Tag: australia

The Deadly Impact of the Death Tax

Australia got rid of its death tax in 1979. A couple of Aussie academics investigated whether the elimination of the tax had any impact on death rates. They found the ultimate example of supply-side economics, as reported in the abstract of their study.

In 1979, Australia abolished federal inheritance taxes. Using daily deaths data, we show that approximately 50 deaths were shifted from the week before the abolition to the week after. This amounts to over half of those who would have been eligible to pay the tax. Although we cannot rule out the possibility that our results are driven by misreporting, our results imply that over the very short run, the death rate may be highly elastic with respect to the inheritance tax rate.

It looks like this experiment is going to be repeated in the United States, but in the opposite direction. There was a rather unsettling article in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend. The story begins with a description of how the death tax rate dropped from 45 percent in 2009 to zero in 2010, and then notes the huge implications of a scheduled increase to 55 percent in 2011.

Congress, quite by accident, is incentivizing death. When the Senate allowed the estate tax to lapse at the end of last year, it encouraged wealthy people near death’s door to stay alive until Jan. 1 so they could spare their heirs a 45% tax hit. Now the situation has reversed: If Congress doesn’t change the law soon—and many experts think it won’t—the estate tax will come roaring back in 2011. …The math is ugly: On a $5 million estate, the tax consequence of dying a minute after midnight on Jan. 1, 2011 rather than two minutes earlier could be more than $2 million; on a $15 million estate, the difference could be about $8 million.

The story then features several anecdotes from successful people, along with observations from those who deal with wealthy taxpayers. The obvious lesson is that taxpayers don’t want the IRS to confiscate huge portions of what has been saved and invested over lifetimes of hard work.

“You don’t know whether to commit suicide or just go on living and working,” says Eugene Sukup, an outspoken critic of the estate tax and the founder of Sukup Manufacturing, a maker of grain bins that employs 450 people in Sheffield, Iowa. Born in Nebraska during the Dust Bowl, the 81-year-old Mr. Sukup is a National Guard veteran and high school graduate who founded his firm, which now owns more than 70 patents, with $15,000 in 1963. He says his estate taxes, which would be zero this year, could be more that $15 million if he were to die next year. …Estate planners and doctors caution against making life-and-death decisions based on money. Yet many people ignore that advice. Robert Teague, a pulmonologist who ran a chronic ventilator facility at a Houston hospital for two decades, found that money regularly figured in end-of-life decisions. “In about 10% of the cases I handled at any one time, financial considerations came into play,” he says. In 2009, more than a few dying people struggled to live into 2010 in hopes of preserving assets for their heirs. Clara Laub, a widow who helped her husband build a Fresno, Calif., grape farm from 20 acres into more than 900 acres worth several million dollars, was diagnosed with advanced cancer in October, 2009. Her daughter Debbie Jacobsen, who helps run the farm, says her mother struggled to live past December and died on New Year’s morning: “She made my son promise to tell her the date and time every day, even if we wouldn’t,” Mrs. Jacobsen says. …Mr. Aucutt, who has practiced estate-tax law for 35 years, expects to see “truly gruesome” cases toward the end of the year, given the huge difference between 2010 and 2011 rates.

The obvious question, of course, is whether politicians will allow the tax to be reinstated. The answer is almost certainly yes, but it’s also going to be interesting to see if they try to impose the tax retroactively on people who died this year.

So far in 2010, an estimated 25,000 taxpayers have died whose estates are affected by current law, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. That group includes least two billionaires, real-estate magnate Walter Shorenstein and energy titan Dan Duncan. …”Enough very wealthy people have died whose estates have the means to challenge a retroactive tax, and that could tie the issue up in the courts for years,” says tax-law professor Michael Graetz of Columbia University.

It should go without saying, by the way, that the correct rate for the death tax is zero. It’s also worth noting that this is an issue that shows that incentives do matter.

Obama Right on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

Secretary Gates’s new guidelines for “don’t ask, don’t tell” are consistent with the Obama administration’s plan to alter—and eventually reverse—the misguided policy. Both the guidelines and their ultimate goal deserve broad public support.

In the nearly 17 years since it was enacted, DADT has impeded military effectiveness by prohibiting motivated and well-qualified individuals from serving their country.

A new generation of military leaders, both officers and enlisted, has seen the harm and injustice done by this policy, and is ready for change. As this cohort advances through the ranks, and as an earlier generation that was not willing to change retires from service, we should anticipate a relatively smooth transition to a policy that has been adopted in many other countries, including Australia, Canada, France, Israel, and the United Kingdom. But the strong leadership shown by President Obama, Secretary Gates, and Chairman Mullen on this issue will likely prove the essential final ingredient to ensuring that DADT dies.

Click the player below for more about why it is time to scrap the policy:

Hey G-20! Here’s How You Curb Protectionism

Last week I recommended reading a new paper published by the Lowy Institute in Australia, which proposes an utterly sensible reform for the G-20, if curbing protectionism is a serious aim.

Using Australia’s own successful experience as an example, the authors recommend other countries adopt “domestic transparency” programs, which would essentially include analysis from an independent, apolitical board or agency that measures the real costs and benefits of proposed trade restrictions.

The findings of these independent reviews would be accessible to the public—and probably published in newspapers and other popular media—in advance of any decision to impose or reject the proposed trade restrictions. The findings wouldn’t legally bind the authorities to take any particular action, but would help chase from the shadows the real costs of protectionism, so that those ultimately making the decision know that the public at large is aware of the costs.

When a politician knows that he/she can benefit politically by imposing import duties, the costs of which are hidden in higher prices paid by consumers, who are unlikely to make the causal connection, there is a profound asymmetry of incentives and disincentives. The politician is much more likely to choose to secure the political benefit of imposing duties since the costs are hidden. But if light is shone on those costs, through domestic transparency initiatives, that asymmetry is reduced or eliminated. Politicians, under these circumstances, can go back to the special interests and say how much they’d like to help out with a tariff, but the costs don’t justify the measure. And the protection-seekers know the politician’s hands are tied because the public is aware of those costs.

Well, Alan Mitchell of the Australian Financial Review on Monday supposed how the presence of a domestic transparency regime would have affected President Obama’s tire tariff decision. It is very instructive:

The case of the Chinese tyres provides a striking example. The action was taken under a section of the US Trade Act popularly known as the “China-specific safeguard” provision. The act allows increased import duties if the imports cause, or even just threaten, material injury to US producers. If material injury is identified, the president must take action against the imports unless he determines that the “provision of such relief is not in the national economic interest.”

 The US International Trade Commission (ITC) publicly advises the president on the issue of material injury, and on the level of trade barriers needed to stop it, but not on the question of the national economic interest.

The president is left to determine that for himself. And the public is aware of nothing but the ITC-endorsed case for protection….

Suppose the ITC had been asked to also publicly advise the President on whether action against Chinese tyres was in the national economic interest. There is no doubt about what its advice would have been. The duties on Chinese tyres will save some jobs among US producers of low-cost tyres, but at the price of propping up uneconomic producers, and at the cost of jobs lost among US tyre retailers and in other sectors of the economy….

Had the ITC advised that action was against the national economic interest, the President would have been in a much stronger position to reject the demand, if he had wanted to. He may not have wanted to, of course….

The US action against Chinese tyres was initiated by a complaint from the unions that are an important part of Obama’s support base. But even if Obama had protected the tyre makers against the advice of the ITC, an important blow still would have been struck against protectionism. The American people would have heard the truth from an unimpeachable source: the protection of inefficient tyre makers is against the US economic interest….

It would have been a small but important step towards educating and changing public opinion. And, without that, multilateral trade reform will never gain the domestic political support it needs to bring down trade barriers in agriculture and services.

This is what could have been had ”domestic transparency” already been embraced in the United States.  See the point in such a reform?

Australian Trade Scholars Offer Perfect Cure for ‘Protectionitis’

Earlier this month, the Lowy Institute in Australia published a paper offering some very sound and, obviously, very timely advice about how to contain, and ultimately, eradicate protectionism. The paper is being circulated among the G20 delegations, who will undoubtedly discuss the topic of trade and protectionism in Pittsburgh next week. So for those of you interested in getting a sense of what will probably be the single best idea on (or at least near) the table at the G20 summit, I highly recommend this 20-pager.

The solution proposed by the authors boils down to a two-word phrase: “Domestic Transparency.” What is meant by that phrase is that “defeating protectionism begins at home.” And by that slogan, the authors mean that the key to reducing, and ultimately eliminating, protectionism is not external pressure from other countries, mercantilist trade negotiations, or filing trade complaints at the WTO, but rather greater awareness at home of the real costs of protectionism. I couldn’t agree more. (In fact better transparency is one of our recommendations in this paper).

When governments impose trade barriers at the behest of special interests, they usually justify that protectionism with diversionary rhetoric concerning some vague conception of the “national interest,” and the imperative of shielding domestic business from unfair competition and other vagaries of the globalized economy. That the protectionist measure itself—the product of special interests diverting productive resources from economic to political ends—forces involuntary and usually unknowing subsidization of those protection-seekers by the same citizens at large who are expected to buy into the national interest canard is a detail about which most people remain in the dark.

The central theme of the Lowy paper is that once people become informed about the costs of protectionism, not only to the broader economy, but in terms of what it means for their own personal budgets, politicians and lobbyists will find it much more difficult to concoct protectionist schemes.

That this paper is written by Australians is no accident. The Aussies have experience and credibility implementing a successful domestic transparency regime, which entailed the establishment of an independent authority (independent from the levers of government and business) to provide advice to governments that is “disinterested, open to public scrutiny, and formulated from the perspective of national welfare rather than the needs of particular producer groups.” The establishment of that agency (oddly named the “Industries Assistance Commission”—one of the authors, Bill Carmichael, is the former Chairman of the IAC) in 1974 and its successor agency (also oddly named the “Productivity Commission”) are widely credited with exposing the costs of protectionism to Australians, who subsequently supported dramatic waves of trade liberalization and have since been skeptical of efforts of industries to secure protection.

In this country, the U.S. International Trade Commission is an agency with a stable of economists that measures the welfare effects of trade liberalization and protectionism. While it may have the resources to conduct the analyses, it doesn’t have the independence. Regrettably, ITC studies are often subject to the whims of politics, particularly when the objectivity and facts in their reports don’t comport with politicians’ “expectations.” We need something similar to Australia’s domestic transparency institution in the United States, and in other countries, too.

G20 members should seriously consider the proposal in this excellent Lowy paper.

An Australian Perspective on Joe Wilson

wilsonWill you allow a foreigner to comment on something that has intrigued her about this great country?

All this hand-wringing and then censure (not to mention impeachment talk) over Rep. Joe Wilson’s admittedly rude intervention at President Obama’s speech last week has me baffled. Partly, it is because I come from a land that is governed by a parliamentary system, where Question Time is a much-loved institution. The offense (manufactured, perhaps) that Representative Wilson’s comment has caused is almost laughable when I think about some of the insults that have been hurled in both directions in Australia’s parliament. Here’s a collection of quotes from former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating just for starters (warning: offensive language). Here is a Brit’s take on why American politicians are “a bunch of wimps.”

Mainly, though, I am surprised that questioning of power is not more valued in America. To be sure, the President of the United States is not answerable to Congress in the same way that Ministers (including Prime Ministers) are to a Westminster-system parliament, but I would have thought that questioning the president would be well within the bounds of a nation conceived in liberty and on the understanding that all men are created equal. You got rid of infallible kings in 1776, remember?

I get why the Democrats are making political hay out of Representative Wilson’s outburst, even if I think they are hypocrites for suddenly finding religion on civility, given their own history. And I thoroughly reject, by the way, the notion that much of the criticism directed towards Obama is based on racism, even if this sort of talk gives unfortunate credence to the claims. But those same Dems who are shocked (shocked!) by Joe Wilson’s behavior are right now allowing a tax cheat to pull the nation’s purse strings.

This focus on style – who says what, how they say it, what their motivations might be – over the substance of what the congressional and administrative branches of government are doing is tremendously disappointing. I have heard far more censorious talk about Joe Wilson’s character and the propriety (or lack thereof) of what he did than of the point he was making. Meanwhile, the Dems are keeping “internal” investigations of Charlie Rangel’s ethical violations very quiet indeed.

Quite frankly, I’m far more interested in those than I am in Joe Wilson’s rudeness.

U.S. to Share Biometric Data With Foreign Countries

In the name of fighting identity fraud, the U.K. Home Office has entered into a biometric data-sharing agreement with Canada and Australia.

“The USA will be joining the agreement shortly, and New Zealand is considering legislation to join in the near future,” they say.

It would be nice to learn what commitments have been made to the U.K., justifying this statement.

Finally, an Ally That Doesn’t Wait for America

Washington’s willingness to toss security guarantees about the globe like party favors has encouraged other nations to do little for their own defense.  From the European, Japanese, and South Korean standpoint, why spend more when the Americans will take care of you?

But it looks like Australia takes a different view, and is willing to do more to defend itself and its region.  Reports the Daily Telegraph:

The latest defence White Paper recommends buying 100 advanced F-35 jet fighters and 12 powerful submarines equipped with cruise missiles, a capability which no other country in the region is believed to possess.

The “potential instability” caused by the emergence of China and India as major world powers was cited as the most pressing reason for this military build-up. In particular, Australian defence planners are believed to be concerned about China’s growing naval strength and America’s possible retreat as a global power in the decades ahead.

Chinese officials say their country’s growing power threatens no-one. Behind the scenes, Beijing is thought to be unhappy about Australia’s White Paper, with one Chinese academic saying it was “typical of a Western Cold War mentality”.

But the Chinese navy has almost doubled the number of secret, long-distance patrols conducted by its submarines in the past year. The reach of its navy is extending into Australian waters. China is also acquiring new amphibious assault ships that can transport a battalion of troops.

So instead of calling Washington to deal with Beijing, the Australians are building up their own navy.  Novel approach!  Now, how can we implant a bit of the Aussie character in America’s other friends around the globe?