Policy Implications of
Tax Evasion and the Underground Economy
Jonathan R. Kesselman
Benefit Principle and Taxation:
Possible User Taxes and Fees in Canada
Copyright (c) 1997 by The Fraser Institute. All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission
except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. The
authors of this book have worked independently and opinions expressed by them, therefore,
are their own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the members or the trustees
of The Fraser Institute.
Printed and bound in Canada.
As a natural extension of its interest in the ways in which the private sector reacts to
the activities of government, The Fraser Institute has long studied the underground
economy. In pursuing this research, the Institute assembled a roster of experts in
Vancouver in April 1994. They included government officials, accountants, economists,
lawyers, federal police, politicians, and public policy analysts from Canada, the United
States, Britain, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Russia, and Hong Kong.
The papers prepared for this meeting, as subsequently revised by the authors, constitute a
unique collection of information about the underground economy and how it is manifested in
a variety of countries. The purpose of this book is to collect these research findings to
make them available to those who are interested in how this fascinating and increasingly
prevalent segment of economic activity operates.
Section One collects papers that deal particularly with the underground economy in Canada.
Rolf Mirus and Roger Smith were the first economists to measure the underground economy in
Canada and their paper provides an up-to-date assessment of the size of this sector. While
their calculation that the underground economy could be as much as 20 percent of the
measured economy has received considerable attention, the estimates made by Mirus' and
Smith's methods attract controversy and criticism by statisticians working for Statistics
Canada and other statistical agencies. In his paper, Philip Smith provides Statistics
Canada's views about the size of the underground economy. It is fair to say that these two
papers represent the extremes of the measured range of the size of the underground
economy. Philip Smith also provides the acronym UGE to describe the underground economy
and henceforth in this preface we will use his abbreviation.
While Mirus and Smith estimate the UGE to be as large as 20 percent of the measured Gross
Domestic Product, Statistics Canada offers an estimate in the range of 2.7 to 5 percent of
the measured GDP.
In Section One's third paper, Peter Spiro provides a specific estimate of the impact that
tax changes have on the size of the UGE. In particular, he analyzes the relatively
significant impact of the Goods and Services Tax. According to Spiro, the introduction of
the GST was the single most important factor contributing to a spurt in the growth of the
UGE in 1991.
Bruce Flexman adopts a different approach to the UGE in his paper. He relies on surveys of
opinion to infer how much people may be avoiding and evading taxation by reorganizing
their activities. The survey also sought to determine people's attitudes towards the
purchasing of smuggled goods and black market liquor and cigarettes. While the majority of
citizens surveyed indicated that they would not engage in these kinds of underground
activities, a very significant minority said that indeed they would. When asked whether
they thought others would engage in such activities, the respondents were even more
strongly of the view that other people participated in tax evasion. Perhaps the responses
to these questions reflected in part the very strongly held view, revealed in the survey,
that Canadians do not get value for the taxes they pay to governments.
The remaining two papers in Section One provide the views of Revenue Canada's Tim Gahagan,
and British Columbia's Lois McNabb, who attempts to measure that provincial government's
revenues in the face of changing behaviour by taxpayers. These two papers provide an
interesting practical insight into the problems of tax evasion and tax avoidance.
Section Two of The Underground Economy: Global Evidence of its Size and Impact outlines a
perspective of the UGE which is not often encountered, specifically, the view of law
enforcement officials. The three papers in this section deal respectively with the size of
the underground substance economy, the legal aspects of the UGE in the United States and
an assessment of the economic activities of the Mafia.
In his paper, inspector Tim Killam of the RCMP points out that while the Statistics Canada
estimate of the size of the entire underground economy is about $19 billion, police
estimates suggest that trafficking in illegal drugs amounts to at least half of that
figure. (Statistics Canada, like other agencies, does not include illicit activities in
its UGE measurements, but includes only activities which, other than being clandestine,
are legal.) Moreover, Killam is of the view that this is a very conservative, minimum
estimate of the size of the illicit drug trade. One of the issues that Killam addresses in
his paper is the very active smuggling which results from high excise taxation. This
smuggling activity, Bruce Zagaris points out in his paper, has been facilitated by the
increasing amount of international trade involving all of the major industrialized
nations. The apparatus which has been established for legitimate trading activity also
facilitates illicit trade.
Zagaris draws our attention to the fact that illegal trade in human beings in the form of
illegal immigration is rapidly growing and may be the most profitable of the underground
activities. Another outcropping of the UGE is more money laundering, which is, as Zagaris
notes, an important component of the UGE. The increasing ability to communicate and the
electronic transfer of funds makes money laundering an increasingly easy service for
participants in the underground economy. Finally, Zagaris notes, there is an emerging
problem called the "grey area phenomenon" or GAP. Essentially the GAP emerges
when non-state actors and non-governmental organizations become the de facto
"government" in a particular area. The activities of narcotics traffickers in
Andean countries and the activities of private groups in U.S. innercities are examples of
this sort of development.
John Burton, in his paper, points out that the Mafia is a natural private outgrowth of
underground economic activity as well as an adjunct to ordinary economic activity. In
effect, Burton maintains, the Mafia should be seen as a private protection industry. His
analysis of the involvement of this industry is intriguing.
Section Three contains seven papers that analyze the underground economy in different
countries and from different perspectives. Those who have an interest in the underground
economy will be impressed by the diversity of experience in the countries discussed-from
the United States and Britain to Mexico, Peru, and Chile, through to Russia and China. The
findings of these papers are too numerous to summarize in this preface, but it is worth
noting one of the conclusions in the paper by Edgar Feige, the father of UGE analysis.
Feige's paper is based on a study of the amount of U.S. currency held abroad. In the most
careful analysis ever conducted of this issue, Feige concludes that the amount of U.S.
currency held abroad indicates that there is an underground economy equal to the size of
the U.S. economy hidden amongst the reported economic activities in the world's countries.
Of course, much of that hidden economic activity is the subject of the country studies
contained later in Section Three.
The fourth and final section of the book consists of two papers by two eminent Canadian
economists-Jonathan R. Kesselman and Francois Vaillancourt. The papers have as their
focus, once again, the Canadian economy and some policy implications of the UGE.
As was noted in the earlier discussion of the paper by Bruce Flexman, a majority of
Canadians believe that they do not receive enough benefits for the taxation they are
required to pay. In his paper, Francois Vaillancourt suggests that an obvious solution to
the problem of tax evasion and the underground activity which accompanies it might be the
adoption of user fees and user taxes. His analysis is that the wider use of these kinds of
levies would open the way for reducing general tax rates that would in turn diminish
incentives for tax evasion and therefore the size of the underground economy.
Jonathan Kesselman's paper poses some challenging questions for the avenues open to
governments to reduce the size of the UGE. He provides an interesting analysis of the
distribution of the costs and benefits of both tax evasion and the enforcement efforts
which are pursued to stop it. Kesselman's analysis leads him to remind policy makers that,
"even a relatively small underground sector could generate serious inefficiency and
inequities." However, the effort to eliminate the UGE can also engender problems. One
of the main public policy recommendations for tax authorities is that many of the problems
of compliance with tax policy can be anticipated and to a large extent avoided in the
design of the tax policies themselves.
The extensive discussions engendered by the papers in this book produced some interesting
insights. For example, while the range of estimates of the underground economy was large,
a more precise understanding of the definitional differences used to calculate the
different estimates revealed that the range was much narrower than had first appeared. It
was also pointed out by the Associate Deputy Minister of Finance for Canada, Don Drummond,
that even if the smaller estimates-those in the five percent range-were more accurate, the
implications are still important. In particular they are significant for the ability of
governments to forecast current revenues and to accurately assess the possibilities for
future revenue development.
The discussions also revealed that there are important implications for understanding the
mechanisms of economic activity. Does the unemployment rate really mean what we think it
means? In the Atlantic provinces, for example, where there has been evidence of
considerably more underground economic activity than in the rest of the country, how do we
account for the employment in the UGE? When we have a black economy, should we use the
unemployment rate as an indication of economic cyclicality at all?
The search for the solution to the "problem" of the UGE led to two different
lines of thinking. First, is this economic sector a problem or a solution? Some experts
suggested that the tax wedge in the economy is killing economic activity which simply
redevelops in the underground. In that sense, the underground is not a bad thing but a
good one. Regulation often stifles business activity which then escapes partially or
completely into the UGE. In other words, the UGE is, in fact, a measure of economic
activity that is in some way a victim of tax and regulation policy and should not be
regarded as a problem, but rather as a solution. Is society better or worse off as a
consequence of a robustly growing underground economy?
The second line of thinking emerged from Canada's revenue Minister David Anderson, who
pointed out that unsupported economic activity leads to unfairness in the distribution of
the tax burden, a point which was further explored in the paper by John Kesselman written
after the conference to reflect his reactions to the discussions. The fact is that the UGE
represents a kind of uneven playing field when different taxpayers and different
businesses comply with the tax system in different and unequal ways. This is certainly a
But the attempt to deal with it, by making enforcement stricter or making the effective
tax rate bite more decisively, may in fact produce further problems in the way of more
evasion activity because, of course, the enforcement activity itself makes the effective
tax rate higher. The studies of the underground economy in the various countries
represented at this conference have led to an understanding of the enormous flexibility of
the market economy to respond to unreasonable regulation or unsustainable tax rates.
We would be well advised to look more closely at the evidence from Peru and Chile. We now
find that informality is as much as 50 percent of the economy in some developing
countries. I think we have often tended, in North America at least, in looking at Latin
America, to think that informality is a sign of some sort of cultural ineptitude. In fact,
it is probably just the result of excessive regulation. The underground or informal
economy, as they call it, is a natural consequence or expression of market adjustment
rather than anything specifically cultural. And that is very important to understand as we
begin to regulate the curvature of cucumbers and other things-that we can also produce a
culture of evasion and a culture of avoidance and a culture of resort to the less
efficient underground economy.
We also saw from the experience of Mexico that dramatic revenue increases can be a result
of large tax rate reductions-that is, if those tax reductions are correlated with an
appropriate public information program and an effective program of compliance or a change
in effective compliance, so that, at the same time, you reduce the rewards of evasion and
make a more effective effort to collect taxes. I suppose that the reverse situation is
Finally, of course, and most importantly for researchers, there have been many suggestions
for further research. There have been examples and there have been challenges thrown out
by the people in government to get a better understanding of the ways in which the
underground economy works. There has been a challenge to come to a more general agreement
of how the UGE should be measured, and a plea for economists to collaborate to reach a
consensus about the size and operation of the underground economy.
Among the most compelling pieces of evidence about the size of the UGE are the anecdotes
that one encounters in everyday life. There has been a certain tendency for analysts to
downplay this evidence. It is fair to say that the conclusion suggested by the evidence
surveyed in this volume is that the everydayexperience evidence is fairly close to the
mark. The UGE is a large and growing aspect of economic life in the world. The Fraser
Institute has been pleased to support the research in this volume which has sought greater
clarity about the issues of detection and measurement. However, the researchers have
worked independently and the views they express may not reflect those of the members or
trustees of The Fraser Institute.
-Michael A. Walker
Executive Director, The Fraser Institute
About the Authors
Michael Alexeev is an Associate Professor at the Department of Economics of Indiana
University. He received the M.A. equivalent in Economics and Mathematics from Moscow
University in 1975 and the Ph.D. in Economics from Duke University in 1984. His current
research interests lie mostly in the fields of comparative economics and economics of
transition from socialism to a market economy with a particular focus on informal aspects
of economic behavior. Since early 1992 Dr. Alexeev, who is a native of Russia, has been
actively participating in the technical assistance programs to the former Soviet Union.
John Burton is Professor of Business Administration and General Coordinator of the
Strategic Management Research Group in the Department of Commerce, Birmingham Business
School, University of Birmingham, UK.
He has previously held professorial posts at the Leeds Business School and the European
Business School, and lecturing appointments with the Universities of Southampton and
Birmingham, Kingston Polytechnic, and Boston University. From 1984-1987 he was a Research
Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs, London; and in 1987 also a Special Adviser
to the House of Commons Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee. He is a co-founder of
the magazine Business Studies (launched in 1988), and has contributed numerous articles in
refereed journals. His books and monographs include: Whither Sunday Trading? (1994);
Retail Rents: Fair and Free Market? (1992); (with D. Parker, Joint eds.) Studies in
Business and Management (1991); Would Workfare Work? (1987); (ed.) Keynes's General
Theory: Fifty Years On (1986); Why No Cuts? (1985); (ed.) Hayek's `Serfdom' Revisited
(1984); (With J.T. Addison) Trade Unions and Society (1984); Picking Losers...? (1983);
The Job-Supports Machine (1979); (with J.M. Buchanan and R.E. Wagner) The Consequences of
Mr. Keynes (1978); Wage Inflation (1972).
Edgar L. Feige
Edgar L. Feige is Professor of Economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has
taught at Yale University, The University of Essex, Erasmus University and the University
of Leyden where he held the Cleveringa Chair. He was appointed Fellow at the Netherlands
Institute for advanced Study and Fulbright Scholar in Spain. He is the author of more than
sixty publications in monetary and macroeconomics and is best known for his work on
Underground Economies. He has served as a consultant to the United States Treasury
Department, The Agency for International Development, the Supreme Soviet of the Russian
Federation, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and on the Task Force on
Economies in Transition of the National Research Council. He received his B.A. at Columbia
University and his Ph.D at the University of Chicago.
Bruce P. Flexman
Bruce P. Flexman received a B. Sc. in Engineering and Mathematics from Queen's University
and an M.B.A. with distinction from Cornell University. He is a chartered accountant
specializing in GST and income taxes. Mr. Flexman is currently responsible for the
Vancouver tax practice at KPMG and provides national technical leadership on GST matters.
From 1991 to 193 he was on executive exchange with Revenue Canada acting as Deputy
Director General for GST Policy and Legislation. He has also acted as technical advisor to
the Senate Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce in their deliberation concerning the
introduction of the GST and was consulted by the Finance Committee on their review of
alternatives to the GST.
Mr. Gahagan is presently the manager, Underground Economy and Compliance Initiatives
Section, Revenue Canada, in Ottawa. He holds a Bachelor of Mathematics degree from the
University of Waterloo. Mr. Gahagan is also a Certified Management Accountant (CMA). In
his 20 years with Revenue Canada, Mr. Gahagan has held various positions in Hamilton,
Edmonton, and Ottawa before assuming his present responsibilities in January 1994.
Enrique Ghersi was born in Lima, Peru, in 1961. He is a lawyer, journalist, and Professor
at the University of Lima's Law School. Mr. Ghersi has been a member of Parliament since
1990, representing Lima. He is co-author of the bestseller The Other Path with Hernando de
Soto. His weekly articles appear in over 40 newspapers from 20 countries.
Jonathan R. Kesselman
Jonathan R. Kesselman is Professor of Economics, University of British Columbia; Director,
Centre for Research on Economic and Social Policy, UBC; Ph.D. in economics, MIT, 1972.
Consultant to governments in Canada, Australia, India, New Zealand, and the United States;
member, B.C. Premier's Forum on New Opportunities for Working and Living, 1994-95; member,
Musqueam Indian Band Taxation Advisory Council (chair, 1992-96). He holds visiting
appointments at the Institute for the Research on Poverty, University of
Wisconsin-Madison; Delhi School of Economics, India; and the Australian National
University as Professorial Fellow in Economic Policy of the Reserve Bank of Australia. Dr.
Kesselman's areas of specialization include theoretical and policy assessment of taxation,
income security, employment programs, and social insurance finance.
Timothy George Killam
Inspector Killam joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in 1976 and has since
enjoyed a variety of policing and administrative experiences. He has five years experience
in drug enforcement as an investigator and undercover operative. Inspector Killam spent
nine years in a commercial crime unit investigating white-collar crime, including tax
evasion and major frauds. In 1990, he was transferred to the RCMP Professional Standards
Directorate, where he acted, on separate occasions, as advocate and solicitor in the roles
of prosecution and defence. In 1993, he was appointed the Officer-in-Charge of the
Anti-Drug Profiteering Program and a year later was transferred to his present position as
the officer responsible for the RCMP Proceeds of Crime Program. He received an LL.B.
(1990) and a Bachelor of Commerce (1985) from the University of Windsor and a Bachelor of
Arts from St. Thomas University in 1976.
Owen Lippert worked as a policy and communications advisor in Ottawa for Kim Campbell when
she was Justice Minister, and for Rob Nicholson when he was Science Minister. Prior to
1991, Dr. Lippert worked for the B.C. Premier's Office in Victoria. Owen Lippert earned a
Ph.D. in History and Government from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. He has taught
at universities in the United States, Canada, Taiwan, and has independently advised the
federal departments of Justice and Industry Canada as well as several private companies.
Lois McNabb is the director of the Economics and Trade Branch of the B.C. Ministry of
Forests. From 1989 to 1996 she was director of the Fiscal and Economic Analysis Branch of
the B.C. Ministry of Finance and Corporate Relations. From 1982 to 1989, she held various
manager and director positions in the ministry. Prior to joining the B.C. government, Ms.
McNabb was an economist in the revenue forecasting section of the federal Department of
Finance. She graduated with a B.A. in Economics and Mathematics from McMaster University
in 1974 and obtained an M.A. in Economics from the University of Western Ontario in 1977.
Rolf Mirus is a Professor in the Faculty of Business and the Department of Economics at
the University of Alberta. He served from 1984 to 1996 as Director of the Canada China
Management Education Program link-ing the University of Alberta to Xi'an Jiaotong
University. From 1989 to 1992 he was the Founding Director of the faculty's Centre for
International Business Studies. Dr. Mirus obtained his Ph.D. in Economics from the
University of Minnesota in 1973. He researches and teaches in macroeconomics,
international finance, and international business; he has held visiting appointments at
universities in Germany, Austria, China, Kenya, Pakistan, and the U.S.
Roger S. Smith
Roger S. Smith is a Professor in the Faculty of Business and the Department of Economics
at the University of Alberta. He served as Dean of the Faculty of Business (1976-88) and
as Acting Vice President (Academic) (1994-95). The years 1977-78 and 1995-96 were spent as
a Visiting Scholar with Harvard's International Tax Program. He is currently Chair of the
Board of Directors of the Banff School of Advanced Management. Dr. Smith received his
Ph.D. in Economics from the University of California (Berkeley) in 1969. He worked for the
IMF (1972-74), and has been a consultant to the IMF, World Bank, OECD, the Auditor General
of Canada and other private and public organizations. His research and teaching is in the
area of tax policy and macroeconomics.
Philip Smith is an economist with a B.A. from McGill University and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees
from Queen's University. He worked for several years at the federal Department of Finance
as Director of Fiscal Policy and later, of International Finance and Development. For the
past nine years he has worked at Statistics Canada, first as Director of National Accounts
and Environment and currently as Director of Industrial Organization and Finance.
Peter S. Spiro
Peter S. Spiro is a Toronto-based economist specializing in macroeconomic policy issues,
with wide experience working in both the public and private sectors. He has graduate
degrees in economics from the University of Toronto and the University of Chicago, where
he studied under Nobel laureates Milton Friedman and Gary Becker. He has published many
research studies in professional journals, and is the author of a critically praised book,
Real Interest Rates and Investment and Borrowing Strategy. The opinions expressed in his
contribution to this volume are personal and do not represent any organization with which
he may be affiliated.
François Vaillancourt holds a Ph.D. from Queen's University and is Professor, Department
of Economics and Research Fellow, Centre de recherche et développement en économique
(C.R.D.E.) at the Université de Montréal and Fellow, I.R.P.P. He teaches, conducts,
research and has published extensively in the area of public finance and the economics of
language. He has conducted research and acted as a consultant for organizations such as
the Canadian Tax Foundation, the Conseil de la language française, the Department of
Finance, the Economic Council of Canada, Statistics Canada and the World Bank.
Michael A. Walker
Michael Walker, Ph.D., is Executive Director of The Fraser Institute. Since 1974, he has
directed the research activities of The Fraser Institute. He has written or edited 40
books on economic topics. His articles on technical economic subjects have appeared in
professional journals in Canada, the United States, and Europe. He has been a regular
columnist in the Vancouver Province, the Toronto Sun, the Ottawa Citizen, and the
Financial Post. He taught at the University of Western Ontario and Carleton University,
and was employed at the Bank of Canada and the Federal Department of Finance. He received
his B.A. at St. Francis Xavier University and his Ph.D at the University of Western
Ontario. He is a director of a number of firms and other enterprises.
Raymundo Winkler is the Director-General of the Center for Economic Studies of the Private
Sector (CEESP), Mexico's leading private-sector economic think tank. He has a B.A. in
Economics and post-graduate studies in Economic Development from the Instituto Politecnico
Nacional in Mexico. Mr. Winkler has served in both the public sector, where he was in
charge of the Department of International Economic Studies at the Ministry of Mines,
Energy and State-owned Enterprises, and in the private sector, where he has been in charge
of economic studies for several firms, including a mining company and DESC, one of the
largest industrial conglomerates in Mexico. When Mr. Winkler joined CEESP, he was placed
in charge of its research program, and while in this role published two books. He
continues to write about short-term developments in the Mexican economy on a regular
Yue-Chim Richard Wong
Yue Chim Richard Wong is Professor of Economics at the University of Hong Kong. He studied
economics at the University of Chicago (A.B. 1974, A.M. 1974, and Ph.D. 1981), and was
Visiting Scholar at the National Opinion Research Centre at the University of Chicago in
1985 and at the Hoover Institution of War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University in
1989. His current research interest is in the economics of transition in China and the
political economy of Hong Kong. He has authored numerous books and articles. In addition
to his scientific work, Dr. Wong is founding Director of the Hong Kong Centre for Economic
Research; a free market policy research institution. The Centre is currently leading a
36-volume study entitled Economic Policies for Hong Kong: Beyond the Transition. He is a
member of the Economic Advisory Committee, HK, Hong Kong Committee for Pacific Economic
Co-operation Council, Industry and Technology Development Council, HK , University Grants
Committee, HK, and Finance Committee of the Hong Kong Housing Authority. Contact: School
of Economics and Finance, The University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam Road, Hong Kong. Tel:
+852-2547-8313, Facsimile: +852-2548-6319, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bruce Zagaris received his B.A., J.D., and LL.M. (tax) from George Washington University,
his LL.M. (comparative) from Stockholm University, Sweden, and his LL.M. (international)
from the Free University, Brussels. He did legal work in Europe and Africa for two years,
including as a U.N. consultant in West Africa. He practiced customs law in San Francisco,
and taught at the Law Faculty of the University of the West Indies before practicing law
in Washington which he has done since 1978, currently as a partner with the law firm of
Cameron & Hornbostel. His practice includes counseling and defending white collar
criminal cases with significant international elements. His work has a large focus on
international tax law, including advising and negotiating agreements and serving as
counsel in criminal tax litigation. He has also done a lot of work in the money laundering
area. He is an Adjunct Professor of International Criminal Business Law at Fordham Law
School, New York City. He has written four books (three as editor) on international law
and many articles. Bruce Zagaris is founder and editor-in-chief of the International
Enforcement Law Reporter. He is chair, Committee on International Criminal Law, Criminal
Justice Section, American Bar Association and chair, Committee on International Tax,
Section of International Law & Practice, American Bar Association.