Tag: Switzerland

Switzerland’s ‘Debt Brake’ Is a Role Model for Spending Control and Fiscal Restraint

I’ve argued, ad nauseam, that the single most important goal of fiscal policy is (or should be) to make sure the private sector grows faster than the government. This “golden rule” is the best way of enabling growth and avoiding fiscal crises, and I’ve cited nations that have made progress by restraining government spending.

But what’s the best way of actually imposing such a rule, particularly since politicians like using taxpayer money as a slush fund?

Well, the Swiss voters took matters into their own hands, as I describe in today’s Wall Street Journal.

Americans looking for a way to tame government profligacy should look to Switzerland. In 2001, 85% of its voters approved an initiative that effectively requires its central government spending to grow no faster than trendline revenue. The reform, called a “debt brake” in Switzerland, has been very successful. Before the law went into effect in 2003, government spending was expanding by an average of 4.3% per year. Since then it’s increased by only 2.6% annually.

So how does this system work?

Switzerland’s debt brake limits spending growth to average revenue increases over a multiyear period (as calculated by the Swiss Federal Department of Finance). This feature appeals to Keynesians, who like deficit spending when the economy stumbles and tax revenues dip. But it appeals to proponents of good fiscal policy, because politicians aren’t able to boost spending when the economy is doing well and the Treasury is flush with cash. Equally important, it is very difficult for politicians to increase the spending cap by raising taxes. Maximum rates for most national taxes in Switzerland are constitutionally set (such as by an 11.5% income tax, an 8% value-added tax and an 8.5% corporate tax). The rates can only be changed by a double-majority referendum, which means a majority of voters in a majority of cantons would have to agree.

In other words, the debt brake isn’t a de jure spending cap, but it is a de facto spending cap. And capping the growth of spending (which is the underlying disease) is the best way of controlling red ink (the symptom of excessive government).

Switzerland’s spending cap has helped the country avoid the fiscal crisis affecting so many other European nations. Annual central government spending today is less than 20% of gross domestic product, and total spending by all levels of government is about 34% of GDP. That’s a decline from 36% when the debt brake took effect. This may not sound impressive, but it’s remarkable considering how the burden of government has jumped in most other developed nations. In the U.S., total government spending has jumped to 41% of GDP from 36% during the same time period.

Switzerland is moving in the right direction and the United States is going in the wrong direction. The obvious lesson (to normal people) is that America should copy the Swiss. Congressman Kevin Brady has a proposal to do something similar to the debt brake.

Rep. Kevin Brady (R., Texas), vice chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, has introduced legislation that is akin to the Swiss debt brake. Called the Maximizing America’s Prosperity Act, his bill would impose direct spending caps, but tied to “potential GDP.” … Since potential GDP is a reasonably stable variable (like average revenue growth in the Swiss system), this approach creates a sustainable glide path for spending restraint.

In some sense, Brady’s MAP Act is akin to Sen. Corker’s CAP Act, but the use of “potential GDP” makes the reform more sustainable because economic fluctuations don’t enable big deviations in the amount of allowable spending.

To conclude, we know the right policy. It is spending restraint. We also know a policy that will achieve spending restraint. A binding spending cap. The problem, as I note in my op-ed, is that “politicians don’t want any type of constraint on their ability to buy votes with other people’s money.”

Overcoming that obstacle is the real challenge.

P.S. A special thanks to Pierre Bessard, the President of Switzerland’s Liberales Institut. He is a superb public intellectual and his willingness to share his knowledge of the Swiss debt brake was invaluable in helping me write my column.

Patriotism, Loyalty, Tax Competition, and ‘Tax Fugitives’

I fight to preserve tax competition, fiscal sovereignty, and financial privacy for the simple reason that politicians are less likely to impose destructive tax policy if they know that labor and capital can escape to jurisdictions with more responsible fiscal climates.

My opponents in this battle are high-tax governments, statist international bureaucracies such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and left-wing pressure groups, all of which want to impose some sort of global tax cartel—sort of an “OPEC for politicians.”

In my years of fighting this battle, I’ve has some strange experiences, most notably in 2008 when the OECD threatened to have me thrown in a Mexican jail for the supposed crime of standing in a public area of a hotel and advising representatives of low-tax jurisdictions on how best to resist fiscal imperialism.

A few other bizarre episodes occurred in Barbados, back when I was first getting involved in the issue. Here’s a summary of that adventure.

As part of its “harmful tax competition” project, the OECD had called a meeting in 2001 and invited officials from the so-called tax havens to attend in hopes of getting them to surrender their fiscal sovereignty and agree to become deputy tax collectors for uncompetitive welfare states.

Realizing that the small, relatively powerless low-tax nations and territories would be out-gunned and out-manned in such a setting, I organized a delegation of liberty-minded Americans to travel to Barbados and help fight back (as regular readers know, I’m willing to make big sacrifices and go to the Caribbean when it’s winter in Washington).

One of the low-tax nations asked me to provide technical assistance, so they made me part of their delegation. But when I got to the OECD conference, the bureaucrats refused to let me participate. That initial obstacle was overcome, though, when representatives from the low-tax country arrived and they created a stink.

So I got my credentials and went into the conference. But this obviously caused some consternation. Bureaucrats from the OECD and representatives from the Clinton Treasury Department (this was before Bush’s inauguration)  began whispering to each other, followed by some OECD flunky coming over to demand my credentials. I showed my badge, which temporarily stymied the bad guys.

But then a break was called and the OECD announced that the conference couldn’t continue if I was in the room. The fact that the OECD and some of the high-tax nations had technical consultants of their own was immaterial. The conference was supposed to be rigged to generate a certain outcome, and my presence was viewed as a threat.

Given the way things were going, with the OECD on the defensive and low-tax jurisdictions unwilling to capitulate, we decided to let the bureaucrats have a symbolic victory—especially since all that really happened is that I sat outside the conference room and representatives from the low-tax jurisdictions would come out every few minutes and brief me on what was happening. And everything ended well, with the high-tax nations failing in their goal of getting low-tax jurisdictions to surrender by signing “commitment letters” drafted by the OECD.

While the controversy over my participation in the meeting was indicative of the OECD’s unethical and biased behavior, the weirdest part of the Barbados trip occurred at the post-conference reception at the prime minister’s residence.

I was feeling rather happy about the OECD’s failure, so I was enjoying the evening. But not everybody was pleased with the outcome. One of the Clinton Treasury Department officials came up and basically accused me of being disloyal to the United States because I opposed the administration’s policy while on foreign soil.

As you can probably imagine, that was not an effective argument. As this t-shirt indicates, my patriotism is to the ideals of the Founding Fathers, not to the statist actions of the U.S. government. And I also thought it was rather silly for the Treasury Department bureaucrat to make that argument when there was only a week or so left before Clinton was leaving office.

I’m reminded of this bit of personal history because of some recent developments in the area of international taxation.

The federal government recently declared that a Swiss bank is a “fugitive” because it refuses to acquiesce to American tax law and instead is obeying Switzerland’s admirable human rights policy of protecting financial privacy. Here are some details from a report by Reuters.

Wegelin & Co, the oldest Swiss private bank, was declared a fugitive after failing to show up in a U.S. court to answer a criminal charge that it conspired to help wealthy Americans evade taxes. …The indictment of Wegelin, which was founded in 1741, was the first in which the United States accused a foreign bank, rather than individuals, of helping Americans commit tax fraud. …Wegelin issued a statement from Switzerland saying it has not been served with a criminal summons and therefore was not required to appear in court. “The circumstances create a clear dilemma for Wegelin & Co,” it said. “If it were to adhere to current U.S. legal practice aimed at Swiss banks, it would have to breach Swiss law.” …Wegelin has no branches outside Switzerland.

It’s time for me to again be unpatriotic because I’m on the side of the “fugitive.” To be blunt, a Swiss bank operating on Swiss soil has no obligation to enforce bad U.S. tax law.

To understand the principles at stake, let’s turn the tables. What if the Iranian government demanded that the American government extradite Iranian exiles who write articles critical of that country’s leadership? Would the Justice Department agree that the Iranian government had the right to persecute and prosecute people who didn’t break U.S. law? Of course not (at least I hope not!).

Or what if the Chinese government requested the extradition of Tiananmen Square protesters who fled to the United States? Again, I would hope the federal government would say to go jump in a lake because it’s not a crime in America to believe in free speech.

I could provide dozens of additional examples, but I assume you get the point. Nations only cooperate with each other when they share the same laws (and the same values, including due process legal protections).

This is why Wegelin is not cooperating with the United States government, and this is why genuine patriots who believe in the rule of law should be on the side of the “fugitive.”

For further information, here’s a video I narrated on tax competition.

The moral of the story is that “tough on crime” is the right approach, but only when laws are just. At the risk of stating the obvious, the Internal Revenue Code does not meet that test—especially when the IRS is trying to enforce it in a grossly improper extraterritorial fashion.

Three Cheers for Switzerland as Voters Reject Class-Warfare Tax Hike in National Referendum

I’ve always had a soft spot for Switzerland. The nation’s decentralized structure shows the value of federalism, both as a means of limiting the size of government and as a way of promoting tranquility in a nation with several languages, religions, and ethnic groups. I also admire Switzerland’s valiant attempt to preserve financial privacy in a world dominated by greedy, high-tax governments.

I now have another reason to admire the Swiss. Voters yesterday overwhelmingly rejected a class-warfare proposal to impose higher tax rates on the income and wealth of rich residents. The Social Democrats did their best to make the hate-and-envy scheme palatable. Only the very richest taxpayers would have been affected. But Swiss voters, like voters in Washington state earlier this month, understood that giving politicians more money is never a solution for any problem.

Here’s an excerpt from Bloomberg’s report on the vote.

In a referendum today, 59 percent of voters turned down the proposal by the Social Democrats to enact minimum taxes on income and wealth. Residents would have paid taxes of at least 22 percent on annual income above 250,000 francs ($249,000), according to the proposed changes. Switzerland’s executive and parliamentary branches had rejected the proposal, saying it would interfere with the cantons’ tax-autonomy regulations. The changes would also damage the nation’s attractiveness, the government, led by President Doris Leuthard, said before the vote. The Alpine country’s reputation as a low-tax refuge has attracted bankers and entrepreneurs such as Ingvar Kamprad, the Swedish founder of Ikea AB furniture stores, and members of the Brenninkmeijer family, who owns retailer C&A Group.

It’s never wise to draw too many conclusions from one vote, but it certainly seems that voters usually reject higher taxes when they get a chance to cast votes. Even tax increases targeting a tiny minority of the population generally get rejected. The only exception that comes to mind is the unfortunate decision by Oregon voters earlier this year to raise tax rates.

Switzerland’s Strong Human Rights Laws Should Be Emulated, not Persecuted

In a rational world, Switzerland would be a role model for other nations. It is quite prosperous thanks largely to a modest burden of government. There is remarkable ethnic and religoius diversity, but virtually no tension because power is decentralized (sort of what America’s Founders envisioned for the United States). Yet despite these – and many other – attractive features, Switzerland is being persecuted because of strong human rights laws that protect financial privacy. Money-hungry politicians from other nations resent Swtizerland’s attractive policies, and they would rather trample Swiss sovereignty rather than fix their own oppressive tax laws. An official from the Swiss Bankers Association provides some background in a New York Times column:

In Switzerland, this tradition of treating a client’s financial affairs in confidence became law in 1934 when it was codified in Article 47 of the country’s first-ever federal banking act as a contemporary reaction to the economic crisis, various domestic political considerations and well-publicized cases of espionage involving France and Germany. …Banking secrecy…reflects the very high degree of trust that exists between the Swiss state and its citizens and it has strong democratic foundations. …The Swiss are proud of their system and they reward it with a high level of taxpayer honesty. It works because the Swiss vote their own taxes, they have a high degree of control over the way tax revenues are spent and over all they believe their tax system to be reasonable, comprehensible, transparent and fair. …Doesn’t Switzerland hear the snapping jaws and cracking whips of foreign finance ministers, tax collectors, O.E.C.D. bureaucrats, cash-dispensing government agents and other denizens of the encroaching real world as they circle round Mother Helvetia intent on biting huge chunks out of her banking secrecy, if not swallowing it whole? …In March last year the Swiss announced they would give up the evasion-fraud distinction for foreign bank clients and adopt the O.E.C.D. standards on information exchange in tax matters. …However, requests for assistance must be made with regard to a specific individual, and “fishing expeditions” — any indiscriminate trawling through bank accounts in the hope of finding something interesting — remain ruled out. …Switzerland demonstrates to the world that it is possible for a state to collect taxes with a high degree of taxpayer honesty and without the authorities being corroded with suspicion about the financial activities of their citizens. Citizens in a democracy would never allow their police force to have an automatic right of forced entry into their homes just on the off-chance of finding some stolen goods, so why on earth should the state have an automatic right of forced entry into citizens’ banks accounts just on the off-chance of discovering some tax evasion? There must be a limit to the extent to which respect for an individual’s privacy is sacrificed on the altar of international cooperation in tax matters.

Sadly, the United States is part of the effort to create a global tax cartel. An “OPEC for politicians” would be terrible news for taxpayers, though, much as a cartel of gas stations would be bad for driviers. So-called tax havens play a valuable role in curtailing the greed of the political class. Ask yourself a simple question: Would politicians be more likely or less likely to raise tax rates if they knew taxpayers had no escape options?

The Swiss Minaret Ban: Some Things Never Change

minaretIn the Letter Concerning Toleration, John Locke wrote,

Nobody… neither single persons, nor Churches, nay, nor even commonwealths, have any just title to invade the civil rights and worldly goods of each other, upon pretence of religion. Those that are of another opinion would do well to consider with themselves how pernicious a seed of discord and war, how powerful a provocation to endless hatreds, rapines, and slaughters they thereby furnish unto mankind. No peace and security, no, not so much as common friendship, can ever be established or preserved amongst men, so long as this opinion prevails, that dominion is founded in grace, and that religion is to be propagated by force of arms.

A lot has changed since 1685, of course, but some things never will. Even today, the only way that people of different faiths (and of no faith) will ever be able to coexist in the same society is to divorce religion from state compulsion. Separation of church and state is a bargain that everyone can live with. It might just be the only bargain that treats everyone fairly, which is why it’s so important in a globalized, multiethnic world.

For the most part, we in the West have moved steadily toward Locke’s advice. This week the Swiss took a serious step backward:

In a vote that displayed a widespread anxiety about Islam and undermined the country’s reputation for religious tolerance, the Swiss on Sunday overwhelmingly imposed a national ban on the construction of minarets, the prayer towers of mosques, in a referendum drawn up by the far right and opposed by the government.

The referendum, which passed with a clear majority of 57.5 percent of the voters and in 22 of Switzerland’s 26 cantons, was a victory for the right. The vote against was 42.5 percent. Because the ban gained a majority of votes and passed in a majority of the cantons, it will be added to the Constitution.

The Swiss Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the rightist Swiss People’s Party, or S.V.P., and a small religious party had proposed inserting a single sentence banning the construction of minarets, leading to the referendum.

The Swiss government said it would respect the vote and sought to reassure the Muslim population — mostly immigrants from other parts of Europe, like Kosovo and Turkey — that the minaret ban was “not a rejection of the Muslim community, religion or culture.”

…Of 150 mosques or prayer rooms in Switzerland, only 4 have minarets, and only 2 more minarets are planned. None conduct the call to prayer. There are about 400,000 Muslims in a population of some 7.5 million people. Close to 90 percent of Muslims in Switzerland are from Kosovo and Turkey, and most do not adhere to the codes of dress and conduct associated with conservative Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, said Manon Schick, a spokeswoman for Amnesty International in Switzerland.

“Most painful for us is not the minaret ban, but the symbol sent by this vote,” said Farhad Afshar, who runs the Coordination of Islamic Organizations in Switzerland. “Muslims do not feel accepted as a religious community.”

It’s transparently false to say that the minaret ban is “not a rejection of the Muslim community.” Of course it is a rejection of the Muslim community. It is a calculated, symbolic rejection. They didn’t go banning cloisters or mikvehs, after all. And because none of the existing minarets perform the daily calls to prayer, they can’t even say that the measure prevents noise pollution. (An excuse that would, if we were at all serious about it, ban Catholic church bells, while leaving the silent minarets untouched.)

As Locke might have observed, the Swiss ban on minarets isn’t going to calm religious tensions. It’s only going to make them worse, because now we know that the state is willing and able to use its power to disfavor a religion. It’s an open invitation, yet again, to everyone with a religious agenda: Use force, not persuasion. After all, that’s how they do it in (civilized, peace-loving) Switzerland!

Still more unfortunate is that Muslims feel the need to ask the government for acceptance in the first place. Someone should tell them that this is totally unbefitting a proud faith like their own, which should stand or fall on divine truth, not on popular referendum. A government that kept out of religious matters would neither restrict Islam nor feel the need to be falsely reassuring about it. And, under such a government, people of all religious persuasions would have a lot less to worry about.

Again, Locke is instructive:

Is it permitted to speak Latin in the market-place? Let those that have a mind to it be permitted to do it also in the Church. Is it lawful for any man in his own house to kneel, stand, sit, or use any other posture; and to clothe himself in white or black, in short or long garments? Let it not be made unlawful to eat bread, drink wine, or wash with water in the Church. In a word, whatsoever things are left free by law in the common occasions of life, let them remain free unto every Church in divine worship.

And, for the squeamish, Locke adds:

If anything pass in a religious meeting seditiously, and contrary to the public peace, it is to be punished in the same manner, and no otherwise, than as if it had happened in a fair or market.

Some things never change.

Superb Defense of Tax Sovereignty in New York Times

My friend Pierre Bessard of Switzlerand’s Liberales Institut has a column in today’s New York Times defending financial privacy from the predations of both international bureaucracies and American tax collectors. Pierre sagely notes that the Swiss system respects the privacy of citizens, unlike the “Orwellian” systems in places like America. This approach results in a very high level of tax compliance in Switzerland, and also provides a refuge for oppressed people around the world:

…for us here in Switzerland, our financial privacy laws are a foundation for individual dignity and basic property rights. Unfortunately, the confidentiality that is the hallmark of Swiss banking is coming under increasing pressure. … We think government exists to serve us, not the other way around. We understand that we have to pay taxes — and we do, with numerous studies showing that the Swiss are extraordinarily honest about paying what we owe — but we do not think it is the government’s role to intrude on our privacy and wrench them from us. …Today, Swiss citizens continue to vote on any tax increases in referendums (and sometimes even accept them). These healthy curbs on government contrast with the Orwellian concept of the “transparent citizen” whose every act is known to government. We see our system as a social pact between citizens and the state. Swiss privacy laws help preserve basic property rights. Bank secrecy was introduced in 1934, most notably to protect the identities and assets of Jews in Nazi Germany.

I make many of the same points in a three-part video series produced by the Center for Freedom and Prosperity. With so-called tax havens under increasing pressure, this is a good time to review The Economic Case for Tax Havens, The Moral Case for Tax Havens, and Tax Havens: Myths v Facts.

Three Cheers to Swiss Government for Resisting U.S. Fiscal Imperialism

Switzerland has better tax policy than America and a far stronger human-rights policy regarding personal privacy. This makes the IRS unhappy, since the tax police would like to find out if some Americans have overseas bank accounts.

In an odious display of fiscal imperialism, the Department of Justice is demanding that one of the Swiss banks divulge any information about American clients - even though this would mean imposing America’s bad law on a foreign institution operating on foreign soil.

Thankfully, the Swiss government has stepped in to ensure that the bank cannot be extorted.

Bloomberg reports:

Switzerland said it would seize UBS AG data to prevent the U.S. Justice Department from pursuing a U.S. court order seeking the identities of 52,000 American account holders in a crackdown on tax evaders. The assertion came in court papers yesterday in federal court in Miami, where the Justice Department sued UBS on Feb. 19, a day after the bank avoided U.S. prosecution for helping wealthy Americans evade taxes. The U.S. effort to enforce a summons seeking the names would force UBS to violate Swiss laws barring disclosure of such data, the filing said.

The Swiss government “will use its legal authority to ensure that the bank cannot be pressured to transmit the information illegally, including if necessary by issuing an order taking effective control of the data at UBS that is the subject of the summons,” according to the filing.

…“It is hoped that it will be unnecessary for the Government of Switzerland to take the extraordinary action of issuing an order to seize the information at issue, but such an action should be expected if the IRS continues to pressure UBS to violate Swiss law,” according to the filing.