Tag: Tax Compliance

The War against Cash, Part I

Politicians hate cash.

That may seem an odd assertion given that they love spending money (other people’s money, of course, as illustrated by this cartoon).

But what I’m talking about is the fact that politicians get upset when there’s not 100 percent compliance with tax laws.

They hate tax havens since the option of a fiscal refuge makes confiscatory taxation impractical.

They hate the underground economy because that means hard-to-tax economic activity.

And they hate cash because it gives consumers an anonymous payment mechanism.

Let’s explore the animosity to cash.

Everything You Need to Know about Deductions, Loopholes, and Special-Interest Tax Provisions

Why does the tax code require more than 10,000,000 words and more than 75,000 pages?

There are several reasons and none of them are good. But if you had to pick one cause for all the mess, it would be the fact that politicians have worked with interest groups and lobbyists to create myriad deductions, credits, exclusions, preferences, exemptions, and other loopholes.

This is a great deal for the lobbyists, who get big fees. It’s a great scam for politicians, who get lots of contributions. And it’s a great outcome for interest groups, who benefit from back-door industrial policy that distorts the economy.

But it’s not great for the American people or the American economy.

More Americans Going Galt

President Obama promised he would unite the world…and he’s right.

Representatives from all parts of the globe have bitterly complained about an awful piece of legislation, called the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), that was enacted back in 2010.

Michael Ramirez/Investor's Business Daily(Michael Ramirez/Investors Business Daily)

They despise this unjust law because it extends the power of the IRS into the domestic affairs of other nations. That’s an understandable source of conflict, which should be easy to understand. Wouldn’t all of us get upset, after all, if the French government or Russian government wanted to impose their laws on things that take place within our borders?

But it’s not just foreign governments that are irked. The law is so bad that it is causing a big uptick in the number of Americans who are giving up their citizenship.

Here are some details from a Bloomberg report.

Americans renouncing U.S. citizenship surged sixfold in the second quarter from a year earlier… Expatriates giving up their nationality at U.S. embassies climbed to 1,131 in the three months through June from 189 in the year-earlier period, according to Federal Register figures published today. That brought the first-half total to 1,810 compared with 235 for the whole of 2008. The U.S., the only nation in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that taxes citizens wherever they reside.

I’m glad that the article mentions that American law is so out of whack with the rest of the world.

Can You Spell L-A-F-F-E-R C-U-R-V-E?

I’m thinking of inventing a game, sort of a fiscal version of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

Only the way my game will work is that there will be a map of the world and the winner will be the blindfolded person who puts his pin closest to a nation such as Australia or Switzerland that has a relatively low risk of long-run fiscal collapse.

That won’t be an easy game to win since we have data from the BIS, OECD, and IMF showing that government is growing far too fast in the vast majority of nations.

We also know that many states and cities suffer from the same problems.

A handful of local governments already have hit the fiscal brick wall, with many of them (gee, what a surprise) from California.

The most spectacular mess, though, is about to happen in Michigan.

The Washington Post reports that Detroit is on the verge of fiscal collapse.

After decades of sad and spectacular decline, it has come to this for Detroit: The city is $19 billion in debt and on the edge of becoming the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy. An emergency manager says the city can make good on only a sliver of what it owes—in many cases just pennies on the dollar.

This is a dog-bites-man story. Detroit’s problems are the completely predictable result of excessive government. Just as statism explains the problems of Greece. And the problems of California. And the problems of Cyprus. And the problems of Illinois.

A Tax Haven Primer for the New York Times

I could only use 428 words, but I highlighted the main arguments for tax havens and tax competition in a “Room for Debate” piece for the New York Times.

I hope that my contribution is a good addition to the powerful analysis of experts such as Allister Heath and Pierre Bessard.

I started with the economic argument.

[T]ax havens are very valuable because they discourage anti-growth tax policy. Simply stated, it is very difficult for governments to impose and enforce confiscatory tax rates when investors and entrepreneurs can shift their economic activity to jurisdictions with better tax policy. Particularly if those nations have strong policies on financial privacy, thus making it difficult for uncompetitive high-tax nations to track and tax flight capital. Thanks to this process of tax competition, with havens playing a key role, top personal income tax rates have dropped from an average of more than 67 percent in 1980 to about 42 percent today. Corporate tax rates also have plummeted, falling from an average of 48 percent to 24 percent.

…Lawmakers also were pressured to lower or eliminate death taxes and wealth taxes, as well as to reduce the double taxation of interest, dividends and capital gains. Once again, tax havens deserve much of the credit because politicians presumably would not have implemented these pro-growth reforms if they didn’t have to worry that the geese with the golden eggs might fly away to a confidential account in a well-run nation like Luxembourg or Singapore.

Since I didn’t have much space, I couldn’t go into much greater detail. Below the jump is a video that elaborates on the economic benefits of tax havens, including an explanation of why fiscal sovereignty is a big part of the debate.

In World Bank’s New Tax Report Card, ‘High Effort’ Is a Very Bad Thing

Remember when you were a kid and your parents would either be happy or angry depending on whether your report card said you were trying hard or being a slacker? No matter whether your grades were good or bad, it helped to get an “A for Effort.”

But sometimes a high level of effort isn’t a good thing.

The World Bank has a new study that measures national tax burdens. But instead of using conventional measures, such as top tax rates or tax collections as a share of GDP, the international bureaucracy has developed an index that measures “tax effort” and “tax capacity” after adjusting for variables such as per-capita GDP, corruption, and demographics.

One goal of the study is to develop an apples-to-apples way of comparing tax burdens for nations at various levels of development. Poor nations, for instance, tend to have low levels of tax revenue even though they often have high tax rates. This is partly because of Laffer Curve reasons, but perhaps even more so because of corruption and incompetence. Rich nations, by contrast, usually have much greater ability to enforce their tax codes. So if you want to compare the tax system of Paraguay with the tax system of Sweden, you need to take these factors into account.

Here’s a description of how the authors addressed this issue.

Measuring taxation performance of countries is both theoretically and practically challenging. …tax economists have attempted to deal with this problem by applying an empirical approach to estimate the determinants of tax collection and identify the impact of such variables on each country’s taxable capacity. The development of a tax effort index, relating the actual tax revenues of a country to its estimated taxable capacity, provides us with a tempting measure which considers country specific fiscal, demographic, and institutional characteristics. …Tax effort is defined as an index of the ratio between the share of the actual tax collection in GDP and the taxable capacity.

This is a worthwhile project. There sometimes are big differences between nations and those should be part of the equation when comparing tax policies. Indeed, this is why my recent post on the rising burden of the value-added tax looked at data for nations at different levels of development.

But I’m irked by the World Bank study because it’s really measuring “tax onerousness.” I’m not even sure onerousness is a word, but I sure don’t like the term “tax effort” because it implies that a higher tax burden is a good thing. After all, we learned from our report cards that it’s good to demonstrate high effort and not be a slacker.

And just so you know I’m not just imagining things, the authors explicitly embrace the notion that bigger tax burdens are desirable. They assert (without any evidence, of course) that higher levels of tax promote “development” and that more money for politicians is “desirable.”

The international development community is increasingly recognizing the centrality of effective taxation to development. …higher tax revenues are important to lower the aid dependency in low-income countries. They also encourage good governance, strengthen state building and promote government accountability. …many developing countries experience a chronic gap between the actual and desirable levels of tax revenues. Taxation reforms are needed to close this gap.

If the authors of the study looked at economic history, they would understand that they have things backwards. “Effective taxation” doesn’t lead to “development.” It’s the other way around. The western world became rich when the burden of government was very small and most nations didn’t even have income tax regimes. It was only after nations because prosperous that politicians figured out how to extract significant shares of economic output.

But let’s set that aside and see which nations have the most and least onerous tax systems. Here’s a table from the report and it seems that Papua New Guinea has the world’s worst tax system and Bahrain has the best tax system. Among developed nations, New Zealand is the worst and Japan is the best. The United States (circled in red) gets a decent score. We’re not nearly as good as Switzerland and we’re slightly worse than Canada, but our politicians expend less “effort” than their counterparts in nations such as France, Italy, and Belgium.

By the way, I’m not endorsing either the methodology or the results. I like what the authors are trying to do (at least in terms of creating an apples-to-apples measure), but some of the results seem at odds with reality. New Zealand’s tax system isn’t great, but it certainly doesn’t seem as bad as the French tax code. And I have a hard time believing that Japan’s tax code is less onerous than the Swiss system.

The World Bank study also breaks down the data so that countries can be put into a matrix based on how much money they collect and how much “effort” they expend.

Here’s where the authors let their bias show. In their descriptions of the various boxes, they reflexively assume that higher tax collections are a good thing. Here is some of what they wrote in that section of the study.

The collection of taxes in this group of countries is currently low and lies below their respective taxable capacity. These countries have potential to succeed in deepening comprehensive tax policy and administration reforms focusing on revenue enhancement. …Botswana and Chile were originally in the low-effort, low-collection group, but they made it to the high-effort, high-collection group after recent improvements in revenue performance. …Although countries in this [high collection, low effort] group have already achieved a high tax collection, fiscally they still have the potential to implement reforms to reduce distortions and reach a higher level of efficiency of tax collection, since their tax effort index is low.

Very Orwellian, wouldn’t you say? We’re supposed to conclude that it’s bad if nations are “below their respective taxable capacity” because they can “succeed in deepening comprehensive tax policy” for purposes of “revenue enhancement.” Other nations, though, got gold stars because of “improvements in revenue performance.” And others were encouraged to try harder, even if they already collected a lot of revenue, in order to “reach of a higher level of efficiency of tax collection.”

But, to be fair, the study does include some semi-sensible comments acknowledging that there are limits to the greed of the political class. For all intents and purposes, the authors warn that there will be Laffer Curve effects if “high effort” nations seek to make their tax systems even more onerous.

Given that the level of tax intake in this group of countries is already high and stays above their respective taxable capacity, a further increase in tax revenue collection may lead to unintended economic distortions. …low-income countries with a low level of tax collection but high tax effort have less opportunity to increase tax revenues without possibly creating distortions or high compliance costs.

Just in case you’re not familiar with the lingo, “distortion” refers to the economic damage caused by high tax rates. This can be because high tax rates lead to a reduction in work, saving, investment, entrepreneurship, and other productive behaviors. Or it can be because high tax rates encourage people to make economically inefficient choices solely for tax planning purposes.

So the fact that the World Bank recognizes that taxes can hurt economic performance in at least some circumstances puts them ahead of the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation. That’s damning with faint praise, to be sure, but I wanted to close on an upbeat note.

P.S. If you peruse the matrix, you’ll notice that New Zealand is considered a developing country. I’m sure that will be the source of amusement to my friends in Australia.

The Turbo-Charged Italian Version of the Laffer Curve

Thanks largely to the Laffer Curve, there are some impressive examples of failed tax increases in countries such as the United States, France, and the United Kingdom. But if there was a prize for the people who most vociferously resist turning over more of their income to government, the Italians would be the odds-on favorite to win.

When they’re not firebombing tax offices to show their displeasure, they’re taking to the high seas to escape.

Here are some excerpts from a report in the UK-based Telegraph about runaway yachts.

Thousands are weighing anchor and fleeing with their gin palaces to quiet corners of the Mediterranean to escape a tax evasion crackdown – part of efforts by the government of Mario Monti, the prime minister, to tackle Italy’s €1.9 trillion public debt. …in the ports and marinas they are going after the owners of luxury yachts. Uniformed officers of the Guardia di Finanza, or tax police, are performing on-the-spot checks, boarding boats and checking owners’ details against their tax records. …The unwelcome attention has led many yacht owners to flee Italy’s marinas for friendlier foreign ports, from Corsica and the Cote d’Azur in the west to Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro and Greece in the east. Others are heading southwards, to Malta and Tunisia - where they can access their boats on low-cost budget flights from Italy for a fraction of the tax bill they might otherwise face.

Not surprisingly, a lot of middle-class people are suffering because of lost business.

Around 30,000 yachts have fled Italy this year, costing €200 million in lost revenue from mooring fees, port services and fuel sales, according to Assomarinas, the Italian Association of Marinas. “We’ve lost 10 to 15 per cent of our regular customers,” said Roberto Perocchio, the president of Assomarinas. “This is the worst crisis in Italian boating history. The authorities are using scare tactics and creating a climate of fear.” …Plans for a further 30,000 new berths have been put on hold. Business is down by more than a third in many marinas, with some half empty compared to last summer. “We’ve lost 40 boats in the last few months, all between 20 and 25 metres long,” said Giovanni Sorci, director of a marina at Rimini, on the Adriatic coast. “Most went to Slovenia – in fact it is so popular that there’s now barely a berth to be had there. …At Porto Rotondo in Sardinia, Giacomo Pileri, the general manager of a 700-berth marina, said at least 150 boats had fled to nearby Corsica. …A steep new tax of up to €700 per day on the largest yachts mooring in Italian ports, introduced by the Monti government in December, was watered down in March to exclude foreign-owned boats. But it has further fuelled the exodus of Italian boats abroad.

And it’s not just yachts that are being targeted by a revenue-hungry government. Here’s a remarkable report from Reuters on what’s happened to the luxury car market (h/t: suyts space).

Italians spooked by rising car taxes and highly publicized tax fraud spot checks cut back their purchases of Fiat’s high-end sports car brands Ferrari and Maserati in the first quarter of 2012, an industry body said on Tuesday. Ferrari sales slumped 51.5 percent, in Italy, and Maserati sales plummeted by 70 percent, said Italian car dealers group Federauto in a statement. Prime Minister Mario Monti’s government has stepped up its fight on tax evasion with spot checks on supercar drivers, as well as higher taxes on large cars. “These figures show how the choices made by the government are literally terrorizing potential clients,” said Federauto chairman Filippo Pavan Bernacchi.

I assume those awful sales numbers are partly because the economy is weak, but well-to-do Italians obviously don’t want to attract attention from the tax police.

The moral of the story is that Italy’s government should try a new strategy. The politicians need to understand that taxpayers don’t meekly acquiesce, like lambs in a slaughterhouse.

Heck, even the folks at the International Monetary Fund (a crowd not known for rabid free-market sympathies) have acknowledged that excessive taxation is the leading cause of the shadow economy.

So rather than trying to squeeze more blood from an unwilling stone, maybe the Italian government should junk the current tax code and adopt a simple and fair flat tax.

To conclude, here’s Part II of the three-part video series on the Laffer Curve, which focuses on historical evidence (including what happened to the yacht market in the U.S. when politicians went after the “rich”).

Sort of makes you wonder why politicians never seem to learn from their mistakes - especially when thoughtful people like me give them free lessons about the relationship between tax rates, tax revenue, and taxable income.

P.S. While I’m very happy to defend tax evasion in cases where government is excessive, venal, and/or corrupt, I suspect that Italians would evade even if they lived under a Hong Kong-style fiscal regime. If that ever happened (don’t hold your breath), even I wouldn’t get upset about crackdowns on yacht owners and Maserati drivers who aren’t declaring any income.