When it comes to Swiss bank accounts, pop culture brings to mind wealthy people who hide assets from various groups, such as the IRS or their jilted family members. Our sympathies do not align with the type of people we imagine hold Swiss accounts. In fact, it is easy to get quite envious of the idea of holding a Swiss bank account, or possibly resentful that others can that are well off can avoid paying as much in taxes as possible.
Sadly, our perceptions lead us astray and throw up barriers to peaceful trade. Last year, a measure to go after tax avoiders who used Swiss (and other foreign) accounts was included in the jobs bill. Now, that law (known as FATCA) is harming Americans and Swiss workers alike. The New York Times has the story.
“Congress came in with a sledgehammer,” said H. David Rosenbloom, a lawyer at Caplin and Drysdale in Washington and a former international tax policy adviser for the Treasury Department. “The Fatca story is really kind of insane.”
Essentially, the law is so onerous to foreign banks that many say they do not want American business at all. In fact, the law affects more than just Swiss banking. It actually imposes costs on virtually all foreign banking that deals with Americans. From the NYT:
“The Fatca legislation treats all Americans with overseas bank accounts as criminals, even though most of them are honest, hard-working individuals who happen to be living and working or retired abroad,” said Jacqueline Bugnion, a director of American Citizens Abroad.
This is incredibly inconvenient to Americans abroad, who may earn income in foreign denominations which would normally be easier to deposit in foreign banks. On the flip side, we have foreign based firms who operate in the United States. A Swiss firm is set to bring 150 jobs to Youngstown, Ohio in September. Do you think a Swiss firm might have Swiss bank accounts? Thankfully, the law does not seem to have scared off this investment, but it’s possible this was planned long before FATCA came to be.
We should be very wary of policy that is born of the rhetoric of envy. According to the NYT article, the treasury expects to take in about $8 billion from the new law, which may be much lower than the costs that foreign banking institutions face in complying with the new rules. As Jordan Ballor wrote last year, taxation should be primarily be about raising revenues. Can a law that causes more economic harm than it raises in revenue be a good law for revenue? The politics of envy and resentment seem to have clouded our judgement so badly that we are going to create a greater economic harm than the fiscal benefit to our country. Envy and resentment are natural, but we should recognize them for what they are: vices. It’s not surprising that vices lead to bad law.