Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Swiss Court Rules Against Obwalden Tax Regime

The Canton of Obwalder created a stir by voting for a tax system that rewards more productive residents with a lower income tax rate. The Swiss Federal Court has ruled against this regime, though the nation’s Finance Ministry quickly noted that the decision does not undermine Switzerland’s support for federalism and tax competition. Swissinfo.org reports:

Canton Obwalden’s degressive tax system, aimed at attracting wealthy residents, has been ruled unconstitutional by the Swiss Federal Court. The country’s highest court said on Friday that degressive income taxes ran counter to constitutional measures designed to ensure taxation according to economic performance. …Obwalden had adopted a degressive income tax system which meant that the richer you are, the less you pay. Those earning over SFr300,000 ($233,000) per year, for example, had a tax rate as low as one per cent. It was introduced in 2006 following a cantonal vote as a way of boosting the fortunes of Obwalden, one of the poorest cantons located in Switzerland’s mountainous centre. …Friday’s court ruling comes in response to a case brought by Communist parliamentarian Josef Zisyadis – who moved to Obwalden to oppose the tax charges… The Finance Ministry said that the court’s decision would neither change the system of tax competition between the cantons nor encourage tax harmonisation. It emphasised that federalism and tax competition were essential parts of Swiss identity that also made the country more attractive for foreign companies.

Good News on Income Mobility

Steven Pearlstein of the Washington Post takes a beating around here sometimes, so I want to draw attention to his dynamite column this week on the non-disappearance of the middle class. Drawing on a new book, Social Stratification in the United States by Stephen Rose, Pearlstein demonstrates that

rumors of the demise of the American middle class are greatly exaggerated. In fact, living standards for most Americans are improving. Not everyone is flipping hamburgers or working at Wal-Mart. To the degree that the middle class is shrinking, it is because more people are rising out of it than falling from it.

Pearlstein takes pains to note that Rose “is not your standard-issue conservative market apologist – far from it. He left medical school to get his PhD in economics, then alternated between teaching and community organizing. He served on the Democratic staff of the Joint Economic Committee and in the economics shop of the Clinton Labor Department.” So you can trust him – he worked for Clinton!

And Rose finds, as Pearlstein lays it out, that there’s a lot more good news than the “sky-is-falling rhetoric of the Democratic left” would lead you to believe. Pearlstein notes:

[I]t is often reported that the median household income in the United States is $44,500. Of course, that takes in households of varying size, from singles to the Brady Bunch. It also includes households headed by workers in the prime of their working years (29 to 59), as well as those just beginning or ending their careers, when earnings tend to be lower. So, to get a truer picture of economic well-being, Rose adjusts the data for household size and excludes those headed by people younger than 29 or older than 59. And when he does, it turns out that the median income for the “typical American family” jumps to $63,000, which in most parts of the country buys a pretty comfortable middle-class lifestyle.

This doesn’t mean the middle class isn’t shrinking. In fact, from 1979 to 2004, Rose calculates, the percentage of households in the “middle class” category – those with incomes of $30,000 to $90,000 – fell to 39 from 47 percent. But it would be hard to describe that as bad news when the proportion of well-off households – those with incomes of more than $90,000 – rose by nearly nine percentage points. During the same time frame, the percentage of households that were poor or near-poor remained about the same.

One of the favorite liberal story lines is that the only way middle class families have been able to maintain their standard of living is by forcing mom to work more hours. But that, too, turns out to be an exaggeration. By looking just at married couples at various points in the income ladder, Rose found that for all but the poorest households, inflation-adjusted income was higher in 2004 than in 1979 even after factoring out any increase in spousal work hours.

It is also a myth that the Great American Jobs Machine is producing mostly lousy, low-paying service jobs. Rose simplifies the government data by putting all jobs in three categories: “elite” jobs, encompassing managers and professionals; “good jobs,” such as those held by supervisors, skilled blue-collar workers, craft workers, police, firefighters and clerical workers; and “less skilled” jobs, such as those held by unskilled machine operators, laborers, sales clerks and waiters. Looking at it that way, it turns out that the number of lousy, low-skilled jobs has been on a long, steady decline since 1979, while the number of “elite” jobs has been growing steadily. The number of “good” jobs has declined marginally as skilled office work has replaced skilled factory work.

Rose is concerned, quite properly, about the condition of the poorest people in the American economy, though he and I would probably disagree on the best way to help them enter the economic mainstream.  But he’s also brought a healthy dose of reality to the debate over “the declining middle class.”

For more on these topics, see the recent posts by Brink Lindsey at his personal website and the award-winning Cato Institute book Cowboy Capitalism: European Myths, American Reality by Olaf Gersemann.

Canadian Columnist Urges Radical Corporate Tax Rate Reduction

Highlighting a recent OECD report that admitted the benefits of tax competition and lower tax rates, a Canadian columnist warns that Canada’s high corporate tax rate is making the nation less competitive. All of the arguments apply even more forcefully to the United States, where the corporate tax rate is about six percentage points higher:

…capital and skilled labour are highly mobile these days. Countries compete aggressively for both with lower and lower tax rates. …The OECD says this competition for lower corporate and personal tax rates will continue. “Globalization favours greater tax competition,” the OECD report says. “It encourages the pursuit of efficiency gains in tax systems - by shifting tax burdens away from capital and labour and toward property and consumption.” …In a single decade, competition has reduced corporate tax rates around the world, the OECD report notes, “in some countries by a considerable amount.” In 1996, the highest corporate tax rate in the world was 60 per cent; in 2006, the highest rate is 40 per cent. …What will the highest rate be a decade hence? Twenty per cent? Ten per cent? Zero per cent? …Whatever the number, it will be much less than 28 per cent and it will necessarily determine Canada’s rate - unless we are not interested in attracting investment capital and highly skilled workers from abroad (or keeping our own from going abroad). Mr. Flaherty’s commitment to lower our corporate rate to 30 per cent over the next five years means his success will in fact ensure failure. You can’t pass the puck to the spot where the receiver now is - he won’t still be waiting there.  Mr. Flaherty needs to pass ahead to the receiver’s future position, which requires a corporate rate of less than 20 per cent by 2011. This ought to be easy. No country has yet hurt itself by reducing tax rates, corporate or personal. …the OECD report tracks the steep decline in corporate rates in one, the subsequent compelling rise in tax revenue in the other. In one decade, the world effectively cut its corporate tax rate in half - and doubled the revenue it gets from it. This is the Laffer Curve, vindicated again. The Laffer Curve expresses a simple, incontrovertible proposition: that decreases in tax rates can increase tax revenue.

We’ll Have Fun, Fun, Fun till the Taxman Takes the Good Times Away

Rising property taxes may tear down a beach amusement park that has lasted 117 years at Ocean City, Md., where thousands of Washington and Baltimore families escape the summer heat. The Washington Post reports:

For 117 summers, generations of children have frolicked through Trimper’s Rides on this beach resort town’s signature boardwalk. But this Memorial Day weekend might begin the last summer they circle the antique wooden carousel, fling around the Tilt-a-Whirl and loop through the Tidal Wave roller coaster.

The Trimpers say they are considering closing the amusement park and arcade this year.

Trimper's Rides, an Ocean City mainstay since 1890, is owned by 14 family members, some of whom are seeking help from the state to keep the park open.  Linda Davidson – The Washington Post

As Ocean City has exploded into a megaresort, property taxes have soared for Trimper’s, which operates on the last chunk of undeveloped land on the town’s three-mile boardwalk. In the past three years, family members said, their assessed property value has tripled, from $21 million to $65 million.

You couldn’t blame the Trimper family if they decided to cash in on the value of their land. But it would be a shame if the family wanted to continue operating the oldest continuously owned amusement park in the United States, and rising property taxes forced them to sell. After all, their income isn’t going up nearly as much as the assessed value of the land. So an owner being taxed on the theoretical value of land that he isn’t planning to sell is then forced by the burden of taxation to sell his land after all.

The power to tax is the power to destroy charming old amusement parks.

We might note that the same phenomenon can destroy environmental amenities. A landowner who prefers to leave his land undeveloped even as development happens around or near him can find the assessed value of his land rising, and thus faces a higher tax burden, and thus feels compelled to sell the land to a developer. I have nothing against development if it’s a market phenomenon, but I don’t like the idea of conservation-minded landowners being forced by the property tax into making a decision they wouldn’t otherwise choose.

Of course, one might object that the Trimpers and the conservation-minded landowners have just as much obligation to pay for the state of Maryland’s budget as any other landowner. And you can hardly expect a big modern state like Maryland to subsist on the taxes it can assess on a three-block area valued at $21 million. So that’s part of the problem–governments today do so much that they can’t be supported with modest levels of taxation.

And then–to bring it full circle–the very people who demand bountiful government services that require burdensome taxes then bemoan the loss of cultural and environmental amenities; so they propose that government subsidize amusement parks, or buy up land and keep it undeveloped, or forbid development in designated areas. Thus requiring more government spending, more taxes, more forced sales, and the cycle continues.

So kids, when you see Trimper’s being demolished to build some more oceanfront hotels and condominiums, remember that big government did it.

A Poison Pill for China?

Last week top Chinese and American economic officials met in Washington for the second “Strategic Economic Dialogue.” While trade and exchange rates grabbed all the headlines, one less publicized subject was advice from the American side on how the Chinese can promote consumption in their domestic economy.

More consumption would presumably mean the Chinese would buy more American products and send less of their excess savings to the United States, leading eventually to a smaller Chinese trade surplus with the United States and the world.

How did U.S. government officials propose to promote more consumption in China? The Chinese were advised by their American friends to “create a social safety net for its population, similar to the Social Security and Medicare programs in the United States, so Chinese residents do not need to continue to save as much as 50 percent of their income for their retirement and future medical needs,” according to one trade newsletter.

Whoa. Would China’s economic managers really want to saddle its population with the same unsustainable government promises that characterize our two biggest entitlement programs? As my Cato colleagues have long noted, and as USA Today reported on its front page this week, the unfunded liabilities wracked up by those two programs has now reached more than $45 trillion (yes, that’s trillion).

I suppose saddling the Chinese economy with a huge, unfunded government obligation would be one way to “level the playing field.”

Canadian Tax Exiles

Thanks to high tax rates, two successful Canadian artists have escaped to Switzerland. Both Shania Twain and Luc Plamondon have decided that the Canadian residence is not worth the price if government seizes too much of their income. One politician calls tax migration a form of “economic treason,” but the real problem is greedy politicians who think that successful people should be milk cows for wasteful government. The Montreal Gazette reports:

He’s one of Quebec’s highest-profile tax avoiders - moving to Ireland, and then to Switzerland to avoid paying Canadian and Quebec income taxes. For the last few weeks, successful songwriter Luc Plamondon is also the owner of an Order of Canada pin, presented to those who, through their achievements, set an example for other Canadians. Ironically, the presentation of Plamondon’s Order of Canada pin by Governor-General Michaelle Jean in a private ceremony last month comes as the Conservative government is moving to crack down on tax avoidance by Canadian companies. …some MPs, such as Liberal finance critic John McCallum, say they see nothing wrong with electing a residence outside Canada to avoid Canadian taxes, others, like New Democrat MP Pat Martin, strongly condemn the practice. “I call it economic treason to be a tax fugitive,” said Martin, suggesting that Plamondon return his Order of Canada pin. …In 1999, three years before he was named to the Order of Canada, Plamondon moved to Ireland, saying he was doing it to avoid high federal and provincial taxes in Canada and to take advantage of its special tax breaks for artists. “There is an enormous number of writers and musicians from around the world who have moved to Ireland because of the tax savings,” Plamondon said when he sold his Montreal home. …Among the other residents of the Montreux area is Canadian singer Shania Twain, also an Order of Canada recipient. …David Perry, senior research associate with the Canadian Tax Foundation, said countries like Canada, which has higher tax rates than some other countries, risk having some of their most successful citizens elect to live outside the country of their birth. “Any country that has had a very high level of taxation on the rich … soon finds itself exporting that type of talent.” A minority of wealthy Canadians elect to reside outside the country to escape its taxes, and the practice is less common than it once was, he said. However, it nevertheless increases the frustration for other Canadians left to bear the tax burden, he said.

Tony Soprano Earmarks

A commentary from Jeff Birnbaum of the Washington Post aired on American Public Media’s Marketplace yesterday.  The topic was the evolving alternative to earmarks, what Birnbaum calls “phonemarks.” 

Here’s the basic idea (from the transcript available at the Marketplace website):

Eager to avoid the bad publicity of legislative earmarking, lawmakers are secretly calling or writing bureaucrats and demanding that they fund their pet projects by fiat. These projects-via-telephone, or “phonemarks,” are the hottest new gimmick on the Washington scene.

Executive branch officials can dole out millions of dollars with impunity. And they avoid the scrutiny of the public, since they are done quietly and without any disclosure.

Earmarks actually have to be written down in a public law. Phonemarks, on the other hand, are accomplished through bureaucratic sleight-of-hand and nobody but the lawmaker and the bureaucrat need to know for sure.

My preferred descriptor is “Tony Soprano earmarks.”  As I wrote in a January 22 column for Business Week:

Even if transparency leads to fewer earmarks, there are no promises these projects won’t reappear in other ways and other places. The congressional budget process is nothing if not a game of reinvention. You could call spending items Happy Funtime Projects instead and sock them away in another part of the budget, but they will remain the coin of the realm on K Street.

Of course, Congress could simply give a bucket of money to an agency with no strings attached. But then a member of the Appropriations Committee would write a letter to the department head suggesting something like: “Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if Project X got some of this pot of money?”

Can you really blame a government department head who reads a letter like that—from a member of Congress who controls his budget and oversees his agency—and obliges? It would strike anyone in that position as similar to Tony Soprano saying to the corner grocery store owner: “Nice little place you got here. Damn shame if anything were to happen to it.”

Now for a secret.  The big problem in Washington isn’t earmarks.  They’re just a symptom of the real problem: policymakers who believe the federal government should be all things to all people.  Pork projects – disclosed or not – are inevitable in such an environment no matter what you call ‘em.