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Global Tax Revolution: The Rise of Tax Competition and the Battle to Defend It

Global Tax Revolution: The Rise of Tax Competition and the Battle to Defend It

by Chris Edwards, Daniel J. Mitchell

This book explores one of the most dynamic and exciting aspects of globalization international tax competition. With rising mobility and soaring capital flows, individuals and businesses are gaining freedom to work and invest in nations with lower tax rates. That freedom is pressuring governments to cut taxes on income, investment, and wealth. In Global Tax


This book explores one of the most dynamic and exciting aspects of globalization international tax competition. With rising mobility and soaring capital flows, individuals and businesses are gaining freedom to work and invest in nations with lower tax rates. That freedom is pressuring governments to cut taxes on income, investment, and wealth. In Global Tax Revolution, Chris Edwards and Daniel Mitchell chronicle tax reforms around the world in recent decades. They describe the dramatic business tax cuts of Ireland, the flight of successful people from high-tax France, and the introduction of simple flat taxes in more than two dozen nations. Like other aspects of globalization, tax competition is generating intense political opposition. Numerous governments and international organizations are fighting to restrict tax cuts. Edwards and Mitchell challenge those efforts, arguing that tax competition is helping to advance prosperity, expand human rights, and rein in bloated governments. The authors argue that the U.S. economy can be revitalized by embracing competition and overhauling the federal tax code. They discuss how current tax rules suppress wages and investment and describe the tax changes needed for workers and businesses to succeed in the fast-paced global economy. Rather than idly complaining about jobs and capital moving offshore, this book argues that policymakers need to embrace major tax reforms to ensure rising standards of living for Americans in the years ahead.

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Michaels (The Satanic Gases) and Balling (The Heated Debate) claim that, although global warming is real, it does not herald a climate crisis and that human beings cannot "significantly alter the temperature trajectory of the planet." They present detailed evidence that climate data is inaccurate, the fear that permafrost will release huge amounts of the greenhouse gas methane is unfounded and that "horror stories about an imminent collapse of Greenland's ice simply aren't borne out by the fact that it was warmer there for decades in the early 20th century, and for millennia after the end of the last ice age." The authors make persuasive arguments and climate crisis skeptics will applaud the book's message. Other readers may wonder why governments would, as Michaels and Balling suggest, have a stake in manufacturing a crisis, and think that the book's credibility is undermined by the authors' tendency to mix sarcasm with facts and figures ("Earth's temperature is doubtlessly warmer than it was 100 years ago. Get over it") and clear frustration with their minority status in the global warming debate. (Jan.)

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The Cato Institute defines itself as nonpartisan, favoring limited government and individual liberty, but is usually defined by others as libertarian/conservative. Here it addresses "the knowledge gap" on tax policy. Tax rates, both corporate and individual, have dropped in the last 30 years, although tax revenues have not. The authors favor tax competition, country to country (rather than uniform EU- or UN-proposed tax initiatives) and cutting U.S. individual and corporate tax rates, arguing that only then can America meet strong global economic challenges. For large economics and tax policy collections. Also coming from Cato: an up-to-the-minute assessment of the recent Supreme Court decision on gun control in Brian Doherty's Gun Control on Trial: Inside the Supreme Court Battle over the Second Amendment.

—Margaret Heilbrun

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The Rise Of Tax Competition And The Battle To Defend It


Copyright © 2008 Cato Institute
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-933995-18-2

Chapter One


A fear is haunting big governments around the world-the fear of rising tax competition. As globalization advances, individuals and businesses are gaining greater freedom to work and invest in countries with lower taxes. That freedom is eroding the monopoly power of governments and forcing them to reform their tax systems and restrain their fiscal appetites.

Many governments have responded to globalization with tax cuts designed to improve competitiveness and spur growth. Individual income tax rates have plunged in recent decades, and more than two dozen nations have replaced their complex income taxes with simple flat taxes. At the same time, nearly every country has slashed its corporate tax rate, recognizing that business investment and profits have become highly mobile in today's economy.

That is the good news. The bad news is that some governments and international organizations are trying to restrict tax competition. A battle is unfolding between those policymakers wanting to maximize taxation and those understanding that competition is leading to beneficial tax reforms. If plans to stifle tax competition gain ground, growth will be undermined, governments will grow larger, and economic freedom will be curtailed.

In this book, we chronicle the rise in tax competition, which was spurred by the unleashing of international capital flows beginning in the 1970s. We survey the exciting tax reforms that are taking place around the world and explain how these reforms benefit average workers and families. We also examine the backlash against tax competition and describe why the arguments of the critics are mistaken.

The concluding chapter discusses reform options for the United States. In many ways, America has fallen behind on tax reform and now its climate for investment is inferior to that of other major countries. As tax competition intensifies, it is crucial to overhaul the federal tax code to ensure America's continued prosperity and leadership in the world economy.

Globalization Advances and Tax Rates Retreat

Globalization is transforming separate national economies into a single world economy. That process is occurring through rising trade and investment, migration of workers, and transfers of technology. International investment flows have increased roughly tenfold since 1990 as corporations and investors have sought new opportunities in foreign markets.

The world economy is becoming "flat," as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman discussed in a bestselling book of 2005. That means that businesses can locate just about anywhere and ship products to their customers around the globe. Investors can search for opportunities abroad from their desktop computers. And entrepreneurs can raise capital, hire workers, and build factories in any of hundreds of hospitable investment locations.

Friedman skillfully analyzed these trends focusing on technology, skilled workers, and education. But Friedman's book largely ignored the globalization of capital and the importance of America creating a receptive climate for investment. Friedman focused on labor, but mainly overlooked capital.

Friedman also missed the growing importance of tax competition. Yet rising tax competition is a direct result of the flat world economy. As individuals and businesses have gained freedom to take advantage of foreign opportunities, the sensitivity of economic decisions to taxation has increased. Chapter 2 explores how labor, capital, and profits are much more mobile today than just a few decades ago. This mobility is creating increased pressure on countries to reduce tax rates.

As economic mobility has increased, tax rates have tumbled, as we discuss in Chapter 3. Following Britain's lead in the mid-1980s, all major economies have cut their corporate tax rates. Just since the mid-1990s, the average corporate tax rate in the 30-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has fallen from 38 percent to 27 percent. During the same period, the average rate in the European Union plunged from 38 percent to 24 percent.

Since 2000, corporate tax cuts have included Austria (34 to 25 percent), Canada (45 to 34 percent), Germany (52 to 30 percent), Greece (40 to 25 percent), Iceland (30 to 18 percent), Italy (41 to 31 percent), the Netherlands (35 to 26 percent), and Portugal (35 to 25 percent). But corporate tax cuts have spread beyond the OECD countries. This decade, there have been cuts in far-flung places such as Albania (20 to 10 percent), Egypt (40 to 20 percent), Mauritius (25 to 15 percent), Romania (25 to 16 percent), and Russia (35 to 24 percent).

Individual income tax rates have also been cut sharply. The average top rate in the OECD has plummeted 26 percentage points since 1980. Again the trend is global, with the average top rate falling by a similarly large amount in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North America. In addition, 25 nations have scrapped their multirate income taxes and installed flat taxes. The average individual tax rate in this "flat tax club" is just 17 percent.

Most countries have also cut tax rates on dividends and capital gains. Many countries have cut or eliminated taxes on estates and inheritances, and many have abolished annual taxes on wealth, which used to be popular in Europe. Further, withholding taxes on cross-border investments have been cut sharply around the world. All these types of taxes have mobile tax bases, and policymakers figured out that imposing high rates would cause domestic investment to decline and tax bases to shrink dramatically.

The international tax landscape has become remarkably dynamic. After reforms in 1986, the United States had one of the lowest corporate tax rates. But since then, U.S. policymakers have fallen asleep at the switch as other countries have continued to cut. The United States now has the second-highest corporate tax rate in the world. In today's global economy, if a country stands still, it falls behind.

Consider tax rates on dividends. The average tax rate in the OECD-including the burden at both the individual and corporate levels-fell from 50 percent in 2000 to 43 percent in 2007.6 That means that the U.S. rate of 49 percent is now substantially higher than the average as a result of recent tax cuts abroad. Even worse, the U.S. tax rate on dividends is scheduled to rise to a stunning 64 percent in 2011, which would be easily the highest rate in the world.

Tax Competition in Action

Tax competition is broadly defined as the tax-cutting influence that countries exert on one another. That influence operates through many channels. Policymakers worry that the tax base will shrink if they do not respond to foreign tax reforms, and businesses lobby governments for tax cuts to remain competitive. Scholars examine foreign tax reforms for good ideas, and citizens hear about foreign tax cuts and demand the same at home.

Tax competition has been driven by a handful of leading countries, which have inspired others to pursue similar reforms. In the 1980s, Britain and the United States led the way with large cuts to individual and corporate tax rates. In the 1990s, Ireland's rock-bottom business taxes created an investment boom that has been hugely influential in Europe. More recently, it has been flat tax nations such as Estonia and Slovakia that have inspired other countries to pursue reforms.

Let us take a quick tour of tax competition in action around the globe. We can begin with the rivalry between Singapore and Hong Kong. In 2007, Singapore cut its corporate tax rate to 18 percent, which matched Hong Kong's low corporate rate. But Hong Kong responded and quickly cut its rate to 16.5 percent. Tax Notes International reported that the tax cut is "widely seen as a move to preserve Hong Kong's status as Asia's top financial center and to fend off competition from Singapore and Shanghai."

Hong Kong abolished its estate tax in 2005 to ensure its top position as a haven for entrepreneurs and investment. The Hong Kong government explained: "A number of countries in the region, including India, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Australia have abolished estate duty over the past 20 years. Hong Kong must not lose out in this race." Hong Kong's action helped prompt Singapore to abolish its own estate tax in 2008 to create "a more attractive place for Singaporeans and foreigners to invest and build up wealth."

Shifting to Europe, Britain had been a tax reform leader, but countries such as Ireland are now surpassing it. The opposition Conservative Party has pushed for corporate tax cuts with party spokesman John Redwood arguing, "Ireland shows that if you cut capital taxes and business taxes, you create more jobs and generate more revenue." The governing Labour Party enacted corporate tax rate cuts in the late-1990s and added a further cut to 28 percent this year. But in a new report, Britain's largest business organization argues that the corporate rate needs to be cut further to 18 percent for Britain to remain competitive.

In the financial services industry, Britain is feeling tax competition pressure from countries such as Ireland, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. In 2007, the British government proposed to increase taxes on private equity firms, but that resulted in Switzerland's "stepping up an aggressive campaign to attract London-based financial services firms." This year, the government increased taxes on wealthy residents who are foreign citizens, but that is creating a huge problem for the financial industry, which employs large numbers of foreign professionals. Hedge fund managers and other financial leaders are starting to pack their bags and move to Switzerland.

For Germany, it is the lower-tax nations of Central and Eastern Europe that are posing a major competitive challenge. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and other nearby countries have much lower corporate tax rates. Germany responded this year by cutting its corporate rate from 38 percent to 30 percent. The Wall Street Journal reported that the cut "was triggered by the [European Union's] addition two years ago of eight Eastern European countries with corporate tax rates as low as zero." Germany's finance minister said the tax cuts would ensure that the country is "internationally competitive."

Ironically, before the recent tax cuts, the same German finance minister was complaining that a corporate rate cut in Austria to 25 percent amounted to "fiscal dumping" and an "ambitious and aggressive attempt to get companies to come to Austria." But that is how tax competition works in Europe: countries gripe about unfair tax cuts in other nations, and then they turn around and enact tax cuts at home.

Lower tax rates in Austria and Ireland were on the minds of Dutch policymakers when they reduced their corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 26 percent. The Dutch Finance Ministry described the reason for the tax cut:

The tax cuts for business are essential to improve the attractiveness of the Netherlands as a business location. A reduction in corporate tax is required in the near future to attract foreign investment. Domestic companies also need a reduction in corporation tax to make them more competitive compared with competitors from countries with lower taxes.... Reducing corporate tax ... will create jobs. According to the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis, cuts in tax on profits result in more growth in the long term than cuts in any other taxes.

Western European countries are being nudged into tax reforms by the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, which seem determined to outcompete them. This region is the epicenter of the flat tax revolution, which we discuss in Chapter 4. The revolution was put into motion by Estonia, which installed a flat tax in 1994 and saw its economy transformed from a basket case to a booming Baltic Tiger. Today, there are 25 jurisdictions in the "flat tax club," and they are virtually all enjoying economic booms.

Slovakia enacted a 19 percent flat tax on individuals and businesses in 2004. The country's finance minister argued that the flat tax "does not encumber production too much and thus it is an important [stimulus] for investment and the creation of new jobs. It is definitely the best way to catch up to the living standards of the most developed countries." Slovakia's economy has grown at more than 7 percent annually since the flat tax was enacted.

The flat tax nations are the most ambitious tax reformers anywhere. In Macedonia, the finance minister recently boasted, "For over a year now we have put all our efforts into improving the country's business climate ... [and we have] the most attractive tax package in Europe, with a flat tax rate of 10 percent on corporate and personal income and a zero-percent tax rate on reinvested profit." In Bulgaria, the economics minister noted that the country's new 10 percent flat tax "will undoubtedly encourage foreign capital and bring to our country more jobs and higher incomes."

Elsewhere in the world, another reformer is South Korea's new president, Lee Myung-bak. He is pro-market in his policies and this year cut the federal corporate tax rate from 25 percent to 22 percent, with more cuts planned. Lee declared, "It is time to overhaul our tax system in order to save our economy." While some critics in Korea worry about a loss in government revenue from the tax cut, Lee's government contends that "as time goes on, investments will soar and tax revenues will increase."

In some countries, parties on both the political left and right support tax rate reductions. In Canada, the prior left-of-center government cut the corporate tax rate, arguing: "Canada needs a business tax system that is internationally competitive. This is important because business tax rates have a significant impact on the level of business investment, employment, productivity, wages and incomes." The current Conservative government followed up this year with further cuts to the corporate tax rate.

Even socialist Sweden is responding to global tax competition. In 2007, the nation abolished its wealth tax, which had long driven millionaires and their assets out of the country. "The big winners," said the Swedish finance minister, "are all Swedes, because we need to have the conditions for jobs and companies necessary to match global competition."

Tax competition is even influencing policy in Africa. In 2005, Egypt slashed its top individual and corporate tax rates from 40 percent to 20 percent to reduce tax evasion and increase foreign investment. In 2007, Mauritius enacted a 15 percent flat tax on individuals and corporations. And in Namibia, a recent speech by the central bank governor called for tax rate cuts: "High taxes can impact negatively on investments and therefore contribute to low growth.... It will be necessary to gradually bring our tax regime in line with the region in order to be competitive in terms of attracting foreign investment."

Labor and Capital

Much of this book focuses on mobile corporate investment, which is a key driver of tax competition. But skilled workers, wealthy individuals, and private savings are also part of the tax competition story. In Chapter 5, we discuss how the migration of brains and wealth is partly driven by taxes. The emigration of engineers, scientists, and other highly skilled workers is often called "brain drain." We discuss how countries are retooling their immigration and tax policies to attract skilled workers, and we argue that the United States lags in both these areas of reform.

The wealthy also have more flexibility about where to reside and where to invest their capital. We discuss some of the famous entertainers and athletes who have discovered the benefits of lower-tax jurisdictions. English music stars, German racecar drivers, Italian tenors, and many others are taking advantage of globalization to escape punitive tax burdens.

More importantly, entrepreneurs are increasingly footloose and are decamping from countries such as France and Sweden that have high tax burdens. The Swede Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA, is the world's seventh-wealthiest person and he lives in Lausanne, Switzerland. Like many wealthy entrepreneurs, Kamprad is frugal and he likes to save money on his taxes. What is important for policymakers to consider is that today's wealthy are typically self-made and entrepreneurial-they are not simply passive inheritors of wealth. That means that the wealthy are an important dynamo for growth, and it makes sense to put out a low-tax welcome mat for them.


Excerpted from GLOBAL TAX REVOLUTION by CHRIS EDWARDS DANIEL J. MITCHELL Copyright © 2008 by Cato Institute. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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