Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Gigantic Journalistic Investigation Begins Ripping Mask off Bank Secrecy

While Mitt Romney may be fading from view in the wake of his defeat on November 6, the issue of tax havens is definitely not following suit.

Via the Tax Justice Network, I've just learned of a massive, multi-national joint investigation into secrecy jurisdictions by three very heavy hitters, the Guardian, BBC Panorama, and the U.S.-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). Though they are starting out with the United Kingdom and the seriously understudied situation in the British Virgin Islands, ICIJ has announced that this is just the start of a multi-year investigative project and that there are "many more countries to come in the next 12 months." Further, according to ICIJ, the investigation involves literally "dozens of jurisdictions and in collaboration with dozens of media partners and freelance journalists around the world" (emphasis in original).

As I write this, the first and second articles (Nov. 25 and 26) in the Guardian's series rank number two and number one in the "most viewed" articles in the last 24 hours. One of the most amazing articles discusses the use of "nominee" directors, people who pretend to be a company or foundation's directors in order to hide the true ownership from authorities. Incredibly, these nominee directors frequently do not know the companies they are supposedly responsible for; they just know that they are getting paid for the use of their names. Be sure to check out the BBC undercover film linked from this Guardian article.

The tremendous scope of the journalistic investigation begs the question: where is government on this? Part of the answer is that government is way behind the curve. In 1999, the British government claimed to have stamped out a nominee sham colorfully named the "Sark Lark," for the tiny Channel Island of Sark where the nominees lived. However, it turns out that the perpetrators of the Sark Lark have simply moved all over the world to continue their scam; the BBC caught up with one former Sark resident in Mauritius.

The other part of the answer is that much of these activities are, in the immortal title of David Cay Johnston's book, "perfectly legal." It appears that in many cases governments do not make the effort to sift the illegal from the legal activities.

But let's not forget: tax havens cost the middle class worldwide hundreds of billions of dollars in tax revenue that they have to make up. The evidence is mounting that they are a central piece of the world financial system. Fundamental reform is necessary and a massive journalistic effort like this one will help produce the outrage to make it possible. I'm looking forward to more fruits of this investigation.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

What the Fiscal Cliff Means for the Middle Class

Now that the election is over, it seems like all the politicians and pundits can talk about is the so-called "fiscal cliff." But the chatter around the fiscal cliff is deeply weird, so in this post I will explain what it is and what the issues involved mean for the middle class.

Just what is the fiscal cliff? It is the combination of spending cuts and tax increases set to take place on January 1 based on several different laws. Estimates of the consequences run as high as $800 billion next year, or 5.2% of the country's $15.29 trillion gross domestic product in 2011. Yes, that would mean a recession, with obvious consequences for the middle class. But this is only true if we did nothing after January 1, and that's not going to happen.

To put it another way, $800 billion is a 72.7% cut in the government's budget deficit for the just ended 2012 fiscal year. You would think this would make the people calling for an immediate cut in the deficit happy, but nooooo. Just the opposite, which is the weirdest aspect of the entire debate. I'll come back to that in a minute; first, let's look at the main components of the fiscal cliff.

The biggest chunk is $426 billion from the final expiration of the Bush tax cuts, according to a Bloomberg analysis in July. Of this, $358 billion is for the first $250,000 of all taxpayers' earnings, and the remaining $68 billion is for the tax cuts for income above $250,000 ($200,000 for a single person) that President Obama wants to get rid of. Both Republicans and Democrats want to retain the tax break for 98% of households, but Republicans will try to hold it hostage to the cuts for the other 2%. Since the Bush tax cuts expire if nothing gets done (because they were originally passed through the Senate's reconciliation procedure, which gave them a 10-year lifespan; then renewed for 2 years in 2010), on January 1 the Republicans will have no more leverage on this. Thus, I expect that the middle class tax cuts will be made permanent and, by early January at the latest, the $68 billion will be all that will have expired. Since the wealthy spend less of their income than do the middle class or poor, this tax increase will have little contractionary effect on the economy.

Another set of tax provision affecting couples with over $250,000 and individuals over $200,000 is contained in the Affordable Care Act. These folks will have to pay an extra 0.9% tax on earnings over the thresholds for Medicare, and an extra 3.8% on investment income, starting in 2013. According to an Associated Press estimate, this will raise $318 billion over 10 years, so we'll call it $30 billion for 2013. Since this is part of the funding for Obamacare, the President is highly unlikely to budge on this. Again, as a tax hike on the top 2%, it will have relatively little contractionary effect.

There are $110 billion in automatic spending cuts scheduled in 2013 due to the so-called "sequester." These were triggered last year when no deal was made on long-term deficit reduction. With unemployment still at 7.9%, government spending cuts are definitely harmful to the middle class. To the extent that the $55 billion cut from the defense budget comes from overseas spending, there will be little contractionary effect in this country. That is, if we closed a military base in Germany, it would have more of an effect there than here. In any event, since the United States spends 41% of the world's total military expenditure,* we could afford to redirect quite a bit of this $711 billion annual expenditure (China is a very distant second at $143 billion) to other uses. Nation building at home, as the saying goes.

The other $55 billion would come from domestic discretionary spending, so the middle class would bear the full brunt of this. Of course, neither party wants to see "their" favorite budget items cut, so there is a good chance that these spending cuts will be delayed, which would be a good thing, though not as good as shifting some military spending into the domestic budget.

There's more, of course, but the basic outline is clear: we are seeing a replay of last year's debt ceiling "deal," in which Republicans are trying to pass austerity measures the public does not support and did not vote for in the just concluded election. Indeed, a majority voted not just for a Democratic President and a Democratic Senate, but for a Democratic House of Representatives as well, with Republicans maintaining a majority only due to gerrymandering and compliant Republican courts. As Paul Krugman points out, the self-proclaimed "fiscal hawks" are tying themselves up in knots on why going over the cliff is bad when it achieves their goal of debt reduction. The answer, of course, is that they want to cut "low-priority spending," by which they mean programs benefiting the middle class. As Linda Beale argues, the right course for Democrats is to do nothing until January, when the Bush tax cuts will be gone and we can pass tax cuts more targeted to the middle class as well as redirecting spending from our bloated military to domestic programs.

* Source: SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) Military Expenditure Database 2011, http://milexdata.sipri.org

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Online International Political Economy Course

If you've enjoyed my posts, you may be interested in my courses, too. In spring 2013, I will be offering an online course at the advanced undergraduate level in my specialization, international political economy (Political Science 3830). This course will examine the main issues of the global economy, including trade, money, investment, and globalization, from a variety of theoretical perspectives and a special focus on who wins and who loses from different policies. I have taught this course for over 20 years and am now in the process of finalizing the online architecture.

This is a regular course at University of Missouri-St. Louis and you may be able to transfer it into your own degree program; needless to say, check with your adviser. To do this, you would enroll as a visiting student.

You can also enroll as a non-degree student if you are simply interested in the subject and are not taking it as part of a degree program.

This is a 3 credit-hour course. Tuition is $265.60 per credit hour for Missouri residents and residents of 22 counties in western and southern Illinois. Out-of-state tuition is $717.90 per hour. You will need to check what other fees may apply (there is a supplement for online courses; beyond that, I am uncertain).

If you are interested, you will need to apply as a visiting student or non-degree student. See here for more details on the admission process. Feel free to contact me at kpthomas55@hotmail.com if you would like more information.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Bain Capital Avoided $102 Million in Taxes Via Dutch Subsidiary UPDATED

A Dutch newspaper, de Volkskrant, reports today (translation here) that Bain Capital used a Dutch
subsidiary to avoid $102 million on its taxes. This has been picked up
by Taegan Goddard 
and the Atlantic Wire.
The Dutch author wrote a comment on Goddard’s site clarifying that Bain
(not Romney) saved $102 million. From his 2010 and 2011 tax returns,
Romney received $2.1 million in dividends and $5.5 million in capital
gains. Of course, who knows what he received in previous years, since
Romney hasn’t released more tax returns?

Since all the original analysis is in Dutch, which I can't speak, it's hard to say much further at this point, though Bain and the Romney campaign predictably refused to comment. However, the report does show the statement for Bain Capital Fund VIII for the first nine months of 2010 (part of the documents leaked to Gawker, I believe). One illuminating nugget on how private equity makes its money is that the fund reported $174,493,175 in income for the nine months, and a staggering management fee of $46,746,696! This makes it easy to see how private equity folks make so much money whether the underlying investment does well or not.

Of course, this is just one more piece of how the 1% hide their money from taxation. With Romney, it's gotten to the point where we are no longer surprised by this anymore.

Where is the mainstream media on this?

UPDATE: Here is a fuller translation from a Dutch speaker at Daily Kos.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

What Senate Republicans Don't Want You to Find Out

There is a lot of buzz now about the fact, discovered over a month after it happened, that the Congressional Research Service (CRS) had withdrawn one of its research reports due to pressure from Republican Senators. Probably the most commonly used adjectives used to describe the CRS are "respected" and "non-partisan," so what is going on here? The simple answer is that the Republicans didn't like the study's conclusions and complained vociferously to CRS. Why did the CRS give in? No one knows yet, although the New York Times reported:

A person with knowledge of the deliberations, who requested anonymity,
said the Sept. 28 decision to withdraw the report was made against the
advice of the research service’s economics division, and that Mr.
Hungerford [the study's author] stood by its findings.

What was in the report that terrified Republican Senators so much? In fact, a lot more than reported in the media: "Tax Cuts for the Rich Do Not Spur Economic Growth," Talking Points Memo, September 17;  "Tax Cuts for the Rich Cause Income Inequality, Not Economic Growth," Think Progress, September 17; for example.

One major finding is contained in a plot of the top personal income tax rate and real economic growth rates for every year from 1945 to 2010. Contrary to conservative arguments, when the top tax rate was from 70-90+ percent, the country had growth rates averaging 4.2% in the 1950s, but only 1.7% in the 2000s, when the top rate was 35%. Overall, according to Figure 5 of the report, there appears to be no relationship at all between the top tax rate and growth.

It's important to remember, though, that a simple comparison of two variables tells us nothing by itself. It's only when we control for other potential causal factors that we can say whether a relationship does or does not exist between two variables like tax rates and growth. In the report's appendix, the author carries out such a regression analysis, as it's called, and still finds that there is no relationship between the top tax rate and real GDP growth rates.

Moreover, the study takes a look at the ways that lower tax rates are supposed to improve the economy, i.e., by increasing private savings, private investment, and labor productivity growth. In no case does the bivariate analysis (some of which shows higher taxes increasing private savings) or the regression analysis show either the top personal tax rate or the capital gains tax rate having an effect on these intervening drivers of economic growth. This completely undermines the economic arguments for tax cuts as the recipe for a better economy.

But wait, there's more! The diagram (scatterplot) showing the relationship between the top tax rate and the private savings rate shows that the highest private savings rates since 1945 were achieved when the top marginal rate was 70% (see top left of Figure 3), which comports well with recent calculations of the top optimal tax rate (70% or higher). In fact, when the top bracket was 90%, the rate of private savings as a percentage of potential GDP exceeded the rate when it was 40% or below in every year but one!

The other discomfiting finding for the Republican Senators is that lower top tax rates and lower capital gains tax rates increase income inequality. Not only is this obvious in the scatterplots for the top 0.1% and top 0.01%, it remains true in the regression analyses after controlling for other potential causes of the high income shares of the rich.

Tax cuts, then, don't increase economic growth (the ultimate zombie idea, as Paul Krugman says) but do worsen economic inequality. It may even be the case that high top marginal tax rates increase private savings, with the country's historical postwar maximum savings rates coming at a rate of 70%.

What the suppression of this study amounts to, then, is part of the present-day Republican Party's war on science, arithmetic, and knowledge in general. Unable to refute the findings of the CRS report, they demand its censorship instead. As Jared Bernstein says, this is simply scary: "this type of suppression is wholly inconsistent with democracy." That Congress' non-partisan research arm is going along with this makes it especially chilling.

This has nothing to do with law, but it's fascinating

This is really cool.