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The Center for Freedom and Prosperity has a new website, which also includes a new location for The Market Center Blog.

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According to an article in the New York Times, the Obama Administration is seriously examining a proposal to reduce America’s anti-competitive 35 percent corporate tax rate.

The Obama administration is preparing to inject an unpredictable new variable into its economic policy clash with Republicans: a plan to overhaul corporate taxes. Economic advisers have nearly completed the process initiated in January by the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, at President Obama’s behest. That process, intended to make the United States more competitive internationally, has explored the willingness of business leaders to sacrifice loopholes in return for lowering the top corporate tax rate, currently 35 percent. The approach officials are now discussing would drop the top rate as low as 26 percent, largely by curbing or eliminating tax breaks for depreciation and for domestic manufacturing.

This may be a worthwhile proposal, but this is an example where it would be wise to “look before you leap.” Or, for fans of Let’s Make a Deal, let’s see what’s behind Door Number 2.

To judge Obama’s plan, it is important to have the right benchmark. An ideal corporate tax system obviously should have a low tax rate. And it also should have no double taxation (tax corporate income at the business level or tax it at the individual level, but don’t tax it at both levels).

But it’s also important to have a simple and neutral system. The right definition of corporate income for any given year is (or should be) total revenue minus total costs. What’s left is income.

This may seem to be a statement of the obvious, but it’s not the way the corporate tax code works. The system has thousands of complicated provisions, some of which provide special loopholes (such as the corrupt ethanol credit) that allow firms to understate their income, and some of which impose discriminatory penalties by forcing companies to overstate their income.

Consider the case of depreciation. The vast majority of people understandably have no idea what this term means, but it sounds like a special tax break. After all, who wants big corporations to lower their tax bills by taking advantage of something that sounds so indecipherable.

In reality, though, depreciation simply refers to the tax treatment of investment costs. Let’s say a company buys a new machine (which would increase productivity and thus boost wages) for $10 million. Under a sensible and simple tax system, that company would include that $10 million when adding up all their costs, which then would be subtracted from total revenue to determine income.

But the corporate tax code doesn’t let companies properly recognize the cost of new investments. Instead, they are only allowed to deduct (depreciate) a fraction of the cost the first year, followed by more the next year, and so on and so on depending on the specific depreciation rules for different types of investments.

To keep the example simple, let’s say there is “10-year straight line depreciation” for the new machine. That means a company can only deduct $1 million each year and they have to wait an entire decade before getting to fully deduct the cost of the new machine.

Ultimately, the firm does deduct the full $10 million, but the delay (in some cases, about 40 years) means that a company, for all intents and purposes, is being taxed on a portion of its investment expenditures. This is because they lose the use of their money, and also because even low levels of inflation mean that deductions are worth significantly less in future years than they are today.

To put it in terms that are easy to understand, imagine if the government suddenly told you that you had to wait 10 years to deduct your personal exemption!

Let’s now circle back to President Obama’s proposal. With the information we now have, there is no way of determining whether this proposal is a net plus or a net minus. A lower rate is great, of course, but perhaps not if the government doesn’t let you accurately measure your expenses and therefore forces you to overstate your income.

I’ll hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

P.S. It’s also important to understand that a “deduction” in the business tax code does not imply loophole. If you remember the correct definition of business income (total revenue minus total costs), this means a business gets to “deduct” its expenses (such as wages paid to workers) from total revenue to determine taxable income. Some deductions are loopholes, of course, which is why a  simple, fair, and honest system should be based on cash flow. Which is how business are treated under the flat tax.

Republicans are fighting about taxes. But they’re fighting with each other, not Democrats. I’ve already written about this topic once, but the issue has become more heated, and the stakes have become much larger. And this time I’m going to focus on the political implications.

First, some background. One side of this battle is led by Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, who is the organizer of the no-tax-increase pledge. Grover argues that America’s fiscal problem is too much spending and that higher taxes are economically and politically foolish.

The other side of the conflict is led by Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who argues that America’s fiscal problem is too much red ink and that higher taxes are a necessary price to strike a deal with Democrats that supposedly will reduce budget deficits.

The first  skirmish in this fight involved ethanol tax credits. Senator Coburn wanted to get rid of the credit, which everyone agrees is economically destructive and fundamentally corrupt.

But there’s a catch. when you get rid a tax preference, even an odious one, that means the government gets more money. In other words a tax increase. Senator Coburn has no problem with that outcome.

Grover Norquist says that all of the arguments against ethanol are correct, but he says that any proposal to get rid of the credit should be accompanied by a tax cut of equal magnitude.

If the ethanol credit is worth about $6 billion per year, as Senator Coburn’s office states, then find a tax cut of similar size, pair it with the ethanol credit, and kill two birds with one stone. Seems like the best of all possible outcomes, which is why Grover is correct from a policy perspective.

The fight over the ethanol credit may seem like a tempest in a teapot, but it was symbolically important – particularly since it is a precursor for the much bigger fight about whether GOPers should agree to a budget deal with Democrats.

Indeed, this may already be happening as part of the “Gang of Six” negotiations, with Senator Coburn and two other Republican Senators joining three Democrats in putting together some sort of grand compromise (presumably something similar to what was proposed by Obama’s Fiscal Commission).

In this case, the tax increase could be enormous, well over $1 trillion. No wonder this battle is getting heated. Here are some excerpts from a recent story in the Washington Post.

Republicans are feuding over whether to abandon the party’s long-held opposition to higher taxes in pursuit of a deficit-cutting deal with Democrats. …both sides say this cuts to the core of a quandary for the GOP: Will the cause of trimming deficits run aground on the conservative principle that the government must not increase the amount of money it takes in through taxes? …“If we don’t do something, what we’ve done is put the country at risk,” Coburn said in an interview. “I agree we ought to cut spending, but will we ever get the spending cut to the level that we need to without some type of compromise?” Norquist…argues that bipartisan deals struck by Presidents Ronald Reagan in 1982 and George H.W. Bush in 1990, both of which entailed increased taxes, resulted in bigger government rather than spending cuts that both men thought they had secured. “This is a fantasy on the part of the liberal Democrats that the Republicans would be stupid enough to repeat 1990 and throw away a winning hand politically,” Norquist said.

As the excerpt correctly acknowledges, this issue deals with both economics and politics. From an economic perspective, there are all sorts of important issues:

1. What is better for the economy, lower spending or higher taxes?

2. Is it possible to balance the budget without higher taxes?

3. Would tax increases be used for deficit reduction or more spending?

But I covered these issues in my earlier post, so lets’ look at the political implications. Grover asked, in the Washington Post article, “Why would you elect a Republican Senate if they just sat down with Obama and raised everyone’s taxes?” And I was quoted about how abandoning the no-tax-hike position would heavily damage the GOP.

How the debate among Republicans is resolved in the coming weeks will play a large role in determining whether a grand bipartisan bargain on deficit reduction is possible. “There’s a significant split over whether to put taxes on the table,” said Dan Mitchell, an economist at the libertarian Cato Institute and a Norquist ally. Mitchell said the disagreement largely pits House and Senate Republicans against each other and gives Democrats a potential political edge. “Obama has it within his power to drive a big wedge between House and Senate GOP-ers and turn the tax issue from something that works on behalf of Republicans into something that works against them,” he said.

To elaborate on the last point, the no-tax-increase pledge helps the GOP because it sends a signal to all voters that they will not be raped and pillaged (at least in excess of what is happening now).

This puts Democrats in a tough position. They can play the politics of class warfare (as Obama likes to do) and say only the “rich” will pay higher taxes, but voters don’t dislike their upper-income neighbors. Moreover, they probably suspect that Democrats have a very broad definition of what counts as rich, so they instinctively gravitate to the GOP position. After all, the only sure way of avoiding a tax hike on yourself is to oppose tax hikes for everyone.

If Republicans put tax increases on the table, however, the politics get turned upside down. Instead of being united against all tax increases, voters realize somebody is going to get mugged and they have an incentive to make sure they’re not the ones who get victimized.

That’s when soak-the-rich taxes become very appealing. Democrats, for all intents and purposes, can appeal to average voters by targeting the so-called rich. And even though voters will be skeptical about what Democrats really want, they don’t want to be the primary target of the political predators in Washington.

Think of it this way. You’re a wildebeest running away from a pack of hyenas, but you know one member of your herd will get caught and killed. You despise hyenas, but at that critical moment, you’re main goal is wanting another member of the herd to bite the dust.

This is why surrendering to tax increases put Republicans in a no-win situation. They oppose class-warfare taxes because they understand the disproportionately damaging impact of higher top income tax rates and increased double taxation of dividends and capital gains. So when GOPers get bullied into agreeing to raise taxes, they want to target less destructive sources of revenue. But that usually means that taxes that are more likely to hit the middle class.

Needless to say, Democrats almost always win if there is a fight on whether to tax the middle class or to tax the rich.

Senator Coburn’s heart is in the right place, but he is creating a win-win situation for Democrats. By putting taxes on the table, he is giving Democrats a policy victory and a political victory.

I periodically get emails and phone calls from people wanting me to respond to particular statements from politicians, columnists, and other high-profile figures.

Not surprisingly, Paul Krugman occasionally is the subject of these communications, particularly with regards to his view that Keynesian spending is an elixir and universal cure for economic stagnation.

I certainly have waded into the so-called stimulus fight, addressing the issue over and over and over again. But I generally try to comment on the underlying economic and political issues while avoiding pointless arguments with other people (not always with total success, as seen here and here).

The most recent Krugman-related email I received, however, has nothing to do with fiscal policy. It deals with his views on housing bubbles. Here’s what he advised back in 2002.

To fight this recession the Fed needs more than a snapback; it needs soaring household spending to offset moribund business investment. And to do that, as Paul McCulley of Pimco put it, Alan Greenspan needs to create a housing bubble to replace the Nasdaq bubble.

Given what has happened in the past five years, Krugman’s endorsement of a housing bubble certainly leaves him vulnerable. And if it turns out that Alan Greenspan took his advice, that would be rather damning.

But I think he should be criticized for his general support for economic intervention, not his specific recommendation for a housing bubble.

Sure, his advice doesn’t look very good with the benefit of hindsight, but economists are notoriously awful forecasters, as I’ve noted before. Moreover, Krugman legitimately could argue that his advice was for the specific circumstances of 2002, and not a permanent recommendation.

That’s why my criticism is limited to his overall belief that government should steer the economy. And if you want to understand that issue, this post looking at the work of Robert Higgs is a great place to start.

P.S. If you want some amusing Krugman-baiting, you should read Best of the Web by James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal. Taranto often refers to Krugman as the “former Enron adviser” and routinely mocks Krugman for his silly assertion that horror stories about healthcare in the United Kingdom are false.

There hasn’t been much good economic news in recent years, but one bright spot for the economy is that the United States is a haven for foreign investors and this has helped attract more than $10 trillion to American capital markets according to Commerce Department data.

These funds are hugely important for the health of the U.S. financial sector and are a critical source of funds for new job creation and other forms of investment.

This is a credit to the competitiveness of American banks and other financial institutions, but we also should give credit to politicians. For more than 90 years, Congress has approved and maintained laws to attract investment from overseas. As a general rule, foreigners are not taxed on interest they earn in America. Moreover, by not requiring it to be reported to the IRS, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have effectively blocked foreign governments from taxing this U.S.-source income.

This is why it is so disappointing and frustrating that the Internal Revenue Service is creating grave risks for the American economy by pushing a regulation that would drive a significant slice of this foreign capital to other nations. More specifically, the IRS wants banks to report how much interest they pay foreign depositors so that this information can be forwarded to overseas tax authorities.

Yes, you read correctly. The IRS is seeking to abuse its regulatory power to overturn existing law.

Not surprisingly, many members of Congress are rather upset by this rogue behavior.

Senator Rubio, for instance, just sent a letter to President Obama, slamming the IRS and urging the withdrawal of the regulation.

At a time when unemployment remains high and economic growth is lagging, forcing banks to report interest paid to nonresident aliens would encourage the flight of capital overseas to jurisdictions without onerous reporting requirements, place unnecessary burdens on the American economy, put our financial system at a fundamental competitive disadvantage, and would restrict access to capital when our economy can least afford it. …I respectfully ask that Regulation 146097-09 be permanently withdrawn from consideration. This regulation would have a highly detrimental effect on our economy at a time when pro-growth measures are sorely needed.

And here’s what the entire Florida House delegation (including all Democrats) had to say in a separate letter organized by Congressman Posey.

America’s financial institutions benefit greatly from deposits of foreigners in U.S. banks. These deposits help finance jobs and generate economic growth… For more than 90 years, the United States has recognized the importance of foreign deposits and has refrained from taxing the interest earned by them or requiring their reporting. Unfortunately, a rule proposed by the Internal Revenue Service would overturn this practice and likely result in the flight of hundreds of billions of dollars from U.S. financial institutions. …According to the Commerce Department, foreigners have $10.6 trillion passively invested in the U.S. economy, including nearly “$3.6 trillion reported by U.S. banks and securities brokers.” In addition, a 2004 study from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University estimated that “a scaled back version of the rule would drive $88 billion from American financial institutions,” and this version of the regulation will be far more damaging.

Both Texas Senators also have registered their opposition. Senators Hutchison and Cornyn wrote to the Obama Administration earlier this month.

We are very concerned that this proposed regulation will bring serious harm to the Texas economy, should it go into effect. …Forgoing the taxation of deposit interest paid to certain global investors is a long-standing tax policy that helps attract capital investment to the United States. For generations, these investors have placed their funds in institutions in Texas and across the United States because of the safety of our banks. Another reason that many of these investors deposit funds in American institutions is the instability in their home countries. …With less capital, community banks will be able to extend less credit to working families and small businesses. Ultimately, working families and small businesses will bear the brunt of this ill-advised rule. Given the ongoing fragility of our nation’s economy, we must not pursue policies that will send away job-creating capital.We ask you to withdraw the IRS’s proposed REG-14609-09. The United States should continue to encourage deposits from global investors, as our nation and our economy are best served by this policy.

Their dismay shouldn’t be too surprising since their state would be especially disadvantaged. Here are key passages from a story in the Houston Chronicle.

Texas bankers fear Mexican nationals will yank their deposits if the institutions are required to report to the Internal Revenue Service the interest income non-U.S. residents earn. …such a requirement would drive billions of dollars in deposits to other countries from banks in Texas and other parts the country, hindering the economic recovery, bankers argue. About a trillion dollars in deposits from foreign nationals are in U.S. bank accounts, according to some estimates. …The issue is of particular concern to some banks in South Texas, where many Mexican nationals have moved deposits because they don’t feel their money is safe in institutions in Mexico. …”This proposal has caused a wave of panic in Mexico,” said Lindsay Martin, an estate-planning lawyer with Oppenheimer Blend Harrison + Tate in San Antonio. He has received in recent weeks more than a dozen calls from Mexican nationals and U.S.-based financial planners with questions on the rule. …Jabier Rodriguez, chief executive of Pharr-based Lone Star National Bank, said not one Mexican national he has spoken to backs the rule. “Several of them have said if it were to happen, then there’s no reason for us to have our money here anymore,” he said. Many Mexican nationals worry that the data could end up in the wrong hands, jeopardizing their safety. If people in Mexico and some South American nations find out they have a million dollars in an FDIC-insured account in the United States, “their families could be kidnapped,” added Alex Sanchez, president of the Florida Bankers Association.

For those who want more information about this critical issue, here’s a video explaining why the IRS’s unlawful regulation is very bad for the American economy.

It’s not too surprising to learn that spending money on “high-speed” rail is foolish. And it’s hardly a revelation to learn that politicians over-promise and under-deliver when they push through these boondoggles.

My Cato colleague, Randall O’Toole, has written extensively about these money-losing white-elephant projects. But it’s not exactly shocking news that libertarians would resist wasteful government spending.

But it is stunning when establishment leftists admit that such programs are a mistake.

Here are excerpts from a column by Charles Lane, an editorial writer for the Washington Post. Yes, your eyes are not deceiving you. Even folks at the Washington Post are recognizing (or at least beginning to recognize) that government is a giant sink-hole that squanders tax dollars and undermines prosperity.

Today, Liu Zhijun is ruined, and his high-speed rail project is in trouble. On Feb. 25, he was fired for “severe violations of discipline” — code for embezzling tens of millions of dollars. Seems his ministry has run up $271 billion in debt — roughly five times the level that bankrupted General Motors. But ticket sales can’t cover debt service that will total $27.7 billion in 2011 alone. Safety concerns also are cropping up.

…On April 13, the government cut bullet-train speeds 30 mph to improve safety, energy efficiency and affordability. The Railway Ministry’s tangled finances are being audited. Construction plans, too, are being reviewed.

Liu’s legacy, in short, is a system that could drain China’s economic resources for years. So much for the grand project that Thomas Friedman of the New York Times likened to a “moon shot” and that President Obama held up as a model for the United States.

…China’s train wreck was eminently foreseeable. High-speed rail is a capital-intensive undertaking that requires huge borrowing upfront to finance tracks, locomotives and cars, followed by years in which ticket revenue covers debt service — if all goes well. “Any . . . shortfall in ridership or yield, can quickly create financial stress,” warns a 2010 World Bank staff report.

Such “shortfalls” are all too common. Japan’s bullet trains needed a bailout in 1987. Taiwan’s line opened in 2007 and needed a government rescue in 2009. …[T]he Beijing-Tianjin line, built at a cost of $46 million per mile, is losing more than $100 million per year. …On the whole, I’d say China should envy us.

I suppose there are some good jokes to make about Pakistan employing transgender tax collectors in an attempt to coerce more money from taxpayers, but I’m enough of a policy wonk to have serious questions about the system.

First, why does the government need to “shame” people. Can’t they just arrest taxpayers and/or seize their property? Or do Pakistani taxpayers actually enjoy the presumption of innocence, unlike their oppressed American counterparts?

Second, I read stories about religious zealots in Pakistan killing Christians and stoning adulterers. How do these tax collectors escape persecution? Is it that they only operate in a big city, which is more tolerant, while the really awful stuff happens in rural areas?

Third, why does Pakistan even bother with an income tax. I commented last year about Hillary Clinton’s ideological advice to Pakistan about squeezing the so-called rich, but the CNN story excerpted below says only 1 percent of the population is affected. What’s the point? The tax obviously doesn’t generate much revenue. Why not get rid of an oppressive law and make the country a tax haven?

Miss your tax deadline in the United States this weekend, and you might get a nasty letter at your door. In Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, you might get Riffee and the gang. They are “transgender” tax collectors — whose weapons include flamboyancy, surprise — and a little lipstick. In a move that speaks volumes about the lengths to which Pakistan is going to tackle tax evasion, Karachi officials are using Riffee – who like many people in South Asia works under a single name – and her team as enforcers with a difference. They are sent to the businesses or houses of debtors. The aim — in this very conservative Muslim society — to embarrass tax debtors into paying up. Riffee — like her tax-collector friends Sana and Kohan — is physically a man, but prefers to be called and dress as a woman. Their job is quite simple: each morning they turn up to work and get a list of missed payments. One by one, they make house-calls, causing trouble at each debtor’s home or office, trying to get them to pay up. It’s not clear how effective this tactic is, but officials insist they would not do it if it did not work. “Their appearance causes great embarrassment amongst the people,” said Sajid Hussein Bhatti, the tax superintendent who gives Riffee her orders every morning.

Pakistan does have a lot of tax evasion, to be sure, but the unwillingness to comply is actually just a symptom of high tax rates and and a corrupt government. People don’t like paying tax when they feel like they are getting ripped off to finance a wasteful public sector. That’s true in Pakistan, Greece, and just about every other nation. That’s why lower tax rates are the best way to boost compliance.

(h/t Pejman Yousefzadeh)

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