Tax Break

Who said tax is boring?

It’s just not cricket

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He might still need more proof of residence than this

Last month’s news from India, that tax residency certificates would no longer be a must for  foreigners claiming treaty benefits, will come as a welcome relief to the finance departments of organizations doing business with that great country. Obtaining certificates of residence can be a pain in the neck, especially when they are needed quickly. When it comes to transparent partnerships, like accounting firms, the bureaucracy can be a nightmare.

Although at first sight this announcement may put India in a positive light, it is more a reflection of the relief to heads no longer banging against brick walls – the original requirement for certificates stemmed from a silly amendment to the law in 2012. There is so much that is daft about India’s approach to international taxation.

When I hear the words ‘India’ and ‘Tax’ juxtaposed, I invariably think of Kipling’s quote ‘Power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.’

India – the largest democracy on Mother Earth – has, when it comes to international tax, a split personality. On the one hand,  its appellate tribunals and courts wax more lyrical than anybody else on tax  issues brought before them. In 2017 it was estimated that nearly a quarter of a million disputes were awaiting resolution. Every international tax practitioner knows that, when examining the case history of OECD treaty articles, it is rare for a bon mot from India not to pop off the page. On the other hand,  India maintains primitive imperialist designs on the tax that rightly belongs to others (I wonder what Gandhi would have said). Its Dividend Distribution Tax, declared a tax on the distributing company rather than a withholding tax on the recipient, has deftly (and, I believe, uniquely) sidestepped treaty withholding restrictions, while its technical services tax has long-armed income that should have nothing to do with India. Then there was that beautiful moment a few years back when they followed seller Hutchison and buyer Vodafone up the food chain, and rather than going for  a bite out of the indirect seller’s cake, tried improbably  to extract it from the indirect buyer’s mouth. That’s chutzpah.

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It could have been worse. It is only an accident of history that they didn’t produce Austin Allegro doppelgangers

Perhaps, however, this recent loosening of the tax belt is not just a blip, but a symptom of something bigger. Since 2014 India has jumped a remarkable 65 places in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings. Starting in 142nd place, it is today sandwiched at 77 between Uzbekistan (the butt of many of Borat’s jokes) and Oman. To show they were aware that the century had turned, they even stopped production of the Hindustan Ambassador in 2014 –  a copy of an early model of the Morris Oxford that the British replaced nearly sixty years previously. That’s progress.

Microsoft, IBM, Proctor and Gamble, Tesco, Wallmart, motor companies (thank heaven not British) – India is opening up for business. This has been accompanied by a massive reform in indirect taxation.

It is to be hoped that international direct taxation will be next. Wouldn’t it be nice if those legislators who draft the laws so suspectly could listen to those world-class judges charged with interpreting them so expertly? Or is that an encroachment upon the foundations of democracy?

The taxman takes his cut

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At least he also had a day job

Initially dubbed ‘the war to end all wars’, the act of carnage that ended a hundred years ago this week had to later suffer the ignominy of having ‘First’ stuck at the front of its name. While recognizing the sacrifice of the combatants and the tragedy of 20 million dead, subsequent generations have suggested the futility of the whole thing.

As the world prepared to commemorate those events, Israel’s judges, perhaps ironically, had to waste their valuable time on something else absolutely futile – the taxation of professional poker players (not one, but two). The wording of the judgements (and appeals) gave the distinct impression that each learned judge would have been quite happy for the young men in question to take their chances being ‘sent over the top’, but they had no choice other than to give them a fair hearing.

Although I have no sympathy for gamblers, and in both cases the end result was the payment of tax at marginal rates (one of them had to be reined in by the court as an Israeli tax resident), the result bothered me.

Israel, like other tax jurisdictions, operates a system of marrying income to various sources (such as business or vocation, work, interest). The word ‘income’ is defined in dictionaries as deriving from capital or labour – fitting nicely with the sources mentioned in the Income Tax Ordinance (which is just as well, really,  since it is called the ‘Income’ Tax Ordinance). The proceeds from gambling and lotteries  do not derive from labour or capital, and did not therefore have a place at the sources table in the law.  In the course of time, however, legislators were reminded of HL Mencken’s definition of Puritanism: ‘The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” As a result they shoe-horned an extra clause taxing  profits from gambling, lotteries and prizes. To make the whole thing work they called  the resultant windfall ‘income’, a sleight of hand that would not disgrace the most unsavoury of card sharks.

However, when the tax authorities brought the two intrepid poker players to the table, they did not play for the 25%  tax that the misplaced clause then legislated, but full marginal tax on the basis of ‘business’ income. Both these characters were, after all, professional players. The position of the courts was that – similar to business income – their income could be considered income from a  vocation, their expertise implying effort and, therefore, labour. The last hand played was the appeal against the tax authorities’ insistence not to allow expenses in the production of income such as flights, hotels and payments to the casinos that financed some of the tournament games (the mind boggles). Here, the judge was consistent – if it’s income from a vocation, it’s a vocation, and proven expenses should be allowed.

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And so did they…

The bug in all this is that while these poker players were taken out of the bunker of  restricted tax  onto the battlefield of regular income, there is still dissonance.

The various sources of income (labour and capital) that combine to form the backbone of the Income Tax Ordinance are inextricably linked to Gross National Product and Gross Domestic Product. It isn’t by chance that governments measure their tax take accordingly – by taxing income, they are  taking their share of the value created in the economy.

Gamblers – professional or otherwise – do not add to the value of the economy. It is a zero-sum game. One person’s  gain is another’s loss. When, the legislature incorrectly added a section on gambling to the Income Tax Ordinance instead of legislating an excise tax (as they should have done),  they at least had the sense to exclude the possibility of setting off losses from other sources of income while isolating the gambler’s activity.

In transferring professional gamblers to a business/vocation basis, while the rate of tax may be higher, in a perfect world the overall tax take should be zero  (or negative due to expense set-off). Of course, in practice, most of these games are taking place abroad against non-Israeli taxpayers which clearly changes the domestic picture – but today  the name of the game in international tax  is a level playing field.

It feels like somebody wasn’t playing with a full deck.

FANGs ain’t what they used to be

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Repairs courtesy of the Information Superhighway

Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google, the tech giants collectively dubbed the FANGs, are hardly going to be digitally quaking in their virtual boots over British Finance Minister Phillip Hammond’s Budget announcement last week that he plans imposing a 2% Digital Services Tax on their UK related turnover. Hammond himself admitted it would only be expected to bring in around £400 million a year, the amount he coincidentally just allocated to filling pot-holes on Britain’s roads.

The UK is not alone in taking the ladle to the primordial soup of  the evolving digital economy – Australia, France, Israel, Hungary, India, Italy (and the UK itself with its Diverted Profits Tax) are already at the feast, due to be joined by the EU when it is finally sick of wasting its time trying to eat the UK for Brexit.

Hammond’s hammering of the Goliaths earned kudos across the entire spectrum of British society (even the Tory-hating Guardian gave grudging praise) – but nobody seemed to pick up on the gaping irony of the whole thing – the use of a neolithic method to  tackle a state-of-the-art problem.

Egged on by the 2013 G8 Summit in Northern Ireland (to the non-Catholic citizens of which, I unreservedly apologize for using ‘British’ interchangeably with ‘UK’), the OECD and  the rest of the world (apart from a possible few smelly islands once – and probably still – frequented by pirates and other undesirables) have been engaged in tackling the unfairness of the international tax system. I, for one, started out sceptical that anything could be achieved. Country-by-country reporting, the MLI modifying tax treaties, and changes in the Permanent Establishment definition are just some of the impressive advances that have been made in the last six years in the BEPS (Base Erosion and Profit Shifting) project, not to mention (sorry) the automatic exchange of information.

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California is still part of the United States

But, there are two major gaps – the United States’ lack of enthusiasm when it cottoned on that it was a large part of the problem the others were trying to solve, and the reform  of the taxation of the Digital Economy – which happened to be the first of the 15 Actions listed by the OECD.

The international tax system is founded on two principles established a century ago – ‘nexus’ and ‘profit allocation’. The first is supposed to determine where business is done, and the second, how to divide the spoils between the places of business. Fitting the digital economy into this framework is not easy. In trying to establish where value is created, three challenges have been identified: nexus, data and characterization. The first suffers from what is pompously termed ‘ scale without mass’ – you don’t need much physical presence in a country to do business these days; the second raises the question of the interactivity of data exchange – if a social platform is using data gathered from members, where  the income arising from its exploitation belongs; and the third recognizes that the world is changing constantly and the classification of income needs constant updating.

In trying – so far unsuccessfully – to reach a consensus, the participating countries have broadly divided into three groups: those that believe the problem is confined to specific business models involving user participation in data (eg Facebook’s), that need to be dealt with individually; those that believe there is no problem (if you think that is strange – consider how long it took countries to realize there was going to be a Second World War); and those that think everything is completely screwed up, and we need a revolution (hopefully only in international taxation, which can be achieved using pens rather than swords). The OECD has kicked the can down the road (a game my generation played before digitalization condemned children to little screens) with the hope of reaching an agreement by 2020. Given the ‘slight’ differences between the participants, it doesn’t sound like we should be holding our breath – but I have had egg on my face before.

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Which wireless age does the new UK tax belong to?

So, in the meantime, nations like the UK have been driven to adopting recessive taxes that would have been more familiar to the 18th century than the 21st. Its approach to the digital economy is to throw income tax out of the window (or should that be Windows?) in favour of a tax on turnover, that looks far more like the excise duty stuck on barrels of rum that smugglers didn’t manage to secrete in coves along the southern coast of England. (In fairness, it is only to be applied to companies with worldwide turnover of over half a billion pounds, and there will be exemptions for loss making companies and those with low margins).

As an English playwright wrote four centuries ago: ‘O for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention’. And I doubt he paid any taxes at all.

Playing the residency card

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Who were they?

On a recent bus tour of Barcelona, the  recorded commentary declared the ‘immortal’ words of exiled Catalonian  President Josep Tarradellas on his return in 1977: ‘Citizens of Catalonia, I am here’. This immediately conjured in my mind the immortal line from the BBC’s Goon  Show: ‘Everybody’s got to be somewhere.’   Great philosophy it aint, but the concept of ‘being here’ has been a cornerstone of modern international taxation since its salad days a hundred and fifty years ago – ‘where you are’, rather than ‘who you are’.

Despite an intuitive tendency – demonstrated countless times over the years in meetings with prospective clients – to think that international taxation depends on ‘who you are’ (French, German, Spanish, Catalonian), citizenship actually plays a minor role in establishing where direct tax is paid. There are only two countries that tax on the basis of citizenship. One is the African state of Eritrea. The other – slightly larger and louder – is the United States of America. Everyone else looks at ‘residence’ – essentially ‘where you are’. The only time citizenship kicks in is when two competing countries tied by tax treaty are totally stumped.

The confusion is forgivable when you open international taxation journals. Recent news included Montenegro’s joining the ranks of those countries selling citizenship for a mess of pottage. For as little as a  250,000 Euro investment and 100,000 Euro donation to the Government, it will be possible to achieve citizenship within 6 months.  Apart from being delightfully situated next to Bosnia and Serbia (complete with NATO membership), it offers the bonus of potential EU membership by 2025 (if the current European order lasts that long), with the advantage of  access to the rest of the EU. Apart from Americans (and perhaps wealthy Eritreans) who might court the idea of a second citizenship to enable them to give up the first (thus avoiding draconian tax reporting and, possible, additional tax payment), the principal attraction of these schemes is Visa access for those from even less popular countries (and EU access, where relevant). Tax doesn’t get much of a look-in.

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You would also want another passport

Israel is firmly in the ‘residence’ camp and its statute law is well-developed. It is therefore surprising that, in a recent High Court appeal decision concerning a poker player who claimed to be resident nowhere (‘everybody’s got to be somewhere?’), one of the justices declared that a person who is a resident and citizen of Israel, especially one who was born and raised in Israel, even if he goes abroad for a prolonged period, will only shake off residency if he does something clear to break that residency and establish residency elsewhere. Examples cited are renouncing citizenship, and sale of house and assets in Israel. Less convincing would be academic studies or a foreign company posting.

This is diverging a long way from ‘where’, and giving a degree of importance to ‘who’.

As Israel is a member of the OECD and signatory to many double tax treaties based on its model, treaty interpretations will take precedence over domestic law, although there may be an increase in the incidence of mutual agreement procedures. But, it will be interesting to see how matters develop with non treaty countries, as well as the rare situations where an individual claims ‘not everybody has to  be somewhere’.

Another bite of Apple?

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Trump could also do with something to take things off peoples’ minds

In October 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis,  John F Kennedy quietly signed into law the most extra-territorial tax system in the history of the human race. As the world faced MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), it perhaps wasn’t the most important thing on the minds of American CEOs that week. Buried in the dark recesses of the US Tax Code, the Subpart F provisions for Controlled Foreign Corporations soon became the blueprint for advanced nations everywhere to enable their Treasuries to reach abroad and dip their hands into the profits of their residents’ foreign holdings.

Fast-forward 55 years, and America is blessed with a populist president who – to put it mildly – doesn’t do things quietly. Yet, last week’s House tax reform proposals spoke of a move to an anti-populist territorial tax system for Corporate America (Google translate: Render unto Caesar what is Roman), and – I, at least – do not recall hearing the Donald’s bellowing protests or observing his trembling orange mop.

Why not?

Possibly, because this is the most goddamed-extra-territorial tax proposal in the history of the human race. It is the mother of extra-territorial tax proposals. The message it sends to multinational Corporate America – especially the high-tech variety –  is: ‘You can bring your cash home any time you like, because we are going to find your profits in whatever foreign paradise they are sunning themselves, and we are going to nail them.’

The ingenious weapon they want to add to the ageing, but sprightly, Subpart F provisions is the invasive ‘Foreign High Return’ amount of controlled  foreign corporations. In a nutshell, the US Treasury will allow US-owned foreign companies to earn a reasonable return on their tangible property abroad, and tax the remainder at half the US corporate rate (ie 10% in the proposal) whether it is repatriated or not. This actually puts some vague sense into President Trump’s surprising remark to Japanese auto-manufacturers this week  that they should bring production to the United States. Of course, as any non-president-of-the-United-States knows, Japanese manufacturers already produce 75% of the vehicles they sell in America on American soil. Now that American car manufacturers will evidently have an incentive to produce ALL the cars they sell abroad in tax-friendly countries beyond the Statue of Liberty, it is perhaps only fair that the good old Japanese help out.

The foreign tax credit allowed in the US will be 80% of the tax paid, meaning that profits taxed at more than 12.5% should not be further taxed at home. Given the latest revelations in the Paradise Papers, this would mean that hi-tech companies not protected by exemptions due to normal returns on tangible property, will be taxed on an ongoing basis – albeit at a competitive rate.

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What was that logo?

In the meantime there will be a one-time tax on repatriating existing foreign earnings of 12% (cash etc) and 5% (illiquid assets).

And, if all this is not enough, just for the fun of bayoneting the wounded, a 20% excise tax is proposed on payments out of the United States.

My hunch is that the reason POTUS hasn’t been shooting off about all this is that he hasn’t quite absorbed it yet. That may not matter. Under the American system of government the chances of this, largely interesting, proposal passing are about as high as Donald Trump’s chances were a year ago today of winning the US presidential election.

Something to chew on.

 

Who wants to live forever?

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Not quite the tax doctor I had in mind

There was a time, not long ago, when the ideal higher education of a tax specialist was a combination of law and accounting. With the gradual death by asphyxiation of income tax planning, the ambitious young prospective practitioner might  add a third arrow to his bow – doctor of medicine.

Many would argue that, despite frustrating bureaucracy,  the gathering pace of intergovernmental cooperation in the war on tax evasion and money laundering is one of the great advances of twenty-first century society. However, the process has also brought to the surface long dormant legalities that most governments would have been happy to leave as long dormant.

Take American Estate Tax. A foreigner who dies  holding (not literally) more than $60,000 worth of  US securities, invites a bill to his estate in respect of US Estate Tax. That rule has been in place since, I believe, 1913, but has only been inadvertently enforced since FATCA rules forced international banks, on pain of lynching, to handle all withholding tax obligations on behalf of the IRS. The upshot is that savvy investors (especially those past the waterfall three-score-and-ten years) are deserting US securities, or finding obscure ways to invest indirectly.

But the problem does not stop there. In an increasingly negotiable world, where the successful can remain in daily touch with their homebound families and visit regularly, estate and inheritance taxes are often the death knell for staying put. And if that is not enough, some countries impose an insidious wealth tax.

If you wanted an example of a country that has, for years, seemed to encourage their citizens to get on their onion-laden bikes and seek comfort elsewhere, you need look no further than France.

A combination of estate tax and wealth tax (helped along by an aborted 75% top income tax rate) sent packing the likes of actor Gerard Depardieu (Belgium, and thence to Russia with love), and singer Florent Pagny (Portugal, who?). The typically French defense against the mounting exodus (some reports suggest some 10,000  since the turn of the century) was typified by the Defense Minister stating that those who love their country stay in France. Sacre bleu. To an Englishman like me, pro patria mori has never stood out as a French sentiment.

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France’s sixth biggest city

Well, it looks like Fortress France, at least, is finally taking baby steps forward under its exceptionally young new president’s tutelage.

A few weeks ago the prime minister proposed a severe curtailing of the wealth tax – restricting it to real estate. But, there is some doubt as to whether that will be enough to encourage wealthy French to return home – especially given that estate tax still remains.

Ultimately, unless the current passion for Balkanization (Spain, UK, Iraq) takes hold – creating a dampening of global mobility – there can be no room for estate taxes or wealth taxes in the future world order. Despite their political attraction as a component in the fair distribution of everything (optical rather than actual), they create a drain on national coffers.

In the meantime, expert tax planners will try to keep their clients alive long enough to move them out of undesirable post-mortem jurisdictions. Is there a tax doctor in the house?

Yes, Minister

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Keep it simple…

Looking confused next to the overhead locker of my assigned Business Class seat on a British Airways flight from Heathrow to New York last year, I was approached by a helpful flight attendant (if that is what stewardesses are called these days) who offered assistance. Pointing to the little picture indicating which mini-compartment was 12A, and which 12B, I told her I was unfortunately pictorially dyslexic. She looked momentarily sympathetic before bursting out laughing: ‘What do you mean, pictorially dyslexic? There is no such thing!’

For all I know, she was right.

The fact is that our brains have become so used to hard-edged information being pureed into easily digestible mush, that many of us find it hard coping with anything more taxing than a Facebook intelligence test. (I was recently informed I had an IQ of over 160 because I knew a photograph was of Adolf Hitler, rather than the other choices of Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg. Surely everyone knows that neither Trump nor Bloomberg has a  moustache.)

If you think I am being unfair, take literature. In this day and age, if you want to be published, you have to keep sentences short, and multiple adjectives locked up. So, you would think that chucking the following paragraph – which doubles up as a sentence – at the reader on the first page of a 500 page novel might have condemned the author to obscurity:

‘In consideration of the day and hour of my birth, it was declared by the nurse, and by some sage women in the neighbourhood who had taken a lively interest in me several months before there was any possibility of our becoming personally acquainted, first, that I was destined to be unlucky in life; and secondly, that I was privileged to see ghosts and spirits; both these gifts inevitably attaching, as they believed, to all unlucky infants of either gender, born towards the small hours on a Friday night.’

Thankfully, the book saw the light of day  in 1850, not 2017, and  David Copperfield became one of Charles Dickens’s most-loved novels.

Until fairly recently, I believed that one area of intellectual pursuit that had escaped the brain surgeon’s knife was taxation. Taxation is complicated, and advisors have kept it complicated. How often have we watched with satisfaction as our clients’ eyes have glazed over, knowing at the end of a tortuous meeting that they will just tell us ‘to deal with it’?

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…or not.

 

Then – Shock! Horror! – in 2010 the British Treasury came up with the Office of Tax Simplification. 450 recommendations later – including such game changers as simplification of the corporation tax computation and out-of-date procedures still requiring paper confirmation for stamp duty transactions (themselves an anachronism) – the OTS published its first annual report. Apart from a ‘first annual report’ issued seven years after inception being a leading candidate for the accolade ‘the triumph of hope over experience’, the wording itself left hope for tax professionals:

‘The OTS is in a unique position to highlight issues, stimulate debate and act as a catalyst for positive change, being strongly connected within government, having exceptionally wide access to a range of deep expertise from outside government and speaking with an independent voice.’

Charles Dickens couldn’t have written a better paragraph (doubling up as a sentence) himself. In fact, it almost looks like the Office of Tax Simplification could come to rival Little Dorrit’s Circumlocution Office.

The spirit of Bleak House’s Jarndyce and Jarndyce lives on. Mercifully.

 

Some like it hot

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Will this save the planet…?

Political fossil Al Gore’s sequel to his Oscar winning environmental documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ – ‘An Inconvenient Sequel’ – may have underwhelmed at the box office this month, but it provided a timely counterweight to President Donald Trump’s announcement some weeks earlier that the United States was pulling out of the Paris Agreement. Despite the protestations to the contrary of substantially every-government-that-is-not-America’s (as well as several of the States that enable the United States to be called the United States), without Federal US involvement all bets for preventing environmental Armageddon appear to be off.

Until recently, the Tax World’s contribution to the fight against this threat to our future generations had taken the form of airing the concepts of ‘Cap and Trade’ and ‘Carbon Taxes’ – the former involving the auction and trade of emission permits that seek to limit total pollution from certain gases, the latter a hit or miss, essentially regressive, tax on fossil fuels and suchlike.

Then, last month, things hotted up.

In his State of the Nation address, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines told mining companies that ‘he would tax them to death’ if they did not clean up their act. Coming from anyone else, the statement might have been filed alongside Benjamin Franklin’s ‘nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes’, but Duterte has, for some time now, been proudly having drug pushers and other undesirables knocked off wholesale in extra-judicial killings. The message is clear – the president clearly reckons himself the biggest threat since Mohammed Ali throttled Joe Frazier in the Thrilla in Manila.

Indeed, Duterte also announced that, you-couldn’t-make-up-its-name, ‘Mighty Corp’ has agreed to pay the government a cool half a billion dollars to settle the mining giant’s alleged catalogue of criminal tax evasion offences. Simple when you have the method sussed.

And, to cap it all, any additional tax take from the mining sector is to be earmarked for local communities damaged by the mines, while processing of mineral resources is ‘requested’ to be performed in the Philippines before export, thus adding to employment.  Interesting, if worrying.

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…or will this?

With all due respect to Mr Gore’s valiant efforts, if the environment is to get back on track, the mob that elected Trump doesn’t need a staid documentary – it needs exciting Alternative  Facts. So, perhaps the real existential question now is whether there is enough material for Quentin Tarantino to make a movie about taxing environmental terrorists. The climactic scene: an Internal Revenue Service agent, in sleek black suit and Ray-Ban shades, standing with his foot pressuring the windpipe of a prostrate business executive, two revolvers cocked and pointed at the entrepreneur’s trembling head, spits, ‘You’re going to clean up the river in this goddamn town, or we’re going to tax you to goddamn death’.

All’s fair in love and war. And, if Mr Tarantino is looking for a working title, how about: ‘Kill Fake Bills’?

Brother, can you spare a dime?

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Not quite Laurel and Hardy

He is best remembered through the prism of the witticisms of his arch-rival, Winston Churchill: ‘A modest man, who has much to be modest about’; ‘A sheep, in sheep’s clothing’; ‘Up drew an empty taxi, and out stepped…’, but Clement Attlee, the fiftieth anniversary of whose death is being marked this year, had many arrows to his bow. His sound defeat of Churchill in the 1945 election heralded in the Welfare State and wholesale Nationalization (including the Bank of England, coal and steel, and the railways), which changed Britain forever. Even Margaret Thatcher, who staked her claim to a place in history on unravelling much of what Attlee had done (with mixed results – someone recently suggested that Virgin Trains’ motto should be ‘The first time is always the worst’), referred to him as, ‘all substance, and no show’.

Fast-forward seventy years and it seems everyone, apart from the Americans, talks the talk about looking after the weaker elements in society and redistributing income, but doesn’t walk the walk of being willing to pay the price. There is more show than substance.

The latest evidence comes from that country up there in social Valhalla, Norway.

Six weeks ago the conservative government introduced a Voluntary Tax Payment Program. When I first read this, I assumed it was a Voluntary Disclosure Program for naughty Nordics – but no, it is what it says. If, after paying nearly 50% tax, you fancy paying some more, your contribution will be gratefully accepted by the government.

Well, according to the latest available statistics (at least, available to me), the total take has been around $1,500 – which includes tax lawyers and accountants making small contributions to see how it works (and, it has to be assumed, claiming their payments as a business expense). It also turns out that this is not Norway’s first voluntary payment scheme – they set one up in 2006 to which around 90 people have, to date, contributed a total of $85,000 – all, curiously,  anonymous ‘donations’. This might sooth a tax evader’s conscience while financing a government minister’s sleigh expenses, but it won’t do much for the relief of the poor.

When push comes to shove, the vast majority of people pay taxes because they have to, whatever their political hue, and high taxes are a toxic election loser. Only the Americans tell it as it is. The main reason for their dogged refusal to adopt VAT is considered to be the ease with which additional revenue could be raised resulting in ‘inflationary’ pressure on government spending, with the dreaded prospect of turning America into a European-style welfare state.

Modern attitudes are perhaps neatly reflected in a statement by a left-leaning political pundit on the reason for the large turnout of Labour-supporting young voters at the recent British General Election. Referring to the inability of the young to step onto the home-owning ladder due to the exorbitant cost of housing, she said: ‘They didn’t vote conservative, because they have nothing to conserve.’

Back in 1945, despite the Conservative Churchill’s massive personal popularity and acerbic witticisms, there were less egocentric reasons to elect Clement Attlee and his Labour colleagues.

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition

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And now for something completely different…

As Inquisitions go, the Spanish one went quite recently. The last garroting took place in 1826, with abandonment of the 350 year-old program in 1834. Portugal had, by then, put that sad part of its history behind her, while the Papal States, and their offshoot The Vatican, finally got round to announcing their Inquisition’s requiem in 1908, and its requiem aeternam in 1965. Parting was, evidently, such sweet sorrow.

Despite the Renaissance and all that followed, and despite the receding risk of having one’s soul removed from one’s body by religious force, the Catholic Church (and in its wake, other Christian sects and religions) has historically been treated with kid gloves – nowhere more notably than in the field of taxation.

Several nations have agreements with the Vatican governing that institution’s extensive property holdings, which provide extensive exemptions from income tax and property taxes. In addition, for various reasons (e.g. in the US, the Establishment clause of the First Amendment; in other nations, the contribution to the public good) nations include religions of all stripes in their tax-free, not-for-profit legislation.

Where the real clash occurs is when a religious institution earns commercial income. Income tax is a dogmatic no-brainer (though not according to all those agreements); but property taxes are in another world.

Salvation has possibly come in the form of the European Union, the Godless machinery of which has just come up, for at least the second time, with a fortuitous deus ex machina.

On June 27th, the European Court of Justice issued a judgment that Spain’s municipal construction and building tax could apply to Catholic Church property used for educational purposes not funded by the Spanish government. This was despite a Spanish High Court ruling enforcing a 1979 agreement with the Vatican that no taxes could apply to property and earnings from property owned by the Holy See and its offshoots. The miraculous solution was unlawful state aid – which, in the EU canon, is up there with adultery and child-sacrifice. The case was referred back to the Spanish courts for consideration – the presiding judges of which will presumably not need to stretch Church representatives on the rack or burn them at the stake in order to enforce an equitable solution.

On a previous occasion, in 2012, thanks to pressure from the EU over the same unlawful state aid, then Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti was handed the moral strength to strong-arm the Vatican into paying taxes on commercial properties around Italy, which hitherto had been tax exempt if they included some token religious symbol, like a chapel in a converted monastery hotel. Meanwhile, the Vatican itself remained a tax sanctuary, although the cash-strapped city of Rome has in recent years been trying to get the pope, who happens to live there and has expressed personal support for taxation, to pass the collection plate among the moneychangers at the entrance to the Vatican museum and its lucrative shop.

Other countries, unable to brandish the symbol of unlawful state aid, that have been trying to reach a modus vivendi with the Church will welcome the ECJ’s decision; notably Zimbabwe, that paragon of taxation virtue, and Israel, where it all started when an idealistic young man exhorted his countrymen to ‘render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s ’. But then, in those days, all roads led to Rome.

 

 

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