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.
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.