Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Tax Exiles Flee America: Blame the Greedy Politicians

The U.S. government is driving some of its most productive citizens abroad.  The only beneficiaries are countries such as Singapore and Switzerland, which offer sanctuary to Americans fleeing avaricious Uncle Sam.

Three years ago Eduardo Saverin, one of Facebook’s founders, joined 1780 other Americans in renouncing their citizenship.  Heading overseas allowed him to reduce the federal government’s take when his company went public.

Just 231 people gave up their citizenship in 2008.  Last year the number was 2999.  The first three months of 2014 was 1001, up from 679 for the first quarter of last year. 

Tax flight is not an option for most people.  However, the rich have more choices internationally.  And they increasingly are telling Uncle Sam goodbye.

So are big corporations, such as Pfizer, which is seeking to buy the British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca.  The acquisition would allow Pfizer to move its headquarters to the United Kingdom, which employs a “territorial” tax system, with taxes collected only where the income is earned, in contrast to Washington’s worldwide levy. 

About 50 firms have moved their headquarters over the last three decades, half of them since 2008.  Last month the Obama administration decried the practice and proposed to increase the share of foreign ownership required for inversions.

Traditionally the entrepreneurial and productive wanted to come to America.  Many still do.  But the choice is no longer so clear-cut. 

Paul Martin: The Bill Clinton of Canada, Only Much Better

Imagine how weird it would be if the Cato Institute and Americans for Tax Reform praised Barack Obama for fiscal responsibility. And think how inconceivable it would be for the Heritage Foundation and the National Taxpayers Union to applaud Tim Geithner for economic stewardship.

The Canadian version of that happened while I was at the conference of the World Taxpayers Association in Vancouver two weeks ago.

The event was organized by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the main speaker was Paul Martin of the Liberal Party, who served as finance minister from 1993 to 2002, and then as prime minister from 2003 to 2006. I should add, for context, that the Liberal Party in Canada is not a classical liberal party with a track record of free markets and small government.

But Paul Martin was honored because he was responsible, while finance minister, for one of the best records of fiscal restraint of any policymaker in recent history (click here for international comparisons).

I’ve pointed out that the burden of spending fell under Bill Clinton, and I’ve even acknowledged that the federal budget hasn’t grown much under Obama, at least once you get past his first couple of years. But Paul Martin was far more frugal. And since Canada has a parliamentary system, there’s no ambiguity about who deserves credit. He restrained spending when his party had control.

What happened to generate the good results? For all intents and purposes, he imposed a spending freeze. And I’m talking a nominal spending freeze, not the kind of fake fiscal discipline you get when politicians make “cuts” off an inflated baseline. Because the budget was successfully restrained, that addressed both the problem of too much spending and the symptom of red ink.

The D.C. ‘Fitness Tax’ in Context

An important local story in Washington, D.C. this week is the D.C. City Council’s proposed tax overhaul package. The package would restructure the tax code and reduce revenue by $67 million a year. Unfortunately, special interests may be poised to defeat generally good, pro-growth reform.

The proposal passed 11–2 on its first reading. It was the byproduct of months of study and debate. Under the plan, income tax rates would be cut, which would benefit middle-income residents. The standard deduction would be increased, particularly benefiting lower-income residents. The DC Fiscal Policy Institute estimates that middle-income families with incomes between $50,000 and $75,000 would save an average $400 annually.

It also would lower the corporate tax rate from 9.975 percent to 8.25 percent by 2019, while cutting the “death tax” and eliminating some wasteful tax credits.

These changes would provide much needed relief to D.C. residents and businesses, and make D.C. a little more competitive with its neighbors.

To partly offset the loss in revenue, the city council decided to expand the sales tax base to include some currently untaxed services, such as carpet cleaning, beautician services, and storage facilities. It would keep the sales tax rate at 5.75 percent, lower than Maryland and Virginia. 

However, one particular service industry is trying to sink the entire deal. The sales tax base expansion would include fitness services, such as gym and yoga studio memberships. One gym, Vida Fitness, is leading the charge against the “D.C. Fitness Tax,” urging customers and D.C. residents to sign a petition opposing treating fitness services like most other retail goods and services. Contrary to what Vida Fitness and others say, this isn’t a new tax only affecting their industry; it is simply the expansion of the general sales tax base to include their industry’s products.

I’m not in favor of new taxes, but it is also not fair that gyms are exempt from sales taxes that hit most other retailers and their customers. As Wes Rivers of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute described it, “D.C. residents already pay sales tax on exercise equipment, running shoes, and yoga mats.” Twenty-two states include fitness services in their sales tax bases.

Middle-income residents will save more in income taxes than people will pay in increased sales taxes on gym memberships. Many of those taxpayers likely belong to gyms and yoga studios, so Vida Fitness’ opposition may hurt its customers more than it helps.

The city council should go further in cutting tax rates, but this package is a good first step. It moves D.C.’s tax code a little away from the income tax and towards the consumption tax, which is a more fair and efficient tax structure. Hopefully, policymakers won’t let special interests derail a generally pro-growth reform in D.C.

The Rush to Expand the VA

The Senate voted 93-3 on Wednesday to expand health care spending for veterans. Under the Senate bill, veterans would be able to access health care services from facilities outside the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) system.

The headlines from the last few weeks clearly illustrate the need to reform this massive system, but the Senate’s rushed plan would dramatically increase veterans’ health care spending without tackling needed fundamental reforms.

Just before the vote, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a preliminary estimate of the bill’s costs. Because of the hurried nature of introduction and debate, CBO was not able to fully review and estimate costs.

CBO says that the new program would increase spending by $35 billion over 10 years. But that doesn’t tell the full story. CBO expects initial set-up of the new program would take several years with veteran enrollment ramping up over time. And the bill just authorizes the new spending until 2016. So it appears that the CBO estimate of $35 billion just includes the cost over the first three years.

Over the longer term, CBO estimates that added annual spending would be $50 billion a year. So if the current bill is enacted and the added spending extended in the future, it would raise federal spending by about $385 billion over the next decade, as illustrated in the chart below the jump.

Tea Party Discovers Eric Cantor’s Record on Federal Spending

I was as surprised as everybody else by David Brat’s defeat of Eric Cantor yesterday. But I’m not really surprised that Tea Party-type voters were tired of Cantor’s voting record. In 2010, I noted that Cantor, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, and Rep. Paul Ryan had published a book, Young Guns, which cast the Republican congressional leaders who preceded them as a group that “betrayed its principles” and was plagued by “failures from high-profile ethics lapses to the inability to rein in spending or even slow the growth of government.”

But, I wondered, how credible were the messengers? Once you ruin a brand, it can take a long time to restore it. And part of the solution is owning up to your own errors, not just pointing the finger.

Sadly, I discovered at the time that the authors didn’t have very clean hands when it came to the overspending and overregulation of the Bush years. Most relevantly for today, I found that Rep. Cantor voted for the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, expanding federal control over education. He voted for the costly Iraq war in 2002. He voted for the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act in 2003, which was projected to add more than $700 billion to Medicare costs over the following decade. He voted for the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, which included the $700 billion TARP bailout. 

To be fair, he did get A’s and B’s in the annual ratings of Congress by the National Taxpayers Union, which means he had a better record on spending than most of his colleagues. But as the Tea Party’s been complaining, that’s not saying much.

David Brat, a professor of economics, promised in his campaign to “fight to end crony capitalist programs that benefit the rich and powerful.” While I’m disappointed in his opposition to sensible immigration reform, I hope that if he does get to Washington he’ll bring a revitalized Tea Party message of fiscal responsibility and opposition to big business cronyism.

Eric Cantor’s Website

My Daily Caller op-ed today looks at the website of a typical modern politician, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY). His site is designed to impress voters and the media in his district with all the federal benefits he has brought home. Maloney is taking a pork and constituent service approach to gaining reelection.

There are other approaches to electoral success. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has a strategy of championing principles and specific issues that broadly resonate. The detail on Paul’s website is much better than most. Under “Issues,” he describes his general approach to each policy topic and discusses his stands on particular bills. Under “Budget” he provides a 106-page plan to cut spending.  

Looking at Rep. Eric Cantor’s (R-VA) website, you can see that he followed neither the pork nor the principled approach. If Cantor brought pork home to his district, he does not do a very good job telling people about it.

Regarding big ideas or describing his positions on issues, Cantor’s congressional website is nearly empty. Unlike most members, he does not even have an “Issues” section to explain his approach to tax reform, the budget, economic growth, civil liberties, energy, or other policies. His website is fluff.

Cantor’s primary defeat seems partly due to a lack of trust, meaning that voters in his district did not really know where he stood on issues or how he would vote. His website seems to have reflected his strategy of not taking hard stands and having few guiding principles. In his district, that ended up being a losing strategy.

(As majority leader, Cantor also runs this website. But for all the resources that office must have, this site is also very fluffy).

 

Linear Thinking and the Rahn Curve: Responding to a Critic

There’s an old saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

That may be true if you’re in Hollywood and visibility is a key to long-run earnings.

But in the world of public policy, you don’t want to be a punching bag. And that describes my role in a book excerpt just published by Salon.

Jordan Ellenberg, a mathematics professor at the University of Wisconsin, has decided that I’m a “linear” thinker.

Here are some excerpts from the article, starting with his perception of my view on the appropriate size of government, presumably culled from this blog post.

Daniel J. Mitchell of the libertarian Cato Institute posted a blog entry with the provocative title: “Why Is Obama Trying to Make America More Like Sweden when Swedes Are Trying to Be Less Like Sweden?” Good question! When you put it that way, it does seem pretty perverse.  …Here’s what the world looks like to the Cato Institute… Don’t worry about exactly how we’re quantifying these things. The point is just this: according to the chart, the more Swedish you are, the worse off your country is. The Swedes, no fools, have figured this out and are launching their northwestward climb toward free-market prosperity.

I confess that he presents a clever and amusing caricature of my views.

My ideal world of small government and free markets would be a Libertopia, whereas total statism could be characterized as the Black Pit of Socialism.

But Ellenberg’s goal isn’t to merely describe my philosophical yearnings and policy positions. He wants to discredit my viewpoint.

So he suggests an alternative way of looking at the world.

Let me draw the same picture from the point of view of people whose economic views are closer to President Obama’s… This picture gives very different advice about how Swedish we should be. Where do we find peak prosperity? At a point more Swedish than America, but less Swedish than Sweden. If this picture is right, it makes perfect sense for Obama to beef up our welfare state while the Swedes trim theirs down.

He elaborates, emphasizing the importance of nonlinear thinking.

The difference between the two pictures is the difference between linearity and nonlinearity… The Cato curve is a line; the non-Cato curve, the one with the hump in the middle, is not. …thinking nonlinearly is crucial, because not all curves are lines. A moment of reflection will tell you that the real curves of economics look like the second picture, not the first. They’re nonlinear. Mitchell’s reasoning is an example of false linearity—he’s assuming, without coming right out and saying so, that the course of prosperity is described by the line segment in the first picture, in which case Sweden stripping down its social infrastructure means we should do the same. …you know the linear picture is wrong. Some principle more complicated than “More government bad, less government good” is in effect. …Nonlinear thinking means which way you should go depends on where you already are.

Ellenberg then points out, citing the Laffer Curve, that “the folks at Cato used to understand” the importance of nonlinear analysis.

The irony is that economic conservatives like the folks at Cato used to understand this better than anybody. That second picture I drew up there? …I am not the first person to draw it. It’s called the Laffer curve, and it’s played a central role in Republican economics for almost forty years… if the government vacuums up every cent of the wage you’re paid to show up and teach school, or sell hardware, or middle-manage, why bother doing it? Over on the right edge of the graph, people don’t work at all. Or, if they work, they do so in informal economic niches where the tax collector’s hand can’t reach. The government’s revenue is zero… the curve recording the relationship between tax rate and government revenue cannot be a straight line.

So what’s the bottom line? Am I a linear buffoon, as Ellenberg suggests?

Well, it’s possible I’m a buffoon in some regards, but it’s not correct to pigeonhole me as a simple-minded linear thinker. At least not if the debate is about the proper size of government.

I make this self-serving claim for the simple reason that I’m a big proponents of the Rahn Curve, which is …drum roll please… a nonlinear way of looking at the relationship between the size of government and economic performance. And just in case you think I’m prevaricating, here’s a depiction of the Rahn Curve that was excerpted from my video on that specific topic.

Moreover, if you click on Rahn Curve category of my blog, you’ll find about 20 posts on the topic. And if you type “Rahn Curve” in the search box, you’ll find about twice as many mentions.

So why didn’t Ellenberg notice any of this research?

Beats the heck out of me. Perhaps he made a linear assumption about a supposed lack of nonlinear thinking among libertarians.

In any event, here’s my video on the Rahn Curve so you can judge for yourself.

And if you want information on the topic, here’s a video from Canada and here’s a video from the United Kingdom.

P.S. I would argue that both the United States and Sweden are on the downward-sloping portion of the Rahn Curve, which is sort of what Ellenberg displays on his first graph. Had he been more thorough in his research, though, he would have discovered that I think growth is maximized when the public sector consumes about 10 percent of GDP.

P.P.S. Ellenberg’s second chart puts the U.S. and Sweden at the same level of prosperity. Indeed, it looks like Sweden is a bit higher. That’s certainly not what we see in the international data on living standards. Moreover, Ellenberg may want to apply some nonlinear thinking to the data showing that Swedes in America earn a lot more than Swedes still living in Sweden.