Tag: economics

If the Auto Bailout Was a Success, I’d Hate to See What a Failure Looks Like

Sometimes it’s no fun to be an economist. Or, to be more specific, it’s rather frustrating to understand Bastiat’s insight about the “seen” and the “unseen” and to always be asking “at what cost?” and “to what effect?” when politicians make inane statements.

The GM bailout is a good example. Politicians want us to believe that it was a success because the company is still in business. Heck, the Vice President’s favorite campaign statement is that “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive

But if you’re the type of person who recognizes the importance of tradeoffs and incentives, then it’s easy to see how a political success can be an economic failure. Which is the message of this new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation.

This is music to my ears. I’ve been saying for years that any company can be kept afloat indefinitely with taxpayers subsidies. So if that’s the definition of success, we can party until we hit the fiscal brick wall. But that wall won’t feel good, as we can see from the fiscal chaos in Greece and other European welfare states.

But this issue involves more than just inefficient subsidies. I’m also concerned about the corruption that inevitably exists when cronyism replaces capitalism.

It’s quite likely, after all, that GM is spending lots of money on the Chevy Volt because of pressure from Washington rather than demand from consumers. And when you have a car company executive endorsing higher gas taxes, it’s reasonable to think that he’s currying favor with the political masters in DC rather than looking out for the best interests of drivers.

The GM bailout may be a win-win situation for politicians and lobbyists, but it’s a lose-lose proposition for taxpayers and the economy.

P.S. If you want some auto bailout humor, here’s a spoof on the Chevy Volt, an advertisement for the new GM Obummer, a couple of good political cartoons, and a very funny video on the Pelosi GTxi SS/RT.

New Video Shows that Obamanomics Is a Failure

I’ve narrated a video on why Keynesian economics is bad theory, I’ve also narrated a video specifically debunking Obama’s failed stimulus, and I’ve put together a post with data from the Minneapolis Fed showing how Reaganomics worked far better than Obamanomics.

But this video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation does all that—and more—in only about six minutes.

By the way, for those who like gory details, a previous video in the CF&P Foundation’s Economics 101 series looked at how the so-called stimulus was a rat’s nest of waste and corruption.

Not that anybody should be surprised. Big government facilitates corruption in the same way that a dumpster attracts rats and cockroaches.

My concern is long-term trends. Politicians should be complying with Mitchell’s Golden Rule, which means reducing government spending as a share of GDP (to put it in terms that make economists feel warm and fuzzy, gov’t exp/GDP should be decreasing).

What irks me about Obama is that he wants to increase the burden of government spending, which means the numerator in the equation is going in the wrong direction. And he wants class-warfare tax policy and more red tape, which makes it even harder for the denominator to move in the right direction.

And if that ratio continues to deteriorate, as both the BIS and OECD are predicting, then it’s just a matter of time before the United States becomes Greece.

Post-Debate Analysis: Debunking Obama’s Flawed Assertions on Tax Deductions and Corporate Welfare

In a violation of the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, my brutal overseers at the Cato Institute required me to watch last night’s debate (you can see what Cato scholars said by clicking here).

But I will admit that it was good to see Obama finally put on the defensive, something that almost never happens since the press protects him (with one key exception, as shown in this cartoon).

This doesn’t mean I like Romney, who would probably be another Bush if he got to the White House.

On the specifics, I obviously didn’t like Obama’s predictable push for class warfare tax policy, but I’ve addressed that issue often enough that I don’t have anything new to add.

I was irked, though, by Obama’s illiteracy on the matter of business deductions for corporate jets, oil companies, and firms that “ship jobs overseas.”

Let’s start by reiterating what I wrote last year about how to define corporate income: At the risk of stating the obvious, profit is total revenues minus total costs. Unfortunately, that’s not how the corporate tax system works.

Sometimes the government allows a company to have special tax breaks that reduce tax liabilities (such as the ethanol credit) and sometimes the government makes a company overstate its profits by not allowing it to fully deduct costs.

During the debate, Obama was endorsing policies that would prevent companies from doing the latter.

The irreplaceable Tim Carney explains in today’s Washington Examiner. Let’s start with what he wrote about oil companies.

…the “oil subsidies” Obama points to are broad-based tax deductions that oil companies also happen to get. I wrote last year about Democratic rhetoric on this issue: “tax provisions that treat oil companies like other companies become a ‘giveaway,’…”

I thought Romney’s response about corrupt Solyndra-type preferences was quite strong.

Here’s what Tim wrote about corporate jets.

…there’s no big giveaway to corporate jets. Instead, some jets are depreciated over five years and others are depreciated over seven years. I explained it last year. When it comes to actual corporate welfare for corporate jets, the Obama administration wants to ramp it up — his Export-Import Bank chief has explicitly stated he wants to subsidize more corporate-jet sales.

By the way, depreciation is a penalty against companies, not a preference, since it means they can’t fully deduct costs in the year they are incurred.

On another matter, kudos to Tim for mentioning corrupt Export-Import Bank subsidies. Too bad Romney, like Obama, isn’t on the right side of that issue.

And here’s what Tim wrote about “shipping jobs overseas.”

Obama rolled out the canard about tax breaks for “companies that ship jobs overseas.” Romney was right to fire back that this tax break doesn’t exist. Instead, all ordinary business expenses are deductible — that is, you are only taxed on profits, which are revenues minus expenses.

Tim’s actually too generous in his analysis of this issue, which deals with Obama’s proposal to end “deferral.” I explain in this post how the President’s policy would undermine the ability of American companies to earn market share when competing abroad - and how this would harm American exports and reduce American jobs.

To close on a broader point, I’ve written before about the principles of tax reform and explained that it’s important to have a low tax rate.

But I’ve also noted that it’s equally important to have a non-distortionary tax code so that taxpayers aren’t lured into making economically inefficient choices solely for tax reasons.

That’s why there shouldn’t be double taxation of income that is saved and invested, and it’s also why there shouldn’t be loopholes that favor some forms of economic activity.

Too bad the folks in government have such a hard time even measuring what’s a loophole and what isn’t.

France’s Fiscal Suicide

I try to be self aware, so I realize that I have the fiscal version of Tourette’s. Regardless of the question that is asked, I’m tempted to blurt out that the answer is to reduce the burden of government spending.

But sometimes that’s exactly the right prescription, particularly for an economy weighed down by a bloated public sector. And, as you can see from this chart, the French welfare state is enormous.

Only Denmark has a bigger burden of government spending, but at least the Danes are astute enough to compensate with hyper-free market policies in other areas.

So is France also trying to offset the damage of excessive spending with good policy in other areas? Au contraire, President Hollande is compounding the damage with huge class-warfare tax hikes.

Here’s what the Wall Street Journal says about Hollande’s fiscal proposal—including the key revelation that spending will go up rather than  down.

Remember all that euro-babble before the French election about fiscal “austerity” harming growth? Well, meet the new austerity, same as the old austerity, which means higher taxes on the private economy and token discipline for the state. Growth is an afterthought. That’s the lesson of French President François Hollande’s new “fighting” budget, which is supposed to reduce the deficit to 3% of GDP from 4.5% and represent the country’s toughest belt-tightening in three decades. …More telling is that two-thirds of the €30 billion in so-called savings is new tax revenue, and one-third comes from slowing spending growth. Total public expenditure—already the second most lavish in Europe—will increase by €6 billion to 56.3% of GDP.

The spending cuts are fictional, but the tax increases are very, very real.

The real austerity will be imposed on taxpayers, and not only on the rich. Income above €150,000 will now be taxed at 45%, up from the current 41%. Mr. Hollande’s 75% tax rate on income over €1 million comes into effect for two years, reaping expected (and predictably paltry) revenue of €200 million. That’s dwarfed by the €1 billion from reducing the threshold for the “solidarity” tax on wealth to €800,000 from €1.3 million. The French Socialists will also now tax investment income at the same high rates as regular income. The rates have been 19% for capital gains, 21% for dividends and 24% for interest income. If Mr. Hollande’s goal is to send capital out of France, that should help.

Anybody want to take bets, by the way, on whether the “temporary” two-year 75 percent tax rate still exists three years from now?

I say yes, in large part because the tax almost surely will lose revenue because of Laffer Curve effects. But rather than learn the right lesson and repeal the tax, Hollande will argue it needs to be maintained because revenues are “unexpectedly” sluggish.

It’s also remarkable that Hollande wants to dramatically increase tax rates on capital gains, dividends, and interest. These are all examples of double taxation.

And when you factor in the taxes at both the personal and business level, these charts show that France already has the highest tax on dividends in the developed world and the third-highest tax on capital. And Hollande wants to make a terrible system even worse. Amazing.

I’ve already predicted that France will be the next major economy to suffer a fiscal crisis. I was too clever to give a date, but Hollande’s policies are accelerating the day of reckoning.

P.S. The WSJ also takes some well-deserved potshots at the latest fiscal plan in Spain. Since I endorsed Hollande in hopes that he would engage in suicidal fiscal policy, this post is focused on the French fiscal plan. But Spain also is a disaster.

Another UN Push for Global Taxation

But I guess I’m not very persuasive. The bureaucrats have just released a new report entitled, “In Search of New Development Finance.”
As you can probably guess, what they’re really searching for is more money for global redistribution.
But here’s the most worrisome part of their proposal: they want the UN to be in charge of collecting the taxes, sort of a permanent international bureaucracy entitlement.
I’ve written before about the UN’s desire for tax authority (on more than one occasion), but this new report is noteworthy for the size and scope of taxes that have been proposed.
Here’s the wish list of potential global taxes, pulled from page vi of the preface:

Below is some of what the report has to say about a few of the various tax options. We’ll start with the carbon tax, which I recently explained was a bad idea if it were to be imposed on Americans by politicians in Washington. It’s a horrible idea if imposed globally by the kleptocrats at the UN.

…a tax of $25 per ton of CO2 emitted by developed countries is expected to raise $250 billion per year in global tax revenues. Such a tax would be in addition to taxes already imposed at the national level, as many Governments (of developing as well as developed countries) already tax carbon emissions, in some cases explicitly, and in other cases, indirectly through taxes on specific fuels.

Notice that the tax would apply only to “developed countries,” so this scheme is best characterized as discriminatory taxation. If Obama is genuinely worried about jobs being “outsourced” to developing nations like China (as he implies in his recent attack on Romney), then he should announce his strong opposition to this potential tax.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

Next, here’s what the UN says about a financial transactions tax:

A small tax of half a “basis point” (0.005 per cent) on all trading in the four major currencies (the dollar, euro, yen and pound sterling) might yield an estimated $40 billion per year. …even a low tax rate would limit high-frequency trading to some extent. It would thus result in the earning of a “double dividend” by helping reduce currency volatility and raising revenue for development. While a higher rate would limit trading to a greater extent, this might be at the expense of revenue.

This is an issue that already has attracted my attention, and I also mentioned that it was a topic in my meeting with the European Union’s tax commissioner.

But rather than reiterate some of my concerns about taxing financial consumers, I want to give a bit of a compliment to the UN: the bureaucrats, by writing that “a higher rate … might be at the expense of revenue,” deserve credit for openly acknowledging the Laffer Curve.

By the way, this is an issue where both the United States and Canada have basically been on the right side, though the Obama administration blows hot and cold on the topic.

Now let’s turn to the worst idea in the UN report. Its authors want to steal wealth from rich people. But even more remarkable, they want us to think this won’t have any negative economic impact.

…the least distorting, most fair and most efficient tax is a “lump sum” payment, such as a levy on the accumulated wealth of the world’s richest individuals (assuming the wealthy could not evade the tax). In particular, it is estimated that in early 2012, there were 1,226 individuals in the world worth $1 billion or more, 425 of whom lived in the United States, 90 in other countries of the Americas, 315 in the Asia-Pacific region, 310 in Europe and 86 in Africa and the Middle East. Together, they owned $4.6 trillion in assets, for an average of $3.75 billion in wealth per person. A 1 percent tax on the wealth of these individuals would raise $46 billion in 2012.

I’ll be the first to admit that you can’t change people’s incentives to produce in the past. So if you steal wealth accumulated as the result of a lifetime of work, that kind of “lump sum” tax isn’t very “distorting.”

But here’s some news for the UN: rich people aren’t stupid (or at least their financial advisers aren’t stupid). So you might be able to engage in a one-time act of plunder, but it is naiveté to think that this would be a successful long-term source of revenue.

For more information, I addressed wealth taxes in this post, and the argument I was making applies to a global wealth tax just as much as it applies to a national wealth tax.

Now let’s conclude with a very important warning. Some people doubtlessly will dismiss the UN report as a preposterous wish list. In part, they’re right. There is virtually no likelihood of these bad policies getting implemented any time in the near future.

But UN bureaucrats have been relentless in their push for global taxation, and I’m worried they eventually will find a way to impose the first global tax. And if you’ll forgive me for mixing metaphors, once the camel’s nose is under the tent, it’s just a matter of time before the floodgates open.

The greatest threat is the World Health Organization’s scheme for a global tobacco tax. I wrote about this issue back in May, and it seems my concerns were very warranted. Those global bureaucrats recently unveiled a proposal—to be discussed at a conference in South Korea in November—that would look at schemes to harmonize tobacco taxes and/or impose global taxes.

Here’s some of what the Washington Free Beacon wrote:

The World Health Organization (WHO) is considering a global excise tax of up to 70 percent on cigarettes at an upcoming November conference, raising concerns among free market tax policy analysts about fiscal sovereignty and bureaucratic mission creep. In draft guidelines published this September, the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control indicated it may put a cigarette tax on the table at its November conference in Seoul, Korea. …it is considering two proposals on cigarette taxes to present to member countries. The first would be an excise tax of up to 70 percent. …The second proposal is a tiered earmark on packs of cigarettes: 5 cents for high-income countries, 3 cents for middle-income countries, and 1 cent for low-income countries. WHO has estimated that such a tax in 43 selected high-/middle-/low-income countries would generate $5.46 billion in tax revenue. …Whichever option the WHO ends up backing, “they’re both two big, bad ideas,” said Daniel Mitchell, a senior tax policy fellow at the Cato Institute. …Critics also argue such a tax increase will not generate more revenue, but push more sales to the black market and counterfeit cigarette producers. “It’s already a huge problem,” Mitchell said. “In many countries, a substantial share of cigarettes are black market or counterfeit. They put it in a Marlboro packet, but it’s not a Marlboro cigarette. Obviously it’s a big thing for organized crime.” …The other concern is mission creep. Tobacco, Mitchell says, is easy to vilify, making it an attractive beachhead from which to launch future vice tax initiatives.

It’s my final comment that has me most worried. The politicians and bureaucrats are going after tobacco because it’s low-hanging fruit. They may not even care that their schemes will boost organized crime and may not raise much revenue.

They’re more concerned about establishing a precedent that international bureaucracies can impose global taxes.

I wrote the other day about whether Americans should escape to Canada, Australia, Chile, or some other nation when the entitlement crisis causes a Greek-style fiscal collapse.

But if the statists get the power to impose global taxes, then what choice will we have?

Just as ‘Fair Trade’ Means Protectionism for the Benefit of Special Interests, ‘Fair Tax Competition’ Means Tax Harmonization for the Benefit of Politicians

Very few people are willing to admit that they favor protectionism. After all, who wants to embrace a policy associated with the Great Depression?

But people sometimes say “I want free trade so long as it’s fair trade.” In most cases, they’re simply protectionists who are too clever to admit their true agenda.

In the Belly of the Beast at the European Commission

There’s a similar bit of wordplay that happens in the world of international taxation, and a good example of this phenomenon took place on my recent swing through Brussels.

While in town, I met with Algirdas Šemeta, the European Union’s Tax Commissioner, as part of a meeting arranged by some of his countrymen from the Lithuanian Free Market Institute.

Mr. Šemeta was a gracious host and very knowledgeable about all the issues we discussed, but when I was pontificating about the benefits of tax competition (are you surprised?), he assured me that he felt the same way, only he wanted to make sure it was “fair tax competition.”

But his idea of “fair tax competition” is that people should not be allowed to benefit from better policy in low-tax jurisdictions.

Allow me to explain. Let’s say that a Frenchman, having earned some income in France and having paid a first layer of tax to the French government, decides he wants to save and invest some of his post-tax income in Luxembourg.

In an ideal world, there would be no double taxation and no government would try to tax any interest, dividends, or capital gains that our hypothetical Frenchman might earn. But if a government wants to impose a second layer of tax on earnings in Luxembourg, it should be the government of Luxembourg. It’s a simple matter of sovereignty that nations get to determine the laws that apply inside their borders.

But if the French government wants to track - and tax - that flight capital, it has to coerce the Luxembourg government into acting as a deputy tax collector, and this generally is why high-tax governments (and their puppets at the OECD) are so anxious to bully so-called tax havens into emasculating their human rights laws on financial privacy.

Now let’s see the practical impact of “fair tax competition.” In the ideal world of Mr. Šemeta and his friends, a Frenchman will have the right to invest after-tax income in Luxembourg, but the French government will tax any Luxembourg-source earnings at French tax rates. In other words, there is no escape from France’s oppressive tax laws. The French government might allow a credit for any taxes paid to Luxembourg, but even in the best-case scenario, the total tax burden on our hypothetical Frenchman will still be equal to the French tax rate.

Imagine if gas stations operated by the same rules. If you decided you no longer wanted to patronize your local gas station because of high prices, you would be allowed to buy gas at another station. But your old gas station would have the right - at the very least - to charge you the difference between its price and the price at your new station.

Simply stated, you would not be allowed to benefit from lower prices at other gas stations.

So take a wild guess how much real competition there would be in such a system? Assuming your IQ is above room temperature, you’ve figured out that such a system subjects the consumer to monopoly abuse.

Which is exactly why the “fair tax competition” agenda of Europe’s welfare states (with active support from the Obama Administration) is nothing more than an indirect form of tax harmonization. Nations would be allowed to have different tax rates, but people wouldn’t be allowed to benefit.

For more information, here’s my video on tax competition.

And if you want information about the beneficial impact of “tax havens,” read this excellent column by Pierre Bessard and watch my three-part video series on the topic.

P.S. The Financial Transaction Tax also was discussed at the meeting, and it appears that the European actually intend on shooting themselves in the foot with this foolish scheme. Interestingly, when presented by other participants with some studies showing how the tax was damaging, Mr. Šemeta asked why we he should take those studies seriously since they were produced by people opposed to the tax. Since I’ve recently stated that healthy skepticism is warranted when dealing with anybody in the political/policy world (even me!), I wasn’t offended by the insinuation. But my response was to ask why we should act like the European Commission studies are credible since they were financed by governments that want a new source of revenue.

Explaining Ryan’s Budget in the Wall Street Journal

Even though I’ve already made clear that I am less-than-overwhelmed by the thought of Mitt Romney in the White House, I worry that people will start to think I’m a GOP toady.

That’s because I’ve been spending a lot of time providing favorable analysis and commentary on the relative merits of the Ryan budget (particularly proposed reforms to Medicare and Medicaid) compared to President Obama’s statist agenda of class warfare and bigger government.

I’ve already done a couple of TV interviews on Ryanomics vs Obamanomics and the Wall Street Journal this morning published my column explaining the key features of the Ryan budget.

Here are some highlights.

In one of my early paragraphs, I give Ryan credit for steering the GOP back in the right direction after the fiscal recklessness of the Bush years.

…the era of bipartisan big government may have come to an end. Largely thanks to Rep. Paul Ryan and the fiscal blueprint he prepared as chairman of the House Budget Committee earlier this year, the GOP has begun climbing back on the wagon of fiscal sobriety and has shown at least some willingness to restrain the growth of government.

I probably should have also credited the Tea Party, but I’ll try to make up for that omission in the future.

These next couple of sentences are the main point of my column.

The most important headline about the Ryan budget is that it limits the growth rate of federal spending, with outlays increasing by an average of 3.1% annually over the next 10 years. …limiting spending so it grows by 3.1% per year, as Mr. Ryan proposes, quickly leads to less red ink. This is because federal tax revenues are projected by the House Budget Committee to increase 6.6% annually over the next 10 years if the House budget is approved (and this assumes the Bush tax cuts are made permanent).

Some conservatives complain that the Ryan budget doesn’t balance the budget in 10 years. I explain how that could happen, but I then emphasize that what really matters is shrinking the burden of government spending.

To balance the budget within 10 years would require that outlays grow by about 2% each year. …There are many who would prefer that the deficit come down more quickly, but from a jobs and growth perspective, it isn’t the deficit that matters. Rather, what matters for prosperity and living standards is the degree to which labor and capital are used productively. This is why policy makers should focus on reducing the burden of government spending as a share of GDP—leaving more resources in the private economy. The simple way of making this happen is to follow what I’ve been calling the golden rule of good fiscal policy: The private sector should grow faster than the government.

Actually, I’ve been calling it Mitchell’s Golden Rule, but I couldn’t bring myself to be that narcissistic and self-aggrandizing on the nation’s most important and influential editorial page.

One final point from the column that’s worth emphasizing is that Ryan does the right kind of entitlement reform.

One of the best features of the Ryan budget is that he reforms the two big health entitlements instead of simply trying to save money. Medicaid gets block-granted to the states, building on the success of welfare reform in the 1990s. And Medicare is modernized by creating a premium-support option for people retiring in 2022 and beyond. This is much better than the traditional Beltway approach of trying to save money with price controls on health-care providers and means testing on health-care consumers. …But good entitlement policy also is a godsend for taxpayers, particularly in the long run. Without reform, the burden of federal spending will jump to 35% of GDP by 2040, compared to 18.75% of output under the Ryan budget.

The last sentence of the excerpt is critical. If the Golden Rule of fiscal policy is to have the private sector grow faster than government, then the Golden Goal is to reduce government spending as a share of GDP.

I’ve commented before how America will become Greece in the absence of reform. Well, that’s basically the Obama fiscal plan, as illustrated by this amusing cartoon.

What makes the Ryan budget so impressive is that it includes the reforms that are needed to avoid this fate.

No, it doesn’t bring the federal government back down to 3 percent of GDP, so it’s not libertarian Nirvana.

But we manage to stay out of fiscal hell, so that counts for something.