The Most Entitled Generation

A lot of people looking at devices.

The most common word I hear being used to describe the Millennials is “entitled”. This view, almost always put forward by Baby Boomers, has become so mainstream that Millennials’ narcissism even became a cover story in Time.  The narrative seems to revolve around the ideas that a) Millennials use technology—and particularly social media—a lot (and that’s allegedly a narcissistic activity) b) Millennials are ambitious—they want to do interesting jobs and get promoted, and c) Millennials aren’t working hard (like we used to).

To me, these criticisms don’t actually seem much like criticisms. Rather, to me, it feels like the Baby Boomers are trying to make themselves feel better about their own weaknesses. Boomers as a whole don’t understand or enjoy technology and social media, so, to feel good about themselves, they have to criticize those that do. Boomers made the decision to work their lives away in boring jobs, so, to validate that decision, they need to criticize those who desire a different path.

I (a Gen Xer) think the Millennials aren’t particularly entitled, and actually deserve far more credit than the older generations have given them.

Who’s really entitled?

The Baby Boomers who are accusing the Millennials of being entitled grew up during what’s called the “long boom”, the post-World War II economic expansion. When Trump says, “Make America Great Again”, he actually means “make America grow the way it did in the 1960s”.

Why? Because the economy was exploding. Because growing up then was so easy.

The GDP was rising 4-5% during the long boom. Jobs were plentiful—the unemployment rate actually hit a ridiculously low 3.4% rate in 1968. To go to college at UPenn in 1965, the estimated cost including room and board was $3,170. At the time, the median family income was $6,900.  Today, the estimated cost to go to college at UPenn is $65,470, while the median US family income is $55,775.

UPenn is just one school, but in general, education costs have increased at a far greater rate than both inflation and incomes. What’s more, while the average American student today graduates with debt over $30,000, federally-administered student loans were only legislated into existence in 1965.

Adjust your contrast

So the baby boomers grew up in a time where education was cheap and student debt rare. When they graduated, they had few problems finding a job in the booming economy.

In contrast, Millennials are going deeply into debt to fund their education with no guarantee of a job when they graduate. The job market has been terrible for much of their adult life. In 2013, when the Time article was written, the average unemployment rate was 7.4%, while the youth unemployment rate was closer to 15%. Plenty of Millennials are taking on huge amounts of debt going to college, but often discover when they graduate that the only job they can find involves pouring coffee.

Now, someone does need to pour coffee. But pouring coffee isn’t a great way to pay off tens of thousands of dollars of student loans.

How about housing?

A similar thing has happened with housing. I don’t have housing data for 1960s, but it’s certainly true that the American dream was to own a detached house. And, in large, that dream seems to have been realized.

The Millennials, on the other hand, don’t get the house. In 1984, houses in Toronto cost about 1.6 times the annual income. In 2012, the multiple was up to six, and today in Vancouver, the multiple is above ten.

In fact, in Vancouver, a Millennial is hard-pressed even to rent. The median income is around $80K or about $61K after tax, while the median annual rent on a 2-bedroom apartment is about $38,400, or about 63% of after-tax income. Of course, Millennials, just starting their career, will typically be nowhere near the median income.

So, the Baby Boomer got their cheap education, their good job out of school, and a nice detached house at a cheap price. The Millennial, on the other hand, ends up with tens of thousands of dollars of student loans and has to struggle to rent a terrible apartment while working as a barista.

And the Boomers call the Millennials entitled because they want more than that.

My big question

Thus, the question I have isn’t why the Millennials are entitled, but rather why they’re not more bitter. They’ve really been screwed by the Boomers.

The Boomers felt entitled to tax cuts. To get those tax cuts, they drastically cut and privatized funding for education, leading to Millennials’ huge student debts.

The Boomers took on piles of debt to speculate on housing. Then, when those speculations caused a housing crash, it trashed the economy, making it far more difficult for Millennials to get jobs.

To ensure that Boomers kept their jobs despite destroying the economy, they kept interest rates super-low for a decade, causing a housing bubble that’s made it impossible for Millennials to afford a place to live.

Now, education funding, employment rates, and housing prices are complex issues. But, to my way of seeing things, the Boomers are more responsible than anyone for the horrible situation that the Millennials have inherited. I’m ashamed of them when they turn around and call the Millennials entitled.

To me, the Boomers act far more entitled than the Millennials, and it shocks me that the Millennials aren’t furious about this state of affairs.

But then again, maybe they are, but you just don’t hear about it. Because most of the media is owned by Baby Boomers.

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How the Government Contributes to Racism in Vancouver

An example of real-estate racism in Vancouver

My ethnic group is in the majority in Vancouver so I might not be the best at judging things, but from reading online message boards and overhearing people in the city, I think racism in Vancouver is on the rise. In particular, the target seems to be the Chinese. It’s an awkward topic to talk about—almost certainly someone will view something in this post as racist, discriminatory, or politically incorrect, but I believe ignoring these problems because they’re uncomfortable to talk about is a really bad idea, simply exacerbating the problem.

My (completely unproven) hypothesis is that a major cause of this increased racism is increasing inequality and a shift away from whites being the dominant ethnic group. However, I think the government is playing a major role in contributing to the growth of this racism.

 My core hypothesis

Probably the biggest thing that has lead to the growth in racism is Vancouver’s housing bubble, both because it grossly increases inequality and because of the narrative explaining the bubble.

The inequality coming out of the bubble is easy to understand. Essentially, the people who bought houses fifteen years ago are now multimillionaires, not out of hard work, but because they won the housing lottery. Meanwhile, anyone who didn’t—such as those who were only ten years old at the time— is having a hard time even finding an affordable place to rent.

While the housing-lottery multimillionaires can temporarily gain a certain satisfaction from calling the millennials “entitled” for having the gall to complain that they want a place to live, even the appeal of self-righteous fades over time. Thus, as the inequality grows, people look for an outsider to blame.

As a result, a narrative is created to explain the housing bubble, and in Vancouver, that narrative is that the rich Chinese are taking over, laundering illegally-obtained money in Vancouver real estate. The real estate industry loves this story and has promoted it for years. Though most stats only show 5-10% of sales are to foreigners, realtors want their customers to believe that they need to buy now, or be forever priced out. Saying millionaires from other countries are coming to buy Vancouver houses helps with that message. Thus, people blame foreigners for the inequality, and racism starts to rise.

The foreign influence

Like most of these narratives, I believe there is some truth to the “foreign money” explanation. One real estate company claimed over a third of the single family homes it sold in a year were bought by people affiliated mainland China. Another study showed that 88% of the most expensive homes in the most expensive neighborhoods were purchased by people with Chinese names.

What’s more, recently a study came out that showed an inverse correlation between housing prices and taxable income. In other words, the most expensive real estate is owned by the people claiming the lowest incomes, while the less expensive real estate is owned by the people with the highest income.

One explanation for this discrepancy might be that the elderly live in the most expensive areas of the city because they were able to buy before prices exploded. But, the explanation that most people seem to believe is that foreigners are buying up all the houses in expensive areas with illegally-obtained money, money they don’t declare on their income taxes.

The implication is that, when it comes to paying for government infrastructure, wealthy foreigners who cheat on their taxes are being subsidized by poorer Canadians. And that narrative becomes stronger with every anecdote of foreign students and housewives buying multimillion dollar homes.

The government’s role

So, I think there is some truth to the foreign influence in the real estate market, but I think the government has had a role to play too. What’s more, government actions are exacerbating the rise in racism.

The most noteworthy action is the government keeping interest rates at emergency low levels for a decade—an action that I believe has had as big an impact on the housing market as foreigners. I’ve written about that before, so I won’t repeat myself, except to say that this is a government action that greatly increases inequalities, and therefore, in my opinion, increases resentment and racism. If the housing market weren’t bubbly, there would be no strength behind the narrative that the Chinese are taking over.

But the bigger issue is the discrepancy between the government’s policies about immigration and housing. Christy Clark and the provincial liberal government in general—who take large political donations from real estate developers—have said that that high prices are caused by limited housing supply. Essentially, they want people to believe that if we just build more condos (as their donors want), the problem will go away.

There might be some truth to this argument, but if the government truly believed this, they’d actually try to do something to curtail foreign demand as well, when in fact, they are doing nothing, or are actively encouraging foreign demand.

For instance, several stories have arisen recently about Vancouver presale condos being marketed to foreigners before locals. Clark could have addressed this issue in the foreign buyers tax she introduced—a tax that essentially blames the real estate bubble on foreigners. But instead, she made new condo sales exempt from the tax.

One great way to breed resentment about foreigners is to sell a limited amount of a highly-valued commodity, but to give foreigners first dibs, and the government to respond to this by saying, “yeah, we don’t think that’s a problem at all.”

Other immigration programs

Other immigration programs are equally to blame. If the government truly thinks supply is an issue, why is the government increasing immigration, driving even more demand? Investor immigration programs seem to come and go every few years. With those, “investors” typically either give money to the government for a few years, or agree to spend a certain amount of money in Canada (e.g. buy a house) and then they can live here. Yet the stats show that people who enter the country as refugees end up paying more Canadian income tax than these millionaire “investors”. So, the government is encouraging foreign demand for housing in Canada without actually recruiting people who want to contribute to Canada.

The Temporary Foreign Worker program is particularly egregious. Workers are imported from countries to do jobs that “Canadian’s don’t want to do”. Anyone with a basic understanding of economics knows that there are almost no jobs that people won’t do as long as you offer them a worthwhile salary. If you increase salaries, eventually you’ll find someone who will do the job. So the Temporary Foreign Worker program is actually in existence so that businesses don’t have to pay market-rates for their labor. Thus, this program both imports bodies—further increasing the demand for housing—and decreases wages. It’s yet another good way to make locals angry at foreigners.

Foreign Money

What’s more, the government seems reluctant to discourage foreign speculation in Vancouver real estate. In fact, if you’re a foreigner, getting a mortgage can actually be easier than if you are a Canadian. If a foreigner has a 35% down, that’s all they need to qualify for a mortgage in Canada.  They don’t need a credit history, or even a source of income. That’s insufficient for a Canadian, but, if you’re new in town, you’re good to go. In a way, it looks like the system is actually designed to make it as easy as possible to launder foreign money in real estate.

Of course, government agencies such as that Canada Revenue Agency are supposed to guard against money laundering and fraud. But, when it comes to real estate, they’re afraid of examining the affairs of Chinese immigrants too closely because they don’t want to appear racist.

The bottom line

Thus, Vancouver has a real estate market that’s been pushed out of the reach of locals, in no small part because of the actions of government, while the narrative—including the narrative from the provincial government—is that foreigners are responsible. The government claims supply is the problem, but takes actions to increase the real estate demand by foreigners, to the extent of giving them preferential treatment for mortgages and ignoring money laundering laws. Confronted with this powerful narrative, if you’re a local, it’s difficult not to hold foreigners responsible for your inability to afford a house.

(My personal view is that foreigners have played a role in the housing bubble, but not as big a role as the government. What’s more, I believe, the government has the means to curtail the impact of foreigners on the housing market if it chooses to do so, so I mostly hold the government responsible.)

Regardless of the truth, in light of this narrative, it’s not surprising to me that racism seems to be on the rise in Vancouver. In no small part, Trump’s ascendency was a consequence of the traditionally dominant whites in the USA struggling as globalization drove down wages and eliminated middle-class American jobs. “Make America Great Again” is a slogan designed to speak to exactly these people. Thus, it wouldn’t surprise me if traditionally multi-cultural, left-wing British Columbia sees the rise of a similar racist right-wing politician in the next few years.

Godwin’s Law in 2017

Hitler probably did compare people to Nazis....

Godwin’s law is an adage that, as a discussion on the Internet grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 100%. A corollary is that the first person in the discussion to mention Hitler loses.

I’ve been thinking about Godwin’s law, and, while there is value in not minimizing the atrocities of the Holocaust through comparisons to trivial wrongs, Godwin’s law is problematic in that it doesn’t provide any recognition of how fascism actually develops. Thus, Godwin’s law may be use to imply an argument is fallacious when the comparison is actually fair.

The rise of fascism

The issue is that fascism doesn’t appear as an overwhelming tsunami, but rather a slowly rising tide. There’s a well-known saying about the rise of Nazism that I always thought was apocryphal that is actually from a lecture by Martin Niemöller, a pastor imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps for seven years:

            First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
                        Because I was not a Socialist.

            Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
                        Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

            Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
                        Because I was not a Jew.

            Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Now, this is a beautiful rallying cry about the dangers of complacency during the rise of totalitarianism, but—as long as you think it’s apocryphal—it can easily be dismissed as an elegant but cynical attempt to inspire resistance. But knowing that it isn’t just a saying makes it hold much more weight.

It’s not someone’s attempt to convince me to fight. It’s a man expressing his experience. It’s not communist propaganda encouraging me to sacrifice my own interests for others, but rather Pastor Niemöller condemning himself for choosing not to act when he could have.

To me, that’s powerful. It makes me wonder how Niemöller said those words, about the expression on his face.

Tiny changes

And that brings me back to Godwin’s law. That law is designed so that trivial things aren’t compared the immense monstrosity of the Holocaust. But the thing is, fascism doesn’t start with the Holocaust. Rather, it is a parade of tiny incremental changes that only after long years add up to the deepest horror.

Milton Mayer discusses this idea in detail in an excerpt from his book They Thought They Were Free. It’s excellent writing, allowing the reader to truly understand how the good citizens of Germany could allow this atrocity to happen.

“You see,” my colleague went on, “one doesn’t see exactly where or how to move. Believe me, this is true. Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don’t want to act, or even talk, alone; you don’t want to ‘go out of your way to make trouble.’ Why not?—Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty.

“But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.”

And this is the problem with Godwin’s law. Each step toward fascism is so small that it is trivial by itself and therefore Godwin’s law would apply. But these trivial steps are what create a fascist regime, so Godwin’s law serves us poorly.

The bottom line

This incremental change is why people should be concerned about leaders who introduce the idea of “false news” to attempt to silence and discredit their critics, who make edicts targeting particular religions, or who praise people for extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals. Fascism is about building a wall, not in a day, but brick by brick over the course of years.

The Problem with Playoff Hockey

The benefits of cheating

The Stanley Cup finals are starting today. In the last few years, my interest in hockey has waned, partly because I’m not participating in hockey pools anymore and partly because I find the games more frustrating than entertaining. This year’s playoffs has illustrated that in spades.

Hockey should be a fast-paced game of skill. The players are skating on ice—they’re able to move faster than players in any other team sport. While zooming around, they’re using sticks to control a small black puck. It’s incredibly skillful, and should be among the most entertaining sports to watch.

But it isn’t, and that’s because of the refereeing.

The problem

There are a bunch of rules in hockey. For instance, you’re not allowed to take your stick in two hands, and use it to batter opposing players’ backs. You’re also not allowed to swing your stick like an axe across the opposing players’ hands. You’re not allowed to grab and hold the other players, or even hook your stick around their body and force them to pull you along like a water skier. You can’t even block people from getting to the puck, deliberately impeding their path.

These are all good rules—they’re either important for player safety or to ensure that the game flows. And flow is what you want. It makes the game more exciting, and ensures the players can showcase their skills.

But, for these rules to make any difference to the result of the game, referees must enforce them by calling penalties when players break the rules. And often, even in the regular season, that doesn’t happen, and it gets even worse in the playoffs.

Don’t affect the game

During the playoffs, commentators and many fans say that referees shouldn’t affect the outcome of the game. “Let them play” is a common refrain when fans think too many penalties are being called. But the result of this chorus is that in the playoffs, penalties are rarely called. Players violate the rules in flagrant ways, and the referees sit by and allow them to do it.

The result is a bizarre situation where if a player accidentally shoots the puck into the crowd, they are penalized (because such a penalty is mandatory), but axing a players hands, potentially breaking a bone or severing a finger isn’t (because the referee doesn’t want to call a penalty that might “affect the outcome of the game”.)

The thing is, by not making the call, the referees are affecting the outcome of the game.  They’re basically saying, “the team that is willing to cheat and physically injure the other team is the team that deserves to win”.  The referees are giving a massive advantage to the cheating team, and abandoning their responsibility to protect the health of players.

Today’s extremes

This clip of Messi, arguably the best soccer player in the world, nicely illustrates the tactics that players ought to use on defence when the referees don’t want to affect the outcome of the game.

Essentially, the right strategy is to target the other team’s best players. Smash them with sticks. Tackle them to the ice. Heck, elbow them in their face to break their jaws. If Sydney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin are so injured they can’t play, or if they have to try to skate around and control the puck while dragging a 230 pound gorilla everywhere, they will have a much harder time scoring. I have no skill at hockey, but, as long as the referees don’t call penalties, I’m pretty sure I can almost completely nullify the best players in the world.

The bottom line

This is why playoff hockey is so frustrating. I want to watch end to end action. I want to watch exciting plays. I want to see the abilities of the best players in the world showcased in the most important games of their lives. But, referees deliberately not enforcing the rules results in boring games where you take away the skill, enabling the most mediocre players to counter the best.

The High Cost of Healthcare

A competitive disadvantage illustrated

Last weekend was the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting. Unlike most corporate meetings, the discussion at Berkshires meeting often strays far from the performance of the company into broader economic and political topics. It’s understandable—Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger have a way of cutting through ideological obfuscation when dissecting an issue, and both are intellectually honest in a way most people aren’t.

It’s worth watching the full meeting, but the discussion I found most interesting revolved around the cost of healthcare in the USA.

Taxes vs. Healthcare

Buffett notes that corporations have been railing against corporate taxes for decades, arguing that corporate taxes make America unable to compete with other countries, that lower taxes are the only way American businesses can prosper. The government has been responsive to this argument. Buffett observes that corporate taxes have fallen from about 4% of Gross Domestic Product in the 1960s to about 2% of GDP now.

In contrast, healthcare spending in the USA has grown from 5% of GDP in 1960 to 17% now. But the USA is unique in that much of that healthcare spending falls on corporations because most medical insurance in the US is provided by employers. This creates an interesting incongruity. While corporations rail against corporate taxes amounting to 2% of GDP, they seem to totally ignore the 17% of GDP cost of healthcare.

It looks even worse when you look at it from the perspective of global competitiveness. The worldwide average healthcare expenditure is 9%. Canada, the closest comparable country to the USA, spends about 11% of GDP. Thus, USA is spotting about eight percentage points more on healthcare than the average country, and six percentage points more than Canada.

To me, that makes healthcare spending the elephant in the room. Corporations that are vociferous about a potential two percentage point difference in corporate taxes should be far more worried about healthcare costs. That’s where American corporations are at a huge competitive disadvantage.

The difference between USA and everyone else

Charlie Munger is unlike most Republicans in that he doesn’t allow the party line to override the evidence—as I said, he’s intellectually honest. He states flatly that the cost difference is because of socialized medicine in other countries. In essence, the high cost of privatized medicine puts American companies at a competitive disadvantage compared to those in countries with socialized medicine.

I think this is a solid argument. I’d argue that the private healthcare system probably hurts America even more when it comes to innovation and entrepreneurialism. If your medical insurance is tied to your job, then it greatly disincentivizes you from leaving your job to start a new, innovative business. It would be irresponsible to leave your family without health insurance while you’re creating a company.  You’d literally be gambling their lives to do so.  Thus, privatized medicine is almost certainly hurting American innovation.

Why is it this way?

So if privatized medicine is so bad for corporations, why aren’t corporations fighting for single-payer? I think it’s a combination of ideology and incentives. Most people who run successful companies tend to believe in free-market capitalism. Their ideology often doesn’t distinguish between places where free-market capitalism works and where it fails. Thus, without much thought, they assume that the free market works in medicine, when it actually doesn’t.

Second, there are huge vested interests in maintaining the existing private system. That 17% of GDP isn’t just disappearing into the ether. It’s money flowing toward hospitals, doctors, pharmaceutical companies, insurers, drug distributors, and medical device companies. Each of these parties has a huge incentive to keep the money flowing—they care about the issue a lot, and lobby accordingly.

The people who would benefit from lower costs—essentially everyone else—care about it a bit, but not nearly as much as the medical industrial complex. The average person is going to express their opinions, but they aren’t going to throw money at politicians to get their way. And, even if they were inclined to throw money, they don’t have much money, not compared to the medical industry.

So, with bought politicians, the inferior system continues.

The bottom line

I don’t have any hope that this issue will be solved any time soon. That said, it is still an interesting issue to discuss. Because the data is so clear-cut, privatized medicine provides a good gauge of the degree to which someone who holds Republican views is intellectually honest and data-focussed, or if ideology is all that matters to them.

Authorities Want a Housing Bubble

Skyrocketting debt as people spend money on overpriced houses.

One of my favorite quotes is from Upton Sinclair, “it’s difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” I’ve always assumed that the quote was cynical, but more intended to be amusing than an absolute judgement of how the world works.

But, the more time that passes, the more I’m starting to believe this quote actually reflects reality. Look at people’s reactions global warming. It’s a problem that is now likely to have a major negative impact on everyone, costing hundreds of millions of lives. But the paychecks of powerful people depend on not believing in global warming, so in the USA, denial is the official policy.

Something similar is happening in Canada with the housing bubble.

Some history

Look at the chart at the top of this post that compares Canada and USA’s debt to income ratios for consumers. It shows how, relative to their incomes, people took on massive amounts of debt to buy real estate. The USA’s line begins to fall in 2007 as the housing bubble in the USA pops. Essentially, Americans could no longer service the huge debts they took on. The bubble popping led to the Great Recession.

As a result of this speculative fervor over real estate, the financial system nearly collapsed. Banks usually lend money to each other overnight for about 0.1 percentage points more than they’ll lend it to the central bank. During the financial crisis, they demanded 3.65 percentage points more, because they were terrified that the other banks would collapse overnight. We were literally on the edge of the entire financial system locking up, with nobody lending to anyone else.

And what caused America’s housing bubble in the first place? After the tech bubble popped around the turn of the century, the central banks kept extremely low interest rates for too long. People took on too much debt to buy overvalued houses because the financing was so cheap. They gorged themselves on debt and were killed when houses stopped going up.

The Bank of Canada

This narrative is well-established. Stephen Poloz, the head of the Bank of Canada, must know it. But instead of heeding the warning, he’s pretending none of it happened.

After the Great Recession, the Bank of Canada lowered rates to “emergency levels” in an attempt to keep the system liquid. That worked, and the economy recovered.

So, learning from the experience with ultra-low rates in the USA—the growth of the American housing bubble, the huge amounts of debt taken on by consumers, and the subsequent crash—the Bank of Canada normalised rates after the threat had passed, right?

No. Not at all.

Instead, they kept interest rates at “emergency levels” for a decade, always deciding that the economy simply wasn’t strong enough for rates to increase.

And the result is almost identical to the USA in the early years of the 21st century. Housing prices have skyrocketed. Consumer debt is insanely high compared to incomes—even higher than it was in the USA at the height of their bubble.  British Columbia has had negative savings rates (i.e. people in aggregate spending more than they earn) for over fifteen years now.  People are borrowing huge amounts to buy massively expensive houses anticipating that they’ll increase in value forever.

And what’s Poloz’s reaction to this? A couple weeks ago, he said even a rate hike to over 5% wouldn’t cool the hot housing markets.

What’s going on here?

Really? Is he that stupid, believing interest rates don’t have any impact on housing prices and speculation?

No, I think we just have to look to Upton Sinclair for the answer. Poloz is scared of looking like an idiot if he increases interest rates and crashes the housing market. So, he’s closing his eyes to the consequences of his actions.  It doesn’t matter to him if Canadians take on debt they can’t afford or can’t retire because they lost all their money speculating on overpriced houses.

What matters to Poloz is getting through his term without upsetting the boat, the same thing that matters to every politician.

Heck, you see the same thing in the recent changes the Ontario provincial government has enacted in Toronto. They’ve added a foreign buyers tax on houses, but have excluded pretty well everyone from it. Even foreign students can buy without paying the tax (because every student needs to own their own their own multimillion-dollar home). The government’s goal wasn’t to cool off the market, but rather appear to be taking actions to cool off the market.

The bottom line

This housing bubble experience has changed my views on politicians. I used to believe that most politicians are in the job because they want to make a positive difference, and that, despite their poor reputation, politicians care about more than just making money and holding onto power.

But, seeing politicians’ reactions to this housing crisis—seeing them ignore Canadians who risk ruining their financial lives by taking on massive amounts of debt to buy overvalued assets— I’m no longer convinced that’s true.  Because now, politicians’ salaries depend on them not understanding the causes and consequences of this housing bubble, and so that’s the way they’re acting.

A Second Solution to Corporate Tax Avoidance

Water drops reflecting the image of an airplane passing overhead

It’s common for corporations to avoid taxes by locating operations in jurisdictions with low tax rates. In essence, this results in countries adopting a “beggar thy neighbor” strategy, lowering their corporate tax rates to attract foreign operations

Last week I talked about one strategy for reducing the value of this avoidance strategy, taxing companies based on their full global income. One of the main problems with that approach is getting reliable data from companies—a country can get information about what happens within its own borders, but getting information from outside its borders requires the co-operation of other countries. Thus, with that approach, it would be relatively easy for corporations to cheat on their taxes and not be caught.

To deal with this problem, I’ll propose a second strategy to deal corporations relocating to avoid taxes, one I like to call, “concede defeat”.

Just give up

In a global economy with local taxation, there’s essentially no way to avoid bad neighbors who will offer sweet deals to persuade companies to relocate. So, countries should become the “bad neighbor” first by replacing corporate income tax with a sales tax. Instead of taxing companies based on their income, which opens the door to countries offering better income tax deals, tax corporations based on their sales in your country. In essence, become the “bad neighbor” who steals corporations from all over the world.

If companies want to sell in your country, they can’t avoid a sales tax. There is no way for companies to hide the sales that they make in your country, so there is no way for them to avoid such a tax. Relocating won’t do them any good—they’ll still have to pay taxes in your country.

Some downsides

There are, of course, downsides to this approach. First, this sort of adjustment shifts the tax burden from companies with the highest income to companies with the highest revenue. This change would have real consequences. Today, if you’re running a company that is just barely above break even, your company won’t be paying income taxes. But, if you’re required to pay a tax based on your sales, it would greatly increase your taxes, potentially driving you into bankruptcy (and throwing your employees out of work).

A profitable company with high margins, on the other hand, would become even more profitable, since the tax on its revenue would be lower than the previous tax on its income. Optically, this would look bad, as it would effectively lower taxes on the most profitable companies.

That said, perhaps the tax rate could be graduated based on the revenue of companies, so companies with higher revenue essentially paid a higher marginal tax rate on their sales. It would be hard to police such a tax since companies would try to avoid higher tax rates by creating subsidiaries, but in a computerized age, I imagine it is possible (such as, for example, making all subsidiaries use the same tax identification number as the their parent company).

Even so, a tax based on revenue rather than profits would be borne disproportionately by low margin businesses.

Exports

The other issue with this sort of tax is that exports are essentially not taxed. Right now, if a company is profitable, they pay income tax on both their domestic profits and their profits from exporting. If you only have a domestic sales tax, you lose the tax on exports.

This could be addressed by taxing exports, but then you’re back into the situation where it’s in a company’s best interests to fly away to another country to avoid taxes, which is what we were trying to fix. But if you don’t tax exports, I don’t see a good way to avoid this problem.

Maybe the solution is protectionism—don’t tax the exports, but tax the imports to maintain your tax base. That makes life very good for global companies located in your country, and bad for companies not located there, but, in a “beggar thy neighbor” world, perhaps that is the best option.

Regressiveness

One of the other big concerns about this sort of tax is that for consumers, it would be regressive. Everyone, regardless of income, would pay the same sales tax as a percentage. But the poor are required to spend almost all their income to survive, whereas the rich aren’t. Thus, effectively the poor would be spending a higher percentage of their income on this sales tax than the rich.

In general, I find this sort of argument confusing, because it seems to attribute the full cost of the sales tax to the consumer rather than the corporation. But, if you extend that same argument to corporate income tax, then are corporate income taxes equally regressive now, since the consumer is paying their income to corporations which have higher prices to accommodate those corporate income taxes?

To me, both sales and corporate taxes look almost equally regressive, unless you assume that the staples the poor buy are low margin, and are therefore provided by corporations that don’t have high profits, so pay low taxes, while high-margin luxuries are provided by corporations with high profits and high taxes. But that seems to me to be a poorly-supported argument.

Rather to me, it looks to me like sales taxes are highly visible to the consumer, so people make generalizations about their regressiveness, while corporate taxes are less visible, so people assume they are only borne by the corporation, not the people buying the corporation’s products. Thus, I think the degree to which the cost of corporate taxes are borne by the poor is unclear.

In any case, if you do assume that sales taxes are regressive and wish to address that in some way, the government can issue tax credits to the poor, just as they do with the GST.

The bottom line

Such a change in tax policies would be widely derided as a transfer of taxes from corporations to individuals, so is probably politically infeasible. But, I think it’s not quite that extreme—taxes on corporations increase prices for everyone, so are not so different than taxes on individuals.

Thus, I’m not sure if eliminating corporate taxes in favor of a sales tax is a good idea or not, but it seems like, in a global world, it’s almost inevitable. Either you need co-operation between countries globally to ensure a fair, auditable corporate income tax system (i.e. my first solution), or you need to force corporations to pay taxes on the items they sell in your country (i.e. my second solution). I don’t see any third option.