New at Cato Unbound: Ten Years of Code

Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Lawrence Lessig’s seminal work on Internet law, turns ten this year. To mark the occasion, Cato Unbound has invited a distinguished panel of Internet law experts to discuss the book’s enduring significance: What did it get right? What did it get wrong? And where do we go from here?

Joining us will be Adam Thierer, Jonathan Zittrain, and Lawrence Lessig himself. The lead essay, up this morning, is by Declan McCullagh. Readers of Code will recall that McCullagh was called out by name in the book’s final chapter, and his “do-nothing” cyberlibertarian views were criticized at length. Ten years later, is it time to reconsider? Join us and find out.

Obama Taking on ‘Tax Havens’

Jeff Zeleny at the New York Times Caucus Blog reports, “President Obama will present a set of proposals on Monday aimed at changing international tax policy, calling for the elimination of benefits for companies and wealthy individuals that harbor their cash in offshore accounts.”

Cato scholars have long made arguments in defense of tax havens. In The Wall Street Journal, Senior Fellow Richard Rahn outlined the policy the federal government should be taking instead:

The correct policy for the United States to follow is to reduce its corporate tax rate to make it internationally competitive, and to move toward a tax system that does not punish savings and productive investment so severely. We know from the experiences of many countries that reducing tax rates and simplifying the tax code improve both tax compliance and economic growth. Tax protectionism should be rejected because it is at least as destructive to economic growth and job creation as are tariffs on goods and services.

Cato scholar Daniel J. Mitchell narrated a three part video series on the subject, presenting the economic and moral cases for tax havens, and a final video that punctured myths associated with the practice.  

Mitchell spoke on Capitol Hill last month about the role of tax havens and in Foreign Policy magazine, Mitchell explained why tax havens are a blessing.

Obama ‘Offshore’ Tax Plan Will Cost U.S. Companies Business and Jobs

The Obama administration is ready to follow through on campaign promises to crack down on U.S. companies that “ship jobs overseas.” The administration announced this weekend that it would seek to raise taxes on the so-called active earnings of U.S.-owned affiliates abroad. According to a front-page story in this morning’s Wall Street Journal:

Under current law, U.S. companies can defer taxes indefinitely on the many of the profits they say they have earned overseas until they “repatriate” that money back to the U.S. The administration seeks to sharply limit the tax deductions that companies taking advantage of deferral can take.

Of course, there is a perfectly good reason why we don’t tax what U.S. companies earn and keep abroad: those companies are already paying taxes in the countries where their affiliates are located, and at the same rates that apply to multinationals from other countries competing in the same markets.

As I pointed out in a Cato Free Trade Bulletin in January, locating affiliates in foreign markets is now the chief way that U.S. companies reach new customers outside the United States. If we sock them with the relatively high U.S. corporate rate, U.S. companies will be less able to compete against German and Japanese multinationals in the same markets who need only pay the (almost always) lower corporate rate assessed by the host country. And as I noted in January, any jobs created at affiliates abroad tend to promote more employment at the parent company back in the United States.

This demagogic grab for more revenue will only cripple the ability of U.S. companies to expand their sales in global markets, putting in jeopardy the U.S.-based jobs that support their foreign affiliates.

With ‘Cramdown’ Rejection, Is Senate Ready to Respect Marketplace Contracts Again?

After rejecting the proposed ‘cramdown’ changes to the bankruptcy code, the Senate may be slowly waking up to the need to respect contracts.  One cannot rebuild trust and confidence in our markets, while at the same type trying to destroy the trust that underlies contractual relations.  Were the cramdown legislation approved, the message to investors, or any market participants, would be that the enforceability and terms of your private agreements will be subject to the direction of the political winds.

Proponents of cramdown claimed that the bankruptcy code favored one’s vacation home or yacht over one’s primary residence, as the mortgages on these assets could be reduced to reflect their current value.  Such a claim is at best misleading, if not outright false.  One’s primary residence is already the most favored asset in bankruptcy – due to the very simple fact that one generally gets to keep their home, while one usually has to give up their boat or vacation home in order to satisfy one’s debts.  There simply is no ‘yacht-stead’ exemption.  In fact, under Chapter 13, primary residences whose equity values are greater than the homestead exemption are crammed-down, and the home is transferred to the lender.

Our economy will only turn around once families, investors, entrepreneurs and other market participants believe the rules of the game will be fair and certain, and not constantly subject to political manipulation.  Voluntary consensual agreements are one of the basic pillars of our society, and should be respected as such.  They should not be written solely as a means of taking from one groups of citizens and giving to another.

Feels Like Old Times

This morning, former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings does exactly what I showed last week cannot reasonably be done: She looked at the latest NAEP scores and gave No Child Left Behind (as well as similar state reforms) credit for what have been, frankly, at-best marginal improvements. And check out the long-term trend lines; you’ll see that there were periods with increases just as good as those between 1999 and 2008 that predated NCLB and most state standards-and-testing reforms. You’ll also note a few liberties taken by the former Secretary, such as the assertion that we’ve just had ”nine straight years of increasing scores for elementary school students.” Yes, the scores have gone up, but we don’t know that they’ve gone up every year for nine years. We only know the trend has been up, but scores are only available for 1999, 2004, and 2008 – things could easily have fluctuated from year to year. And let’s not forget that NCLB was only enacted in 2002, took at least a year to meaningfully implement, and was pushed in large part because states weren’t reforming themselves. That alone makes it impossible to support Spellings’ rosy conclusions.

Of course, we’ve seen this sort of thing before. Thanks for the blast from the past, Secretary Spellings.

So Much for the Obama Administration’s Fiscal Free Lunch

So far the Obama administration has been enjoying the ultimate fiscal free lunch.  Massive borrowing, massive spending, lower taxes, and low interest rates.

Alas, all good things must come to an end.

Reports the New York Times:

The nation’s debt clock is ticking faster than ever — and Wall Street is getting worried.

As the Obama administration racks up an unprecedented spending bill for bank bailouts, Detroit rescues, health care overhauls and stimulus plans, the bond market is starting to push up the cost of trillions of dollars in borrowing for the government.

Last week, the yield on 10-year Treasury notes rose to its highest level since November, briefly touching 3.17 percent, a sign that investors are demanding larger returns on the masses of United States debt being issued to finance an economic recovery.

While that is still low by historical standards — it averaged about 5.7 percent in the late 1990s, as deficits turned to surpluses under President Bill Clinton — investors are starting to wonder whether the United States is headed for a new era of rising market interest rates as the government borrows, borrows and borrows some more.

Already, in the first six months of this fiscal year, the federal deficit is running at $956.8 billion, or nearly one seventh of gross domestic product — levels not seen since World War II, according to Wrightson ICAP, a research firm.

Debt held by the public is projected by the Congressional Budget Office to rise from 41 percent of gross domestic product in 2008 to 51 percent in 2009 and to a peak of around 54 percent in 2011 before declining again in the following years. For all of 2009, the administration probably needs to borrow about $2 trillion.

The rising tab has prompted warnings from the Treasury that the Congressionally mandated debt ceiling of $12.1 trillion will most likely be breached in the second half of this year.

Last week, the Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee, a group of industry officials that advises the Treasury on its financing needs, warned about the consequences of higher deficits at a time when tax revenues were “collapsing” by 14 percent in the first half of the fiscal year.

“Given the outlook for the economy, the cost of restoring a smoothly functioning financial system and the pending entitlement obligations to retiring baby boomers,” a report from the committee said, “the fiscal outlook is one of rapidly increasing debt in the years ahead.”

While the real long-term interest rate will not rise immediately, the committee concluded, “such a fiscal path could force real rates notably higher at some point in the future.”

Alas, this is just the beginning.  Three quarters of the spending in the misnamed stimulus bill (it would more accurately be called the “Pork and Social Spending We’ve Been Waiting Years to Foist on the Unsuspecting Public Bill”) occurs next year and beyond, when most economists expect the economy to be growing again.  Moreover, much of the so-called stimulus outlays do nothing to actually stimulate the economy, being used for income transfers and the usual social programs.

However, we will be paying for these outlays for years.  Even as, the Congressional Budget Office warns, the GDP ultimately shrinks as federal expenditures and borrowing “crowd out” private investment.  Indeed, the CBO figures that incomes will suffer a permanent decline–even as taxes are climbing dramatically to pay off all of the debt accumulated by Uncle Sam.

And you don’t want to think about the total bill as Washington bails out (almost $13 trillion worth so far) everyone within reach, “stimulates” (the bill passed earlier this year ran $787 billion) everything within reach, and spends money (Congress approved a budget of $3.5 trillion for next year) within reach.  Indeed, according to CBO, the president’s budget envisions increasing the additional collective federal deficit between 2010 and 2019 from $4.4 trillion to $9.3 trillion.)  Then there will be more federal spending for wastral government entities, such as the Federal Housing Administration; failing banks, which are being closed at a record rate by the FDIC; pension pay-offs for bankrupt companies, administered by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation; and covering the big tab being up run up by Social Security and Medicare, which currently sport unfunded liabilities of around $100 trillion.

Oh, to be an American taxpayer – and especially a young American taxpayer – who will be paying Uncle Sam’s endless bills for the rest of his or her life!