Tag: Competitiveness

Russia Scraps Capital Gains Tax

The former communists running Russia apparently understand tax policy better than the crowd in charge of U.S. tax policy. Not only does Russia have a 13 percent flat tax, but the government has just announced it will eliminate the capital gains tax (which shouldn’t exist in a pure flat tax anyhow).

Here’s a passage from the BBC report:

Russia will scrap capital gains tax on long-term direct investment from 2011, President Dmitry Medvedev has said. …Mr Medvedev told the St Petersburg International Economic Forum that long-term direct investment was “necessary for modernisation”. …Its oil revenues fund, which has been financing the deficit, is expected to end next year, and the government wants to attract more foreign investment to boost the economy.

Sounds like President Medvedev has watched my video explaining why there should be no capital gains tax. Now we just need to get American politicians to pay attention.

Beware of Americans Proselytizing the Chinese Economic Model

In a Cato paper released earlier this month, I argued that the glacial pace of America’s economic recovery and its growing public debt juxtaposed against China’s almost uninterrupted double-digit annual economic growth and its role as Congress’s sugar daddy have bred insecurity among U.S. opinion leaders, many of whom now advocate a more strident approach to China, or emulation of its top-down approach.

I cite, among others, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who is enamored of autocracy’s capacity to facilitate China’s singularity of purpose to dominate the industries of the future:

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power, and wind power. China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding populations and rising emerging-market middle classes, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar. Beijing wants to make sure that it owns that industry and is ordering the policies to do that, including boosting gasoline prices, from the top down.

Friedman’s theme—but less googoo eyed and more all-hands-on-deck!—is echoed in an op-ed by China-expert James McGregor, which ran in yesterday’s Washington Post.  McGregor conveys what he describes as an emerging sentiment within the U.S. business community in China.  That is: the Chinese government is hell bent on creating national economic champions; is using its increasing leverage (as global financier and fastest-growing market) to impose its own interpretations of the global rules of economic engagement in support of its comprehensive industrial policy, and, ultimately; the United States must wake up and rise to the challenge by crafting some top-down industrial policy of its own.

I don’t dispute some of McGregor’s premises.  China’s long process of market liberalization has slowed down, halted, and even reversed in some areas.  Policies are proliferating that favor local companies (particularly state-owned enterprises), hamper the operations of foreign-owned firms, and impede market access for imports.  Indeed, many of these policies are likely the product of industrial planning. 

But McGregor’s conclusion is extreme:

The time has come for a White House-led, public-private, comprehensive examination of American competitiveness against a clear-eyed view of China’s very smart and comprehensive industrial development policies and plans…What technology do we protect? What do we share? What are our commercial strategic imperatives as a nation? How do we retool the U.S. government’s inadequate and outdated trade bureaucracy to provide thoughtful strategic focus and interagency coordination? How do we overcome the fundamental disconnect between our system of scattered bureaucratic responsibilities and almost no national economic planning vs. China’s top-down, disciplined and aggressive national economic development planning machine?

Central planning may be more en vogue in Washington than usual nowadays, but to even come close to reaching his conclusion requires disregarding many facts, which is how McGregor gets there sans tongue in cheek.

First, in an effort to preempt any suggestion that China’s protectionism is nothing exceptional and can be remedied through the World Trade Organization and other channels, McGregor offers this blanket statement: “Chinese policymakers are masters of creative initiatives that slide through the loopholes of WTO and other international trade rules.”  I realize that op-ed writing forces one to economize on words, but that statement, which serves as McGregor’s springboard to socialism, cannot suffice for an analysis of the facts.  One of those facts is that the United States has been successful in compelling changes in China’s protectionist practices in all of the formal WTO disputes it has lodged that have been resolved thus far (6 of 8 formal cases have been resolved).  If China violates the agreed rules of trade, and its actions impair benefits or impose costs on U.S. interests that are too large to ignore, pursuing a WTO case is a legitimate and proven channel of resolution. Chinese protectionism can be addressed without the radical changes McGregor counsels. 

But I think McGregor—sharing the tactics of other in the media and politics—exploits public angst over a rising China to promote his idea as the obvious and only solution to what he sells as a rapidly-metastasizing problem.  McGregor argues that China is aiming to create national champions through subsidies and other preferential policies, while charging foreign companies admission to its market in the form of technology transfer, joint-venturing requirements, and local content rules.  McGregor claims, that this appropriation of foreign technology will be used to “create Chinese ‘indigenous innovations’ that will come back at us globally.”  Ultimately, McGregor fears that “American technology companies could be coerced to plant the seeds of their destruction in the fertile China market.”

It is telling that McGregor doesn’t consider U.S. government expropriation of those companies’ technology assets as planting the seeds of their own destruction.  Indeed, it is nothing short of expropriation when technology that is owned by individual companies in the private sector, making unique decisions to improve their own bottom-lines on behalf of their own shareholders is suddenly subject to the questions McGregor wants answered: What technology do we protect? What do we share? What are our commercial strategic imperatives as a nation?  Those questions, let alone the answers, imply that the U.S. government should have at least de facto ownership and control over these privately-held technology assets.

What is wrong with allowing each of these companies to decide for themselves whether they want to license or transfer some of their technology to Chinese companies, as the price of doing business in China?  Some will, some won’t, but the presupposition that those who do are selling the golden goose is not based on fact.  Let companies decide for themselves how to use their resources, and don’t treat industry as a monolith, as in “What are our commercial strategic imperatives as a nation?” 

Had we tried to answer and implement the answer to that question in the face the Japanese “threat” two decade ago, we’d be bereft of some of the most ingenious technological breakthroughs and the hundreds of industries and thousands of products that “our system of almost no national economic planning” has yielded.

When we peel away the chicken-little rhetoric, when we dispense with neo-Rahm Emanualism (“Never manufacture a good crisis and then let it go to waste”), when cooler heads and analytical minds prevail, the economic question boils down to this: What has been more successful at creating growth, central planning or decentralized dynamism?  For both China and the United States, it has been the latter. 

My bet is that China’s re-embrace of greater central planning will be brief, as it wastes resources, yields few -if any- national champions, and limits innovation.  For similar reasons, U.S. opinion leaders will eschew central planning, as well.

Senate Climate Bill Trade FAIL

The Kerry-Lieberman-Graham (is he still part of these efforts?) climate bill summary has been leaked. I’m sure my colleague Pat Michaels will weigh in on its contents soon, but in the meantime I thought I would comment on the trade-related aspects of the bill, or at least the summary that is now in the public domain.

As Scott Lincicome points out, the drafters have gone to great pains to emphasize that this bill is, like, totally about saving the environment.  (Which, by the way, is a bit of a turnaround). I’ve blogged before about why advocates of “border adjustment measures” need to be careful about the justification they offer.  In short, the World Trade Organization does not look too kindly upon disguised protectionism, and any legal challengers would probably use things like, say, press releases touting the (traditional) protective benefits of carbon tariffs as evidence of U.S. wrongdoing. The House bill fell short in that regard, with lots of talk about equalizing costs etc, and apparently the sponsors of the Senate bill have learned from warnings from trade experts. Not completely, though. Here’s Scott on their efforts to be more careful, and why they fall short:

The bill’s short summary (available here) also follows [a] new “green” road-map…:

In order to protect the environmental goals of the bill, we phase in a WTO-consistent border adjustment mechanism. In the event that no global agreement on climate change is reached, the bill requires imports from countries that have not taken action to limit emissions to pay a comparable amount at the border to avoid carbon leakage and ensure we are able to achieve our environmental objectives.

You couldn’t shoehorn more “environmental” references into this summary if you tried.  Only one small problem: this strictly “environmental” summary falls clearly under the main heading “Expanding America’s Manufacturing Base,” and the long summary of Sections 775-777 above comes under the main heading “Subtitle A - Protecting American Manufacturing Jobs and Preventing Carbon Leakage.”  So did the Senate drafters really just take all that time purging all of the scary “competitiveness” language from their new bill’s carbon tariffs provisions, only to keep them under a legislative subtitle that expressly denotes provisions dealing with domestic industrial competitiveness?

Scott’s right, but I found the heading in the bill’s long summary even more blatant: Title IV, under which the international provisions are explained, is called “Job Protection and Growth”. Call me overly cautious, but I don’t think having the phrase “job protection” as the first words in the title on border measures is a good way to hide your intent from the WTO or, for that matter, your increasingly-fractious trade partners.

Awful Tax System Causing a Growing Number of Americans to “Go Galt”

Being an American citizen is an honor in many ways, but it is a huge millstone around the neck for highly successful investors and entrepreneurs because of an oppressive and complex tax system. This is particularly true for those based in and/or competing in global markets. Indeed, because the tax system (and regulatory system) is so onerous and because it is expected to get far worse in the future, a growing number of Americans are actually giving up citizenship and “voting with their feet.” The politicians view these people as “tax traitors” and are trying to erect higher barriers to hinder economic migration, particularly in the form of confiscatory “exit taxes” that are disturbingly reminiscent of the totalitarian practices of some of the world’s most unsavory regimes. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on this issue:

The number of American citizens and green-card holders severing their ties with the U.S. soared in the latter part of 2009, amid looming U.S. tax increases and a more aggressive posture by the Internal Revenue Service toward Americans living overseas. According to public records, just over 500 people world-wide renounced U.S. citizenship or permanent residency in the fourth quarter of 2009, the most recent period for which data are available. That is more people than have cut ties with the U.S. during all of 2007, and more than double the total expatriations in 2008. …Others are giving up their U.S. nationality to avoid tax increases in the U.S., as the government struggles under huge budget deficits. The top marginal tax rate is set to rise to 39.6% from 35% at the end of this year. A proposal to tax fund manager pay at ordinary income rates, instead of the 15% capital gains rate, is gaining currency in Congress. “Everybody sees the tax rates are going up. At a certain point, it gets beyond people’s pain threshold,” said Anthony Tong, a tax partner at accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers in Hong Kong. Unlike most jurisdictions, the U.S. taxes the income of citizens and green-card holders no matter where in the world it is earned.

The Flat Tax: Good for America, Bad for Washington

America’s biggest fiscal challenge is excessive government spending. The public sector is far too large today and it is projected to get much bigger in coming decades. But the corrupt and punitive internal revenue code is second on the list of fiscal problems. This new video, narrated by yours truly, explains how a flat tax would work and why it would promote growth and fairness. Something to keep in mind with tax day in just a couple of weeks.

There are two big hurdles that must be overcome to achieve tax reform. The first obstacle is that the class-warfare crowd wants the tax code to penalize success with high tax rates. That issue is addressed in the video in a couple of ways. I explain that fairness should be defined as treating all people equally, and I also point out that upper-income taxpayers are far more likely to benefit from all the deductions, credits, exemptions, preferences, and other loopholes in the tax code. The second obstacle, which is more of an inside-the-beltway issue, is that the current tax system is very rewarding for the iron triangle of lobbyists, politicians, and bureaucrats (or maybe iron rectangle if we include the tax preparation industry). There are tens of thousands of people who make very generous salaries precisely because the tax code is a playground for corrupt deal making. A flat tax for these folks would be like kryptonite for Superman. But more than two dozen nations around the world have implemented a flat tax, so hope springs eternal.