Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

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.

New Bipartisan Bill Shows Key Senate Committee May Not Be Sympathetic to Dorgan’s Fiscal Protectionism

In a positive development, the Democratic Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a senior Republican on the Committee have introduced legislation to make “deferral” permanent for U.S. financial services companies that compete in global markets. This is not nearly as good as pure territorial taxation, but it is a step in the right direction. Equally important, it shows that the Finance Committee may not be very receptive to the protectionist and discriminatory Dorgan legislation - which would end deferral and impose immediate worldwide taxation on American companies with operations in selected low-tax jurisdictions. Tax-news.com reports:

Senators Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) have introduced legislation which they say will protect the jobs that US financial services companies have created in the US, by keeping the industry on an equal tax footing with its international competitors. When foreign financial services companies earn income abroad, it’s not subject to taxation until the money is brought back to the parent company at home. The law giving American companies this tax treatment here at home is set to expire next year. The Senators’ bill would make the ‘Subpart F’ exception for active financing income permanent, so that US firms and their workers are not disadvantaged by tax burdens their competitors don’t face. “We need to make sure that US tax rules don’t make financial services companies less competitive in the world arena, and less able to keep good-paying jobs here at home,” Baucus stated. …“America’s tax laws shouldn’t handicap companies striving to lead in a very competitive global marketplace,” Hatch added. …“When we tax US companies working overseas, we increase their overhead and allow their competitors to undercut them,” Hatch noted. “That hurts American workers, business, our influence abroad, and – ultimately – the tax revenue we’re able to collect. Renewing legislation that puts our top-notch financial companies on competitive footing is good for business and good for our country.”

Tax Havens Protect Against Greedy Government

The New York Times has a story reviewing developments in the private banking industry. The article notes a couple of important points. First, high-tax nations - and the international bureaucracies that represent those nations - resent Swtizerland for serving as a refuge:

For generations, Europe’s wealthy journeyed through mountains and valleys to quietly stash their money with Switzerland’s bankers, famed for taking their secrets to the grave. …many of the country’s detractors complain that Switzerland remains the world’s prime tax haven. The European Union and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have pressured Switzerland to loosen its bank secrecy.

Second, the article notes that high-tax countries can get at least some money to return home if they remove and/or reduce the tax penalites:

Several countries, including Italy and Belgium, have lured back untaxed assets held abroad by decreeing an amnesty for tax evasion. But that is not the biggest challenge.

Third, tax competition is creating other havens for people seeking to avoid not only punitive taxes, but also other forms of oppression:

As Swiss bankers penetrate markets abroad they are facing like-minded competitors from elsewhere in the world. Dubai and Singapore have cultivated sophisticated private banking hubs, offering discreet financial services and a tax haven aimed at luring away wealthy clients. And just as the Swiss have moved overseas, foreign banks like Citibank have flocked to Switzerland. Geneva, once a sleepy lakeshore town, now has branches of 100 foreign banks.

Lastly, the article notes that Switzerland has a completely different approach from America. Unlike the US - which has a so-called Bank Secrecy Act that strips away financial privacy, Swtizerland still respects the fundamental right to privacy. Citizens are treated like adults - a relationship that is facilitated by a better tax regime:

Unlike regulations in the United States, Swiss law forbids bankers from divulging information about clients or their assets, under threat of penalty. Tax evasion is not considered a crime.

In Praise of Administrative Costs

Advocates of socialized medicine, such as Physicians for a National Health Program, love to argue that America’s health care sector is less efficient than socialized systems because private insurers appear to have higher administrative costs. In yesterday’s New York Times, Tyler Cowen reveals the flaw in that logic:

The monitoring, marketing and overhead costs of private insurance are what allow more expensive medical treatments through the door. It is precisely because competing insurance companies spend money evaluating the appropriateness of claims that they are willing to pay for so many heart bypasses, extra tests, private hospital rooms and CT scans.

If European health care systems appear to have lower administrative costs, it is because, rather than scrutinizing claims, they limit the overall amount they will spend on medical services. Of course, that just means they shift costs to patients who either must pay for medical services themselves, or deal with the costs of waiting.

If the U.S. Medicare program appears to have lower administrative costs, it is because, rather than scrutinizing claims, Medicare just shovels money out the door. That merely shifts those costs onto taxpayers by driving up Medicare spending and taxes. 

In Medicare Meets Mephistopheles, Cato adjunct David Hyman delights in the irony that medicine-socializers praise one of Medicare’s greatest failings (inadequate oversight of claims payment) as if it were a virtue.

The Real College Sports Madness

Tonight the mighty Hoyas of Georgetown University will square-off against the Vanderbilt Commodores in a Sweet 16 hoops tilt.

In light of Georgetown’s dominance this season (28-6 overall, winners of 17 of their last 18, champions of the Big East Conference, and easy victors over the Commodores back in November), it’s probably a bit cruel to make Vandy face the Hoyas again. At least in the big picture, though, this is a fair match-up: both teams are from relatively small, private schools with pretty high academic standards, and both rely on voluntary fan and booster support to compete.

Unfortunately, a bit of breaking college basketball news on ESPN.com yesterday demonstrates that the latter is not always the case. The story was about Steve Alford leaving his head coaching job at the University of Iowa to take the reins at the University of New Mexico, a move many college hoops fans consider a bit of a step down. Iowa, after all, plays in the powerful Big Ten Conference, while New Mexico toils in the lesser Mountain West. So what was Alford’s inducement to trade corn for sand?

One possibility is that Alford was on his way out of Iowa anyway. He had only three NCAA Tournament appearances in eight seasons there, and not every Iowa fan exactly loved him. But, important as this might have been in Alford’s decision, it wasn’t what ESPN said ultimately attracted him to Albuquerque (it also wasn’t the city’s famed petroglyphs):

Sources said Alford was thrilled with the commitment from recently hired New Mexico athletic director Paul Krebs and impressed by the university’s decision to upgrade the famed Pit, which, according to Krebs, will receive $12 million from state government for renovation. There also is hope that the figure could rise to $20 million. [Italics added]

Now, as a matter of principle, I’m against forcing taxpayers to fund entertainment venues, arenas, or any of the other “bread and circuses” projects on which politicians love to lavish public dollars. But what really makes me angry about public schools like UNM building new basketball arenas with taxpayer funds is the unfair advantage it gives those schools over little private schools like Georgetown and Vanderbilt, who need people to give them money voluntarily. Facilities have been an especially big problem at GU, where the on-campus gym seats at-most 2,500 people, forcing the team to play almost all of its home games at the downtown Verizon Center and lose lots of revenue in rent.

Of course, UNM is not the only public university where the sports teams benefit from forced taxpayer largesse. Last May, for instance, the State of Minnesota decided to pay $10.25 million per-year for 25 years to help finance a new U of M football stadium. Similarly, the University of Pittsburgh’s Petersen Events Center, where the school’s basketball teams play, was financed with $10 million from the couple after whom it was named and $53 million from state taxpayers who, as always, have remained nameless. 

Now, colleges and universities in general — both public and private — benefit from all kinds of tax breaks, pork projects, and government subsidies, so don’t feel too sorry for Georgetown and Vanderbilt. When it comes to big-time sports, though, recognize what private schools are up against, and perhaps root for them a little harder. And, come to think of it, maybe do feel sorry for Vanderbilt. Georgetown is going to crush them tonight.

(In the interest of full disclosure, Neal McCluskey in a Georgetown graduate and a huge Hoya fan.)

Bob Herbert, What Are You Talking About?

Give New York Times columnist Bob Herbert credit — not many writers can pack three ridiculous claims into a single lede. Somehow he manages to do so in his latest column, which begins:

One of the weirder things at work these days is the fact that we’re making it more difficult for American youngsters to afford college at a time when a college education is a virtual prerequisite for establishing and maintaining a middle-class standard of living.

Did you catch all three? They are:

  1. “American youngsters” are finding “it more difficult “to afford college.”
  2. “[W]e’re” the ones who are “making it more difficult for American youngsters to afford college.”
  3. “[A] college degree is a virtual prerequisite for establishing and maintaining a middle-class standard of living.”

Let’s tackle these in order: 

If American youngsters are finding it more difficult to go to college, that’s not showing up in college enrollment data. The enrollment rate of recent high school graduates for 2004, the most recent year for which data are available, was the second-highest in history at 66.7 percent. The years 2000, 2002 and 2003 are also among the seven highest in history, with enrollments of 63.3, 65.2 and 63.9 percent, respectively. And, looking forward, projected enrollment numbers out to the 2015–2016 school year suggest enrollment rates will continue to rise.

What of Herbert’s claim that “we’re” the ones who are making it more difficult for youngsters to go to college? If by this he means that American taxpayers aren’t doing enough to help college students pay their tuition bills then, again, the data aren’t on his side. Funding for federal Pell grants has increased 80 percent in real terms between 1994 and 2006, while the money available through federally subsidized student loans (Perkins Loans, Direct Student Loans, and Family Education Loans) has increased 87 percent in real terms over that time. Data from the 2003–2004 school year (the most recent data available) show that more than half of undergraduates that year received grant money (in the average amount of $4,000) while 35.1 percent of undergraduates received subsidized loans (in the average amount of $5,800).

What of Herbert’s claim that a college degree is a “virtual prerequisite” for a middle-class standard of living? To be sure, higher education translates into increased earnings over a person’s lifetime. However, people who lack a college degree are not doomed to a life of lower-class living. Earnings data for 2004 show that a high school diploma and some work experience can add up to a middle-class lifestyle. The mean earnings per person in 2004 were $37,897; the mean earnings for a person with only a high school diploma who was between 35 and 44 years of age were $32,060. If that person had some college education but no degree, mean earnings were $38,076.

Herbert’s column goes on to lament the debt burden incurred by recent college graduates, including grad- and professional school graduates. Remarkably, he gives no thought to the value of the degrees that were purchased with that debt. Fortunately, more-thoughtful people have done present-value calculations on various college degrees (see, e.g., these calculations by Arizona State’s Carey School of Business, or these by Don Burleson of Burleson Consulting, or these by MSN Money’s Liz Pulliam Weston). The general consensus is that a bachelor’s degree, after subtracting tuition and other college costs as well as lost earnings from the years spent in school, has a present value of about a quarter-million dollars. Advanced degrees provide mixed returns (my MA in philosophy is of great personal value, but it doesn’t deliver much bling in the marketplace), but degrees in law and medicine deliver a present-value payback of upwards of $1 million dollars or more. And the still-ridiculously-cheap associates degree is the best deal in higher education, delivering well over $100,000 in present value for a mere few thousand dollars in cost.

Now, ask yourself: Would you be willing to spend $5,000 in exchange for something worth $100,000? Or $50,000 in exchange for $300,000? Or $100,000 in exchange for $1 million? Apparently, Herbert wouldn’t — unless taxpayers subsidize him (more) to do so.

Herbert’s column strikes me as yet another example of the all-too-common “progressive” lament that not enough money is being redistributed to the upper middle class. He would tax people (including many with no college degrees) to help out the soon-to-be-well-off.

Curiously, Herbert’s column says absolutely nothing about the one obvious issue in higher education financing: Why has a four-year college education gotten so expensive? My Cato colleague Neal McCluskey has discussed that, and you can read some of his thoughts here.