Tag: rule of law

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This video outlines five specific reasons why the IRS regulation is bad news and should be withdrawn.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

An Imaginary Federal Election Commission

Jeff Patch and Zac Morgan of the Center for Competitive Politics report on the storm that is brewing at the Federal Election Commission over regulations to implement Citizens United. The three Democratic appointees propose regulations that would impose significant elements of the DISCLOSE Act, a bill that failed to pass Congress last year. The three Republican appointees, in contrast, propose to clarify existing law and clear away defunct regulations, all with an eye toward the holdings in Citizens United. The FEC seems unlikely to adopt the proposals by the Democratic appointees. After all, the Democratic commissioners do not have and are unlikely to obtain majority support for their agenda.

Imagine if the Federal Election Commission were directed by a seven-member board where one party or the other held a working majority. Imagine also the Democrats had a majority on this fictional commission. The regulations proposed by the three current Democratic commissioners would become the law of the land. They would become so despite the fact that Congress itself did not pass the DISCLOSE Act and the regulations contravene the spirit and perhaps the letter of a major Supreme Court decision.

How would that (imagined) outcome be compatible with American constitutional democracy? How would it comport with the rule of law?

The IRS Run Amok

I’m not a big fan of the Internal Revenue Service, but I try not to demonize the bureaucrats because politicians actually deserve most of the blame for America’s complex, unfair, and corrupt tax system. The IRS generally is in the unenviable position of simply trying to enforce very bad laws.

But sometimes the IRS runs amok and the agency deserves to be held in contempt by the American people

Let’s look at a grotesque example of IRS misbehavior. It deals with a seemingly arcane issue, but it has big implications for the US economy, the rule of law, and human rights.

On January 7, the tax-collection bureaucracy proposed a regulation that, if implemented, would force American financial institutions to put foreign tax law above US tax law. Banks would be required to report to the IRS any interest they pay to foreigners, but not so the US government can collect tax, but in order to let foreign governments tax this US-source income.

This isn’t the first time the IRS has tried to pull this stunt. At the very end of the Clinton years, the agency proposed a rule to do the same thing. But the bureaucrats were thwarted because of overwhelming opposition from Capitol Hill, the financial services industry, and public policy experts. There was near-unanimous agreement that it would be crazy to drive job-creating capital out of the US economy and there was also near-unanimous agreement that the IRS had no authority to impose a regulation that was completely inconsistent with the laws enacted by Congress.

But like a zombie, this IRS regulation has risen from the grave.

I’m not sure what is most upsetting about this proposed rule, but there are five serious flaws in the IRS’s back-door scheme to turn American banks into deputy tax collectors for foreign governments.

1. The IRS is flouting the law, using regulatory dictates to overturn laws enacted through the democratic process.

Ever since 1921, and most recently reconfirmed by legislation in 1976 and 1986, Congress specifically has chosen not to tax interest paid to non-resident foreigners. Lawmakers wanted to attract money to the U.S. economy.

Yet rogue IRS bureaucrats want to impose a regulation to overturn the outcome of the democratic process. Heck, if they really think they have that sort of power, why don’t they do us a favor and unilaterally junk the entire internal revenue code and give us a flat tax?

2. The IRS has failed to perform a cost-benefit analysis, as required by executive order 12866.

Issued by the Clinton Administration, this executive order requires that regulations be accompanied by “An assessment of the potential costs and benefits of the regulatory action” for any regulation that will, “Have an annual effect on the economy of $100 million or more or adversely affect in a material way the economy, a sector of the economy, productivity, competition, jobs, the environment, public health or safety, or State, local, or tribal governments or communities.”

Yet the IRS blithely asserts that this interest-reporting proposal is “not a significant regulatory action.” Amazing, we have trillions of dollars of foreign capital invested in our economy, perhaps $1 trillion of which is deposited in banks, and we know some of which definitely will be withdrawn if this regulation is implemented, but the bureaucrats unilaterally decided the regulation doesn’t require a cost-benefit analysis.

During a previous incarnation of this regulation, the IRS’s failure to comply with the rules led the Office of Advocacy at the Small Business Administration to denounce the tax-collection bureaucracy, stating that “…there is ample evidence that the impact of the regulation is significant and that a substantial number of small businesses will be impacted.”

3. The IRS is imposing a regulation that puts America’s economy at risk.

According to the Commerce Department, foreigners have invested more than $10 trillion in the U.S. economy.

And according to the Treasury Department, foreigners have more than $4 trillion in American banks and brokerage accounts.

We don’t know how much money will leave America if this regulation is implemented, but there are many financial centers – such as London, Hong Kong, Cayman, Singapore, Tokyo, Zurch, Luxembourg, Bermuda, and Panama – that would gladly welcome the additional investment if the IRS makes the American financial services sector less attractive.

4. The IRS is destabilizing America’s already shaky financial system.

Five years ago, when the banking industry was strong, the IRS regulation would have been bad news. Now, with many banks still weakened by the financial crisis, the regulation could be a death knell. Not only would it drive capital to banks in other nations, it also would impose a heavy regulatory burden.

How bad would it be? Commenting on an earlier version of the regulation, which only would have applied to deposits from 15 countries, the Chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation warned that, “[a] shift of even a modest portion of these [nonresident alien] funds out of the U.S. banking system would certainly be termed a significant economic impact.” He also noted that potentially $1 trillion of deposits might be involved. And a study from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University estimated that $87 billion would leave the American economy. And remember, that estimate was based on a regulation that would have applied to just 15 nations, not the entire world.

So what happens if more banks fail? I guess the bureaucrats at the IRS would probably just shrug their shoulders and suggest another bailout.

5. The IRS is endangering the lives of foreigners who deposit funds in America because of persecution, discrimination, abuse, crime, and instability in their home countries.

If you’re from Mexico you don’t want to put money in local banks or declare it to the tax authorities. Corruption is rampant and that information might be sold to criminal gangs who then kidnap one of your children. If you’re from Venezuela, you have the same desire to have your money in the United States, but perhaps you’re more worried about persecution or expropriation by a brutal dictatorship.

There are people all over the world who have good reasons to protect their private financial information. Yet this regulation would put them and their families at risk. The only silver lining is that these people presumably will move their money to other nations. Good for them, bad for America.

Let’s wrap this up. Under current law, America is a safe haven for international investors. This is good news for foreigners, and good news for the American economy. That’s why it is so outrageous that the IRS, unilaterally and without legal justification, is trying to reverse 90 years of law for no other reason than to help foreign governments.

By the way, you can add your two cents by clicking on this link which will take you to the public comment page for this regulation. Don’t be bashful.

One last point. The Obama Administration says this regulation is part of a global effort to improve tax compliance. But unless Congress changes the law, the IRS is not responsible for helping foreign tax collectors squeeze more money out foreign taxpayers. Moreover, the White House has been grossly misleading about U.S. compliance issues (as this video illustrates), so their assertions lack credibility.

Another View of Tunisia

On Saturday, inspired by Fareed Zakaria’s writings on “illiberal democracy,” I expressed concerns about the prospect of quick elections in Tunisia, a country that has not had a free press, an independent judiciary, or other elements of liberalism. Khelil Bouarrouj, a Tunisian-American libertarian, thinks I am overly pessimistic. Here’s what he wrote me:

While Tunisia has never been a true democracy, the largely educated middle class in the nation is well-learned when it comes to the principles of a free society. The regime’s authoritarianism does not speak for the courageous Tunisian lawyers, activists and students; along with the general professional class. Tunisians know what a free press looks like. They’ve seen it around the world when they travel and social networks have served as a dissident channel. And let me add without hyperbole that on Saturday Tunisians awoke to a free press. The usually propagandistic state television changed its logo (which was a regime ensign) and became a voice for free debate with call-ins from average Tunisians. The private media was hosting panel discussions and it was stunning: people have shaken off the fear, and educated journalists and other civil society individuals were openly debating and discussing a whole host of issues. The newspapers that were published that morning ceased with self-censorship, and their coverage and editorials became free forums. A casual reader and observer of the press/media would conclude that it is dominated by a liberal social class with strong democratic values and articulation. In short, the past absence of an institutionalized free press does not mean that Tunisians do not understand the merit of free debate and differing voices. They always have and needed only the opportunity to breathe, which they have now seized.

This lesson, I believe, applies to democracy as well. The fact is that liberal social norms have been ingrained in Tunisian culture: a secular state, equal rights for women, higher education, religious tolerance, etc. I do not state this as a patriot, who has certainly been emotionally moved in recent days, but as an observer who has numerous family and friends in the nation and been engaged in countless political discussions.

The images of the protesters themselves tell a story. Unlike in other Arab nations, the opposition was not uncouth Islamists but a liberal middle class and students. The demonstrations at colleges had Arab youth spell out the word freedom (which was widely evoked during the month), and this was not just a slogan but a genuinely understood ideal. The nation is ready to be a true democracy and truly entrench democratic values. The cultural ethos is already democratic and this is what led to the protests, defining their voice and even the demand that the transition government adhere to the very letter of the constitution. After the president fled, the prime minister took over but Tunisian lawyers immediately declared it unconstitutional (as it was), along with buzzing messages on Facebook by the newly energized populace, and within hours the premier handed power to the speaker of the parliament according to the constitution. The high court has declared that elections shall be held in 60 days per the constitution as well.

Tunisians wanted to start off right with respect for the rule of law. And that’s just it: this nation has been democratic at heart; the recipe for democracy if you will, and the rule of law is understood, respected by Tunisians and had been upheld even under the past regime with the obvious exception of the corrupt and now dethroned ruling elite. Tunisians precisely threw them out because of their repressive rule and flagrant abuse of the law. And the fact is that the people are so committed to a free, democratic Tunisia and the rule of law that they did not acquiesce to an unconstitutional transfer of power, even though they had achieved their main objective of expelling the president and the premier was going to reign solely as a temporary president until elections are held.

Again: people wanted to start a new dawn without compromise on the rule of law. It is no trivial matter that even in the excitement and shock of victory people still thought about the constitutional provision and demanded it be respected. One may have believed that the people would have been elated and surfeit to achieve a monumental victory, unprecedented in the Arab world for a popular revolt to bring down an Arab tyrant, and not bothered with a provision, which would appear to be minor in context of the historic day and new beginning, and which is ultimately inconsequential since the caretaker would leave after elections. But they were not, and that speaks volumes. I have been glued to Facebook updates, the best pulse of the nation right now, and after the premier assumed power Tunisians immediately noted that this is unconstitutional and began to demand his removal. Tunisians wanted the constitution to be respected from Day One and it was the people who made it happen, again. On Facebook, the sentiment is unanimous: a clean break with the ruling party, respect for the rule of law, free and fair elections, and upholding the constitution. After such a dear victory, the widely heard pronouncement is that the people will not be complacent and are ready and willing to eagerly guard their rights and see to it that a democracy worthy of its name will be planted in Tunisia.

After Friday, the Tunisia people have earned with great sacrifice their freedom, and the people are determined that their God-given rights shall not slip an inch and are closely watching the transition as the proverbial vanguards of liberty, and the people will see to it that their hope will be made concrete. The nation is ready and while no democracy is perfect and all democracies are often in a state of oscillation, Tunisia is the best bet and hope for the Arab world’s first real liberal democracy. And I believe it will be a model for the rest of the region.

Bill Daley and ‘Too Big To Fail’

MIT Professor Simon Johnson recently argued that Bill Daley’s appointment as Obama’s Chief of Staff signals that “too big to fail,” as it relates to our largest financial institutions, is here to stay.  Personally I never thought it was in doubt.  With Geithner at Treasury and Dodd-Frank further codifiying “too big to fail,” its been clear for some time that the bailout net is larger than it’s ever been, and is not being pulled back. 

That said, Professor Johnson’s focus on Daley distracts from the real issue, which is changing our bank regulatory structure to end bailouts.  The focus on Daley has the potential to lead us down that path of “if we just had the right people in government…”  We shouldn’t be designing our regulatory structures with the “right” people in mind, but rather with the rule of law in mind.  In fact, one of the benefits of the Obama administration is that it serves as a great test of the “right people” hypothesis of government.  One is unlikely to see a more left-leaning White House than this one, so if this one gets captured by special interests, including Wall Street, than it’s a safe bet that any future administration will as well. 

Since I believe most of us actually want to end “too big to fail,” the real question is how to do it.  It strikes me that we have three options:  regulate the largest institutions to death (or competitive disadvantage), break them up, or credibly impose losses on their creditors.  Ultimately I think the regulation approach is bound to fail, if for no other reason than regulatory capture.   (Even Elizabeth Warren seems to get this: “Regulations, over time, fail. I want to see Congress focus more on a credible system for liquidating the banks that are considered too big to fail.”)  Breaking them up might sound attractive in theory, but I have a hard time seeing how it truly works in practice.  After all, few in Washington viewed Bear Stearns as “too big to fail.”  Accordingly, I believe the best approach would be to force creditors to take losses or be converted into equity.  To make this credible, we must bind the hands of the regulators.  As long as the Fed, Treasury, or the FDIC can inject money, then bailouts are always on the table.    

Sadly, what the Daley appointment reminds us is that any attempt to end “too big to fail” will likely have to wait until the next administration.  Not only is this one wed to bailouts, the President would likely veto any bill that really tied the hands of the Fed.

ATF: Laws are for the Little People

That’s the only message I can take away from the ATF proposal to require Federal Firearm License (FFL) holders to report the sale of two or more semiautomatic rifles that accept detachable magazines in states along the border with Mexico. In other words, this is gun control for the sake of Mexico.

Thing is, the proposal breaks the law. The ATF doesn’t have the authority to do this.

As David Hardy notes at Of Arms & the Law:

There are several violations of the Gun Control Act, as amended by the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act. First, 18 USC §926(b) provides “The Attorney General shall give not less than ninety days public notice, and shall afford interested parties opportunity for hearing, before prescribing such rules and regulations.” This is stricter than the Admin Procedure Act’s general provision for a “reasonable” comment period, and it has no emergency exceptions. ATFE is only giving 30 days’ notice.

Second, the FOPA amendments were intended to cut off future requirements of direct reporting – I say future because the existing regs (including reporting of multiple handgun sales were grandfathered in, but limited to those specific requirements. Thus far and no farther.

The ATF’s action provokes a court contest over the limits of the agency’s powers, which are clearly being exceeded. The litigation will provide another opportunity for Hardy’s excellent article about the legislative history of the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act to get cited in federal court.

All of this is unnecessary and lawless. There is a legitimate way for allowing the ATF to take this action: amend the law. Instead the Executive is ruling by regulatory fiat, damaging and degrading the rule of law. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of that going around these days.

Wikileaks Cable: Martinelli Is a Threat to the Rule of Law in Panama

Last August I warned about the troubling signs coming from Panama’s president Ricardo Martinelli. Elected in 2009 on a free market platform, Martinelli has quickly embraced interventionist economic policies (particularly a sharp increase in public spending) that sooner or later will take a toll on Panama’s macroeconomic stability. More worryingly, I pointed at a disturbing pattern of cronyism, erosion of democratic checks and balances, and harassment of the media emanating from the Martinelli administration.

A cable released by Wikileaks this week seems to confirm many of these fears. Dated August 2009 and signed by then U.S. Ambassador to Panama Barbara Stephenson, it describes Martinelli’s “autocratic tendencies” such as asking the U.S. government for help to wiretap political opponents—a request that was promptly rejected by the U.S. embassy in Panama. Stephenson goes on to say that, after meeting the Panamanian president, she is under the impression that Martinelli “may be willing to set aside the rule of law in order to achieve his political and developmental goals.”

According to the cable, Martinelli has resorted to “bullying and blackmailing” of private businesses. Stephenson describes how the Panamanian president told her that “he had already met with the heads of Panama’s four mobile phone operators and discussed methods for obtaining call data.” A bill has also been introduced in the National Assembly (where Martinelli’s coalition enjoys a large majority) that would “require registry of prepaid cell phones and compel mobile operators to submit call data to the government for criminal investigations.” Martinelli also told Stephenson that “he had twisted the arms of casino operators and threatened to cancel their concessions if they did not pay their back taxes and cut their ties to the opposition political figures who had granted their generous concessions.”

The cable ends noticing how “[m]ost of [Martinelli’s] government appointments have favored loyalty over competence.” That is, the Martinelli administration is riddled with cronyism– as I wrote back in August.

There is new evidence outside of the Wikileaks cable which confirms Martinelli’s ominous autocratic inclinations. For instance, international media organizations have lambasted the Martinelli administration in recent months for its encroachment on independent media. Reporters Without Borders dropped Panama 30 spots in its latest Press Freedom Index, noticing that the country “has taken an opposite direction, in an atmosphere growing increasingly tense between the media and the authorities.” The Interamerican Press Association says in its most recent report on Panama that “[o]ver the past six months, freedom of the press has been threatened by actions by institutions belonging to the government of President Ricardo Martinelli, as well as from the Judicial Branch and the Prosecutors’ Office.” As I pointed out in my August op-ed, Martinelli has appointed loyal (and controversial) figures to both the Supreme Court and the Prosecutors’ Office.

The diplomatic cable leaked by Wikileaks as well as these reports by international organizations lend credibility to the argument that Ricardo Martinelli is a growing threat to Panama’s rule of law and democratic institutions. Panamanians have a lot to be worried about.