Not Very Much

“My income comes overwhelmingly from some investments made in the past, whether ordinary income or earned annually,” Romney, said after a rally in Florence, South Carolina as he admitted he paid “probably close” to 15 per cent of his income in tax. His fortune is thought to be around $250 million – money amassed mainly from his years as the head of Bain Capital.

And then this: “I get speaker’s fees from time to time, but not very much.”

Not by his standards, maybe.

According to the Telegraph a disclosure form he filed stated that in the year to February 2011 he was paid about $375,000 for nine speeches.

It reminds me of the moment during the 1992 election campaign when George Bush was caught asking a supermarket clerk how check-out worked.

 

 

 

Two Economists, Two Different Views

Two different economists and two different views are out there in today’s New York Times and Washington Post. Economists disagreeing with each other! Well, that will shock no one, of course. What is more noteworthy is the simplicity of one argument and the sophistication of the other. And the best argument doesn’t come from the Nobel Prize winner.

Paul Krugman’s stance in the NYT is again all about the need for another Fed stimulus. But over at the Post Mohamed El-Erian, the CEO of Pimco, the investment management company, has a far greater grasp, I think, that the crisis we are in is as much a structural one as cyclical.

Nobel Prize winner Krugman places most of the political blame for the non-recovery recovery on Republican obstructionism and Democratic timidity. El-Erian sees the political dimension of the crisis in less partisan terms – the whole political elite is failing to understand what is happening, is his take.

Here’s El-Erian: “What is critical to keep in mind is that this situation is part of a broad, multiyear process driven by national and global realignments. It’s a secular phenomenon that needs to be better understood and navigated — by recognizing its structural dimensions and by urgently broadening the excessively cyclical policy mindsets that abound…

Policymakers must break this active inertia by implementing a structural vision to accompany their current cyclical focus. Measures are needed to address key issues, which include the change in drivers of growth and employment creation; the high risk of skill erosion and lost labor productivity; financial deleveraging in the private sector; debt overhangs; the uncertain regulatory environment; and the unacceptably high risks facing the most vulnerable segments of society.

Specific measures would include pro-growth tax reform, housing finance reform, increased infrastructure investments, greater support for education and research, job retraining programs, removal of outdated interstate competition barriers and stronger social safety nets.”

And Krugman? “The Fed has a number of options. It can buy more long-term and private debt; it can push down long-term interest rates by announcing its intention to keep short-term rates low; it can raise its medium-term target for inflation, making it less attractive for businesses to simply sit on their cash. Nobody can be sure how well these measures would work, but it’s better to try something that might not work than to make excuses while workers suffer.” Although for Krugman a stimulus would be the thing. Damn those Republicans!

El-Erian, it strikes me, is right.

Tax Them Until They Squeal…Or Move Abroad

If you took the U.K. Business Secretary Vince Cable at face value in his interview carried in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph, you would think that he is unaware that Britain already has a graduated or “progressive” tax system where the wealthier pay a larger percentage of their earnings to the government than those less well off.

Take this remark from Cable yesterday in an interview full of his mantra about “fair taxes”: “What we are trying to inject into the argument is that if you become a very highly paid investment banker you finish up paying more than if you’ve gone off and become a voluntary worker or become a physicist in the National Physical Laboratory, or whatever. I want to make it progressive in that sense.”

The “it” in question is Cable’s graduate tax proposal that now seems worryingly to have secured some support from the Coalition’s David Willetts, the Universities Minister, who is now saying that more university finance should be met by graduates “after they are in well-paid jobs”.

Recommendations for how to cope with Britain’s universities funding crisis will soon be forthcoming from a review headed by Lord Browne. Despite disapproval from many Conservative MPs, the independent review into university finance was asked by the government to include Cable’ graduate tax idea in the mix of solutions to be considered. The review reports in the autumn.

What is strange when reading or listening to Cable explaining his graduate tax is that he seems less interested in finding a solution to Britain’s university funding crisis and more interested in using the opportunity it presents to increase taxes. The graduate tax is motivated by his wealth redistribution obsession – taxes, as far as he is concerned, are just not high enough.

In the interview, he avoids saying that directly but then how are we meant to interpret his position differently? When asked what he would consider success after five years as Business Secretary he responds: “a tax system that means people at the bottom end of the scale pay less and at the top end of the scale pay more.” Again, Britain already has such a system and will continue to have one with or without the graduate tax. The only conclusion is that Cable wants even higher taxes on the middle-class and the wealthy. So how high should they go?

The top rate of U.K. income tax stands at 50 percent. Impose a graduate tax of, say, 5 percent and will that be enough to satisfy the Coalition’s Business Secretary? Will that be enough redistribution? And how many Britons will emigrate as taxes rise?

What adds to the shock of the Sunday Telegraph interview is how uninterested Cable is with his ministerial portfolio as Business Secretary. Success in the post for him is to increase taxes – not to improve Britain’s corporate competitiveness, not research and development, not commercial or product innovation, not productivity and not even – at least in this interview – corporate governance. There is no discussion of industrial policy and what the right balance is between government intervention and the free market or whether government should avoid trying to pick winners and losers or instead focus on creating the right environment and circumstances for enterprise and the free market to flourish.

No, as far as this Business Secretary is concerned success will be determined by having imposed even higher taxes. One can only assume that Prime Minister David Cameron is prepared to let Cable talk as though he’s the Chancellor the Exchequer and Universities Minister and Business Secretary all rolled into one because to do otherwise will prompt a breach and a row in the Coalition government.

On some many levels, the graduate tax is a bad idea – as are higher taxes in general. On the fairness scale the tax doesn’t pass the smell test, as a study released today by the University and College Union shows. Yes, a graduate who went on to be a highly-paid investment banker would pay a ton of cash over his working lifetime for his degree but so would those lower down the income scale. A nurse, for example, could end up paying three or four times the actual cost of tuition fees and a doctor seven times. How is that equitable? The burden on the nurse, for example, is going to be heavy and much harder to cope with than the burden faced by the investment banker.

The graduate tax would have the inevitable consequence of encouraging a brain drain on the scale of what hit Britain in the 1970s and young Britons would have greater options and ease now of moving overseas and securing jobs because of their work rights in the European Union and because Asia and the developing World is competitively keen to secure talent and skills.

And those British graduates who did so and remained abroad would in effect get their higher education for free – they would never pay the graduate tax.

Second, the universities sector is now global and big business. As the Economist pointed out this week, the number of students enrolled outside their home country has trebled since 1980. America is the World leader in this global higher education market with Britain in second place. But that could change and the U.K. could lose its place easily because of increased and aggressive competition. There are now many continental universities that teach wholly or partly in English, American universities – and British ones – are opening more campuses overseas, in Europe, the Gulf and Asia.

The government not only has to ensure that British universities remain excellent and well funded in order to attract foreign students (who represent a revenue stream) but it will need in future to do everything it can encourage Britons to stay and study in the U.K. because increasingly they will have easier opportunities and maybe cheaper ones, if the proposed graduate tax is taken into account, to study for their first degrees, let alone their graduate ones, abroad.

That will certainly be the case for British students from wealthy or affluent families but the market is changing so fast that there will be a global education loans market developing quickly and available for students to tap into and free themselves from the constraints and restrictions imposed by individual countries and governments.

This is something that doesn’t seem to have occurred to Cable and others in the Coalition government. The brain drain could start involving Britons who have not even graduated yet. Britain is only an island when it comes to geography.

In the brave New One World we live in, education and the retaining of the best and brightest is going to determine the winners and losers when it comes to national economies. Instead of obsessing about wealth redistribution, the Coalition’s Business Secretary should be thinking along these lines and worrying about how to keep Britain competitive.

The Law of Diminishing Returns

Bad news for Britain’s Labour government right on the eve of tomorrow’s unveiling by Chancellor Alistair Darling of the annual Budget.

The IMF now estimates that the cost of the bail-out of Britain’s banks will amount to 13.4 per cent of the UK’s entire economic output of £1.46 trillion in 2008. Of OECD countries, only Ireland will pay more as a percentage of its output to rescue its banks. So much for Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s proud boast of having ended boom and bust cycles.

And the respected British think-tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned that tax hikes are unlikely to help pay for the bailout or mitigate the consequences of recession. The institute warns that raising the top rate of tax to 45p as proposed by Brown will prompt an exodus of top earners as well as greater use of tax avoidance schemes.

The Treasury has sniffed at the institute’s prediction, saying ,“The Treasury remains confident in its forecast revenues for the new 45p rate of tax as set out.” Now is that the same Treasury that came up with all those glowing forecasts about how Britain under New Labour had found that magic to escape busts?