Great Moments in Government

While making my daily visit to Marginal Revolution, I saw this gem about the Census Bureau’s celebration of Return-Shopping-Carts-to-the-Supermarket month. After 20-plus years observing money get wasted by Washington, I thought I had reached the point where nothing would surprise me. But this caused even my jaw to drop. It’s bad enough that some politician or bureaucrat concocted the goofy idea. It adds injury to insult when they then squander tax dollars to promote it:

We’ve all seen them and wondered how they got there — a supermarket shopping cart, sitting forlornly along a residential street, far from the nearest grocery store. Was it a prank, or someone who walked to the store and bought more than they could carry? Either way, this is Return Shopping Carts to the Supermarket Month — including milk crates and bread trays.

European Commission Poised to Officially Attack Switzerland for the “Crime” of Low Tax Levels

In a move that is both remarkable and disturbing, the European Commission plans to file a complaint - and threaten protectionist trade barriers - because attractive Swiss tax policies are supposedly a violation of a free-trade accord. The bureaucrats in Brussels are not arguing that Switzerland is imposing barriers against EU products. Instead, the Commission actually is taking the position that low taxes are attracting businesses that might otherwise operate in high-tax nations. The implications of this radical assertion are breathtaking. It certainly is true that a nation with more laissez-faire policy will attract economic activity from neighbors with more burdensome levels of government. But if this migration of jobs and investment is a “distortion” or trade, then the only “solution” is complete and total harmonization of all taxes (and regulations, spending, etc). If the Euro-crats succeed with this argument at the European level, it will be just a matter of time before similar cases are filed at the World Trade Organization. Look at this story from the Neue Zuricher Zeitung, but insert “U.S.” for Switzerland and you may get a glimpse of the future:

The European Commission is expected next week to make an official complaint about the practice of Swiss cantonal tax authorities giving corporate tax breaks. But the reproach is considered dubious because the Commission cannot really prove there has been any infringement of free trade. Brussels and Bern have been at loggerheads for more than a year over low corporate taxes some of the cantons use to attract new companies, including firms from European Union countries. The Swiss government has made it clear in recent months that a low tax regime is not in breach of a 1972 free trade agreement. …There may be objections from some EU Commission members but a condemnation of non:EU member Switzerland is practically certain. …The draft claims that these tax practices distort trade between Switzerland and the EU, and therefore contravene the bilateral free trade agreement. …It is also claimed that there does not have to be cast:iron proof of trade distortion. According to article 23 of the free trade accord, it is enough if a privilege “threatens to distort” trade.v…the EU specifically mentions “protective measures” in the draft complaint. The indirect threat is aimed at making Switzerland negotiate over cantonal tax practices.

Pro-Business Does Not Mean Pro-Freedom or Pro-Market

Representatives of the business community frequently are the worst enemies of freedom. They often seek special subsidies and handouts, and commonly conspire with politicians to thwart competition (conveniently, they want competition among their suppliers, just not for their own products). Fortunately, most business organizations still tend to be - on balance - supporters of limited government. But as the Wall Street Journal notes, some state and local chambers of commerce have become relentless enemies of good policy: 

…many chambers of commerce on the state and local level have been abandoning these goals. They’re becoming, in effect, lobbyists for big government. In Colorado, a coalition of property owners, conservative think tanks, anti-tax groups and small businesses fought against a ballot initiative in 2005 that was intended to gut the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (Tabor). They lost, and as a result state spending will expand by $5 billion over the next five years, costing the average family several thousand dollars in higher taxes. It was not the teachers’ unions or class-warfare liberals who spearheaded the campaign against Tabor, however – it was the Denver Chamber of Commerce. …In Virginia, the state and local chambers, along with big-business allies, have spent more than $4 million in recent years on ballot initiatives and legislative lobbying to raise $2 billion in taxes for roads, rails, buses and schools. This year they want a billion more for transportation, despite the state’s multibillion-dollar surplus, and have even threatened to run candidates against fiscal conservatives in the legislature who take a “no new taxes” pledge. …In New Jersey – home of some of the worst schools in the nation – the state chamber took out an ad with the teachers’ unions opposing a school-voucher initiative for families in inner cities. The ad was withdrawn only after pro-school reform business members hollered in protest. Last summer taxpayers revolted when Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine called for a $1.5 billion hike in the sales tax; but “the chamber and other business groups sat on their hands in order to avoid making enemies with the legislature,” notes Frayda Levin, New Jersey director of Americans for Prosperity. In Oklahoma the state chamber filed a petition with the state Supreme Court to block eminent domain reform, and vowed to fight a taxpayer-led movement to enact a Colorado-style Tabor. Massachusetts? The state chamber and allied business groups oppose an income tax cut.

Proposed Hedge Fund Regulations Would Limit Options for All but the Rich

The nanny-state mentality of the Bush Administration and its appointees shows no sign of abating. The latest farce comes from the Securities and Exchange Commission, which want to prohibit all but the very wealthy from taking advantage of successful hedge fund investing. Richard Rahn comments in the Washington Times:

Financial regulation is most often justified by arguing it is needed to protect all participants from those who would engage in fraud or theft, and to protect unsophisticated investors from losing money in investments they do not understand. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has just proposed that the amount of liquid net worth an individual must have before investing in hedge funds and other so-called risky investments be raised to as much as $2.5 million. People meeting a net liquid worth requirement are considered “accredited investors.” …Even though most people would agree it is important to try to protect “widows and orphans” from unscrupulous and/or incompetent financial promoters, there is a fine line between protecting those who need protection and denying freedom to those who don’t. Does it make sense to prohibit a person who has recently obtained a graduate degree in finance from a leading business school from buying and selling hedge funds, because he or she has not yet accumulated some arbitrary amount of wealth – while legally allowing any adult man or woman to take all of his or her wealth and go to Las Vegas and blow it at the gambling tables?

America’s High Corporate Tax Rate Hurts Competitiveness

As other developed nations race to cut corporate tax rates in order to attract jobs and investment, politicians in the United States are sitting on their hands. Kevin Hasset of the American Enterprise Institute explains how this hurts America:

Imagine you are the CEO of a major U.S. manu­facturing company. You are looking to locate a new domestic plant. All other factors being equal, would you locate the plant in the state with the highest taxes? Now, make that question international. Would you locate a plant in a country with high taxes or low? The obvious answer points to a growing eco­nomic problem for the United States. Among the 30 wealthy countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. ranks sec­ond, just below Japan, for the highest combined tax rate (federal and state) on corpo­rate profits. Our position in the world hierarchy is rela­tively new. In 1994, the U.S. ranked 18th. But since then, other nations have been cutting rates—from an average of 37 percent to 28 percent—while the U.S., at 39 percent, has main­tained its high level. …most foreign multinationals are head­quartered in countries that charge taxes only on domestic operations. If a French firm locates a plant in Ireland, then all of the profits of the Irish plant are taxable in Ireland, but are free from French tax­ation. So French firms have an enormous incentive to locate in the country with the lowest taxes they can find. That rules out the United States. …the latest literature suggests that relative tax rates are a big, big deal. Indeed, the dramatic flow of international capital to the lowest tax environment is one of the strongest and most reliable findings in the history of economic science. If a country lowers its rate below its rivals, as Ireland, now with a 12.5 percent rate, began doing more than a decade ago, then multinationals flood that nation with capital. It’s very much in the data. …The status quo—one of the most unfriendly tax policies toward business on earth—is unacceptable to anyone who cares about the future of American industry. No one should be surprised if our best firms continue to flee overseas and if foreign-based firms prefer locating their plants outside America.

What Goes Around Comes Around

Last week’s formal WTO challenge of certain Chinese tax laws by the United States should obviate an important reality. If China is running afoul of its commitments and the United States expects China to make amends, the United States must lead by example. That brings us to the zeroing dispute, with its latest twists and turns.

After much internal deliberation, the Commerce Department announced late last year that it would alter its antidumping calculation methodology by no longer “zeroing” dumping margins under the average-to-average comparison methodology in original investigations (described in this post). This decision was in response to a WTO indictment stemming from a complaint filed by the EC in 2003. January 17, 2007 was to be the effective date of the change, but implementation was postponed at the request of Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), chairs of the Finance and Ways and Means Committees, respectively, who wanted more time to educate Congress about the ruling, the change in practice, and its implications.

Just before the announced postponement, another indictment was issued by the WTO Appellate Body concerning the zeroing practice in a complaint lodged by Japan in 2004. That ruling was much broader in scope, condemning zeroing under almost every conceivable comparison methodology and in both investigations and administrative reviews.

As a result of that latest ruling, the Ways and Means Committee has been soliciting comments from interested parties on how the United States should respond. Congress and the administration are said to be working closely, exploring U.S. options, one of which is simply NOT to comply. 

Noncompliance is a legitimate option, and that is part of the beauty of the rule of trade law within the WTO. Contrary to the view of some of its detractors, the WTO is not world government. It does not impose the will of some faceless bureaucracy on powerless countries. It does not usurp national sovereignty. On the contrary, the WTO is powerless as a stand-alone entity. Its rules are the product of the consensus of its members, and to establish new rules, consensus among all of its 150 members is required. (This helps explain the slow going of the Doha Round and the eight-year duration of the previously-concluded round of multilateral trade talks — the Uruguay Round). Members do not have to comply with rulings, which are always framed in the benign, “sorry-to-trouble-you” tone that “recommends” that rules or laws or measures be brought into conformity with this or that WTO agreement.

Despite this comply-if-you-will approach, the dispute settlement system has endured 12 years and 358 disputes with compliance or mutually-agreed resolution achieved in every case concluded thus far. One reason for this record of success is that, should members choose not to comply, the complainant whose gripe goes unresolved is often entitled to retaliate or “suspend concessions.” This retaliation often takes the form of raising tariffs, but could include other measures. 

Another incentive to comply is that noncompliance could be contagious. It’s nice to have the theoretical option of disregarding the verdict, but exercising that option can be costly and risky. If the United States chooses to ignore the Appellate Body’s findings in the Japanese zeroing case and fails to revise its zeroing practice, the Chinese may be more inclined to take this approach if and when its tax laws are found to violate its WTO commitments. One of the major justifications for encouraging and welcoming China’s membership in the WTO was that membership would improve prospects that Chinese policies going forward would be transparent, predictable, and fair. And that would encourage greater commercial engagement. If China comes to view its WTO obligations as optional, the economics of the trading system and the political support for it will suffer immensely.