I’m not a big fan of central banks, and I definitely don’t like multilateral bureaucracies, so I almost feel guilty about publicizing two recent studies published by the European Central Bank. But when such an institution puts out research that unambiguously makes the case for smaller government, it’s time to sit up and take notice. And since these studies largely echo the findings of recent research by the International Monetary Fund, we may have reached a point where even the establishment finally understands that government is too big.
The first study looks at real-world examples of debt reduction in 15 European nations and investigates the fiscal policies that worked and didn’t work. Entitled “Major Public Debt Reductions: Lessons From The Past, Lessons For The Future,” the report unambiguously concludes that spending restraint is the right way to reduce deficits and debt. Tax increases, by contrast, are not successful. The study doesn’t highlight this result, but the data clearly show that “revenue increases do not seem to have induced debt reductions, whereas cuts in primary expenditure seem to have contributed significantly in the case of major debt reductions.”
Here’s a key excerpt:
[T]his paper estimates several specifications of a logistic probability model to assess which factors determine the probability of a major debt reduction in the EU-15 during the period 1985-2009. Our results are three-fold. First, major debt reductions are mainly driven by decisive and lasting (rather than timid and short-lived) fiscal consolidation efforts focused on reducing government expenditure, in particular, cuts in social benefits and public wages. Revenue-based consolidations seem to have a tendency to be less successful. Second, robust real GDP growth also increases the likelihood of a major debt reduction because it helps countries to “grow their way out” of indebtedness. Here, the literature also points to a positive feedback effect with decisive expenditure-based fiscal consolidation because this type of consolidation appears to foster growth, in particular in times of severe fiscal imbalances.
The last part of this passage is especially worth highlighting. The authors found that reducing spending promotes faster economic growth. In other words, Obama did exactly the wrong thing with his so-called stimulus. The U.S. economy would have enjoyed much better performance if the burden of spending had been reduced rather than increased. One can only hope the statists at the Congressional Budget Office learn from this research.
The estimation results indicate that expenditure-based consolidation which mainly concentrates on cuts in social benefits and government wages is more likely to lead to a major debt reduction. A significant decline in social benefits or public wages vis-a-vis the overall decline in the primary expenditure will increase the probability of a major debt reduction by 31 and 26 percent, respectively.
The other study takes a different approach, looking at the poor fiscal position of European nations and showing what would have happened if governments had imposed some sort of cap on government spending. Entitled “Towards Expenditure Rules And Fiscal Sanity In The Euro Area,” this report finds that restraining spending (what the study refers to as a “neutral expenditure policy”) would have generated much better results.
Here are the main findings:
[T]he study assesses the impact of the fiscal stance on primary expenditure ratios and public debt ratios and, thus, provides a measure of prudence or imprudence of past expenditure policies. The study finds that on the basis of real time rules, expenditure and debt ratios in 2009 for the euro area aggregate would not have been much different with neutral expenditure policies than actually experienced.
…Primary expenditure ratios would have been 2-3½ pp [percentage points] of GDP lower for the euro area aggregate, 3-5pp of GDP for the euro area without Germany and up to over 10 pp of GDP lower in certain countries if expenditure policies had been neutral.
There’s a bit of academic jargon in that passage, but the authors are basically saying that some sort of annual limit on the growth of government spending is a smart fiscal strategy. And such rules, depending on the country, would have reduced the burden of government spending by as much as 10 percentage points of GDP. To put that figure in context, reducing the burden of government spending by that much in the United States would balance the budget overnight.
There are several ways of achieving such a goal. The report suggests a spending limit rule based on the growth of the overall economy, which is similar to a proposal being developed in the United States by Senator Corker of Tennessee. But it also could mean something akin to the old Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law, but intelligently revised to focus on annual spending rather than annual deficits. Some sort of limit on annual spending, perhaps based on population plus inflation like the old Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) in Colorado, also could be successful.
There are a couple of ways of skinning this cat. What’s important is that there needs to be a formula that limits how much spending can grow, and this formula should be designed so that the private sector grows faster than the public sector. And to make sure the formula is successful, it should be enforced by automatic spending cuts, similar to the old Gramm-Rudman-Hollings sequester provision.
I’m not a big fan of the Internal Revenue Service, but I try not to demonize the bureaucrats because politicians actually deserve most of the blame for America’s complex, unfair, and corrupt tax system. The IRS generally is in the unenviable position of simply trying to enforce very bad laws.
But sometimes the IRS runs amok and the agency deserves to be held in contempt by the American people
Let’s look at a grotesque example of IRS misbehavior. It deals with a seemingly arcane issue, but it has big implications for the US economy, the rule of law, and human rights.
On January 7, the tax-collection bureaucracy proposed a regulation that, if implemented, would force American financial institutions to put foreign tax law above US tax law. Banks would be required to report to the IRS any interest they pay to foreigners, but not so the US government can collect tax, but in order to let foreign governments tax this US-source income.
This isn’t the first time the IRS has tried to pull this stunt. At the very end of the Clinton years, the agency proposed a rule to do the same thing. But the bureaucrats were thwarted because of overwhelming opposition from Capitol Hill, the financial services industry, and public policy experts. There was near-unanimous agreement that it would be crazy to drive job-creating capital out of the US economy and there was also near-unanimous agreement that the IRS had no authority to impose a regulation that was completely inconsistent with the laws enacted by Congress.
But like a zombie, this IRS regulation has risen from the grave.
I’m not sure what is most upsetting about this proposed rule, but there are five serious flaws in the IRS’s back-door scheme to turn American banks into deputy tax collectors for foreign governments.
1. The IRS is flouting the law, using regulatory dictates to overturn laws enacted through the democratic process.
Ever since 1921, and most recently reconfirmed by legislation in 1976 and 1986, Congress specifically has chosen not to tax interest paid to non-resident foreigners. Lawmakers wanted to attract money to the U.S. economy.
Yet rogue IRS bureaucrats want to impose a regulation to overturn the outcome of the democratic process. Heck, if they really think they have that sort of power, why don’t they do us a favor and unilaterally junk the entire internal revenue code and give us a flat tax?
2. The IRS has failed to perform a cost-benefit analysis, as required by executive order 12866.
Issued by the Clinton Administration, this executive order requires that regulations be accompanied by “An assessment of the potential costs and benefits of the regulatory action” for any regulation that will, “Have an annual effect on the economy of $100 million or more or adversely affect in a material way the economy, a sector of the economy, productivity, competition, jobs, the environment, public health or safety, or State, local, or tribal governments or communities.”
Yet the IRS blithely asserts that this interest-reporting proposal is “not a significant regulatory action.” Amazing, we have trillions of dollars of foreign capital invested in our economy, perhaps $1 trillion of which is deposited in banks, and we know some of which definitely will be withdrawn if this regulation is implemented, but the bureaucrats unilaterally decided the regulation doesn’t require a cost-benefit analysis.
During a previous incarnation of this regulation, the IRS’s failure to comply with the rules led the Office of Advocacy at the Small Business Administration to denounce the tax-collection bureaucracy, stating that “…there is ample evidence that the impact of the regulation is significant and that a substantial number of small businesses will be impacted.”
3. The IRS is imposing a regulation that puts America’s economy at risk.
According to the Commerce Department, foreigners have invested more than $10 trillion in the U.S. economy.
And according to the Treasury Department, foreigners have more than $4 trillion in American banks and brokerage accounts.
We don’t know how much money will leave America if this regulation is implemented, but there are many financial centers – such as London, Hong Kong, Cayman, Singapore, Tokyo, Zurch, Luxembourg, Bermuda, and Panama – that would gladly welcome the additional investment if the IRS makes the American financial services sector less attractive.
4. The IRS is destabilizing America’s already shaky financial system.
Five years ago, when the banking industry was strong, the IRS regulation would have been bad news. Now, with many banks still weakened by the financial crisis, the regulation could be a death knell. Not only would it drive capital to banks in other nations, it also would impose a heavy regulatory burden.
How bad would it be? Commenting on an earlier version of the regulation, which only would have applied to deposits from 15 countries, the Chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation warned that, “[a] shift of even a modest portion of these [nonresident alien] funds out of the U.S. banking system would certainly be termed a significant economic impact.” He also noted that potentially $1 trillion of deposits might be involved. And a study from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University estimated that $87 billion would leave the American economy. And remember, that estimate was based on a regulation that would have applied to just 15 nations, not the entire world.
So what happens if more banks fail? I guess the bureaucrats at the IRS would probably just shrug their shoulders and suggest another bailout.
5. The IRS is endangering the lives of foreigners who deposit funds in America because of persecution, discrimination, abuse, crime, and instability in their home countries.
If you’re from Mexico you don’t want to put money in local banks or declare it to the tax authorities. Corruption is rampant and that information might be sold to criminal gangs who then kidnap one of your children. If you’re from Venezuela, you have the same desire to have your money in the United States, but perhaps you’re more worried about persecution or expropriation by a brutal dictatorship.
There are people all over the world who have good reasons to protect their private financial information. Yet this regulation would put them and their families at risk. The only silver lining is that these people presumably will move their money to other nations. Good for them, bad for America.
Let’s wrap this up. Under current law, America is a safe haven for international investors. This is good news for foreigners, and good news for the American economy. That’s why it is so outrageous that the IRS, unilaterally and without legal justification, is trying to reverse 90 years of law for no other reason than to help foreign governments.
By the way, you can add your two cents by clicking on this link which will take you to the public comment page for this regulation. Don’t be bashful.
One last point. The Obama Administration says this regulation is part of a global effort to improve tax compliance. But unless Congress changes the law, the IRS is not responsible for helping foreign tax collectors squeeze more money out foreign taxpayers. Moreover, the White House has been grossly misleading about U.S. compliance issues (as this video illustrates), so their assertions lack credibility.
The Laffer Curve is one of my favorite issues (see here, here, here, here, here, etc). But it is a very frustrating topic. Half my time is spent trying to convince left-leaning people that the Laffer Curve exists. I use common-sense explanations. I cite historical examples. I even use information from left-of-center institutions in hopes that they will be more likely to listen.
The other half of my time is spent trying to educate right-leaning people that the Laffer Curve does not mean that “all tax cuts pay for themselves.” I relentlessly try to make them understand that there is a big difference between pro-growth tax cuts that increase incentives for productive behavior and therefore lead to more taxable income and other tax cuts such as child credits that have little or no impact on economic performance.
Given my focus on this issue (some would say I’m tenacious, others that I’m bizarrely fixated), I was excited to see a column from the editor of a business paper in the United Kingdom about a tax increase that backfired in a truly spectacular fashion. It deals with the taxation of rich foreigners, called “non-doms,” who often choose to live in London because the U.K. government does not tax them on their foreign income. But then the Labor Party, with the support of spineless Tories, imposed an annual fee of £30,000 (about $45,000-$50,000) on these highly productive people.
The rest, as they say, is history. Here’s a long extract, but you should read the entire article.
Figures out last night confirmed yet again that crippling tax hikes are driving people and economic activity away from Britain. Rather than raising extra tax receipts to plug Britain’s budget deficit, there is growing evidence that the raids are actually reducing the amount of money collected by the taxman, thus inflicting even greater debt on the rest of us. Our predicament is depressing almost beyond words. The number of non-doms living in the UK collapsed by 16,000 in 2008-09, the most recent year for which data is available, according to yesterday’s figures. This is a dramatic decline: an 11.6 per cent drop from 139,000 in 2007-08 to 123,000. When in April 2008 Labour – egged on by the Conservatives – introduced an annual levy of £30,000 for those who had claimed non-dom status for seven years, pundits dismissed the tax as too low to make a difference. …Non-doms are people who originated overseas and pay UK tax on their UK earnings but no tax on their foreign income. The original non-doms were Greek shipping moguls who fled their socialist country to base themselves (and their businesses) in London. Until recently, the UK fought to attract such people; they pay a lot of UK tax and are often employers or high spenders. Yesterday’s figures actually underplay the true extent of the exodus: the departure of non-doms is bound to have accelerated in 2009-10 and will continue in the coming years as a result of the 50p tax rate, the hike in capital gains tax, the extra national insurance contributions and the near-hysterical war on financiers and myriad other attacks on wealth-creators and foreign investors that are now routine in this country. …The Treasury told us 5,400 non-doms opted to pay the fee. This means that the taxman raised an extra £162m. The Treasury wouldn’t or couldn’t give us any more information, so I’ve made a few guesstimates to work out the net cost of the tax raid. Being over-generous to the government, it might be that half the missing non-doms are now full taxpayers. Let’s assume they are paying an extra £15,000 in tax each. That would make another £120m in tax, taking the total to £282m. Let’s then assume that the 8,000 missing non-doms would have paid £50,000 each in UK income tax, capital gains tax, VAT and stamp duty – the gross loss jumps to £400m, which means that the Treasury is £118m worse off. The real loss is almost certainly much higher.
In other words, this is one of those rare cases where a tax increase is so punitive that the government winds up losing money. In a logical world, this should be an opportunity for the left and right to unite for lower taxes. The left would get more money to spend and the right would get the satisfaction of better tax policy. This assumes, however, that the left is more motivated by revenue maximization than it is by a class-warfare impulse to punish the rich. As Obama said during a Democratic debate in 2008, he didn’t care whether higher taxes raised more revenue.
There is a very bizarre race happening in Illinois. The Governor and the leaders of the State Senate and General Assembly are trying to figure out how to ram through a massive tax increase, but they’re trying to make it happen before new state lawmakers take office tomorrow. The Democrats will still control the state legislature, but their scheme to fleece taxpayers would face much steeper odds because of GOP gains in last November’s elections.
As a result, the Illinois version of a lame-duck session has become a nightmare, sort of a feeding frenzy of tax-crazed politicians. Here’s the Chicago Tribune’s description of the massive tax hike being sought by the Democrats.
The 3 percent rate now paid by individuals and families would rise to 5 percent in one of the largest state tax increases in Illinois history. …Also part of the plan is a 46 percent business tax increase. The 4.8 percent corporate tax rate would climb to 7 percent… In addition, lawmakers are looking at a $1-a-pack increase in the state’s current 98-cent tax on cigarettes. …Democrats will still control the new General Assembly that gets sworn in Wednesday, their numbers were eroded by Republicans in the November election. With virtually no Republican support for higher taxes, Democratic leaders contend it will be easier to gain support for a tax hike in a legislature with some retiring members no longer worried about facing the voters.
If Governor Quinn and Democratic leaders win their race to impose a massive tax hike, that will then trigger another race. Only this time, it will be a contest to see how many productive people “go Galt” and leave the state. John Kass, a columnist for the Tribune, points out that the Democrats’ plan won’t work unless politicians figure out how to enslave taxpayers so they can’t escape the kleptocracy known as Illinois.
The warlords of Madiganistan — that bankrupt Midwestern state once known as Illinois — are hungry to feed on our flesh once again. This time the ruling Democrats are planning a…state income tax increase, with more job-killing taxes on corporations… A few tamed Republicans also want to join in and support a tax deal, demonstrating their eagerness to play the eunuch in the court of the pasha. And though they’ve been quite ingenious, waiting for the end of a lame-duck legislative session to do their dirty work, they forgot something important. They forgot to earmark some extra funds for that great, big wall. You know, that wall they’re going to need, 60 feet high, the one with razor wire on top and guard towers, equipped with police dogs and surrounded by an acid-filled moat. The wall they’re going to have to build around the entire state, to keep desperate taxpayers from fleeing to Indiana, Wisconsin and other places that want jobs and businesses and people who work hard for a living. …With the state billions upon billions in debt, and the political leaders raising taxes, borrowing billions more and not making any substantive spending cuts, we’ve reached a certain point in our history. The tipping point. Taxes grow. Employers run. The jobs leave. High-end wage earners have the mobility to escape. What’s left are the low-end workers who are stuck here. …the Democrats aren’t about to disappoint their true constituents. So they don’t cut, they tax. Because the true constituents of the Democratic warlords are the public service unions and the special interests that benefit from all that spending. Why should politicians make cuts and anger the people that give them power, the power that allows them access to treasure? …we reach another tipping point: The point at which those who are tied to government, either through contracts or employment, actually outnumber those who are not tied to government. Do the math on Election Day.
Illinois is America’s worst state, based on what it costs to insure state debt. The greedy politicians in Springfield think a tax hike will give them enough money to pay bondholders and reward special-interest groups. But that short-sighted approach is based on the assumption that people and businesses will cheerfully bend over and utter the line made famous by Animal House: “Thank you, sir! May I have another?”
Moving across state lines is generally not something that happens overnight. But this giant tax hike is sure to be the tipping point for a few investors, entrepreneurs, rich people, and employers. Each year, more and more of them will decide they can be more successful and more profitable by re-domiciling in low-tax states. When that happens, Illinois politicians will get a lesson about the Laffer Curve, just as happened in Maryland, Oregon, and New York.
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