Tax Break

Who said tax is boring?

Archive for the month “November, 2014”

The Gentle Tax

Spot the player who had never heard of Germaine Greer

Spot the player who had never heard of Germaine Greer

There was a time when the mere mention of the name Germaine Greer – pioneering feminist author of ‘The Female Eunuch’ – made grown men (and only grown men) adopt the Direct-free-kick-defensive-wall position favoured by all modern footballers. I had no such reaction when, the other day, I turned on my car radio and was sucked into the middle of a BBC panel show in which she was participating. Greer has long been an occasional, articulate and humorous guest on  such programmes. A few years ago she even eulogized one of my all-time heroes, ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’ Chairman Humphrey ‘Humph’ Lyttleton, describing him as ‘salacious’. Salacious translates into Street English as ‘Dirty Old Man’- an adjective painstakingly earned by the deceased octogenarian, who was the master of double-entendre and, hence, an unlikely guru of the guru of feminists. But we all grow up eventually.

I can forgive Greer and her bra-burning cohorts just about everything, but I cannot accept the pathetically small-minded assault they made on the English language. I refer, of course, to the default pronoun. For  centuries the default pronoun has been ‘He/His” (A good  student always does his homework). Even if some crazies thought this was not appropriate, there was always ‘They/Their’ (A good student always does their homework) or ‘One/Ones’ (I cannot be bothered with an example). But no, Greer and Co were not satisfied with equality, they wanted liberation (or was it the other way round?)  So, ‘She/Hers’ started popping up. And nearly half a century after The Female Eunuch, it looks like the bloody thing is taking off. I recently stopped reading a new, much acclaimed, English Style book because my eyeballs started going in opposite directions around my head at the consistent use of ‘She’. And then, yesterday, my beloved Economist – supposedly slave to the bestselling Economist Style Book – succumbed.

Language undoubtedly evolves, but that evolution – especially in the case of the chaotic English language- should be natural and gradual. This She/He business is pure tampering.

Dressed like that, it is no wonder he got away with so much rhetoric in his inaugural address

Dressed like that, it is no wonder he got away with so much rhetoric in his inaugural address

An example of a material, but natural, change in the English language over the last few decades is the reduced use of rhetoric. Asked to reach for your favourite speech (‘your’ is yet another way of getting round the gender-bender issue), you will probably go for something out of 20th century history: Roosevelt’s ‘Nothing to fear but fear itself’; Churchill’s “We will fight them on the beaches’; Kennedy’s ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’. Chances are you will not come up with  George W Bush’s, ‘You teach a child to read , and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test’ (which is why he definitely should have stayed with the default pronoun),  or even Barack Obama’s…… well, let’s face it, he has simply never said anything worth remembering.

Rhetoric, once a staple of any English-speaking child’s education, has pretty much gone out of the window. People are nowadays as well-educated as those who lead and try to influence them, so rhetoric tends to sound naff. Nevertheless, as pointed out in an article last week in the New York Times by Mark Forsyth (who, even Ms Greer would allow me to refer to as ‘he’), rhetoric still has a central place on Madison Avenue.

I thought it would be fun to see what slogans a tax wonk could come up with based on rhetoric.

Boring

Boring

‘Intel Inside’ is an example of Alliteration, as is a method for stopping dogs fouling our footpaths: ‘Tax the Turds’ (with a background picture of a traffic warden handing out a ticket).

‘Bond, James Bond’, ‘Be all you can be’, and ‘Home, sweet home’ are diacopes, as is: ‘Tax, your tax’ (with a picture of a Victorian hospital corridor full of occupied beds).

An example of a chiasmus is ‘Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind’.  How about a Republican slogan: ‘America must lower taxes, or taxes will lower America’?

Enallage is a deliberate grammatical mistake for effect such as ‘We was robbed’. That could be a good line against a background of a picture of any Finance Minister at any time in history.

But the daddy (or, Ms Greer, should that be ‘mummy’?) of them all is the Tricolon:  ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’; ‘Liberte, egalite, fraternite’; ….’Tax, fraud, prison’.

 

 

Telling it like it is (?)

The person who drew the map ran out of ink

The person who drew the map ran out of ink

Alan Coren, the late editor of Punch, once wrote that, while touring Europe he climbed to the top of a hill to get a panoramic view of Luxembourg  – only to find there was a tree in the way.  The first time I flew into Luxembourg airport  a few years ago, was also the first time I had flown in a propeller plane since 1966. Luxembourg is size-challenged.

But when it comes to tax,  Luxembourg is a country that punches way above its weight. For years, it has been proud of its friendly tax environment (it has been in the game so long that, when I started out, the rage was 1929 Holding Companies which, I believe, had something to do with 1929).

Despite Luxembourg’s disproportionate influence, I was still a little surprised when, a few months ago,  that bastion of bankrupt democracy, the European Parliament, forced Jean Claude Juncker on the European Commission as its president. As much as the EU likes to claim it is about politics, it is clear that it remains attached to its birth mother, the EEC (European Economic Community). As such, the work being done in its various forms by the G20, OECD and EU concerning illegal state aid, suggests that anybody from Luxembourg would be an unlikely candidate for any economic portfolio, let alone the big job. Not only did the top job go to a Luxembourgian, it went to one who had been Finance Minister since 1989 and Prime Minister from 1995 until 2013. So, when the sparks started to fly following the (absolutely superfluous) revelation last week that hundreds of multinationals obtained ‘sweet’ tax arrangements in Luxembourg, it wasn’t as if Juncker could even blame ‘the other lot’ when they were in power, because he personally (let alone his party) had been in power for a quarter century.

Ideal tax rate for Luxembourg

Ideal tax rate for Luxembourg

Instead, he bunkered for a while, before making an unanticipated appearance at a press conference today. It was Monty Python time. Informing the assembled rabble that tax administration in the Grand Duchy ‘operates autonomously’, he responded to a journalist who queried why – given that his period of office had coincided with a bonanza time for corporate tax schemes – anyone should believe him, with the churlish: ‘Because I said so’. Asked whether his credibility as a European leader had been shredded, he replied to an Italian inquisitor: ‘I am as suitable as you are’. Heady, diplomatic stuff.

In any event, Juncker plans to march on, leading the onslaught on illegal state aid and  other State sponsored tax avoidance. While admitting that he is politically responsible for everything, he has reportedly claimed that he had nothing to do with the tax arrangements. Juncker is an honorable man, so he deserves to be taken at his word.

Today’s press conference led me to thinking about writing an entirely fictitious sketch about the prime minister of a small western tax haven. Any likeness to any person, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Scene: The Prime Minister’s Office in the Principality of Taxembourg. Prime Minister, Jean Paul Messerschmitts, is sitting at his desk. Enter the Tax Commissioner.

TC: Prime Minister, I have come to talk about  projected  Tax Revenues for the year ahead.

PM: Why are you talking to me about it? Collect whatever tax you like and then I and my Cabinet will see how much there is to spend on welfare, education and things

TC: But, sir, I need to talk to you about the incentives we are giving foreign investors.

PM: I do not have time.

TC: When will you have time, Prime Minister?

PM: Can’t you see that I am always busy? Today, I must screw in three new light bulbs in my office, followed by my unveiling of a new ATM cash dispenser on the High Road. Then, this evening, I am hosting a dinner for a retiring Traffic Warden. Tomorrow promises to be another hectic day. Being Prime Minister AND Finance Minister is tough, you know. Set up an appointment with my successor for 15 years time.

TC: Prime Minister, I am sorry to have troubled you with such a trifling matter. Why should you have to be bothered with my nonsense when you must deal with important matters of state? I promise not to trouble you again.

PM: Schtum! Schtum!

Exeunt

pinocchioNow that all the fuss is behind him, Mr Juncker will be able to get on with the task he was, sort of, elected to undertake. With his immense experience, I am sure he will do an excellent job.

Hungary for knowledge

What you get when people have no knowledge.

What you get when people have no knowledge.

1984 (the 326 page book, rather than the 366 day year of the same name) describes how a totalitarian regime could keep a lid  on knowledge through a Ministry of Truth, Newspeak’s Doublethink, and the dreaded Thought Police. Democratically elected governments have, traditionally, had more trouble in keeping a handle, let alone a lid, on their populations’ perceived excesses.

Of course, even democratic societies were not always as liberal as they are today. As I have written previously, until the middle of the 19th century, tolerant Britain applied punitive stamp duty to newspapers. The aim was to prevent the rabble from being able to afford to read the subversive political pamphlets that proliferated over the combined Hanoverian  reign of the various Kings George.

With the two World Wide Wars receding into distant memory, and the World Wide Web taking off in the 1990s, even hitherto totalitarian regimes had to adjust their bugging policies. The idea that it was possible to control the flow of knowledge started to look passé.

Hungary also had the best football team in the world

Hungary also had the best football team in the world

And then there was Hungary. Hungary, the country that had courageously revolted against the Soviets in 1956. Hungary, the country that led the way out of the Warsaw Pact and, in the 1990s, was a trailblazer for the new Europe. Hungary, the established member of the European Union.

Under its right-wing leader since 2010, Viktor Orban, Hungary has been looking increasingly smelly. Last month, the Government announced a draft law that would impose on internet providers a 150 forint (60 cent) tax on each gigabyte of data.  Coming as it did around the anniversary of the 1956 revolution, the people got quite shirty. Realizing that their internet bill was going up, all hell broke loose, and the other day Mr Orban had to backtrack.

Of course, the whole thing was probably a lot more sinister than that. A democracy cannot tell people what to think but, like the governments of all those German Georges back in the old days,  access to information can be squeezed by price.

The world fought long and hard for its freedom throughout the 20th century, including ridding itself of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Freedom of expression, and access to opinions so expressed, is a critical part of that achievement.

Boy George who will be King

Boy George who will be King

A prominent Rabbi once told me that, when his grandfather fled a Russian pogrom early in the last century, he determined to make a new life in America. Stopping off for a few days in England, he went to Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner on Sunday morning. Standing on a soap-box, one of the many speakers was insulting Britain’s indolent King (not called George, but his son, grandson, and great-great-great-great grandson were/are). He decided that any nation  that allowed its people to freely criticize its monarch must be a great country and cancelled his plans to continue to the New World. Good choice.

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