Topic: International Economics and Development

ABBA and the Story of the Most-Inane-Ever Tax Controversy

The tax code is a complicated nightmare, particularly for businesses.

Some people may think this is because of multiple tax rates, which definitely is an issue for all the non-corporate businesses that file “Schedule C” forms using the personal income tax.

A discriminatory rate structure adds to complexity, to be sure, but the main reason for a convoluted business tax system (for large and small companies) is that politicians don’t allow firms to use the simple and logical (and theoretically sound) approach of cash-flow taxation.

Here’s how a sensible business tax would work.

Total Revenue - Total Cost = Profit

And it would be wonderful if our tax system was this simple, and that’s basically how the business portion of the flat tax operates, but that’s not how the current tax code works.

We have about 76,000 pages of tax rules in large part because politicians and bureaucrats have decided that the “cash flow” approach doesn’t give them enough money.

So they’ve created all sorts of rules that in many cases prevent businesses from properly subtracting (or deducting) their costs when calculating their profits.

One of the worst examples is depreciation, which deals with the tax treatment of business investment expenses. You might think lawmakers would like investment since that boosts productivity, wage, and competitiveness, but you would be wrong. The tax code rarely allows companies to fully deduct investment expenses (factories, machines, etc) in the year they occur. Instead, they have to deduct (or depreciate) those costs over many years. In some cases, even decades.

But rather than write about the boring topic of depreciation to make my point about legitimate tax deductions, I’m going to venture into the world of popular culture.

Though since I’m a middle-aged curmudgeon, my example of popular culture is a band that was big about 30 years ago.

Are We Nearing a Breaking Point in Venezuela?

Today could be a very tragic day in Venezuelan history. Two large marches, one from the opposition and the other organized by the government, are already taking the streets of the capital and might converge in the same district. The regime of Nicolas Maduro outlawed the opposition march and threatened violence if they try to enter the municipality of Libertador, in downtown Caracas. Things could get very ugly.

Tensions have built up since last week when tens of thousands of people, mostly students, took to the streets to protest against the government. The heavy-handedness with which the regime has dealt with the protests is almost unprecedented. At least 3 people died, scores have been detained and many are still missing. The students that were released have denounced that they were tortured and raped while in custody. Moreover, the government issued an arrest warrant against Leopoldo López, former mayor of the district of Chacao and one of the most emblematic leaders of the opposition. As leader of the march today, he turned himself in to the National Guard.

We need to keep a few things in mind as events unfold:

A large segment of the population is fed up: This is not the first time that tens of thousands of Venezuelans take the streets to protest against the government. However, as the acute economic crisis worsens, the level of desperation among the population, especially the middle class, is reaching a boiling point. The scarcity index shows that more than one out of four basic products is out of stock. Hour-long lines are an every-day occurrence in super markets. And when you can actually find a product, your income is rapidly dwindling to purchase it. The official inflation rate reached 56 percent last year, but according to my colleague Steve Hanke’s Troubled Currency Project, the implied annual inflation rate is actually 305 percent. Crime has significantly worsened living conditions: Venezuela is now one of the most dangerous places in the world with almost 25,000 homicides in 2013 –a murder rate of 79 killings for 100,000 inhabitants. The country is quickly becoming unlivable and many Venezuelans think that they have nothing to lose.

Venezuela Verifies Hayek on Exchange Controls

Foreign airlines have begun to restrict ticket sales in Venezuela. As the bolivars’ value evaporates, and with exchange controls in force, the airlines fear that the funds they have in Caracas will evaporate, too. By restricting ticket sales, the airlines will limit the amount of new money that is trapped behind the government’s wall of exchange controls.

Of course, President Nicolas Maduro isn’t the first autocrat to impose exchange controls, and he won’t be the last to impose these confiscatory policies. Indeed, the pedigree of exchange controls can be traced back to Plato, the father of statism. Inspired by Lycurgus of Sparta, Plato embraced the idea of an inconvertible currency as a means to preserve the autonomy of the state from outside interference.

So, the temptation to turn to exchange controls in the face of disruptions caused by hot money flows is hardly new.  Tsar Nicholas II first pioneered limitations on convertibility in modern times, ordering the State Bank of Russia to introduce, in 1905–06, a limited form of exchange control to discourage speculative purchases of foreign exchange.  The bank did so by refusing to sell foreign exchange, except where it could be shown that it was required to buy imported goods.  Otherwise, foreign exchange was limited to 50,000 German marks per person.  The Tsar’s rationale for exchange controls was that of limiting hot money flows, so that foreign reserves and the exchange rate could be maintained.  The more things change, the more they remain the same.

This brings me to Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek’s 1944 classic, The Road to Serfdom. Many thought Prof. Hayek hurt his case because he was extreme. What nonsense. Just consider the Wall Street Journal’s reportage from Caracas about the real concerns of foreign airlines that have funds locked up in Venezuela. And then reflect on the following insightful analysis from the Road to Serfdom:

The extent of the control over all life that economic control confers is nowhere better illustrated than in the field of foreign exchanges. Nothing would at first seem to affect private life less than a state control of the dealings in foreign exchange, and most people will regard its introduction with complete indifference.  Yet the experience of most Continental countries has taught thoughtful people to regard this step as the decisive advance on the path to totalitarianism and the suppression of individual liberty.  It is, in fact, the complete delivery of the individual to the tyranny of the state, the final suppression of all means of escape—not merely for the rich but for everybody.

Hayek’s message about convertibility has regrettably either been overlooked, or thought to be too extreme. Exchange controls are nothing more than a ring fence within which governments can expropriate their subjects’ property. Open exchange and capital markets, in fact, protect the individual from exactions, because governments must reckon with the possibility of capital flight.

Offer Free Trade, Not Foreign Aid to Egypt

Egypt is racing toward dictatorship.  But Washington always has been more interested in maintaining influence than encouraging democracy or promoting development in Egypt.  That’s why the U.S. provided more than $75 billion in “aid” over the years. 

In fact, the cash bought little leverage.  Hosni Mubarak spent decades oppressing Egyptian citizens and persecuting Coptic Christians despite Washington’s contrary advice.  Israel’s military superiority, not America’s money, bought peace. 

Unfortunately, as elsewhere in the Third World, foreign “assistance” hindered economic development by effectively subsidizing Cairo’s inefficient dirigiste policies.  A decade ago the government finally decided to open the economy. 

Reforms including lower tariffs, enterprise privatizations, and regulation reductions.  Meredith Broadbent of the Center for Strategic and International Studies also cited corporate tax reductions and insurance regulation modernization. 

However, Egypt soon began to fall behind other reformers.  For instance, Broadbent pointed to the survival of “significant elements of a heavy-handed statist bureaucracy.”  The banking system was opaque, monopolistic, and inaccessible.  A joint report by the Carnegie Endowment and Legatum Institute cited the need to give poor Egyptians clear title to their property, reform the bankruptcy law, and reduce costs of opening, operating, and closing businesses.

Corruption was pervasive, with commerce dominated by cronyism and privilege.  The military controlled anywhere between 15 percent and 40 percent of the economy. 

The most serious economic hindrance was expensive consumer subsidies, particularly for food and fuel.  Most of the benefits did not go to those in most need.  Moreover, the cost today accounts for roughly a third of the government’s budget and 14 percent of Egypt’s GDP. 

Thus, even after the Mubarak reforms unemployment and inflation remained high while Cairo ran large deficits.  The situation worsened after the 2011 revolution.  Uncertainty and insecurity discouraged investment and the public deficit increased to 11 percent of GDP. 

The coup was another step backwards.  The government is focused on suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood and reconstituting old political and economic relationships.  Reported the Washington Post:  “now some businessmen and officials implicated in post-uprising corruption probes are again in positions of power and influence, including in the cabinet appointed last summer by the military.” 

The prime minister said the government plans to “rationalize” the subsidy, but economic reform appears to be a low priority.  In September the regime launched a “$4.2 billion program for “economic development and social justice,” the sort of big spending initiative which has not worked elsewhere.   

As I point out in my new National Interest article:

Military rule could offer a form of stability.  However, Gen. al-Sisi’s brutality, including the slaughter of Brotherhood protesters in Cairo in August, has encouraged increasingly violent opposition.  Policemen are regularly being killed, and both auto and suicide bombings are on the rise.

Such violence could frighten off investors and tourists. 

In this environment American financial assistance would be even more harmful than before.  The massive aid coming from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states—given purely for the political purpose of combating the Brotherhood—reduces any financial pressure on the regime to streamline economic policy. 

In contrast, freer trade would be a positive good.  Meredith Broadbent proposed negotiating a free trade agreement—previous talks left off in 2005—and updating the bilateral investment treaty.  The Institute for International Economics once projected that an FTA would increase Egypt’s GDP by three percent annually.

A new accord also would benefit U.S. firms which have been left at a disadvantage by the EU-Egyptian FTA.  Such agreements, Broadbent argued, “can serve as systemic tools to help pry open closed government regulatory processes.”

Absent an inclusive political process, Egypt likely faces an unstable and violent future.  However, economic reform also is necessary.  That is unlikely to come from lectures and money from foreign governments.  But the prospect of increased participation in international commerce would offer a far more powerful and direct incentive for action.  Washington should propose that the two governments free up investment and trade.

Thailand Votes as Thai Democracy Totters

Thailand has voted for the third time since the military staged a coup in 2006. The crony populists won again. The establishment thugs didn’t even compete.  The country is headed toward more and more dangerous political turmoil.

As I explain in my latest Forbes online column:

Thailand’s latest poll was triggered by PDRC mobs in Bangkok which sought to drive Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office.  Although the protestors wear yellow, associated with the Thai monarchy, they are the modern equivalent of Benito Mussolini’s Black Shirts, who seized power through the infamous 1922 march on Rome.

The misnamed Democrat Party and its ally, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), led by former DP deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban, then attempted to block Sunday’s vote. 

The Thai political system is nominally democratic.  But the state typically was controlled by an elitist establishment, essentially a military-royalist-civil service-business-urban/upper class axis. 

That was overturned by the 2001 victory of telecommunications executive Thaksin Shinawatra, who followed the traditional political strategy of tax, tax, spend, spend, elect, elect.  Thaksin won another big victory in 2005, but the following year the so-called People’s Alliance for Democracy launched demonstrations to bring down his government.  The military then ousted him in a coup. 

The next election in 2007 was won by Thaksin’s successor party (though he remained in exile abroad).  But PAD soon launched a series of protests to shut down the government.  After the coalition collapsed, angry Thaksin supporters, called “Red Shirts”—dominated by the rural poor and middle-class—flooded into Bangkok.  The security agencies then killed scores of protestors and wounded thousands of others. 

However, Yingluck, Thaksin’s sister, won the 2011 election.  Last fall PAD relaunched itself as the PDRC and employed storm trooper tactics against her government, even threatening to seize the prime minister. 

Yingluck responded by calling an election, but that was the last thing the protestors wanted.  So the Thai Black Shirts proceeded to block candidate registrations and early voting and halt polling in several areas.

Thaksin embodies the worst of irresponsible populism, and Yingluck is widely viewed as Thaksin’s stand-in.  Worse, however, is Suthep, whose crowds evoke memories of fascist bullies which on election day even attacked Thais seeking to vote.  He called for a “people’s revolution” with an unelected “people’s council,” which he would get to fill, to “reform” election rules, which would guarantee his victory, before the next poll is held. 

Nevertheless, Prime Minister Yingluck was reelected.  But Suthep is determined to take power irrespective of his lack of popular support and the Black Shirts want to make the country ungovernable. 

Yingluck’s opponents may file charges of alleged electoral violations and urge the Election Commission to nullify the vote.  That could trigger violent demonstrations from the Red Shirts.  By blocking candidate registrations the Black Shirts prevented the poll from filling the required 95 percent of parliament’s seats, requiring by-elections before the body can open.

The opposition also may turn to the courts, which are hearing a number of highly political charges.  However, Red Shirt activists are unlikely to peacefully accept a judicial coup.

If all else fails, the Black Shirts are likely to take more radical steps to overthrow the new government.  Chaos in Bangkok might cause the military to stage another coup.  But the 2006 coup leader, Sonthi Boonyaratglin, warned that the military likely would face violent resistance from not just the Red Shirts but the “mass” of people.

In short, Thailand’s political future looks at best uncertain and at worst disastrous.  The only hope may be constitutional reform reducing central government power.  If Bangkok was less dominant and regions could chart their own course, the Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts would have less incentive to battle to the political death.

Thaksin may be a blight upon Thai politics, but Suthep and his allies are a cancer.  Unfortunately, in Thailand democracy does not guarantee good government.  However, authoritarian, undemocratic rule would be far worse.  Suthep’s Black Shirts will bear the primary blame if their nation descends further into violence and disorder.

Socialism in Venezuela, like Socialism Everywhere, Means Shortages

After 15 years, Hugo Chavez’s socialist revolution is finally reaching socialism’s signature achievement: shortages of toilet paper. The Washington Post reports:

CARACAS, Venezuela — On aisle seven, among the diapers and fabric softener, the socialist dreams of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez looked as ragged as the toilet paper display.

Employees at the Excelsior Gama supermarket had set out a load of extra-soft six-roll packs so large that it nearly blocked the aisle. To stock the shelves with it would have been pointless. Soon word spread that the long-awaited rolls had arrived, and despite a government-imposed limit of one package per person, the checkout lines stretched all the way to the decimated dairy case in the back of the store.

“This is so depressing,” said Maria Plaza, 30, a lawyer, an hour and a half into her wait….

Why is it always toilet paper? I understand why a poorly coordinated economy isn’t likely to produce complicated goods like cars (see the Soviet Lada, the East German Trabant, or the gleaming 1950s American cars still in use on the streets of Havana) or computers. But how hard is it to produce toilet paper? Not that toilet paper is the only thing in short supply:

Each day the arrival of a new item at Excelsior Gama brought Venezuelans flooding into the store: for flour, beef, sugar. Store employees and security guards helped themselves to the goods first, clogging the checkout lines, and then had to barricade the doors to hold back the surge at the entrance.

Meanwhile, as long as you can blame the Americans, the capitalists, Snowball, or Emmanuel Goldstein, you can retain the support of at least some of the people:

“The store owners are doing this on purpose, to increase sales,” said Marjorie Urdaneta, a government supporter who said she believes Maduro when he accuses businesses of colluding with foreign powers to wage “economic war” against him.

“He should tell the stores: Make these items available — or else,” she said.

The regime takes credit for what it can, making sure that

products sold by recently nationalized companies carried little heart symbols and the phrase “Made in Socialism.”

The queues in front of the stores should carry the same symbol.

Argentina Graph of the Day

The graph below is from an op-ed I wrote on Argentina’s 15% devaluation last week, which looks like the beginning of a wider economic crisis. It shows how total government spending as a percent of GDP has doubled to an estimated 44% in the era of populist politics that began with Argentina’s massive debt default in 2002. The country has been spending beyond its means and paying for it by printing money. The government shows no signs of wanting to tame inflation or reduce spending. The bottom line is this: as the government draws down its reserves, and with few other sources of finance, we can expect people to continue to lose confidence in the currency and the economy to deteriorate further and faster.

Source: Luis Secco