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Posts Tagged ‘Underground Economy’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simple, less government.

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

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

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

So what’s the answer?

Definitely not more government.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what causes people to hide legal activity from government?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Financial Times explains what happened.

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

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

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

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

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

The ripple effect of the policy is large and unpleasant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the impact on a small-business owner.

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

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

A farmer also has been hit hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Politicians hate cash.

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s explore the animosity to cash.

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

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

And some countries are actually moving in this direction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Though the article notes that there is some resistance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on that later.

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

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

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

And that won’t end well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Libertarians tend to like – or at least have a grudging respect for – the underground economy.

For instance, even if we’re personally very straight-laced, we don’t like government prohibitions against gambling, drugs, and prostitution. This is why we’re not upset when these things happen in spite of the laws enacted by the political class.

But this isn’t just about victimless crimes. We also dislike high taxes, so you won’t find libertarians shedding many tears when we read about tax avoidance and tax evasion in nations (such as France and Greece) with punitive tax systems.

Politicians tend to have a different perspective. They generally get very upset if we’re not following their societal diktats and acquiescing to their fiscal demands.

But now we’re suddenly seeing that some politicians have a new-found appreciation for the underground economy.

The New York Times reports that European nations want to add these activities to their estimates of GDP.

As of September, all European Union countries will be required to take fuller accounting of trade in sex, drugs and other underground businesses as part of an overhaul of economic measurements by Eurostat, the European statistics agency. The point of counting everything, including the wages of sin, is to get a more accurate reading of each country’s gross domestic product.

Sounds reasonable, right? Who objects, after all, to more accurate numbers?

But it’s always good to be suspicious of governments.

And why is suspicion warranted in this case? Well, it appears that this effort to re-measure GDP may give politicians more ability to spend.

With European Union governments obliged to reduce debt as a percentage of their economies, the changes are also expected to make growth rates from Spain to Sweden look better, possibly also making debt ratios seem rosier. …In Italy, Ireland, Portugal and Spain, …G.D.P. could increase by as much as 2 percent, Eurostat estimates, while Germany and France could see expansions of as much as 3 percent. Britain might show a gain of 3 to 4 percent, Eurostat said.

To elaborate, there are “Maastricht rules” in the European Union that (at least in theory) obligate governments to keep deficits from rising about 3 percent of GDP and to keep debt from climbing above 60 percent of GDP.

So if politicians and bureaucrats can figure out ways to make GDP appear bigger, that means they can have more red ink. Which means, of course, that they can spend more money.

So now it should be abundantly clear why governments have an incentive to add the underground economy to their GDP estimates.

But there’s one little problem with this approach. The whole purpose of the Maastricht rules was to keep nations from spending themselves into a fiscal crisis. The rules obviously didn’t work very well (perhaps because they focused on the symptom of red ink rather than the underlying disease of too much government spending), but there presumably would have been even more profligacy if they didn’t exist.

So what’s the point of adding the underground economy to GDP when that simply gives politicians more leeway to spend?

Indeed, the NYT article notes that some of the bean-counting bureaucracies in Europe are concerned that this new approach won’t work because there won’t be any new tax revenue to accompany the new spending.

Statistics agencies, though, say that whatever the improved ratios, debt will not be easier to service, because governments cannot collect taxes from illegal underground activity.

And just in case you don’t trust the New York Times, here’s a blurb from Money News making the same point.

No country is supposed to let their annual deficits exceed 3 percent of GDP or accumulated debt exceed 60 percent of GDP. Countries that don’t comply with the debt limits are to be penalized — 0.2 percent of GDP, plus a “variable component” that can range up to 0.5 percent of GDP annually as long as the breach continues. Boosting GDP helps lower the debt ratio.

The bottom line is that these changes will enable Europe’s politicians to postpone much-needed fiscal discipline.

In other words, they’ll have the ability to spend themselves deeper into a hole.

And as you can see from these sobering IMF, OECD, and BIS estimates, the hole is already enormous.

Not that America is any different. Our economy may be doing better (or less worse) today, but our future fiscal outlook is worse than many other nations thanks to a combination of poorly designed entitlement programs and changing demographics.

And just as is the case for Europe, counting our underground economy would not be a substitute for the reforms needed to save the nation.

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Even though I’m a dull and straight-laced guy, that doesn’t mean I want the government to pester, harass, and persecute people for engaging in victimless crimes that I find distasteful.

Especially when interventionism and prohibition doesn’t work. To be blunt, the War on Drugs has been a costly failure (much like the War on Poverty).

Fortunately, it appears that more and more people are coming to the same conclusion – and many of them aren’t libertarians. For instance, I recently cited Mona Charen’s wise comments about the issue.

Even more remarkable are the statements from one of America’s leading evangelicals, Pat Robertson.

Here’s the key sections from an Associated Press report.

Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson says marijuana should be legalized and treated like alcohol because the government’s war on drugs has failed. The outspoken evangelical Christian and host of “The 700 Club” on the Virginia Beach-based Christian Broadcasting Network he founded said the war on drugs is costing taxpayers billions of dollars. He said people should not be sent to prison for marijuana possession. The 81-year-old first became a self-proclaimed “hero of the hippie culture” in 2010 when he called for ending mandatory prison sentences for marijuana possession convictions. “I just think it’s shocking how many of these young people wind up in prison and they get turned into hardcore criminals because they had a possession of a very small amount of a controlled substance,” Robertson said on his show March 1. “The whole thing is crazy. We’ve said, ‘Well, we’re conservatives, we’re tough on crime.’ That’s baloney.” …Robertson said he “absolutely” supports ballot measures in Colorado and Washington state that would allow people older than 21 to possess a small amount of marijuana and allow for commercial pot sales. Both measures, if passed by voters, would place the states at odds with federal law, which bans marijuana use of all kinds. While he supports the measures, Robertson said he would not campaign for them and was “not encouraging people to use narcotics in any way, shape or form.” “I’m not a crusader,” he said. “I’ve never used marijuana and I don’t intend to, but it’s just one of those things that I think: this war on drugs just hasn’t succeeded.”

Wow, not only for legalization, but “absolutely” supports ballot initiatives in Colorado and Washington. Kudos to Rev. Robertson for recognizing the human cost of the Drug War. As the old saying goes, not everything immoral should be illegal.

Here’s five minutes from Gov. Gary Johnson on the issue.

Very well stated. Legalization is common-sense conservatism. Too bad Gary Johnson didn’t get more attention early in the GOP race.

The Drug War doesn’t work, and it is the ultimate example of Mitchell’s Law since it has spawned bad policies such as asset forfeiture and anti-money laundering rules.

Time to “just say no” to big government.

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Leftists want higher tax rates and they want greater tax compliance. But they have a hard time understanding that those goals are inconsistent.

Simply stated, people respond to incentives. When tax rates are punitive, folks earn and report less taxable income, and vice-versa.

In a previous post, I quoted an article from the International Monetary Fund, which unambiguously concluded that high tax burdens are the main reason people don’t fully comply with tax regimes.

Macroeconomic and microeconomic modeling studies based on data for several countries suggest that the major driving forces behind the size and growth of the shadow economy are an increasing burden of tax and social security payments… The bigger the difference between the total cost of labor in the official economy and the after-tax earnings from work, the greater the incentive for employers and employees to avoid this difference and participate in the shadow economy. …Several studies have found strong evidence that the tax regime influences the shadow economy.

Indeed, it’s worth noting that international studies find that the jurisdictions with the highest rates of tax compliance are the ones with reasonable tax systems, such as Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Singapore.

Now there’s a new study confirming these findings. Authored by two economists, one from the University of Wisconsin and the other from Jacksonville University, the new research cites the impact of tax burdens as well as other key variables.

Here are some key findings from the study.

According to the results provided in Table 2, the coefficient on the average effective federal income tax variable (AET) is positive in all three estimates and statistically significant for the overall study periods (1960-2008) at beyond the five percent level and statistically significant at the one percent level for the two sub-periods (1970-2007 and 1980-2008). Thus, as expected, the higher the average effective federal income tax rate, the greater the expected benefits of tax evasion may be and hence the greater the extent of that income tax evasion. This finding is consistent with most previous studies of income tax evasion using official data… In all three estimates, [the audit variable] exhibits the expected negative sign; however, in all three estimates it fails to be statistically significant at the five percent level. Indeed, these three coefficients are statistically significant at barely the 10 percent level. Thus it appears the audit rate (AUDIT) variable, of an in itself, may not be viewed as a strong deterrent to federal personal income taxation [evasion].

Translating from economic jargon, the study concludes that higher tax burdens lead to more evasion. Statists usually claim that this can be addressed by giving the IRS more power, but the researchers found that audit rates have a very weak effect.

The obvious conclusion, as I’ve noted before, is that lower tax rates and tax reform are the best way to improve tax compliance – not more power for the IRS.

Incidentally, this new study also finds that evasion increases when the unemployment rate increases. Given his proposals for higher tax rates and his poor track record on jobs, it almost makes one think Obama is trying to set a record for tax evasion.

The study also finds that dissatisfaction with government is correlated with tax evasion. And since Obama’s White House has been wasting money on corrupt green energy programs and a failed stimulus, that also suggests that the Administration wants more tax evasion.

Indeed, this last finding is consistent with some research from the Bank of Italy that I cited in 2010.

…the coefficient of public spending inefficiency remains negative and highly significant. …We find that tax morale is higher when the taxpayer perceives and observes that the government is efficient; that is, it provides a fair output with respect to the revenues.

And I imagine that “tax morale” in the United States is further undermined by an internal revenue code that has metastasized into a 72,000-page monstrosity of corruption and sleaze.

On the other hand, tax evasion apparently is correlated with real per-capita gross domestic product. And since the economy has suffered from anemic performance over the past three years, that blows a hole in the conspiratorial theory that Obama wants more evasion.

All joking aside, I’m sure the President wants more tax compliance and more prosperity. And since I’m a nice guy, I’m going to help him out. Mr. President, this video outlines a plan that would achieve both of those goals.

Given his class-warfare rhetoric, I’m not holding my breath in anticipation that he will follow my sage advice.

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