Topic: International Economics and Development

OECD Says Sweden Should Consider Abolishing the State Income Tax

In a report on the Swedish economy, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development revealed more of its schizophrenic nature (see this article for more information on the OECD’s Jekyll and Hyde personality). While the Paris-based bureaucracy has become infamous for its so-called harmful tax competition project that seeks to penalize jurisdictions with pro-growth tax law, the economists at the OECD often write studies and reports that reflect a solid understanding of the negative impact of government intervention. The Policy Brief on the Swedish economy is a good example. As excerpted below, it notes the problems of high tax rates and excessively generous welfare benefits. It calls for the elimination of the wealth tax and reductions in punitive marginal tax rates. It even suggests that Sweden abolish the state income tax:

…the new government has renewed the commitment for sound macroeconomic framework conditions and will stick to the target for general government net lending of 2% of GDP over the cycle which is necessary to keep public finances on a sustainable path. Underlying this target is the assumption that taxes can be sustained at current levels which could be difficult in the future, not least due to mobile tax bases and international tax competition. …the share of 20 64 year olds who depend on public income transfers has declined to 20% in 2006, but it remains well above the 15-16% of 1990-91. …Sickness absence among those employed and the number entering disability pension increased rapidly from the late 1990s. The numbers are now falling, although the stock of disability pensioners remains among the highest in the OECD. …Letting people keep a bit more of the value they create is vital to encourage both labour supply and entrepreneurship. The plans to abolish the wealth tax should therefore be endorsed, as it sets in at a rate of 1½ per cent already from wealth slightly above the average price of a metropolitan-area one-family house. Abolition of the wealth tax might lead to repatriation of capital, possibly making more investment capital available for new small firms. Marginal income taxes are also important, though, because high rates kick in already from slightly above average full-time earnings. The combination of social contributions, income and consumption taxes drives the effective marginal tax rate above 70% for over a third of the full-time employed, helping to explain why working hours for those employed are below the OECD average. …Moving up the threshold by SEK 100 000 from 105% to 135% of average full-time earnings, for example, would halve the number of persons exposed to the above-70% combined marginal tax rate, which results when the state income tax sets in on top of social contributions, municipal income tax and consumption taxes. …In fact, completely abolishing the state income tax would cost just 1½ per cent of GDP.

Swiss Leaders Defend Low Taxes, Reject Complaint from Brussels

The tax bureaucrats at the European Commission apparently believe that low tax rates and territorial taxation (the common-sense principle of only taxing income earned inside national borders) are a violation of free trade rules. The Swiss, not surprisingly, have a different perspective. This European fight has long-term implications for America. If the Euro-crats succeed in characterizing good tax policy as an unfair trade subsidy, it will be only a matter of time before high-tax nations use the same theory at the World Trade Organization. Ideally, Switzerland will hold firm and this will never happen. As explained by tax-news.com, the EU has very little leverage in this battle unless they are willing to impose protectionist barriers against Switzerland, but there are a number of low-tax EU nations that presumably would side with Switzerland and block any sanctions:

Switzerland has rejected criticism from the European Commission of corporate tax rates in some cantons, saying it will not yield its sovereignty over this issue. …Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz shot down the EU proposal, saying in Bern that there was nothing to negotiate. …The commission wants the Swiss to change tax rules that it claims offer unfair advantages to firms operating out of Switzerland. It said low corporate taxes offered by cantons such as Obwalden and Zug violated a 1972 trade agreement, calling it a disguised state subsidy. …Merz said he does not fear a backlash from Brussels since so far all the talk is about negotiations. He reckons that sanctions are also unlikely, as some EU member states would probably not back them. The finance minister admitted though that the European initiative was aimed at stopping firms – and their tax money – leaving the union for Switzerland’s greener pastures.

Irish EU Commissioner Understands Benefits of Lower Tax Rates

Charlie McGreevy is a lonely voice in Brussels. Most of his fellow Commissioners believe in bigger government and higher taxes, but McGreevy is from Ireland, and he obviously understands from his own country’s experience that lower tax rates promote growth and create opportunity. Tax-news.com reports:

Internal Market Commissioner, Charlie McCreevy outlined his position on taxation within the European Union, suggesting that ‘higher taxes feed fatter government’. …”Some see taxation as a means of making society more equal. Of levelling down. Of limiting the upside rewards that go with taking risk or working hard. I don’t. …I don’t see taxation as meritorious in its own right. I believe taxes – of all kinds - should be kept as low as possible and that the pressure to get them down should be relentless. I believe also, where there is a choice on how to levy taxes, preference should be given to levying them on spending. Taxes on income are taxes on effort, work and entrepreneurship. Taxes on capital are taxes on investment and risk taking. But it is effort, work, entrepreneurship, investment and risk taking that we need to continue to grow our economic base. And it is that growth that generates the incremental tax revenues that finance sustainable improvements in welfare. It was when taxes on income were raised and the thresholds at which they became payable were lowered that Ireland’s economy and public finances came close to basket case status. When capital taxes on wealth creation and entrepreneurship proliferated non-compliance proliferated with it, and wealth and jobs were driven out. In fact the tax revenues that some of those taxes generated were barely adequate to cover the cost of collecting them.”

Property Rights Promote Conservation

My daily visit to Marginal Revolution continues to pay dividends. Alex Tabarrok comments on a New York Times story that explains how giving people private ownership of trees has improved conservation and led to millions of additional trees: 

Recent studies of vegetation patterns, based on detailed satellite images and on-the-ground inventories of trees, have found that Niger, a place of persistent hunger and deprivation, has recently added millions of new trees and is now far greener than it was 30 years ago. These gains, moreover, have come at a time when the population of Niger has exploded, confounding the conventional wisdom that population growth leads to the loss of trees and accelerates land degradation, scientists studying Niger say. …Another change was the way trees were regarded by law. From colonial times, all trees in Niger had been regarded as the property of the state, which gave farmers little incentive to protect them. Trees were chopped for firewood or construction without regard to the environmental costs. Government foresters were supposed to make sure the trees were properly managed, but there were not enough of them to police a country nearly twice the size of Texas. But over time, farmers began to regard the trees in their fields as their property, and in recent years the government has recognized the benefits of that outlook by allowing individuals to own trees. Farmers make money from the trees by selling branches, pods, fruit and bark. Because those sales are more lucrative over time than simply chopping down the tree for firewood, the farmers preserve them.

European Commission Poised to Officially Attack Switzerland for the “Crime” of Low Tax Levels

In a move that is both remarkable and disturbing, the European Commission plans to file a complaint - and threaten protectionist trade barriers - because attractive Swiss tax policies are supposedly a violation of a free-trade accord. The bureaucrats in Brussels are not arguing that Switzerland is imposing barriers against EU products. Instead, the Commission actually is taking the position that low taxes are attracting businesses that might otherwise operate in high-tax nations. The implications of this radical assertion are breathtaking. It certainly is true that a nation with more laissez-faire policy will attract economic activity from neighbors with more burdensome levels of government. But if this migration of jobs and investment is a “distortion” or trade, then the only “solution” is complete and total harmonization of all taxes (and regulations, spending, etc). If the Euro-crats succeed with this argument at the European level, it will be just a matter of time before similar cases are filed at the World Trade Organization. Look at this story from the Neue Zuricher Zeitung, but insert “U.S.” for Switzerland and you may get a glimpse of the future:

The European Commission is expected next week to make an official complaint about the practice of Swiss cantonal tax authorities giving corporate tax breaks. But the reproach is considered dubious because the Commission cannot really prove there has been any infringement of free trade. Brussels and Bern have been at loggerheads for more than a year over low corporate taxes some of the cantons use to attract new companies, including firms from European Union countries. The Swiss government has made it clear in recent months that a low tax regime is not in breach of a 1972 free trade agreement. …There may be objections from some EU Commission members but a condemnation of non:EU member Switzerland is practically certain. …The draft claims that these tax practices distort trade between Switzerland and the EU, and therefore contravene the bilateral free trade agreement. …It is also claimed that there does not have to be cast:iron proof of trade distortion. According to article 23 of the free trade accord, it is enough if a privilege “threatens to distort” trade.v…the EU specifically mentions “protective measures” in the draft complaint. The indirect threat is aimed at making Switzerland negotiate over cantonal tax practices.

America’s High Corporate Tax Rate Hurts Competitiveness

As other developed nations race to cut corporate tax rates in order to attract jobs and investment, politicians in the United States are sitting on their hands. Kevin Hasset of the American Enterprise Institute explains how this hurts America:

Imagine you are the CEO of a major U.S. manu­facturing company. You are looking to locate a new domestic plant. All other factors being equal, would you locate the plant in the state with the highest taxes? Now, make that question international. Would you locate a plant in a country with high taxes or low? The obvious answer points to a growing eco­nomic problem for the United States. Among the 30 wealthy countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. ranks sec­ond, just below Japan, for the highest combined tax rate (federal and state) on corpo­rate profits. Our position in the world hierarchy is rela­tively new. In 1994, the U.S. ranked 18th. But since then, other nations have been cutting rates—from an average of 37 percent to 28 percent—while the U.S., at 39 percent, has main­tained its high level. …most foreign multinationals are head­quartered in countries that charge taxes only on domestic operations. If a French firm locates a plant in Ireland, then all of the profits of the Irish plant are taxable in Ireland, but are free from French tax­ation. So French firms have an enormous incentive to locate in the country with the lowest taxes they can find. That rules out the United States. …the latest literature suggests that relative tax rates are a big, big deal. Indeed, the dramatic flow of international capital to the lowest tax environment is one of the strongest and most reliable findings in the history of economic science. If a country lowers its rate below its rivals, as Ireland, now with a 12.5 percent rate, began doing more than a decade ago, then multinationals flood that nation with capital. It’s very much in the data. …The status quo—one of the most unfriendly tax policies toward business on earth—is unacceptable to anyone who cares about the future of American industry. No one should be surprised if our best firms continue to flee overseas and if foreign-based firms prefer locating their plants outside America.

What Goes Around Comes Around

Last week’s formal WTO challenge of certain Chinese tax laws by the United States should obviate an important reality. If China is running afoul of its commitments and the United States expects China to make amends, the United States must lead by example. That brings us to the zeroing dispute, with its latest twists and turns.

After much internal deliberation, the Commerce Department announced late last year that it would alter its antidumping calculation methodology by no longer “zeroing” dumping margins under the average-to-average comparison methodology in original investigations (described in this post). This decision was in response to a WTO indictment stemming from a complaint filed by the EC in 2003. January 17, 2007 was to be the effective date of the change, but implementation was postponed at the request of Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), chairs of the Finance and Ways and Means Committees, respectively, who wanted more time to educate Congress about the ruling, the change in practice, and its implications.

Just before the announced postponement, another indictment was issued by the WTO Appellate Body concerning the zeroing practice in a complaint lodged by Japan in 2004. That ruling was much broader in scope, condemning zeroing under almost every conceivable comparison methodology and in both investigations and administrative reviews.

As a result of that latest ruling, the Ways and Means Committee has been soliciting comments from interested parties on how the United States should respond. Congress and the administration are said to be working closely, exploring U.S. options, one of which is simply NOT to comply. 

Noncompliance is a legitimate option, and that is part of the beauty of the rule of trade law within the WTO. Contrary to the view of some of its detractors, the WTO is not world government. It does not impose the will of some faceless bureaucracy on powerless countries. It does not usurp national sovereignty. On the contrary, the WTO is powerless as a stand-alone entity. Its rules are the product of the consensus of its members, and to establish new rules, consensus among all of its 150 members is required. (This helps explain the slow going of the Doha Round and the eight-year duration of the previously-concluded round of multilateral trade talks — the Uruguay Round). Members do not have to comply with rulings, which are always framed in the benign, “sorry-to-trouble-you” tone that “recommends” that rules or laws or measures be brought into conformity with this or that WTO agreement.

Despite this comply-if-you-will approach, the dispute settlement system has endured 12 years and 358 disputes with compliance or mutually-agreed resolution achieved in every case concluded thus far. One reason for this record of success is that, should members choose not to comply, the complainant whose gripe goes unresolved is often entitled to retaliate or “suspend concessions.” This retaliation often takes the form of raising tariffs, but could include other measures. 

Another incentive to comply is that noncompliance could be contagious. It’s nice to have the theoretical option of disregarding the verdict, but exercising that option can be costly and risky. If the United States chooses to ignore the Appellate Body’s findings in the Japanese zeroing case and fails to revise its zeroing practice, the Chinese may be more inclined to take this approach if and when its tax laws are found to violate its WTO commitments. One of the major justifications for encouraging and welcoming China’s membership in the WTO was that membership would improve prospects that Chinese policies going forward would be transparent, predictable, and fair. And that would encourage greater commercial engagement. If China comes to view its WTO obligations as optional, the economics of the trading system and the political support for it will suffer immensely.