Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Europe Takes Another Step Toward Tax Harmonization

Even though several nations are opposed, the European Commission plans to harmonize the definition of taxable income for corporations. It is true that the current system is a hassle for multinational companies, requiring 27 different tax returns for firms operating in all EU nations. But there are good ways and bad ways to address this problem. Allowing firms the option of choosing the “common” tax base would ensure that the bureaucrats in Brussels had less of an incentive to use the new system as a way of extorting more money from businesses. Another option would allow firms to use their home country’s definition of taxable income – an approach that would promote rather than retard tax competiiton since governments would have an incentive to attract companies by using a pro-growth definition of taxable income. Needless to say, the European Commission is not using either of these approaches. The EU Observer reports:

The European Commission is set to press ahead with introducing a single EU company tax base by 2010 in only a limited number of member states, circumventing national veto power in the sensitive tax area. … EU member states are deeply divided over possible harmonization, with 12 capitals in favour, five to seven against and the rest remaining undecided. Britain, Ireland and the Baltic states fear that the next step for Brussels would be interference in the levels of their corporate taxes, an area where EU states compete with each other as well.

Undermining America’s Social Capital with Redistribution

A new report from the Tax Foundation analyzes the degree of redistribution imposed by government. According to the study:

America’s lowest-earning one-fifth of households received roughly $8.21 in government spending for each dollar of taxes paid in 2004. Households with middle-incomes received $1.30 per tax dollar, and America’s highest-earning households received $0.41. Government spending targeted at the lowest-earning 60 percent of U.S. households is larger than what they paid in federal, state and local taxes. In 2004, between $1.03 trillion and $1.53 trillion was redistributed downward from the two highest income quintiles to the three lowest income quintiles through government taxes and spending policy.

This huge shift of resources punishes those who produce and rewards those who do not. This hurts economic performance by distorting incentives. Investor’s Business Daily identifies another problem that may be equally troublesome. Massive amounts of redistribution create an entitlement mentality. People being to think that government owes them a living. And as an editorial from IBD notes, public opinion data are trending in the wrong direction:

…the U.S. tax code is becoming more progressive, not less. No one minds helping the truly needy. But as with welfare in the pre-1996 reform era, reliance on government can become a habit — imposing huge costs on our national economy. Worse, a ‘what’s in it for me?’ attitude seems increasingly the norm. Once a nation of stoic, self-reliant individualists, America now seems full of people who think other taxpayers owe them something. They see the ‘system’ as a giant cow to be milked — and damn the cow. This is backed up by polling data. In a 1994 Pew poll, 57% agreed with the statement ‘Government should care for those who can’t care for themselves.’ Today, it’s 69%.

Moving (Government) Forward Faster

Washington, D.C., mayor Adrian Fenty released his proposed budget last week.  Titled “Moving Forward Faster,” it’s an example of the sort of thing you’d expect from a D.C. mayor who is quite fond of the nanny state.

To avoid having to read the entire document yourself, here’s the punch-line:  Government spending – that is, expenditures financed by locally-derived revenue, not federal transfers – grows by a proposed 8.8 percent.  By way of comparison, the city’s budget under Mayor Anthony “Baseball” Williams grew by an annual average of 7.5 percent.

But the large increase can be explained by a growing DC population, right?  Nope.  The most recent Census numbers show that the city’s population fell between July 2005 and July 2006.  Even if fewer people flee to Virginia or Maryland this year – or even if more people start actually moving in the opposite direction – it’s virtually impossible that the population growth figures will spike by nine percent.  Average annual population growth since 2003, for instance, hasn’t even come close to breaching the one-percent mark.

Fenty describes his budget proposal as “fiscally conservative” in his transmittal letter to the DC Council.  Yet maybe we shouldn’t ridicule him for that.  Since he’s operating in a city where a Republican president who spends taxpayer money almost as fast as Lyndon Johnson also calls himself “fiscally conservative,” perhaps the mayor is just mimicking the local custom.

Congress Looks at Stadium Subsidies

This Thursday the Domestic Policy Subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will hold a hearing titled, “‘Build It and They Will Come’: Do Taxpayer-financed Sports Stadiums, Convention Centers and Hotels Deliver as Promised for America’s Cities?”

Several Cato studies over the years have looked at the absurd economic claims of stadium advocates. In “Sports Pork: The Costly Relationship between Major League Sports and Government,” Raymond Keating finds:

The lone beneficiaries of sports subsidies are team owners and players. The existence of what economists call the “substitution effect” (in terms of the stadium game, leisure dollars will be spent one way or another whether a stadium exists or not), the dubiousness of the Keynesian multiplier, the offsetting impact of a negative multiplier, the inefficiency of government, and the negatives of higher taxes all argue against government sports subsidies. Indeed, the results of studies on changes in the economy resulting from the presence of stadiums, arenas, and sports teams show no positive economic impact from professional sports – or a possible negative effect.

In Regulation magazine, (.pdf) Dennis Coates and Brad Humphreys found that the economic literature on stadium subsidies comes to consistent conclusions:

The evidence suggests that attracting a professional sports franchise to a city and building that franchise a new stadium or arena will have no effect on the growth rate of real per capita income and may reduce the level of real per capita income in that city.

And in “Caught Stealing: Debunking the Economic Case for D.C. Baseball,” Coates and Humphreys looked specifically at the economics of the new baseball stadium in Washington, D.C., and found similar results:

Our conclusion, and that of nearly all academic economists studying this issue, is that professional sports generally have little, if any, positive effect on a city’s economy. The net economic impact of professional sports in Washington, D.C., and the 36 other cities that hosted professional sports teams over nearly 30 years, was a reduction in real per capita income over the entire metropolitan area.

Humphreys will testify at Thursday’s hearing.

Happy Birthday for EU Bureaucrats

The European Union is celebrating its 50th anniversary, but citizens in most nation are understandably underwhelmed. As an article at Foreignpolicy.com explains, the European Union is a remarkably anti-democratic institution.

Today’s EU resembles a sort of undemocratic Habsburg Empire. Its legislation is proposed by a Commission of unelected bureaucrats who have now apparently lost control of their own staffs and who themselves are usually political outcasts from their national political systems. Decisions on whether to adopt their often bizarre initiatives are then taken in total secrecy by the Council of Ministers or the European Council, before being rubber-stamped by the federalist parliament and imposed on the citizens of member states, whose national legislatures can do absolutely nothing to alter their directives or regulations. Indeed, 84 percent of all legislation before national parliaments, according to the German Ministry of Justice, now simply involves implementing Brussels diktats. All this makes European politics undemocratic at all levels, and opinion polls reflect the public’s growing disillusionment.

Daniel Schwammentahl of the Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, notes that politicians who favor more European centralization treat voters as obstacles to be overcome in their drive for a more powerful bureaucracy in Brussels:

…as Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former French President and main drafter of the constitution, said last year, rejecting his chef d’oeuvre “was a mistake which will have to be corrected.” In other words, Europeans are given a free vote as long as they vote for what the Brussels mandarins think is best for them. In a newspaper interview last week, Ms. Merkel diagnosed a certain alienation between the EU and its citizens, the root cause of which she located in the people’s alleged impatience with the slow pace of decision making in Brussels. “To change that we need an EU constitutional treaty,” she said. Come again? The chancellor wants to fight the citizens’ alienation by ignoring democratic votes that expressed that very alienation?

Tax Reform is the Best Way to Reduce Tax Evasion

A column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reviews new academic research indicating that high tax rates encourage tax evasion. Most politicians think the solution is more power for the IRS, but the columnist points to ideas that are much more likely to work and much more consistent with the protection of a free society. First, shrink the size of government so that taxpayes are less likely to be angry about grotesque examples of waste, fraud, and abuse. Second, adopt a simple and fair system such as the flat tax:

The pressure to cheat, Dr. Antenucci said, comes from the big payoff. “The top tax rate is 35 percent. In this investment investment environment, people scratch to make a 5 percent to 8 percent return, and there is 35 percent sitting right there.” …”When people read about a $500 coffee pot being sold to the government, people don’t want to pay their taxes,” he said. …The professors advocate attacking the problem on several fronts. First, create a tax system where cheating is extremely difficult. One way would be to switch to a flat tax or national sales tax.

Prosperity Creates More Leisure, But Is “Unfair” to the Rich

An article at Slate.com looks at data showing a big increase in leisure time, especially among those with lower incomes:

In 1965, the average man spent 42 hours a week working at the office or the factory; throw in coffee breaks, lunch breaks, and commuting time, and you’re up to 51 hours. Today, instead of spending 42 and 51 hours, he spends 36 and 40. What’s he doing with all that extra time? He spends a little on shopping, a little on housework, and a lot on watching TV, reading the newspaper, going to parties, relaxing, going to bars, playing golf, surfing the Web, visiting friends, and having sex. Overall, depending on exactly what you count, he’s got an extra six to eight hours a week of leisure—call it the equivalent of nine extra weeks of vacation per year. For women, time spent on the job is up from 17 hours a week to 24. With breaks and commuting thrown in, it’s up from 20 hours to 26. But time spent on household chores is down from 35 hours a week to 22, for a net leisure gain of four to six hours. Call it five extra vacation weeks.

And because those with lower incomes have disproportionately gained from this trend, the author mockingly asks whether they should be forced - as part of the campaign to reduce inequality - to donate unpaid labor to the “less fortunate” with more money but less free time:

…a certain class of pundits and politicians are quick to see any increase in income inequality as a problem that needs fixing—usually through some form of redistributive taxation. Applying the same philosophy to leisure, you could conclude that something must be done to reverse the trends of the past 40 years—say, by rounding up all those folks with extra time on their hands and putting them to (unpaid) work in the kitchens of their “less fortunate” neighbors. If you think it’s OK to redistribute income but repellent to redistribute leisure, you might want to ask yourself what—if anything—is the fundamental difference.