Bad News for Karl Marx

If there is a heaven (or, more appropriately, if there is a hell), Karl Marx must be in a sour mood. The Berlin Wall has disappeared. Communism is dead every place other than Cuba, North Korea, and certain faculty lounges. And now, former Soviet colonies are abandoning his concept of discriminatory taxation and instead adopting simple and fair flat tax regimes. A Czech article discusses the flat tax revolution, which is proceeding in spite of complaints from Western Europe’s uncompetitive welfare states:

Karl Marx might be shocked to see who’s doing what with tax systems in Central and Eastern Europe these days. After all, it’s the capitalist West that won’t abandon progressive tax systems, which Marx championed in The Communist Manifesto, while the former Soviet bloc countries are lining up to buck their old ideological fountainhead by moving to a … single tax rate for nearly all earners, regardless of income. Nowhere has this flat tax caught on more swiftly than in Central and Eastern Europe, where nine of world’s 13 countries to have adopted the system are located. It’s a reform movement that started in 1994 with Estonia, gained momentum when Russia saw a 25-percent increase in state revenue from personal income tax after implementing a 13-percent flat tax in 2001, and culminated with Slovakia’s much-lauded adoption of a single 19-percent rate on income, corporate, and valued added tax three years later. …

Few, if any, of the reforms in Central and Eastern Europe meet the definition of a true flat tax because they include deductions, exemptions, and other exceptions. … Several Western European leaders complain that the lower tax rates … give the newer European Union states an unfair advantage in attracting business.

We Accept the Challenge

Robert Samuelson gets one thing wrong in his Newsweek/Washington Post column this week: Cato isn’t a conservative think tank. At least, I think it would be odd to call scholars “conservative” when they criticize the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, the growth of executive power, the war on drugs, the holding of American citizens without habeas corpus, the federal marriage amendment, the late lamented sodomy laws, and the general attempts by both right and left to impose their moral values on all Americans through government.

But he’s right on his main point: The growth of entitlement spending, especially for the elderly, is not only a looming fiscal disaster but a fundamental shift in the nature of American government. He proposes

that some public-spirited sugar daddy (the MacArthur Foundation? Warren Buffett?) sponsor a short book. A possible title: “Facing Up to an Aging America.” Six leading think tanks would be invited to participate: three liberal – the Brookings Institution, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and the Urban Institute– and three conservative: the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

We accept. We’ve been writing about the entitlements crisis since 1980 or thereabouts. We’d be glad to join other research institutions in a grand public debate about how big we want government to be and what its appropriate responsibilities are.

New Federal Pay Data

The Bureau of Economic Analysis just released its annual data on employee compensation by industry. (See tables 6.2, 6.3, 6.5, and 6.6).

The new data for 2006 show that 1.8 million federal civilian workers earned an average $111,180 in total compensation (wages plus benefits). That is more than double the $55,470 average earned by U.S. workers in the private sector.

Looking just at wages, federal workers earned an average $73,406, which is 60 percent greater than the $45,995 average earned by private sector workers.

Average federal pay has soared in recent years, growing much faster than private sector pay between 2001 and 2005. However, federal pay growth slowed in 2006, while private sector pay accelerated. As a result, average compensation for federal civilians grew 4.0 percent in 2006, compared to the average in the private sector of 4.2 percent.

Hopefully, federal pay increases will continue slowing to help relieve the soaring taxpayer costs of federal workers. I’ve proposed freezing federal pay to help reduce the deficit and privatizing expensive activities such as air traffic control.

The BEA data show that compensation for federal civilian workers cost taxpayers $203 billion in 2006, up from $145 billion in 2001 when President Bush took office. (The costs of military compensation have grown even more rapidly, from $98 billion in 2001 to $156 billion in 2006).

The acceleration of federal compensation is clear in the figure below covering 1990-2006.

Source: Chris Edwards, Cato Institute, based on Bureau of Economic Analysis data

For further information, see

http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=6611

http://www.cato.org/pubs/tbb/tbb-0605-35.pdf

(Data note: The BEA data for number of employees is measured in full-time equivalents.)

French Tax Exiles Unlikely to Go Home

For all the joking about the French (e.g.: Ad seen on E-Bay: French military rifles for sale. Hardly used, only dropped once), they deserve credit for not being dumb enough to trust politicians. A Bloomberg story discusses the huge number of productive people who have fled France’s oppressive tax system and notes that very few of these tax exiles are tempted to return merely because Sarkozy is tinkering with the tax system:

Nicolas Sarkozy is rolling out the welcome mat for thousands of rich French people who fled one of Europe’s most onerous tax regimes. Few may heed his call. In his first economic act as president, Sarkozy is pushing a tax law to lure back exiles such as rock star Johnny Hallyday, 64, and members of the Mulliez clan, who control the French retailer Groupe Auchan SA. The measure will increase exemptions on the “fortune” tax – the bete noire of rich expatriates – and cap the total individual tax rate at 50 percent of income. Sarkozy, 52, needs these wealth-creators to help rekindle an economy that’s lagging behind its neighbors and to sustain future growth. …

“In France, to earn a lot of money is to be seen as a little bit criminal,” says author Anne-Marie Mitterrand, who moved to Belgium in 1997. … “The Right to Laziness,” a 19th century book by Paul Lafargue, Karl Marx’s son-in-law, advised against working more than three hours a day. And French author Honore de Balzac famously said, “Behind every great fortune lies a crime.” This prejudice drove French citizens to Switzerland, Belgium, the U.K. and the
U.S., where at least 500,000 of them reside, either to make more or keep more of what they have. London and the U.S. are preferred refuges for younger people. Switzerland, with about 200,000 French residents, attracts the retired and stars like Hallyday. …

Households fleeing the fortune tax climbed to a record 649 in 2005 from 370 in 1997, according to a study by French Senator Philippe Marini. Another study by the Economic Analysis Council, which advises the government, says about 10,000 business directors fled in the last 15 years, taking 70 billion to 100 billion euros ($137 billion) in capital to invest elsewhere. …

Francois Micheloud, a Lausanne lawyer who helps clients settle in Switzerland, says he doubts French exiles will return anytime soon because they distrust government tax policies.

“Carried Interest” Battle Could Be Precursor to Broader Effort to Increase Capital Gains Tax

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Phil Kerpen of Americans for Prosperity weighs in on the taxation of the returns to private equity funds. He notes, as have others, that the so-called “carried interest” is a capital gain – even if it is then shared with the fund manager. The key message of the article is that the attempt to raise the tax on this type of capital gains is the first step in an effort to raise the tax rate on all capital gains:

Under current law, individual partners in an investment partnership such as a hedge fund or private equity fund are taxed based on what the underlying partnership income is; if the income comes from a capital gain, it is taxed at the capital gains rate. Ordinary income is taxed at ordinary income tax rates. This tax treatment is consistent with the rationale for a lower capital gains tax rate – to alleviate the double taxation of corporate-source income and to encourage risk taking, entrepreneurship and capital formation. The legislation Congress is considering ends those protections, saying in effect that it doesn’t matter if the income is a clear-cut capital gain, such as proceeds from the sale of corporate stock. What matters is who receives the income, in this case politically unpopular rich guys. All investors should be on notice that if the capital gains tax is considered a loophole for investment partnerships, it can’t be long before the capital gains tax is raised for everyone else. Some leading Democrats, including Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and presidential candidate John Edwards, are already calling to do just that.

Kerpen’s fears are confirmed by a story in the New York Sun. At a Finance Committee hearing, a number of politicians expressed support for broader tax hikes:

Democrats may dodge a tax hike on private equity managers and instead look to raise other taxes that would generate greater revenue from a broader swath of the American economy. At hearings on Capitol Hill yesterday, Senate Democrats voiced fresh doubts about legislative proposals to increase tax rates in the burgeoning private equity industry, questioning both the fairness of the plans and whether they would yield the revenue infusion lawmakers are seeking for the federal coffers. … Lawmakers indicated yesterday that they might turn their attention to more far-reaching tax shifts, such as increasing the rate on capital gains, to 20% from 15%, and the marginal income rate for the top-earning Americans, to 40% from 35%.

Poole on Friedman’s Monetary Legacy

Like Andrew Coulson, I attended an event in honor of Milton Friedman’s birthday yesterday. This one was in Missouri, and it featured Bill Poole, who’s president of the Saint Louis Federal Reserve Bank and a frequent participant in Cato events on monetary policy. The event was sponsored by the University of Missouri and the Show-Me Institute. In his speech, he credited Friedman with making the case that changes in the money supply are a major factor in the business cycle. However, he noted that modern-day central bankers do not agree with Friedman’s contention that central banks should focus on limiting the growth of the money supply:

Everything Milton argued about money stock control is true, but the effect of inflation expectations on the practice of monetary policy itself was, I believe, a missing element in the analysis. The economy functions differently when inflation expectations are firmly anchored. If a central bank allows expectations to become unanchored, then interest-rate control becomes a dangerous and potentially destabilizing policy. But should the practice of monetary policy depend on how well inflation expectations are anchored? I do not recall Milton discussing this question, perhaps because he believed that the best way to maintain well-anchored expectations over time was for the central bank to commit to steady and low money growth under all circumstances.

How does a central bank anchor inflation expectations? One approach would be for the central bank to commit to low and steady money growth come what may. A problem with this approach is that it may not appear credible to the markets when financial instability and/or recession occurs. If a policy of steady money growth has exceptions, can the exceptions be defined in such a way to retain anchored inflation expectations?

A necessary and sufficient condition for anchoring is that the central bank act vigorously to resist inflation or deflation whenever it becomes evident and particularly when inflation expectations change, up or down, in an unwelcome way. If the central bank is willing to push as hard as it takes, regardless of short-run consequences to unemployment and especially to the bond and stock markets, then market participants will develop firm views on the likely rate of inflation in the future. The Fed must convince market participants who bet against it that they will regret their bets.

However, Poole concludes that “Although Milton did not prevail in his quest to have the Fed maintain a constant money-growth rate, he did prevail in his insistence that policy be apolitical and rely to the maximum possible extent on market judgments. He lost a battle but truly did win the war.”