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Thread: Taxland Chit Chat
07-07-2008, 12:09 PM #1
Taxland Chit Chat
Studying the Canadian Income Tax is such a drag so I want to throw in a big of fun by posting some useless tidbits .
07-07-2008, 12:13 PM #2
Published on The Brussels Journal (http://www.brusselsjournal.com)
Walking on Water: How to Do It
By Paul Belien
Created 2005-08-27 01:26
In 1994 Estonia introduced a flat tax rate of 26%. The flat tax is a system with only one tax rate for all personal income and corporate profits. Almost overnight this led to a phenomenal economic expansion. Contrary to the situation in a tax system with progressive rates, people were no longer punished fiscally if they worked harder. Very soon the Estonian example was being followed by its Baltic neighbours Lithuania and Latvia. In 1997 Russia introduced a flat tax of 13%. Serbia followed suit, as did the Ukraine, Slovakia and Georgia. Romania followed in 2005. So far nine countries have introduced a flat tax.
An interview with Mart Laar, the pioneer of Europe’s flat tax revolutionNext year Estonia plans to lower its flat rate to 20%, while the Czech Republic, Poland and Iraq are also considering abolishing their progressive tax rates. The man who sparked the flat tax revolution is former Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar. He governed his country from 1992 to 1995 and from 1999 to 2002. When the historian became Prime Minister in 1992 at the age of 32 he knew nothing about economy. Laar’s area of expertise were Europe’s 19th-century national movements. “It is very fortunate that I was not an economist,” he says. “I had read only one book on economics – Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose.” I was so ignorant at the time that I thought that what Friedman wrote about the benefits of privatisation, the flat tax and the abolition of all customs rights, was the result of economic reforms that had been put into practice in the West. It seemed common sense to me and, as I thought it had already been done everywhere, I simply introduced it in Estonia, despite warnings from Estonian economists that it could not be done. They said it was as impossible as walking on water. We did it: we just walked on the water because we did not know that it was impossible.”
When Laar became Prime Minister, inflation in Estonia was over 1,000%, the economy was falling at a rate of 30%, unemployment was over 30%, 95% of the economy was state-owned and 92% of Estonian trade was dependent on Russia. Today, inflation is 2.5%, economic growth is between 6 and 7%, unemployment is low, the government budget is balanced and there is a high level of investment. Moreover, Estonia is leading the world in the field of e-government.
Meanwhile Mart Laar hopes to resume his career as a historian, having just completed a study on the anti-communist partisans in the Estonian forests who fought the Soviets from 1944 to 1978, when the last of them was shot. “They have saved the soul of my country,” he says. “They are the great heroes of Estonia that should never be forgotten.”
The Brussels Journal interviews Mart Laar
Mart Laar on the Parliament Meadows (Thingvellir) in Iceland, the site of the oldest parliament in the world.
Paul Belien: You turned Estonia into an economic miracle model. Can you tell us how you did it? You are not an economist. What did you do? Where did you get the inspiration from?
Mart Laar: I am not an economist. I am a practical man. I had read only one book on economics. This was Milton Friedman’s “Free to choose.” I must say that to my mind all the ideas which were presented there looked to be very practical. I was not too informed. I did not know that not many countries or rather no country at all had ever used the same policies. It looked very logical to me. Hence I introduced these things. They have worked very well in Estonia and are now being followed in lots of other countries.
PB: How was the economic situation in Estonia when you came into power?
ML: We were completely down. In 1992, the year when I became Prime Minister, we had an inflation of more than 1,000%. We had a drop in the economy of more than 30%. We were totally dependent on Russia. Most of our economy was state owned. Food was rationed. There was no gasoline, which means no cars in the streets. If I look back now and see the traffic congestion on Estonian streets I sometimes think that perhaps it was not such a bad time when there were no cars at all.
PB: You came up with this revolutionary idea of the flat tax. You were actually the first country in Europe to introduce this. Where did you get this revolutionary idea?
ML: This was also from the Milton Friedman book, but I really did not know that I was the only one to try it. It just looked so logical to introduce this, so this was one of the first reforms that we did. It was enforced on 1 January 1994.
PB: Did you have a hard time convincing your party members in Estonia to accept this brand new idea?
ML: Yes, indeed. I must say, however, that it did not take too long. We passed flat tax legislation in 1993 in order for it to become effective on 1 January of the next year. But, yes, sometimes to convince your own party is the most difficult part. When we introduced it, it was a highly unpopular idea. It was attacked by all the specialists. Most economists said that I was completely mad and that I did not know anything about economics. To say that this man really does not know anything about economics, was actually true.
PB: What happened then? Did you have an immediate economic recovery after the introduction of the flat tax?
ML: Of course it was not just the flat tax that did the trick but, indeed, it helped Estonia very much. We introduced it so quickly, because we thought it was a good method to fight unemployment. We had to encourage the people who were losing their jobs. The old fashioned dinosaur factories just closed down. We could not keep them running. This meant that we had to encourage the people to do something for themselves which meant they had to start their own businesses. But when you have to start your own business with a high level of taxation you will be killed. In a progressive system of taxation those who work more are taxed more. This is not encouraging people to do something. We needed to wake them up. It worked. The immediate result was the creation of an enormous number of new working places. According to the prognoses about unemployment approximately 30% of the people were set to lose their jobs during the following year. In reality, however, we had a very low level of unemployment, only 5 to 6%, as the result of the introduction of the flat tax, because the people just created their own businesses.
PB: When did the world start to notice that something was happening in Estonia?
ML: It started soon, in 1994 when people first started to talk about the Estonian economic miracle. Then this reputation began to grow. Of course we always tried to find new things to add to this reputation and to really be succesful. We have been quite good in this. After a first wave of reforms we had a second and a third wave too.
PB: You triggered a revolution that gradually expanded all over Eastern Europe and is now even moving into Western Europe.
ML: I hope so. Last year I predicted that during the next five years the whole of Eastern Europe will move to the flat rate. It now looks as if I was wrong, because it is happening faster. I recently had the great pleasure of participating in seminars in Western Europe. In Denmark for example where they are seriously discussing the flat rate. I was surprised how serious these plans are. And in Great Britain where Madsen Pirie is leading the discussion on the same topic. So I must say things look even more promising than I thought.
PB: But you would like to return to your professional work as a historian.
ML: Yes, I am doing everything I can to achieve this. It is working out quite well at the moment with my doctoral degree. I am now trying to win back some of the time that I lost as a historian while in politics. So I have a lot of things to do. But at the same time, of course, I continue trying to help those governments, political forces or people who are interested in introducing economic reforms in their countries. As I said I am not an economist but a practician. I give very practical advice and sometimes it can be useful, especially in those neo-transitional countries like the Ukraine or Georgia, to encourage the people and to say: “Look, guys, we were in the same situation that you are in now. Look at us: we got out of this situation. You can do this, too, when you have enough willpower, when you have enough courage and when you take the necessary decisions.”
PB: And that is a lesson we can also learn in Western Europe.
ML: Yes, indeed. I try to be very active in Europe. Estonia is a member of the European Union and I am a European. We must make the whole of Europe into a “new Europe.” I am very hopeful that the competition from the new member states will lead to a slightly more normal economic model in the whole of Europe. I must say I think it will be very positive for Europe. This is not a question of a so-called “Anglo-Saxon” model versus another model. There are governments which deliver, there are governments which do not, and this is not a question of left versus right. Some left governments have introduced reforms while right governments have not. It is sometimes said that these reforms are a sign of neo-liberalism. I think such a discussion is complete nonsense.
PB: You know that the European Union would like to harmonise taxation.
ML: Oh, actually they do not, or rather if some might want to do so, they will fail. We have won this debate. Clearly it will not happen in Europe. That I think is good news for the whole of Europe. Because when there is tax competition, taxes go down. I can guarantee you that taxes will go down not only in central and Eastern Europe, but very soon also in the Baltic Sea area. Not only in the new member states along the Baltic, but also in Finland, in Sweden, in Denmark. There is no other option left for them.
PB: They have to.
ML: Exactly. That I think is a positive sign. In this context I am really working towards European tax reform as well. I think this is a great continent with huge possibilities. Why shouldn’t we do better? We can do better.
07-07-2008, 12:14 PM #3
Estonia's Flat Tax System
Please note: There will be no further updates to this blog until January 3, 2006. Have a happy and safe New Year, one and all!
There have been a number of articles lately praising Baltic countries in the old "iron curtain"--like Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia and Lithuania--for adopting some version of a "flat" tax. See, for example, this one by Mark Landler in the San Francisco Chronicle. It seems clear that the flat tax is currently working well in countries like Estonia, but that success should not be taken as an indicator that countries with highly developed economies should follow the Baltic lead or indeed that the Baltic states can be expected to retain their current tax systems.
After the fall of the Soviet regime, Estonia began its income tax system in 1990 with a fairly sophisticated progressive tax structure, but with very unsophisticated tax administrators and taxpayers. See this description of the tax system. The complexity and lack of administrative expertise created unsurmountable problems, leading Estonia to switch to the current "flat" system in 1994.
Estonia's "flat" system is actually a progressive rate income tax, but with relatively low rates (currently the top rate is 24% and it is scheduled to drop to 20% by 2009) and a broad base (without differentiation between ordinary income and capital gains, and with limited deductions and exemptions permitted). Id. There is a standard exemption amount (i.e., a zero rate bracket), but families receive additional exemptions for children. Certain pensions are excluded. Various personal expenses--such as mortgage interest--are deductible, but deductions cannot amount to more than 50% of taxable income. In other words, the Estonian tax system is an income tax with a broad base and flattened (but not flat) rate structure. There is also an 18% VAT.
An enforced and collected tax creates steady revenue streams that permit government to do the things that must be done to support a stable economy and jumpstart economic growth. No government can effectively provide public services, including a stable environment for economic growth, without a steady stream of tax revenues. So getting a tax system off the ground and working would be very important to economic growth in a country that did not have a working tax system. A simpler and more transparent tax would be especially important in that case, and clearly the system Estonia developed, permitting internet filing of income tax returns (much like the 1040EZ used by many ordinary Americans in the lower four quintiles) has worked to spur Estonia's growth. It might well be that higher rates and additional rate brackets would work as well (or better), if the country avoided the constant adjustment that was apparently tried in the first few years of Estonia's income tax system and could rely on experienced tax administrators. Consistency and transparency, in other words, may have been much more important for Estonia than reducing to two (three) rates from four rates.
Once revenues are coming in, they can permit governments to create the kind of infrastructure that will drive more growth. The government of Estonia is clearly paying attention to this issue at this point, by devoting government resources to providing internet access and supporting research on ways to make the internet a productive organ of economic growth. Many of Estonia's cities have done what Philadelphia is doing (see here)--providing universal wireless access so that citizens can all leap into the information universe. There are 700 public internet access points and 600 free wireless zones in the country, every public school has internet and computer systems, and a majority of the population are internet users. See this story on Estonia's economy. Estonia is the home of Skype, the "free-to-use internet telephony system" as described here.
(In the USA, by the way, communications companies have worked to make it illegal for cities to do what Estonia has done--use tax revenues and partnerships with private companies to create public or quasi-public utilities that provide great wireless access cheaply and universally for all citizens. Verizon spent $3 million lobbying for a Pennsylvania law to prevent cities from offering muni-wireless unless a telecommunications company refuses to do so, and other states are considering such a bill. See here.)
Having consistent tax collections and an active government that supports markets, as Estonia's government is doing by encouraging internet research and development, is a wonderful driver. It is especially important when there has been a dearth of such activities. Growth in that context should be meteoric--there is a long way up to go from how far down Estonia was.
There are a number of issues, though, for these new "flat" tax countries, and those issues may become paramount as the heady days of rapid growth wane and the divide between rich and poor becomes more apparent. For one thing, flattened income tax at lower rates may not generate enough income, even with the critically important equal taxation of capital and labor income. Funding for the many activities of modern governments--from security to the arts, education to health care--is expensive. Estonia has so far mimicked the US instead of its European neighbors in providing a very thin social safety net. Lesser revenues because of the flattened rate structure, however, will make it hard to provide important public goods like education, health care, assistance for the elderly and other state support that most developed countries think necessary. As it becomes a more integrated member of the European Union, Estonia's citizens may demand government support for a standard of living similar to their more established Nordic neighbors.
Furthermore, the lower-tax states in Europe are in many cases making gains by undercutting their more established neighbors. German and French leaders claim that the Baltic states are just grabbing foreign investment from neighboring states by selling their lower tax rates. See the San Francisco Chronicle story, above. At the same time, the European Union is still providing financing to its newest members, and that financing supplements the lower tax revenues from the flat tax, providing necessary funds for the countries to continue their modernization drive. Whether Estonia adopts the Euro or not, tensions between European Union countries over tax policies and financing will need to be resolved, perhaps ultimately through some kind of European tax harmonization beyond the general directives currently in force.
The article on economic indicators for Estonia, cited above, shows that for 2004 Estonia had a growth rate of 7.8% of GDP, mostly through improved productivity. Job increases were relatively small. That is what might be expected of an economy that is coming out of a long slump under the Soviet occupation. Over the long haul, the economy needs to create significant jobs and reduce the unemployment rate below its current level (around 9.5%).
Most problematic for the Baltic states is the impact of the flat tax on already existing inequalities. Those who came out of the Soviet era with the most assets will carry a relatively light tax burden, while those at the bottom may find the 24% tax rate unbearably steep. In the United States, for comparison, generally only taxpayers in the top quintile of the income distribution pay an effective tax rate above 25%. Even assuming continuing economic growth, the higher tax burden on lower-income Estonians may make it hard for them to move forward with the economy.
Where will the Baltic states be in a decade? I don't have a crystal ball, but I expect that developed countries will ultimately decide that governments will increasingly emphasize support for quality of life expenditures from education to environment to health care. Health care and care for the elderly is especially significant as we become more capable of treating disease and prolonging lives. Education will continue to be the doorway to a better standard of living, and governments will be expected to provide strong educational foundations for all citizens. As use of carbon products explodes with countries like China and India rapidly adopting Western lifestyles, environmental expenditures will also need to mushroom. Those needs may well require countries like Estonia to move towards a more highly progressive rate structure than the one currently in place.
As Edgar Savisaar, leader of a center-left party in Estonia states (in the San Francisco Chronicle article cited above), "The best societies in the world to live in are the Nordic societies. [Estonia has] to move in that direction."
December 28, 2005 | Permalink
Last edited by Pete LSD; 07-07-2008 at 12:17 PM.
07-07-2008, 01:28 PM #4
You mean there are something else to love beside the beautiful country and their (lovely and wonderful) people in Estonia? I am all for any country that has tax rate less than 25%. However, I will need to study the tax system further to maximize my ??? given my limited resource.
07-07-2008, 04:27 PM #5
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