business tax  burdens being advanced by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a left-leaning international bureaucracy based in Paris.

Working on behalf of the high-tax nations that fund its activities, the OECD wants to rig the rules of international taxation so that companies can’t engage in legal tax planning.

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page is not impressed by this campaign for higher taxes on employers.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development last week released its latest proposals to combat “base erosion and profit shifting,” or the monster known as BEPS. The OECD and its masters at the G-20 are alarmed that large companies are able to use entirely legal accounting and corporate-organization strategies to shield themselves from the highest tax rates governments try to impose. …The OECD’s solution to this “problem” boils down to suggesting that governments tax the profits arising from operations in their jurisdiction, regardless of where the business unit that earned those profits is legally headquartered. The OECD also proposes that companies be required to report to each government on the geographic breakdown of profits, the better to catch earnings some other country might not have taxed enough.

What’s the bottom line?

This is a recipe for investment-stifling compliance burdens and regulatory uncertainty…the result of implementing the OECD’s recommendations would be lower tax revenues and fewer jobs.

By the way, I particularly appreciate the WSJ’s observation that tax competition and tax planning are good for high-tax nations since they enable economic activity that otherwise wouldn’t tax place (just as I explained in my video on the economics of tax havens).

Existing tax rules have been a counterintuitive boon to high-tax countries because companies can shield themselves from the worst excesses of the tax man while still running R&D centers, corporate offices and the like—and hiring workers to staff them—in places like the U.S. and France.

The editorial also suggests the BEPS campaign against multinational firms may be a boon for low-tax Ireland.

All of which is great news for Ireland, the poster child for a low corporate tax rate.

The Ireland-based Independent, however, reports that the Irish government is worried that the OECD’s anti-tax competition scheme will slash its corporate tax revenue because other governments will get the right to tax income earned in Ireland.

The country’s corporation tax is under scrutiny due to the multinational companies locating here and availing of our low 12.5pc tax rate – or much lower rates in some cases. US politicians have accused Ireland of being a “tax haven”… The OECD, a body made up of 34 western economies, is drawing up plans to restrict the ability of multinationals to move their income around to minimise their tax bill. …a draft Oireachtas Finance Committee report on global taxation, seen by the Irish Independent, contains warnings that Ireland’s corporation tax revenues, which amount to €4bn every year, will be halved under the new system. …Tax expert Brian Keegan is quoted in the report as saying: “Some of the OECD proposals would undoubtedly, result in that €4bn being reduced to €3bn or €2bn. That is the threat.”

So which newspaper is right? After all, Ireland presumably can’t be a winner and a loser.

But both are correct. The Irish Committee report is correct since the BEPS rules, applied to companies as they are currently structured, would be very disadvantageous to Ireland. But the Wall Street Journal thinks that Ireland ultimately would benefit because companies would move more or their operations to the Emerald Isle in order to escape some of the onerous provisions contained in the BEPS proposals.

That being said, I think Ireland and other low-tax jurisdictions ultimately would be losers for the simple reason that the current BEPS plan is just the beginning.

The high-tax nations will move the goal posts every year or two in hopes of grabbing more revenue.

The end goal is to create a system based on “formula apportionment.”

Here’s what I wrote last year about such a scheme.

…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. 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.

Equally important, I also pointed out that formula apportionment would largely cripple tax competition for companies, which means higher tax rates all over the world.

…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.

Some people have argued that I’m too pessimistic and paranoid. BEPS, they say, is simply a mechanism for tweaking international rules to stop companies from egregious tax planning.

But I think I’m being realistic.Why? Because I know the ideology of the left and I understand that politicians are always hungry for more tax revenue.

For example, from the moment the OECD first launched its campaign against so-called tax havens, I kept warning that the goal was global information sharing.

The OECD and its lackeys said I was being demagogic and that they simply wanted “upon request” information sharing.

So who was right? Click here to find out.

Not that I deserve any special award for insight. It doesn’t (or shouldn’t) take a genius, after all, to understand the nature of government.

Let’s close with some economic analysis of why the greed of politicians should be constrained by national borders.

P.S. The OECD, with the support of the Obama Administration, wants something akin to a World Tax Organization that would have the power to disallow free-market tax policy.

P.P.S. And the OECD also allied itself with the nutjobs in the Occupy movement in order to push class-warfare taxation.

P.P.P.S. Your tax dollars subsidize the OECD’s left-wing activism.

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

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

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

Saint-Amans

“Taxes for thee, but not for me!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What’s the biggest fiscal problem facing the developed world?

To an objective observer, the answer is a rising burden of government spending, caused by poorly designed entitlement programs, growing levels of dependency, and unfavorable demographics. The combination of these factors helps to explain why almost all industrialized nations – as confirmed by BIS, OECD, and IMF data – face a very grim fiscal future.

If lawmakers want to avert widespread Greek-style fiscal chaos and economic suffering, this suggests genuine entitlement reform and other steps to control the growth of the public sector.

But you probably won’t be surprised to learn that politicians instead are concocting new ways of extracting more money from the economy’s productive sector.

They’ve already been busy raising personal income tax rates and increasing value-added tax burdens, but that’s apparently not sufficient for our greedy overlords.

Now they want higher taxes on business. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, for instance, put together a “base erosion and profit shifting” plan at the behest of the high-tax governments that dominate and control the Paris-based bureaucracy.

What is this BEPS plan? The Wall Street Journal explains that it’s a scheme to raise tax burdens on the business community.

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

The WSJ is spot on. This is merely the latest chapter in the OECD’s anti-tax competition crusade. The bureaucracy represents the interests of WSJ Global Tax Grab Editorialhigh-tax governments that are seeking to impose higher tax burdens – a goal that will be easier to achieve if they can restrict the ability of taxpayers to benefit from better tax policy in other jurisdictions.

More specifically, the OECD basically wants a radical shift in international tax rules so that multinational companies are forced to declare more income in high-tax nations even though those firms have wisely structured their operations so that much of their income is earned in low-tax jurisdictions.

So does this mean that governments are being starved of revenue? Not surprisingly, there’s no truth to the argument that corporate tax revenue is disappearing.

Across the OECD, corporate-tax revenue has fluctuated between 2% and 3% of GDP and was 2.7% in 2011, the most recent year for published OECD data. In other words, for all the huffing and puffing, there is no crisis of corporate tax collection. The deficits across the developed world are the product of slow economic growth and overspending, not tax evasion. But none of this has stopped the OECD from offering its 15-point plan to increase the cost and complexity of complying with corporate-tax rules. …this will be another full employment opportunity for lawyers and accountants.

I made similar points, incidentally, when debunking Jeffrey Sachs’ assertion that tax competition has caused a “race to the bottom.”

The WSJ editorial makes the logical argument that governments with uncompetitive tax regimes should lower tax rates and reform punitive tax systems.

…the OECD plan also envisions a possible multinational treaty to combat the fictional plague of tax avoidance. This would merely be an opportunity for big countries with uncompetitive tax rates (the U.S., France and Japan) to squeeze smaller countries that use low rates to attract investment and jobs. Here’s an alternative: What if everyone moved toward lower rates and simpler tax codes, with fewer opportunities for gamesmanship and smaller rate disparities among countries?

The column also makes the obvious – but often overlooked – point that any taxes imposed on companies are actually paid by workers, consumers, and shareholders.

…corporations don’t pay taxes anyway. They merely collect taxes—from customers via higher prices, shareholders in lower returns, or employees in lower wages and benefits.

Last but not least, the WSJ correctly frets that politicians will now try to implement this misguided blueprint.

The G-20 finance ministers endorsed the OECD scheme on the weekend, and heads of government are due to take it up in St. Petersburg in early September. But if growth is their priority, as they keep saying it is, they’ll toss out this complex global revenue grab in favor of low rates, territorial taxes and simplicity. Every page of the OECD’s plan points in the opposite direction.

The folks at the Wall Street Journal are correct to worry, but they’re actually understating the problem. Yes, the BEPS plan is bad, but it’s actually much less onerous that what the OECD was contemplating earlier this year when the bureaucracy published a report suggesting a “global apportionment” system for business taxation.

Fortunately, the bureaucrats had to scale back their ambitions. Multinational companies objected to the OECD plan, as did the governments of nations with better (or at least less onerous) business tax structures.

It makes no sense, after all, for places such as the Netherlands, Ireland, Singapore, Estonia, Hong Kong, Bermuda, Switzerland, and the Cayman Islands to go along with a scheme that would enable high-tax governments to tax corporate income that is earned in these lower-tax jurisdictions.

But the fact that high-tax governments (and their lackeys at the OECD) scaled back their demands is hardly reassuring when one realizes that the current set of demands will be the stepping stone for the next set of demands.

That’s why it’s important to resist this misguided BEPS plan. It’s not just that it’s a bad idea. It’s also the precursor to even worse policy.

As I often say when speaking to audiences in low-tax jurisdictions, an appeasement strategy doesn’t make sense when dealing with politicians and bureaucrats from high-tax nations.

Simply stated, you don’t feed your arm to an alligator and expect him to become a vegetarian. It’s far more likely that he’ll show up the next day looking for another meal.

P.S. The OECD also is involved in a new “multilateral convention” that would give it the power to dictate national tax laws, and it has the support of the Obama Administration even though this new scheme would undermine America’s fiscal sovereignty!

P.P.S. Maybe the OECD wouldn’t be so quick to endorse higher taxes if the bureaucrats – who receive tax-free salaries – had to live under the rules they want to impose on others.

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I damned Obama with faint praise last year by asserting that he would never be able to make America as statist as France.

My main point was to explain that the French people, notwithstanding their many positive attributes, seem hopelessly statist. At least that’s how they vote, even though they supposedly support spending cuts according to public opinion polls.

More specifically, they have a bad habit of electing politicians – such as Sarkozy and Hollande – who think the answer to every question is bigger government.

As such, it’s almost surely just a matter of time before France suffers Greek-style fiscal chaos.

But perhaps I should have taken some time in that post to explain that the Obama Administration – despite its many flaws – is genuinely more market-oriented that its French counterpart.

Or perhaps less statist would be a more accurate description.

However you want to describe it, there is a genuine difference and it’s manifesting itself as France and the United States are fighting over the degree to which governments should impose international tax rules designed to seize more tax revenue from multinational companies.

Guardian Tax HeadlineHere’s some of what the UK-based Guardian is reporting.

France has failed to secure backing for tough new international tax rules specifically targeting digital companies, such as Google and Amazon, after opposition from the US forced the watering down of proposals that will be presented at this week’s G20 summit. Senior officials in Washington have made it known they will not stand for rule changes that narrowly target the activities of some of the nation’s fastest growing multinationals, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.

This is very welcome news. The United States has the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world and the overall tax system for companies ranks a lowly 94 out of 100 nations in a survey of “tax attractiveness” by German economists.

So it’s good that U.S. government representatives are resisting schemes that would further undermine the competitiveness of American multinationals.

Particularly since the French proposal also would enable governments to collect lots of sensitive personal information in order to enforce the more onerous tax regime.

…the US and French governments have been at loggerheads over how far the proposals should go. …Despite opposition from the US, the French position – which also includes a proposal to link tax to the collection of personal data – continues to be championed by the French finance minister, Pierre Moscovici.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has been playing a role in this effort to increase business tax burdens.

The OECD plan has been billed as the biggest opportunity to overhaul international tax rules, closing loopholes increasingly exploited by multinational corporations in the decades since a framework for bilateral tax treaties was first established after the first world war. The OECD is expected to detail up to 15 areas on which it believes action can be taken, setting up a timetable for reform on each of between 12 months and two and a half years.

Just in case you don’t have your bureaucrat-English dictionary handy, when the OECD says “reform,” it’s safe to assume that it means “higher taxes.”

Maybe it’s because the OECD is based in France, where taxation is the national sport.

France has been among the most aggressive in responding to online businesses that target French customers but pay little or no French tax. Tax authorities have raided the Paris offices of several firms including Google, Microsoft and LinkedIn, challenging the companies’ tax structures.

But British politicians are equally hostile to the private sector. One of the senior politicians in the United Kingdom actually called a company “evil” for legally minimizing its tax burden!

In the UK, outcry at internet companies routing British sales through other countries reached a peak in May after a string of investigations by journalists and politicians laid bare the kinds of tax structures used by the likes of Google and Amazon. …Margaret Hodge, the chair of the public accounts committee, called Google’s northern Europe boss, Matt Brittin, before parliament after amassing evidence on the group’s tax arrangements from several whistleblowers. After hearing his answers, she told him: “You are a company that says you do no evil. And I think that you do do evil” – a reference to Google’s corporate motto, “Don’t be evil”.

Needless to say, Google should be applauded for protecting shareholders, consumers, and workers, all of whom would be disadvantaged if government seized a larger share of the company’s earnings.

And if Ms. Hodge really wants to criticize something evil, she should direct her ire against herself and her colleagues. They’re the ones who have put the United Kingdom on a path of bigger government and less hope.

Let’s return to the main topic, which is the squabble between France and the United States.

Does this fight show that President Obama can be reasonable in some areas?

The answer is yes…and no.

Yes, because he is resisting French demands for tax rules that would create an even more onerous system for U.S. multinationals. And it’s worth noting that the Obama Administration also opposed European demands for higher taxes on the financial sector back in 2010.

But no, because there’s little if any evidence that he’s motivated by a genuine belief in markets or small government.* Moreover, he only does the right thing when there are proposals that unambiguously would impose disproportionate damage on American firms compared to foreign companies. And it’s probably not a coincidence that the high-tech sector and financial sector have dumped lots of money into Obama’s campaigns.

Let’s close, however, on an optimistic note. Whatever his motive, President Obama is doing the right thing.

This is not a trivial matter. When the OECD started pushing for changes to the tax treatment of multinationals earlier this year, I was very worried that the President would join forces with France and other uncompetitive nations and support a “global apportionment” system for determining corporate tax burdens.

Based on the Guardian’s report, as well as some draft language I’ve seen from the soon-to-be-released report, it appears that we have dodged that bullet.

At the very least, this suggests that the White House was unwilling to embrace the more extreme components of the OECD’s radical agenda. And since you can’t impose a global tax cartel without U.S. participation (just as OPEC wouldn’t succeed without Saudi Arabia), the statists are stymied.

So two cheers for Obama. I’m not under any illusions that the President is turning into a genuine centrist like Bill Clinton, but I’ll take this small victory.

* Obama did say a few years ago that “no business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top,” so maybe he does understand the danger of high tax rates. And the President also said last year that we should “let the market work on its own,” which may signal an awareness that there are limits to interventionism. But don’t get your hopes up. There’s some significant fine print and unusual context with regard to both of those statements.

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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.

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Senator Rand Paul is perhaps even better than I thought he would be.

The Founding Fathers would be proud

He already is playing a very substantive role on policy, ranging from his actions of big-picture issues, such as his proposed budget that would significantly shrink the burden of government spending, to his willingness to take on lower-profile but important issues such as repealing the Obama Administration’s wretched FATCA law.

But he also plays a very valuable role by articulating the message of liberty and refusing to allow leftist politicians to claim the moral high ground and use false morality to cloak their greed for other people’s money.

And there’s no better example than what he just did at the Senate hearing about Apple’s tax burden.

Wow. I thought I hit on the key issues in my post on the anti-Apple demagoguery, but Senator Paul hit the ball out of the park.

If you want other video examples of Senator Paul in action, click here to see him grill a TSA bureaucrat and click here to see him rip an Obama appointee on whether Americans should be free to choose the light bulb they prefer.

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Since I just left Monaco and am now in Geneva, this is an appropriate time to extol the virtues of so-called tax havens.

Monaco Casino

The name’s Bond….James Bond

But I don’t merely say nice things about low-tax jurisdictions when I’m in friendly environments.

I believe in swinging my sword in the belly of the beast.

That’s why I recently defended tax havens and tax competition for the fiscal heathens who read the New York Times.

In an even bigger display of futile optimism, I also just explained the benefits of tax competition, fiscal sovereignty, and financial privacy for the kleptocrats in Congress.

Here’s some of what I wrote for The Hill, starting with the obvious point that it is preposterous to blame tax havens for the financial crisis.

When the financial crisis hit, politicians from high-tax nations didn’t let the crisis go to waste. Acting through the G-20, they launched an attack on so-called tax havens, asserting that “hot money” from the offshore world somehow had caused the banking system to become unstable.  This campaign against low-tax jurisdictions made no sense. Nobody in the Cayman Islands or Monaco was responsible for the Federal Reserve’s easy money. Nobody in Panama or Singapore had anything to do with the corrupt system of Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac subsidies.

I then explained that tax havens once again are being attacked, though in this case multinational corporations are the main victims of a new scheme by the parasitical bureaucrats at the OECD.

So-called tax havens will suffer collateral damage, though, since big firms use them as very desirable platforms for a significant chunk of cross-border economic activity.

Tax havens are being attacked again… Funded with American tax dollars, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published a report on “Addressing Base Erosion and Profit Shifting,” (BEPS) and will follow up in a few months with specific recommendations.  This new OECD scheme is targeting multinational companies for a big tax hike, probably by requiring global tax returns, but that means tax havens are in the cross hairs because their pro-growth tax policies make them attractive locations for cross-border economic activity. Indeed, the OECD specifically has complained that “small jurisdictions act as conduits, receiving disproportionately large amounts of Foreign Direct Investment compared to large industrialised countries and investing disproportionately large amounts in major developed and emerging economies.” …its new campaign isn’t just targeting small tax havens, but will also undermine the relatively attractive fiscal systems in nations such as Ireland, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Slovakia, Singapore, Estonia, and the Netherlands. The burden of this will fall not on companies, but on workers, consumers, and shareholders.

I close with a warning that tax havens and tax competition are one of the few restraints on the greed of the political class. We need to preserve these liberalizing forces if we want to protect ourselves from even worse fiscal policy.

Tax Haven Article - The Hill…anti-tax haven demagoguery is perfectly acceptable in political circles since it is seen as expanding the power of government over taxpayers.  The real issue we should be addressing is whether we need some sort of external constraint to protect us from fiscal crises that are triggered by the overspending and overtaxing of the political class.  For a couple of decades following the Reagan and Thatcher tax cuts, governments around the world have been forced by tax competition to lower tax rates, reduce double taxation of saving and investment and reform their tax system.  Defenders of the welfare state and proponents of class-warfare tax policy have resented this liberalizing process and grab any opportunity to demonize tax havens, particularly since these jurisdictions have strong human rights laws that protect the financial privacy of investors.

For further information, I highly recommend the writings of Allister Heath and Pierre Bessard.

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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.

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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.

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As a taxpayer, I’m not a big fan of international bureaucracies. They consume a lot of money, pay themselves extravagant (and tax-free!) salaries, and generally promote statist policies.

The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is a prime example. Originally created for benign purposes such as gathering statistics, it now is a bloated bureaucracy pursuing an anti-free market agenda.

But international bureaucracies also have a nasty habit of operating in the shadows and using thuggish behavior to thwart critics. And I have the scars to prove it from my efforts to protect fiscal sovereignty.

But it’s not just the crowd in Paris that doesn’t believe in openness and fair play. A journalist recently traveled to South Korea to report on a World Health Organization conference on tobacco.

This doesn’t sound like the type of event that would involve skullduggery, but here’s part of what the reporter wrote for the Korea Times.

A monumental session during the World Health Organization’s (WHO) convention on tobacco control turned into an alarming attack on transparency, accountability and press freedom. …delegates of the member countries of the conference stripped the media of the ability to cover the meeting and escorted public onlookers from the premises. The decision to meet behind closed doors occurred when a discussion began about efforts to decrease tobacco use by increasing the price of tobacco products. Specifically, the convention attendees were discussing the framework for an international tobacco tax. This is one of the most controversial topics for debate in Seoul this week.

This is what is called a “learning moment.” And the journalist clearly recognized both the WHO’s hypocrisy and its troubling policy agenda.

As a reporter covering this meeting, this was not only a frustrating stance, but it raises some serious questions about an organization that for years has operated largely behind the scenes and without the benefit of much public scrutiny. When is the media more necessary than when an unaccountable, shadowy organization that devours millions of tax dollars each year from people across the world debates getting in the business of issuing global taxes? This effort to silence the press is particularly chilling since it is in direct conflict with the U.N. — the WHO’s parent organization—claims to fight to advance “free, independent and pluralistic media” across the world. Apparently, U.N. and WHO leaders believe in media rights in all cases except when the media covers them.

And remember, you’re paying for this thuggish behavior.

If you want to learn more about the underlying issue, I wrote about the WHO’s push for global tobacco taxation back in both May and September.

All of which is consistent with the broader ongoing push by the United Nations to get worldwide taxing power.

Needless to say, any form of global taxation would be a terrible development, but governments are sympathetic to such schemes since they view tax competition as a constraint on their ability to pursue redistribution and thus a limit on their efforts to buy votes with other people’s money.

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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.

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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.

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Like Sweden and Denmark, Germany is a semi-rational welfare state. It generally relies on a market-oriented approach in areas other than fiscal policy, and it avoided the Keynesian excesses that caused additional misery and red ink in America (though it is far from fiscally conservative, notwithstanding the sophomoric analysis of the Washington Post).

Nonetheless, it’s difficult to have much optimism for Europe’s future when the entire political establishment of Germany blindly thinks there should be more centralization, bureaucratization, and harmonization in Europe.

The EU Observer has a story about the agenda of the de facto statists in the Christian Democratic party who currently run Germany.

“Harmonization über alles!”

…what Merkel and her party are piecing together is a radical vision of the EU in a few years time – a deep fiscal and political union. The fiscal side involves tax harmonisation, a tightly policed Stability and Growth Pact with automatic sanctions for countries that breach debt and deficit rules, and the possibility of an EU Commissioner responsible for directly intervention to oversee budgetary policy in a crisis-hit country. …On the institutional side, the CDU backs a directly elected President of the European Commission as well as clearly establishing the European Parliament and Council of Ministers as a bi-cameral legislature with equal rights to initiate EU legislation with the Commission.

Keep in mind that the Christian Democrats are the main right-of-center party in Germany, yet the German political spectrum is so tilted to the left that they want tax harmonization (a spectacularly bad idea) and more centralization.

Heck, even the supposedly libertarian-oriented Free Democratic Party is hopelessly clueless on these issues.

Not surprisingly, the de jure statists of Germany have the same basic agenda. Here’s some of what the article says about the agenda of the Social Democrat and Green parties.

…its commitments to establish joint liability eurobonds and a “common European fiscal policy to ensure fair, efficient and lasting receipts” would also involve a shift of economic powers to Brussels. While both sides have differing ideological positions on the political response to the eurozone crisis – they are talking about more Europe, not less.

The notion of eurobonds is particularly noteworthy since it would involve putting German taxpayers at risk for the reckless fiscal policies in nations such as Greece, Italy, and Spain. That’s only a good idea if you think it’s smart to co-sign a loan for your unemployed and alcoholic cousin with a gambling addiction.

All this makes me feel sorry for German taxpayers.

Then again, if you look at the long-run fiscal outlook of the United States, I feel even more sorry for American taxpayers. Thanks to misguided entitlement programs, we’re in even deeper trouble than Europe’s welfare states.

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Back in April, responding to an article written by Ann Hollingshead for the Task Force on Financial Integrity and Economic Development, I wrote a long post defending so-called tax havens.

I went through the trouble of a point-by-point response because her article was quite reasonable and focused on some key moral and philosophical issues (rather than the demagoguery I normally have to deal with when people on the left reflexively condemn low-tax jurisdictions).

She responded to my response, and she raised additional points that deserve to be answered.

So here we go again. Let’s go through Ann’s article and see where we agree and disagree.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog post criticizing the philosophies of Dan Mitchell, a libertarian scholar from the Cato Institute. I asked for a “thoughtful discussion” and I got it—both from the comments section of our blog and from Dan himself.  On his own blog, Dan replied with a thought-provoking point-by-point critique of my piece.

It has been a polite discussion, which is good because readers get to see that we don’t really disagree on facts. Our differences are a matter of philosophy, as Ann also acknowledges.

Dan made several interesting points in his rebuttal. As much as I’d like to take on the whole post right now, my reply would be far too long and I don’t think our readers would appreciate a blog post that approaches a novella. Rather I’ll focus on a couple of his comments that I find interesting on a philosophical level (there were many) and which demand a continued conversation because, I believe, they are the basis of our differences. We’ll start with a rather offhand remark in which Dan indirectly refers to financial privacy as a human right. This is an argument we’ve heard before. And it is worth some exploration.Unless I am very much mistaken, Dan’s belief that financial privacy is a human right arises out of his fundamental value of freedom. My disagreement with Dan, therefore, does not arise from a difference in the desire to promote human rights (I believe we both do), but rather in the different relative weights we each place on the value of privacy, which Dan (I’m supposing) would call an extension of freedom.

I wouldn’t argue with her outline, though I think it is incomplete. I’m a big fan of privacy as a principle of a civil and just society, but I also specifically support financial privacy as a means to an end of encouraging better tax policy. Simply stated, politicians are much more likely to reduce or eliminate double taxation if they feel such taxes can’t be enforced and simply put a country in a much less competitive position.

Okay, so on to [my] answer of the subject of this post. Privacy—and financial privacy by extension—is important. But is it a human right? That’s a big phrase; one which humanity has no business throwing around, lest it go the way of “[fill in blank]-gate” or “war on [whatever].” And as Dan himself points out, governments have a way of fabricating human rights—apparently some European courts have ruled that free soccer broadcasts and owning a satellite dish are a human rights—so it’s important that we get back to [philosophical] basics and define the term properly. The nearly universally accepted definition of “human rights” was established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the United Nations adopted in 1948. According to the UN, “human rights” are those “rights inherent to all human beings,” regardless of “nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status.” The Declaration includes 30 Articles which describe each of those rights in detail. “Financial privacy” per se is not explicitly a human right in this document, but “privacy” is, and I think it’s reasonable to include financial privacy by extension. But privacy is defined as a fundamental, not an absolute, human right. Absolute rights are those that there is never any justification for violating. Fundamental freedoms, including privacy and freedom from detention, can be ethically breached by the government, as long as they authorized by law and not arbitrary in practice. The government therefore has the right to regulate fundamental freedoms when necessary.

I’m not sure how to react. There are plenty of admirable provisions in the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but there are also some nonsensical passages – some of which completely contradict others.

Everyone hopefully agrees with the provisions against slavery and in favor of equality under law, but Article 25 of the U.N. Declaration also includes “the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”

That sounds like a blank check for redistributionism, similar to the statism that I experienced when I spoke at the U.N. last month, and it definitely seems inconsistent with the right of property in Article 17.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t care that the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes a “right to privacy” because I don’t view that document as having any legal or moral validity. I don’t know whether it’s as bad as the European Union’s pseudo-constitution, but I do know that my support for privacy is not based on or dependent on a document from the United Nations.

As an aside, I can’t help noting that Articles 13 and 15 of the U.N. Declaration guarantee the right to emigrate and the right to change nationality, somethings leftists should keep in mind when they demonize successful people who want to move to nations with better tax law.

Getting back to Ann’s column, she confirms my point that you can’t protect property rights for some people while simultaneously giving other people a claim on their output.

That’s important because it means, that when it comes to freedom and privacy, we need to make choices. We can’t always have them all at once. To use a hideously crude example that gets back to the issue of tax evasion, in a developing country, a rich person’s right to financial privacy might be at odds with a poor person’s right to “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.”

For those who are not familiar with the type of discussion, it is the difference between “negative rights” promoted by classical liberals, which are designed to protect life, liberty, and property from aggression, and the “positive rights” promoted by the left, which are designed to legitimize the redistributionist state.

Tom Palmer has a good discussion of the topic here, and he notes that “positive rights” create conflict, writing that, “…classical liberal ‘negative’ rights do not conflict with each other, whereas ‘positive’ rights to be provided with things produce many conflicts. If my ‘right to health care’ conflicts with a doctor’s ‘right to liberty,’ which one wins out?”

Continuing with Ann’s article, she says values conflict with one another, though that’s only if true if one believes in positive rights.

I started this post with a discussion of values, because at the core that’s what we’re talking about. Values are relative, individual, and often in conflict with one another. And they define how we rank our choices between human rights. Dan values freedom, perhaps above most else. He might argue that economic freedom would lead to an enrichment of human rights at all levels, but he probably wouldn’t disagree that that thesis remains untested. My views are a little more complicated because I don’t get to enjoy the (albeit appealing and consistent) simplicity of libertarianism.

I’m tempted to say, “C’mon in, Ann, the water’s fine. Libertarianism is lots of fun.” To be a bit more serious, libertarianism is simple, but it’s not simplistic. You get to promote freedom and there’s no pressure to harass, oppress, or pester other people.

As my colleague David Boaz has stated, “You could say that you learn the essence of libertarianism — which is also the essence of civilization –  in kindergarten: don’t hit other people, don’t take their stuff, keep your promises.”

The world would be a lot better if more people rallied to this non-coercive system.

One more point. Dan mentioned he does “fully comply” with the “onerous demands imposed on [him] by the government.” But as Dan insinuates, irrespective of an individual’s personal values, those demands are not optional. In the United States, we have the luxury of electing a group of individuals to represent our collective values. Together those people make a vision for the country that reflects our ideals. And then, we all accept it. If our country got together and decided to value freedom above all else, we would live in a world that looks a lot like Dan’s utopia. But, frankly, it hasn’t. So we respect our tax code out of a respect for the vision of our country. Dan has the right to try to shape that vision, as do I. Neither of us has the right to violate it.

What Ann writes is true, but not persuasive. Libertarians don’t like untrammeled majoritarianism. We don’t think two wolves and a sheep should vote on what’s for lunch.

We like what our Founding Fathers devised, a constitutional republic where certain rights were inalienable and protected by the judicial system, regardless of whether 90 percent of voters want to curtail our freedoms.

Ann, as you can see from her final passage, does not agree.

That, at is heart, is my problem with both tax evasion and tax avoidance. Neither lines up with the spirit of our collective compact; although the latter is not necessarily reflected in the official laws on the books. I’m not saying tax avoiders should be thrown in jail; they’ve done nothing illegal. I’m saying the regulations that confine us should line up with the vision we’ve created and the values we’ve agreed upon. If that vision is Dan’s, I’ll accept it. But I’m glad he’ll (begrudgingly) accept ours too.

I’m not automatically against having a “collective compact.” After all, that’s one way of describing the American Constitution. But I will return to my point about America’s founders setting up that system precisely because they rejected majoritarianism.

So what does all this mean? Probably nothing, other than the less-than-remarkable revelation that Ann and I have different views on the legitimate role(s) of the federal government.

Since I want to restrain the size and scope of government (not only in America, but elsewhere in the world) and avert future Greek-style fiscal nightmares, that means I want tax competition. And, to be truly effective, that means tax havens.

If that appeals to you (or at least seems like a reasonably hypothesis), I invite you to read some writings by Allister Heath of the United Kingdom and Pierre Bessard of Switzerland.

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I sometimes make fun of the English, for reasons ranging from asinine laws to milquetoast politicians to horrid healthcare policy.

But at least some U.K. elected officials are willing to stand up for tax competition and fiscal sovereignty by defending low-tax jurisdictions. In previous posts, I’ve applauded Dan Hannan and Godfrey Bloom for great speeches at the European Parliament.

There are also some sensible people in the U.K. Parliament, most notably Mark Field.

Here are some excerpts from an article in the U.K.-based Telegraph.

A conservative MP has spoken out in defence of tax havens and against what he called “a one-sided debate that demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of their role in the global financial market”. …In an attempt to balance the “one-sided” debate on international finance centres (IFCs), Mr Field…advised the UK government to think twice before imposing more regulation on these jurisdictions. …In a bid to dismiss the age-old belief that tax havens attract investors purely because of their tax regimes, Mr Field argued that it is a combination of their political stability, familiar legal systems, quality of service, lack of foreign exchange controls, and tax and legal neutrality that make them ideal locations to deposit money.The current financial crisis, he continued, had more to do with poor regulation and mistakes made onshore rather than offshore, and if the EU pressed ahead with its intention to harmonise tax systems across international borders “it could potentially represent the end for healthy tax competition… Tax harmonisation and cooperation, added Mr Field, was simply Brussels-speak for exporting high tax models on continental Europe to low tax jurisdictions.

These issues are just as relevant for the United States, but how many American politicians stand up and defend free markets and jurisdictional competition as a means of restraining the political predators in Washington?

I’m re-posting my video on The Economic Case for Tax Havens below, for those who haven’t seen it. But I also want to call your attention to this chart from the Treasury Department.

You’ll have to click and enlarge it. You’ll see that it shows the amount of capital invested in America from various parts of the world. The “C” category shows that more money is invested in America via Caribbean banking centers such as the Cayman Islands than from any other source.

And this is just one type of foreign investment. As I’ve explained elsewhere, foreigners have more than $10 trillion invested in the U.S. economy, in part because the United States is a tax haven for foreign investors.

So when Obama climbs into bed with the Europeans to push a global network of tax police, he’s pushing policies that ultimately will do great damage to American competitiveness.

Let’s close by returning to the original theme of wise and astute Englishmen. If you want a good defense of tax competition and tax havens, read what Allister Heath wrote last year.

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