Last week, the European Commission issued an inconspicuously looking seven-page note on economic policy coordination, addressed to the European Parliament and the European Council. Although its publication has attracted scarcely any attention, the document has far-reaching implications. The introduction states, in an unapologetic tone, that:
the Commission considers it important that national plans for any major economic policy reforms are assessed and discussed at EU-level before final decisions are taken at the national level. (p. 2, emphasis added)
While European institutions have traditionally been involved in economic policymaking, their mandate is limited to policing compliance with the rules of the common market and those of the monetary union—with mixed results, one would hasten to add.
The wording of last week’s paper goes way beyond that narrow mandate. While it stipulates that “the process should fully respect national decision-making powers,” (p. 5) it would effectively empower European institutions to harass prospective European reformers in countries that decide to join the scheme. Not that many countries would have a choice—for Eurozone members, there would be a binding requirement to participate in this process of “ex ante coordination.”
Even under the most charitable reading, this would create an additional layer of slow-moving bureaucracy with the potential of delaying reforms. And if "windows of opportunity" for specific economic reforms are limited, it would necessarily imply that certain efficiency-enhancing reforms would be derailed. Arguably, if Slovak or Estonian finance ministers had to justify their tax reforms to their counterparts from France or Germany, the flat tax revolution in Eastern Europe would have never happened.
And why should economic reforms be coordinated across Europe at all? Here’s one argument given by the paper:
Product, services and labour market reforms as well as certain tax reforms may affect employment and growth in the implementing Member State, and hence the demand for products and services from other Member States. This is because a reform may also have a positive or negative impact on the reforming Member State's price and non-price competitiveness. (p. 3)
Clearly, cross-border spillovers exist. But the same spillovers exist on a competitive market—whenever a firm changes its strategy or innovates, it can exercise “a positive or negative impact” on sales made by other companies. Yet very few would advocate coordination of innovation or business decisions—partly because the benefits of competition on product or service markets are patently obvious to most people. If anything, the benefits of competition are even more important in the choice of institutions and policies. And that’s why the sneaky power grab by European institutions has to be stopped.
Imagine if the government got to pick your pocket every time you engaged in a financial transaction? That nightmare scenario is a distinct possibility now that senior Democrats have joined with European politicians and urged that such a tax be applied on a worldwide based. Reuters has the disturbing details:
Any tax imposed on financial transactions would have to take effect internationally to keep Wall Street jobs and related business from moving overseas, U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday.
"It would have to be an international rule, not just a U.S. rule," Pelosi said at a news conference. "We couldn't do it alone, we'd have to do it as an international initiative."
Several House Democrats have proposed a Wall Street tax to pay for job-creating legislation they plan to pass in December. The tax, which could raise $150 billion per year, would tap into widespread public outrage at Wall Street in the wake of the financial crisis.
...The No. 4 Democrat in the House, Representative John Larson, said his proposal to impose a 0.25 percent tax on over-the-counter derivatives transactions would apply internationally. "Part of our proposal would include that it would be international," Larson told Reuters after meeting with other lawmakers about the jobs package. Democratic Representative Peter DeFazio said his separate proposal, which would tax a wider array of trading activity, would cover all U.S. corporations and individuals no matter where their trades took place.
...Britain urged other governments earlier this month to consider a bank tax as a way to fund future bailouts, and France and Germany have also called for a bank tax. The International Monetary Fund is studying the idea.
This issue reveals the value of tax competition -- but also its limitations. Pelosi and other collectivists realize that economic activity will migrate to friendlier jurisdictions if if they unilaterally impose this punitive tax. This externally-imposed discipline is why tax competition is a liberalizing force. But competition can be undermined if governments create a cartel, which is exactly what American and European statists would like to see.
Tax competition is an issue that arouses passion on both sides of the debate. Libertarians and other free-market advocates welcome tax competition as a way of restraining the greed of politicians. Governments have lowered tax rates in recent decades, for instance, because politicians are afraid that the geese that lay the golden eggs can fly across the border. But collectivists despise tax competition -- for exactly the same reason. They want investors, entrepreneurs, and companies to passively serve as free vending machines, dispensing never-ending piles of money for politicians. So when a left-wing group puts together a ranking of the world's "top secrecy jurisdictions" in hopes of undermining tax competition, proponents of individual freedom can use that list as a guide to world's most investor-friendly nations. The good news is that an American state, Delaware, is number one on the list. And since being a tax haven is a magnet for investment, this is good news for U.S. competitiveness. The bad news is that American taxpayers are not allowed to benefit from many of Delaware's "tax haven" policies. Here's what a left-wing columnist in the United Kingdom wrote about the issue:
You're a billionaire but you don't want anyone, least of all the taxman, to know. What do you do? Head for a palm-fringed island paradise or a snow-covered Alpine micro-state? Wrong. The world's most opaque jurisdictions – the ones that will best shield you and your cash from the light – are mostly in the heart of the most sophisticated and powerful global financial centres. London, Luxembourg and Zurich are in the top five most secretive jurisdictions, according the first comprehensive index of financial transparency ever compiled. Yet top of the pile, beating the British Virgin Islands, Belize or Liechtenstein as the best place to hide wealth, is Delaware. One of the smallest states in the US, it offers the best protection for anyone who does not want to disclose their identity as a beneficial owner of a company. That is one very good reason why the East Coast state hosts 50% of the US's quoted firms and 650,000 companies – almost equivalent to one company per Delaware resident. ...Delaware – the political power-base of the US vice-president, Joe Biden – offers high levels of banking secrecy and does not make details of trusts, company accounts and beneficial ownership a matter of public record. Delaware also allows companies to re-domicile within its borders with minimal disclosure, and allows the existence of privacy-enhancing "protected cell" or "segregated portfolio" companies, among many other stratagems useful for protecting the identity of those who do business there.
The Democrat's latest plan to raise money for federal health care expansion is to impose surtaxes ranging from 1 percent to 3 percent on higher-income earners.
Currently, the United States is in the middle of the pack of industrial nations when it comes to imposing punitive tax rates on higher earners. The chart shows the top statutory personal income tax rates for the 30 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The current top U.S. rate is 42 percent (including state taxes), which is the same as the 30-nation average. The data is from the OECD.
With the top federal rate scheduled to jump 5 percentage points in 2011, plus the new 3-percent surtax, the top U.S. rate would hit 50 percent. Fifty percent! Half of all additional income earned by the nation's most productive workers and entrepreneurs would be confiscated by the government. America's 50 percent tax rate would be tied with three other nations and would be topped only by the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, and Denmark.
Most politicians and other advocates of tax harmonization are clever enough to pretend that they do not want higher tax rates. Instead, they assert that their proposals are merely ways of reducing evasion and making tax systems more efficient. So it is rather surprising that the Prime Minister of Finland has a column in the Financial Times, where he admits that various governments should conspire to simultaneously raise tax rates in order to finance big government:
The overall tax rate will have to rise as well over the longer term. In some areas that can be done without much consultation between the countries. For example, property taxes or inheritance taxes can largely be determined at the national level without adverse economic consequences. But such taxes will not raise significant amounts of revenue. Only changes in value added tax, various excise taxes or taxes on earned and capital income can make a real difference. However, raising such taxes can have detrimental effects on economic activity. This is especially so when a country acts on its own: capital and people can respond by migrating to jurisdictions with lower rates. Deeper co-operation is therefore necessary if tax revenues are to be increased in a way that truly helps fiscal consolidation. ...It is important that different countries do not find themselves with very different tax solutions. We should avoid tax competition and the damage this would cause to Europe’s economic growth. ...member countries could agree, for example, to change the levels of certain taxes in parallel. Parallel measures would help all of Europe: tax competition risk would be reduced and the public finances of individual countries would improve. Such co-ordinated tax changes could set also an important global example. In particular, it might encourage the US – with lower tax levels in most areas – to do what has to be done to address its spiralling budget deficit.
In the column, Prime Minister Vanhanen even suggests that the United States might be tempted to join the tax cartel. This has always been a goal of the Europeans since an OPEC for politicians without the United States will not work any better than the real OPEC without Saudi Arabia. One of my first videos -- back in late 2007 -- was on this topic, and it is embedded below for those who did not have a chance to view it.
The Baltic nation of Latvia is in the middle of a serious economic downturn resulting largely from a credit bubble and excessive government spending. This created an opening for those who have long wanted to undo the nation's flat tax and impose a discriminatory system. Indeed, the economic Luddites at the Tax Research Network were already celebrating the expected demise of the single-rate tax. Unfortunately for them (but fortunately for Latvians), the government made a stunning announcement that the flat tax will be retained according to Reuters:
Latvia's government is to reduce old age pensions and state sector salaries but not raise taxes, it said on Thursday as it tries to win more loans and avert crisis and possible currency devaluation. The five-party coalition government agreed with social partners such as unions and employers on ways to find savings of 500 million lats ($1.01 billion) to win further loans from the International Monetary Fund and European Union, which are seen as the only way to survive a deep economic slump. "It was a difficult decision and it will not be popular but it had to be done," Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis told reporters after a marathon and sometimes chaotic government session of almost 12 hours. "Our decision is sending a signal to the EU that we are serious," he added. Against expectations, the government decided against introducing a progressive income tax for the first time to replace the current flat tax of 23 percent. The moves will include a cut in old age pensions of 10 percent, a whopping 70 percent cut in the pensions of those who still work, and a 20 percent cut in state sector salaries.
To be sure, this may not be the last word on this issue. Latvian politicians eventually may decide to undo the flat tax. Or perhaps Iceland's new left-wing government may be the first nation to backslide to a so-called progressive tax system. Regular readers of the blog may recall that we have a theme song that we include every time there is an announcement of a new flat tax nation. In preparation for bad news, we have selected a theme song for when a nation decides to go in the wrong direction.
Cato’s tax experts, Chris Edwards and Dan Mitchell, have written extensively on international tax competition. Their research shows that countries can help attract investment and spur economic growth by lowering their tax rates.
Could countries employ this same strategy to make their sports teams better?
Real Madrid, one of the most popular and successful soccer teams in the world, recently purchased the rights to two of the sport’s top players. They acquired Kaka, who was named the world’s best soccer player in 2007, from Italian powerhouse, AC Milan. And they lured Cristiano Ronaldo, the world’s top player in 2008, away from Manchester United, the reigning champions of the English Premier League.
There are a number of reasons why Kaka and Ronaldo are moving to Spain, but it’s pretty clear that taxes played a significant role. That’s because in 2005, Spain passed a tax break for foreign workers, including soccer players. This gives Spanish teams a huge advantage in bidding wars with teams from higher-tax countries like Italy and England. To make matters worse, England recently raised its top income tax rate.
"The new tax rate in England is going to make things much harder for English clubs," noted Jonathan Barnett, a leading sports agent whose clients include Glen Johnson, Ashley Cole and Peter Crouch. "It will hinder the [English] Premier League and help the Spanish league because Spain has big tax discounts for footballers, so there's an enormous advantage to go there. Someone like Ronaldo could be offered the same money at Real Madrid but be 25% better off."
Similarly, a frustrated executive from AC Milan blames Kaka’s departure on the Italian tax system: "I repeat, this is all a matter of different types of taxation. If we were a Spanish club, we would have saved €40 million."
Policymakers and soccer fans alike should take note.