Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Taxation’

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) must be anxious to get on my list of government bureaucracies that shouldn’t exist.

The bureaucrats have engaged in some really silly and petty behavior (such as confiscating Airsoft toy guns because they might be machine guns), and they’ve engaged in some behavior that is criminally stupid and dangerous (running guns to Mexican drug gangs as part of the “Fast and Furious” fiasco).

Now we have another example. Though it’s so bizarre that I’m not sure how to classify it. Basically, the bureaucrats created an illegal slush fund, and then used the money illegally.

The New York Times has been on top of this story. Here are excerpts from the latest report.

For seven years, agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives followed an unwritten policy: If you needed to buy something for one of your cases, do not bother asking Washington. Talk to agents in Bristol, Va., who controlled a multimillion-dollar account unrestricted by Congress or the bureaucracy. …thousands of pages of newly unsealed records reveal a widespread scheme — a highly unorthodox merger of an undercover law enforcement operation and a legitimate business. What began as a way to catch black-market cigarette dealers quickly transformed into a nearly untraceable A.T.F. slush fund that agents from around the country could tap. …One agent steered hundreds of thousands of dollars in real estate, electronics and money to his church and his children’s sports teams, records show. …At least tens of millions of dollars moved through the account before it was shut down in 2013, but no one can say for sure how much. The government never tracked it.

Oh, by the way, the BATF was breaking the law.

Federal law prohibits mixing government and private money. The A.T.F. now acknowledges it can point to no legal justification for the scheme.

But you won’t be surprised to learn that there have been no consequences.

…no one was ever prosecuted, Congress was only recently notified, and the Justice Department tried for years to keep the records secret.

And it’s also worth noting that this is also a tax issue. As I’ve noted before, high tax rates encourage illegality.

Though cigarettes are available at any corner store, they are extraordinarily profitable to smuggle. That’s because taxes are high and every state sets its own rates. Virginia charges $3 per carton. New York charges $43.50. The simplest scheme — buying cigarettes in Virginia and selling them tax-free in New York — can generate tens of thousands of dollars in illicit cash. By some estimates, more than half of New York’s cigarettes come from the black market.

By the way, I can help but wonder why the federal government is engaging in all sorts of dodgy behavior to help enforce bad state tax laws. Yes, I realize the cigarettes are crossing state lines, but so what? The illegal (but not immoral) behavior occurs when an untaxed cigarette is sold inside the borders of, say, New York. Why should Washington get involved?

In other words, I like the fact that borders limit the power of government. It’s why I don’t like global schemes to undermine tax competition (why should Swiss banks be required to enforce bad U.S. tax law?), and it’s why I don’t like the so-called Marketplace Fairness Act (why should merchants in one state be required to enforce the sales taxes of other states?).

But I’m digressing.

Let’s get back to the Bureau’s misbehavior. Here’s some additional reporting from the U.K.-based Times.

A US government crime-fighting agency ran a secret bank account that its employees used to buy luxury cars, property and trips to casinos. Officers for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), charged with investigating smuggling and gun crimes, built up a slush fund worth tens of millions of dollars through illicit cigarette sales, ostensibly as part of an operation to catch traffickers. The scandal is the latest controversy to hit the agency, which has been criticised in recent years for lack of accountability and allowing the flow of guns and drugs to go unchecked. …Cash from the slush fund generated at an ATF field office in Bristol, Virginia, …funded activities such as a trip to Las Vegas, donations to agents’ children and the booking of a $21,000 suite at a Nascar race.

And what about the overall BATF bureaucracy? Well, it’s getting some unfavorable attention. Keep in mind that this scandal is on top of the “Fast and Furious” scandal of the Obama years.

The ATF has said that it has “implemented substantial enhancements to its policies, and has markedly improved leadership, training, communication, accountability and operational oversight”. Under the previous administration, it was widely derided for a botched weapons operation known as “Fast and Furious”. The agency allowed licensed firearms dealers to sell weapons to illegal buyers, hoping to track the guns to Mexican drug cartel kingpins. But out of the 2,000 firearms sold, only a fraction have been traced. The secret account scandal has renewed calls from across the political spectrum for the department of about 2,000 agents to be reformed or shut down.

Last but not least, I think we have a new member of the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame.

Thomas Lesnak, a senior ATF investigator, began the scheme. …Mr Lesnak retired with his pension and was not reprimanded.

Just like Lois Lerner and the IRS, engaging in corrupt and crooked behavior and then escaping any punishment.

Maybe the two of them should hook up? They’d make a great couple. I’m sure they could even figure out a way to make taxpayers finance their wedding and honeymoon.

P.S. The “Fast and Furious” scheme was just one of scandals that occurred during the Obama years, but it may have been the most foolish. Didn’t anybody at the BATF realize that it wasn’t a good idea to funnel weapons to Mexican drug gangs?!?

P.P.S. The silver lining to that dark cloud is that we got a couple of good one-liners about the Obama Administration’s gun-running scandal from Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon.

Read Full Post »

If tax policy was a religion, the Holy Trinity of reform would be very straightforward.

But if tax policy was a meal, the first two items would be the dessert and the last item would be the vegetable. Simply stated, politicians like lowering tax rates and reducing double taxation because that makes most people happy (at least the ones who actually pay tax).

But when you take away loopholes, the people who benefit from those preferences are unhappy. And they get very noisy. Interest groups hire lobbyists. Trade associations spring into action. Campaign contribution get dispensed.

If tax policy was a movie, it would be Revenge of the Swamp Creatures.

In this clip from a recent interview, I talk about some of the dessert, specifically a much-needed reduction in the corporate tax rate.

Bu today I want to focus more on the vegetables of itemized deductions.

Here’s some of what Reuters reported last month about the swamp gearing up to protect its privileges.

…industry groups and other sectors of society are gearing up to fight proposed changes to the personal income tax. …proposed changes to the personal tax code have already stirred opposition from realtors, home builders, mortgage lenders and charities.

And here’s a description of what might happen and the impact.

To simplify the tax code, Republicans have proposed eliminating nearly all tax write-offs including those for state and local taxes, then doubling the standard deduction. This would eliminate the incentive to itemize and should drastically reduce the number of taxpayers who do so. Currently, many taxpayers use itemized deductions, claiming write-offs for things like charitable contributions, interest paid on a mortgage and state and local taxes. If the standard deduction becomes larger, fewer taxpayers will need to itemize, reducing the incentive to hold a mortgage or contribute to charity. …Estimates suggest more than half of taxpayers would stop itemizing under the proposed plan.

Should we hope that these reforms occurs? If people lose or forego itemized deductions, would that be a good outcome?

As a long-time fan of the flat tax, I’m obviously not a fan of these preferences. Though I always stress that I only want to get rid of loopholes if the money is used to finance lower tax rates. At the risk of stating the obvious, I don’t want the money being used to finance bigger government.

Let’s see what others have said, starting with Justin Fox’s column for Bloomberg. He’s not happy that loopholes disproportionately benefits taxpayers with above-average incomes.

Let’s talk about upper-middle-class entitlements, the subsidies that flow almost entirely to those in the upper fifth or even tenth of the income distribution. …Why do these subsidies continue…? Mainly, it seems, because they’ve been granted to a sizable, influential population who, it is feared, will fight any effort to take them away. There are other interested parties, too — the real estate industry and mortgage lenders in the case of the mortgage interest deduction… But mainly it’s the millions of upper-middle-class Americans who, like me and my family, are beneficiaries of tax subsidies.

He’s right. I’m more upset about the economic distortions these preference create, but there’s no doubt that upper-income taxpayers reap most of the benefits.

Here’s his conclusion, which I think is spot on.

…if these tax breaks had never become law, no one would really miss them. Houses might cost a bit less. College might be slightly cheaper. Income tax rates might be a little lower. The economy might run a little bit more smoothly. So … how do we get to that place from here?

By the way, Fox includes a chart showing how richer taxpayers get more benefit from the mortgage interest deduction.

That’s certainly true, and I’ve previously shared data showing how the middle class gets almost nothing from itemized deductions compared to high-income taxpayers.

Let’s focus specifically on those goodies for the rich. This chart from the Tax Foundation reveals that the state and local tax break is especially lucrative.

For what it’s worth, the state and local deduction is my least favorite, so I’d like to see this chart change.

Though the healthcare exclusion may do even more economic damage (I assume it’s not included in the above chart since it’s an exclusion rather than a deduction).

But the bottom line of today’s column is that we’re not going to get the dessert of lower tax rates unless policy makers are willing to eat some vegetables – i.e., get rid of some tax preferences. Or, to be more exact, it will be impossible, given congressional budget rules, to have any sort of meaningful permanent reforms of the tax system unless there are revenue raisers to offset the tax cuts.

P.S. In any discussion of tax preferences, it’s important to properly define a loophole. Folks on the right generally think income should be taxed only one time (technically, they favor “consumption-base” taxation). So a loophole is a provision that results in zero tax on a particular activity.

Folks on the left generally think the tax code should impose double taxation (technically, they favor “Haig-Simons” taxation). So they have a much bigger list of loopholes, mostly focused on provisions that limit the extra layers of tax imposed on income that is saved and invested. You see this approach from the Joint Committee on Taxation. You see it from the Government Accountability Office. You see it from the Congressional Budget Office. Heck, you even see Republicans mistakenly use this benchmark.

By the way, Justin Fox presumably is in the Haig-Simons camp since his column treats the capital gains tax and 401(k)s as loopholes. But he cited one of my columns, so I can’t bring myself to criticize him.

P.P.S. It (almost) goes without saying that many folks on the left want to curtail tax breaks. They openly argue that it is good to divert a larger share of income into the hands of politicians and in order to facilitate bigger government. Some of them are even honest enough (crazy enough?) to openly assert that all income belongs to the government.

Read Full Post »

Whenever I see an otherwise sensible person express support for a value-added tax, it triggers a Pavlovian response. And it’s not a favorable reaction.

But I just read a pro-VAT column and I liked it.

So what happened? Have I surrendered to big government? Did I ingest some magic mushrooms?

Actually, I think you’ll agree that I’m still the same lovable guy. Yes, Professor John Cochrane of the University of Chicago (also a Cato adjunct scholar) has a column in the Wall Street Journal that embraces a VAT. But unlike all of the others I just cited, he includes a condition that is mandatory, necessary, vital, and non-negotiable. It’s so important that it deserves the opposite of fine-print treatment.

…eliminate entirely the personal and corporate income tax, estate tax and all other federal taxes. …it is essential that the VAT replace rather than add to the current tax system, as it does in Europe.

Amen. John hits the nail on the head.

The VAT isn’t theoretically bad. Like the flat tax, it would have one rate. There also would be no double taxation of saving and investment. And it also can be designed to have no loopholes.

In other words, the good news is that the VAT – when compared to the internal revenue code – is a less-destructive way of generating revenue.

The bad news, though, is that the VAT is capable of generating a lot of revenue. And as we’ve seen in Europe, that’s a recipe for enabling a larger burden of government spending.

Which is why the idea of a VAT should only be on the table if the plan would first abolish all other federal taxes. Which is what John is proposing.

Except I’d take it one step farther. Just like I’ve argued when contemplating a national sales tax, I’d only allow the VAT if we first repeal the 16th Amendment and replace it with something so ironclad that even John Roberts and Ruth Bader Ginsberg couldn’t rule in favor of an income tax at some point in the future.

By the way, John is right that the economy would grow faster if the income tax was totally abolished. The current system is filled with warts.

Much of the current tax mess results from taxing income. Once the government taxes income, it must tax corporate income or people would incorporate to avoid paying taxes. Yet the right corporate tax rate is zero. Every cent of corporate tax comes from people via higher prices, lower wages, or lower payments to shareholders. And a corporate tax produces an army of lawyers and lobbyists demanding exemptions. An income tax also leads to taxes on capital income. Capital income taxes discourage saving and investment. But the government is forced to tax capital income because otherwise people can hide wages… The estate tax can take close to half a marginal dollar of wealth. This creates a strong incentive to blow the family money on a round-the-world cruise, to spend lavishly on lawyers, or to invest inefficiently to avoid the tax. …A reformed tax code should involve no deductions—including the holy trinity of mortgage interest, employer-provided health insurance, and charitable deductions. The interest groups for each of these deductions are strong. But if the government doesn’t tax income in the first place, these deductions vanish without a fight.

By the way, I will quibble with a couple of things he wrote.

First, I don’t necessarily think the correct corporate tax rate is zero. What’s important is eliminating either the corporate tax or the tax on dividends. That way the income is only taxed once. And since it’s probably administratively easier to tax the income once at the business level rather than once at the shareholder level, I’m not fixated on abolishing the corporate tax.

Second, it’s very important to get rid of double taxation (what he calls “capital income”), but you don’t need a VAT to make that happen. There’s no double taxation with a flat tax.

Third, he should have explicitly included the state and local tax deduction in his list of loopholes to abolish (I’m guessing he assumed it would be the first deduction on the chopping block and therefore didn’t need to be mentioned).

There’s another part of John’s column that deserves attention. He points out that you need to have small government if you want a low tax burden.

…if the federal government is going to spend 20% of gross domestic product, the VAT will sooner or later have to be about 20%. Tax reform is stymied because politicians mix arguments over the rates with arguments over the structure of taxes. This is a mistake. They should first agree to fix the structure of the tax code, and later argue about rates—and the spending those rates must support.

At the risk of being pedantic, I think the VAT rate would have to be significantly above 20 percent, both because the tax base will be smaller than GDP and also because there will be loopholes or rebates. But the point he’s making is spot on. You can’t have a low tax rate and a big government. I’ve made the same point when writing about Belgium and Germany, nations where middle-class taxpayers are pillaged because the welfare state is too big.

My bottom line on this issue is that Professor Cochrane has produced a column showing that a VAT is theoretically worth considering, but only if all other federal taxes are permanently abolished.

But since that’s not going to happen any time soon, I don’t think there’s any reason to ease up on my dogmatic (and pragmatic) opposition to that levy.

P.S. My clinching argument is that Reagan opposed a VAT and Nixon supported a VAT. That tells you everything you need to know.

Read Full Post »

Why were the Reagan tax cuts so successful? Why did the economy rebound so dramatically from the malaise of the 1970s?

The easy answer is that we got better tax policy, especially lower marginal tax rates on personal and business income. Those lower rates reduced the “price” of engaging in productive behavior, which led to more work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

That’s right, but there’s a story behind the story. Reagan’s tax policy (especially the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981) was good because the President and his team ignored the class-warfare crowd. They didn’t care whether all income groups got the same degree of tax relief. They didn’t care about static distribution tables. They didn’t care about complaints that “the rich” benefited.

They simply wanted to reduce the onerous barriers that the tax system imposed on the economy. They understood – and this is critically important – that faster growth was the best way to help everyone in America, including the less fortunate.

Kimberley Strassel of the Wall Street Journal thinks that Donald Trump may be taking the same approach. Her column today basically argues that the President is making a supply-side case for growth. She starts by taking a shot at self-styled “reform conservatives.”

In May 2014, a broad collection of thinkers and politicians gathered in Washington to celebrate a new conservative “manifesto.” The document called for replacing stodgy old Reaganite economics with warmer, fuzzier handouts to the middle class.

She’s happy Trump isn’t following their advice (and I largely agree).

Donald Trump must have missed the memo. …Mr. Trump wants to make Reagan-style tax reform great again.

The class-warfare crowd is not happy about Trump’s pro-growth message, Kimberley writes.

The left saw this clearly, which explains its furious and frustrated reaction to the speech. …Democratic strategist Robert Shrum railed in a Politico piece that the “plutocrat” Mr. Trump was pitching a tax cut for “corporations and the top 1 percent” yet was getting away with a “perverted populism.” …Mr. Trump is selling pro-growth policies—something his party has forgotten how to do. …The left has defined the tax debate for decades in terms of pure class warfare. Republicans have so often been cast as stooges for the rich that the GOP is scared to make the full-throated case for a freer and fairer tax system. …Mr. Trump isn’t playing this game—and that’s why the left is unhappy. The president wants to reduce business tax rates significantly… He wants to simplify the tax code in a way that will eliminate many cherished carve-outs. …his address was largely a hymn to supply-side economics, stunning Democrats who believed they’d forever dispelled such voodoo. …Mr. Trump busted up the left’s class-warfare model. He didn’t make tax reform about blue-collar workers fighting corporate America. Instead it was a question of “our workers” and “our companies” and “our country” competing against China. He noted that America’s high tax rates force companies to move overseas. He directly and correctly tied corporate rate cuts to prosperity for workers, noting that tax reform would “keep jobs in America, create jobs in America,” and lead to higher wages.

Amen. That’s the point I made last week about investment being the key to prosperity for ordinary people.

Ms. Strassel concludes by putting pressure on Congress to do its job and get a bill to the President’s desk.

His opening salvo has given Republicans the cover to push ahead, as well as valuable pointers on selling growth economics. If they can’t get the job done—with the power they now have in Washington—they’d best admit the Democrats’ class-warfare “populism” has won.

I largely agree with Kimberley’s analysis. Trump’s message of jobs, growth, and competitiveness is spot on. His proposal for a 15 percent corporate rate would be very good for the economy. And I also agree with her that it’s up to congressional Republicans to move the ball over the goal line.

But I also think she’s giving Trump too much credit. As I point out in this interview, the Administration isn’t really playing a major role in the negotiations. The folks on Capitol Hill are doing the real work while the President is waiting around for a bill to sign.

Moreover, I’ve been repeatedly warning that there are some very difficult issues that Congress needs to decide.

Since big companies will benefit from a lower corporate rate, will there be similar tax relief for small businesses that file using “Schedule C” of the individual income tax? That’s a good idea, but there are big revenue implications.

Since Republicans (and this definitely includes Trump) are weak on spending, will they achieve deficit neutrality (necessary for permanent reform) by eliminating loopholes? That’s a good idea, but interest groups will resist.

Unfortunately, the White House isn’t offering much help on these issues. The President simply wants big tax cuts and is leaving these tough decisions to everyone else.

P.S. I should have been more specific in the interview. I said we would have a flat tax in my “fantasy world” but that I would settle for partial reform in my “ideal world.” I was grading on a curve, so I want to redeem myself. Here’s how things really rank.

P.P.S. I’m very hopeful that lawmakers will get rid of the deduction for state and local taxes. Not only would that provide some revenue that can be used for pro-growth changes, but it also would get rid of a very unfair distortion that enables higher taxes in states such as Illinois, California, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

P.P.P.S. I have no objection to family-oriented tax relief and other policies that target middle-class taxpayers. Such provisions are politically useful since they expand the coalition of supporters. But I want policy makers to understand that economic growth is the best way of helping everyone – including the poor. That’s why supply-side provisions should be the primary focus of any tax package.

P.P.P.P.S. The class-warfare crowd doesn’t like lower tax rates on upper-income taxpayers. They argue that rich people won’t pay enough and that the government will be starved of revenue. Yet they have no answer when I show them this IRS data. Or this data from the United Kingdom. Or this data from France.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Notwithstanding the title of today’s column, I don’t think Trump is a principled supply-sider like Reagan. But it might be accurate to say he’s a practical supply sider like President John F. Kennedy.

Read Full Post »

While I realize there’s zero hope of ripping up America’s awful tax code and getting a simple and fair flat tax, I’m nonetheless hopeful that there will be some meaningful incremental changes as part of the current effort to achieve some sort of tax reform.

A package that lowers the corporate rate, replaces depreciation with expensing, and ends the death tax would be very good for growth, and those good reforms could be at least partially financed by eliminating the state and local tax deduction and curtailing business interest deductions so that debt and equity are on a level playing field.

All that sounds good, and a package like this should be feasible since Republicans control both Congress and the White House (especially now that the BAT is off the table), but I warn in this interview that there are lots of big obstacles that could cause tax reform to become a disaster akin to the Obamacare repeal effort.

Here’s my list of conflicts that need to be solved in order to get some sort of plan through Congress and on to the President’s desk.

  • Carried interest – Trump wants to impose a higher capital gains tax on a specific type of investment, but this irks many congressional GOPers who have long understood that any capital gains tax is a form of double taxation and should be abolished. The issue apparently has some symbolic importance to the President and it could become a major stumbling block if he digs in his heels.
  • Tax cut or revenue neutrality – Budget rules basically require that tax cuts expire after 10 years. To avoid this outcome (which would undermine the pro-growth impact of any reforms), many lawmakers want a revenue-neutral package that could be permanent. But that means coming up with tax increases to offset tax cuts. That’s okay if undesirable tax preferences are being eliminated to produce more revenue, but defenders of those loopholes will then lobby against the plan.
  • Big business vs small business – Everyone agrees that America’s high corporate tax rate is bad news for competitiveness and should be reduced. The vast majority of small businesses, however, pay taxes through “Schedule C” of the individual income tax, so they want lower personal rates to match lower corporate rates. That’s a good idea, of course, but would have major revenue implications and complicate the effort to achieve revenue neutrality.
  • Budget balance – Republicans have long claimed that a major goal is balancing the budget within 10 years. That’s certainly achievable with a modest amount of spending restraint. And it’s even relatively simple to have a big tax cut and still achieve balance in 10 years with a bit of extra spending discipline. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there’s very little appetite for spending restraint in the White House or Capitol Hill, and this may hinder passage of a tax plan.
  • Middle class tax relief – The main focus of the tax plan is boosting growth and competitiveness by reducing the burden on businesses and investment. That’s laudable, but critics will say “the rich” will get most of the tax relief. And even though the rich already pay most of the taxes and even though the rest of us will benefit from faster growth, Republicans are sensitive to that line of attack. So they will want to include some sort of provision designed for the middle class, but that will have major revenue implications and complicate the effort to achieve revenue neutrality.

There’s another complicating factor. At the risk of understatement, President Trump generates controversy. And this means he doesn’t have much power to use the bully pulpit.

Though I point out in this interview that this doesn’t necessarily cripple tax reform since the President’s most important role is to simply sign the legislation.

Before the 2016 election, I was somewhat optimistic about tax reform.

A few months ago, I was very pessimistic.

I now think something will happen, if for no other reason than Republicans desperately want to achieve something after botching Obamacare repeal.

Read Full Post »

According to leftists like Bernie Sanders, European nations have wonderfully generous welfare states financed by high tax rates on the rich.

They’re partly right. There are very large welfare states in Europe (though I wouldn’t use “wonderfully” and “generous” to describe systems that have caused economic stagnation and high levels of unemployment).

But they’re wrong about how those welfare states are financed. Yes, tax rates on the rich are onerous, but not that much higher than in the United States. Instead, the big difference between America and Europe is that ordinary people pay much higher taxes on the other side of the Atlantic.

Indeed, I’ve previously cited Tax Foundation data showing that the United States arguably has the most “progressive” tax system in the developed world. Not because we tax the rich more, but simply because we impose comparatively modest burdens on everyone else.

And now we have some new evidence making the same point. Joseph Sternberg of the Wall Street Journal has some very sobering data on how the German tax system imposes a heavy weight on poor and middle-income taxpayers.

Europeans believe their tax codes are highly progressive, giving lower earners a break while levying significant proportions of the income of higher earners and corporations to fund generous social benefits. But that progressivity holds true only for direct taxes on personal and corporate income. Indirect taxes, such as the value-added tax on consumption and social-security taxes (disguised as “contributions”), are a different matter. The VAT disproportionately affects lower earners, who spend a higher proportion of their incomes. And social taxes tend to kick in at lower income levels than income taxes, and extract a higher and more uniform proportion of income. …if you look at the proportion of gross household income paid in all forms of tax, the rate varies by only 25 points. The lowest-earning 5% of households pay roughly 27% of their income in various taxes—mainly VAT—while a household in the 85th income percentile pays total taxes of around 52%, mostly in social-security taxes that amount to nearly double the income-tax bill.

Here’s a chart the WSJ included with the editorial.

As you can see, high payroll taxes and the value-added tax are a very costly combination.

And the rest of Europe is similar to Germany.

…Germany is not unique. The way German total revenues are split among income taxes, social taxes and the consumption tax is in line with the rest of Western Europe, as are its tax rates, according to OECD data. If other countries are more progressive than Germany, it’s only because Germany applies its second-highest marginal income-tax rate of 42% at a lower level of income than most.

Speaking of the OECD, here’s the bureaucracy’s data on the burden of government spending.

Germany is in the middle of the pack, with the public sector consuming 44 percent of economic output (Finland edges out France and Greece for the dubious honor of having the most expensive government).

The overall burden of the public sector is far too high in the United States, but we’re actually on the “low” side by OECD standards.

According to the data, total government spending “only” consumes 37.7 percent of America’s GDP. Only Ireland, Switzerland, and Latvia have better numbers (though my friend Constantin Gurdgiev explains we should be cautious about Irish economic data).

But I’m digressing. The point I want to emphasize is that punitive taxes on poor and middle-income taxpayers are unavoidable once politicians decide to impose a large welfare state.

Which is why I’m so inflexibly hostile to any tax increase, especially a value-added tax (or anything close to a VAT, such as the BAT) that would vacuum up huge amounts of money from the general population. Simply stated, politicians in Washington will have a hard time financing a bigger burden of government if they can only target the rich.

Sternberg makes the same point in his column.

Tax cuts have emerged as an issue ahead of Germany’s national election next month, with both major parties promising various timid tinkers… Not gonna happen. The VAT and social taxes are too important to the modern welfare state. The great lie is that there are a) enough “rich people,” b) who are rich enough, that c) taxing their incomes heavily enough can pay for generous health benefits and an old-age pension at 65. None of those propositions are true, and the third is especially wrong in an era of globally mobile capital and labor. That leaves the lower and middle classes, and taxes concealed in price tags or dolled up as “insurance contributions” to obscure exactly how much voters are paying for the privilege of their welfare states. …reform of the indirect taxes that impose such a drag on European economies awaits a more serious discussion about the proper role of the state overall.

Exactly.

There’s no feasible way to ease the burden on ordinary German taxpayers (or regular people in other European nations) unless there are sweeping reforms to reduce the welfare state.

And the moral of the story for Americans is that we better enact genuine entitlement reform if we don’t want to suffer the same fate.

P.S. If you don’t like German data, for whatever reason, I wrote last year about Belgium and made the same point about how a big welfare state necessarily means a bad tax system.

P.P.S. By the way, even the OECD admitted that European nations would grow faster if the burden of government was reduced.

Read Full Post »

Remember John Kerry, the former Secretary of State and Massachusetts Senator, the guy who routinely advocated higher taxes but then made sure to protect his own wealth? Not only did he protect much of his fortune in so-called tax havens, he even went through the trouble of domiciling his yacht outside of his home state to minimize his tax burden.

I didn’t object to Kerry’s tax avoidance, but I was irked by his hypocrisy. If taxes are supposed to be so wonderful, shouldn’t he have led by example?

At the risk of understatement, folks on the left are not very good about practicing what they preach.

But let’s not dwell on John Kerry. Instead, let’s focus on other yacht owners so we can learn an important lesson about tax policy.

And, as is so often the case, France is an example of the policies to avoid.

Where have all the superyachts gone? That is the question that locals and business owners in the south of France are asking this summer. And the answer appears to be: Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Spain. …While the ongoing presence of €10 cups of coffee and €1000 bottles of Champagne might serve to reassure the casual observer that the region is still as attractive to the sun-loving super-rich as it ever was, appearances can be deceptive. Talk to locals involved in the multibillion-euro yachting sector—and in the south of France that’s nearly everyone, in some trickle-down shape or form, as yachting is by some measures the biggest earner in the region after hotels and wine—and you detect a sinking feeling. …More and more yachting money is draining away…washing up in other European countries such as Spain, Italy, Greece, and Turkey.

Having once paid the equivalent of $11 for a diet coke in Monaco, I can confirm that it is a painfully expensive region.

But let’s focus on the more important issue: Why are the big yachts staying away from the French Riviera?

Apparently they’re avoiding France for the same reason that entrepreneurs are avoiding France. The tax burden is excessive.

The core reason for the superyacht exodus is financial; France has tightened…tax regulations for the captains and crew members of yachts who officially reside in France, and often have families on the mainland, but traditionally have evaded all tax by claiming they were earning their salary offshore. The country has also taken a hard line on imposing 20 percent VAT on yacht fuel sales, which often used to be dodged. Given that a typical fill can be around €100,000, it is understandable that many captains are simply sailing around the corner.

I don’t share this story because I feel sorry for wealthy people.

Instead, the real lesson to be learned is that when politicians aim at the rich, it’s the rest of us that get victimized.

Ordinary workers, whether at marinas or on board the yachts, are the ones who are losing out.

Revenue at the iconic marina in Saint-Tropez has…fallen by 30 percent since the beginning of the year, while Toulon, a less glamorous destination, has suffered a 40 percent decline. …They stated that refueling a 42-meter yacht in Italy (instead of France) “gives a saving of nearly €21,000 a week because of the difference in tax.” Sales by the four largest marine fuel vendors has fallen by 50 percent this summer, the letter said, adding that French “yachties”—an inexperienced 19-year-old deckhand makes around €2,000 per month and a good Captain can command €300,000—were being laid off in droves, as, due to the new tax rules, national insurance, health and other compulsory contributions which boat owners pay for crew members have increased from 15 to 55 percent of their wages. The letter stated that “the additional cost of maintaining a seven-person crew in France is €300,000 (£268,000) a year.”

All of this is – or should have been – totally predictable.

French tax authorities should have learned from what happened a few years ago in Italy.

Or from what happened in France a few decades ago.

…the French have been down this avenue before. “It happened in France about 30 years ago, so people moved their boats to Italy… Yachting is huge revenue earner for the region. …we contribute huge sums in social security alone. “But the bigger issue is that people holidaying on yachts here go ashore and spend money—and a lot of it.” Says Heslin: “The possibility of this happening if taxes and fees were increased has actually been talked about for the last two years, and everyone warned what would happen. “But this where the French government so often goes wrong, this attitude of, ‘Well, we are France, people will always come here.’” This time, it appears, they have called it wrong. Edmiston says, “Yachting is very important to local economy, but if people are not made to feel welcome here, there are plenty of other places where they will be.”

Incidentally, we have similar examples of counterproductive class warfare in the United States. Florida politicians shot themselves in the foot a number of years ago with high taxes on yachts.

And the luxury tax on yachts, which was part of President George H.W. Bush’s disastrous tax-hike deal in 1990, hurt middle-class boat builders much more than upper-income boat buyers.

But let’s zoom out and make a broader point about public finance and tax policy.

Harsh taxes on yachts backfire because the people being targeted have considerable ability to escape the tax by simply choosing to buy yachts, staff yachts, and sail yachts where taxes aren’t so onerous.

Let’s now apply this insight to something far more important than yachts.

Investment is a key for long-run growth and higher living standards. All economic theories – even Marxism ans socialism – agree that capital formation is necessary to increase productivity and thus boost wages.

Yet people don’t have to save and invest. They can choose to immediately enjoy their earnings, especially if there are harsh taxes on income that is saved and invested.

Or they can choose to (mis)allocate capital in ways that make sense from a tax perspective, but might not be very beneficial for the economy.

And upper-income taxpayers have a lot of latitude over how much of their money is saved and invested, as well as how it is saved and invested.

So when politicians impose high taxes on income that is saved and invested, they can expect big supply-side responses, just as there are big responses when they impose punitive taxes on yachts.

But here’s the bottom line. When they over-tax yachts, the damage isn’t that great. Yes, some local workers are out of jobs, but that tends to be offset by more job creation in other jurisdictions that now have more business from big boats.

Over-taxing saving and investment, by contrast, can permanently lower a nation’s prosperity by reducing capital formation. And to the extent that this policy is imposed on the entire world (which is basically what the OECD is seeking), then there’s no additional growth in other jurisdictions to offset the suffering caused by bad tax policy in one jurisdiction.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: