Tag: Competitiveness

On Death Tax, the U.S. Is Worse than Greece, Worse than France, and Even Worse than Venezuela

Considering that every economic theory agrees that living standards and worker compensation are closely correlated with the amount of capital in an economy (this picture is a compelling illustration of the relationship), one would think that politicians - particularly those who say they want to improve wages - would be very anxious not to create tax penalties on saving and investment.

Yet the United States imposes very harsh tax burdens on capital formation, largely thanks to multiple layers of tax on income that is saved and invested.

But we compound the damage with very high tax rates, including the highest corporate tax burden in the developed world.

And the double taxation of dividends and capital gains is nearly the worst in the world (and will get even worse if Obama’s class-warfare proposals are approved).

To make matters worse, the United States also has one of the most onerous death taxes in the world. As you can see from this chart prepared by the Joint Economic Committee, it is more punitive than places such as Greece, France, and Venezuela.

Who would have ever thought that Russia would have the correct death tax rate, while the United States would have one of the world’s worst systems?

Fortunately, not all U.S. tax policies are this bad. Our taxation of labor income is generally not as bad as other industrialized nations. And the burden of government spending in the United States tends to be lower than European nations (though both Bush and Obama have undermined that advantage).

And if you look at broad measures of economic freedom, America tends to be in - or near - the top 10 (though that’s more a reflection of how bad other nations are).

But these mitigating factors don’t change the fact that the U.S. needlessly punishes saving and investment, and workers are the biggest victims. So let’s junk the internal revenue code and adopt a simple and fair flat tax.

What Obama and the New York Times Don’t Understand about Worldwide Taxation

Mitt Romney is being criticized for supporting “territorial taxation,” which is the common-sense notion that each nation gets to control the taxation of economic activity inside its borders.

While promoting his own class-warfare agenda, President Obama recently condemned Romney’s approach. His views, unsurprisingly, were echoed in a New York Times editorial.

President Obama raised … his proposals for tax credits for manufacturers in the United States to encourage the creation of new jobs. He said this was greatly preferable to Mitt Romney’s support for a so-called territorial tax system, in which the overseas profits of American corporations would escape United States taxation altogether. It’s not surprising that large multinational corporations strongly support a territorial tax system, which, they say, would make them more competitive with foreign rivals. What they don’t say, and what Mr. Obama stressed, is that eliminating federal taxes on foreign profits would create a powerful incentive for companies to shift even more jobs and investment overseas—the opposite of what the economy needs.

Since even left-leaning economists generally agree that tax credits for manufacturers are ineffective gimmicks proposed for political purposes, let’s set that topic aside and focus on the issue of territorial taxation.

Or, to be more specific, let’s compare the proposed system of territorial taxation to the current U.S. system of “worldwide taxation.”

Worldwide taxation means that a company is taxed not only on its domestic earnings, but also on its foreign earnings. Yet the “foreign-source income” of U.S. companies is “domestic-source income” in the nations where those earnings are generated, so that income already is subject to tax by those other governments.

In other words, worldwide taxation results in a version of double taxation.

The U.S. system seeks to mitigate this bad effect by allowing American-based companies a “credit” for some of the taxes they pay to foreign governments, but that system is very incomplete.

And even if it worked perfectly, America’s high corporate tax rate still puts U.S. companies in a very disadvantageous position. If an American firm, Dutch firm, and Irish firm are competing for business in Ireland, the latter two only pay the 12.5 percent Irish corporate tax on any profits they earn. The U.S. company also pays that tax, but then also pays an additional 22.5 percent to the IRS (the 35 percent U.S. tax rate minus a credit for the 12.5 percent Irish tax).

In an attempt to deal with this self-imposed disadvantage, the U.S. tax system also has something called “deferral,” which allows American companies to delay the extra tax (though the Obama administration has proposed to eliminate that provision).

Romney proposes to put American companies on a level playing field by going in the other direction. Instead of immediate worldwide taxation, as Obama wants, Romney wants to implement territorial taxation.

But what about the accusation from the New York Times that territorial taxation “would create a powerful incentive for companies to shift even more jobs and investment overseas”?

Well, they’re somewhat right … and yet they’re totally wrong. Here’s what I’ve said about that issue:

If a company can save money by building widgets in Ireland and selling them to the US market, then we shouldn’t be surprised that some of them will consider that option.  So does this mean the President’s proposal might save some American jobs? Definitely not. If deferral is curtailed, that may prevent an American company from taking advantage of a profitable opportunity to build a factory in some place like Ireland. But U.S. tax law does not constrain foreign companies operating in foreign countries. So there would be nothing to prevent a Dutch company from taking advantage of that profitable Irish opportunity. And since a foreign-based company can ship goods into the U.S. market under the same rules as a U.S. company’s foreign subsidiary, worldwide taxation does not insulate America from overseas competition. It simply means that foreign companies get the business and earn the profits.

To put it bluntly, America’s tax code is driving jobs and investment to other nations. America’s high corporate tax rate is a huge self-inflected wound for American competitiveness.

Getting rid of deferral doesn’t solve any problems, as I explain in this video. Indeed, Obama’s policy would make a bad system even worse.

But, it’s also important to admit that shifting to territorial taxation isn’t a complete solution. Yes, it will help American-based companies compete for market share abroad by creating a level playing field. But if policymakers want to make the United States a more attractive location for jobs and investment, then a big cut in the corporate tax rate should be the next step.

New Study from UK Think Tank Shows How Big Government Undermines Prosperity

It seems I was put on the planet to educate people about the negative economic impact of excessive government. I must be doing a bad job, because the burden of the public sector keeps rising.

But hope springs eternal. To help make the case, I’ve cited research from international bureaucracies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and European Central Bank. Since most of those organizations lean to the left, these results should be particularly persuasive.

I’ve also cited the work of academic scholars from all over the world, including the United States, Australia, and Sweden. The evidence is very persuasive that big government is associated with weaker economic performance.

Now we have some new research from the United Kingdom. The Centre for Policy Studies has released a new study, authored by Ryan Bourne and Thomas Oechsle, examining the relationship between economic growth and the size of the public sector.

The chart above compares growth rates for nations with big governments and small governments over the past two decades. The difference is significant, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The most important findings of the report are the estimates showing how more spending and more taxes are associated with weaker performance.

Here are some key passages from the study.

Using tax to GDP and spending to GDP ratios as a proxy for size of government, regression analysis can be used to estimate the effect of government size on GDP growth in a set of countries defined as advanced by the IMF between 1965 and 2010. …As supply-side economists would expect, the coefficients on the tax revenue to GDP and government spending to GDP ratios are negative and statistically significant. This suggests that, ceteris paribus, a larger tax burden results in a slower annual growth of real GDP per capita. Though it is unlikely that this effect would be linear (we might expect the effect to be larger for countries with huge tax burdens), the regressions suggest that an increase in the tax revenue to GDP ratio by 10 percentage points will, if the other variables do not change, lead to a decrease in the rate of economic growth per capita by 1.2 percentage points. The result is very similar for government outlays to GDP, where an increase by 10 percentage points is associated with a fall in the economic growth rate of 1.1 percentage points. This is in line with other findings in the academic literature. …The two small government economies with the lowest marginal tax rates, Singapore and Hong Kong, were also those which experienced the fastest average real GDP growth.

The folks at CPS also put together a short video to describe the results. It’s very well done, though I’m not a big fan of the argument near then end that faster growth is a good thing because it generates more tax revenue to finance more government. Since I’m a big proponent of the Laffer Curve, I don’t disagree with the premise, but I would argue that additional revenues should be used to finance lower tax rates.

Since I’m nit-picking, I’ll also say that the study should have emphasized that government spending is bad for growth because it inevitably and necessarily leads to the inefficient allocation of resources, and that would be true even if revenues magically floated down from heaven and there was no need for punitive tax rates.

This is my message in this video on the Rahn Curve.

When the issue is government, size matters, and bigger is not better.

Facebook Billionaire Gives Up Citizenship to Escape Bad American Tax Policy

It is very sad that America’s tax system is so onerous that some rich people feel they have no choice but to give up U.S. citizenship in order to protect their family finances.

I’ve written about this issue before, particularly in the context of Obama’s class-warfare policies leading to an increase in the number of Americans “voting with their feet” for places with less punitive tax regimes.

We now have a very high-profile tax expatriate. One of the founders of Facebook is escaping to Singapore. Here are some relevant passages from a Bloomberg article.

Eduardo Saverin, the billionaire co-founder of Facebook Inc. (FB), renounced his U.S. citizenship before an initial public offering that values the social network at as much as $96 billion, a move that may reduce his tax bill. …Saverin’s stake is about 4 percent, according to the website Who Owns Facebook. At the high end of the IPO valuation, that would be worth about $3.84 billion. …Saverin, 30, joins a growing number of people giving up U.S. citizenship, a move that can trim their tax liabilities in that country. …“Eduardo recently found it more practical to become a resident of Singapore since he plans to live there for an indefinite period of time,” said Tom Goodman, a spokesman for Saverin, in an e-mailed statement. …Singapore doesn’t have a capital gains tax. It does tax income earned in that nation, as well as “certain foreign-sourced income,” according to a government website on tax policies there. …Renouncing your citizenship well in advance of an IPO is “a very smart idea” from a tax standpoint, said Avi-Yonah. “Once it’s public you can’t fool around with the value.” …Renouncing citizenship is an option chosen by increasing numbers of Americans. A record 1,780 gave up their U.S. passports last year compared with 235 in 2008, according to government records. …“It’s a loss for the U.S. to have many well-educated people who actually have a great deal of affection for America make that choice,” said Richard Weisman, an attorney at Baker & McKenzie in Hong Kong. “The tax cost, complexity and the traps for the unwary are among the considerations.”

What makes this story amusing, from a personal perspective, is that Saverin’s expatriation takes place just a couple of days after my wayward friend Bruce Bartlett wrote a piece for the New York Times in which he said that people like me are exaggerating the impact of taxes on migration. Here are some key excerpts from Bruce’s column:

In recent years, the number of Americans renouncing their citizenship has increased. …This led William McGurn of The Wall Street Journal to warn that the tax code is turning American citizens living abroad into “economic lepers.” The sharply rising numbers of Americans renouncing their citizenship “are canaries in the coal mine,” he wrote. The economist Dan Mitchell of the libertarian Cato Institute was more explicit in a 2010 column in Forbes, “Rich Americans Voting With Their Feet to Escape Obama Tax Oppression.” …[T]he sharp rise in Americans renouncing their citizenship since 2008 is less pronounced than it appears if one looks at the full range of data available since 1997, when it first was collected. As one can see in the chart, the highest number of Americans renouncing their citizenship came in 1997. …The reality is that taxes are just one factor among many that determine where people choose to live. Factors including climate, proximity to those in similar businesses and the availability of amenities like the arts and cuisine play a much larger role. That’s why places like New York and California are still magnets for the wealthy despite high taxes. And although a few Americans may renounce their citizenship to avoid American taxes, it is obvious that many, many more people continually seek American residency and citizenship.

I actually agree with Bruce. Taxes are just one factor when people make decisions on where to live, work, save, and invest.

But I also think Bruce is drinking too much of the Kool-Aid being served by his new friends on the left. There is a wealth of data on successful people leaving jurisdictions such as California and New York that have confiscatory tax systems.

And there’s also a lot of evidence of taxpayers escaping countries controlled by politicians who get too greedy. Mr. Saverin is just the latest example. And I suspect, based on the overseas Americans I meet, that there are several people who quietly go “off the grid” for every person who officially expatriates.

The statists say these people are “tax traitors” and “economic Benedict Arnolds,” but those views are based on a quasi-totalitarian ideology that assumes government has some sort of permanent claim on people’s economic output.

If people are leaving America because our tax law is onerous, that’s a signal we should reform the tax code. Attacking those who expatriate is the fiscal version of blaming the victim.

President Obama’s Corporate Tax Reform Rearranges the Deck Chairs on the Titanic

American companies are hindered by what is arguably the world’s most punitive corporate tax system. The federal corporate rate is 35 percent, which climbs to more than 39 percent when you add state corporate taxes. Among developed nations, only Japan is in the same ballpark, and that country is hardly a role model of economic dynamism.

But the tax rate is just one piece of the puzzle. It’s also critically important to look at the government’s definition of taxable income. If there are lots of corrupt loopholes – such as ethanol – that enable some income to escape taxation, then the “effective” tax rate might be rather modest.

On the other hand, if the government forces companies to overstate their income with policies such as worldwide taxation and depreciation, then the statutory tax rate understates the actual tax burden.

The U.S. tax system, as the chart suggests, is riddled with both types of provisions.

This information is important because there are good and not-so-good ways of lowering tax rates as part of corporate tax reform. If politicians decide to “pay for” lower rates by eliminating loopholes, that creates a win-win situation for the economy since the penalty on productive behavior is reduced and a tax preference that distorts economic choices is removed.

But if politicians “pay for” the lower rates by expanding the second layer of tax on U.S. companies competing in foreign markets or by changing depreciation rules to make firms pretend that investment expenditures are actually net income, then the reform is nothing but a re-shuffling of the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Now let’s look at President Obama’s plan for corporate tax reform.

  • The good news is that he reduces the tax rate on companies from 35 percent to 28 percent (still more than 32 percent when state corporate taxes are added to the mix).
  • The bad news is that he exacerbates the tax burden on new investment and increases the second layer of taxation imposed on American companies competing for market share overseas.

In other words, to paraphrase the Bible, the President giveth and the President taketh away.

This doesn’t mean the proposal would be a step in the wrong direction. There are some loopholes, properly understood, that are scaled back.

But when you add up all the pieces, it is largely a kiss-your-sister package. Some companies would come out ahead and others would lose.

Unfortunately, that’s not enough to measurably improve incomes for American workers. In a competitive global economy, where even Europe’s welfare states recognize reality and have lowered their corporate tax rates, on average, to 23 percent, the President’s proposal at best is a tiny step in the right direction.

Mitt Romney and Bain Capital Were Right to Utilitize So-Called Tax Havens

I’m not a big fan of Mitt Romney. I hammered him the day before Christmas for being open to a value-added tax, and criticized him in previous posts for his less-than-stellar record on healthcare, his weakness on Social Security reform, his anemic list of proposed budget savings, and his reprehensible support for ethanol subsidies.

But I also believe in being intellectually honest, so I’ll defend a politician I don’t like (even Obama) when they do the right thing or when they get attacked for the wrong reason.

In the case of Romney, some of his GOP opponents are criticizing him for job losses and/or bankruptcies at some of the companies in which he invested while in charge of Bain Capital. But I don’t need to focus on that issue, because James Pethokoukis of AEI already has done a great job of debunking that bit of anti-Romney demagoguery.

In this post, I want to focus on the issue of tax havens.

Regular readers know that I’m a big defender of these low-tax jurisdictions, for both moral and economic reasons, and I guess that reporters must know that as well because I’ve received a couple of calls from the press in recent weeks. But I suspect I”m not being called because reporters want to understand international tax policy. Instead, based on the questions, it appears that the establishment media wants to hit Romney for utilizing tax havens as part of his work at Bain Capital.

As far as I can tell, none of these reporters have come out with a story. And I’m also not aware that any of Romney’s political rivals have tried to exploit the issue.

But I think it’s just a matter of time, so I want to preemptively address this issue. So let’s go back to 2007 and look at some excerpts from a story in the Los Angeles Times about the use of so-called tax havens by Romney and Bain Capital.

While in private business, Mitt Romney utilized shell companies in two offshore tax havens to help eligible investors avoid paying U.S. taxes, federal and state records show. Romney gained no personal tax benefit from the legal operations in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. But aides to the Republican presidential hopeful and former colleagues acknowledged that the tax-friendly jurisdictions helped attract billions of additional investment dollars to Romney’s former company, Bain Capital, and thus boosted profits for Romney and his partners. …Romney was listed as a general partner and personally invested in BCIP Associates III Cayman, a private equity fund that is registered at a post office box on Grand Cayman Island and that indirectly buys equity in U.S. companies. The arrangement shields foreign investors from U.S. taxes they would pay for investing in U.S. companies. …In Bermuda, Romney served as president and sole shareholder for four years of Sankaty High Yield Asset Investors Ltd. It funneled money into Bain Capital’s Sankaty family of hedge funds, which invest in bonds and other debt issued by corporations, as well as bank loans. Like thousands of similar financial entities, Sankaty maintains no office or staff in Bermuda. Its only presence consists of a nameplate at a lawyer’s office in downtown Hamilton, capital of the British island territory. … Investing through what’s known as a blocker corporation in Bermuda protects tax-exempt American institutions, such as pension plans, hospitals and university endowments, from paying a 35% tax on what the Internal Revenue Service calls “unrelated business income” from domestic hedge funds that invest in debt, experts say. …Brad Malt, who controls Romney’s financial trust, said Bain Capital organized the Cayman fund to attract money from foreign institutional investors. “This is not Mitt trying to do something strange,” he said. “This is Bain trying to raise some number of billions from investors around the world.”

There are a couple of things worth noting about these excerpts.

1. Nobody has hinted that Romney did anything illegal for the simple reason that using low-tax jurisdictions is normal, appropriate, and intelligent for any business or investor. Criticizing Romney for using tax havens would be akin to attacking me for living in Virginia, which has lower taxes than Maryland.

2. Jurisdictions such as Bermuda and the Cayman Islands are good platforms for business activity, which is no different than a state like Delaware being a good platform for business activity. Indeed, Delaware has been ranked as the world’s top tax haven by one group (though American citizens unfortunately aren’t able to benefit).

3. America’s corporate tax system is hopelessly anti-competitive, so it is quite fortunate that both investors and companies can use tax havens as vehicles to profitably invest in the United States. This helps protect the economy and American workers by attracting trillions of dollars of investment to the U.S.

These three points are just the tip of the iceberg. Watch this video for more information about the economic benefit of tax havens.

Last but not least, here’s a prediction. I think it’s just a matter of time until Romney gets attacked for utilizing tax havens, though the press may wait until after he gets the GOP nomination.

But when those attacks occur, I’m extremely confident that the stories will fail to mention that prominent Democrats routinely utilize tax havens for business and investment purposes, including as Bill Clinton, John Kerry, John Edwards, Robert Rubin, Peter Orszag, and Richard Blumenthal.

It’s almost enough to make you think this cartoon is correct and that the establishment press is biased.

Grading Perry’s Flat Tax: Some Missing Homework, but a Solid B+

Governor Rick Perry of Texas has announced a plan, which he outlines in the Wall Street Journal, to replace the corrupt and inefficient internal revenue code with a flat tax. Let’s review his proposal, using the principles of good tax policy as a benchmark.

1. Does the plan have a low, flat rate to minimize penalties on productive behavior?

Governor Perry is proposing an optional 20 percent tax rate. Combined with a very generous allowance (it appears that a family of four would not pay tax on the first $50,000 of income), this means the income tax will be only a modest burden for households. Most important, at least from an economic perspective, the 20-percent marginal tax rate will be much more conducive to entrepreneurship and hard work, giving people more incentive to create jobs and wealth.

2. Does the plan eliminate double taxation so there is no longer a tax bias against saving and investment?

The Perry flat tax gets rid of the death tax, the capital gains tax, and the double tax on dividends. This would significantly reduce the discriminatory and punitive treatment of income that is saved and invested (see this chart to understand why this is a serious problem in the current tax code). Since all economic theories - even socialism and Marxism - agree that capital formation is key for long-run growth and higher living standards, addressing the tax bias against saving and investment is one of the best features of Perry’s plan.

3. Does the plan get rid of deductions, preferences, exemptions, preferences, deductions, loopholes, credits, shelters, and other provisions that distort economic behavior?

A pure flat tax does not include any preferences or penalties. The goal is to leave people alone so they make decisions based on what makes economic sense rather than what reduces their tax liability. Unfortunately, this is one area where the Perry flat tax falls a bit short. His plan gets rid of lots of special favors in the tax code, but it would retain deductions (for those earning less than $500,000 yearly) for charitable contributions, home mortgage interest, and state and local taxes.

As a long-time advocate of a pure flat tax, I’m not happy that Perry has deviated from the ideal approach. But the perfect should not be the enemy of the very good. If implemented, his plan would dramatically boost economic performance and improve competitiveness.

That being said, there are some questions that need to be answered before giving a final grade to the plan. Based on Perry’s Wall Street Journal column and material from the campaign, here are some unknowns.

1. Is the double tax on interest eliminated?

A flat tax should get rid of all forms of double taxation. For all intents and purposes, a pure flat tax includes an unlimited and unrestricted IRA. You pay tax when you first earn your income, but the IRS shouldn’t get another bite of the apple simply because you save and invest your after-tax income. It’s not clear, though, whether the Perry plan eliminates the double tax on interest. Also, the Perry plan eliminates the double taxation of “qualified dividends,” but it’s not clear what that means.

2. Is the special tax preference for fringe benefits eliminated?

One of the best features of the flat tax is that it gets rid of the business deduction for fringe benefits such as health insurance. This special tax break has helped create a very inefficient healthcare system and a third-party payer crisis. It is unclear, though, whether this pernicious tax distortion is eliminated with the Perry flat tax.

3. How will the optional flat tax operate?

The Perry plan copies the Hong Kong system in that it allows people to choose whether to participate in the flat tax. This is attractive since it ensures that nobody can be disadvantaged, but how will it work? Can people switch back and forth every year? Is the optional system also available to all the small businesses that use the 1040 individual tax system to file their returns?

4. Will businesses be allowed to “expense” investment expenditures?

The current tax code penalizes new business investment by forcing companies to pretend that a substantial share of current-year investment outlays take place in the future. The government imposes this perverse policy in order to get more short-run revenue since companies are forced to artificially overstate current-year profits. A pure flat tax allows a business to “expense” the cost of business investments (just as they “expense” workers wages) for the simple reason that taxable income should be defined as total revenue minus total costs.

Depending on the answers to these questions, the grade for Perry’s flat tax could be as high as A- or as low as B. Regardless, it will be a radical improvement compared to the current tax system, which gets a D- (and that’s a very kind grade).

Here’s a brief video for those who want more information about the flat tax.

Last but not least, I’ve already received several requests to comment on how Perry’s flat tax compares to Cain’s 9-9-9 plan.

At a conceptual level, the plans are quite similar. They both replace the discriminatory rate structure of the current system with a low rate. They both get rid of double taxation. And they both dramatically reduce corrupt loopholes and distortions when compared to the current tax code.

All things considered, though, I prefer the flat tax. The 9-9-9 plan combines a 9 percent flat tax with a 9 percent VAT and a 9 percent national sales tax, and I don’t trust that politicians will keep the rates at 9 percent.

The worst thing that can happen with a flat tax is that we degenerate back to the current system. The worst thing that happens with the 9-9-9 plan, as I explain in this video, is that politicians pull a bait-and-switch and America becomes Greece or France.