Topic: Government and Politics

A Grim Update on European Tax Policy

I wrote the other day that Americans, regardless of all the bad policy we get from Washington, should be thankful we’re not stuck in an economic graveyard like Venezuela.

But we also should be happy we’re not Europeans. This is a point I’ve made before, usually accompanied by data showing that Americans have significantly higher living standards than their cousins on the other side of the Atlantic.

It’s now time to re-emphasize that message. The European Commission has issued its annual report on “Taxation Trends” and it is–at least for wonks and others who care about fiscal policy–a fascinating and compelling document.

If you believe in limited government, you’ll read the report in the same way you might look at a deadly traffic accident, filled with morbid curiosity and fear that you may eventually suffer the same fate.

But if you’re a statist, you’ll read the report like a 14-year old boy with his first copy of a girlie magazine, filled with fantasies about eventually getting to experience what your eyes are seeing.

Let’s start by giving the bureaucrats some credit for self-awareness. They openly admit that the tax burden is very onerous in the European Union.

The EU remains a high tax area. In 2012, the overall tax ratio, i.e. the sum of taxes and compulsory actual social contributions in the 28 Member States (EU-28) amounted to 39.4 % in the GDP-weighted average, nearly 15 percentage points of GDP over the level recorded for the USA and around 10 percentage points above the level recorded by Japan. The tax level in the EU is high not only compared to those two countries but also compared to other advanced economies; among the major non-European OECD members for which recent detailed tax data is available, Russia (35.6 % of GDP in 2011) and New Zealand (31.8 % of GDP in 2011) have tax ratios exceeding 30 % of GDP, while tax-to-GDP ratios for Canada, Australia and South Korea (2011 data) remained well below 30 %.

Washington’s Middle East Policy Reaches New Heights of Incoherence

It’s hard to imagine that U.S. policy in the Middle East, which has helped make a shambles of the region over the past six decades, could get much worse. But developments during the past week demonstrate that it has the potential to do so. Hawks in both parties are shocked (shocked!) that Iraq shows unmistakable signs of coming apart along ethno-religious lines. But critics of the hawkish lobbying for U.S. military intervention in the period leading up to the invasion and occupation in 2003 warned that the move had major destabilizing implications, and that a fractured Iraq was a likely outcome. Early this year, I renewed those warnings, arguing that multiple developments indicated that Iraq was heading toward fragmentation.

As in the earlier case of Yugoslavia, the wonder is not that an artificial country like Iraq (cobbled together by British colonial officials from three disparate provinces of the old Ottoman Empire) is coming apart. The wonder is that it held together for so long.

Rather than accept an outcome contrary to the unrealistic wishes of U.S. policymakers, there is a surge of calls for Washington to “do something” to prevent Sunni militant insurgents from continuing their string of military victories over Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-controlled government. Although the Obama administration has wisely ruled-out putting large numbers of U.S. boots on the ground, air strikes and a limited deplyment of troops apparently remain an option. That would be an ill-advised move, since it would risk again entangling the United States in Iraq’s bitter, convoluted political and religious rivalries.

When Washington Prefers to Punish Ivory Owners Rather Than Save Elephants

The Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking met last week as the administration prepares to turn millions of Americans into criminals and destroy billions of dollars in property. The policy is driven by ideology and actually would kill more elephants.

Most ivory in America is legal and its sale does not endanger wildlife today. Before the international ban of 1989, millions of objects made of ivory or accented by small amounts of ivory entered the United States.

To fight poaching the government could fight poaching. That is, target those illegally killing elephants and selling illicit ivory.

Instead, the government has decided to penalize those trading in legal older ivory. Alas, doing so won’t protect any elephants. 

In February, the Fish and Wildlife Service took what it described as “our first step to implement a nearly complete ban on commercial elephant ivory trade.”  The agency plans to prohibit the sale of even antique ivory if the owner cannot “demonstrate” the age with “documented evidence.”  Since 17th century carvers did not provide certificates of authenticity, virtually no ivory owner has such documentation, which Washington never before required.

The argument for the rule is that it would make life easier for FWS. But it wouldn’t help stop poaching. 

The Miracle of Modern-Day Prosperity…and the Ideas and Policies that Made it Happen

Why are some nations rich and other nations poor? What has enabled some nations to escape poverty while others continue to languish?

And if we want to help poor nations prosper, what’s the right recipe?

Since I’m a public finance economist, I’m tempted to say a flat tax and small government are an elixir for prosperity, but those policies are just one piece of a bigger puzzle.

A country also needs sensible monetary policy, open trade, modest regulation, and rule of law. In other words, you need small government AND free markets.

But even that doesn’t really tell us what causes growth.

In the past, I’ve highlighted the importance of capital formation and shared a remarkable chart showing how workers earn more when the capital stock is larger (which is why we should avoid punitive double taxation of income that is saved and invested).

But that also doesn’t really answer the question. After all, if a larger capital stock was all that mattered, doesn’t that imply that we could get prosperity if government simply mandated more saving and investing?

There’s something else that’s necessary. Something perhaps intangible, but critically important.

Iraq: The Cost of Building a Failed State

“Governments constantly choose between telling lies and fighting wars, with the end result always being the same. One will always lead to the other.”

- Thomas Jefferson

Nobel Laureate George Akerlof uses this edifying quote from Thomas Jefferson to good effect in his foreword of Hossein Askari’s excellent read, Conflicts and Wars: Their Fallout and Prevention (Palgrave MacMillan, New York, 2012). Indeed, Prof. Akerlof has this to say about Askari’s work:

Professor Askari begins by surveying the burden of military expenditures and of conflicts and wars. Their dollar expenditures, which are close to 15 percent of global GNP, exceed the cost of our financial crisis, of global warming, and what would be required for worldwide poverty reduction.

He bases his approach on three interrelated propositions: aggressors do not pay the full price of their aggression; governments will do nothing to change this state of affairs on their own; and, as a result, the process of reducing conflicts must originate in the private sector.

The U.S. shouldered a heavy load in the Iraq War, to the tune of $2.4 trillion from 2003-2011. As depicted in the chart below, the $2.4 trillion U.S. tab accounted for over 75% of global expenditures in the Iraq War.

If we dissect the $2.4 trillion in U.S. expenditures (see chart below), the picture becomes even clearer and, well, drearier. Iraq was a costly war for everyone involved, including U.S. taxpayers. The annual expenditure rate of the Iraq war comes out to $2991 per U.S. taxpayer from 2003-2011 (based on the level of income tax returns), far higher than the annual tab per US taxpayer for the Afghan fiasco.

President Obama announced to Congress yesterday that he is deploying 275 military personnel to Iraq to secure the American embassy in Baghdad. Here we go, again.

San Antonio Spurs 5, Ron Paul 3

Congratulations to the San Antonio Spurs on their fifth non-consecutive NBA championship. Back in 2007, when they won their third, Washington Post sports columnist Mike Wise praised the resilience of the Spurs, who kept coming back to win the NBA championship without ever being quite a Bulls-style dynasty. He said the Spurs “had their crown taken away twice since 2003 and got it back both times.”

I noted at the time that his comments reminded me of Ron Paul, who was then the only current member of Congress to have been elected three times as a non-incumbent. Given the 98 percent reelection rates for House members, it’s no great shakes to win three terms — or 10 terms — in a row. It’s winning that first one that’s the challenge. And Ron Paul did that three times.

He first won in a special election for an open seat. He then lost his seat and won it back two years later, defeating the incumbent. After two more terms he left his seat to run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate (and thereby did his greatest disservice to the American Republic, as his seat was won by Tom DeLay). Twelve years later, in 1996, after some redistricting, he ran again for Congress, again defeating an incumbent, this time in the Republican primary. Some political scientist should study the political skills it takes to win election to Congress without the benefit of incumbency — three times.

Now the Spurs have won five times as the “non-incumbent,” to Ron Paul’s three. But then, Paul won 12 congressional elections in total, and the Spurs are still a long way from that.

Voting Themselves Bigger Budgets

An implicit principle in a democracy is that the officials who decide how your taxes are spent represent you, the taxpayers, and not the bureaucracies that receive your taxes. But Congress violated this principle when it wrote MAP-21, the 2012 transportation law. As detailed in a proposed rule earlier this month, the law gives transit agencies in major urban areas a vote on how much of each region’s transportation dollars are spent on transit.

State legislatures are made up of people elected by various voting districts, not representatives selected by the state departments of transportation, justice, welfare, fish & wildlife, parks, and other bureaucracies. Similarly, city councils are made up of people elected by the voters in that city, not by representatives selected by the various water, transportation, fire, and other bureaus.

In 1962, Congress mandated that urban areas of 50,000 people or more create metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that would decide how to spend federal transportation and housing funds. At that time, it recognized this principle, specifying that the governing board of each MPO consist of elected officials from the various cities and counties in that urban area. While this was one step removed from the voters, it at least insured that the voters had an indirect say over how their money is spent.

However, MAP-21, the 2012 law reauthorizing federal transportation funding (including funding for MPOs), departed from this principle by requiring that transit agencies in all urban areas with 200,000 or more people be given representation on the MPO boards. In other words, the bureaucrats themselves will get to vote on their own budgets.

Some might think that it is unfair that transit agencies get a vote on MPO boards but highway and street agencies don’t. In fact, it is unfair for any agency to have votes on the boards that help determine their own budgets.

Others might argue that transit agencies are a part of the community and deserve to have a say on the future of that community. But they already have a say through the city councilors and county commissioners elected by the people of the urban area, which includes most transit agency staff and employees (except those who commute from outside the region). Giving transit agencies their own seat on the MPO board violates the one-person, one-vote rule established by the Supreme Court in the 1960s.

We wouldn’t be happy if the NSA got to have a seat on a Congressional committee investigating NSA spying on American citizens or one determining NSA budgets. We wouldn’t be happy with oil companies having a seat on Congressional energy committees, or if university athletic departments got an automatic seat on a state higher education committees, or if a pavement company got an automatic seat on a city council’s transportation committee. Why should transit agencies get an automatic seat on the board determining transit’s share of federal and regional funding?

MAP-21 specified that the requirement that transit agencies have a seat on MPO boards go into effect by October 1, 2014. But MAP-21 itself expires on September 30, 2014. So Congress has the opportunity to redress this problem when it writes a new law to replace the current one.

Given a divided Congress, observers expect Congress will simply extend the current law with a few minor changes. But MAP-21 itself was simply an extension with, supposedly, a few minor changes.

If those who believe in the principles of representative government demand it, Congress could easily remove this provision from the law and specify that any transit (or other) agency officials already on MPO boards be taken off those boards immediately. Removing this conflict of interest is a small change compared with what fiscal conservatives might like to see done with federal transportation law, but it needs to be done to maintain the integrity of public decision making.