Greece’s Problem Is High Tax Rates, Not Tax Evasion

The New York Times has an article describing widespread tax evasion in Greece, along with an implication that the country’s fiscal crisis is largely the result of unpaid taxes and could be mostly solved if taxpayers were more obedient to the state. This is grossly inaccurate. A quick look at the budget numbers reveals that tax revenues have remained relatively constant in recent years, consuming nearly 40 percent of GDP. The burden of government spending, by contrast, has jumped significantly and now exceeds 50 percent of Greek economic output.

The article also is flawed in assuming that harsher enforcement is the key to compliance. As this video shows, even the economists at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development admit that tax evasion is driven by high tax rates (which is remarkable since the OECD is the international bureaucracy pushing for global tax rules to undermine tax competition and reduce fiscal sovereignty).

Ironically, the New York Times article quotes Friedrich Schneider of Johannes Kepler University in Austria, but only to provide an estimate of Greece’s shadow economy. The reporter should have looked at an article that Schneider wrote for the International Monetary Fund, which found that:

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. …In Austria, the burden of direct taxes (including social security payments) has been the biggest influence on the growth of the shadow economy… Other studies show similar results for the Scandinavian countries, Germany, and the United States. In the United States, analysis shows that as the marginal federal personal income tax rate increases by one percentage point, other things being equal, the shadow economy grows by 1.4 percentage points. …A study of Quebec City in Canada shows that people are highly mobile between the official and the shadow economy, and that as net wages in the official economy go up, they work less in the shadow economy. This study also emphasizes that where people perceive the tax rate as too high, an increase in the (marginal) tax rate will lead to a decrease in tax revenue.

It is worth noting the Schneider’s research also shows why Obama’s tax policy is very misguided. The President wants to boost the top tax rate by nearly five percentage points, and that’s on top of the big increase in the tax rate on saving and investment included in Obamacare. Based on Schneider’s research, we can expect America’s underground economy to expand.

Shifting back to Greece, Schneider does not claim that tax rates are the only factor determining compliance. But his research indicates that more onerous enforcement regimes are unlikely to put much of a dent in tax evasion unless accompanied by better tax policy (i.e., lower tax rates). Moreover, compliance also is undermined by the rampant corruption and incompetence of the Greek government, but that problem won’t be solved unless politicians reduce the size and scope of the public sector. Needless to say, that’s not very likely. So when I read some of the details in this excerpt from the New York Times, much of my sympathy is for taxpayers rather than the greedy politicians that turned Greece into a fiscal mess:

In the wealthy, northern suburbs of this city, where summer temperatures often hit the high 90s, just 324 residents checked the box on their tax returns admitting that they owned pools. So tax investigators studied satellite photos of the area — a sprawling collection of expensive villas tucked behind tall gates — and came back with a decidedly different number: 16,974 pools. That kind of wholesale lying about assets, and other eye-popping cases that are surfacing in the news media here, points to the staggering breadth of tax dodging that has long been a way of life here. …Such evasion has played a significant role in Greece’s debt crisis, and as the country struggles to get its financial house in order, it is going after tax cheats as never before. …To get more attentive care in the country’s national health system, Greeks routinely pay doctors cash on the side, a practice known as “fakelaki,” Greek for little envelope. And bribing government officials to grease the wheels of bureaucracy is so standard that people know the rates. They say, for instance, that 300 euros, about $400, will get you an emission inspection sticker. …Various studies have concluded that Greece’s shadow economy represented 20 to 30 percent of its gross domestic product. Friedrich Schneider, the chairman of the economics department at Johannes Kepler University of Linz, studies Europe’s shadow economies; he said that Greece’s was at 25 percent last year and estimated that it would rise to 25.2 percent in 2010.