Partisans can argue whether Clinton actually deserves the credit for these good results, but I'm just happy we got better policy. Heck, Clinton was a lot more akin to Reagan that Obama, as this Michael Ramirez cartoon suggests.
Moreover, Clinton also has been the source of some very good political humor, some of which you can enjoy here, here, here, here, and here.
Most recently, he even made some constructive comments about corporate taxation and fiscal sovereignty.
Here are the relevant excerpts from a report in the Irish Examiner.
It is up to the US government to reform the country’s corporate tax system because the international trend is moving to the Irish model of low corporate rate with the burden on consumption taxes, said the former US president Bill Clinton. Moreover, ...he said. “Ireland has the right to set whatever taxes you want.” ...The international average is now 23% but the US tax rate has not changed. “...We need to reform our corporate tax rate, not to the same level as Ireland but it needs to come down.”
Kudos to Clinton for saying America's corporate tax rate "needs to come down," though you could say that's the understatement of the year. The United States has the highest corporate tax rate among the 30-plus nations in the industrialized world. And we rank even worse—94th out of 100 countries according to a couple of German economists—when you look at details of how corporate income is calculated.
And I applaud anyone who supports the right of low-tax nations to have competitive tax policy. This is a real issue in Europe. I noted back in 2010 that, "The European Commission originally wanted to require a minimum corporate tax rate of 45 percent. And as recently as 1992, there were an effort to require a minimum corporate tax rate of 30 percent." And the pressure remains today, with Germany wanting to coerce Ireland into hiking its corporate rate and the OECD pushing to undermine Ireland's corporate tax system.
All that being said—and before anyone accuses me of having a man-crush on Bill and/or of being delusional—let me now issue some very important caveats.
When Clinton says we should increase "the burden on consumption taxes," that almost surely means he would like to see a value-added tax.
This would be a terrible idea, even if at first the revenue was used to finance a lower corporate tax rate. Simply stated, it would just be a matter of time before the politicians figured out how to use the VAT as a money machine to finance bigger government.
Indeed, it's no coincidence that the welfare state in Europe exploded in the late 1960s/early 1970s, which was also the time when the VAT was being implemented. And it's also worth noting that VAT rates in recent years have jumped significantly in both Europe and Japan.
Moreover, Clinton's position on fiscal sovereignty has been very weak in the past. It was during his tenure, after all, that the OECD—with active support from the Clinton Treasury Department—launched its "harmful tax competition" attack against so-called tax havens.
In other words, he still has a long way to go if he wants to become an Adjunct Fellow at the Cato Institute.
P.S. Just in case anyone want to claim that the 1993 Clinton tax hike deserves credit for any of the good things that happened in the 1990s, look at this evidence before embarrassing yourself.
P.P.S. There's very little reason to think that Hillary Clinton would be another Bill Clinton.
We definitely have the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world, and we may have the highest corporate tax rate in the entire world depending on how one chooses to classify the tax regime in an obscure oil Sheikdom.
But America's bad policy goes far beyond the rate structure. We also have a very punitive policy of "worldwide taxation" that forces American firms to pay an extra layer of tax when competing for market share in other nations.
And then we have rampant double taxation of both dividends and capital gains, which discourages business investment.
No wonder a couple of German economists ranked America 94 out of 100 nations when measuring the overall treatment of business income.
So if you're an American company, how do you deal with all this bad policy?
Well, one solution is to engage in a lot of clever tax planning to minimize your taxable income. Although that's probably not a successful long-term strategy because the Obama Administration is supporting a plan by European politicians to create further disadvantages for American-based companies.
Another option is to somehow turn yourself into a foreign corporation. You won't be surprised to learn that politicians have imposed punitive anti-expatriation laws to make that difficult, but the crowd in Washington hasn't figured out how to stop cross-border mergers and acquisitions.
And it seems that's a very effective way of escaping America's worldwide tax regime. Let's look at some excerpts from a story posted by CNBC.
Some of the biggest mergers and acquisitions so far in 2013 have involved so-called "tax inversions" – where a US acquirer shifts overseas, to Europe in particular, to pay a lower rate.
The article then lists a bunch of examples. Here's Example #1.
Michigan-based pharmaceuticals group Perrigo has said its acquisition of Irish biotech company Elan will lead to re-domiciling in Ireland, where it has given guidance it expects to pay about 17 per cent in tax, rather than an estimated 30 per cent rate it was paying in the US. Deutsche Bank estimates Perrigo will achieve tax savings of $118m a year as a result.
And Example #2.
New Jersey-based Actavis's acquisition of Warner Chilcott in May – will also result in a move to Ireland, where Actavis's tax rate will fall to about 17 per cent from an effective rate of 28 per cent tax, and enable it to save an estimated $150m over the next two years.
Then Example #3.
US advertising company Omnicom has said its $35bn merger with Publicis will result in the combined group's headquarters being located in the Netherlands, saving about $80m in US tax a year.
Last but not least, Example #4.
Liberty Global's $23bn acquisition of Virgin Media will allow the US cable group to relocate to the UK, and pay its lower 21 per cent tax rate of corporation tax.
And we can expect more of these inversions in the future.
[Mergers and acquisitions] advisers say the number of companies seeking to re-domicile outside the US after a takeover is rising. ...Increased use of tax inversion has coincided with an intensifying political debate on US tax – with Democrats, Republicans and the White House agreeing that the current code, which imposes a top rate of 35 per cent but offers a plethora of tax breaks, is in need of reform.
I'll close with a very important point.
It's not true that the current code has a "plethora of tax breaks." Or, to be more specific, there are lots of tax breaks, but the ones that involve lots of money are part of the personal income tax, such as the state and local tax deduction, the mortgage interest deduction, the charitable contributions deduction, the muni-bond exemption, and the fringe benefits exclusion.
There are some corrupt loopholes in the corporate income tax, to be sure, such as the ethanol credit for Big Ag and housing credits for politically well-connected developers. But if you look at the Joint Committee on Taxation's list of so-called tax expenditures and correct for their flawed definition of income, it turns out that there's not much room to finance a lower tax rate by getting rid of unjustified tax breaks.
So does this mean there's no way of fixing the problems that cause tax inversions?
If lawmakers put themselves in the straitjacket of "static scoring" as practiced by the Joint Committee on Taxation, then a solution is very unlikely.
But if they choose to look at the evidence, they'll see that there are big Laffer-Curve effects from better tax policy. A study from the American Enterprise Institute found that the revenue-maximizing corporate tax rate is about 25 percent while more recent research from the Tax Foundation puts the revenue-maximizing tax rate for companies closer to 15 percent.
I should hasten to add that the tax code shouldn't be designed to maximize revenues. But when tax rates are punitively high, even a cranky libertarian like me won't get too agitated if politicians wind up with more money as a result of lowering tax rates.
You might think that's a win-win situation. Folks on the right support lower tax rates to get more growth and folks on the left support the same policy to raise more tax revenue.
But there's at least one person on Washington who wants high tax rates even if they don't raise additional revenue.
What's the biggest fiscal problem facing the developed world?
To an objective observer, the answer is a rising burden of government spending, which is caused by poorly designed entitlement programs, growing levels of dependency, and unfavorable demographics. The combination of these factors helps to explain why almost all industrialized nations—as confirmed by BIS, OECD, and IMF data—face a very grim fiscal future.
If lawmakers want to avert widespread Greek-style fiscal chaos and economic suffering, this suggests genuine entitlement reform and other steps to control the growth of the public sector.
But you probably won't be surprised to learn that politicians instead are concocting new ways of extracting more money from the economy's productive sector.
They've already been busy raising personal income tax rates and increasing value-added tax burdens, but that's apparently not sufficient for our greedy overlords.
Now they want higher taxes on business. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, for instance, put together a "base erosion and profit shifting" plan at the behest of the high-tax governments that dominate and control the Paris-based bureaucracy.
What is this BEPS plan? In an editorial titled "Global Revenue Grab," The Wall Street Journal explains that it's a scheme to raise tax burdens on the business community:
After five years of failing to spur a robust economic recovery through spending and tax hikes, the world's richest countries have hit upon a new idea that looks a lot like the old: International coordination to raise taxes on business. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on Friday presented its action plan to combat what it calls "base erosion and profit shifting," or BEPS. This is bureaucratese for not paying as much tax as government wishes you did. The plan bemoans the danger of "double non-taxation," whatever that is, and even raises the specter of "global tax chaos" if this bogeyman called BEPS isn't tamed. Don't be fooled, because this is an attempt to limit corporate global tax competition and take more cash out of the private economy.
The Journal is spot on. This is merely the latest chapter in the OECD's anti-tax competition crusade. The bureaucracy represents the interests of
high-tax governments that are seeking to impose higher tax burdens—a goal that will be easier to achieve if they can restrict the ability of taxpayers to benefit from better tax policy in other jurisdictions.
More specifically, the OECD basically wants a radical shift in international tax rules so that multinational companies are forced to declare more income in high-tax nations even though those firms have wisely structured their operations so that much of their income is earned in low-tax jurisdictions.
So does this mean that governments are being starved of revenue? Not surprisingly, there's no truth to the argument that corporate tax revenue is disappearing:
Across the OECD, corporate-tax revenue has fluctuated between 2% and 3% of GDP and was 2.7% in 2011, the most recent year for published OECD data. In other words, for all the huffing and puffing, there is no crisis of corporate tax collection. The deficits across the developed world are the product of slow economic growth and overspending, not tax evasion. But none of this has stopped the OECD from offering its 15-point plan to increase the cost and complexity of complying with corporate-tax rules. ...this will be another full employment opportunity for lawyers and accountants.
I made similar points, incidentally, when debunking Jeffrey Sachs' assertion that tax competition has caused a "race to the bottom."
The WSJ editorial makes the logical argument that governments with uncompetitive tax regimes should lower tax rates and reform punitive tax systems:
...the OECD plan also envisions a possible multinational treaty to combat the fictional plague of tax avoidance. This would merely be an opportunity for big countries with uncompetitive tax rates (the U.S., France and Japan) to squeeze smaller countries that use low rates to attract investment and jobs. Here's an alternative: What if everyone moved toward lower rates and simpler tax codes, with fewer opportunities for gamesmanship and smaller rate disparities among countries?
The piece also makes the obvious—but often overlooked—point that any taxes imposed on companies are actually paid by workers, consumers, and shareholders.
...corporations don't pay taxes anyway. They merely collect taxes—from customers via higher prices, shareholders in lower returns, or employees in lower wages and benefits.
Last but not least, the WSJ correctly frets that politicians will now try to implement this misguided blueprint:
The G-20 finance ministers endorsed the OECD scheme on the weekend, and heads of government are due to take it up in St. Petersburg in early September. But if growth is their priority, as they keep saying it is, they'll toss out this complex global revenue grab in favor of low rates, territorial taxes and simplicity. Every page of the OECD's plan points in the opposite direction.
The folks at the Wall Street Journal are correct to worry, but they're actually understating the problem. Yes, the BEPS plan is bad, but it's actually much less onerous that what the OECD was contemplating earlier this year when the bureaucracy published a report suggesting a "global apportionment" system for business taxation.
Fortunately, the bureaucrats had to scale back their ambitions. Multinational companies objected to the OECD plan, as did the governments of nations with better (or at least less onerous) business tax structures.
It makes no sense, after all, for places such as the Netherlands, Ireland, Singapore, Estonia, Hong Kong, Bermuda, Switzerland, and the Cayman Islands to go along with a scheme that would enable high-tax governments to tax corporate income that is earned in these lower-tax jurisdictions.
But the fact that high-tax governments (and their lackeys at the OECD) scaled back their demands is hardly reassuring when one realizes that the current set of demands will be the stepping stone for the next set of demands.
That's why it's important to resist this misguided BEPS plan. It's not just that it's a bad idea. It's also the precursor to even worse policy.
As I often say when speaking to audiences in low-tax jurisdictions, an appeasement strategy doesn't make sense when dealing with politicians and bureaucrats from high-tax nations.
Simply stated, you don't feed your arm to an alligator and expect him to become a vegetarian. It's far more likely that he'll show up the next day looking for another meal.
P.S. The OECD also is involved in a new "multilateral convention" that would give it the power to dictate national tax laws, and it has the support of the Obama administration even though this new scheme would undermine America's fiscal sovereignty!
P.P.S. Maybe the OECD wouldn't be so quick to endorse higher taxes if the bureaucrats—who receive tax-free salaries—had to live under the rules they want to impose on others.
I never thought I would wind up in Costco's monthly magazine, but I was asked to take part in a pro-con debate on "Should offshore tax havens be illegal?"
Given my fervent (and sometimes risky) support of tax competition, financial privacy, and fiscal sovereignty, regular readers won't be surprised to learn that I jumped at the opportunity.
After all, if I'm willing to take part in a debate on tax havens for the upper-income folks who read the New York Times, I should do the same thing for the middle-class folks who patronize big-box stores.
My main argument was that we need tax havens to help control the greed of the political elite. Simply stated, politicians rarely think past the next election, so they'll tax and spend until we suffer a catastrophic Greek-style fiscal collapse unless there's some sort of external check and balance.
...politicians have an unfortunate tendency to over-spend and over-tax. ...And if they over-tax and over-spend for a long period, then you suffer the kind of fiscal crisis that we now see in so many European nations. That’s not what any of us want, but how can we restrain politicians? There’s no single answer, but “tax competition” is one of the most effective ways of controlling the greed of the political elite. ...Nations with pro-growth tax systems, such as Switzerland and Singapore, attract jobs and investment from uncompetitive countries such as France and Germany. These “tax havens” force the politicians in Paris and Berlin to restrain their greed. Some complain that these low-tax jurisdictions make it hard for high-tax nations to enforce their punitive tax laws. But why should the jurisdictions with good policy, such as the Cayman Islands, be responsible for enforcing the tax law of governments that impose bad policy?
I also made the point that the best way to undermine tax havens is to make our tax system fair and reasonable with something like a flat tax.
...the best way to reduce tax evasion is lower tax rates and tax reform. If the United States had a flat tax, for instance, we would enjoy much faster growth and we would attract trillions of dollars of new investment.
And I concluded by pointing out that there are other very important moral reasons why people need financial privacy.
In addition to promoting good fiscal policy, tax havens also help protect human rights. ...To cite just a few examples, tax havens offer secure financial services to political dissidents in Russia, ethnic Chinese in Indonesia and the Philippines, Jews in North Africa, gays in Iran, and farmers in Zimbabwe. The moral of the story is that tax havens should be celebrated, not persecuted.
And what did my opponent, Chye-Ching Huang from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, have to say about the issue? To her credit, she was open and honest about wanting to finance bigger government. And she recognizes that tax competition is an obstacle to the statist agenda.
It drains the United States of tax revenues that could be used to reduce deficits or invested in critical needs, including education, healthcare, and infrastructure.
She also didn't shy away from wanting to give the scandal-plagued IRS more power and money.
U.S. policymakers could and should act... Policymakers could provide the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) with the funding it needs to ensure that people pay the taxes they owe, including sufficient funds to detect filers who are using offshore accounts to avoid paying their taxes.
Her other big point was to argue against corporate tax reforms.
...a "territorial" tax system...would further drain revenues, and domestic businesses and individual taxpayers could end up shouldering the burden of making up the difference.
Given that the United States has the highest statutory tax rate for companies in the industrialized world and ranks only 94 out of 100 nations for business "tax attractiveness," I obviously disagree with her views.
And I think she's wildly wrong to think that tax havens lead to higher taxes for ordinary citizens. Heck, even the New York Times inadvertently admitted that's not true.
In any event, I think both of us had a good opportunity to make our points, so kudos to Costco for exposing shoppers to the type of public finance discussion that normally is limited to pointy-headed policy wonks in sparsely attended Washington conferences.
That's the good news.
The bad news is that I don't think I'm going to prevail in Costco's online poll. It's not that I made weak arguments, but the question wound up being altered from "Should offshore tax havens be illegal?" to "Should offshore bank accounts be taxable?"
So I imagine the average reader will think this is a debate on whether they should be taxed on their account at the bank down the street while some rich guy isn't taxed on his account at a bank in Switzerland.
Heck, even I would be sorely tempted to click "Yes" if that was the issue.
In reality, I don't think any of our bank accounts should be taxable (whether they're in Geneva, Switzerland or Geneva, Illinois) for the simple reason that there shouldn't be any double taxation of income that is saved and invested.
The folks at Costco should have stuck with the original question (at least the way it was phrased to me in the email they sent), or come up with something such as "Are tax havens good for the global economy?"
But just as you can't un-ring a bell, I can't change Costco's question, so I'm not holding my breath expecting to win this debate.
P.S. I just returned from FreedomFest in Las Vegas, where I just debated Jim Henry of the Tax Justice Network on the same topic. I should have asked him what he though of all the politically connected leftists who utilize tax havens.
P.P.S. If you like tax haven debates, here are Part I and Part II of a very civilized debate I had with a young lady from the Task Force on Financial Integrity and Economic Development.
P.P.P.S. Maybe I haven't looked hard enough, but I don't have any tax haven-oriented cartoons to share other than one that compares where Romney put his money to where Obama puts our money.
I've relentlessly complained that the United States has the highest corporate tax rate among all developed nations.
And if you look at all the world's countries, our status is still very dismal. According to the Economist, we have the second highest corporate tax rate, exceeded only by the United Arab Emirates.
But some people argue that the statutory tax rate can be very misleading because of all the other policies that impact the actual tax burden on companies.
That's a very fair point, so I was very interested to see that a couple of economists at a German think tank put together a "tax attractiveness" ranking based on 16 different variables. The statutory tax rate is one of the measures, of course, but they also look at policies such as "the taxation of dividends and capital gains, withholding taxes, the existence of a group taxation regime, loss offset provision, the double tax treaty network, thin capitalization rules, and controlled foreign company (CFC) rules."
It turns out that these additional variables can make a big difference in the overall attractiveness of a nation's corporate tax regime. As you can see from this list of top-10 and bottom-10 nations, the United Arab Emirates has one of the world's most attractive corporate tax systems, notwithstanding having the highest corporate tax rate.
Unfortunately, the United States remains mired near the bottom.
The "good news" is that we beat out Argentina and Venezuela, two of the world's most corrupt and despotic nations.
Not surprisingly, so-called tax havens dominate the top spots in the ranking. And that's the case even though financial privacy laws are not part of the equation.
Here are all the scores from the report. They listed nations in alphabetical order, so it's not very user-friendly if you want to make comparisons. But a simple rule-of-thumb is that any score about .6000 is relatively good and any score below .4000 suggests a country is shooting itself in the foot.
For what it's worth, Switzerland, Singapore, and Estonia exceed the .6000 threshold, as one might expect, but I was surprised that both Hong Kong and Liechtenstein were in the middle of the pack. Heck, both nations scored worse than France!
But that gives me an opportunity to issue a very important caveat. It's good to have an attractive corporate tax system, but there are dozens of other factors that help determine a nation's prosperity and competitiveness. Indeed, fiscal policy is only 20 percent of a country's score in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings. So not only is it important to also look at other tax policies and the overall burden of government spending to gauge a nation's fiscal policy, you also need to look at other big factors such as monetary policy, trade policy, and regulatory policy.
As such, even though it's galling that the American corporate tax system ranks below France (and Italy, Greece, Ukraine, Nigeria, etc), the United States fortunately does better in most other areas. That being said, I'm quite worried that we've dropped from 3rd place in the overall Economic Freedom of the World rankings when Bill Clinton left office to 18th place in the most recent rankings, so the trend obviously isn't very encouraging.
Another caveat to keep in mind that the rankings are for 2005-2009, so some nations will have moved up or down since then. I would be very surprised, for instance, if Cyprus was still in the top 10. And it's quite like that the U.S. score dropped as well, thanks to the tax increases in Obamacare and the "fiscal cliff" deal.
P.S. I've never seen a ranking of nations based solely on personal income taxes, but the Liberales Institut in Switzerland put together a "Tax Oppression Index" for industrialized nations and the United States scored 19th out of 30 nations in that measure of how individual taxpayers are treated.
Earlier this month, I explained four reasons why the Apple "tax avoidance" issue is empty political demagoguery.
And Rand Paul gave some great remarks at a Senate hearing, excoriating some of his colleagues for trying to pillage the company.
But this Robert Ariail cartoon may be the best summary of the issue.
What makes this cartoon so effective is that it properly and cleverly identifies what's really driving the political class on this issue. They want more revenue to finance a bigger burden of government spending.
When I did my contest for best political cartoonist, I picked a cartoon about Greece and euro for Robert Ariail's entry. While I still think that was a very good cartoon, this Apple cartoon would probably take its place if I did a new contest.
I have to start this post with a big caveat.
I'm not a fan of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The international bureaucracy is infamous for using American tax dollars to promote a statist economic agenda. Most recently, it launched a new scheme to raise the tax burden on multinational companies, which is really just a backdoor way of saying that the OECD (and the high-tax nations that it represents) wants higher taxes on workers, consumers, and shareholders. But the OECD's anti-market agenda goes much deeper.
- The OECD has allied itself with the so-called Occupy movement to push for bigger government and higher taxes.
- The OECD, in an effort to promote redistributionism, has concocted absurdly misleading statistics claiming that there is more poverty in the United States than in Greece, Hungary, Portugal, or Turkey.
- The OECD is pushing a “Multilateral Convention” that is designed to become something akin to a World Tax Organization, with the power to persecute nations with free-market tax policy.
- The OECD supports Obama’s class-warfare agenda, publishing documents endorsing “higher marginal tax rates” so that the so-called rich “contribute their fair share.”
- The OECD advocates the value-added tax based on the absurd notion that increasing the burden of government is good for growth and employment.
Now that there's no ambiguity about my overall position, I can admit that the OECD isn't always on the wrong side. Much of the bad policy comes from its committee system, which brings together bureaucrats from member nations.
The OECD also has an economics department, and they sometimes produce good work. Most recently, they produced a report on the Swiss tax system that contains some very sound analysis, including a rejection of Obama-style class warfare and a call to lower income tax burdens.
Shifting the taxation of income to the taxation of consumption may be beneficial for boosting economic activity (Johansson et al., 2008 provide evidence across OECD economies). These benefits may be bigger if personal income taxes are lowered rather than social security contributions, because personal income tax also discourages entrepreneurial activity and investment more broadly.
I somewhat disagree with the assertion that payroll taxes do more damage than VAT taxes. They both drive a wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption. But the point about income taxes is right on the mark.
Evidence also suggests that tax autonomy may lead to a smaller and more efficient public sector, helping to limit the tax burden and improve tax compliance... Efficiency-raising effects of tax autonomy and tax competition on the public sector have also been reported in empirical research with Norwegian and German data... Tax autonomy generates opportunities to choose the level of public service provision and taxation, although in practice such “voting with your feet” seems mostly limited to young, highly educated and high-income households. Decentralised tax setting also fosters benchmarking of the performance of jurisdictions belonging to the same government level by voters, even in the absence of “voting with your feet”.
The report also notes that tax competition has reduced corporate tax rates.
Tax competition is likely to have contributed significantly to lowering corporate tax rates in Switzerland over the past 25 years. Indeed, empirical evidence shows that the responsiveness of sub-national governments to tax changes of other subnational governments (“tax mimicking”) is the strongest in the case of corporate taxation (Blöchliger and Pinero Campos, 2011). ...Progressive corporate income taxes harm incentives for businesses to grow. Since growing businesses are likely to be high performers in terms of productivity, such disincentives are likely to hit high-performing businesses the most, with losses to aggregate productivity performance, which has been modest in Switzerland relative to best-performing high-income countries.
P.S.: This isn't the first time the economists at the OECD have broken ranks with the political hacks that generally control the bureaucracy. In a 1998 Economic Outlook (see page 166) they wrote that "the ability to choose the location of economic activity offsets shortcomings in government budgeting processes, limiting a tendency to spend and tax excessively." And in another publication (see page 1), the economists noted that "legal tax avoidance can be reduced by closing loopholes and illegal tax evasion can be contained by better enforcement of tax codes. But the root of the problem appears in many cases to be high tax rates." These passages sound like they could have been authored by Pierre Bessard!
P.P.S.: I hasten to add that none of this justifies handouts from American taxpayers to the Paris-based bureaucracy any more than occasional bits of rationality from the World Bank (on government spending), IMF (on the Laffer Curve), or United Nations (also on the Laffer Curve) justify subsidies to those organizations.