Opinion

David Cay Johnston

The hidden dangers of low interest rates

David Cay Johnston
Jan 10, 2012 13:21 UTC

The Fed’s campaign to hold short-term interest rates near zero is a loser for taxpayers. A rise in rates would also burden taxpayers, but it would come with a benefit for those who save.

Low rates keep alive the banks that the government considers too big to fail and reduce the cost of servicing the burgeoning federal debt. Low rates also come at a cost, cutting income to older Americans and to pension funds. This forces retirees to eat into principal, may put more pressure on welfare programs for the elderly, and will probably require the government to spend money to fulfill pension guarantees.

Raising interest rates shifts the costs and benefits, increasing the risks that mismanaged banks will collapse and diverting more taxpayers’ money to service federal debt. On the other hand, higher interest rates mean that savers, both individual and in pension funds, enjoy the fruits of their prudence.

No matter which way interest rates go, taxpayers face dangers. The question is where we want to take our losses. For my money, saving the mismanaged mega-banks should be the last priority and savers the first. Of course breaking up the big banks or letting them fail also imposes costs and low interest rates benefit many Americans, though mostly those with top credit scores, but policy involves choices and rescuing banks from their own mistakes and subtly siphoning wealth from the prudent is corrosive to the ethical and social fabric.

ON THE RISE?

The federal government paid $454 billion in interest on its debt in 2011. That is the equivalent of all the individual income taxes paid last year through the first three weeks of June

Time to junk income taxes?

David Cay Johnston
Jan 6, 2012 20:27 UTC

This is America’s 100th year for individual income tax, a system as out of touch with our era as digital music is with the hand-cranked Victrola music players of 1912. It is also the 26th year of the Reagan-era reform for both personal and corporate tax, a grand design now buried under special-interest favors.

With U.S. elections in November, and the George W. Bush tax cuts due to expire at the end of 2012, it’s time for a debate that goes beyond ginning up anger over taxes and the superficial issue of tax rates.

It’s time to consider whether to get rid of income taxes, personal and corporate. What are the strengths and weaknesses of our current system? Should we tax individual and corporate income — or something else?

The corporations that occupy Congress

David Cay Johnston
Dec 20, 2011 15:09 UTC

By David Cay Johnston

The views expressed are his own.

Some of the biggest companies in the United States have been firing workers and in some cases lobbying for rules that depress wages at the very time that jobs are needed, pay is low, and the federal budget suffers from a lack of revenue.

Last month Citizens for Tax Justice and an affiliate issued “Corporate Taxpayers and Corporate Tax Dodgers 2008-10″. It showed that 30 brand-name companies paid a federal income tax rate of minus 6.7 percent on $160 billion of profit from 2008 through 2010 compared to a going corporate tax rate of 35 percent. All but one of those 30 companies reported lobbying expenses in Washington.

Another report, by Public Campaign, shows that 29 of those companies spent nearly half a billion dollars over those three years lobbying in Washington for laws and rules that favor their interests. Only Atmos Energy, the 30th company, reported no lobbying.

Where’s the fraud, Mr. President?

David Cay Johnston
Dec 13, 2011 15:07 UTC

By David Cay Johnston

The views expressed are his own.

A new report from London and President Barack Obama’s statements to “60 Minutes” show financial crimes spreading like wildfire and governments failing to stop them.

Tax evasion equals 18 percent of global tax collections, a new report by British accountant Richard Murphy shows. His report for the Tax Justice Network cleverly lined up a World Bank Report on the size of shadow economies with a Heritage Foundation report on average tax burdens by country to reach that figure.

Murphy’s $3 trillion estimate, 5 percent of the global economy, shows how a combination of weak rules on accounting and disclosure combined with inadequate budgets to enforce tax laws impose a terrible cost on honest taxpayers and the beneficiaries of government service.

Keeping people in poverty by trying to bring them out of it

David Cay Johnston
Dec 9, 2011 20:47 UTC

By David Cay Johnston

The views expressed are his own.

In nearly all 34 countries with modern economies, inequality is rising, a new study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows. The gap is especially pronounced in the United States where the country’s largest program to alleviate poverty may be adding to the problem, not alleviating it.

The United States ranks fourth in income inequality after Chile, Mexico and Turkey. In the U.S. the best-off 10 percent make on average 15 times the incomes of the poorest 10th, compared to a six to one ratio in the Nordic countries, Austria, Hungary and Switzerland.

The OECD report, published on Monday, cites the U.S. earned income tax credit as an explanation for a sharp increase in the hours worked by low-wage Americans.

Republicans paint themselves into a tax-cut corner

David Cay Johnston
Dec 6, 2011 15:32 UTC

By David Cay Johnston

The opinions expressed are his own.


Slyly encouraged by President Barack Obama, Republicans have painted themselves into a tax corner.

Who would have imagined a year ago, when Republicans rode the Tea Party’s anti-tax wave and retook the House of Representatives, that a year later Republicans would be forced to swallow a huge tax cut sponsored by Obama?

The irony is that Obama’s payroll tax cut could have been taken over by the Republicans as their issue, but they flubbed it.

The taxpayers’ burden

David Cay Johnston
Dec 4, 2011 01:38 UTC

The author is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Taxpayers have much at risk in the coordinated action that six central banks took this week to lower short-term interest rates and make it easier to issue dollar-denominated loans to cope with the European debt crisis.

The joint action on the last day of November is being characterized widely as buying time to deal with the European government debt crisis. But fears about whether the PIGS — Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain — can pay back their debts in full are just a symptom of a metastasizing economic disease that has been plaguing the West for three decades. That is where the risks to taxpayers come in.

The disease was man-made, a policy virus cooked up by the Chicago School, where leading theorists persuaded the world to cast aside four millennia of human experience in favor of their radical legal and economic ideas. They have achieved this by couching their plans in language that made them seem conservative when the theories were the antithesis of conservative, at least in the classic meaning of that word.

In New York, gifts circumvent a ban

David Cay Johnston
Nov 29, 2011 16:26 UTC

By David Cay Johnston
The opinions expressed are his own.


Taxpayers can expect ever more picking of their pockets by businesses with political clout thanks to the Nov. 21 decision by Judge Theodore Jones and four colleagues on the New York Court of Appeals.

At issue is $1.4 billion in state gifts whose primary beneficiary is a microchip maker, GlobalFoundries, a company controlled by Abu Dhabi’s hereditary ruler, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, one of the wealthiest people ever. The gifts, labeled economic development grants and made through a state-sponsored corporation, work out to about a million dollar subsidy per job at the plant near Albany.

The New York Court of Appeals said the 50 taxpayers who sued over the deal and over gifts to apple and wine trade associations have no standing to challenge the gift because it is proper.

GOP inaction means higher taxes

David Cay Johnston
Nov 22, 2011 19:03 UTC

The author is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Thanks to Republicans who signed Grover Norquist’s pledge never to raise taxes, your taxes are automatically scheduled to go up in January — unless you are a plutocrat.

The law that created the congressional super committee set a target of this week for reducing budget deficits. The committee failed to meet the target.

Republican members were willing to cut programs that benefit millions, but they would not raise taxes on the hundreds of thousands of families whose annual income is in the millions and, in a few cases, billions of dollars.

Closing Wall Street’s casino

David Cay Johnston
Nov 18, 2011 20:26 UTC

The author is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

A superb example of a sound rule in law and economics that needs reviving, because it can halt the rampant speculation in derivatives, is the ancient legal principle that gambling debts are not enforceable through court action.

Not so long ago — before casinos, currency and commodities speculation, and credit default swaps became big business — U.S. courts would not enforce gambling debts.

Restoring this principle offers a simple way to shrink the rampant speculation in derivatives that was central to the 2008 meltdown on Wall Street.

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