August 26, 2016 3:15PM

The European Commission’s War against Pro‐​Growth Corporate Tax Policy

I have a love-hate relationship with corporations.

On the plus side, I admire corporations that efficiently and effectively compete by producing valuable goods and services for consumers, and I aggressively defend those firms from politicians who want to impose harmful and destructive forms of taxes, regulation, and intervention.

On the minus side, I am disgusted by corporations that get in bed with politicians to push policies that undermine competition and free markets, and I strongly oppose all forms of cronyism and coercion that give big firms unearned and undeserved wealth.

With this in mind, let's look at two controversies from the field of corporate taxation, both involving the European Commission (the EC is the Brussels-based bureaucracy that is akin to an executive branch for the European Union).

First, there's a big fight going on between the U.S. Treasury Department and the EC. As reported by Bloomberg, it's a battle over whether European governments should be able to impose higher tax burdens on American-domiciled multinationals.

The U.S. is stepping up its effort to convince the European Commission to refrain from hitting Apple Inc. and other companies with demands for possibly billions of euros... In a white paper released Wednesday, the Treasury Department in Washington said the Brussels-based commission is taking on the role of a “supra-national tax authority” that has the scope to threaten global tax reform deals. ...The commission has initiated investigations into tax rulings that Apple, Starbucks Corp., Amazon.com Inc. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. received in separate EU nations. U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew has written previously that the investigations appear “to be targeting U.S. companies disproportionately.” The commission’s spokesman said Wednesday that EU law “applies to all companies operating in Europe -- there is no bias against U.S. companies.”

As you can imagine, I have a number of thoughts about this spat.

  • First, don't give the Obama Administration too much credit for being on the right side of the issue. The Treasury Department is motivated in large part by a concern that higher taxes imposed by European governments would mean less ability to collect tax by the U.S. government.
  • Second, complaints by the US about a "supra-national tax authority" are extremely hypocritical since the Obama White House has signed the Protocol to the Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters, which effectively would create a nascent World Tax Organization (the pact is thankfully being blocked by Senator Rand Paul).
  • Third, hypocrisy by the US doesn't change the fact that the European Commission bureaucrats are in the wrong because their argument is based on the upside-down notion that low tax burdens are a form of "state aid."
  • Fourth, Europeans are in the wrong because the various national governments should simply adjust their "transfer pricing" rules if they think multinational companies are playing games to under-state profits in high-tax nations and over-state profits in low-tax nations.
  • Fifth, the Europeans are in the wrong because low corporate tax rates are the best way to curtail unproductive forms of tax avoidance.
  • Sixth, some European nations are in the wrong if they don't allow domestic companies to enjoy the low tax rates imposed on multinational firms.

Since we're on the topic of corporate tax rates and the European Commission, let's shift from Brussels to Geneva and see an example of good tax policy in action. Here are some excerpts from a Bloomberg report about how a Swiss canton is responding in the right way to an attack by the EC.

When the European Union pressured Switzerland to scrap tax breaks for foreign companies, Geneva had most to lose. Now, the canton that’s home to almost 1,000 multinationals is set to use tax to burnish its appeal. Geneva will on Aug. 30 propose cutting its corporate tax rate to 13.49 percent from 24.2 percent...the new regime will improve the Swiss city’s competitive position, according to Credit Suisse Group AG. “I could see Geneva going up very high in the ranks,” said Thierry Boitelle, a lawyer at Bonnard Lawson in the city. ...A rate of about 13 percent would see Geneva jump 13 places to become the third-most attractive of Switzerland’s 26 cantons.

This puts a big smile on my face.

Geneva is basically doing the same thing Ireland did many years ago when it also was attacked by Brussels for having a very low tax rate on multinational firms while taxing domestic firms at a higher rate.

The Irish responded to the assault by implementing a very low rate for all businesses, regardless of whether they were local firms or global firms. And the Irish economy benefited immensely.

Now it's happening again, which must be very irritating for the bureaucrats in Brussels since the attack on Geneva (just like the attack on Ireland) was designed to force tax rates higher rather than lower.

As a consequence, in one fell swoop, Geneva will now be one of the most competitive cantons in Switzerland.

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Here's another reason I'm smiling.

The Geneva reform will put even more pressure on the tax-loving French.

France, which borders the canton to the south, east and west, has a tax rate of 33.33 percent... Within Europe, Geneva’s rate would only exceed a number of smaller economies such as Ireland’s 12.5 percent and Montenegro, which has the region’s lowest rate of 9 percent. That will mean Geneva competes with Ireland, the Netherlands and the U.K. as a low-tax jurisdiction.

Though the lower tax rate in Geneva is not a sure thing.

We'll have to see if local politicians follow through on this announcement. And there also may be a challenge from left-wing voters, something made possible by Switzerland's model of direct democracy.

Opposition to the new rate from left-leaning political parties will probably trigger a referendum as it would only require 500 signatures.

Though I suspect the "sensible Swiss" of Geneva will vote the right way, at least if the results from an adjoining canton are any indication.

In a March plebiscite in the neighboring canton of Vaud, 87.1 percent of voters backed cutting the corporate tax rate to 13.79 percent from 21.65 percent.

So I fully expect voters in Geneva will make a similarly wise choice, especially since they are smart enough to realize that high tax rates won't collect much money if the geese with the golden eggs fly away.

Failure to agree on a competitive tax rate in Geneva could result in an exodus of multinationals, cutting cantonal revenues by an even greater margin, said Denis Berdoz, a partner at Baker & McKenzie in Geneva, who specializes in tax and corporate law. “They don’t really have a choice,” said Berdoz. “If the companies leave, the loss could be much higher.”

In other words, the Laffer Curve exists.

Now let's understand why the development in Geneva is a good thing (and why the EC effort to impose higher taxes on US-based multinational is a bad thing).

Simply stated, high corporate tax burdens are bad for workers and the overall economy.

In a recent column for the Wall Street Journal, Kevin Hassett and Aparna Mathur of the American Enterprise Institute consider the benefits of a less punitive corporate tax system.

They start with the theoretical case.

If the next president has a plan to increase wages that is based on well-documented and widely accepted empirical evidence, he should have little trouble finding bipartisan support. ...Fortunately, such a plan exists. ...both parties should unite and demand a cut in corporate tax rates. The economic theory behind this proposition is uncontroversial. More productive workers earn higher wages. Workers become more productive when they acquire better skills or have better tools. Lower corporate rates create the right incentives for firms to give workers better tools.

Then they unload a wealth of empirical evidence.

What proof is there that lower corporate rates equal higher wages? Quite a lot. In 2006 we co-wrote the first empirical study on the direct link between corporate taxes and manufacturing wages. ...Our empirical analysis, which used data we gathered on international tax rates and manufacturing wages in 72 countries over 22 years, confirmed that the corporate tax is for the most part paid by workers. ...There has since been a profusion of research that confirms that workers suffer when corporate tax rates are higher. In a 2007 paper Federal Reserve economist Alison Felix used data from the Luxembourg Income Study, which tracks individual incomes across 30 countries, to show that a 10% increase in corporate tax rates reduces wages by about 7%. In a 2009 paper Ms. Felix found similar patterns across the U.S., where states with higher corporate tax rates have significantly lower wages. ...Harvard University economists Mihir Desai, Fritz Foley and Michigan’s James R. Hines have studied data from American multinational firms, finding that their foreign affiliates tend to pay significantly higher wages in countries with lower corporate tax rates. A study by Nadja Dwenger, Pia Rattenhuber and Viktor Steiner found similar patterns across German regions... Canadian economists Kenneth McKenzie and Ergete Ferede. They found that wages in Canadian provinces drop by more than a dollar when corporate tax revenue is increased by a dollar.

So what's the moral of the story?

It's very simple.

...higher wages are relatively easy to stimulate for a nation. One need only cut corporate tax rates. Left and right leaning countries have done this over the past two decades, including Japan, Canada and Germany. Yet in the U.S. we continue to undermine wage growth with the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world.

The Tax Foundation echoes this analysis, noting that even the Paris-based OECD has acknowledged that corporate taxes are especially destructive on a per-dollar-raised basis.

In a landmark 2008 study Tax and Economic Growth, economists at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) determined that the corporate income tax is the most harmful tax for economic growth. ...The study also found that statutory corporate tax rates have a negative effect on firms that are in the “process of catching up with the productivity performance of the best practice firms.” This suggests that “lowering statutory corporate tax rates can lead to particularly large productivity gains in firms that are dynamic and profitable, i.e. those that can make the largest contribution to GDP growth.”

Sadly, there's often a gap between the analysis of the professional economists at the OECD and the work of the left-leaning policy-making divisions of that international bureaucracy.

The OECD has been a long-time advocate of schemes to curtail tax competition and in recent years even has concocted a "base erosion and profit shifting" initiative designed to boost the tax burden on businesses.

In a study for the Institute for Research in Economic and Fiscal Issues (also based, coincidentally, in Paris), Pierre Bessard and Fabio Cappelletti analyze the harmful impact of corporate taxation and the unhelpful role of the OECD.

...the latest years have been marked by an abundance of proposals to reform national tax codes to patch these alleged “loopholes”. Among them, the Base Erosion and Profit Shifting package (BEPS) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is the most alarming one because of its global ambition. ...The OECD thereby assumes, without any substantiation, that the corporate income tax is both just and an efficient way for governments to collect revenue.

Pierre and Fabio point out that the OECD's campaign to impose heavier taxes on business is actually just a back-door way of imposing a higher burden on individuals.

...the whole value created by corporations is sooner or later transferred to various individuals, may it be as dividends (for owners and shareholders), interest payments (for lenders), wages (for employees) and payments for the provided goods and services (for suppliers). Second, corporations as such do not pay taxes. ...at the end of the day the burden of any tax levied on them has to be carried by an individual.

This doesn't necessarily mean there shouldn't be a corporate tax (in nations that decide to tax income). After all, it is administratively simpler to tax a company than to track down potentially thousands - or even hundreds of thousands - of shareholders.

But it's rather important to consider the structure of the corporate tax system. Is it a simple system that taxes economic activity only one time based on cash flow? Or does it have various warts, such as double taxation and deprecation, that effectively result in much higher tax rates on productive behavior?

Most nations unfortunately go with the latter approach (with place such as Estonia and Hong Kong being admirable exceptions). And that's why, as Pierre and Fabio explain, the corporate income tax is especially harmful.

...the general consensus is that the cost per dollar of raising revenue through the corporate income tax is much higher than the cost per dollar of raising revenue through the personal income tax... This is due to the corporate income tax generating additional distortions. ... Calls by the OECD and other bodies to standardize corporate tax rules and increase tax revenue in high-tax countries in effect would equate to calls for higher prices for consumers, lower wages for workers and lower returns for pension funds. Corporate taxes also depress available capital for investment and therefore productivity and wage growth, holding back purchasing power. In addition, the deadweight losses arising from corporate income taxation are particularly high. They include lobbying for preferential rates and treatments, diverting attention and resources from production and wealth creation, and distorting decisions in corporate financing and the choice of organizational form.

From my perspective, the key takeaway is that income taxes are always bad for prosperity, but the real question is whether they somewhat harmful or very harmful. So let's close with some very depressing news about how America's system ranks in that regard.

The Tax Foundation has just produced a very helpful map showing corporate tax rates around the world. All you need to know about the American system is that dark green is very bad (i.e., a corporate tax rate that is way above the average) and dark blue is very good.

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And to make matters worse, America's high tax rate is just part of the problem. A German think tank produced a study that looked at other major features of business taxation and concluded that the United States ranked #94 out of 100 nations.

It would be bad to have a high rate with a Hong Kong-designed corporate tax structure. But we have something far worse, a high rate with what could be considered a French-design

August 10, 2016 4:21PM

A Cartoon that Tells You Everything You Need to Know about International Bureaucracies

Okay, I'll admit the title of this post is an exaggeration. There are lots of things you should know - most bad, though some good - about international bureaucracies.

That being said, regular readers know that I get very frustrated with the statist policy agendas of both the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

I especially object to the way these international bureaucracies are cheerleaders for bigger government and higher tax burdens. Even though they ostensibly exist to promote greater levels of prosperity!

I've written on these issues, ad nauseam, but perhaps dry analysis is only part of what's needed to get the message across. Maybe some clever image can explain the issue to a broader audience (something I've done before with cartoons and images about the rise and fall of the welfare state, the misguided fixation on income distribution, etc).

It took awhile, but I eventually came up with (what I hope is) a clever idea. And when a former Cato intern with artistic skill, Jonathan Babington-Heina, agreed to do me a favor and take the concept in my head and translate it to paper, here are the results.

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I think this hits the nail on the head.

Excessive government is the main problem plaguing the global economy. But the international bureaucracies, for all intents and purposes, represent governments. The bureaucrats at the IMF and OECD need to please politicians in order to continue enjoying their lavish budgets and exceedingly generous tax-free salaries.

So when there is some sort of problem in the global economy, they are reluctant to advocate for smaller government and lower tax burdens (even if the economists working for these organizations sometimes produce very good research on fiscal issues).

Instead, when it's time to make recommendations, they push an agenda that is good for the political elite but bad for the private sector. Which is exactly what I'm trying to demonstrate in the cartoon,

But let's not merely rely on a cartoon to make this point.

In an article for the American Enterprise Institute, Glenn Hubbard and Kevin Hassett discuss the intersection of economic policy and international bureaucracies. They start by explaining that these organizations would promote jurisdictional competition if they were motivated by a desire to boost growth.

...economic theory has a lot to say about how they should function. ...they haven’t achieved all of their promise, primarily because those bodies have yet to fully understand the role they need to play in the interconnected world. The key insight harkens back to a dusty economics seminar room in the early 1950s, when University of Michigan graduate student Charles Tiebout...said that governments could be driven to efficient behavior if people can move. ...This observation, which Tiebout developed fully in a landmark paper published in 1956, led to an explosion of work by economists, much of it focusing on...many bits of evidence that confirm the important beneficial effects that can emerge when governments compete. ...A flatter world should make the competition between national governments increasingly like the competition between smaller communities. Such competition can provide the world’s citizens with an insurance policy against the out-of-control growth of massive and inefficient bureaucracies.

Using the European Union as an example, Hubbard and Hassett point out the grim results when bureaucracies focus on policies designed to boost the power of governments rather than the vitality of the market.

...as Brexit indicates, the EU has not successfully focused solely on the potentially positive role it could play. Indeed, as often as not, one can view the actions of the EU government as being an attempt to form a cartel to harmonize policies across member states, and standing in the way of, rather than advancing, competition. ...an EU that acts as a competition-stifling cartel will grow increasingly unpopular, and more countries will leave it.

They close with a very useful suggestion.

If the EU instead focuses on maximizing mobility and enhancing the competition between states, allowing the countries to compete on regulation, taxation, and in other policy areas, then the union will become a populist’s dream and the best economic friend of its citizens.

Unfortunately, I fully expect this sage advice to fall upon deaf ears. The crowd in Brussels knows that their comfortable existence is dependent on pleasing politicians from national governments.

And the same is true for the bureaucrats at the IMF and OECD.

The only practical solution is to have national governments cut off funding so the bureaucracies disappear.

But, to cite just one example, why would Obama allow that when these bureaucracies go through a lot of effort to promote his statist agenda?

July 23, 2013 3:52PM

Wall Street Journal Condemns OECD Proposal to Increase Business Fiscal Burdens with Global Tax Cartel

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.

VAT EU Increase

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.

April 12, 2013 2:15PM

A Tax Haven Primer for the New York Times

I could only use 428 words, but I highlighted the main arguments for tax havens and tax competition in a "Room for Debate" piece for the New York Times.

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I hope that my contribution is a good addition to the powerful analysis of experts such as Allister Heath and Pierre Bessard.

I started with the economic argument.

[T]ax havens are very valuable because they discourage anti-growth tax policy. Simply stated, it is very difficult for governments to impose and enforce confiscatory tax rates when investors and entrepreneurs can shift their economic activity to jurisdictions with better tax policy. Particularly if those nations have strong policies on financial privacy, thus making it difficult for uncompetitive high-tax nations to track and tax flight capital. Thanks to this process of tax competition, with havens playing a key role, top personal income tax rates have dropped from an average of more than 67 percent in 1980 to about 42 percent today. Corporate tax rates also have plummeted, falling from an average of 48 percent to 24 percent.

...Lawmakers also were pressured to lower or eliminate death taxes and wealth taxes, as well as to reduce the double taxation of interest, dividends and capital gains. Once again, tax havens deserve much of the credit because politicians presumably would not have implemented these pro-growth reforms if they didn’t have to worry that the geese with the golden eggs might fly away to a confidential account in a well-run nation like Luxembourg or Singapore.

Since I didn't have much space, I couldn't go into much greater detail. Below the jump is a video that elaborates on the economic benefits of tax havens, including an explanation of why fiscal sovereignty is a big part of the debate.

My favorite part of the video is when I quote Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development economists admitting the beneficial impact of tax havens.

Back to my NYT column, I also explain that there's a critical ethical reason to defend low-tax jurisdictions:

Tax havens also play a very valuable moral role by providing high-quality rule of law in an uncertain world, offering a financial refuge for people who live in nations where governments are incompetent and corrupt. ...There are also billions of people living in nations with venal and oppressive governments. 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.

To elaborate, here's my video making the moral case for tax havens:

By the way, many of the issues in this video may not resonate with those of us in "first world" nations, but please remember that the majority of people in the world live in countries where basic human rights are at risk or simply don't exist.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't worry about the stability of our nations. I close my NYT column by warning that the welfare state may collapse:

With more and more nations careening toward fiscal collapse, raising the risk of social chaos and economic calamity, it is more important than ever that there are places where people can protect themselves from bad government. Tax havens should be celebrated, not persecuted.

I didn't have space to cite the Bank for International Settlements and OECD data showing that most of the world's big nations—including Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom—face fiscal problems more significant that Greece is dealing with today. Assuming these nations don't implement desperately needed entitlement reform, the you-know-what is going to hit the fan at some point. Folks with funds in a tax haven will be in much better shape if, or when, that happens.

For more background information on tax competition, here's a video explaining the ABCs of the issue.

It's galling, by the way, that the bureaucrats at the OECD pushing for a global tax cartel get tax-free salaries.

And here's my video debunking some of the common myths about tax havens:

My favorite part of this video is the revelation that a former John Kerry staffer fabricated a number that is still being used by anti–tax haven demagogues.

And speaking of demagogues misusing numbers, you'll notice the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has a starring role in this video:

I've probably exhausted your interest in videos, but if you're game for one more, click here to learn more about the Paris-based OECD, a statist international bureaucracy that is active in trying to undermine tax havens as part of its efforts to create a global tax cartel to prop up Europe's welfare states.

March 27, 2013 9:05AM

Targeting Multinationals, the OECD Launches New Scheme to Boost the Tax Burden on Business

I've been very critical of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Most recently, I criticized the Paris-based bureaucracy for making the rather remarkable assertion that a value-added tax would boost growth and employment.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Now the bureaucrats have concocted another scheme to increase the size and scape of government. The OECD just published a study on "Addressing Base Erosion and Profit Shifting" that seemingly is designed to lay the groundwork for a radical rewrite of business taxation.

In a new Tax & Budget Bulletin for Cato, I outline some of my concerns with this new "BEPS" initiative.

...the BEPS report...calls for dramatic changes in corporate tax policy based on the presumption that governments are not seizing enough revenue from multinational companies. The OECD essentially argues that it is illegitimate for businesses to shift economic activity to jurisdictions that have more favorable tax laws. ...The core accusation in the OECD report is that firms systematically—but legally—reduce their tax burdens by taking advantage of differences in national tax policies.

Ironically, the OECD admits in the report that revenues have been trending upwards.

...the report acknowledges that “… revenues from corporate income taxes as a share of gross domestic product have increased over time. ...Other than offering anecdotes, the OECD provides no evidence that a revenue problem exists. In this sense, the BEPS report is very similar to the OECD’s 1998 “Harmful Tax Competition” report, which asserted that so-called tax havens were causing damage but did not offer any hard evidence of any actual damage.

To elaborate, the BEPS scheme should be considered Part II of the OECD's anti-tax competition project. Part I was the attack on so-called tax havens, which began back in the mid- to late-1990s.

The OECD justified that campaign by asserting there was a need to fight illegal tax evasion (conveniently overlooking, of course, the fact that nations should not have the right to impose their laws on what happens in other countries).

The BEPS initiative is remarkable because it is going after legal tax avoidance. Even though governments already have carte blanche to change business tax policy.

...governments already have immense powers to restrict corporate tax planning through “transfer pricing” rules and other regulations. Moreover, there is barely any mention of the huge number of tax treaties between nations that further regulate multinational taxation.

So what does the OECD want?

...the OECD hints at its intended outcome when it says that the effort “will require some ‘out of the box’ thinking” and that business activity could be “identified through elements such as sales, workforce, payroll, and fixed assets.” That language suggests that the OECD intends to push global formula apportionment, which means that governments would have the power to reallocate corporate income regardless of where it is actually earned.

And what does this mean? Nothing good, unless you think governments should have more money and investment should be further penalized.

Formula apportionment is attractive to governments that have punitive tax regimes, and it would be a blow to nations with more sensible low-tax systems. ...business income currently earned in tax-friendly countries, such as Ireland and the Netherlands, would be reclassified as French-source income or German-source income based on arbitrary calculations of company sales and other factors. ...nations with high tax rates would likely gain revenue, while jurisdictions with pro-growth systems would be losers, including Ireland, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Estonia, Luxembourg, Singapore, and the Netherlands.

Since the United States is a high-tax nation for corporations, why should Americans care?

For several reasons, including the fact that it wouldn't be a good idea to give politicians more revenue that will be used to increase the burden of government spending.

But most important, tax policy will get worse everywhere if tax competition is undermined.

...formula apportionment would be worse than a zero-sum game because it would create a web of regulations that would undermine tax competition and become increasingly onerous over time. Consider that tax competition has spurred OECD governments to cut their corporate tax rates from an average of 48 percent in the early 1980s to 24 percent today. If a formula apportionment system had been in place, the world would have been left with much higher tax rates, and thus less investment and economic growth. ...If governments gain the power to define global taxable income, they will have incentives to rig the rules to unfairly gain more revenue. For example, governments could move toward less favorable, anti-investment depreciation schedules, which would harm global growth.

You don't have to believe me that the BEPS project is designed to further increase the tax burden. The OECD admits that higher taxes are the intended outcome.

The OECD complains that “… governments are often under pressure to offer a competitive tax environment,” and that “failure to collaborate … could be damaging in terms of … a race to the bottom with respect to corporate income taxes.” In other words, the OECD is admitting that the BEPS project seeks higher tax burdens and the curtailment of tax competition.

Writing for Forbes, Andy Quinlan of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity highlights how the BEPS scheme will undermine tax competition and enable higher taxes.

...the OECD wants to undo taxpayer gains made in recent decades thanks to tax competition. Since the 1980′s, average global income taxes on both individuals and corporations have dropped significantly, improving incentives in the productive sector of the economy to generate economic growth. These pro-growth reforms are the result of tax competition, or the pressure to adopt competitive economic policies that is put on governments by an increasingly globalized society where both labor and capital are mobile. Tax competition is the only force working on the side of taxpayers, which explains the organized campaign by global elite to defeat it. ...If taxpayers want to preserve gains made thanks to tax competition, they must be weary of the threat posed by global tax cartels though organizations such as the OECD.

Speaking of the OECD, this video tells you everything you need to know.

The final kicker is that the bureaucrats at the OECD get tax-free salaries, so they're insulated from the negative impact of the bad policies they want to impose on everyone else.

That's even more outrageous than the fact that the OECD tried to have me thrown in a Mexican jail for the supposed crime of standing in the public lobby of a public hotel.

September 20, 2012 4:54PM

Just as ‘Fair Trade’ Means Protectionism for the Benefit of Special Interests, ‘Fair Tax Competition’ Means Tax Harmonization for the Benefit of Politicians

Very few people are willing to admit that they favor protectionism. After all, who wants to embrace a policy associated with the Great Depression?

But people sometimes say "I want free trade so long as it's fair trade." In most cases, they're simply protectionists who are too clever to admit their true agenda.

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In the Belly of the Beast at the European Commission[/caption]

There's a similar bit of wordplay that happens in the world of international taxation, and a good example of this phenomenon took place on my recent swing through Brussels.

While in town, I met with Algirdas Šemeta, the European Union's Tax Commissioner, as part of a meeting arranged by some of his countrymen from the Lithuanian Free Market Institute.

Mr. Šemeta was a gracious host and very knowledgeable about all the issues we discussed, but when I was pontificating about the benefits of tax competition (are you surprised?), he assured me that he felt the same way, only he wanted to make sure it was "fair tax competition."

But his idea of "fair tax competition" is that people should not be allowed to benefit from better policy in low-tax jurisdictions.

Allow me to explain. Let's say that a Frenchman, having earned some income in France and having paid a first layer of tax to the French government, decides he wants to save and invest some of his post-tax income in Luxembourg.

In an ideal world, there would be no double taxation and no government would try to tax any interest, dividends, or capital gains that our hypothetical Frenchman might earn. But if a government wants to impose a second layer of tax on earnings in Luxembourg, it should be the government of Luxembourg. It's a simple matter of sovereignty that nations get to determine the laws that apply inside their borders.

But if the French government wants to track - and tax - that flight capital, it has to coerce the Luxembourg government into acting as a deputy tax collector, and this generally is why high-tax governments (and their puppets at the OECD) are so anxious to bully so-called tax havens into emasculating their human rights laws on financial privacy.

Now let's see the practical impact of "fair tax competition." In the ideal world of Mr. Šemeta and his friends, a Frenchman will have the right to invest after-tax income in Luxembourg, but the French government will tax any Luxembourg-source earnings at French tax rates. In other words, there is no escape from France's oppressive tax laws. The French government might allow a credit for any taxes paid to Luxembourg, but even in the best-case scenario, the total tax burden on our hypothetical Frenchman will still be equal to the French tax rate.

Imagine if gas stations operated by the same rules. If you decided you no longer wanted to patronize your local gas station because of high prices, you would be allowed to buy gas at another station. But your old gas station would have the right - at the very least - to charge you the difference between its price and the price at your new station.

Simply stated, you would not be allowed to benefit from lower prices at other gas stations.

So take a wild guess how much real competition there would be in such a system? Assuming your IQ is above room temperature, you've figured out that such a system subjects the consumer to monopoly abuse.

Which is exactly why the "fair tax competition" agenda of Europe's welfare states (with active support from the Obama Administration) is nothing more than an indirect form of tax harmonization. Nations would be allowed to have different tax rates, but people wouldn't be allowed to benefit.

For more information, here's my video on tax competition.

And if you want information about the beneficial impact of "tax havens," read this excellent column by Pierre Bessard and watch my three-part video series on the topic.

P.S. The Financial Transaction Tax also was discussed at the meeting, and it appears that the European actually intend on shooting themselves in the foot with this foolish scheme. Interestingly, when presented by other participants with some studies showing how the tax was damaging, Mr. Šemeta asked why we he should take those studies seriously since they were produced by people opposed to the tax. Since I've recently stated that healthy skepticism is warranted when dealing with anybody in the political/policy world (even me!), I wasn't offended by the insinuation. But my response was to ask why we should act like the European Commission studies are credible since they were financed by governments that want a new source of revenue.

June 4, 2012 3:22PM

The Great Tax Haven Debate, Part II

Back in April, responding to an article written by Ann Hollingshead for the Task Force on Financial Integrity and Economic Development, I wrote a long post defending so-called tax havens.

I went through the trouble of a point-by-point response because her article was quite reasonable and focused on some key moral and philosophical issues (rather than the demagoguery I normally have to deal with when people on the left reflexively condemn low-tax jurisdictions).

She responded to my response, and she raised additional points that deserve to be answered.

So here we go again. Let's go through Ann's article and see where we agree and disagree.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog post criticizing the philosophies of Dan Mitchell, a libertarian scholar from the Cato Institute. I asked for a “thoughtful discussion” and I got it—both from the comments section of our blog and from Dan himself.  On his own blog, Dan replied with a thought-provoking point-by-point critique of my piece.

It has been a polite discussion, which is good because readers get to see that we don't really disagree on facts. Our differences are a matter of philosophy, as Ann also acknowledges.

Dan made several interesting points in his rebuttal. As much as I’d like to take on the whole post right now, my reply would be far too long and I don’t think our readers would appreciate a blog post that approaches a novella. Rather I’ll focus on a couple of his comments that I find interesting on a philosophical level (there were many) and which demand a continued conversation because, I believe, they are the basis of our differences. We’ll start with a rather offhand remark in which Dan indirectly refers to financial privacy as a human right. This is an argument we’ve heard before. And it is worth some exploration.Unless I am very much mistaken, Dan’s belief that financial privacy is a human right arises out of his fundamental value of freedom. My disagreement with Dan, therefore, does not arise from a difference in the desire to promote human rights (I believe we both do), but rather in the different relative weights we each place on the value of privacy, which Dan (I’m supposing) would call an extension of freedom.

I wouldn't argue with her outline, though I think it is incomplete. I'm a big fan of privacy as a principle of a civil and just society, but I also specifically support financial privacy as a means to an end of encouraging better tax policy. Simply stated, politicians are much more likely to reduce or eliminate double taxation if they feel such taxes can't be enforced and simply put a country in a much less competitive position.

Okay, so on to [my] answer of the subject of this post. Privacy—and financial privacy by extension—is important. But is it a human right? That’s a big phrase; one which humanity has no business throwing around, lest it go the way of “[fill in blank]-gate” or “war on [whatever].” And as Dan himself points out, governments have a way of fabricating human rights—apparently some European courts have ruled that free soccer broadcasts and owning a satellite dish are a human rights—so it’s important that we get back to [philosophical] basics and define the term properly. The nearly universally accepted definition of “human rights” was established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the United Nations adopted in 1948. According to the UN, “human rights” are those “rights inherent to all human beings,” regardless of “nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status.” The Declaration includes 30 Articles which describe each of those rights in detail. “Financial privacy” per se is not explicitly a human right in this document, but “privacy” is, and I think it’s reasonable to include financial privacy by extension. But privacy is defined as a fundamental, not an absolute, human right. Absolute rights are those that there is never any justification for violating. Fundamental freedoms, including privacy and freedom from detention, can be ethically breached by the government, as long as they authorized by law and not arbitrary in practice. The government therefore has the right to regulate fundamental freedoms when necessary.

I'm not sure how to react. There are plenty of admirable provisions in the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but there are also some nonsensical passages - some of which completely contradict others.

Everyone hopefully agrees with the provisions against slavery and in favor of equality under law, but Article 25 of the U.N. Declaration also includes "the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services."

That sounds like a blank check for redistributionism, similar to the statism that I experienced when I spoke at the U.N. last month, and it definitely seems inconsistent with the right of property in Article 17.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I don't care that the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes a "right to privacy" because I don't view that document as having any legal or moral validity. I don't know whether it's as bad as the European Union's pseudo-constitution, but I do know that my support for privacy is not based on or dependent on a document from the United Nations.

As an aside, I can't help noting that Articles 13 and 15 of the U.N. Declaration guarantee the right to emigrate and the right to change nationality, somethings leftists should keep in mind when they demonize successful people who want to move to nations with better tax law.

Getting back to Ann's column, she confirms my point that you can't protect property rights for some people while simultaneously giving other people a claim on their output.

That’s important because it means, that when it comes to freedom and privacy, we need to make choices. We can’t always have them all at once. To use a hideously crude example that gets back to the issue of tax evasion, in a developing country, a rich person’s right to financial privacy might be at odds with a poor person’s right to “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.”

For those who are not familiar with the type of discussion, it is the difference between "negative rights" promoted by classical liberals, which are designed to protect life, liberty, and property from aggression, and the "positive rights" promoted by the left, which are designed to legitimize the redistributionist state.

Tom Palmer has a good discussion of the topic here, and he notes that "positive rights" create conflict, writing that, "...classical liberal 'negative' rights do not conflict with each other, whereas 'positive' rights to be provided with things produce many conflicts. If my 'right to health care' conflicts with a doctor's 'right to liberty,' which one wins out?"

Continuing with Ann's article, she says values conflict with one another, though that's only if true if one believes in positive rights.

I started this post with a discussion of values, because at the core that’s what we’re talking about. Values are relative, individual, and often in conflict with one another. And they define how we rank our choices between human rights. Dan values freedom, perhaps above most else. He might argue that economic freedom would lead to an enrichment of human rights at all levels, but he probably wouldn’t disagree that that thesis remains untested. My views are a little more complicated because I don’t get to enjoy the (albeit appealing and consistent) simplicity of libertarianism.

I'm tempted to say, "C'mon in, Ann, the water's fine. Libertarianism is lots of fun." To be a bit more serious, libertarianism is simple, but it's not simplistic. You get to promote freedom and there's no pressure to harass, oppress, or pester other people.

As my colleague David Boaz has stated, "You could say that you learn the essence of libertarianism — which is also the essence of civilization –  in kindergarten: don’t hit other people, don’t take their stuff, keep your promises."

The world would be a lot better if more people rallied to this non-coercive system.

One more point. Dan mentioned he does “fully comply” with the “onerous demands imposed on [him] by the government.” But as Dan insinuates, irrespective of an individual’s personal values, those demands are not optional. In the United States, we have the luxury of electing a group of individuals to represent our collective values. Together those people make a vision for the country that reflects our ideals. And then, we all accept it. If our country got together and decided to value freedom above all else, we would live in a world that looks a lot like Dan’s utopia. But, frankly, it hasn’t. So we respect our tax code out of a respect for the vision of our country. Dan has the right to try to shape that vision, as do I. Neither of us has the right to violate it.

What Ann writes is true, but not persuasive. Libertarians don't like untrammeled majoritarianism. We don't think two wolves and a sheep should vote on what's for lunch.

We like what our Founding Fathers devised, a constitutional republic where certain rights were inalienable and protected by the judicial system, regardless of whether 90 percent of voters want to curtail our freedoms.

Ann, as you can see from her final passage, does not agree.

That, at is heart, is my problem with both tax evasion and tax avoidance. Neither lines up with the spirit of our collective compact; although the latter is not necessarily reflected in the official laws on the books. I’m not saying tax avoiders should be thrown in jail; they’ve done nothing illegal. I’m saying the regulations that confine us should line up with the vision we’ve created and the values we’ve agreed upon. If that vision is Dan’s, I’ll accept it. But I’m glad he’ll (begrudgingly) accept ours too.

I'm not automatically against having a "collective compact." After all, that's one way of describing the American Constitution. But I will return to my point about America's founders setting up that system precisely because they rejected majoritarianism.

So what does all this mean? Probably nothing, other than the less-than-remarkable revelation that Ann and I have different views on the legitimate role(s) of the federal government.

Since I want to restrain the size and scope of government (not only in America, but elsewhere in the world) and avert future Greek-style fiscal nightmares, that means I want tax competition. And, to be truly effective, that means tax havens.

If that appeals to you (or at least seems like a reasonably hypothesis), I invite you to read some writings by Allister Heath of the United Kingdom and Pierre Bessard of Switzerland.