Topic: International Economics and Development

Swiss Canton Voters Overwhelmingly Adopt 1.8 Percent Flat Tax

More than 90 percent of voters in the Swiss Canton of Obwalden have voted for a flat tax of just 1.8 percent. This is positive news for tax competition within Switzerland, and it doubtlessly will put even more pressure on Europe’s welfare states to reform oppressive tax regimes. Presumably voters in other Cantons will now petition for a chance to vote for low-rate flat tax systems, and maybe it is just a matter of time ‘til one of them decides to completely eliminate the income tax. Swissinfo reports:

Obwalden has become the first Swiss canton to adopt a flat income tax rate, with more than 90 per cent of the electorate voting in favour of the move. The decision, announced by the authorities after a vote on Sunday, comes after a court ruled the canton’s previous degressive tax model unfair. From next January Obwalden will impose a rate of 1.8 per cent on all categories. The new model also exempts the first SFr10,000 ($8,700) of income from taxation, a measure designed to benefit those on lower incomes the most. …In Switzerland there is high competition among the cantons to set the lowest tax rates to attract wealthy individuals and companies. …European neighbours have frequently expressed outrage that their rich citizens are opting to empty their pockets into Swiss coffers rather than their own. But Switzerland has defended its position as providing healthy competition.

Bulgaria Now an Official Member of the Flat Tax Club

The Sofia News Agency reports that a 10 percent flat tax has cleared a final hurdle in the Bulgarian Parliament. The article notes that the new tax system requires a signature from the President, but this is expected to be a formality. So it’s time to play the unofficial theme song of the global flat tax revolution and welcome the 23rd jurisdiction to the club:

Bulgaria’s parliament passed on second reading on Monday the amendments introducing a flat tax rate in the country. …The amendments are final and only a veto from president Georgi Parvanov can stop them from becoming law, although he has given no indication he plans to do so. …The leaders of the three parties in Bulgaria’s ruling coalition have agreed in summer on the tax reform, with a flat rate of 10%, the lowest in Europe, replacing the progressive taxation system with three brackets. Since Estonia introduced a flat tax system in 1994, enjoying stable GDP growth, eastern European countries have been attracted to the flat tax that promises to attract foreign investments and increase transparency.

“Good News” on the Trade Deficit?

Against a backdrop of a lot of negative economic news, the Commerce Department this morning reported the “good news” that the U.S. current account deficit shrank in the third quarter to $178.5 billion. The current account is the broadest measure of U.S. trade with the rest of the world, including not only goods and services but income from investments and unilateral transfers such as foreign aid.

I use scare quotes around “good news” because it isn’t really obvious why we should all be cheering a smaller current account deficit. Many of the same stories that hail an “improving” trade account also report that one of the main reasons behind it is the slowing U.S. economy compared to the rest of the world. Slower economic growth at home means less demand for imports, while faster growth abroad boosts the export of U.S. goods. I’m all for increased exports, but since when is slower domestic growth good news?

An interesting figure from the current account report is the flow of investment income. In the third quarter Americans earned $20 billion more in interest, dividends and profits on our investments abroad than foreigners earned on their investments in the United States. This despite the fact that foreigners own about $2.5 trillion more in U.S. assets than Americans own in assets abroad. The reason for the seeming discrepancy is that the assets we own abroad have a much higher return, while foreigners have (so far) remained content to earn a lower return on their more liquid and secure investments in the United States.

Opponents of trade liberalization constantly point to the trade deficit as evidence that U.S. trade policies are failing. We’ve debunked that claim at the Center for Trade Policy Studies, but perhaps one bit of genuine good news in today’s report is that critics of trade will have a slightly smaller target to aim at.

Talk About a Friday News Dump

The Senate passed the Farm Bill this afternoon by a margin of 79 to a brave 14 (roll call vote here). Readers of this blog will be sufficiently familiar with our views on U.S. farm policy so I won’t reiterate them here. Suffice it to say that it will be interesting to see if President Bush makes good with his veto threat.

Happy Holidays to the American taxpayer/consumer/trade partner from the U.S. Senate!

End the Shoe Tax!

In a post yesterday, my Cato colleague Chris Edwards graphically demonstrated that the U.S. tax code is very “progressive,” imposing far higher effective rates on high-income households than on lower-income households. But one area of federal taxation—the U.S. import tariff code—is actually quite regressive.

Even after decades of trade liberalization, some of the highest remaining U.S. tariffs are imposed on imported goods that loom largest in the budgets of low-income families—namely the staple items of food, clothing, and shoes. And the highest tariffs within the categories of shoes and clothing are imposed on the lower-priced varieties that poor families would be most likely to buy.

That is all the more reason to feel good about a movement under way to “end the shoe tax.” According to a story in today’s Chicago Tribune:

Footwear manufacturers and retailers are trying to end a Depression-era federal shoe tax, a move they say could save American consumers hundreds of millions of dollars annually and kick-start relatively flat footwear sales.

Trade associations and their members, such as Payless ShoeSource, Nike Inc. and Columbia Sportswear Co., have been lobbying U.S. lawmakers weekly since the summer to get them to exempt certain categories of footwear, including all children’s shoes, from the import tariffs that can run as high as 67.5 percent a pair.

The groups created a Web site, EndtheShoeTax.org, to raise awareness and encourage constituents to tell their lawmakers to pass the Affordable Footwear Act of 2007.

Repealing the shoe tax would have minimal impact on employment. According to the story, 99 percent of shoes sold in the United States are imported. Americans stopped making low-end shoes years ago. And even if jobs were at stake, it would not justify a cruel tax on such a basic necessity. (The same logic applies to remaining tariffs on t-shirts, as I explained in a recent op-ed.)

The political irony here is that many of the same people who complain the loudest that the rich are not paying their “fair share” of income taxes are the first to oppose any lowering of regressive trade barriers that make it more difficult for poor parents to feed and clothe their children.

I Hope You Like Asparagus

Further to Dan’s post today, some more depressing news today on the farm bill process. A couple of amendments that would have trimmed some excess fat also failed.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R., N.H) has proposed a number of amendments to the farm bill. The two that failed today were designed to strike a couple of almost comic provisions of the farm bill that emerged from the Senate Agriculture Committee. The first, to strike language that establishes a “Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network,” a mental health program for farmers, failed 37-58. The other, to strike a new program to provide subsidies for asparagus producers, failed 39-56. (Roll call records are not yet available)

Now, I am willing to concede that farming might be stressful at times (although Mencken would disagree). I certainly wouldn’t like getting out of bed at dawn to milk cows. And I am sure it is a tough business, rearing asparagus. But I once saw a stockbroker outside the NYSE smoking two cigarettes at once, and looking decidedly harried. And I bet he earned less than some farmers. Where’s his taxpayer-funded “stress assistance network?”

This is a further sign of the truly staggering resistance to reform U.S. agricultural policy. Tom Harkin (D., IA), Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said that the proposed reforms of the Lugar-Lautenberg amendment were “too far too fast.”

Too fast? These programs have been with us for over 70 years, Senator.

Our Depressingly Bipartisan Farm Policy

When Democrats regained control of Congress after the 2006 election, they promised to pursue fiscal discipline and bring the curtain down on “business as usual” and the “culture of corruption” in Washington. Apparently U.S. agricultural programs were exempted from any of those promises.

In a perfectly bipartisan vote yesterday, the Senate rejected a modest reform amendment to the 2007 farm bill. Sponsored by Sens. Richard Lugar, R-IN, and Frank Lautenburg, D-NJ, the amendment would have repealed Depression-era farm programs that deliver huge subsidies to a relatively small number of farmers who grow so-called program crops—corn, cotton, rice, wheat and soybeans—and import protection for sugar and dairy.

The amendment would have replaced those programs with a generously subsidized system of insurance. While still far removed from the free market, the proposed alternative would have been less costly and market-distorting than the current system.

Yet even such an incremental step away from our current command-and-control farm policies went down in flames by a 37 to 58 margin (Senate roll call vote no. 417). Voting against the reform were exactly 29 Democrats and 29 Republicans. When it comes to farm programs, neither party represents the majority of Americans who must pay the high cost of U.S. farm programs. [The Center for Trade Policy Studies has documented the cost and proposed a plan to bring U.S. farm programs into the 21st century.]

Not surprisingly, with the Iowa presidential caucuses less than three weeks away, the five senators who were absent from the vote are all busy running for president!