Tag: taxation

Why Are Statists so Sensitive About Cuba?

I touched a raw nerve with my post about Fidel Castro admitting that the Cuban model is a failure. Matthew Yglesias and Brad DeLong both attacked me. DeLong’s post was nothing more than a link to the Yglesias post with a snarky comment about “why can’t we have better think tanks?” Yglesias, to his credit, tried to explain his objections.

This leads Daniel Mitchell to post the following chart which he deems “a good illustration of the human cost of excessive government.”…this mostly illustrates the difficulty of having a rational conversation with Cato Institute employees about economic policy in the developed world. Cuba is poor, but it’s much richer than Somalia. Is Somalia’s poor performance an illustration of the human costs of inadequate taxation? Or maybe we can act like reasonable people and note that these illustrations of the cost of Communist dictatorship and anarchy have little bearing on the optimal location on the Korea-Sweden axis of mixed economies?

I’m actually not sure what argument Yglesias is making, but I think he assumed I was focusing only on fiscal policy when I commented about Cuba’s failure being “a good illustration of the human cost of excessive government.” At least I think this is what he means, because he then tries to use Somalia as an example of limited government, solely because the government there is so dysfunctional that it is unable to maintain a working tax system.

Regardless of what he’s really trying to say, my post was about the consequences of excessive government, not just the consequences of excessive government spending. I’m not a fan of high taxes and wasteful spending, to be sure, but fiscal policy is only one of many policies that influence economic performance. Indeed, according to both Economic Freedom of the World and Index of Economic Freedom, taxes and spending are only 20 percent of a nation’s grade. So nations such as Sweden and Denmark are ranked very high because the adverse impact of their fiscal policies is more than offset by their very laissez-faire policies in just about all other areas. Likewise, many nations in the developing world have modest fiscal burdens, but their overall scores are low because they get poor grades on variables such as monetary policy, regulation, trade, rule of law, and property rights. This video has more details.

So, yes, Cuba is an example of “the human cost of excessive government.” And so is Somalia.

Sweden and Denmark, meanwhile, are both good and bad examples. Optimists can cite them as great examples of the benefits of laissez-faire markets. Pessimists can cite them as unfortunate examples of bloated public sectors.

P.S. Castro has since tried to recant, claiming he was misquoted. He’s finding out, though, that it’s not easy putting toothpaste back in the tube.

Overpaid and Undertaxed

I sympathize with almost all taxpayers, but it’s difficult to feel sorry for government workers who get in trouble with the IRS. Compensation packages for federal bureaucrats are twice as lucrative as those for workers in the productive sector of the economy and their pensions are similarly extravagant. Yet they often can’t be bothered to fully pay their taxes, owing billions of dollars to the IRS according to a Washington Post report.

Among the biggest scofflaws are the folks at the Postal Service, who have accumulated more than $283 million of unpaid taxes. Retired bureaucrats, meanwhile, have amassed nearly $455 million of back taxes. Even tax collectors sometimes fall behind. Treasury Department bureaucrats owe $7.7 million. How hard can it be for them to walk down the hallway and cough up? Or do they think they’re exempt since their boss barely got a slap on the wrist after “forgetting” to declare $80,000?

The most startling part of the story, though, is the degree of tax dodging on Capitol Hill. Here’s an excerpt from the story:

Capitol Hill employees owed $9.3 million in overdue taxes at the end of last year…. The debt among Hill employees has risen at a faster rate than the overall tax debt on the government’s books, according to Internal Revenue Service data. …The IRS data… shows 638 employees, or about 4 percent, of the 18,000 Hill workers owe money, a slightly higher percentage than the 3 percent delinquency rate among all returns filed nationwide. …”If you’re on the federal payroll and you’re not paying your taxes, you should be fired,” [Congressman] Chaffetz said in an interview. He said the policy should apply across the board and “there should be no special exemptions.”

The shocking part about this blurb, at least to me, is not the 638 staffers who owe money to the IRS. It’s the fact that there are 18,000 bureaucrats working for Congress. Do 100 Senators and 435 Representatives really need that many attendants? How I long for the good ol’ days, when each politician had about two staffers. I suspect it’s no coincidence that the federal government was a much smaller burden back when there were far fewer staff.

A Debate Between John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama

Here’s a clever video produced by the Winston Group, comparing the tax policies of two Democratic Presidents. Having previously highlighted Kennedy’s tax-cutting approach, it is painful for me to observe the class warfare approach of the Obama Administration.
 

What’s especially fascinating is that JFK intuitively understood the Laffer Curve, particularly the insight that deficits usually are the result of slow growth, not the cause of slow growth.

Obama’s New Stimulus Schemes: Same Song, Umpteenth Verse

Like a terrible remake of Groundhog Day, the White House has unveiled yet another so-called stimulus scheme. Actually, they have two new proposals to buy votes with our money. One plan is focused on more infrastructure spending, as reported by Politico.

Seeking to bolster the sluggish economy, President Barack Obama is using a Labor Day appearance in Milwaukee to announce he will ask Congress for $50 billion to kick off a new infrastructure plan designed to expand and renew the nation’s roads, railways and runways. …The measures include the “establishment of an Infrastructure Bank to leverage federal dollars and focus on investments of national and regional significance that often fall through the cracks in the current siloed transportation programs,” and “the integration of high-speed rail on an equal footing into the surface transportation program.”

The other plan would make permanent the research and development tax credit. The Washington Post has some of the details.

Under mounting pressure to intensify his focus on the economy ahead of the midterm elections, President Obama will call for a $100 billion business tax credit this week… The business proposal - what one aide called a key part of a limited economic package - would increase and permanently extend research and development tax credits for businesses, rewarding companies that develop new technologies domestically and preserve American jobs. It would be paid for by closing other corporate tax loopholes, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the policy has not yet been unveiled.

These two proposals are in addition to the other stimulus/job-creation/whatever-they’re-calling-them-now proposals that have been adopted in the past 20 months. And Obama’s stimulus schemes were preceded by Bush’s Keynesian fiasco in 2008. And by the time you read this, the Administration may have unveiled a few more plans. But all of these proposals suffer from the same flaw in that they assume growth is sluggish because government is not big enough and not intervening enough. Keynesian politicians don’t realize (or pretend not to realize) that economic growth occurs when there is an increase in national income. Redistribution plans, by contrast, simply change who is spending an existing amount of income. If the crowd in Washington really wants more growth, they should reduce the burden of government, as explained in this video.

 

The best that can be said about the new White House proposals is that they’re probably not as poorly designed as previous stimulus schemes. Federal infrastructure spending almost surely fails a cost-benefit test, but even bridges to nowhere carry some traffic. The money would generate more jobs and more output if left in the private sector, so the macroeconomic impact is still negative, but presumably not as negative as bailouts for profligate state and local governments or subsidies to encourage unemployment - which were key parts of previous stimulus proposals.

Likewise, a permanent research and development tax credit is not ideal tax policy, but at least the provision is tied to doing something productive, as opposed to tax breaks and rebates that don’t boost work, saving, and investment. We don’t know, however, what’s behind the curtain. According to the article, the White House will finance this proposal by “closing other corporate tax loopholes.” In theory, that could mean a better tax code. But this Administration has a very confused understanding of tax policy, so it’s quite likely that they will raise taxes in a way that makes the overall tax code even worse. They’ve already done this in previous stimulus plans by increasing the tax bias against American companies competing in world markets, so there’s little reason to be optimistic now. And don’t forget that the President has not changed his mind about imposing higher income tax rates, higher capital gains tax rates, higher death tax rates, and higher dividend tax rates beginning next January.
 
All that we can say for sure is that the politicians in Washington are very nervous now that the midterm elections are just two months away. This means their normal tendencies to waste money will morph into a pathological form of profligacy.

Crocodile Dundee vs Australia’s Tax Police

Here’s a Reuters story about the Australian Tax Office harassing Paul Hogan, better known to Americans as Crocodile Dundee, because of a tax dispute. The grinches at the tax office took advantage of Hogan’s return for his mother’s funeral to hold him hostage, refusing to let him leave the country until he coughs up some cash. It appears that the tax police in Australia are just as politicized and above the law as the IRS. Hogan has never been charged with tax evasion and there are plenty of signs that the bureaucrats want to make him a high-profile victim to justify the amount of money that has been squandered in a probe of supposed offshore evasion.

Actor Paul Hogan, star of the “Crocodile Dundee” movies, has vowed to continue fighting the Australian tax office which has barred him from leaving Australia until he pays a massive bill, saying he’s victim of a witch hunt. Hogan, 70, was served with a departure prohibition order 10 days ago while in Australia to attend his 101-year-old mother’s funeral which has prevented him from leaving to return to Los Angeles where he lives with his wife and son. The Australian Tax Office refused to comment on reports of seeking tax on A$38 million ($34 million) of allegedly undeclared income from Hogan, saying it cannot give details of individual taxpayers. But the actor went public in the Australian media this week to put forward his side in his five-year row with the tax office, saying he had done nothing wrong and the tax office was on a witch hunt for a high-profile case. …”If I was a tax evader, which I’m not, I must be the dumbest one in the world to keep coming back here instead of fleeing to a tax haven … I know they’re absolutely desperate to nail some high-profile character with money to justify the expense to the taxpayer.” Hogan, who was once a painter on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, is under investigation as part of Australia’s biggest probe into offshore tax evasion, Operation Wickenby. The operation is budgeted to cost at least $300 million. The tax office has claimed he put tens of millions of dollars in film royalties in offshore tax havens, a claim that he has denied. He has never been charged with tax evasion.

This story is symbolic of a bigger issue, which is the the unfortunate tendency of governments to create ever-more oppressive and misguided laws in response to failures of existing policy. We see this in the failed War on Drugs, which leads to trampling of civil liberties and erosion of privacy. We see it in the failed War on Poverty, which leads to more redistribution that further traps people in dependency. We see it in the failed government-run education system, which wastes more money every year as outcomes remain stagnant and children from poor and minority communities suffer.

In the case of tax policy, politicians impose high tax rates and punitive forms of double taxation. As anybody with a modicum of common sense could predict, this bad tax policy undermines economic performance and drives economic activity to jurisdictions with better tax law. The politicians then have two ways to respond. They can lower tax rates and reform tax systems, an approach that simultaneously would boost growth and improve compliance (as happened during the Reagan years). Or they can tighten the thumbscrews on taxpayers, trample their rights, and conspire with other high-tax nations to punish the jurisdictions that do have good policy.

Not surprisingly, most politicians choose the latter approach. And the attack on low-tax jurisdictions is a particularly loathsome part of their response. As this video explains, tax competition is a liberalizing force in the world economy and the effort by high-tax nations to penalize so-called tax havens is driven by a statist impulse to prop up decrepit and inefficient welfare states:


Dishonest British Budgeting…Just Like We Do It in America

According to news coverage, United Kingdom Prime Minister Cameron is imposing deep and savage budget cuts. I was interviewed by the BBC recently, for instance, and asked whether 25 percent spending reductions were too harsh. And here’s an excerpt from a New York Times story that is very representative of the news coverage.

Like a shipwrecked sailor on a starvation diet, the new British coalition government is preparing to shrink down to its bare bones as it cuts expenditures by $130 billion over the next five years and drastically scales back its responsibilities. The result, said the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a research group, will be “the longest, deepest sustained period of cuts to public services spending” since World War II. …Public-sector unions are planning a series of strikes. Charities — which Mr. Cameron has said should take over some of the responsibilities now held by the state — say that they are at risk of collapse because they are so dependent on government money. And the chief executive of the Supreme Court, the country’s highest, said she did not know whether the court would be able to function at all if its budget were cut by 40 percent.

To be blunt, this type of analysis is completely false. There are no budget cuts in the United Kingdom, at least in terms of total government spending. Instead, the politicians are measuring cuts against some imaginary baseline, which is the same scam that happens in Washington. So if spending increases by 4 percent instead of 7 percent, that is characterized as a 3 percent budget reduction. The chart shows what is happening with overall government spending in the United Kingdom. Notwithstanding phony stories about budget cuts, spending in Prime Minister Cameron’s first year is climbing by more than 4 percent – twice as fast as needed to keep pace with inflation.

This doesn’t mean that Cameron isn’t doing anything right. There is a two-year pay freeze for bureaucrats, for instance, which is at least a small step in the right direction. But the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition is not a good role model for those who want limited government and fiscal responsibility. There are promises of spending restraint in future years, but those belong in the I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it category. Spending is supposed to increase by less than 1 percent in next year’s budget, for instance, but politicians are very good with tough talk of fiscal discipline in future years. But if we judge them by what they’re doing today rather than what they’re claiming will happen in the future, Cameron’s policies leave much to be desired.

The tax side of the fiscal equation is even more depressing. There is small reduction in the corporate tax rate, but otherwise there is considerable bad news. The new government is leaving in place the new 50 percent top tax rate imposed by Gordon Brown as an election-year class-warfare gimmick. It is boosting the capital gains tax rate from 18 percent to 28 percent. And it increased the VAT rate from 17.5 percent to 20 percent.

The Laffer Curve Strikes Again

In the private sector, no business owner would be dumb enough to assume that higher prices automatically translate into proportionately higher revenues. If McDonald’s boosted hamburger prices by 30 percent, for instance, the experts at the company would fully expect that sales would decline. Depending on the magnitude of the drop, total revenue might still climb, but by far less than 30 percent. And it’s quite possible that the company would lose revenue. In the public sector, however, there is very little understanding of how the real world works. Here’s a Reuters story I saw on Tim Worstall’s blog, which reveals that Bulgaria and Romania both are losing revenue after increasing tobacco taxes.

Cash-strapped Bulgaria and Romania hoped taxing cigarettes would be an easy way to raise money but the hikes are driving smokers to a growing black market instead. Criminal gangs and impoverished Roma communities near borders with countries where prices are lower – Serbia, Macedonia, Moldova and Ukraine – have taken to smuggling which has wiped out gains from higher excise duties. Bulgaria increased taxes by nearly half this year and stepped up customs controls and police checks at shops and markets. Customs office data, however, shows tax revenues from cigarette sales so far in 2010 have fallen by nearly a third. …Overall losses from smuggling will probably outweigh tax gains as Bulgaria struggle to fight the growing black market, which has risen to over 30 percent of all cigarette sales and could cost 500 million levs in lost revenues this year, said Bezlov at the Center for the Study of Democracy. While the government expected higher income from taxes in 2010 it has already revised that to the same level as last year. “However, this (too) looks unlikely at present,” Bezlov added. Romania, desperately trying to keep a 20 billion-euro International Monetary Fund-led bailout deal on track, has a similar problem after nearly doubling cigarette prices in 2009 then hiking value added tax. Romania’s top three cigarette makers – units of British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International and Philip Morris – contributed roughly 2 billion euros to the budget in taxes in 2009, or just under 2 percent of GDP. They estimate about a third of cigarettes in Romania are smuggled and say this could cost the state over 1 billion euros.