In the wake of Egypt’s revolution that forced President Hosni Mubarak to step down on February 11th, the country’s interim government has been making a lot of changes, including taking action against the former administration. The government imprisoned a host of powerful former statesmen under Mubarak including Gamal and Alaa Mubarak, sons of the former president, all of whom authorities detained for 15 days and questioned about corruption and abuse. Also imprisoned were Ahmed Nazif, the former prime minister; Zakaria Azmi, the president’s right-hand man; and Fathi Sorour, the former speaker of Parliament. In April, Egypt’s Supreme Court ruled the National Democratic Party, Mubarak’s once dominating political party, would be dissolved and its assets seized by the government. Now, last week, an Egyptian court sentenced the former interior minister, Habib el-Adly, to 12 years in prison and fined him about $4 million for profiting illegally from his office and money laundering.
But el-Adly’s crimes don’t stop there. In April a state-appointed fact-finding mission found el-Adly—and Mubarak—responsible for the deaths of 850 protestors killed in violence in anti-government unrest because el-Adly, as the president’s interior minister, ordered security forces to use live ammunition on protestors. Other human rights groups have accused el-Adly of routine police brutality over his decade of service as Mubarak’s security chief.
Since his election Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has been talking about corruption. The subject has had prominence in many of his speeches since his campaign in 2008. In September of 2009 he announced a major reform program aiming to tackle rampant corruption in his country, although he didn’t actually detail what the reform program would include. Medvedev has also repeatedly vowed to tackle corruption in the court systems, stating that Russia should do its best to “make the courts become as much as possible independent from the authorities and at the same time to absolutely depend on society.” For all this vowing and announcing, you’d think we’d have actually seen some progress in this area. We haven’t.
Maybe we should be surprised. Well, not if you listen to Medvedev. As he said in 2011 (and 2010) he has “no illusions that this will happen in one or two years, but I’m happy that we’ve begun this job.” Just a year earlier Medvedev admitted he knew “of no significant successes in this direction,” despite two years of effort.
But all of this talk is pretty suspect anyway. As internal State Department memos–which were made public by WikiLeaks–reveal, the top levels of Russia’s government are engaged in a much deeper and more pervasive type of corruption than most of the world has realized. One cable notes that extortion is so widespread that it has “become the business of the Interior Ministry and the federal intelligence service.” The government has transformed into an organization more closely resembling “the mafia” and the line separating government from business is so blurred it is nearly non-existent.
Behind only fear and tragedy, Osama bin Laden’s most enduring legacy on our world will be the changes in national and international security. Our response to his hate—and the attacks he orchestrated on September 11th—was overwhelming shaped by our collective realization that many of our security systems cannot protect against those who want so badly to do us harm. The most conspicuous of these systematic changes was—of course—in air transportation, as anyone who has flown before and after 2001 can tell you. The United States’ capacity to respond to terrorist attacks was also improved with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which marked the largest restructuring of the federal government in contemporary history. Congress also passed the USA Patriot Act to detect and prosecute terrorists, which remains most famous for its reduction in the restrictions on law enforcement agencies’ ability to search telephone communications and other records.
Of course there have been many other changes—both large and small—for better or for worse. But the U.S. did have one other important response to September 11th that is worth noting on this blog, particularly in light of recent events. And that is the prioritization of and improvements in anti-money laundering legislation and the detection of terrorist financing.
In 1998, an article in the Washington Post argued bin Laden was able to “shroud his finances in such secrecy and with so many front companies that American officials acknowledge it could take years to decipher them.” At the time, U.S. officials understood that the key to bin Laden’s power was wealth—which was extensive as he inherited a substantial sum of money from his prosperous Saudi father. Yet they were often stymied in their ability to track his or other terrorists’ resources as they did not have the capability to comprehensively track, freeze, and seize assets.
I live in Oregon where there is no sales tax. Before I moved here, I took the sales tax for granted. If a bottle of coke costs $1.00 then you can expect to dole out a dollar bill and some change. Now, I go to a restaurant and my bill always comes in a rounded figure. Imagine that!
But I digress. The lack of a sales tax gives Oregon something of an advantage of its neighbors to the North and South. Many who live in Vancouver, Washington, for example, will venture across the border to buy expensive items in Portland—creating jobs and incomes in Oregon. Those who live in Seattle, however, are less likely to make the long trip. So until recently most states—particularly those in the West where borders are few and far between—didn’t have much of a problem.
That has changed with the rapid rise of e-commerce. According to a study at the University of Tennessee, yearly e-commerce sales rocketed from $995 billion in 1999 to an estimated $4 trillion in 2011. State tax codes were not written to deal with this magnitude of inter-state transactions, so needless to say there’s been some friction in the last decade. I won’t bore you with the entire history. Here’s the short version. By law, most websites are not required to collect sales tax on purchases by out-of-state customers. This gives retailers like Amazon and Overstock a pretty nice advantage the general store down the street.
Ever since the general introduction of the body scanner and enhanced pat-down in airport security lines, there’s been a furious debate in America over just how much privacy we are willing to give up for the sake of our safety in the skies. Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argue that security should not “come at the expense of civil liberties.” Other people just don’t feel comfortable with strangers seeing them virtually naked. Those on the other side argue the loss of privacy is an unfortunate byproduct for the reassurance of safety.
In the last few weeks the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has come under fire after it was discovered that in several states and Washington, DC air traffic controllers have fallen asleep while working overnight shifts. In response, the FAA launched an official review and Henry Krakowski, who oversaw the air traffic control system, resigned in embarrassment.
These anecdotes are emblematic of the enormous value that the United States—and indeed most of the world—has placed on security in the air. When we hurtle through the air at 565 miles per hour in a 200 ton, six-story tall, aluminum flying-machine with 63,500 gallons of highly combustible jet fuel sitting below us, many of us feel apprehensive. And we want some reassurance that we are safe—from both accident and malice. As a result we debate just how much we are willing to give up for security and we quickly and harshly condemn those whose mistakes put our safety at risk.
For years economists have talked about the “end of the euro.” These apocalyptic warnings have become only more severe in recent years and months, with the weakening of Europe’s economic and financial position and the debt crises in Portugal, Spain, Greece, and Ireland, which have triggered discussions of these countries unilaterally dropping the euro. In truth, however, economists have talked about the end of the euro since the beginning of the euro, when even after it was formally adopted as the third pillar of the European Union in the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 many economists have remained deeply skeptical.
There are obvious advantages for the collective whole. The euro improves the flow of intra-European trade, minimizes exchange rate volatility, and saves travelers and businessmen on costly currency exchanges. There are benefits for individual countries, as well. Some European countries which traditionally had high levels of public debt have benefited from low inflation and interest rates. Other countries with traditionally strong currencies hope the Euro possess a slightly weaker, and therefore more favorable to trade, exchange rate.
Among the dozens of arguments about the weaknesses of the euro presented by cynical economists, there is one major disadvantage to the euro, which while not sufficiently strong enough to motivate dissolution, but should be critically important to how we think about a common currency’s advantages and disadvantages. And that is the euro’s appeal to money launderers.
In December of last year, I wrote a blog post on Gibraltar, a British Crown Dependency and tax haven, which is making a tidy profit from the growing online gambling community. I noted that the tax haven has used its low tax rates to attract a sizeable online gambling industry. This industry now employs 12% of Gibraltar’s 19,000 person workforce. Online companies in the tax haven currently pay a measly 1% tax, which raising this rate to 10% to placate the EU, but has still attracted a plethora of online gambling sites, and has furnished Gibraltar with an added $12 million in taxes, which is not insignificant to the jurisdiction’s $500 million government revenue. My conclusion was this “wasn’t much of a problem,” though the island needs more financial transparency.
In light of recent events that have brought this issue to the forefront of U.S. policy, I want to put a rather large caveat on that statement.
Some background. In 2006, Congress passed and President Bush signed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), which makes transactions from banks or other similar types of institutions to online gambling sites illegal. This bill effectively makes online gambling in the United States illegal, but puts the majority of the onus of enforcement and compliance on banks, not individuals.
The United States Chamber of Commerce is one of the largest lobbying groups in this country. It has enormous clout on Capitol Hill, both because of the size of its membership and the depth of its pockets—the Chamber spends more money on political ads and campaigns than any other organization in the country, save the Democratic and Republican parties. To the public it describes itself as “the world’s largest business federation representing the interests of more than 3 million businesses of all sizes, sectors, and regions [while over] 96% of U.S. Chamber members are small businesses with 100 employees or fewer.” The reality of its operations, however, is a bit less egalitarian. Case in point: in 2008 about 50% of the Chamber’s $140 million in contributions came from just 45 donors.
And what does the Chamber do with this power? A lot. But in recent years, those actions have become increasingly less, shall we say, morally appetizing. In 2009 the Chamber was one of the loudest voices opposing legislation aimed at reducing green house gas emissions. The Chamber has historically played a key-role in fighting consumer-protecting legislation, labor-law reform, and financial regulation. In the last year, the Chamber has also been particularly outspoken against health care reform.
As I’m sure you’re well aware, last week’s tense debates on the U.S. federal budget threatened to result in a government shutdown. If this had happened, 800,000 “non-essential” federal employees would have found themselves on mandatory unpaid leave as of Friday at midnight. National parks and passport offices would have been shuttered; people who filed tax returns by mail would have waited indefinitely for their refunds and consumer spending would have stalled. About one million essential workers—those in security or air traffic control, for example—would have been asked to come to work without pay and without the guarantee of retroactive compensation. These compounding effects could have derailed the economic recovery. Fortunately, lawmakers found a way to work out a compromise at 11:00 pm on Friday night, just one hour short of the deadline.
Knowing these facts—and nothing else—I would imagine most people would assume Democrats and Republicans were at odds over a fairly large sum of money and difference in opinion. After all, why would either side risk such potentially dire consequences for the American people without good reason?
In the end, the budget compromise essentially came down to $5.5 billion dollars. In short, here’s my logic on that number. On Monday, April 4th, President Obama offered a compromise that would cut $33 billion from his proposed budget. The next day Republican House Speaker John Boehner rejected the compromise and in a statement replied: “Despite attempts by Democrats to lock in a number among themselves, I’ve made clear that their $33 billion is not enough.” In the final compromise figure—the one from Frday night–the government would cut $38.5 billion from its fiscal spending level in 2010. So by logical extension (not usually the recommended tool when analyzing the U.S. government, but this blog is a bit of a thought experiment) if $33 billion was “not enough” for Boehner and $38.5 billion was enough—lawmakers. nearly shutdown the federal government and put the brakes on the economic recovery over the sum of $5.5 billion.
Financial incentives are used in almost every context where the public good is at odds with individual utility. As I poured over my tax returns last weekend I discovered that other than the fact that the U.S. tax system is massively complicated, it is also the perfect example of financial incentives gone awry. As an economist, I feel fairly strongly that I should be mathematically and logically competent to do my taxes the old fashioned way—with pen and paper. I had to repeat that method to the “second look” guy at H&R Block about 13 times, who didn’t seem to be willing to comprehend that anyone doesn’t use software. The truth is that the U.S. tax system has become so overburdened with its own clever incentive system, that it fails to produce outcomes because no one really understands it and as a result it can’t change behavior.
Other examples of financial incentives are better. They range from cash payments for reporting a crime or a suspicious person to development programs which pay for women to graduate from high school. Some countries, looking to expand their population, have given cash rewards to women to get pregnant, and others have paid young women not to. The UN has tried to use financial incentives to save the dugong, the reputed mermaid of seafarers’ lore, amid concerns it could become extinct within 40 years. These programs have little to nothing in common—except that they are all quite effective.
Speaking at the African Tax Administration Forum yesterday, Oupa Magashula, the South African Revenue Service (SARS) Commissioner announced his country intends to collaborate with the rest of the African continent to decrease tax evasion by harmonizing their tax policies. This, they believe, would make it “harder for companies to exploit the variation in legislation to lower their tax burden.” The Commissioner told reporters “The main thing is to avoid jurisdiction hopping, where people go shopping around for the lowest tax.”
Magashula is not without his share of successes. Although SARS had already drastically improved efficiency and compliance before Magashula’s arrival as Commissioner in 2009, the Magashula has proven himself an adept and shrewd tax-collector and his efforts have shown real results. At the same conference, for example, Magashula announced his SARS team has collected the highest amount of tax revenue in the organization’s history—R674.2 billion, which outstripped the budget target of R672 billion. Magasula credits these and other improvements with SARS’ “world-class penalty system that acts a deterrent” and its technical expertise.
Despite the country’s recent domestic successes, I believe South Africa’s plan for international collaboration is well-intentioned, but ultimately flawed.
In the spring of last year, the United Kingdom passed the Bribery Act of 2010, which the Ministry of Justice hoped would reform “the criminal law to provide a new, modern and comprehensive scheme of bribery offences that will enable courts and prosecutors to respond more effectively to bribery at home or abroad.” Before the creation of this Act, the UK’s policy on anti-bribery was based on a body of three laws: the Public Bodies Corrupt Practices Act 1889, the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906 and the Prevention of Corruption Act 1916. David Aaronberg, a UK criminal attorney, has described this body of laws as “inconsistent, anachronistic and inadequate to comply with the UK’s obligations under international anti-corruption conventions.”
The new Bribery Act created several new offenses which closed loopholes that existed in the previous disarray of legislation. For example, it would now be an offense for a commercial organization to “prevent a bribe being paid for or on its behalf” and a discrete offense if a bribed is paid to a foreign public official.