Tuesday, December 27, 2011

We're Number One!

New Year's day is almost here, and for millions of Americans, that means college football bowl games. Fans and alumni across the country are gearing up to root for their favorite school. LSU fans cry "Geaux Tigers!" 'Bama fans chant "Roll, Tide, Roll!" But only one team will be champion come January 9.

Regardless of which gridiron gladiators we support for the BCS championship, Americans are #1 in another competition. That's right, Americans cheat their government out of more tax dollars than the citizens of any other country in the world!

A recent study by the Tax Justice Network, a British think-tank dedicated to transparency in international finance, shows the U.S. government lost $337 billion annually to tax evasion. We're followed by Brazil ($280 billion), Italy ($238 billion), Russia, Germany, France, Japan, China, U.K., and Spain. Overall, the study finds that worldwide tax evasion tops $3 trillion, or 5% of the world's economy.

However, while Americans are #1 in absolute dollars lost to cheating, we're not actually the biggest fibbers. The report attempts to quantify the size of each country's "shadow economy" that hides from official view to avoid tax. Russia is the biggest loser here, with 44% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) lurking underground and evading tax. Brazil is next, with 39% of its economy hiding in the shadows. Our own shadow economy, at 8.6% of GDP, is actually the smallest of those top ten tax evaders listed above.

Looking at it from a different perspective, next to the cost of financing government, the cost of financing health care is perhaps our country's biggest fiscal challenge. The Tax Justice Network's report draws an interesting contrast between each country's cost of tax cheating and cost of health care. Worldwide tax evasion costs an average of 55% of worldwide health care costs. But that average encompasses an enormous range. Here in the U.S., for example, tax evasion drains the equivalent of just 15% of our national health care budget. By contrast, in Bolivia, where the "shadow economy" accounts for 66% of GDP, tax evasion costs that nation more than four times the amount of their annual health care spending.

American tax cheats may even show a conscientious side. The Charities Aid Foundation, a British organization dedicated to encouraging efficient charitable giving, just released their World Giving Index 2011 report. They found that the U.S. is #1 in charitable giving, out of 153 countries surveyed. "Using data from Gallup's Worldview World Poll," the report says, "the results show that the USA is officially the most charitable nation in the world." Now there's something we can all take pride in this holiday season!

The irony here is that there are so many legal ways to pay less tax that nobody needs to cheat. Proactive planning is the key to paying less tax without having to hide in the shadows. As 2012 dawns, remember that we're here to deliver that planning — for you, and for your family, friends, and colleagues as well.

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