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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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Happy Tax Day! Or, if you’re like me, happy tax extension filing day.

In the past couple of days, I’ve posted about the benefits of a better tax system and the unfairness of the current system.

Those were compelling posts, at least I hope. But now let’s tie these themes together. Art Laffer has a column in the Wall Street Journal that explains the comprehensively awful burden of the internal revenue code – and also shows the promise of a better approach.

There is a lot more to taxes than simply paying the bill. Taxpayers must spend significantly more than $1 in order to provide $1 of income-tax revenue to the federal government.

To start with, individuals and businesses must pay the government the $1 in revenue plus the costs of their own time spent filing and complying with the tax code; plus the tax collection costs of the IRS; plus the tax compliance outlays that individuals and businesses pay to help them file their taxes.

In a study published last week by the Laffer Center, my colleagues Wayne Winegarden, John Childs and I estimate that these costs alone are a staggering $431 billion annually. This is a cost markup of 30 cents on every dollar paid in taxes. And this is not even a complete accounting of the costs of tax complexity.

…David Keating of the National Taxpayers Union provides a useful perspective on how big the tax compliance industry is. According to his research, as of 2009 the income-tax industry employed “more workers than are employed at the five biggest employers among Fortune 500 companies—more than all the workers at Wal-Mart Stores, United Parcel Service, McDonald’s, International Business Machines, and Citigroup combined.” Without diminishing in any way the professionalism of tax attorneys, accountants and financial planners, all of these efforts produce nothing other than, well, tax compliance.

…A tax reform to a simple flat-rate tax with no deductions would significantly reduce the current complexity inherent in our progressive tax system, which is full of loopholes, exemptions and special interest carve-outs. Based on the estimates from our new study, if a static, revenue-neutral flat-tax reform were to reduce the tax complexity in half, the long-term growth in our economy would increase by around one-half of 1% per year.

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Since it is tax-filing season and we all want to honor our wonderful tax system, let’s go into the archives and show this video from last year about the onerous compliance costs of the internal revenue code.

Narrated by Hiwa Alaghebandian of the American Enterprise Institute, the mini-documentary explains how needless complexity creates an added burden – sort of like a hidden tax that we pay for the supposed privilege of paying taxes.

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One of my many frustrations of working in Washington is dealing with perpetual-motion-machine assertions. The classic example is Keynesian economics, which is based on the notion that you magically create additional economic activity by having the government spend money instead of allowing the private sector to decide how it gets spent (in an especially bizarre display of this thinking, Nancy Pelosi actually said that subsidizing unemployment was the best way to create jobs).

Another example of this backwards analysis can be found in the debate over the IRS budget. The President is resisting a GOP proposal to modestly trim the IRS’s gargantuan $12.5 billion budget and his argument is that we should actually boost funding for the tax collection bureaucracy since that will mean more IRS agents squeezing more money out of more taxpayers.

Here are some excerpts from an Associated Press report about the controversy.

Every dollar the Internal Revenue Service spends for audits, liens and seizing property from tax cheats brings in more than $10, a rate of return so good the Obama administration wants to boost the agency’s budget.House Republicans, seeing the heavy hand of a too-big government, beg to differ. They’ve already voted to cut the IRS budget by $600 million this year and want bigger cuts in 2012. …IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman told the committee Tuesday that the $600 million cut in this year’s budget would result in the IRS collecting $4 billion less through tax enforcement programs. The Democrat-controlled Senate is unlikely to pass a budget cut that big. But given the political climate on Capitol Hill, Obama’s plan to increase IRS spending is unlikely to pass, either. Obama has already increased the IRS budget by 10 percent since he took office, to nearly $12.5 billion. The president’s budget proposal for 2012 would increase IRS spending by an additional 9 percent — adding 5,100 employees. …Obama’s 2012 budget proposal for the IRS includes $473 million and 1,269 new positions to start implementing the health care law.

Unlike Keynesian economics, there actually is some truth to Obama’s position. The fantasy estimate of $10 of new revenue for every $1 spent on additional bureaucrats is clearly ludicrous, but it is equally obvious that many Americans would send less money to Washington if they didn’t have to worry about a coercive and powerful tax-collection bureaucracy that had the power to throw them in jail.

This is an empirical question, at least with regards to the narrow issue of whether more IRS agents “pay for themselves” by shaking down sufficient numbers of taxpayers. Reducing the number of IRS bureaucrats by 90 percent, from about 100,000 to 10,000, for instance, surely would be a net loss to the government since the money saved on IRS compensation would be trivial compared to the loss of tax revenue.

But that doesn’t mean that a reduction of 10,000 or 20,000 also would lead to a net loss. And it certainly does not mean that adding 10,000 or 20,000 more IRS agents will result in enough new revenue to compensate for the salaries and benefits of a bigger bureaucracy. Even left-wing economists presumably understand the concept of diminishing returns.

But let’s assume that the White House is correct and that more IRS agents would be a net plus from the government’s perspective. The Administration would like us to reflexively endorse a bigger and more aggressive IRS, but public policy should not be based on what is a “net plus” for the government.

There are two ways to promote better tax compliance. The Obama approach, as we’ve read above, is to expand the size and power of the IRS. Up to a point, this policy can be “successful” in extracting additional money from the productive sector of the economy.

The alternative approach, by contrast, seeks better compliance by lowering tax rates and reforming/simplifying tax systems. This course of action boosts compliance by making evasion and avoidance less attractive. People are much less likely to cheat if the government isn’t being too greedy, and they’re also more likely to comply if they think there is less waste, fraud, corruption, and favoritism in the tax code.

Let’s now put this discussion in context. Obama wants more IRS agents in large part to enforce his new scheme for government-run healthcare. Yet that’s a perfect example of what I modestly call Mitchell’s Law – politicians doing one bad thing (expanding the IRS) only because they did another bad thing (enacting a health care bill that made the tax code even more convoluted and punitive).

So instead of making the IRS bigger in response to a bad healthcare law, why not repeal that bad law and shrink the size of the IRS? Even better, why not junk the entire tax code so we can replace the IRS with a system that is honest and fair?

And if these big steps are not immediately feasible, at least cut the IRS budget so that awful laws are enforced in a less destructive manner.

This Center for Freedom and Prosperity video has additional details about the national nightmare we call the IRS.

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Here’s a video arguing for the abolition of the corporate income tax. The visuals are good and it touches on key issues such as competitiveness.

I do have one complaint about the video, though it is merely a sin of omission. There is not enough attention paid to the issue of double taxation. Yes, America’s corporate tax rate is very high, but that is just one of the layers of taxation imposed by the internal revenue code. Both the capital gains tax and the tax on dividends result in corporate income being taxed at least two times.

These are points I made in my very first video, which is a good companion to the other video.

There is a good argument, by the way, for keeping the corporate tax and instead getting rid of the extra layers of tax on dividends and capital gains. Either approach would get rid of double taxation, so the economic benefits would be identical. But the compliance costs of taxing income at the corporate level (requiring a relatively small number of tax returns) are much lower than the compliance costs of taxing income at the individual level (requiring the IRS to track down the tens of millions of shareholders).

Indeed, this desire for administrative simplicity is why the flat tax adopts the latter approach (this choice does not exist with a national sales tax since the government collects money when income is spent rather than when it is earned).

But that’s a secondary issue. If there’s a chance to get rid of the corporate income tax, lawmakers should jump at the opportunity.

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The IRS certainly deserves lots of condemnation for its rogue actions, including a $200 fine for a taxpayer who supposedly underpaid his tax bill by 4 pennies.

But the tax-collection agency also should be criticized for blundering incompetence. In the past, I’ve mocked the Internal Revenue Service for sending checks to convicts. Now it’s time to rip the bureaucracy for its stunning failure to guard against fraud in the so-called earned income credit program. And we’re talking big bucks. Here’s a blurb from an AP report.

More than $10 billion a year in tax credits for low-income families go to people who don’t qualify for them, and the Internal Revenue Service isn’t doing enough to stop them, a government investigator said Wednesday. Using the tax agency’s own numbers, the investigator said about quarter of all earned income tax credits go to families that don’t meet the requirements. The IRS has known about the improper payments for years but has not done enough to stop them, said J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector for tax administration. From 2003 to 2009, improper payments have totaled at least $70 billion, according to a report issued by George. In 2009, between $11.2 billion and $13.3 billion was improperly paid out.

Bush and Obama have dramatically increased the IRS’s budget in recent years, but that money obviously is not being put to good use. The time has come to downsize the IRS. This video provides plenty of evidence.

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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.

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Our tax system in America is an absurd nightmare, but at least we have some ability to monitor what is happening. We can’t get too aggressive (nobody wants the ogres at the IRS breathing down their necks), but at least we can adjust our withholding levels and control what gets put on our annual tax returns. The serfs in the United Kingdom are in much worse shape. To a large degree, the tax authority (Inland Revenue) decides everyone’s tax liability, and taxpayers have no role other than to meekly acquiesce. But now the statists over in London have decided to go one step farther and have proposed to require employers to send all paychecks directly to the government. The politicians and bureaucrats that comprise the ruling class then would decide how much to pass along to the people actually earning the money. Here’s a CNBC report on the issue.

The UK’s tax collection agency is putting forth a proposal that all employers send employee paychecks to the government, after which the government would deduct what it deems as the appropriate tax and pay the employees by bank transfer.

The proposal by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) stresses the need for employers to provide real-time information to the government so that it can monitor all payments and make a better assessment of whether the correct tax is being paid.

“If HMRC has direct access to employees’ bank accounts and makes a mistake, people are going to feel very exposed and vulnerable,” [George Bull, head of Tax at Baker Tilly] said.

And the chance of widespread mistakes could be high, according to Bull. HMRC does not have a good track record of handling large computer systems and has suffered high-profile errors with data, he said.

…[T]he cost of implementing the new system would be “phenomenal,” Bull pointed out.

…The Institute of Directors (IoD), a UK organization created to promote the business agenda of directors and entreprenuers, said in a press release it had major concerns about the proposal to allow employees’ pay to be paid directly to HMRC.

This is withholding on steroids. Politicians love pay-as-you-earn (as it’s called on the other side of the ocean), largely because it disguises the burden of government. Many workers never realize how much of their paychecks are confiscated by politicians. Indeed, they probably think greedy companies are to blame when higher tax burdens result in less take-home pay. This new system could have an even more corrosive effect. It presumably would become more difficult for taxpayers to know how much government is costing them, and some people might even begin to think that their pay is the result of political kindness. After all, zoo animals often feel gratitude to the keepers that feed (and enslave) them.

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I sympathize with almost all taxpayers, but it’s difficult to feel sorry for government workers who get in trouble with the IRS. Compensation packages for federal bureaucrats are twice as lucrative as those for workers in the productive sector of the economy and their pensions are similarly extravagant. Yet they often can’t be bothered to fully pay their taxes, owing billions of dollars to the IRS according to a Washington Post report. Among the biggest scofflaws are the folks at the Postal Service, who have accumulated more than $283 million of unpaid taxes. Retired bureaucrats, meanwhile, have amassed nearly $455 million of back taxes. Even tax collectors sometimes fall behind. Treasury Department bureaucrats owe $7.7 million. How hard can it be for them to walk down the hallway and cough up? Or do they think they’re exempt since their boss barely got a slap on the wrist after “forgetting” to declare $80,000? The most startling part of the story, though, is the degree of tax dodging on Capitol Hill. Here’s an excerpt from the story.

Capitol Hill employees owed $9.3 million in overdue taxes at the end of last year…

The debt among Hill employees has risen at a faster rate than the overall tax debt on the government’s books, according to Internal Revenue Service data.

…The IRS data…shows 638 employees, or about 4 percent, of the 18,000 Hill workers owe money, a slightly higher percentage than the 3 percent delinquency rate among all returns filed nationwide.

…”If you’re on the federal payroll and you’re not paying your taxes, you should be fired,” [Congressman] Chaffetz said in an interview. He said the policy should apply across the board and “there should be no special exemptions.”

The shocking part about this blurb, at least to me, is not the 638 staffers who owe money to the IRS. It’s the fact that there are 18,000 bureaucrats working for Congress. Do 100 Senators and 435 Representatives really need that many attendants? How I long for the good ol’ days, when each politician had about two staffers. I suspect it’s no coincidence that the federal government was a much smaller burden back when there were far fewer staff.

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When all you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. That old saying makes a lot of sense. As a tax economist, I’m sometimes guilty of looking at all sorts of issues based on their relationship with the tax code. In my defense, however, the tentacles of the IRS now reach into almost every nook and cranny of our society. And greedy tax collectors on the state and local level make a bad situation even worse. Two things from today’s inbox illustrate my point.

First, you may remember that the IRS is going to be a chief enforcer of Obamacare. Well, our friends at the tax collection agency have just released a draft form for the “credit for small employer health insurance premiums.” We already have a tax system that takes up 72,000 pages and requires more than 1,000 different forms and publications, but now we can add 25 more lines of mind-numbing, eye-glazing bureaucratese, all of which doubtlessly will lead to innocent mistakes that cause many more taxpayers to have nightmarish interactions with the IRS. (click here to see a full-size version of the form)

Second, Hiwa Alaghebandian at the American Enterprise Institute has an article on telecommuting which largely focuses on the environmental and quality-of-live advantages of people working from home. What does this have to do with taxes, you ask? It turns out that greedy state politicians have an annoying tendency of trying to tax people who live elsewhere. This form of taxation without representation imposes both bureaucratic and economic barriers that hinder an otherwise desirable development.

Possibly the biggest barrier to telework are state tax laws. Many states implement some form of double taxation on out-of-state teleworkers. For example, New York applies a “convenience of the employer” doctrine on out-of-state teleworkers who work for a New York–based organization, which requires them to pay income tax to New York for telework days outside of the state. All work done outside of New York is subject to New York income tax, unless the work is done outside of New York out of necessity to the employer . In 2005, the New York State Court of Appeals upheld the “convenience of the employer” doctrine in Huckaby vs. New York State Division of Tax Appeals. Thomas Huckaby, a Tennessee resident, worked for a New York–based company, but teleworked 75 percent of the time. On his New York State nonresident tax returns, Huckaby allocated 25 percent of his income to New York, and 75 percent to Tennessee; however, the New York State tax department determined that Huckaby should have paid New York income tax on 100 percent of his income. The court sided with the New York State tax department, stating that the doctrine was constitutionally applied. As many as 35 states have some form of double taxation for teleworkers.

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