Tag: financial privacy

Time for Me to Defend My Work on Tax Havens

A few days ago, I explained why I’m a big fan of tax competition. Simply stated, we need to subject governments to competitive pressure to at least partially offset the tendency of politicians to over-tax and over-spend.

Tax havens play an important role in this liberalizing process, largely because they do not put themselves under any obligation to enforce the bad tax laws of other jurisdictions. They also use privacy laws to protect their sovereign control of what gets taxed inside their borders (this is what separates a “tax haven” from a more conventional low-tax jurisdiction). This means they are fiscal safe zones, particularly for people who want to protect their assets from the pervasive double taxation that exists in so many nations.

Not everybody agrees with my analysis (gee, what a surprise). To cite one example, the petty bureaucrats at the OECD got so agitated at me in 2009 (when I was offering advice to representatives of so-called tax havens while standing in a public lobby of a public hotel) that they threatened to have me thrown in a Mexican jail.

Now I have a new critic, though hopefully someone who would never consider thuggish tactics to suppress dissent. Ann Hollingshead writes for the Task Force on Financial Integrity and Economic Development, which (notwithstanding the name of the organization) seems to favor bigger government.

Anyhow, she wrote an article specifically criticizing my work on tax havens. So I figured it was time for a fisking, which means a point-by-point rebuttal. Here’s how she begins, and I’ll follow up her points with my responses.

Officially Dan Mitchell is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, a conservative public policy research organization, and a researcher on tax reform. Unofficially, he has (perhaps ironically?) called himself the “world’s self-appointed defender of so-called tax havens.”

No irony on my part. As I have openly stated, tax havens are a key part of tax competition, which is a necessary (though sadly not sufficient) process to restrain the greed of the political class.

Oddly enough, Mitchell and I agree on many of the facts about these havens. We both have observed, for example, that there are buildings in Delaware and the Cayman Islands that house thousands of corporations. Mitchell concludes there is nothing wrong with either; I conclude there is something wrong with both. Mitchell also agrees that the United States“could be considered the world’s largest tax haven.” On that topic, he’s even cited my paper on non-resident deposits in secrecy jurisdictions. In his comment, he does not take issue with my methodology or my results, but rather concludes that my finding that the United States is the largest holder of non-resident deposits “makes the case for pro-market policies.” I, on the other hand, have argued that these findings support across the board reform, rather than that limited to traditional offshore financial centers.

Fair enough. We both recognize that the United States is a big tax haven. But we have different conclusions. I think it is unfortunate that only non-resident foreigners can benefit from these policies, while Ann wants to crack down on small low-tax jurisdictions such as Monaco, Bermuda, Liechtenstein, and the Cayman Islands, as well as big nations such as the United States. Sadly, Ann’s side has somewhat prevailed, and many of the havens have agreed to become deputy tax collectors for nations with bad tax law.

So how is it that two (relatively intelligent?) people can draw such different conclusions? I would argue our differences lie not in our facts, or perhaps even our economics, but in our underlying philosophical and theoretical differences.

I guess I should be happy that she holds out the possibility that I’m “relatively intelligent.”

Mitchell implicitly takes the position that tax havens do enable tax evasion and this helps to lower tax rates. He argues “it is largely globalization—not ideology—that has driven [a] ‘race to the bottom’” where global top corporate tax rates now average about 27 percent, down from 67 percent in 1980. Mitchell does not only believe this has occurred, but also maintains it is a positive development. He argues tax competition drives tax policy in the “right direction” (i.e., lower tax rates), has called these developments “positive,” and has even likened policy makers to “thieves” and tax competition to home “alarm systems.”

Ann makes one minor error. Corporate tax rates have dropped from a high of about 48 percent (and are now down to less than 25 percent). Top personal tax rates, by contrast, used to be more than 67 percent (and have now dropped to about 41 percent).

Regarding these developments, I think they are very positive. And I also think that politicians are akin to thieves, though Godfrey Bloom, a British member of the European Parliament, says it with a much better accent.

Mitchell’s argument that lower tax rates are always better and that those who tax others are thieves, makes several implicit assumptions about the relationship of citizens to their government. From his line of reasoning, Mitchell either believes, on a philosophical level, that governments do not have the right to tax their citizens or, on an economic level, that lower tax rates are always better, or both.

I definitely believe that lower tax rates are better than higher tax rates.

Mitchell may believe that taxation is the equivalent of thievery—and therefore that governments do not have the right to tax their citizens, just a thief does not have the right to steal. But he is also (more than likely) not an anarchist, which is the next logical extension of this reasoning, because on a number of occasions he has advocated a flat tax.

Ann makes a good point here. I’ve already admitted, in this post featuring a funny video mocking libertarianism, that I don’t see how to privatize the justice system and national defense, so I’m not an anarcho-capitalist.

Mitchell also argues lower tax rates are universally better, so at what point does the tax rate become acceptable? Clearly he doesn’t believe the tax rate should be zero, because that would get back to the anarchism theory. And he did once offer tepid support for Herman Cain’s 9 percent rate.

Another fair point. If a 50 percent tax is confiscatory and if politicians who impose such a tax are akin to thieves, then why would a 10 percent tax be acceptable? And would politicians imposing low tax rates still be acting like crooks?

Those are tough questions. But at the risk of dodging thorny philosophical issues, I’ll claim it doesn’t really matter. Government is too big right now and taxes are too onerous and unfair. If I somehow manage to bring government down to 10 percent of GDP, as the Rahn Curve suggests if we want to maximize prosperity for the American people, then I’ll have the luxury of worrying about the moral legitimacy of a limited public sector.

Clearly there’s a disconnect. Taxation cannot both be thievery, but also acceptable at a lower level. There is no evidence that, if tax competition through tax evasion is real, it would cease to drive down tax rates at some level that has been deemed acceptable by Dan Mitchell. So at what point does the “race to the bottom” bottom out? And is that a point where the United States can still maintain services that I’m sure Mitchell doesn’t advocate giving up, like police and law courts?

If I understand this passage correctly, I disagree. Tax competition does not drive tax rates to zero. It just encourages better policy. There’s pressure to lower tax rates, and there’s pressure to reduce double taxation of income that is saved and invested. But there’s no reason to think that tax competition and/or tax evasion forces the overall tax burden “to the bottom.”

But I would be remiss not to point out some internal inconsistencies in Mitchell’s arguments, in addition to his logical ones. While he argues tax competition through tax evasion in havens has fostered lower tax rates worldwide, he has also reckoned that “only a tiny minority” of people who keep their money in havens “are escaping onerous tax burdens.” First of all, I would be interested to see where Mitchell got that statistic because no one knows how much money is deposited in havens, let alone its origins. Such information isn’t publicly available. That’s actually the whole point. And secondly, and more importantly, I’m unclear on how such a “tiny minority” of oversees deposits could drive international tax policy to such an extent that the average corporate tax rates have dropped by more than half in thirty years.

Actually, there is considerable data about the amount of money in tax havens. The Bank for International Settlements is a good place for those who like to peruse such information.

But that’s a secondary point. Her main criticism is that I’m inconsistent when I say tax evasion is minor, so allow me to elaborate. Tax competition works by making politicians fearful that jobs and investment will migrate to jurisdiction with better tax law. It works just as well when people engage in legal tax planning and legal tax avoidance as it does with illegal tax evasion.

Places such as the Cayman Islands, for instance, rely on completely legal and transparent lines of business such as hedge funds and captive insurance companies. Places such as Panama have completely legal shipping registries. Places such as the British Virgin Islands specialize in completely legal company formation. Places such as the Channel Islands focus on completely legal trusts. Places such as Bermuda are known for completely legal reinsurance firms.

The “illegal” part of the offshore business does exist (at least as defined by high-tax nations), and it tends to be in the areas of private wealth management and banking. And even then, only in jurisdictions that have very strong human rights laws protecting financial privacy.

To be sure, there’s no way to precisely state how much tax evasion exists, but I can say with total certainty that the left’s claims are absurd. During the 2008 campaign, for instance, then-candidate Obama said that his anti-tax haven policies would generate $100 billion every year. When his law was enacted in 2010, that huge amount of money shrank to only $870 million per year. And even that estimate is a mirage because the President’s FATCA law is discouraging productive investment in the United States.

It is not my intention to demonize Mitchell and I hope you’ll notice that I’ve neither called him, nor implied that he is, a “careless and know-nothing hack.” I also have no interest in taking easy jabs that imply he is personally benefiting from tax evasion through havens or that he is seeking to destabilize theU.S.government by removing its ability to tax its citizens. Such attacks might generate readers, but they don’t generate thoughtful discussion and I’m much more interested in the latter than the former.

You may be wondering why she included the comment about a “careless and know-nothing hack.” It’s because I used that phrase to describe a journalist who wrote a very sloppy article. But I don’t automatically disparage those with different views. I’ll disagree with people and argue with them, but I don’t mock them if they have serious and substantive views.

I suppose I should also say, just for the record, that I fully comply with all the onerous demands imposed on me by the government. Not because I want to, but rather because I worry that my work on public policy sooner or later will attract some discriminatory and politically motivated attention from the IRS. It hasn’t happened yet, so I hope I’m being needlessly paranoid, but suffice to say that I go out of my way to even declare income that I know isn’t reported to the tax police.

So here are my questions, to anyone who will answer. 1) On what philosophical basis, if any, do governments draw the right to tax their citizens?; 2) Do citizens have a moral or philosophical right to evade taxation by using tax havens under any circumstances?; 3) If so, at what level of taxation do those citizens no longer have a moral right to evade tax?; and 4) what is the philosophical reasoning that justifies this level?

Now we’re back to the hard-to-answer questions. When is government too big and when does it impose so many demands that people are justified in evading taxation? I’m not sure, but I’ll fall back on what former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

Put in context, I don’t blame people from France for evading confiscatory taxation. I don’t blame people in corrupt nations such as Mexico for evading taxation. I don’t blame people in dictatorial nations such as Venezuela for evading taxation.

But I would criticize people in Singapore,Switzerland, Hong Kong, or Estonia for dodging their tax liabilities. They are fortunate to live in nations with reasonable tax rates, low levels of corruption, and good rule of law.

Let me now circle back to the main point. In a world with vigorous tax competition, especially when augmented by the strong human rights laws of tax havens, nations will face some pressure to move their policies closer to Hong Kong and away from France. That’s something worth protecting and promoting, not something to be stamped out by high-tax nations seeking to create a tax cartel—sort of an OPEC for politicians.

Last but not least, if you haven’t yet overdosed on this topic, here’s my speech to a Capitol Hill audience on the valuable role of tax havens in the global economy.

Obama Has United the World … in Opposition to Bad U.S. Tax Policy

Last year, I came up with a saying that “Bad Government Policy Begets More Bad Government Policy” and labeled it “Mitchell’s Law” during a bout of narcissism.

There are lots of examples of this phenomenon, such as the misguided War on Drugs being a precursor to intrusive, costly, and ineffective money laundering policies.

Or how about government healthcare subsidies driving up the price of healthcare, which then leads politicians to decide that there should be even more subsidies because healthcare has become more expensive.

But if you want a really stark example of Mitchell’s Law, the Internal Revenue Code is littered with examples.

The politicians created a nightmarishly complex tax system, for instance, and then decided that enforcing the wretched system required the erosion of civil liberties and constitutional freedoms.

The latest example of this process involves the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, a piece of legislation that was imposed in 2010 because politicians assumed they could collect lots of tax revenue every single year by getting money from so-called tax havens.

This FATCA law basically imposes a huge regulatory burden on all companies that have international transactions involving the United States, and all foreign financial institutions that want to invest in the United States. It is such a disaster that even the New York Times has taken notice, recently reporting that:

[T]he Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or Fatca, as it is known, is now causing alarm among businesses outside the United States that fear they will have to spend billions of dollars a year to meet the greatly increased reporting burdens, starting in 2013. American expatriates also say the new filing demands are daunting and overblown.

…The law demands that virtually every financial firm outside the United States and any foreign company in which Americans are beneficial owners must register with the Internal Revenue Service, check existing accounts in search of Americans and annually declare their compliance. Noncompliance would be punished with a withholding charge of up to 30 percent on any income and capital payments the company gets from the United States.

…The I.R.S., under pressure from angry and confused financial officials abroad, has extended the deadline for registration until June 30, 2013, and is struggling to provide more detailed guidance by the end of this year. But beginning in 2012, many American expatriates — already the only developed-nation citizens subject to double taxation from their home government — must furnish the I.R.S. with detailed personal information on their overseas assets.

It’s worth noting at this point that FATCA only exists because of bad tax law. If the United States had a simple and fair flat tax, there would be no double taxation of income that is saved and invested. As such, the IRS wouldn’t have any reason to care whether Americans had bank accounts and/or investments in places such as London, Hong Kong, and Panama.

But as is so often the case with politicians, they chose not to fix bad policy and instead decided to impose one bad policy on top of another. Hence, the crowd in Washington enacted FATCA and sent the IRS on a jihad.

By the way, the New York Times was late to the party. Many other news outlets already have noticed that the United States is about to suffer a big self-inflicted economic wound.

Indeed, what’s remarkable about Obama’s FATCA policy is that the world in now united. But it’s not united for something big and noble, such as peace, commerce, prosperity, or human rights. Instead, it’s united in opposition to intrusive, misguided, and foolish American tax law.

Let’s look at some examples.

* From the United Kingdom, a Financial Times column warns, “This summer, the senior management of one of Asia’s largest financial groups is quietly mulling a potentially explosive question: could it organise some of its subsidiaries so that they could stop handling all US Treasury bonds? …What is worrying this particular Asian financial group is … a new law called the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act… [T]he new rules leave some financial officials fuming in places such as Australia, Canada, Germany, Hong Kong and Singapore. Little wonder. Never mind the fact that implementing these measures is likely to be costly. …Hence the fact that some non-US asset managers and banking groups are debating whether they could simply ignore Fatca by creating subsidiaries that never touch US assets at all. “This is complete madness for the US – America needs global investors to buy its bonds,” fumes one bank manager. “But not holding US assets might turn out to be the easiest thing for us to do.”

* From India, the Economic Times reports, “FATCA, or the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, will require overseas banks to report U.S. clients to the Internal Revenue Service, but its loose definition of who is a U.S. citizen will create a huge administrative burden and could push non-residents to slash their U.S. exposure, some bankers say. …Bankers say the scheme will be extremely costly to implement, and some say that as the legislation stands, any bank with a client judged to be a U.S. citizen will be also obliged to supply documentation on all other clients. ‘FATCA will cost 10 times to the banks than it will generate for the IRS. It is going to be extremely complicated,’ said Yves Mirabaud, managing partner at Mirabaud & Cie and Swiss Bankers Association board member.”

* Discussing the impact in Canada, Reuters notes, “The new regulation has drawn criticism from the world’s banks and business people about its reach and costs. …’Hundreds of millions of dollars spent on developing compliance processes to target Canadian citizens would not be a useful exercise, and they are, for the most part, people who actually have no tax liabilities because they do not earn income in the United States,’ [Canadian Finance Minister] Flaherty said.”

* A Taiwan news outlet said, “Taiwan’s domestic banks will reportedly reduce holdings of American bonds worth an estimated NT$100 billion (US$3.33 billion) due to the U.S. government’s recent decision to impose 30% tax on foreign-investment income in U.S. securities as bonds. Taiwan’s eight government-linked banks reportedly hold U.S. financial products worth over US$2 billion… On April 8, 2011, the U.S. government issued a notice advising foreign financial institutions to meet certain obligations under the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), under which foreign financial institutions are subject to complex reporting rules related to their U.S. accounts.”

* From the Persian Gulf, the Bahrain Daily News noted, “A US law … has drawn the criticism of the world’s banks and business people, who dismiss it as imperialist and ‘the neutron bomb of the global financial system.’ The unusually broad regulation, known as FATCA, or the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, makes the world’s financial institutions something of an extension of the tax-collecting Internal Revenue Service—something no other country does for its tax regime. …Even the European Commission has objected, and experts say other countries may create their own FATCA-style regimes for US banks or withdraw from US capital markets. In a barrage of letters to the Treasury, IRS and Congress, opponents from Australia to Switzerland to Hong Kong assail FATCA’s application to a broad swath of institutions and entities.”

* A story from Singapore finds, “For many years, thousands of foreign investors have put their money into American shares or other investments. Now, however, a somewhat obscure law called the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) may make investments in the United States for everyone, from billionaires to the man on the street, here in Singapore far less attractive. …[S]ome banks or investment managers may advise customers not to invest in the US. … ‘[P]rivate bankers are publicly advising their clients to clear their portfolios of all US securities’. A fund manager here told me his company is also advising clients to avoid US investments, and other companies may similarly start telling large clients as well as smaller ones the same story. Investors could then see recommendations not to invest in the US, and they may put their money elsewhere. …As consulting firm PwC said, ‘some institutions could decide that complying with the due diligence and verification provisions may not be cost effective’ so they may stop making investments in the US. Banks or other asset managers may similarly decide it is easier not to offer US investments than to try and comply with the FATCA.”

o From Switzerland, a story “about the backlash from United States expats and the financial sector to the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA)” reports that, “Growing numbers of American expatriates are renouncing their US citizenship over a controversial new tax law and ever more burdensome fiscal and reporting obligations. …[B]anks and business people who are supposed to enforce it on behalf of the US tax man are worried about its costly administrative burden… [I]t’s just too expensive. The consequence will be that they cut out US clients and stop investing in the US. …Three or four years ago no one talked about renouncing nationality – now it’s an open discussion. That’s a major shift in mentality.

o Writing about the reaction from Europe, one columnist noted, “FATCA encourages foreign financial institutions to limit their exposure to U.S. assets. In a joint letter to the Treasury and the IRS, the European Banking Federation and the Institute of International Bankers, which together represent most of the non-U.S. banks and securities firms that would be affected by FATCA, warned that ‘many [foreign financial institutions], particularly smaller ones or those with minimal U.S. investments or U.S. customers, will opt out of U.S. securities rather than enter into a direct contractual agreement with a foreign tax authority (the IRS) that imposes substantial new obligations and the significant reputational, regulatory, and financial risks of potentially failing those obligations.’ A widespread divestment of U.S. securities by institutions seeking to avoid the burdens of FATCA could have real and harmful effects on the U.S. economy.”

These press excerpts help demonstrate the costs of FATCA, but what about the benefits? After all, maybe the law will lead to lots of good results that offset the high regulatory costs and lost investment for the American economy.

Well, the only “benefit” anybody had identified is that FATCA will transfer more money from the productive sector of the economy to the government. Indeed, Obama argued during the 2008 campaign that cracking down on “tax havens” with proposals such as FATCA would give politicians lots of additional money to spend.

But when the legislation was approved in 2010, the Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that the new law would raise only $8.7 billion over 10 years, not the $100 billion that Obama claimed could be collected every single year. This video has some of the damning details.

One final point demands attention:

While it appears that the rest of the world is against FATCA, that’s not completely true. Some international bureaucrats in Paris, funded by American tax dollars, actually want the rest of the world to adopt the same Orwellian system. Here’s a blurb from the New York Times story:

Jeffrey Owens, a tax expert at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, said catching tax evaders was “a concern that many member countries share.” If countries could agree to new global reporting standards for exchanging information, he said, then “maybe there’s a way forward.”

In other words, the pinhead bureaucrats at the OECD think FATCA’s such a swell idea that they want to create a global network of tax police. So not only would America erode the sovereignty of other nations because of our bad tax law, but those other nations would be able to impose their bad tax law on income earned in America!

And just in case you think that’s just irresponsible demagoguery, it’s already beginning to happen. Check out this IRS regulation, proposed by the Obama administration, that would require American banks to put foreign law above American law.

Are Tax Havens Moral or Immoral?

Being the world’s self-appointed defender of so-called tax havens has led to some rather bizarre episodes.

For instance, the bureaucrats at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development threatened to have me thrown in a Mexican jail for the horrible crime of standing in the public lobby of a hotel and giving advice to low-tax jurisdictions.

On a more amusing note, my efforts to defend tax havens made me the beneficiary of grade inflation and I was listed as the 244th most important person in the world of global  finance — even higher than George Soros and Paul Krugman.

But if that makes it seem as if the battle is full of drama and (exaggerated) glory, that would be a gross exaggeration. More than 99 percent of my time on this issue is consumed by the difficult task of trying to convince policymakers that tax competition, fiscal sovereignty, and financial privacy should be celebrated rather than persecuted.

Sort of like convincing thieves that it’s a good idea for houses to have alarm systems.

And it means I’m also condemned to the never-ending chore of debunking left-wing attacks on tax havens. The big-government crowd viscerally despises these jurisdictions because tax competition threatens the ability of politicians to engage in class warfare/redistribution policies.

Here’s a typical example. Paul Vallely has a column, entitled “There is no moral case for tax havens,” in the UK-based Independent.

To determine whether tax havens are immoral, let’s peruse Mr. Vallely’s column. It begins with an attack on Ugland House in the Cayman Islands.

There is a building in the Cayman Islands that is home to 12,000 corporations. It must be a very big building. Or a very big tax scam.

As I’ve already explained in a post about a certain senator from North Dakota, a company’s home is merely the place where it is chartered for legal purposes. A firm’s legal domicile has nothing to do with where it does business or where it is headquartered.

In other words, there is nothing nefarious about Ugland House, just as there is nothing wrong with the small building in Delaware that is home to more than 200,000 companies. President Obama, by the way, demagogued about Ugland House during the 2008 campaign.

Let’s see what else Vallely has to say:

Are there any legitimate reasons why anyone would want to have a secret bank account – and pay a premium to maintain their anonymity – or move their money to one of the pink dots on the map which are the final remnants of the British empire: the Caymans, Bermuda, the Turks and Caicos and the British Virgin Islands?

Actually, there are lots of people who have very compelling reasons to keep their money in havens, and only a tiny minority of them are escaping onerous tax burdens.What about:

  • Jews in North Africa and the Middle East?
  • Persecuted ethnic Chinese in Indonesia and the Philippines?
  • Political dissidents in places such as Russia and Venezuela?
  • Entrepreneurs in regimes such as Venezuela and Zimbabwe?
  • Families threatened by kidnapping failed states such as Mexico?
  • Homosexuals in homophobic regimes such as Iran?

As this video explains, there are billions of people around the world who are subject to state-sanctioned (or at least state-permitted) religious, ethnic, racial, political, sexual, and economic persecution. These people are especially likely to be targeted if they have any money, so the ability to invest their assets offshore and keep that information hidden from venal governments can, in some cases, be a life-or-death matter.

And let’s not forget the residents of failed states, where crime, expropriation, kidnapping, corruption, extortion, and economic mismanagement are ubiquitous. These people also need havens where they can safely and confidentially invest their money.

Vallely is apparently unaware of these practical, real-world concerns. Instead, he is content with sweeping proclamations:

The moral case against is clear enough. Tax havens epitomise unfairness, cheating and injustice.

But if he is against unfairness, cheating, and injustice, why does he want to empower the institution — government — that is the largest source of oppression in the world?

To be fair, Vallely does attempt to address the other side of the argument.

Apologists insist that tax havens protect individual liberty. They promote the accumulation of capital, fair competition between nations and better tax law elsewhere in the world. They also foster economic growth.

…Yet even if all that were true – and it is not – does it outweigh the ethical harm they do? The numbered bank accounts of tax havens are notoriously sanctuaries for the spoils of theft, fraud, bribery, terrorism, drug-dealing, illegal betting, money-laundering and plunder by Arab despots such as Gaddafi, Mubarak and Ben Ali, all of whom had Swiss accounts frozen.

He can’t resist trying to discredit the economic argument by resorting to more demagoguery, asserting that tax havens are shadowy regimes. Not surprisingly, Vallely offers no supporting data. Moreover, you won’t be surprised to learn that the real-world evidence directly contradicts what he wrote: the most comprehensive analysis of dirty money finds 28 problem jurisdictions, and only one could be considered a tax haven.

Last but not least, the author addresses the issue that really motivates the left: the potential loss of access to other people’s money, funds that they want the government to confiscate and redistribute.

Christian Aid reckons that tax dodging costs developing countries at least $160bn a year — far more than they receive in aid. The US research centre Integrity estimated that more than $1.2trn drained out of poor countries illicitly in 2008 alone. …Some say an attack on tax havens is an attack on wealth creation. It is no such thing. It is a demand for the good functioning of capitalism, balancing the demands of efficiency and of justice, and placing a value on social harmony.

There are several problems with this passage, including Vallely’s confusion of tax evasion with tax avoidance. But the key point is that the burden of government spending in most nations is now at record levels, undermining prosperity and reducing growth. Why add more fuel to the fire by giving politicians even more money to waste?

Consider some real-world evidence: The Wall Street Journal has an article on the Canton of Zug, Switzerland’s tax haven within a tax haven. This hopefully won’t surprise anyone, but low-tax policies have been very beneficial for Zug:

Developed nations from Japan to America are desperate for growth, but this tiny lake-filled Swiss canton is wrestling with a different problem: too much of it. Zug’s history of rock-bottom tax rates, for individuals and corporations alike, has brought it an A-list of multinational businesses. Luxury shops abound, government coffers are flush, and there are so many jobs that employers sometimes have a hard time finding people to fill them.

Here’s some more evidence of how better fiscal policy promotes prosperity. This is economic data, to be sure, but isn’t the choice between growth and stagnation also a moral issue?

Zug long was a poor farming region, but in 1947 its leaders began to trim tax rates in an effort to attract companies and the well-heeled. In Switzerland, two-thirds of total taxes, including individual and corporate income taxes, are levied by the cantons, not the central government. The cantons also wield other powers that enable them compete for business, such as the authority to make residency and building permits easy to get.

…[B]usinesses moved in, many establishing regional headquarters. Over the past decade, the number of companies with operations of some sort in the canton jumped to 30,000 from 19,000. The number of jobs in Zug rose 20% in six years, driven by the economic boom and foreign companies’ efforts to minimize their taxes. At a time when the unemployment rate in the European Union (to which Switzerland doesn’t belong) is 9.4%, Zug’s is 1.9%.

It turns out that Zug is growing so fast that lawmakers actually want to discourage more investment. What a nice problem to have.

Describing Zug’s development as “astonishing,” Matthias Michel, the head of the canton government, said, “We are too small for the success we have had.”

…Zug has largely stopped trying to lure more multinationals, according to Mr. Michel.

It’s worth pointing out that the residents of Zug are not some sort of anomaly. The rest of Switzerland is filled with people who recognize the value of limited government:

[T]he Swiss are mostly holding fast to their fiscal beliefs. Last November, in a national referendum, they overwhelmingly rejected a proposal that would have established a minimum 22% tax rate on incomes over 250,000 francs, or about $315,000.

Sadly, even though the world is filled with evidence that smaller government is good for prosperity (and even more evidence that big government is bad for growth), statism is not abating.

Indeed, the anti-tax haven campaign continues to gain steam. At a recent OECD meeting, high-tax nations (with the support of the Obama administration) put in place a bureaucratic monstrosity that is likely to become a world tax organization.

This global tax cartel will be akin to an OPEC for politicians, and the impact on taxpayers will be quite similar to the impact of the real OPEC on motorists.

If that’s a moral outcome, then I want to be amoral.

To conclude, here are two other videos on tax havens. This one looks at the economic issues:

And here’s a video debunking some of the usual attacks on low-tax jurisdictions:

Reckless IRS Regulation Would Put Foreign Tax Law over American Tax Law and Drive Investment out of the United States

I’m not a big fan of the IRS, but usually I blame politicians for America’s corrupt, unfair, and punitive tax system. Sometimes, though, the tax bureaucrats run amok and earn their reputation as America’s most despised bureaucracy.

Here’s an example. Earlier this year, the Internal Revenue Service proposed a regulation that would force American banks to become deputy tax collectors for foreign governments. Specifically, they would be required to report any interest they pay to accounts held by nonresident aliens (a term used for foreigners who live abroad).

The IRS issued this proposal, even though Congress repeatedly has voted not to tax this income because of an understandable desire to attract job-creating capital to the U.S. economy. In other words, the IRS is acting like a rogue bureaucracy, seeking to overturn laws enacted through the democratic process.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The IRS’s interest-reporting regulation also threatens the stability of the American banking system, makes America less attractive for foreign investors, and weakens the human rights of people who live under corrupt and tyrannical governments.

This video outlines five specific reasons why the IRS regulation is bad news and should be withdrawn.

I’m not sure what upsets me most. As a believer in honest and lawful government, it is outrageous that the IRS is abusing the regulatory process to pursue an ideological agenda that is contrary to 90 years of congressional law. But I guess we shouldn’t be surprised to see this kind of policy from the IRS with Obama in the White House. After all, this Administration already is using the EPA in a dubious scheme to impose costly global warming rules even though Congress decided not to approve Obama’s misguided legislation.

As an economist, however, I worry about the impact on the U.S. banking sector and the risks for the overall economy. Foreigners invest lots of money in the American economy, more than $10 trillion according to Commerce Department data. This money boosts our financial markets and creates untold numbers of jobs. We don’t know how much of the capital will leave if the regulation is implemented, but even the loss of a couple of hundred billion dollars would be bad news considering the weak recovery and shaky financial sector.

As a decent human being, I’m also angry that Obama’s IRS is undermining the human rights of foreigners who use the American financial system as a safe haven. Countless people protect their assets in America because of corruption, expropriation, instability, persecution, discrimination, and crime in their home countries. The only silver lining is that these people will simply move their money to safer jurisdictions, such as Panama, the Cayman Islands, Hong Kong, or Switzerland, if the regulation is implemented. That’s great news for them, but bad news for the U.S. economy.

In pushing this regulation, the IRS even disregarded rule-making procedures adopted during the Clinton Administration. But all this is explained in the video, so let’s close this post with a link to a somewhat naughty - but very appropriate - joke about the IRS.

Planned Economy, Privacy Problems

If someone asked you what’s wrong with a planned economy, your first answer might not be “privacy.” But it should be. For proof, look no further than the financial regulation bill the Senate is debating. Its 1,400 pages contain strong prescriptions for a government-micromanaged economy—and the undoing of your financial privacy. Here’s a look at some of the personal data collection this revamp of financial services regulation will produce.

The “Office of Financial Research” (sec. 152) will have a “Data Center” (sec. 154) that requires submisson of data on any financial activity that poses a threat to financial stability.

Use your noggin, now: Will government researchers know in advance what might cause financial instability? Will they home in on precisely that? No.

This is government entrée into any financial activities federal bureaucrats suspect might cause instability. It’s carte blanche to examine all financial transactions—including yours. (Confidentiality rules? The better view is that privacy is lost when the government takes data from your control, but we’ll come back to confidentiality.)

The Office of Financial Research is also a sop to industry. Morgan Stanley estimates that it will save the company 20 to 30 percent of its operating costs. The advocates for this bureaucracy want to replace the competitive environment for financial data with a uniform government data platform. Students of technology will instantly recognize what this data monoculture means: If the government’s data and assumptions are bad, everyone’s data and assumptions are bad, and all players in the financial services system fall together. The Office of Financial Research itself poses a threat to financial stability.

But all that’s about money. On with privacy…

The “Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection” (sec. 1011) in the bill is another beetle boring into your personal financial life. Among its mandates is to “gather information … regarding the organization, business conduct, markets, and activities of persons operating in consumer financial services markets” (sec. 1022(c)(4)).

In case you’re wondering, the definition of “person” includes “an individual” (sec. 1002(17)). The Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection can investigate your business conduct and activities.

Come now. All this private data gathering can’t possibly be what they mean to do, can it?

Section 1071(b) requires any deposit-taking financial institution to geo-code customer addresses and maintain records of deposits for at least three years. Think of the government having its own Google map of where you and your neighbors do your banking. The Bureau may “use the data for any other purpose as permitted by law,” such as handing it off to other bureaus, like the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Still, that’s really not what the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection is supposed to be about, is it? It can’t be!

It’s not. Nor was the Social Security number about creating a uniform national identifier that facilitates both lawful (excessive) data collection and identity fraud. The construction of surveillance infrastructure doesn’t turn on the intentions of its builders. They’re just giving another turn to the wheels that crush privacy.

Promises of confidentiality and “de-identified” data are not reassuring. It’s getting harder and harder to collect data that are not personally identifiable. Latanya Sweeney’s 2002 “k-anonymity” paper is best known for establishing how anonymous data can be “re-identified,” unraveling promised confidentiality and privacy.

Just a few “anonymous” data points can pick out individuals. Data-driven triangulation on individuals will get easier as data collection grows society-wide. Confidentiality rules in the bill will tend to fail over time, if they’re not simply reversed when some future exigency demands it. If we’re to maintain privacy, government data collection should be shrinking, not growing.

How do you manage an economy from the top? You collect data. Thanks to computing and communications, there are lots of data available nowadays. Maybe the failed Progressive-Era dream of “scientific government” has been revitalized by the idea that data can shore up regulation’s natural defects.

My colleague Mark Calabria has investigated and drawn into question whether it was a lack of consumer protection that caused the financial crisis. But Washington, D.C. has determined that Washington, D.C. should manage the financial services industry. Your personal and private financial affairs will be managed there too.

Dynamic Marketplace, Nimble Legislature

Years ago, when I worked on Capitol Hill, a colleague invited me to attend a meeting with some university professors who had a new idea for regulation of the telecommunications sector.

“Bits,” they said. “All regulation should center on bits.”

With convergence on IP-based communications, the regulatory silos dominating telecommunications would soon be more than anachronistic. Indeed, they would be a burden on the telecom sector. Bits were the fundamental unit of measure for the coming telecommunications era, and regulation should be formed around that reality.

My colleague and I looked at each other, amused.

Figuring out the substance is 5% of the problem. The other 95% is pulling together a sufficient coalition and muting opposition to your reform. More than a decade after this meeting and with “convergence” a rather old and obvious idea, the telecom regulatory regime is unchanged.

Like these professors did with telecom, many people can imagine legislative solutions to problems in the privacy era. I often don’t agree that their solutions are good, but nonetheless the capacity to imagine a suitable regulation is only 5% of the problem. Whether a good idea can be reduced to legislative language, passed in the same form, and implemented in its original spirit—all these are reasons to be wary of the legislative enterprise. What happens if something goes wrong?

Take the example of the privacy notices that the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act requires financial institution to send to consumers each year. At the time it passed, I argued that it was an anti-marketing law much more than a privacy law. I haven’t seen anyone argue that financial privacy has flourished since it passed. I have also expressed doubts about notice and its utility for consumers many times, including in this long post, part of an abandoned debate with Cato colleague Julian Sanchez.

But putting aside these substantive issues, I don’t think anybody believed when Gramm-Leach-Bliley passed that consumers should get annual privacy notices from financial services providers that don’t share information in the ways the law was meant to affect.

But it did require those notices, and after the law passed in late 1999, those privacy notices started to go out:

“It’s 2000, and we don’t share information about you.”

“It’s 2001, and we’re still not sharing information about you.”

“It’s 2002—still not sharing information.”

“It’s 2003—we continue to not share information about you.”

“Hey, friend, here in 2004, we’re not sharing information about you!”

And so on, and so on, and so on—meaningless notices that could only confuse consumers.

So I was amused to see yesterday—more than ten years later—that the House of Representatives passed H.R. 3506, the “Eliminate Privacy Notice Confusion Act.” If would allow financial services providers that don’t share personal information in ways relevant to the GLB Act to stop sending those meaningless notices every year.

It took Congress ten years to correct a simple, obvious mistake—something nobody intended to put into the law. How many years would it take to correct privacy law on which opinion was divided?

Online privacy is more difficult and changing than financial privacy. The weakness of artificial “privacy notice” to affect consumer awareness and behavior is starting to dawn on people. But even if we did know the right answers, I would be wary of writing them into law.

A dynamic market needs a nimble legislature overseeing it. There’s just no such thing. Prefer the market.

Government-Mandated Spying on Bank Customers Undermines both Privacy and Law Enforcement

I recently publicized an interesting map showing that so-called tax havens are not hotbeds of dirty money. A more fundamental question is whether anti-money laundering laws are an effective way of fighting crime – particularly since they substantially undermine privacy.

In this new six-minute video, I ask whether it’s time to radically rethink a system that costs billions of dollars each year, forces banks to snoop on their customers, and misallocates law enforcement resources.