Topic: International Economics and Development

The Growing Threat of a Wealth Tax

Allister Heath, the superb economic writer from London, recently warned that governments are undermining incentives to save.

And not just because of high tax rates and double taxation of savings. Allister says people are worried about outright confiscation resulting from possible wealth taxation.

It is clear that individuals, when at all possible, need to accumulate more financial assets. …Tragically, it won’t happen. A lack of trust in the system is one important explanation. People simply don’t believe the government – and politicians of all parties – when it comes to long-terms savings and pensions. They worry, with good reason, that the rules will keep changing; they are afraid that savers are an easy target and that they will eventually be hit by a wealth tax.

Are savers being paranoid? Is Allister being paranoid?

Well, even paranoid people have enemies, and this already has happened in countries such as Poland and Argentina. Moreover, it appears that plenty of politicians and bureaucrats elsewhere want this type of punitive levy.

Here are some passages from a Reuters report.

Germany’s Bundesbank said on Monday that countries about to go bankrupt should draw on the private wealth of their citizens through a one-off capital levy before asking other states for help.

Since data from the IMF, OECD, and BIS show that almost every industrialized nation will face a fiscal crisis in the next decade or two, people with assets understandably are concerned that their necks will be on the chopping block when politicians are scavenging for more cash to prop up failed welfare states.

Though to be fair, the Bundesbank may simply be sending a signal that German taxpayers don’t want to pick up the tab for fiscal excess in nations such as France and Greece. And it also acknowledged such a tax would harm growth.

“(A capital levy) corresponds to the principle of national responsibility, according to which tax payers are responsible for their government’s obligations before solidarity of other states is required,” the Bundesbank said in its monthly report. …the Bundesbank said it would not support an implementation of a recurrent wealth tax, saying it would harm growth.

Other German economists, however, openly advocate for wealth taxes on German taxpayers.

…governments should consider imposing one-off capital levies on the rich… In Germany, for example, two thirds of the national wealth belongs to the richest 10% of the adult population. …a one-time capital levy of 10% on personal net wealth exceeding 250,000 euros per taxpayer (€500,000 for couples) could raise revenue of just over 9% of GDP. …In the other Eurozone crisis countries, it would presumably be possible to generate considerable amounts of money in the same way.

The pro-tax crowd at the International Monetary Fund has a similarly favorable perspective, relying on absurdly unrealistic conditions to argue that a wealth tax wouldn’t hurt growth. Here’s some of what the IMF asserted in its Fiscal Monitor last October.

The sharp deterioration of the public finances in many countries has revived interest in a “capital levy”— a one-off tax on private wealth—as an exceptional measure to restore debt sustainability. The appeal is that such a tax, if it is implemented before avoidance is possible and there is a belief that it will never be repeated, does not distort behavior (and may be seen by some as fair).

Panama Dodges a Bullet

Panamanians voted on Sunday against the efforts of their president, Ricardo Martinelli, to stay in power even though he was constitutionally barred from seeking reelection. It’s not an overstatement to say that in doing so, Panama overcame the greatest challenge in it’s 25 year-old democracy.

For several years Martinelli looked for a way to get rid of the constitutional ban on reelection. He couldn’t do it through a constitutional amendment since the vote of two separate legislatures is required to change the Constitution. And given that polls consistently showed that public opinion was firmly against the idea of introducing consecutive presidential reelection, a referendum was also out of the question. Thus, Martinelli tried to pack the Supreme Court with three new justices. The idea was that a friendly Supreme Court would rule that the ban on reelection was unconstitutional (as occurred in the case of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua). However, Panamanians took to the streets and Martinelli backtracked. Then he opted for a less overt strategy: supporting a successor and appointing his wife as his vice-presidential candidate. As Mary O’Grady of the Wall Street Journal pointed out, Martinelli moved his queen to stay in power.

Despite a legal prohibition to do so, Martinelli actively campaigned for his candidate José Domingo Arias and his wife, while viciously attacking their rivals. His government spent millions of dollars in publicity and the president toured the country giving away goodies such as digital TV boxes and inaugurating infrastructure projects (he ordered that the new metro in Panama City not charge a fee until after the election). It is ironic that while Panama has been the most outspoken critic of Venezuela in Latin America, Martinelli’s government engaged in similar electoral tactics as those of Chavismo.

Fortunately, it didn’t work. Juan Carlos Varela, who is Martinelli’s vice-president turned bitter rival, handily defeated Arias by 39.1% versus 31.7%. Panama City’s former mayor, Juan Carlos Navarro, came in third with 27.9%. Even though Martinelli accepted his candidate’s defeat, he didn’t call Varela on Sunday to congratulate him, claiming he had lost his phone number. That doesn’t bode well for a smooth transition. Martinelli is well-known for holding bitter grudges. After splitting with Varela, the National Assembly he controls voted to increase taxes on liquor sales to fund a subsidy for elderly people. As it happens, Varela’s family owns a rum-distillery.

Balcerowicz’s Polish Big Bang versus Ukraine

On May 21, 2014, Leszek Balcerowicz will receive the 2014 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty during a dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. The prestigious annual award by the Cato Institute carries with it a well-deserved check for $250,000.

For those who might have forgotten the accomplishments of my long-time friend, allow me to suggest that, in Balcerowicz’s case, a picture is literally worth a thousand words.

But, before the picture, a little background.

In 1989, Balcerowicz became Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister in Eastern Europe’s first non-communist government since World War II. Balcerowicz held these positions from 1989 through 1991, and again from 1997 through 2000. Subsequently, in 2001, he became the Chairman of the National Bank of Poland, a post he held until January 2007.

A student of the “Five P’s”: prior preparation prevents poor performance; Balcerowicz was ready when he first took office in 1989. Indeed, he pulled his comprehensive economic game plan to liberalize and transform the Polish economy out of his desk drawer and proceeded to implement what became known as the “Big Bang”. As they say, the rest is history.

The results of the “Big Bang” speak for themselves in the accompanying chart. Poland’s economy has more than doubled since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1992, growing at an average annual rate of 4.42%.

What about neighboring Ukraine? The contrast with Balcerowicz’s Poland couldn’t be starker. As Oleh Havrylyshyn, the former deputy finance minister of Ukraine, spells out in his classic book – Divergent Paths in Post-Communist Transformation: Capitalism for All or Capitalism for the Few – Ukraine rejected the Big Bang, free-market approach to reform. In consequence, it has taken a road to nowhere, remaining in the shadow of a corrupt communist system.

Unlike Poland’s prosperity, Ukraine has witnessed a post-Soviet contraction in its economy. Yes, the Ukrainian economy has been contracting at a real annual rate of almost 1% since the fall of the Soviet Union. Accordingly, it is smaller today in real terms than it was in 1992.

Many think the International Monetary Fund, which just ponied up $17 billion for Ukraine, will turn things around. Don’t hold your breath. Over the years, the IMF has dispensed its medicine and money in Ukraine with negative results.

When it comes to much-needed liberal economic reforms, one has to do something big; something that captures the public’s imagination and garners wide support. Unfortunately, Ukraine lacks a clear economic game plan – one with wide popular support.

Why We Need Guns

There are plenty of reasons to support the Second Amendment’s guarantee of our right to bear arms, but an expectation of being the victim of society-collapsing chemical warfare shouldn’t be one of them. Wayne LaPierre, CEO and executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, recently said at the organization’s annual meeting:

“We know, in the world that surrounds us, there are terrorists, home invaders, drug cartels, carjackers, “knock-out game”-ers, rapers [sic], haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers, and killers who scheme to destroy our country with massive storms of violence against our power grids or vicious waves of chemicals or disease that could collapse the society that sustains us all.”

People tend to overestimate their vulnerability because politicians, reporters, and interested individuals like LaPierre stand to gain from such misperceptions. My colleague John Mueller reported that as recently as late 2011, 75 percent of Americans polled believe that another terrorist attack causing large numbers of American lives to be lost in the near future is somewhat or very likely. The reality is much tamer: outside of war zones, Islamist terrorism claims about 200 to 400 lives each year worldwide. And the United States is less violent now than it has been in years. In the short 35 years between 1973 and 2008, murder dropped by over 40 percent. Rape dropped by 80 percent over the same period.

The mismatch between perceived vulnerability to violence and reality is one of several public misconceptions that the website HumanProgress.org hopes to amend. This is not to say that the right to self defense is superfluous—quite to the contrary, it is fundamental and firearm ownership is an important component of securing that right. That alone is justification for the right to defensive weapons. But there is no need to exaggerate dangers such as probable and imminent threats from terrorists and psychopaths.

Taiwan Is the Success Story, not China

Which nation is richer, Belarus or Luxembourg?

If you look at total economic output, you might be tempted to say Belarus. The GDP of Belarus, after all, is almost $72 billion while Luxembourg’s GDP is less than $60 billion.

But that would be a preposterous answer since there are about 9.5 million people in Belarus compared to only about 540,000 folks in Luxembourg.

It should be obvious that what matters is per-capita GDP, and the residents of Luxembourg unambiguously enjoy far higher living standards than their cousins in Belarus.

This seems like an elementary point, but it has to be made because there have been a bunch of misleading stories about China “overtaking” the United States in economic output. Look, for instance, at these excerpts from a Bloomberg report.

China is poised to overtake the U.S. as the world’s biggest economy earlier than expected, possibly as soon as this year… The latest tally adds to the debate on how the world’s top two economic powers are progressing. Projecting growth rates from 2011 onwards suggests China’s size when measured in PPP may surpass the U.S. in 2014.

There are methodological issues with PPP data, some of which are acknowledged in the story, and there’s also the challenge of whether Chinese numbers can be trusted.

But let’s assume these are the right numbers. My response is “so what?”

I’ve previously written that the Chinese tiger is more akin to a paper tiger. But Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute put together a chart that is far more compelling than what I wrote. He looks at the per-capita numbers and shows that China is still way behind the United States.

To be blunt, Americans shouldn’t worry about the myth of Chinese economic supremacy.

But that’s not the main point of today’s column.

Instead, I want to call attention to Taiwan. That jurisdiction doesn’t get as much attention as Hong Kong and Singapore, but it’s one of the world’s success stories.

And if you compare Taiwan to China, as I’ve done in this chart, there’s no question which jurisdiction deserves praise.

Chinese Company 3-D Prints a House for $4,800

To paraphrase Lord Peter Bauer, the first recipient of the Milton Friedman prize, each child comes to this world not only with an empty belly, but also with a brain. Put differently, people are not parasites living off finite resources (though exception needs to be made in the case of most politicians and bureaucrats). They are discoverers and innovators, who look for ways to achieve more with less. They are the creators of wealth and drivers of human progress.

As a reminder of human ingenuity, consider that a Chinese company was able use a massive 3-D printer to print 10 houses in 24 hours at the cost of $4,800 per house.

Let’s put that in perspective. There are 30 million people in Afghanistan, or 7.5 million families of four. At a cost of $4,800 per house (expect the cost to drop significantly over the next few years), it would cost $36 billion to build all Afghani families a new house. The current foreign aid to Afghanistan is $6.7 billion, which means that – using foreign aid money alone – it would take 5.4 years to have each Afghani family housed in a brand new Chinese-made home.

Will it happen? Probably not, since most of the foreign aid money to Afghanistan is devoured by parasitic government officials.  

Should Companies Do What’s Best for Government, or Should They Do What’s Best for Workers, Consumers, and Shareholders?

I’m in favor of free markets. That means I’m sometimes on the same side as big business, but it also means that I’m often very critical of big business. That’s because large companies are largely amoral. Depending on the issue, they may be on the side of the angels, such as when they resist bad government policies such as higher tax rates and increased red tape. But many of those same companies will then turn around and try to manipulate the system for subsidies, protectionism, and corrupt tax loopholes.

Today, I’m going to defend big business. That’s because we have a controversy about whether a company has the legal and moral right to protect itself from bad tax policy. We’re dealing specifically with a drugstore chain that has merged with a similar company based in Switzerland, which raises the question of whether the expanded company should be domiciled in the United States or overseas.

Here’s some of what I wrote on this issue for yesterday’s Chicago Tribune.

Should Walgreen move? …Many shareholders want a “corporate inversion” with the company based in Europe, possibly Switzerland. …if the combined company were based in Switzerland and got out from under America’s misguided tax system, the firm’s tax burden would drop, and UBS analysts predict that earnings per share would jump by 75 percent. That’s a plus for shareholders, of course, but also good for employees and consumers.

Folks on the left, though, are upset about this potential move, implying that this would be an example of corporate tax cheating. But they either don’t know what they’re talking about or they’re prevaricating.

Some think this would allow Walgreen to avoid paying tax on American profits to Uncle Sam. This is not true. All companies, whether domiciled in America or elsewhere, pay tax to the IRS on income earned in the U.S. 

The benefit of “inverting” basically revolves around the taxation of income earned in other nations.