Tag: financial privacy

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This video outlines five specific reasons why the IRS regulation is bad news and should be withdrawn.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

A Victory for Fiscal Sovereignty and Human Rights

A Swiss court just threw a wrench in the gears of an IRS effort to impose bad U.S. tax law on an extraterritorial basis, ruling that Switzerland-based UBS does not have to hand over data to the American tax authorities. This ruling nullifies an agreement that the Swiss government was coerced into making with the U.S. government last year.

In typical arrogant fashion, the IRS already has indicated that it still expects acquiescence, notwithstanding Switzerland’s strong human rights policy on personal privacy. The Bloomberg story excerpted below has the details, but it’s worth noting that this entire fight exists solely because the Internal Revenue Code imposes double taxation on income that is saved and invested, and imposes that bad policy on economic activity outside America’s border. But just as other governments should not have the right to impose their laws on things that happen in America, the United States should not have the right to trample the sovereignty of other nations:

The failure by U.S. citizens to complete certain tax forms or declare income doesn’t constitute “tax fraud” that would require Switzerland to disclose account data, the country’s Federal Administrative Court ruled in a judgment released today. …“The prosecutors at the Justice Department are not going to be happy with this opinion,” Namorato said in an interview in Washington. …U.S. Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller declined to comment. …The Internal Revenue Service said in a statement that while the agency hadn’t reviewed the ruling it “had every expectation that the Swiss government will continue to honor the terms of the agreement.” …Switzerland distinguishes between tax fraud, which is a crime, and tax evasion, which is a civil offense.

This battle is part of a broader effort by uncompetitive nations to persecute “tax havens.” Creating a tax cartel for the benefit of greedy politicians in France, Germany, and the United States would be a mistake. An “OPEC for politicians” would pave the way for higher taxes, as explained here, here, and here.

But this also is a human rights issue. Look at what happened recently in the thugocracy known as Venezuela, where Chavez began a new wave of expropriation. The Venezuelans with money in Cayman, Miami, and Switzerland were safe, but the people with assets inside the country have been ripped off by a criminal government. Or what about people subjected to persecution, such as political dissidents in Russia? Or Jews in North Africa? Or ethnic Chinese in Indonesia? Or homosexuals in Iran? And how about people in places such as Mexico where kidnappings are common and successful people are targeted, often on the basis of information leaked from tax departments. This world needs safe havens, jurisdictions such as Switzerland and the Cayman Islands that offer oppressed people the protection of honest courts, financial privacy, and the rule of law. Heck, even the bureaucrat in charge of the OECD’s anti-tax competition campaign admitted to a British paper that “tax havens are essential for individuals who live in unstable regimes.” With politicians making America less stable with each passing day, let’s hope this essential freedom is available in the future.

Wednesday Links

  • Cato v. Heritage on the Patriot Act, Round III: “In hindsight, did Congress and the president react too hastily in 2001 by passing the Patriot Act just weeks after the 9/11 attacks?”

Monday Links