Topic: International Economics and Development

Irish Business Leader Explains Why Optional Tax Base Harmonization Leads to Mandatory Tax Rate Harmonization

Big businesses have rarely been principled defenders of individual liberty. A good example is the fight over a harmonized corporate tax base in Europe. Some multinational companies like this approach because it means one tax return instead of 27 tax returns. But this short-sighted approach overlooks the inevitable misuse of power by politicians who will want to manipulate the system for their own benefit. An Irish business leader explains in the Financial Times:

Businesses should wake up to the fact that, if work to harmonise European Union tax systems succeeds, they will face huge uncertainty regarding their tax liabilities, pay higher tax bills and face a more rigid corporate tax regime. Lázsló Kovács, the tax commissioner, is firmly set on introducing a legislative proposal by the end of 2008 to harmonise the corporate tax base across the Union. …Separate accounting for cross-border transactions within a group would be eliminated, and group profit would be shared by means of a set formula between member states and taxed at the rate applicable in each state. …To date, business has expressed surprisingly little scepticism about this untested assertion. Such a sanguine attitude is misplaced.

 …companies doing business in Europe would pay higher tax bills. …CCCTB would drive some investment to more flexible and competitive tax jurisdictions outside the EU. Business lobbies have only backed the scheme if CCCTB is optional for companies. But, for how long could it remain optional? If simplicity and a reduction in administration costs are part of the raison d’être , then running an additional system side by side with national tax regimes makes no sense. The Commission said in 2006 that: “CCCTB should initially [my italics] be proposed as optional for companies”, and on May 2 it said: “CCCTB should be optional … where these [existing rules] are maintained alongside the CCCTB by member states.” …Despite assurances that it does not intend to extend this work to cover the tax rate, the Commission has a long history of pushing for harmonised tax rates – and a common tax base is a prerequisite of tax rate harmonisation. When the Commission embarked on this initiative, France and Germany made no secret that their end-game was tax rate harmonisation.

U.S. Trade Policy, R.I.P.

The NY Times, Washington Post, and other major media outlets have been gushing praise upon congressional Democrats and the Bush administration for hammering out a deal that keeps the trade agenda alive.  Lending some credibility to those media perspectives, which are too often misinformed and misleading, are assessments from knowledgeable, respected trade policy scholars that the compromise deal struck last week does in fact constitute a major breakthrough.

In my view, only analytical laziness or low expectations about the capacity of the administration and Congress to agree on anything related to trade, or sheer desperation for a sign of progress could produce a thumbs-up assessment of last week’s deal.  The proper interpretation is this:

U.S. trade policy, RIP.  Here’s why.

There are four concluded bilateral trade agreements (with Korea, Colombia, Peru, and Panama) awaiting congressional approval.  There is the seriously stalled Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations, which has been the elusive grand prize of trade policy during the Bush years.  And there is the June 30 expiration of Trade Promotion Authority, which enables the executive branch to negotiate agreements (that must also reflect the wishes of Congress as of 2002, when TPA was passed into law) and bring them back to the Congress for an up-or-down vote.  Without TPA, agreements would be undone, reconfigured, and made unrecognizable and ultimately unacceptable, as 535 congressional tinkerers got their hands on them.

The TPA 2002 language was silent about environmental provisions and specified that trade partners should be required to enforce the labor laws on their books.  The new Democratic Congress finds the TPA 2002 language unacceptable.   Trade deals must contain strict, enforceable labor and environmental provisions, if they are to win the support of the Democratic caucus – so they say. 

The agreement struck last week is akin to a supplemental to the TPA 2002 bill.  It doesn’t extend TPA beyond June 30, but it imposes additional conditions with which trade agreements must comport.  The administration agreed to the terms because, well, it had no choice!  The labor unions, which now dictate congressional trade policy, are unwilling to support trade liberalization.  The administration has nothing, absolutely nothing, with which to compromise.  Thus, by agreeing to last week’s terms, the U.S. Trade Representative is throwing a Hail Mary.  Trade policy will not advance without those terms, and there’s a remote change it could advance with them.  The problem is that it won’t.

Arguably, the left-of-center press is giddy about the fact that Congress compelled the Bush administration to agree to include strict, enforceable labor and environmental provisions in prospective trade agreements (There was more to the deal, but labor and environmental standards were the big issues).  It matters not to the ubersanctimonious of the media that if you’re really concerned about environmental quality and working standards in poor countries you should seek to remove (not create) conditions on investment inflows.  Oh well, at least they’ve acknowledged the plight of poverty. 

But they should also remember that just because two branches of the U.S. government agree to these provisions doesn’t mean our trade partners will.  With a few relatively minor exceptions, they won’t.

In 1996, WTO trade ministers at the conclusion of their first biannual meeting in
Singapore issued a strong statement of consensus on the issue of labor standards.  The statement declared support for core labor standards, but opposed the idea of enforceable labor provisions in trade agreements.  Standards are promoted by “economic growth and development fostered by international trade and further trade liberalization,” the statement read.  Imposing conditions on trade and investment with poor countries only slows economic growth, which prevents labor standards from rising, was the gist of the statement.

Today, the WTO comprises even more developing countries than in 1996.  Their position against enforceable labor standards is even more entrenched.  They don’t oppose better local labor and environmental conditions, but fear that rich countries will use those provisions as a fig leaf to achieve protectionist outcomes.  The legitimate concern is that the potential to allege labor or environmental violations, regardless of merit, will deter foreign investment in local factories and in other areas of the local economy, which is the real key to raising standards.

Thus, despite suggestions that the last week’s deal opens up the door to continued progress on Doha, reality is quite different.  The United States has only introduced another obstacle that will calcify the current North-South divide in the Doha negotiations.

There is a remote possibility that the agreements with Peru and Panama will come to fruition.  Both of those governments are vested heavily in a successful trade deal with the United States, so they may be inclined to bite the bullet.  It remains to be seen, however, if the Peruvian and Panamanian legislatures will approve the new terms.  And quite frankly, there is absolutely no guarantee that Democrats in the U.S. Congress will support these deals despite last week’s ballyhooed “breakthrough.”

Indeed, the Colombian deal has been identified as still problematic by the congressional leadership.  In a letter to the USTR last week, House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-NY) wrote that the Colombia agreement can not be supported by Democrats unless the Bogota government does a better job finding and punishing violent criminals.  And House Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee Chairman Sander Levin (D-MI) is actively opposing the Korea agreement since it doesn’t include his proposal to condition Korean access to the U.S. auto market on the success of U.S. auto sales in Korea.

Although the Democratic leadership has been asserting that its caucus would support trade liberalization if its positions on labor and the environment were accommodated, it appears their bluff has been called.  Opposition to Colombia and Korea has nothing to do with labor and environmental standards.  It has everything to do with union opposition to trade, period.

And without labor’s nod, Democrats will not support trade in sufficient numbers to keep U.S. trade policy on track. 

Thus, trade policy, RIP.

Spain: Immigration Up, Unemployment Down

The recent economic success of Spain has not received the attention it deserves. One element in Spain’s resurgence, which I didn’t previously know about, is a relatively liberal immigration policy. According to BusinessWeek:

Over the past decade, the traditionally homogeneous country has become a sort of open-door laboratory on immigration. Spain has absorbed more than 3 million foreigners from places as diverse as Romania, Morocco, and South America. More than 11% of the country’s 44 million residents are now foreign-born, one of the highest proportions in Europe. With hundreds of thousands more arriving each year, Spain could soon reach the U.S. rate of 12.9%.

And it doesn’t seem to have hurt much. Spain is Europe’s best-performing major economy, with growth averaging 3.1% over the past five years. Since 2002, the country has created half the new jobs in the euro zone. Unemployment has plummeted from more than 20% in the 1990s to 8.6%, within shooting distance of the 7.2% euro zone average. The government attributes more than half this stellar performance to immigration. “We are very thankful for all these people who have come here to work with us,” says Javier Vallés, economic policy chief for Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero.

Apparently all those immigrants haven’t “taken all the jobs.” Ask your favorite Lou Dobbs-loving friend to explain to you how this is possible.

As If Canada Were a Separate Country

Jim Harper adequately documents (1) how the State Department is bungling my wife’s application for a new passport, which one now needs to fly to Montreal (for some reason), and (2) my appeal to the opposite sex. 

I would add only that, while David Boaz is correct that a fence between the U.S. and Mexico is not exactly Berlin Wall-esque (“The Berlin Wall was designed to keep citizens in”), this bone-headed rule that one cannot fly to Canada without a passport might be: it actually does make it more difficult for American citizens to leave.

Are Short-Sighted Politicians (and Greedy Voters) Undermining Democracy?

Writing for American.com, Kevin Hassett notes that politically repressive market-oriented nations are growing faster than politically free market-oriented countries. He issues the obvious caveat that - everything else being equal - we expect poorer countries to grow faster, but he wonders whether democratic regimes sow the seeds of their own destruction (or at least create for themselves a competitive disadvantage) by enabling people to seize unearned wealth through the political process:

…the countries that are economically and politically free are underper­forming the countries that are economically but not politically free. For example, unfree China had a growth rate of 9.5 percent from 2001 to 2005. But China was not the whole story—Malaysia’s GDP grew 9.5 percent from 1991 to 1995, Singapore’s GDP grew 6.4 percent from 1996 to 2000, and Russia’s grew 6.1 percent from 2001 to 2005. The unfree governments now understand that they have to provide a good economy to keep citizens happy, and they understand that free-market econ­omies work best. Also, nearly all of the unfree nations are developing countries. History shows they grow faster, at least for a while, than mature nations. But being unfree may be an economic advantage. Dictatorships are not hamstrung by the preferences of voters for, say, a pervasive welfare state.

Advocates for freedom usually - and with great justification - blame politicians for these outcomes, but a new book by Bryan Caplan says voters deserve part of the blame. Both Cafe Hayek and Marginal Revolution draw attention to Caplan’s work.

WHTI Does More Harm Than Good

The Woodrow Wilson Center’s Canada Institute is having an event May 30th entitled “People, Security and Borders: The Impact of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative on North America.” It looks like a good event exploring an important suite of issues.

I’ve been drawn into WHTI because of the privacy consequences of many border control efforts - RFID-chipped passport cards and such - but the trade issues are just as important. My back-of-the-envelope calculations about the costs of WHTI (exchanged for essentially no increased security) can now be augmented by not one, but two compelling anecdotes! Both have to do with Montreal … .

Anecdote #1 - The Busy, er, Dopey Traveler
A couple of weeks ago, I embarked on a quick round of travel to speaking engagements in Orlando and Montreal. Then, after a day in Chicago, I had planned a weekend in Las Vegas (to properly release a bachelor friend from the bonds of singledom).

As I headed to the Dulles airport bound for Orlando, I realized that I had not brought my passport for the Montreal portion of the journey. After burning a lot of candle-power figuring out what to do, I had a tenant of mine FedEx my passport to Orlando for arrival the next morning. ($24 + gratuity for the little feller going well out of his way = $40)

It arrived well after my scheduled flight for Montreal had departed, so I turned up at the Orlando airport around noon hoping to stand by on later flights. Informed that this was an impossibility on international flights (also, I believe, because of security), I came close to cancelling my attendance at the Computers, Freedom & Privacy conference in Montreal, but I persisted. (Who knows what rules were bent on my behalf, or what the rules actually are.) It took me about 14 hours and a good deal of stress to get to Montreal.

(N.B. This episode was not a stunt done to prove a point - I only do those when reporters agree to come along. It was a simple oversight because I don’t think of Montreal as being in a “foreign country” they way Lisbon or Hong Kong are.)

Long story short (oops, too late), the stresses of comporting myself to the passport requirement and various other security measures caused me to abandon the Vegas portion of my trip and head back to D.C. from Chicago for a quiet weekend. Careless as I am in tinsel-town, that probably kept $1,000 from circulating into the U.S. economy.

Anecdote #2 - The On-the-Ball Travelers
The Cato Institute’s own Michael Cannon was married two years ago. (Yes, there’s somebody out there for everyone.) To celebrate his recently completed graduate schooling and their second anniversary, he and his wife have been planning to go to Montreal this weekend.

The new(ish)ly renamed Mrs. Cannon has her act together - opposites attract, you see - and a few months ago, anticipating this trip, she applied for a passport in her new name. The check was cashed back in March, but the passport has yet to materialize.

At this moment, the two are in logistics hell, trying to navigate the State Department’s bureaucracy (including its downed electronic appointment scheduling system).

What will happen? Nobody knows. Will herculean efforts by Mrs. Cannon and her hubby produce a passport? Will the two cancel their trip? Will Mr. Cannon persist in the face of this heavy, security based regulation and go on his own?

Programs like WHTI are often justified as being part of a layered security system for the United States. “Layered security” is a legitimate way of thinking about things. One shouldn’t rely on a single security system, because that creates a single point of failure. However, security layering doesn’t end the inquiry. Each layer must provide security that is cost-justified. If checking the passports of Canadian-border crossers doesn’t create a substantial protection - and it doesn’t - that layer does more harm than good.

The United States is not safer because of what the Cannons are experiencing. It’s just smaller and unhappier.

Landlords Drafted into War on Illegal Immigration

A couple of weeks ago, I testified in the House Immigration Subcommittee on the difficulties with, and undesirability of, a national employment verification system. Beyond some costly and inconvenient, bleeding-edge tech solutions, there’s no way to confirm on a mass scale that people are legally entitled to work under our immigration law - not without putting a national ID in the hands of every American.

I observed that such a system, once built, wouldn’t be restricted to employment, but would naturally expand:

Were an electronic employment verification system in place, it could easily be extended to other uses. Failing to reduce the “magnet” of work, electronic employment verification could be converted to housing control. Why not require landlords and home-sellers to seek federal approval of leases and sales so as not to give shelter to illegal aliens? Electronic employment verification could create better federal control of financial services, and health care, to name two more.It need not be limited to immigration control, of course. Electronic verification could be used to find wanted murderers, and it would move quickly down the chain to enforcement of unpaid parking tickets and “use taxes.” Electronic employment verification charts a course for expanded federal surveillance and control of all Americans’ lives.

Now comes news that a suburb of Dallas has become the first in the nation to prohibit renting to illegal immigrants. It requires apartment managers to verify that renters are U.S. citizens or legal immigrants before leasing to them.

A policy like this doubles-down on the error of enlisting employers into immigration law enforcement, and it shows how immigration law creates pressure to expand domestic surveillance. “The policy that will dissipate the need for electronic verification by fostering legality is aligning immigration law with the economic interests of the American people. Legal immigration levels should be increased,” I testified.

But you knew that if you’ve been following this stuff.