More Fallout from Switzerland’s Tax Fight with Brussels

This site has closely followed the European Commission’s attempt to undermine Swiss tax sovereignty - an effort that has implications for the US since high-tax nations like France and Germany could use the same argument (that low taxes somehow are contrary to free trade) against America at the WTO if the anti-Swiss campaign proves successful. Fortunately, that is not likely to happen. The European Commission ultimately has only one weapon, which is the ability to impose protectionist sanctions against Swiss goods and services. But as Euractiv.com notes, there are EU member states that support tax competition and presumably would not approve an effort to punish Switzerland for the supposed sin of good tax law:

The Commission, on 13 February, accused Switzerland of offering unfair company-tax advantages that it says amounts to illegal state aid, in order to lure multinationals away from the EU. …Member states are likely to give strong backing to the Commission, as frustration has grown with the increasing number of multinationals, including General Motors, Kraft Foods and Procter & Gamble, deserting their EU headquarters to set up in Switzerland. Tax competition is also a problem within the EU, with countries like Ireland and Luxembourg luring companies away from high-tax France and Germany thanks to their low business tax rates. But, a Commission move to harmonise tax systems across the EU is being fiercely resisted by low-tax member states.

Needless to say, the Swiss-EC fight has nothing to do with trade and everything to do with tax competition. Politicians from high-tax nations despise fiscal rivalry since it forces them to lower tax rates (or at least not to raise rates even further) in an effort to prevent the loss of jobs and capital. Switzerland is a beneficiary of this liberalizing process, both because its overall tax burden is low compared to the rest of Europe, but also because the nation has a genuine federal system, meaning that regional (cantonal) and local governments must compete to offer the most attractive fiscal policies. A recent paper published by the Center for Freedom and Prosperity explains the role of intra-national tax competition, and a report from Euro2day.gr shows that Swiss leaders understand the valuable role of their federal structure:

Zug has been particularly exposed. “We don’t understand why the Commission has made these accusations now,” says Peter Hegglin, the cantonal finance minister. …Like most Swiss, Mr Hegglin emphasises the role of tax competition as a cornerstone of Switzerland’s extreme form of devolution, where individual cantons and communities set their own levies, and as an instrument to ensure lean, efficient government. “Tax competition is something that is so deeply ingrained in Switzerland internally that the government has little leeway to negotiate anything,” says Walter Kielholz, chairman of Credit Suisse. …Zug is now the hub for companies from global commodities traders, such as Glencore, to the regional headquarters of leading pharmaceuticals groups. Nord Stream, the Russian dominated consortium planning a new gas pipeline under the Baltic, is the latest of many arrivals. Zug’s appeal lies in its proximity to Zurich, its lawyers, accountants and consultants – and its modest taxes. All companies must pay Switzerland’s nationwide 8.5 per cent federal profits tax. Some others also face cantonal and municipal levies, taking the total to 16-16.5 per cent.

Last but not least, a letter-to-the-editor of the Financial Times mockingly asks whether the bureaucrats in Brussels will extend their complaint about Switzerland’s tax laws to other policies:

The Swiss know many more ways of unfair competition to lure successful businesses to settle there. Take my own typical recent travel experience: Queueing for check-in and security control at Kastrup airport, Copenhagen: 2hr 15min. Queueing at Birmingham international airport: 1hr 45min. I always avoid using Heathrow and BA because it is even worse. No queueing at Geneva airport, check-in and security control completed in less than 20 minutes. …In the UK or Sweden the whole rail system breaks down if 5cm of snow falls. The Swiss trains run 90 per cent on time, even if it is snowing! Another example of unfair efficiency. The political system with its direct democracy is less corrupt in Switzerland than in the UK, Germany and Sweden. Is this not an outrageous example of unfair competition? Because of low taxes the Swiss public services must be well organised and more efficient than in Scandinavia and the UK. The efficiency of public services together with reasonable taxes is Switzerland’s most important advantage.

Senators Introduce Bill Attacking Low-Tax Jurisdictions

Politicians from France and Germany are infamous for whining about “unfair” competition from low-tax jurisdictions. It is embarrassing to note that there are politicians in the United States with the same sore-loser attitude. With Senator Levin of Michigan as the ringleader, three senators have introduced an anti-tax haven bill that would impose onerous new burdens on taxpayers while dramatically increasing the power of the Internal Revenue Service. The sponsors make a number of completely inaccurate assertions, including a claim that so-called tax havens account for $100 billion of lost tax revenue. Even a cursory review of IRS data, however, show that the vast majority of the “tax gap” is from small business taxpayers. But Levin’s attitude apparently is that facts should not get in the way of good press release. The legislation has numerous other problems, most notably the fact that is almost certainly would put the US in violation of World Trade Organization obligations and that it would make foreign-managed hedge funds more competitive by imposing onerous regulatory burdens on US funds (much as Sarbanes-Oxley helped Hong Kong and London become much more attractive places for venture capital business such as IPOs). The Washington Post reports on the bill’s introduction: 

Three senators proposed legislation that would target what they say is $100 billion a year in tax revenue lost each year because of overseas tax havens, in part by forcing hedge funds to track their foreign investors. The measure would impose tougher requirements on U.S. taxpayers using offshore secrecy jurisdictions, give the U.S. Treasury the authority to take action against foreign jurisdictions that impede tax enforcement, stiffen penalties against abusers and close offshore trust loopholes, according to a summary of the bill released by Michigan Democrat Carl M. Levin. …”We cannot tolerate tax cheats offloading their unpaid taxes onto the backs of honest taxpayers,” Levin said in a joint statement with co-sponsors Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.). “Offshore tax havens have declared economic war on honest taxpayers by helping tax cheats hide income and assets that should be taxed in the same way as other Americans.” The Treasury Department and top lawmakers in both houses of Congress have made a priority this year reducing the so-called tax gap, the difference between what individuals and companies owe and what they pay. The IRS said a study of 2001 tax returns shows the tax gap is about $345 billion a year, only $55 billion of which is recovered.

The Economist or The Statist?

A blogger at The Economist has been furiously scratching his head in response to my earlier posts on evolution, trying to understand how an evolutionist such as myself could oppose government mandated instruction in this (and every other) field. I’d like to offer some answers, and at least one factual correction.

First, the correction. The anonymous Economist blogger writes: “We live in a democracy, and most people want their children to be taught scientific truth, or more properly, scientific method.”

In some areas, like elementary physics, that’s undoubtedly true. And I’d be delighted if it were true across the board. It is not. As the polling data I have previously cited demonstrate, either a plurality or an outright majority of Americans (depending on the poll) believe human beings were created by God, in their current form. Most of the rest believe we evolved under God’s guidance. Furthermore, a strong majority of Americans would like to see, at the very least, creationism taught alongside evolution (many probably do not want evolution taught at all – but that option wasn’t offered in the poll question). These beliefs and preferences are not consistent with the teaching of evolutionary theory as understood by the overwhelming majority of biologists.

So the first of my earlier points remains: instruction in a purely naturalistic view of evolution is NOT desired by the majority of the American public, and because the majority has considerable influence over school policy, the teaching of evolution has been hobbled and sidelined in many public schools for generations.

Next, The Economist blogger devises an imaginative but mistaken explanation for my position:

The only way I can make sense of Mr. Coulson’s position is as a form of surrender to fundamentalist Christians: “I don’t agree with you, but I don’t want to upset you, so here’s a compromise whereby I contort my views to support your position.”

The Economist confuses respect for liberty with “surrender.” Recognizing the right of our fellow citizens to disagree with us is a pillar of free societies. That is the insight behind Voltaire’s famous line: ”I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” To anyone who grasps the importance of that principle, no ideological “contortions” are necessary to defend the right of families to make their own educational decisions.

It is troubling that so much of today’s intellectual elite seems to have forgotten the crucial role of individual liberty.

There is also a gross contradiction between the lip service given to the limits of scientific knowledge and the desire to see such knowledge established like a state religion.

While the blogger catches himself in the quote above, moderating the term “scientific truth” with “or more properly, scientific method,” he slips later on, rhetorically asking: “Should the teaching of the truth not be compulsory in education?” [emphasis added]

Here he leaves “the truth” unmodified. We KNOW what the truth is, he seems to say, why SHOULDN’T we force everyone to listen to the Good Word?

But anyone serious about science understands that scientific knowledge is provisional. Induction, on which science rests, is incapable of identifying Truth with a capital ‘T’. Science is by far the best tool we have for making sense of the world, but it isn’t a Truth machine. The rational thing to do is to treat what we learn through science as useful working assumptions – as the best approximation to Truth that we can find. Science, well practiced, is humble.

Statist rationalists are not. They want to compel everyone to be taught the methods and provisional conclusions of science, and that is precisely the opposite of what scientist and philosopher Jacob Bronowski so wisely encouraged us to do. Bronowski exhorted us to imbue politics with the empiricism – and more importantly, the humility – of science. He felt that by keeping in mind the imperfection of all human knowledge we could avoid the absolutism and totalitarianism that brought so much death and suffering in the mid-20th century.

But instead of moderating governments by injecting them with the circumspection of science, rationalist statists seek to inject the absolutism and compulsion of government mandates into the teaching of science.

Before continuing down that unsavory road, I hope that The Economist will pause to consider how a free market in education could advance quality science instruction, show greater respect for the limits of scientific knowledge, and comport better with the founding principles of the United States.

And if they’d like someone to do that, or to debate Dawkins on the merits of compulsory instruction in evolution, I’ll be happy to help. There are areas in which the state must demand conformity, such as adherence to a body of basic laws, but uniformity in the teaching of human origins serves no such essential role in the perpetuation of a free society. On the contrary, granting the state the power to decide and proselytize the “Truth” is a danger to free societies.

Washington’s Dishonest Budget Math

During fiscal debates in DC, politicians, the press, and interest groups all complain about supposed budget cuts. Yet every year, the budget gets bigger and more expensive. This seeming contradiction is due to the fact that Washington uses a strange form of math called “current services” budgeting. Under this system, a “cut” occurs anytime a budget doesn’t increase as fast as previously projected. This means that programs sometimes grow at more than twice the rate of inflation, but advocates of more spending get to complain that they are being subjected to “cruel” and “savage” reductions. While everyone inside the beltway understands how this game is played, ordinary Americans are completely deceived. They think that spending cuts are actually cuts - i.e., spending will be lower next year than it is this year. Defenders of the current system argue that “current services” budget is justified because it enables policy makers to know how much spending is “requried” because of inflation, demographic change, and previously-legislated program expansions. There is nothing wrong with having that information, of course, but that doesn’t justify dishonest presentation of budget numbers. If a politician or interest group wants to argue that a program should get a six percent increase because of various factors, that is a legitimate debate. But when a politician says that a program is getting a two percent cut because spending is climbing by four percent instead of six percent, that is deceptive. An article in the American Enterprise Institute’s magazine explores Washington’s dishonest budget math:
President Bush is not “cutting” Medicare spending—all the media hype notwithstanding… the President has not been suddenly seized by fiscal conservatism fever and did not, in fact, propose any spending cuts. Under the President’s proposal, federal spending on Medicare and Medicaid is set to increase by $84 billion from 2006 to 2008. That spending increase is certainly not a cut—even when including inflation, it represents a generous increase in entitlement spending. Newsweek confused cutting the rate of spending growth with cutting spending itself. The President’s proposals reveal an interesting picture: instead of growing at a 6.5% rate, the President would have Medicare grow at a 5.6% rate. Medicaid was set to grow at 7.3%; the President has proposed a 7.1% rate of growth. …It’s useful to place this spending restraint in perspective: entitlements face a looming $43 trillion shortage over the next 60 years, and unless entitlement spending is curbed, those programs are headed straight for bankruptcy. What’s fascinating is that if the President’s modest Medicare plans were realized, $8 trillion dollars would already be shaved off of Medicare’s future liability. It’s a hopeful reminder that moderate fiscal restraint can, over time, accomplish a great deal of good.

Some Good News on the Budget

Thanks in large part to the heroic efforts of Senators Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn, the corrupting culture of budget earmarks has hit a big bump in the road. Even more important, government spending is no longer climbing quite as fast. To be sure, it is hardly a victory to hold the growth of annual appropriations to the rate of inflation. After all, many of the programs being appropriated should be completely abolished. Moreover, annual appropriations does not include entitlement programs, many of which are growing at twice the rate of inflation. But in a town enriches itself by transferring income and wealth from the productive to the special interests, even a slowdown in the rate of spending growth is welcome news. The Wall Street Journal explains:

On Thursday, White House budget director Rob Portman issued little-noticed guidance to all federal departments and agencies that no Congressional requests for spending should be accommodated unless they are “specifically identified in statutory text” – which is to say, the law. This may sound like it ought to be regular practice, but it’s a revolution in the Beltway. That’s because, in order to dodge the legislative earmark limits that Mr. Byrd has been bragging about, Members have been speed-dialing executive branch officials and asking them to fund their specific earmark requests out of agency budgets even though they were purged from the larger budget bill. This Congressional lobbying can be hard for the average federal bureaucrat to refuse, since he doesn’t want to offend those on Capitol Hill who control his budget. …this means the Fiscal 2007 federal budget could have the fewest number of these pork-barrel projects in many a year. By the way, thanks to efforts late last year by GOP Senators Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma to block a last-minute bipartisan spending splurge, the 2007 budget holds overall federal appropriated spending to the rate of inflation; recent years have often seen three times that.

Collins’ Confusion

A couple of weeks ago, I went up to Maine to speak about identification issues at a community meeting in Augusta.  This was the night before the state legislature voted overwhelmingly to reject the REAL ID Act. Maine’s bold step catalyzed a nationwide rebellion, and states across the country are now passing resolutions to reject REAL ID.

Along with that resolution, the Maine legislature will be moving a bill that specifically prevents the secretary of state from spending any funds to comply with REAL ID. A real one-two punch.

Now, here’s a little inside baseball: The resolution was introduced by the Democratic Majority Leader of the Senate, Libby Mitchell, and the bill was introduced by Republican Representative Scott Lansley. As can happen, Republicans were a little concerned that the Democrat-introduced resolution would eclipse the Republican-introduced bill in this Democrat-majority legislature. But Mitchell and Lansley got together to be the lead co-sponsors of each others’ measures. Maine is doing the kind of bipartisan cooperation that is so rare in Washington, and Republican Lansley stands to get proper credit for his leadership on this issue.  But …

Along comes U.S. Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, who this week confounded things by introducing a bill to defend and support the REAL ID Act. Her bill would give the DHS two more years to coerce states into implementing this national ID, and it would fiddle around the edges of the rulemaking process. Delaying implementation helps a national ID go forward in a big way because it gives the companies and organizations that sustain themselves on these kinds of projects time to shake the federal money tree and get this $11 billion surveillance mandate funded.

It’s all very confusing. First of all, Senator Collins’ move to support REAL ID faces right into a headwind known as “the will of the people of Maine.”  The state legislature overwhelmingly voted to reject REAL ID. Senator Collins, famous seeker of compromise, appears to be compromising not among the differing interests of her voters, but among the interests of her voters and the interests she hears from in Washington.

Secondly, Republican Collins is crossing up state Republican leaders like Scott Lansley and muddying the party’s message at home. Someone is looking out-of-touch. (Hint: It’s not Scott Lansley.)

The famously moderate Collins is backing a law that is most strongly favored by immoderate anti-immigrant groups.

Here’s what is most bizarre: Collins is moving to support REAL ID even though it stripped out identification provisions in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act that she is widely credited with crafting!

Senator Collins may be confused. I know I am. Unfortunately, her move to protect REAL ID has attracted some support. Senator Collins should disavow this bill as a blunder, or explain her conversion to support of the REAL ID Act and a national ID.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs chairman Joe Lieberman called the drivers license provisions of REAL ID “unworkable“ when it was attached to a military spending bill and rammed through the Senate without a hearing or vote. The passage of an additional two years will make them no more workable.

A More ‘Social’ EU

Nine EU nations are calling for a greater focus on “social protection” and “social rights” in order to promote “social Europe.” Needless to say, “social” is a code word for bigger government.

Most of the nine nations are in the usual-suspects category, but Hungary and Bulgaria are strange additions. Do they really think they can overcome the legacy of communism by shackling themselves to socialism?

The EU Observer reports on the latest skirmish in Europe’s fight against globalization:

France, Italy, Spain, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Luxembourg, Hungary, Belgium and Greece have all signed up to a two-page long declaration in which they argue that the 27-country bloc should be more than just an internal market. Calling their statement, which has been sent to all member states, “enhancing social Europe” the currently nine-strong group want to use the ongoing negotiations on the EU constitution as a springboard for their ideas.

It continues by saying that a Europe of 27 member states “cannot just be a free trade zone but shall guarantee the necessary balance between economic freedom and social rights.” Social Europe is defined as a set of “common values” such as social justice, equality and solidarity.

The call for more social Europe goes to the heart of a debate in Europe about the extent to which the bloc should adapt to the force of globalisation and the extent to which it should set certain social, environmental and work standards, which detractors say could hamper growth and competitiveness.