Topic: International Economics and Development

Will Hungary Finally Join the Flat Tax Club?

Unlike most of its neighbors, Hungary is still saddled with a discriminatory tax regime, leading to high tax rates on productive behavior and a big underground economy. Fortunately, the collapse of the current Hungarian government may pave the way for a flat tax:

Small Hungarian opposition party the Hungarian Democratic Forum Thursday said it would attempt to force the introduction of a flat tax after a coalition split this week raised the prospect of a minority government. “The withdrawal of the (junior coalition) Alliance of Free Democrats has opened up the possibility of introducing a flat tax from 2009, since this gives the parliamentary majority for the decision,” the party said in a statement. Free Democrat leader Ibolya David called for opposition parties to attend talks on April 15 to work out details of a bill to submit to parliament by May. The party wants to emulate regional peers such as Slovakia and Romania by introducing a flat 18-per-cent personal income tax to reduce a tax burden it called “unfairly high.” The Free Democrats and main opposition party Fidesz - along with its allies the Christian Democrats - have said in the past that they would favour a flat tax. …The Socialist Party has only 190 seats in the 386-seat parliament, meaning that the opposition parties could force through a flat tax bill by banding together. Hungary is ranked as having the second-highest tax burden for single people, behind Belgium, amongst the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Many feel the high burden - made worse in 2006 when the government hiked taxes as part of its economic reforms - hits Hungary’s regional competitiveness. …The tax burden also credited with maintaining the huge black economy. Estimates of the size of the black economy vary from the official figure of 18 per cent of gross domestic product to as high as 50 per cent among some analysts.

An Argentine Mess

The decision of Argentina’s president Cristina Fernández to raise the export taxes on grain producers has sparked protests all over the country, putting the country once again in international headlines. But punishing exporters is not the main story, it’s the economic mess that the last two administrations have created in that beautiful country.

The previous government of Nestor Kirchner–Fernandez’s husband–thought that he could devalue his way out of the crisis of 2001. Since that year, the Central Bank of Argentina has consistently applied a weak peso policy, which along with a massive increase in public spending, has resulted in runaway inflation. Last year, the Argentine peso was the only Latin American currency that didn’t appreciate against the U.S. dollar; in fact it depreciated slightly. The weak peso thus served as a subsidy to exporters, including the farmers now protesting the tax hike.

So we actually have the Argentine government subsidizing and confiscating agricultural exporters at the same time, while creating inflation (which has led to price controls, bans on exports, and other economic beauties). And now, in response to the protests, the Fernández administration has announced new subsidies to farmers.

Only in Argentina.

April Fools for Skilled Workers

Quite appropriately, today exposes another facet of the foolishness that is U.S. immigration policy. April 1st is the day each fiscal year when employers are allowed to begin filing petitions with the US Citizen and Immigration Services for highly skilled workers to be given what are known as H-1B visas. For the second consecutive year, the quota of these visas was reached on this first day of eligibility.

H-1Bs allow employers to hire foreign workers in certain professional occupations. They are good for three years and can be renewed for another three. Though an H-1B cannot lead to a green card, it’s still a pretty good deal.

The problem is that, even in this apparent economic downturn, there aren’t enough visas: Congress limits the number of annual H-1Bs grants, and that magic number has been set at 65,000 for five years now. Before that, and in response to the technology boom of the late ’90s, Congress temporarily raised the H-1B cap to 195,000. But that expansion expired in 2004, and the cap has been reached earlier and earlier each year since.

In 2005, that meant August. In 2006, May 26. Last year, by the afternoon of April 2, 2007 (April 1 was a Sunday), USCIS had received over 150,000 H-1B applications. Officials quickly announced that they would randomly select 65,000 petitions from all those the agency had received in the first two days of eligibility.

Last week, with demand for the prized work permits only increasing, the powers that be decreed that this year’s lottery would accept all entries received in the first five business days. USCIS simultaneously promulgated a rule prohibiting employers from trying to game the lottery by filing multiple petitions for the same employee.

As for the vast majority of employers and employees who will be out of luck, the immigration laws say, like so many “rebuilding” baseball teams this opening week, “wait till next year.” Except, in this case, next year means putting your business or career on hold until October 1, 2009—the day people who secure H-1Bs for fiscal year 2010 can start work.

If only this were all a bad April Fools’ joke.

Read more on this in the article I have up on National Review Online today.

Real Federalism in Switzerland

An article in the Financial Times notes that the income tax imposed by the national government in Switzerland takes no more than 11.5 percent of a taxpayer’s income, and that most taxation (and spending) takes place at the canton and municipal level. This is genuine federalism, unlike the United States, where the national government is the dominant force in fiscal policy.

A big advantage of real federalism is greater tax competition, which — as the article notes — leads to lower tax rates and less government waste:

The federal constitution gives significant powers both to Switzerland’s 26 regional cantons, and to the individual towns and villages in them. …A handful of cantons have used ultra-low taxation to attract wealthy individuals to stimulate economic growth. Among the best known are Zug and Schwyz, both not far from Zurich. Most recently, Obwalden, a small, mountainous canton near Lucerne, slashed tax rates to match its low-tax rivals.

The cantonal levy is complemented by a local tax, calculated as a percentage of the cantonal level. Again, rates vary dramatically, even between communities in the same canton. For example, in the canton of Zurich, Switzerland’s most populous, local tax ranges from roughly 70 per cent of the cantonal rate in the wealthy and relatively low-tax towns and villages along Lake Zurich’s so-called Gold Coast, to more than 120 per cent in poorer and much more financially stretched communities in the hinterland. The local and communal taxes are capped by a federal tax, payable separately and at a different time of the year, that rises gently to peak at 11.5 per cent for the highest incomes.

Although three levels of taxation might sound expensive, personal taxes in Switzerland are relatively modest compared with much of Europe. Rates in the ultra-low-tax cantons can be as low as 16 per cent. Even “average” cantons tend to charge less than elsewhere in Europe, thanks to the cantonal tax competition that the Swiss say encourages cantons and local administrations to maximise efficiency.

Foolish European Union Regulations

Two stories from the British press highlight regulatory excess from the Brussels bureaucracy. The Times reports that a winemaker is being harrassed because he is selling his wares in 37.5cl bottles instead of the 50cl or 35cl sizes allowed by European regulation:

An award-winning winemaker whose wares are sold at the royal palaces is facing a £30,000 bill after European bureaucrats ruled that he was using the wrong-shaped bottles. Jerry Schooler, who sells 400,000 bottles of fruit wines and mead a year, has been threatened with prosecution over his determination to use traditional measurements. The proprietor of the Lurgashall Winery in West Sussex, has been told to halt the sale of beverages such as mead, silver birch wine and bramble liqueur in 75cl and 37.5cl bottles. If he continues to sell them, he could be taken to court under a new EU directive that permits the sale of such products in 70cl, 50cl or 35cl measures only. …Mr Schooler now faces costs of about £30,000 to change his production line. “We are going to have to change all our bottling, the labels, machinery, boxes and maybe the corks as well and it is going to cost me thousands to do it,” he said. …West Sussex County Council’s trading standards department said that the winery was bound by EU Directive 2007/45/EC, which was drawn up in September to “lay down rules on nominal quantities for prepacked products”. It said the directive meant that the use of 37.5cl bottles for liqueurs was illegal.

The absurdity of this story makes one wonder how such a regulation came into existence. Did a bureaucrat wake up on the wrong side of the bed one day and decide that wine should only be sold in bottles of certain sizes? Is there some sort of crazy health or safety rationale for the regulation? Speaking of which, that’s the alleged reason for a regulation that is forcing English bus companies to make customers disembark in the middle of routes. This foolish regulation apparently is designed to prevent driver fatigue, but, as reported by the Sun, the practical effect is to make people waste their time:

Thousands of passengers are being forced to hop off buses midway through journeys to comply with barmy EU laws. A Brussels ruling has banned local services longer than 30 miles to ensure drivers don’t spend too long at the wheel. As a result, drivers have to pull in as they hit that limit and order everyone off their bus. They then change the route number on the front and invite passengers to jump back on before resuming the trip. …Western Greyhound has split its Newquay to Plymouth route in three — even though it uses a single driver throughout. Passengers must buy three tickets and break their journey twice. Managing director Mark Howarth said: “It’s a farce. We have to kick customers off as soon as the driver hits the 30-mile limit. “Often it’s in the middle of nowhere. Passengers think we’re crazy.”

USA Today Story on Corporate Tax Blames the Victim

Compared to other nations, the United States has a medium-sized tax burden. Most of Europe has harsher taxes, but there are plenty of place in the world that have lower tax burdens. But there is one area where America is behind almost every other nation, and that is the taxation of corporate income. The combined federal/state corporate rate is nearly 40 percent, exceeded by only Japan. Not only does the U.S. have a high tax rate, but the IRS taxes the “worldwide” income of companies, which means that it is especially hard for American companies to compete in foreign markets - particularly since almost every other nation relies on the common-sense approach of territorial taxation, which means they do not tax the “foreign-source” income earned by their companies. The only silver lining to this dark cloud is that American companies have some ability to postpone when they pay the additional layer of tax on their foreign-source income. In the minds of greedy politicians (and sloppy reporters), however, this “deferral” of a discriminatory tax is a loophole. Here’s what USA Today reported:

Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama have cast it as an outrage that should be a key target for the next president: a tax break they say encourages employers to ship American jobs abroad. The charge could be dismissed as typical campaign-trail exaggeration during a Democratic primary season marked by populism, except for one thing. Many analysts say it’s true. “The U.S. tax system does provide an incentive to locate production offshore,” says Martin Sullivan, a contributing editor to Tax Notes, a non-profit publication that tracks tax issues. At issue is the U.S. tax code’s treatment of profits earned by foreign subsidiaries of American corporations. Profits earned in the United States are subject to the 35% corporate tax. But multinational corporations can defer paying U.S. taxes on their overseas profits until they return them to the USA — transfers that often don’t happen for years. …”If you had two companies in Pittsburgh that both were going to expand capacity and create 100 jobs, our tax code puts the company who chooses to put the plant in Pittsburgh at a competitive disadvantage over the company that chooses to move to a tax haven,” says former White House economist Gene Sperling, a Clinton adviser.

But Senators Clinton and Obama, not to mention Martin Sullivan and Gene Sperling, have things backwards. It is America’s high tax rate that creates an incentive for jobs to be overseas. Deferral simply means that American companies are only somewhat disadvantaged in their efforts to earn market share in other nations. The USA Today story does acknowledge that America has a high corporate tax rate, but the reporter is surprised that this high rate means low revenue, even though it is actually a sign of “Laffer Curve” responses to punitive taxation:

The U.S. has one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world, and its corporate tax code has a well-earned reputation for complexity. But despite the high rate, the U.S. takes in less annual revenue from corporate taxes, measured as a percentage of economic output, than almost all other major economies.

The current system is bad for America, but critics have the wrong solution. Instead of making the U.S. tax code even more punitive by ending deferral, America needs a big reduction in the corproate tax rate. So long as America’s rate is far higher than other nations, companies will have an incentive to create jobs abroad. Ending deferral would not alter that incentive. All that would happen is that foreign companies would be creating a larger share of those jobs. The story does quote a couple of economists who have starkly different estimates of employment implications, but both agree the current system causes job losses:

Kimberly Clausing, a professor of economics at Reed College in Portland, Ore., says the corporate tax code may account for up to 3 million jobs being abroad. Gary Hufbauer, an economist who has written a book on international taxation, puts the number at just 200,000. …The Bush administration warned last year that U.S. corporate giants are at a competitive disadvantage in world markets because foreign rivals pay lower taxes in their home countries.

The article also notes that U.S. companies that create jobs abroad also create jobs in America. In other words, successful, growing firms tend to expand in all markets. A lower corprorate tax rates, needless to say, is one of the keys to a pro-growth environment for American companies. Ireland is a good example of a nation that reaps large benefits from a low corporate tax:

Matthew Slaughter, a Dartmouth College economics professor who worked in the Bush administration, says that historically, multinationals that have added jobs at their foreign affiliates also have expanded hiring in the USA. As U.S.-owned foreign units prosper, their corporate parents must add accountants, marketing specialists and other managers at their U.S. headquarters. In 2004, Slaughter released a study, based on employment data for the decade ending in 2001, which concluded that U.S. multinationals created two jobs in the USA for every job they added abroad. That comforting conclusion broke down in more recent years. From 1991 through 2005, multinationals created almost as many jobs abroad (3.6 million) as they added at home (3.8 million). …Evidence of legal tax-shifting can be seen in government statistics. In 2005, U.S. multinationals’ units in Ireland, which levies a corporate tax of just 12.5%, reported profits that were twice as large as the profits of all U.S. affiliates in Germany, France and Italy combined.