by Fred Foldvary
When the USA adopted the 16th Amendment to the Constitution a century ago, did the people understand that this would deprive Americans world-wide of foreign banking services? Americans thought that the income tax would just grab the money from the rich, but they did not understand that the income tax would tax everybody else more. All that is needed to equalize wealth without damage to the economy is to stop government subsidies, but this requires an economic sophistication that so far has eluded most people.
Inherently, an income tax yields an incentive to cheat, as the government depends on reporting. So the Internal Revenue Service has to monitor financial accounts to prevent tax evasion. Gradually, the IRS has extended its reach into accounts, first within the USA, and now into the foreign accounts held by American citizens.
No other country has imposed such costs and mandates on foreign accounts as the USA. So ironically the “land of the free” has the least economic freedom for its citizens abroad. The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), enacted in 2010 requires foreign financial institutions to make reports on American accounts. Foreign financial institutions with American customers are required obtain a Global Intermediary Identification Number. FATCA requires foreign financial firms to identify their U.S. account holders, to disclose the account holders’ names, social security or other tax IDs, addresses, and the accounts’ balances, receipts, and withdrawals. For some accounts, the foreign bank is required to withhold some of the interest paid to the account, and send it straight to the IRS. This US law overrides the privacy laws of the foreign countries.
US law is thus legislating not only within US territory but throughout the whole world. If a financial firm does not comply, the IRS will tax 30 percent of its US-sourced income. The IRS is also busy laying out the legal infrastructure for enforcing this law with agreements with foreign governments for data sharing. Governments world-wide are signing on, because they too face the problem of tax evasion when they tax income that can hide.
FATCA does not just affect fat cats. Many foreign banks are now refusing to provide Americans with bank accounts and are closing the accounts of Americans, who are now also unable to obtain mortgages and insurance abroad. Americans are increasingly giving up their US citizenship in order to be able to work or retire abroad.
The US economy depends on international trade and global finance, with many Americans working abroad for US and foreign firms. Six million Americans live outside the territory of the USA. If Americans can no longer have foreign bank accounts, because the costs to the banks are too high, they will be so hampered that fewer Americans will be willing to live abroad, and this will hurt American enterprise.
Since the US government cannot directly impose laws on foreign lands, many foreign firms will sell their US affiliates and stop holding assets within the USA, thus putting themselves beyond the control of the US government. The overall cost to the US economy of FATCA may be much greater than the increase in tax revenue from reduced tax evasion. Also, those who seek to evade income taxes will find other ways. High taxes induce tax evasion, and enforcement drives evasion into other channels. How successful are US drug laws in stopping the smuggling in of drugs, and how successful have US immigration restrictions been at preventing illegal immigration?
Another consequence of greater reporting of American accounts is the increased risk of identity theft and theft of money from accounts. The greater the reporting, the greater the revelation of data that can be stolen.
It is no use seeking to repeal FATCA. The regulation of accounts, no matter how costly, follows from the income tax being, as Henry George put it, a tax on honesty. The taxation of wealth that can hide and flee requires strict and costly reporting and enforcement. The only effective remedy is to tax something that will not flee, hide, or shrink when taxed. A tax on land value cannot be evaded, and if that were the only tax, there would be no need to impose costs on finances.