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Taxes Archive

Friday

16

September 2016

0

COMMENTS

Washington Can’t Permit EU-Led Open Season On U.S. Companies

Written by , Posted in Taxes

To justify its recent $14.5 billion ruling against Apple, the EU claimed that Apple benefited from “a significant advantage over other businesses that are subject to the same national taxation rules.” If they had provided any evidence of a special carve-out for Apple, this might be easier to believe. Instead, the likely explanation is that the EU is stepping up its war on tax competition as part of its long-standing pursuit of harmonization of tax rates across the continent and ultimately the globe.

The European Commission says Apple owes $14.5 billion plus interest in back taxes to Ireland. What makes the ruling particularly unusual is the fact that Ireland itself disagrees. They don’t want to collect the money. They would rather continue to be a nation with an attractive corporate tax code so that they can benefit from tax competition, rather than short-shortsightedly treating companies as ATM machines.

At issue is whether Ireland granted illegal “state aid” to Apple, which is prohibited under the EU treaty. Such aid is admittedly the wrong way to do tax competition. Jurisdictions should compete through the overall tax and regulatory code, not through special carve-outs. But even where they get it wrong, sovereign nations must be free to administer their own tax codes for tax competition to exist.

The EU surely knows this, which is why their ongoing efforts to move control of tax policy away from individual jurisdictions and towards Brussels is deeply disturbing. The Apple ruling fits a pattern of seeking to eliminate tax competition on the continent, where nations like France and Germany have in the past pressured Ireland to raise its 12.5% corporate tax rate. They wrongly fear a “race to the bottom” that would leave national treasuries empty, instead of recognizing that taxpayers and politicians alike benefit from the higher economic growth induced when destructive taxes are kept low.

It is not at all clear that Apple did in fact receive special dispensation. Those facts will continue to be litigated, as both Apple and Ireland plan to appeal the ruling. They insist that the company was merely given rulings that offered clarification as to how the tax law would be applied in their case, which is both a common and desirable practice because it provides certainty. Adding uncertainty through broad retroactive tax rulings won’t just impact the U.S. companies that Europe wrongly thinks can provide their financial salvation, but it will make the continent less attractive to businesses going forward.

Ultimately, it is up the the United States to defend its businesses against these opportunistic tax grabs. The bipartisan criticism of the EU ruling is a good first start. But politicians must stop demonizing businesses to distract from their own failures to spend responsibly. The U.S. should also lead by example and end its own greedy worldwide tax system.

We’ve seen through the OECD BEPS project what happens when Washington, and in particular Congress, allows European bureaucrats to dream up global tax rules unmolested. It inevitably leads to a byzantine system of arcana designed to keep the government bureaucrats and  accountants employed while squeezing the maximum amount of tax revenue possible out of the global economy. If U.S. politicians continue to sit on the sidelines, these threats will only multiply.

Unfortunately, years of politically motivated attacks on corporations have made large multinationals like Apple seem like low-risk targets. Voters are not going to take to the streets on behalf of the likes of Apple, Google, or Amazon. After pounding on and on about big business not paying its “fair share,” Washington is in an awkward place now that the EU has said “we agree” while helping themselves to the coffers of an American company. Yet if Washington doesn’t act, Apple will just be the first of many.

Wednesday

13

April 2016

0

COMMENTS

Most Common Media Myths About the Panama Papers

Written by , Posted in Liberty & Limited Government, Media Bias, Taxes

The media has breathlessly reported on the massive data breach of Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. Much of that coverage has involved the politicians and other figures whose activities revealed corruption, ethical lapses, or dishonesty and wrongdoing. That includes Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, who has “stepped aside” for an unspecified period of time after his ownership of a holding company established by Mossack in the British Virgin Islands was discovered. There’s been no indication so far that there was anything legally wrong with the company or its activities, or that he pursued favoritism on behalf of his financial interests while in office. However, he failed to disclose his assets in Iceland’s parliamentary register of MPs’ financial interests and was not forthcoming with his constituency.

In other words, like most of the stories from the Panama Papers that are dominating the news, Gunnlaugsson’s is one of only tangential relation to the actual business of Mossack Fonseca. Had he been a private citizen with the exact same legal and business arrangements, no one would care. Where he erred was on his responsibility to disclose his holdings and maintain the trust of his citizens.

Nevertheless, his and other similar stories have been framed as proof that something must be done about “shady” offshore dealings. In fact, the entire media coverage from start to finish has been littered, either directly or through implication, with myths.

Here are a few areas where the media, and the public discussion surrounding the Panama Papers, has more often than not gotten it wrong:

Myth 1: Tax Avoidance and Tax Evasion Are Both Wrong

On the tax front (the instances of corruption representing a different matter entirely), most all of the media and political hand-wringing surrounding the Panama Papers has been due to a willful blurring of the lines between tax evasion and avoidance. Yet in reality there are significant legal and ethical differences between the two.

Tax evasion is a crime, and involves the deliberate disregard of tax obligations. Evasion can be committed by lying about assets or engaging in fraud. Banking in jurisdictions that respect privacy rights can be used by unscrupulous individuals as part of a strategy to commit tax evasion. But so can using cash. Both also have legitimate functions, making it unfair to treat everyone who uses privacy respecting services (or cash) as suspect and unwise to create rules on that assumption.

Tax avoidance is not a crime. It is, in fact, simply obedience to the law as it is written. Lawmakers bemoan those who seek to minimize their tax burdens when doing so shines a negative light on the quality of the laws they have written. But in other instances they encourage it. When politicians provide tax credits, for instance, it is with the understanding that those who use them are doing so to avoid paying more tax than they have to. And when they seek to discourage other activities through excise taxes, they are counting on people changing their behavior to avoid the tax. Politicians understand and even expect tax avoidance when it suits them, and decry it when it does not.

Most of what the media directly claims or indirectly implies to be tax evasion is merely legal avoidance. It is individuals choosing to do business in jurisdictions with less onerous tax codes. Not only is this legal, but it has concomitant positive benefits. Tax competition between jurisdictions serves as a check on political greed, and pressures governments to adopt tax policies designed to grow economies instead of just treasuries.

Myth 2: Offshore Financial Services Are Only Used for Wrongdoing

Opportunists who have long despised the ability of individuals to legally flee from confiscatory tax rates want to make the Panama Papers story about financial privacy. It’s not. That makes no more sense than if the story of Congressman William Jefferson, found with a stash of ill-gotten money in his freezer, had been spun as one primarily about cash or kitchen appliances.

Yes, bad people also use legal and financial services. Sometimes they even do so to help them conduct their illicit activity. They also sometimes use airplanes to meet with co-conspirators, or cash to conduct black market sales. That’s not an argument for depriving law abiding citizens of then use of either of those. The fact that corrupt politicians made use of the legal services of Mossack Fonseca does not mean that something must be done about Mossack Fonseca and similar firms. It suggests, if anything, that something must be done about political corruption.

The idea that anyone benefiting from the legal services of Mossack Fonseca, and others who specialize in meeting the needs of international clientele in establishing new businesses and trusts, simply does not match reality. They file incorporation papers. What is then done with those companies is on the people who actually manage them.

Myth 3: Indiscriminate Leaking of Private Financial and Legal Information, Especially of the Rich, Serves a Public Good 

While exposing potential corruption of politicians who might be looting their national treasuries or hiding potential conflicts of interest likely serves a public good, massive data leaks that include innocents are still a massive violation of privacy. The Panama Papers leak consists of confidential and legally protected communications, including those of the vast majority of innocent Mossack Fonseca clients caught up in the data for no other reason than that they used ordinary legal and tax planning services that a small number of elites may have been simultaneously misusing.

Whether or not the individuals who did nothing wrong but were exposed anyway are wealthy or not shouldn’t matter. They have the same expectation of privacy as the rest of us. Moreover, the implication that they are “hiding” their wealth even when all tax laws have been followed presumes a public right to individual financial information that does not exist. No one accuses an individual with an ordinary savings account who chooses not to broadcast their account balance as “hiding” their money. That information is simply their business and their business alone.

Saturday

15

August 2015

0

COMMENTS

Third Time Won’t Be the Charm in Greece

Written by , Posted in Big Government, Economics & the Economy, Foreign Affairs & Policy, Free Markets, Taxes

Greece is getting bailed out for the third time in just five years, proving yet again that lessons from political mistakes are rarely heeded. As I wrote last month in a column for EveryJoe:

The simple explanation is that Greece tried socialism and it predictably failed, as socialism is wont to do… More specifically, Greece has saddled its economy and its people with heavy taxes to fund a corrupt government weighed down by excessive pensions for their bloated workforce. A byzantine and oppressive regulatory system further stifles growth and prevents the economy from keeping up.

To put some numbers on the problem, Greek debt exceeds 177 percent of its GDP. That means Greeks would have to work almost two years to produce an equivalent amount of goods and services. It’s unfunded future liabilities, which includes generous pensions, tops 875 percent of GDP! Its yearly spending on pensions alone accounts for a whopping 16 percent of Greece’s GDP, and overall the government spends upwards of 50 percent.

If all this proves that Greece is suicidal, it was its entrance into the European Union that gave it the rope needed to hang itself. When it joined the EU, Greece suddenly had access to levels of credit it never had before thanks to the implicit backing of stronger EU economies like Germany. Creditors determined – correctly, apparently – that if Greece couldn’t pay its debt then they would be bailed out by the larger economies. And like a kid that got his hands on his parent’s credit card for the first time, Greece went nuts. In economic terms that’s called a moral hazard, and the latest bailout has only reinforced it.

This week’s announcement of yet another bailout will only exacerbate the moral hazard, and demonstrates the continued folly of the EU’s grand experiment with a common currency without a common fiscal policy.

Continuing to prop up Greece’s bloated government will not solve the problem. There are no good solutions, but the least bad option is for them to go bankrupt and solve the root of their problem, which is excessive government spending.

Instead, Germany and the rich EU nations are offering yet another loan to the demonstrably irresponsible, on condition that they raise taxes and cut spending. Unfortunately, only one of those conditions will help while the other will prove counterproductive. Leftist bleating about ‘austerity’ conflates tax hikes with spending cuts, but the former is bad for growth and saps the political will for belt tightening, while the latter is a proven path toward fiscal solvency.

What Greece needs is to tear down its bloated bureaucracy and insane regulatory regime, but that won’t happen so long as the EU continues acting as enabler.

Friday

6

March 2015

0

COMMENTS

Rule of Law on Trial in King v. Burwell

Written by , Posted in Health Care, Welfare & Entitlements, Liberty & Limited Government, Taxes, The Courts, Criminal Justice & Tort

You might think King v. Burwell is just about Obamacare. To be sure, the ruling could profoundly impact the law if nothing else is done. Though depending on how legislators react, even a finding in favor of the challengers could be made to have no real impact at all.

But what will certainly have an impact is a finding in favor of the government. Endorsing their position would be a huge blow against a most basic tenet of our representative system. I wrote about this in my latest column for EveryJoe.

…If the court rules in favor of the government, it will mean that the executive branch is free to rewrite legislation despite the clear meaning of a law if they can plausibly argue that the consequences for not doing so would be negative. It is, at its core, a case about who gets to write the law.

It’s true that Congress typically gives the Treasury department more latitude than typical because of the complexity of the tax code. But where Congress has not said to fill in the blanks, Treasury must follow the law, as must any other agency within the executive branch. To allow otherwise would undermine a fundamental principle of our government: that we are a nation of laws, which are created by elected representatives.

As an example of what to expect if the court allows for erosion of the separation of powers, consider the current call by Sen. Bernie Sanders – self-described socialist – for the White House to rewrite the tax code without Congress.

He wants Obama to declare by fiat the elimination of certain “loopholes.” But what are commonly referred to as “loopholes” are really just particular policy choices made by elected leaders. They can be either good, such as those which alleviate double taxation, or bad, such as those which provide special handouts for politically favored businesses. Regardless, they are part of the tax code which Congress has created, as is their legal prerogative. If they don’t like it they should legislate a new tax code, and if we don’t like it we can vote them out of office.

…This White House has been open about its desire and willingness to rewrite the law as Obama sees fit in order to advance his agenda. And his spokesman responded favorably to Sen. Sanders suggestion, saying that Obama is “very interested” in unilaterally hiking taxes. If the court rejects the latest challenge to Obamacare and finds in favor of the government, it will only serve to embolden his efforts to unconstitutionally transform the nation.

The whole piece is available here.

Thursday

29

January 2015

0

COMMENTS

The Carbon Tax Schism

Written by , Posted in Taxes

The center-right tends to be united on issues of taxes. We’re against them. But there’s a push from some among this coalition – like the R Street Institute, and the newly formed Niskanen Center – to put a tax on carbon. Do they think Americans need to be taxed more? Have they been bought out? Have they suddenly gone insane? The answer to all three is absolutely not. Their arguments are based on the presumption that burdens can be shifted from economically destructive taxes like those on income and capital and put on far less destructive, and perhaps even beneficial, taxes like those on carbon. In theory I agree, but political reality must be taken into consideration.

The economics are sound. The politics are not. The problem is that any gains would only last until the next Democratic majority, which would raise the income/capital taxes right back to their previous level or higher. Then we’ll have our current taxes plus a carbon tax. And that’s a step back, not forward, for advocates of limited government.

I explain more in depth in my recent column for EveryJoe:

To understand where they go wrong, we must first consider the case for a carbon tax. Obviously, supporters start from the assumption that carbon is bad and that we want less of it; if they thought otherwise we wouldn’t be having this discussion. In economic parlance, they identify carbon production as a negative externality, meaning it places costs on those not involved in the economic transaction from which it was produced…

The most market-friendly solution … is the Pigovian tax. Simply put, by taxing activities responsible for negative externalities, market participants are forced to price in its full costs, thereby reducing supply and correcting a market inefficiency.

…After carbon taxes are collected, conservative supporters argue they can be used to reduce other, more destructive taxes. As mentioned, when you tax something, you get less of it. This means that taxes on things that are good – like work, savings or investment – are particularly harmful to the economy. Replacing taxes on good things with taxes on bad things thus makes a lot of economic sense. Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple.

You can read the rest here.

Saturday

27

December 2014

0

COMMENTS

Perhaps the Most Important Issue for the New Congress to Get Right

Written by , Posted in Big Government, Economics & the Economy, Liberty & Limited Government, Taxes, Waste & Government Reform

My column this week at EveryJoe argues the need for reform at CBO and JCT. It may seem like inside baseball type stuff, but it is critically important if we ever want to be able to shrink government.

Imagine you were participating for years in a high stakes contest that was consistently rigged in favor of your opponent. Specifically, the contest hinges heavily on the verdict of third-party judges that claim neutrality, but in fact choose to interpret the rules in a way that tilts the field in favor of the opposition.

Now, image you have the opportunity to replace those judges with new ones, as well as to make their deliberations more transparent and accountable. Would you take advantage and replace the judges, even if the opposition cried foul? The answer to this question may seem obvious, but for Congressional Republicans it’s not just a hypothetical, and they are pondering once again making the stupid choice to accept the status quo.

The organizations represented by the biased judges in this scenario are the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), which score policy proposals and predict the impact of legislation on the economy. They’ve typically held tremendous power over what does and does not make it into law, and for years have been actively hostile to the limited government agenda.

With current CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf’s term about to expire, Republicans not only have the power to name a better replacement, but also the opportunity to make some much needed rule changes that will ensure a fairer, more accurate, and more accountable legislative scoring system.

You can read the rest here.

Since I wrote the piece, news has leaked that Republicans intend to replace Elmendorf. This is good news, but it’s only a start. As the article explains, much more needs to be changed than just the man at the top. This Washington Examiner editorial also makes the case for moving toward accurate scoring.

Wednesday

10

December 2014

0

COMMENTS

Uncle Sam’s Global Tax Web is Indefensible

Written by , Posted in Taxes

I recently sent the following letter to the The New York Times. They indicated it would run, but I’ve given them enough time and it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen, so I’m publishing here.

To the Editor:

Roger Cohen offered a valiant defense for the United States’ global tax web (“Get Real, Boris Johnson!” Nov. 28), but in the end proved only that it is indefensible. In his effort to shame American expat and London Mayor Boris Johnson for rightfully defying Uncle Sam’s greedy fiscal imperialism, the strongest argument he could muster was that “it’s the law.”

Thankfully, modern man has long progressed past the stage of believing that questions of right and wrong, or moral and immoral, can be so easily dispatched through consultation with lawyers. Cohen is correct, to be sure, that Uncle Sam has proclaimed the entire globe his financial playpen, but that is to our shame, and not Johnson’s for daring to stand on the very same principle upon which this nation was founded.

It’s also true that Johnson could renounce his American citizenship, but Uncle Sam has thought of that too. Yet even double taxing through an exit tax on after-tax earnings, plus an outrageous $2,350 fee, has not prevented record numbers from saying enough is enough.

Brian Garst
Director of Government Affairs
Center for Freedom & Prosperity

Update 1/5/15: They ran it after all.

Thursday

3

July 2014

0

COMMENTS

Moore Says Conservatives Losing Their Way on Taxes

Written by , Posted in Economics & the Economy, Taxes

Stephen Moore alleges that conservatives are losing their way on taxes:

A new economic plan is circulating called “Room to Grow,” and one of its premises seems to be that tax rates aren’t important for the middle class. One of its key proposals is to increase tax credits to families with children and even possibly raise tax rates on others to pay for it.

The idea here is that middle-class families with kids are facing a financial squeeze and need relief.

It’s well-meaning, but a classic misdiagnosis of the problem at hand. “This is anti–supply side policy,” fumes Larry Kudlow of CNBC. “It’s just awful growth policy.”

He’s right, and here’s why: Giving every family an extra tax break, as opposed to incentivizing businesses to invest and expand and workers to work, does nothing to grow the economy. This is pure redistribution to families with children. It is better to give a man a fish rather than to teach him to fish, in other words.

This completely misunderstands the source of the economic anxiety facing families today. For most middle-class families, the central problem is not that taxes are too high. It’s that before-tax wages and salaries are not rising — they’re even falling for many income groups — thanks to Obamanomics. On average, the median household has lost about $3,000 of purchasing power since the recession began in 2008. Half of Americans think we are still in recession. The middle class is getting squeezed because the recovery is so feeble and jobs are so scarce, not because of tax increases.

Moore is exactly right. I haven’t looked through all the other policy proposals in YG Network’s “Room to Grow” – though as John Tamny points out in another eloquent take-down of its shortcomings, David Brooks loves it so presumably I will not – but on the question of taxes and economic growth they have failed to diagnose the problem for the reasons Moore mentions. This malady in conservative tax thought can even be traced back to the Bush administration, where Keynesian assumptions were embraced in 2001 with “tax rebates” that failed just as thoroughly to “stimulate” the economy as Obama’s spending. There were, in a second attempt in 2003, better tax cuts under Bush that were more oriented toward supply-side growth, but the point is that conservatives sometimes buy into their own form of erroneous economic populism.

The point is not that taxes are not part of the problem – they certainly are – but rather that the problems caused by the tax code are its numerous disincentives for work, savings and investment. It is suppressing economic growth by punishing productive behavior. Those incentives need to be corrected, and that’s not done through gimmick handouts and a further narrowing of the tax base.

Saturday

26

April 2014

0

COMMENTS

Should We Punish Success as Inequality Fix?

Written by , Posted in Economics & the Economy, Taxes

Thomas Picketty has received a lot of attention for his attack on capitalism. His new book Capital in the Twenty-first Century has breathed new life into old Marxist critiques of capitalism, and been elevated to the status of very important book by the designated smart people™ who make it their business to decide what is important for the rest of us. It has received glowing coverage from the elite press like The New York Times and The Nation, and gushy reviews from prominent statists thanks to his assertion that capital is unfairly allocated, and that inequality poses an existential threat to democracy. In response, he calls for the admittedly utopian and impractical imposition of a global tax on wealth.

I’m not going to offer a rebuttal to Picketty. That work has already  been done. Rather, I’m here to note how his work has emboldened statists to admit their deepest policy desires – policies so radical and destructive that in the past were only whispered about at cocktail parties.

Matthew Yglesias writes at Vox that we need “confiscatory taxation” because “endlessly growing inequality can have a cancerous effect on our democracy.” Others are calling for a “maximum wage.”

There are problems with such proposals. First, inequality is largely misstated and misunderstood. Much of the data to back claims of rapidly growing inequality are being driven by statistical artifacts and cultural trends – creations of changes in the nature of households which make up the basis of inequality comparisons, or of changes in marriage patterns, or of problems with trying to take static snapshots of a dynamic economy.

Yglesias correctly notes that taxes influence behavior. Specifically, if you tax something, you get less of it. This forms the basis for his assertion that we should “apply the same principle of taxation-as-deterrence to very high levels of income.” If you start with the presumption that large incomes are unearned and without economic merit this might make sense. But if you believe that the market by-and-large distributes resources based on productivity, then this plan is quickly revealed as a tax on high levels of productivity. And with the agreed upon understanding that taxing a thing makes it less likely to occur, that means discouraging high levels of productivity. The net results is lower total output.

It is, in other words, the classic leftist plan to more evenly distribute a smaller economic pie. Or, as Margaret Thatcher would say, they would “rather that the poor were poorer, provided that the rich were less rich.”

Monday

23

September 2013

0

COMMENTS

End the Federal Subsidy for Big State Governments

Written by , Posted in Big Government, Liberty & Limited Government, Taxes

The relationship between federal and state governments – the division of power between the two levels being known as federalism – is an integral part of the American constitutional system. Federalism uses separate and competing spheres of sovereignty to check the growth and power of government as a whole.

Unfortunately, that system has been steadily eroded by a series of policies that have empowered the federal government, weakened states, made states dependent upon the largess of Washington, or encouraged excessive growth of state governments. As Curtis Dubay of the Heritage Foundation writes in a recent Issue Brief, the latter is accomplished in part through a federal deduction for state and local taxes that shields residents in high tax states from feeling the full cost of their bloated local governments.

Dubay writes:

The tax code allows taxpayers to deduct certain state and local taxes, including income taxes, sales taxes for residents of states that (wisely) go without an income tax, real estate taxes, and personal property taxes. State and local income taxes makes up about 95 percent of all state and local tax deductions.

…The harmful unintended consequence of the deduction is that it encourages state and local governments to raise their taxes. Higher taxes allow state and local governments to grow larger because they spend up to the maximum amount of revenue they can collect.

The deduction encourages state and local governments to raise their taxes because it transfers a portion of their tax burdens from their residents to the federal government. For instance, for every dollar a state taxes a family paying the 33 percent federal marginal tax rate, the family effectively pays only $0.67 of the state tax, because the deduction on the family’s federal taxes reduces their federal tax bill by $0.33.

This reduction in the “price” of the state’s taxes encourages states to raise their taxes higher than they otherwise would, because taxpayers offer less resistance since they do not pay the full cost of the higher taxes. Taxpayers are more willing to accept higher taxes because of the deduction in the same way consumers are more willing to buy a product or service when prices fall.

Dan Mitchell has similarly pointed to the faults in the state and local tax income tax dedication, as well as potential wrong headed solutions to its distortions:

Under current law, state and local income taxes are fully deductible, but state and local sales taxes are only temporarily deductible. The right policy is to get rid of any deductibility for any state and local tax…

Not surprisingly, the crowd in Washington doesn’t take this approach. Instead, they want to extend deductibility for the sales tax. And they may even be amenable to raising other taxes to impose that policy.

…This is a very misguided policy. It means that greedy politicians such as Governor Brown of California or Governor Cuomo of New York can raise tax rates and tell voters not to get too upset because they can deduct that additional burden. This means that a $1 tax hike results in a loss of take-home pay of as little as 65 cents.

But you don’t cure one bad policy with another bad policy. A deduction for state and local sales taxes just augments the IRS-enforced preference for bigger government at the state and local level.

Dubay further explains how eliminating the deduction would benefit tax competition and limited government:

These data show that while taxpayers in high-tax states pay a hefty amount of state and local taxes, they also see that burden reduced the most because of the deduction. If tax reform eliminated the deduction, these taxpayers would see the biggest increase in their effective state and local taxes. They would likely put the most pressure on their state and local governments to stop tax increases and apply the most pressure on those governments to reduce their high taxes.

Like Mitchell, he also notes that offsetting elimination of the deduction is essential to reform:

Eliminating the state and local tax deduction should be done only within the context of overall tax reform. Congress should not eliminate it (for instance, through “loophole closing”) without other offsetting tax changes. To do so would be an unnecessary tax increase.

The state and local tax deduction is just one of many policies distorting the federalist system and encouraging excessive government growth. Federal mandates, grants, handouts and other tax preferences also undermine tax competition and need reform.