Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Update on Gisele and the Dollar

Maybe Gisele Bundchen is not bearish on the dollar after all. CNBC is pouring cold water on reports suggesting that the Brazilian supermodel prefers euros:

Anne Nelson, Bundchen’s manager … tells us reports that Gisele wants to be paid in euros are “false.” Nelson’s take: “Some idiot in Brazil reported something just to make news.” Nelson points out that Gisele lives in New York City, and thus needs U.S. dollars for her big-city lifestyle. Of course, anyone who disagrees with Warren Buffett’s investment wisdom does so at their own risk. But we have to think Gisele gets enough U.S. dollars that she can absorb any potential weakness against the Euro.

But this is not just a story about the strength of the dollar. The CNBC story notes that she lives in New York City, which raises the issue of whether she is a resident of the US for tax purposes. This would be a major mistake since America probably has the world’s worst tax system for people with global income. Being a selfless person concerned about the plight of the over-taxed entrepreneur, I want Gisele to know that I am willing to counsel her on how best to protect her earnings from rapacious government, even if it requires many hours and late-night meetings.

Gisele, feel free to contact me at my dmitchell [at] cato.org (Cato email address). I’m here for you in your time of need.

Excellent Story Shows Benefits of Tax Havens

Reporting from London, The Business notes that so-called tax havens are among the world’s richest jurisdictions. But rather than emulating success, high-tax nations attack these free-market outposts — with the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development leading the charge:

Of the 20 wealthiest nations, 13 of them are low-tax territories. …In the past few years, politicians from the developed world have led a determined assault on tax havens. …The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has led a series of attacks on the world’s tax havens, accusing them of complicity in money laundering and of lacking transparency. At one point the French government advocated an international boycott of tax havens, arguing that EU banks should refuse to deal with them. …Even the Vatican has joined the campaign. Pope Benedict XVI was reported last month to be working on a doctrinal pronouncement that will condemn tax evasion as “socially unjust”, while the planned encyclical — the most authoritative statement a pope can issue — will denounce the use of tax havens and offshore bank accounts by wealthy individuals, on the grounds that they reduce the tax revenues raised for the benefit of society as a whole (although curiously the Vatican hasn’t reacted so well to proposals by the Italian government to curb the Catholic church’s own tax break). But instead of attacking tax havens, other countries should be trying to learn from them. The way they lead the global wealth rankings is testament to the power of lower taxes to raise overall living standards. 

The story explains that the demagoguery against low-tax jurisdictions — particularly regarding charges of money laundering — is false (something that is confirmed by both international bureaucracies and U.S. government sources):

[T]hough money laundering through the Cayman Islands may be a staple of popular fiction, there isn’t much evidence for it in the real world. Most criminals launder the proceeds of the crimes domestically, since they are well aware that moving their money across borders only increases the chances of detection. Terrorists use traditional networks of money changers — not banks in Jersey.

The article closes with an excellent summary of the key issues. Tax competition constrains politicians and it encourages policies that make ordinary people richer, and tax havens play a key role in this process:

Low-tax territories provide an alternative to the high-tax world. They impose some discipline on governments elsewhere, restricting the amount they can raise in taxes by providing an escape route. But more importantly, they demonstrate the ability of lower taxes to consistently raise living standards, even in the most unpromising locations. Maybe it is time to stop hammering the tax havens — and start trying to learn from them instead.

Tax Competition Drives Good Policy in Canada

A National Post report from Canada illustrates how jurisdictional competition pushes policymakers to adopt better tax law. Indeed, both the left and right are fighting over who can make the biggest reduction in the corporate tax rate. As the article notes, this is a remarkable development since politicians used to treat companies as cash cows.

With nations all over the world lowering corporate rates, America’s punitive tax treatment of business is becoming an even bigger obstacle to competitiveness:

Who would have thought federal politics would come to this: Liberals and Conservatives competing over who would lower corporate taxes the most! …That…marks an amazing turn of fortune, an historic reversal of at least half a century of corporate-bashing tax increases, of surtaxes on taxes, of capital taxes piled on surtaxes rolled over from year to year.

…[T]here is certainly much to be said for [Canadian Prime Minister] Flaherty’s corporate tax objectives. First he aims to get the federal tax rate down to 15% by 2012. Then he wants the provinces to join the national corporate tax competition by cutting their rates to 10%, thus lowering Canada’s nationwide corporate tax rate to 25%. That means, said Mr. Flaherty, that “Canada’s corporate tax rate will become the lowest among the major industrialized economies.” It’s a good objective — for the economy, for growth, for innovation — and a sign perhaps that most Canadians have come to appreciate that nations and their citizens get rich by freeing business enterprises rather than by plundering them for instant cash.

…Countries all over the planet are rushing to trim tax rates on business… Jack Mintz, of the University of Toronto, pointed out yesterday that Italy has just slashed that rate by 4.5 percentage points. Other countries are cutting rates in large increments of up to seven percentage points, as in Germany. The new Flaherty cuts are good, says Mr. Mintz, but not good enough. “Why not cut rates right away?” It’s also not clear that 25% is low enough to maximize business activity and attract business investment to Canada. In his recent tax competitiveness study for the C.D. Howe Institute, Mr. Mintz called for a national corporate tax rate of 20%.

…The next needed political transformation: It’s OK to cut taxes on the rich.

Why a Government Spending Freeze is Incomprehensible to Bureaucrats

In today’s Washington Post, columnist David Ignatius takes Congress to task for its failure to pass the appropriations bills – and not just this year but almost every year since 1977.

“The talk among some of my government buddies this week was an obscure term of federal budgeting known as a “continuing resolution.” This is what Congress passes when it hasn’t gotten its act together to pass a real appropriations bill before the start of a new fiscal year. The ‘CR,’ as it’s known, allows agencies to continue operating at the same spending level as the previous year. But it plays havoc with normal management functions such as planning and contracting.”

“[University of Maryland political scientist Roy T. Meyers] summarized the inefficiencies that result from having to run an agency without knowing your budget. ‘When regular appropriations are delayed, uncertainty about final appropriations leads many managers to hoard funds; in some cases, hiring and purchasing stops.’” [Emphasis mine.]

I don’t really have a problem with Congress getting very little done.  And I kinda like CRs, especially if they last all year.  Those sorts of CRs dramatically limit spending, as evidenced by the just-lapsed fiscal year. The budget won’t grow until Congress passes all the appropriations bills.  That’s probably what Ignatius and his “government buddies” don’t like.

When Congress passes a CR, it’s wrong to say that an agency head won’t know what his likely budget will be.  He knows exactly what it will be: last year’s spending level.  This simply means managers have to live within the constraint of a budget that isn’t higher than last year’s.

Of course, businesses have to deal with this sort of thing all the time when their profits dry up.  Perhaps it should be no surprise to the cynical that government bureaucrats – who have a guaranteed “customer base” (read: taxpayers) because anyone who doesn’t “buy” their product (read: tax evaders) can be arrested – don’t like to deal with it.

So Write a Check and Shut Up, Warren

When billionaires piously say that they should pay more taxes, the rest of us should hide our wallets. Warren Buffett, the so-called “Sage of Omaha” says his tax rate is too low. That’s a strange attitude, to be sure, but if Buffett wants to write an extra check to the government, he should go right ahead. Heck, the Treasury Department even has a website with a mailing address for people who are foolish enough to flush more of their money into the Washington sewer. Unfortunately, Buffett’s real agenda is to agitate for higher tax burdens for the rest of us. As the UK-based Guardian reports:

The United States’ second-richest man has delivered a blunt message to the Bush administration: he wants to pay more tax. Warren Buffett, the famous investor known as the “Sage of Omaha”, has complained that he pays a lower rate of tax than any of his staff - including his receptionist. Mr Buffett, who is worth an estimated $52bn (£25bn), said: “The taxation system has tilted towards the rich and away from the middle class in the last 10 years. It’s dramatic; I don’t think it’s appreciated and I think it should be addressed.” … Buffett’s remarks drew a robust response from the US Chamber of Commerce, which said the top 1% of US earners accounted for 39% of tax revenue - and the highest earning 25% of the population delivered 86% of the tax-take.

The Chamber of Commerce correctly notes that the tax code already is heavily biased against rich people, and it certainly is true that higher tax rates will hinder economic performance and make America more like Europe (which would hurt receptionists more than billionaires). But the reporter should have done some simple fact checking and discovered that Buffett has no idea what he’s talking about regarding tax rates. I addressed this issue back in June, in response to another Warren-wants-the-rest-of-us-to-pay-more episode:

It is probably safe to assume that Buffett receives lots of dividend income and that he also declares a considerable amount of capital gains, both of which are subject to a 15 percent tax rate on an individual tax return. What he did not mention, however, is that corporations pay a 35 percent tax before distributing dividends to shareholders, so the actual effective tax rate on that portion of Buffett’s income is closer to 50 percent.

The capital gains tax is another example of double taxation. An increase in the value of a stock is a reflection of an anticipated increase in the future income stream from that stock. Yet that income stream will be taxed (usually two times!) when it occurs. The real effective rate on that portion of Buffett’s income is harder to calculate, but it certainly will be far higher than 15 percent.

Shifting gears, Buffett’s calculations almost surely include Social Security payroll taxes, which only apply to the first $90,000 of income in exchange for not providing huge benefit payments to rich retirees. Indeed, the overall program is highly progressive once benefit payments are added to the equation, so Buffett’s secretary gets a better deal than he does from Social Security (though both would be better off with a system of personal retirement accounts).

Tax-and-Spend or Borrow-and-Spend?

In Virginia,

Pat S. Herrity wants a new elementary school and middle school for southern Fairfax County. Douglas R. Boulter wants to hire more zoning inspectors. Vellie S. Dietrich Hall calls for more and better-paid police. Gary H. Baise promises roads, an expanded auditor’s office and the newly created post of county ethics officer.

And they all pledge to lower property taxes.

Meet the Republicans running for the Board of Supervisors on Nov. 6.

In Virginia, as in Congress, voters get a choice between tax-and-spend Democrats and borrow-and-spend Republicans. As I’ve argued before, there’s a bit of fat in the Fairfax County budget. It’s too bad that voters aren’t offered any candidates who would trim it.

Paul Krugman and the Unbearable Lameness of Partisanship

In a recent appearance on bloggingheads.tv with Mark Schmitt, I expressed disdain for the current spate of conservative-bashing books by Jonathan Chait, Greg Anrig, and Paul Krugman. Now don’t get me wrong: conservativism deserves some fairly spirited bashing these days. But what I objected to about these books was their crude partisanship – specifically, their grossly distorted, black-hats-versus-white-hats version of recent American political history.

I didn’t get a chance there to flesh out my criticisms in any detail, so I’d like to do a little bit of that here. And thanks again to bloggingheads.tv (if you’re not familiar with it, it’s really a terrific site), I’ve got an excellent jumping-off point: an interview of Paul Krugman by none other than Mario Cuomo. Cuomo, it turns out, is an excellent interviewer, carefully drawing out Krugman’s views and gently challenging him at a number of points. And the picture of Krugman that emerges is one of a man completely besotted with ideological enthusiasm.

You have to remember who Paul Krugman is, or at least who he was: an immensely talented economist, winner of the John Bates Clark medal, capable of analytical ingenuity at the most rarefied level and simultaneously a gifted popularizer of complex economic ideas. So how can someone with so much brainpower, with such talent for subtlety and insight, say something like this? Or this?

Let’s focus on these two snippets. In the first, Krugman says that the middle-class society he grew up in (i.e., the American political economy of the quarter-century after World War II) did not evolve by the invisible hand of the market; it was created by FDR and the New Deal. Meanwhile, the “second Gilded Age” we now live in (i.e., the American political economy of the past quarter-century) was created by Reagan and other right-wing politicians.

And in the second clip, Krugman defines liberalism as the idea that we are our brothers’ keepers, and that government needs to ensure a basic minimum for all citizens. Conservatives, on the other hand, believe “you’re on your own.”

In these clips we see, not subtlety or insight or analytical ingenuity, but the Manichean worldview of the true believer: one mass political movement, defined by its noble intentions, accomplishes unalloyed good, while a rival mass political movement, motivated by base and selfish values, works to undo that good.

For an alternative to Krugman’s stick-figure morality play, you can read my book on the coming of mass prosperity and its cultural and political consequences. For present purposes, though, note just a few things that Krugman’s FDR worship/Reagan demonization skips over:

  • the extent to which widespread prosperity was the result of impersonal market competition rather than benevolent politicians
  • the extent to which the “great compression” of the early postwar decades was created by the cataclysms of depression and total war
  • the extent to which the New Deal included policies that most economists today of whatever ideological persuasion would regard as utterly wrongheaded (e.g., the farm subsidies regime of the Agricultural Adjustment Act, and the industrial cartelization attempted by the National Industrial Recovery Act)
  • the heavy reliance of the New Deal political coalition on support from southern segregationists, and the consequences of that reliance for the shape of many New Deal policies
  • the fact that the postwar system of political economy led after a couple of decades to stagflation and a breakdown in productivity growth
  • the fact that one after another unionized American industry proved incapable of keeping pace with foreign competition during the ’70s and ’80s, and thus that business as usual was unsustainable
  • the fact that Great Society social programs were followed, not entirely coincidentally, by an explosion of crime, urban riots, family breakdown, and welfare dependency
  • the fact that Cold War liberal internationalism produced the Vietnam debacle
  • the fact that the New Left and the ’60s counterculture exerted powerful influences on reshaping the character of American liberalism, with important consequences for the appeal of that liberalism to traditionally Democratic working-class constituencies
  • the fact that the sweeping economic deregulation of the ’70s and ’80s enjoyed bipartisan support (much of it occurred during the Carter administration)
  • the extent to which the increase in measured income inequality reflects demographic rather than economic or public policy changes (e.g., more single-parent households, more dual-earner households, more immigration, older population, better-educated population)
  • the fact that, according to virtually every conceivable physical indicator, material living standards for Americans across the board have risen dramatically over the past quarter-century (i.e., the so-called “second Gilded Age”)

How can someone as intelligent and informed as Krugman concoct an interpretation of the post-World War II era that does such violence to the facts? How can someone so familiar with the intricate complexities of social processes convince himself that history is a simple matter of good guys versus bad guys? Because, for whatever reason, he has swapped disinterested analysis and scholarship for ideological partisanship. Here, in a revealing choice of phrase, he paraphrases Barry Goldwater’s notorious line: “Partisanship in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

To be a partisan is, by definition, to see the world partially rather than objectively: to identify wholeheartedly with the perspectives of one particular group and, at the extreme, to discount all rival perspectives as symptoms of intellectual or moral corruption. And the perspective Krugman has chosen to identify with is the philosophically incoherent, historically contingent grab bag of intellectual, interest group, and regional perspectives known as postwar American liberalism.

Of course, over the period that Krugman is addressing, the contents of that grab bag have changed fairly dramatically: from internationalist hawkishness in World War II and the early Cold War to a profound discomfort with American power in the ’70s and ’80s to a jumble of rival views today; from cynical acquiescence in Jim Crow to heroic embrace of the civil rights movement to the excesses of identity group politics to a more centrist line today; from sympathy for working-class economic hardship to hostility to working-class culture and back again. Yet with a naive zeal that leaves even Cuomo visibly nonplussed at several points in the interview, Krugman embraces the shifting contents of this grab bag as the one true path of virtue.

I understand the us-versus-them pleasures of ideological partisanship. In my younger days, I indulged in them with gusto. But at some point, ideology joined Santa Claus and the tooth fairy in my attic of discarded beliefs. Firm values, yes; definite points of view on contested empirical questions, to be sure – but to see a country as diverse, yet blessedly prosperous and stable, as this one as an ongoing war between angels and devils is to live in a fantasy world.

[cross-posted from www.brinklindsey.com]