Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Switzerland Provides Refuge for Victims of Fiscal Oppression

Tax-news.com reports on the influx of wealthy foreigners seeking to benefit from Switzerland’s attractive tax laws for non-citizens. Driven in large part by competition among cantons, this system enables highly productive people to escape excessive taxation in other nations. High-tax European welfare states despise this policy, not surprisingly, but Swiss lawmakers understandably ignore these complaints. Indeed, as reported by the International Herald Tribune, one Swiss official even explained that there is no such thing as a “just” tax:

“It’s not a question of justice or injustice; there’s no just tax,” said Jean- Daniel Gerber, head of the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs.

Legendary French music and film superstar Johnny Hallyday and English pop star James Blunt are not unique in their desire to escape the high-tax regimes of their home countries. Switzerland has become a popular haunt for a variety of sports starts, rock stars and tycoons, notably Michael Schumacher, the former Formula One world champion, and Boris Becker, the Grand Slam tennis champion, rock star Phil Collins and Ingvar Kamprad, founder of the furniture chain Ikea.

Well over 3,500 wealthy foreigners have taken advantage of fiscal deals offered by Swiss cantons, paying an average of CHF75,000 each in tax on earnings of CHF300 million annually, according to Swissinfo. While individual deals vary, a typical agreement will see the individual pay tax on a multiple of the the value of their property or living expenses.

Swiss cantons are permitted an unusual amount of freedom from central government to set their own tax rates under the 2001 Tax Harmonisation Act, which has established a direct link between voters and tax policy and has helped to encourage tax competition within Switzerland for wealthy individuals and holding companies.

At least eighteen out of Switzerland’s 24 cantons planned to cut rates of taxation in 2006, led by Obwalden, which cut the corporate tax to 6.6% in January 2006, the lowest rate in Switzerland. Obwalden also cut tax for individuals earning over CHF300,000 by 1% to 2.35% and reduced property tax.

The system has also attracted criticism from the European Union. While Switzerland is not a member of the EU, it is party to a free trade agreement with Brussels dating back to 1972 and the European Commission has told Berne that it thinks certain aspects of Switzerland’s tax system are “incompatible” with this agreement and distort trade within the EU. To date, EC pressure on Switzerland to change its tax system has been firmly resisted by the Swiss government, with President Micheline Calmy-Rey telling the press whilst still Foreign Minister in December that there is “absolutely no room for negotiation,” regarding Swiss tax laws.

Old Dominion GOPers Fall Off the Tax Wagon…Again.

Virginia Republicans have lost seats in the state legislature and lost the governor’s mansion in part because of their propensity to raise taxes. Unfortunately, they do not seem to understand the link between their profligate behavior and their political misfortunes. The Wall Street Journal explains that they now want to raise taxes when the state has a giant budget surplus:

Virginia was once a solidly conservative Republican state, but in recent years it has tilted Democratic. A big reason for the shift is the GOP’s recent love affair with higher taxes. In the 1990s Republican Governors George Allen and Jim Gilmore won sweeping victories running as tax cutters. Then in 2004 Richmond Republicans enacted the largest tax increase in the commonwealth’s history – a $1 billion hike in sales and tobacco taxes. Now they are flirting with another tax hike even though the state has a Blue Ridge Mountain-high $900 million budget surplus. …The Republican plan would spend $1 billion more for roads and cost-inefficient transit programs and pay for it through borrowing, raising taxes and fees on cars and trucks, and giving local governments authority to raise their assessments. …Only 10 years ago the Virginia GOP was riding high after Jim Gilmore was elected Governor on a wildly popular message: “End the Car Tax.” Now the Virginia Republicans want to raise car taxes. Have they learned nothing from the party’s implosion in Washington?

Taxing the Future

Today’s New York Times reports that Illinois is seriously considering selling off its state lottery and converting the future cash flow into a current lump sum plus a smaller cash flow over the next 75 years.  Gambling, of course is not an economic development strategy.  Excess profits exist only because the state restricts entry.  Like the mercantile regimes of old, the state is raising cash by selling off its monopoly.

Given the numbers in the Times, I conducted some present value calculations.  The sale is projected to result in a cash flow of $200 million per year for 75 years to the state (current profits are $430 billion).  The remaining cash flow goes to the winning bidder.  The reported estimated bid for this franchise is approximately $1 billion.  That suggests a return on investment of 20% per year compounded over 75 years.  Seems rather steep to me.  A 5% return would result in a much higher bid of $3.9 billion.

If the $1 billion is an accurate reflection of what an auction would yield, then the market is telling us that there is large risk to investing in a business whose only asset is state restrictions on entry.  This is particularly true because of the possibility not only of actual physical entry in Illinois, which is less likely, but entry through the internet.

Gambling markets are not the only markets whose source of profits is state enforced entry restriction.  Some years ago Richard Sansing and I studied the difference between the lease prices and sale values of taxi medallions in New York City (Journal of Policy Analysis and Management volume 13 issue 3 (1994) pp. 565-570).  We found that the market acted as if there was a 5% chance of deregulation in any year (i.e. the market was pricing the asset as if its cash flow would be zero in year 21).

Why are states selling assets for their cash flows?  Spending a billion dollars now rather than $630 million every year (the current profits of the lottery) allows today’s politicians to appear generous.  But my suspicion is that they are taxing the only thing left to tax i.e. people in the future.  My colleague Jagadeesh Gokhale’s work in entitlement reform argues that Social Security and Medicare are policies that redistribute from all future generations to current and past generations.  Politicians do this because the future is the last unorganized group in society.  I think some of the same politics are behind the Illinois lottery financial proposal.  But ironically the inability of the political system to credibly commit to future policies reduces the value of the sale to the current era because the market includes political risk in its valuation.         

Bush Health Care Proposal Mirrors Cato Scholars’ Proposal

I’ve returned from my first pre-State of the Union briefing of the day by the Bush administration.  (I’ve got another at 4:30).  What I heard about the president’s health care proposal has me even more heartened.

In part, that’s because the president’s proposal mirrors the proposal for “large HSAs” that I introduced here and here, and that Mike Tanner and I explain in Healthy Competition: What’s Holding Back Health Care and How to Free It.

Tonight, the president will propose setting a very high limit on existing distortionary tax breaks for health insurance.  The Large HSAs proposal would do the same.  He also will propose extending the revamped tax break to all individuals, ending the tax code’s discrimination against those who don’t have access to employer-sponsored insurance.  Ditto Large HSAs.

However, the president’s proposal does not incorporate an important third element of the Large HSAs idea: giving workers ownership of the part of their compensation that purchases their health benefits. 

Here’s why that’s important.  If your employer currently spends $10,000 on your health benefits, that part of your compensation is untaxed.  The president’s proposal would let you keep that tax break if you choose to purchase coverage someplace else.  But it does nothing to make sure that you get to keep the $10,000 that your employer spends on your health benefits.  That money is not a gift – it is part of your compensation.  But if you choose to leave your employer’s health plan, the employer is under no obligation to give you the money that he otherwise would spend on your health benefits.  In fact, your employer would face strong incentives not to “cash you out.”  Being free to choose where to purchase your health insurance means less if you have to take a pay cut to excerise that freedom.

Large HSAs would give workers ownership of that part of their compensation.  The proposal would convert the current tax break for employer-sponsored coverage into a tax break only on HSA contributions.  The contribution limits on HSAs would be raised, so that most workers could put all of their health benefits dollars into the account.  They could then use those funds to purchase coverage tax free from their employer, or any other source.  Importantly, with Large HSAs, the worker would control that $10,000 from day one.

Even though the president’s proposal doesn’t give workers ownership over that portion of their compensation, it is still a step in the right direction.

Trade is Much Bigger Than the Doha Round

There have been whispers of late regarding prospects for a last minute resurrection of the WTO’s Doha Round of multilateral trade talks.  My colleague Sallie James does a great job discussing those prospects with polite skepticism in a recent Cato podcast.  Let me be a little more direct: Doha’s dead, yadda yadda yadda, now let’s move on!

Ok, that sounds a bit cavalier.  So please allow me to clarify.  To be more precise, Doha is not dead permanently; it is in a cryogenic state, available for resuscitation under different circumstances. 

Atop the many reasons to conclude that Doha’s time has passed for now is this: the Bush administration has neither the will nor the resources to engage in the type of horse trading necessary to produce an agreement that would be simultaneously acceptable to our trade partners and our Congress (and worthy of the negotiating efforts expended thus far).  As with every other policy initiative “championed” by the Bush administration (and trade was never really a priority), trade’s oxygen has been consumed by the Iraq inferno.

Judging from the commentaries I’ve read and conversations I’ve had, I am less inclined than most to view Doha’s deep freeze as some colossal economic setback.  Certainly it is a(nother) foreign policy setback for the United States, which will undoubtedly be accused of perpetuating poverty and misery the world over.  To the extent there is some small truth in that (some U.S. trade policies have acute, adverse impacts on people in developing countries), Doha’s failure carries real costs.  But by and large, there is no reason to assume that international trade and foreign investment will suddenly slow or reverse course.  In fact, trade and investment are likely to continue to grow handsomely and the world economy will continue to expand, as more and more people from more and more countries partake of the global economy.  And furthermore, I suspect that some, if not many, of the reforms and liberalizations proposed in the Doha Round will be adopted, ultimately, without need of agreement, by countries (including the U.S.) that recognize it is in their interest to reform regardless of what other countries do. 

What concerns me more than the failure to reach a new accord is the potential for marginalization of the old agreements and institutions.  The agreements that culminated in the creation of the World Trade Organization in 1995 and the quiet success of its dispute settlement system (which has “handled” 357 disputes) have a lot to do with trade’s contribution to world economic growth.  Long-standing rules and familiar processes have helped reduce and eliminate some of the uncertainties (and therefore, risks and costs) traditionally associated with trading and investing with foreigners.  If member countries were to begin questioning the efficacy of the system or the wisdom or propriety of its adjudication process when it becomes politically convenient to do so, calls to skirt the rules and ignore the verdicts might not be too far behind.  And that behavior could prove contagious, leading to new uncertainties, greater risks and costs, and ultimately, degradation and a potential collapse of the rules-based trading system.

That scenario, should it unfold, is a long way off.  But the seeds of discontent are sowing.  U.S. policymakers have from time-to-time expressed skepticism about WTO rulings.  That skepticism is memorialized in Section 2101(b)(3) of the legislation that gave President Bush trade promotion authority in 2002:

Support for continued trade expansion requires that dispute settlement procedures under international trade agreements not add to or diminish the rights and obligations provided in such agreements. Therefore-

(A) the recent pattern of decisions by dispute settlement panels of the WTO and the Appellate Body to impose obligations and restrictions on the use of antidumping, countervailing, and safeguard measures by WTO members under the Antidumping Agreement, the Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures, and the Agreement on Safeguards has raised concerns; and

(B) the Congress is concerned that dispute settlement panels of the WTO and the Appellate Body appropriately apply the standard of review contained in Article 17.6 of the Antidumping Agreement, to provide deference to a permissible interpretation by a WTO member of provisions of that Agreement, and to the evaluation by a WTO member of the facts where that evaluation is unbiased and objective and the establishment of the facts is proper.

Reactions in Congress to WTO dispute settlement decisions have been most acerbic when the subject has concerned U.S. application of its trade remedy laws.  As I reported last month, the WTO Appellate Body’s indictment of the U.S. antidumping calculation practice known as zeroing led to a rare change in practice at the Commerce Department.  However, some in Congress were not very pleased, suggesting the administrative actions circumvented congressional authority.Just last week, the Appellate Body ruled again on the issue of zeroing in the United States, but this time the ruling was even more encompassing, forbidding the practice under almost every conceivable comparison methodology.  Compliance with the ruling would be a landmark achievement in the realm of antidumping reform because the practice of zeroing is the single greatest systemic inflator of dumping margins.  And therein lies the problem.  In terms of the practical effect on the bottom line, banning zeroing entirely is akin to fairly ambitious antidumping reform, which Congresses past (and presumably present) have opposed.

When Congress granted President Bush trade promotion authority in 2002, it did so with strings attached. 

(14) TRADE REMEDY LAWS.-The principal negotiating objectives of the United States with respect to trade remedy laws are-

(A) to preserve the ability of the United States to enforce rigorously its trade laws, including the antidumping, countervailing duty, and safeguard laws, and avoid agreements that lessen the effectiveness of domestic and international disciplines on unfair trade, especially dumping and subsidies, or that lessen the effectiveness of domestic and international safeguard provisions, in order to ensure that United States workers, agricultural producers, and firms can compete fully on fair terms and enjoy the benefits of reciprocal trade concessions; and

(B) to address and remedy market distortions that lead to dumping and subsidization, including overcapacity, cartelization, and market-access barriers.

To Congress, trade remedy laws are not the problem.  Dumping and subsidization are.  And the latest Appellate Body decision against zeroing makes it that much harder to combat “unfair” trade.

Accordingly, Congress is highly unlikely to go quietly into the night after the WTO’s latest indictment of zeroing. Thus, confrontation–perhaps intractable confrontation–between the United States and the WTO dispute settlement system may be in the cards later this year.

Antidumping is not the only area where the United States is on the defensive in the WTO.  Without an ongoing negotiating round, new cases concerning agricultural subsidies are likely to be brought (Brazil and Canada have already done so). 

If the United States refuses to comply (or is seen dragging its feet for a long time), other WTO members might follow the example, and eventually the dispute settlement mechanism could become a dead letter. These are the risks to the multilateral trading system. 

The failure of Doha to bear fruit in the form of a new ambitious agreement is disappointing, but hardly catastrophic.  However, to the extent that the absence of an ongoing negotiating round (indeed, in the wake of the first failed multilateral negotiating round ever) might liberate politicians to call for unilateral actions that contravene trade agreements, it will be more important to be vigilant in the face of threats to global commerce.

A Damn Fine Health Care Proposal

The White House is sending out teasers regarding a health care proposal that President Bush will unveil in his (penultimate!) State of the Union address on Tuesday.  By design, such teasers leave out important details.  Yet they give the outlines of what could be a damn fine health care proposal.

The president is proposing to limit the currently unlimited tax break for employer-sponsored health insurance.  He’d also extend that newly limited tax break to people who don’t get coverage from an employer – in fact, he’d completely break the link between the tax break and employment.

That tax break is behind much of the inefficiency and inequity in America’s health care sector.  It encourages almost 200 million Americans to behave irresponsibly, which increases the cost of health care for themselves and everyone else.  Economists on the left and right have argued for limiting or eliminating it for decades.  The last president to propose such a limit was named Reagan.

It’s going to be a tough sell, of course.  The administration estimates that 20 percent of covered workers would face a higher tax burden, and those workers probably will object that their taxes would increase.  The fact that reducing government influence over people’s decisions is effectively a tax cut is a much harder point for most people to grasp.  Other opponents will scream that the proposal would destroy employer-based health insurance.  What those opponents actually mean, however, is that they don’t think workers should be free to choose where they purchase their health insurance.

I have criticisms of the proposal, too.  For example, I think we should do more to give workers ownership over the money that employers currently spend on health benefits.  (Mike Tanner and I lay out one way to do so in Healthy Competition: What’s Holding Back Health Care and How to Free It.)  Unless workers own those dollars, they might have to take a pay cut to exercise their new freedom to choose, which doesn’t seem like freedom at all.

Important details are still missing – details that will determine how helpful, complicated, and politically feasible the proposal will be.  I’ll withhold final judgment until I see the final product.  But at this point, it appears that President Bush is the only prominent politician who is taking health care reform seriously.