Tax Break

Who said tax is boring?

Archive for the tag “tax”

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’?

Was the Battle of Europe lost on the playing fields of Eton?

holy-grail-knight

What was that about Freedom of Movement in the EU?

‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.’ That aphorism, attributed to Mark Twain, has been much on my mind  lately.

Anybody wanting to get inside the minds of the wrong-headed majority that tragically voted the UK out of the EU (and probably lit a fuse to both those abbreviations) could do worse than read one of Dickens’s less known novels, ‘Barnaby Rudge’, about the Gordon riots against Catholic legislation.

Although the situation in 1780 became violent while last week’s referendum ensured peaceful mob rule,  the cynical manipulation and ignorance that led to the riots should have been a cautionary tale taught to every schoolboy and schoolgirl  in the last century and a half.

In the weeks, months and years ahead experts will assess the carnage to be irrevocably wrought on the UK and Europe, .

From a tax viewpoint, the immediate damage would appear to be to the UK Holding Company regime, as well as Finance Companies and IP ownership. This arises from the future removal of the parent/subsidiary directive, and interest and royalties directive. These two directives guarantee exemption from dividend withholding tax and withholding tax on interest and royalties, respectively,  when paid by the other 27 EU countries to the UK. Following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, withholding tax will be applied according to treaty. This will mean that Holding Companies, exempt from tax on their dividends, and Finance Companies and Patent Box companies paying low tax, will be at a disadvantage compared with EU jurisdictions. As the UK does not withhold tax on dividends according to domestic law, the UK is currently very popular as a holding jurisdiction – a popularity that is likely to disappear very quickly (like, tomorrow morning).

Thanks to the OECD’s BEPS project, most other disadvantages of the Brexit will already have been swept up in wider international agreements, while there may be some small advantage in not being penalized by the EU for offering State Aid to companies.

It is well known that Boris Johnson and David Cameron studied at the same elite school. While the Duke of Wellington may have declared that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, it would appear that  the Peace of Europe may have been lost on that same dot of England’s green and pleasant land.

It’s simply not cricket.

Pupils huddle during the Eton Wall Game at Eton college in Eton, near London

Meeting of a future Tory Cabinet

 

 

 

 

Who said tax is boring?

Still at it

Still at it

I was at dinner with friends late last year when one of the female guests announced that her husband was taking her skiing ‘for her special birthday’. My in-built accountant’s abacus went into immediate action calculating the lady’s possible age. This took into account the ages of her children, her looks, and the milestones of her life, as shared with anyone who had been willing to listen between the chopped liver and the soup. In a state of complete disbelief, I disingenuously told her how wonderful she looked for 50. ‘No, I am 55 actually,’ she replied, to my absolute lack of surprise. ‘What the hell is special about 55?’ I thought too loudly. ‘Aren’t you planning on making it to 60?’

I mention this incident because, for some months, I have been debating how to celebrate this, my 150th post. If truth be told, 150 is not a landmark – the Americans hardly bothered with the anniversary of the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination, earlier this month. But, at the rate I am writing these days, number 200 is looking dangerously  post-mortem.

I figured it was about time I revisited the tab which has  been up there at the top of the page from the start: ‘What is this blog?’ The first paragraph bemoaned my marginalization at social gatherings – anyone and everyone running a mile when they heard I was a tax geek.

Well, 150 – I hope vaguely entertaining – posts later, I found myself late the other night sitting around a friend’s kitchen counter with a senior tax official (with whom I have been on excellent terms for years), and a tax lawyer whose name I, mercifully, still do not know. The tax official (a woman) and I were sharing reminiscences of some of the quirks of the tax authority in our early days twenty years back. Among the memories, there was the period when, if the head of the main tax office – later Tax Commissioner – saw me in the corridor, he would stroke my arm and say soothing things to me because he had evidently been convinced by his deputy that I was a potential mass murderer (I had my own doubts about the deputy).

Some time into our conversation, the nice tax lawyer gentleman whose name I still don’t know decided to get in on the act. He asked us about our experience with tax levies on the employers of Sub-Saharan refugees. When we both said that we had no experience, he launched into a 40 minute monologue on the subject, pausing occasionally to ask our views, just to make sure we hadn’t dropped off. In fact, I don’t know if it was only 40 excrutiating minutes because, at 12.45am, my wife thankfully came over to whisk me home. He was still going strong, apparently oblivious as to whether he had an audience or not.

So, I can state categorically that there is nothing more boring than listening to someone talking tax. If you see me walking into a room, you will be perfectly within your emotional rights to look the other way. ‘Who said tax is boring? It was me, actually.’ Nothing has changed.

Dial M For Modi

'Mind the gap, lass'

‘Mind the gap, lass’

Bored out of my mind on a bus journey through the northeastern city of Sunderland around forty years ago, I involuntarily tuned into one of the working-class conversations going on around me. Not one word. Not one single syllable. They may as well have been talking Polish (which, nowadays, they probably would be). Forget that line about the English and Americans being two peoples separated by a common language – this was one people separated by the Watford Gap (an almost mythical motorway service station about half way up the country).

The fact is that, when it comes to understanding English speakers, some accents are more understandable than others. The Scots (from whom I hail) are notorious, but the loveable Indians are world champions in incomprehensibility.

They did extensive business with the subcontinent

They did extensive business with the subcontinent

Don’t believe me? Next time you are invited to participate in a telephone conference call with India, watch your colleagues. Guaranteed, there will be a finger permanently poised above the mute button, ready to activate it at the first drawn-breath to discuss what the participants think the other guy said. Then, as the call proceeds, your lead person’s head will gradually home in on the phone, until his ear is in communion with  the loudspeaker. It is another myth, that the closer you get to the speaker, the more you understand.

Of course, the irony is that India is the epicentre of Telephone Service Centres. Need help anywhere in the world? Call India, and walk away more confused than when you started.

Given the importance of the telephone to the Indian economy, it is perhaps not surprising that some of the biggest tax controversies in recent years have involved telecommunications. Less clear is why they have involved a single company.

Vodafone has been persistently persecuted by the Indian tax authorities over the last decade. It started when they bought an Indian group from Hutchinson at the ultimate holding company level, several countries removed from India. Although the tax burden, if any, should have fallen on Hutchinson, Vodafone was hit for not deducting tax at source. When the company successfully claimed in the Supreme Court that there was no legal basis for the tax authority’s claim, the Congress-run Government promptly changed the law with retroactive effect to 1961. At time of going to press, Vodafone and the Indian people were still staring each other down. Needless to say, this has done wonders for foreign investor confidence.

Meanwhile, the fairly new BJP Government of Narendra Modi has been making soothing comments about regulation and business. At the end of January the authorities announced that they would not appeal a decision in favour of, wait for it, Vodafone, concerning the taxation of a share issue. Vodafone’s Indian company, owned through Mauritius, had issued new shares to a Mauritius holding company for a premium that the tax authorities claimed to be ridiculously low. As a result they claimed that income had been created. The company argued that, even if the price was too low, this was a capital transaction in the shares (which, I suspect, would not be liable to tax under the relevant India/Mauritius treaty). The government has caved in, citing the need to provide certainty to foreign investors in tax matters. Hallelujah!

"What do you mean: 'Please send me an e-mail'?"

“What do you mean: ‘Please send me an e-mail’?”

Perhaps the next U-turn will be in respect of the Hutchinson  purchase. The previous government got its lines crossed and failed to understand the effect it was having on foreign investors. Narendra Modi has stated repeatedly that he wants to make India a draw for investment. I wonder if he knows Vodafone’s number?

Christmas Cheer

Charles-DickensThe spirit of Christmas Present materialized in the wake of the sensational success of  ‘A Christmas Carol’. Britain which, despite French whinging, was – in 1843 – the world’s superdooperpower, had been struggling with Christmas traditions and what-not for years. Dickens’s simple short story of a tyrannical, lonely employer mirrored against his put-upon employee (the latter having a loving, but tragic, family life) caught the nation’s mood. In a tale that, to borrow  from John Lennon, is more popular than the Nativity, the eponymous Scrooge eventually sees the light, and everyone – including the sick child that Dickens threw in for extra pathos – lives happily ever after. Amen.

The gifts didn't improve much over the years

The gifts didn’t improve much over the years

For me, a non-Christian, Christmas has long been defined by an event exactly 100 years ago today. The organized football match between the Allies and the Hun is probably apocryphal (nobody can agree on the score), but what is certain is that there was an informal truce on the Western Front for a number of hours on Christmas Day 1914. The Germans seem to have started it (as every good Englishman knows, they always start everything) by singing Stille Nacht (a passable translation of Silent Night). Before long, both sides were out of the trenches exchanging gifts of tobacco, black bread and buttons – and, just maybe, starting the Hundred Years War that has seen Jerry winning four World Cups to our one. (Fortunately, the World Wars went the other way.)

The truce over, the troops climbed back into their respective trenches and spent the next four years ensuring that at least 10 million of their number would never again sit around a Christmas tree exchanging gifts in the bosom of their families. Indeed, in December 1915, the order went out that any repeat of the events of a year earlier would result in a Court Martial and the Firing Squad, not necessarily in that order.

And THAT is Christmas. Once a year, mankind is enveloped in a vague haze that colours its eyesight and addles its brain. For a few short weeks, minds turn to gift-buying and peace and goodwill to all mankind. Come January 2nd, the miserable self-seeking world is back to normal  (from what I am told by Christian friends, it can start on Christmas afternoon when out-of-town guests – like three-day-old fish – start to stink). Someone who in mid- December would volunteer to save the world would, come  New Year, not give the drippings of his nose to a person dying of thirst.

Why do people insist on comparing me to these guys?

Why do people insist on comparing me to these guys?

This is the reason why, perhaps ironically, I believe in Taxation. While there are countless wonderful individuals and organizations out there who help the less fortunate, only the enlightened, collective self-interest of a people delegating the responsibility for its poor to its elected representatives, has the chance of ridding a country of the scourge of poverty. However enticing the Christmas message of peace and goodwill to all men sounds today (December 25th), Scrooge was right when he called it ‘Humbug!’

In any event, a heartfelt Merry Christmas to everyone celebrating today.

Viva, Barcelona!

Words didn't come easy to him

Words didn’t come easy to him

‘In the beginning was the word’ might have been the take on things in the Gospel according to John, but by my calculation, the oldest profession has never had much use for words (other than when haggling over price), and the second oldest profession (mine) has always relied on numbers; in any event, some years ago we merged.

The first international tax conference I ever attended was in Florida around twenty years ago. It was one of the highlights of my (now) long career. Closeted for three days in a glorious hotel with some of the best tax brains I have ever met, it was an orgy of diagrammatic flip-charts, 1929 Luxembourg Holding Companies, Belgian Coordination Centres, and ridiculously aggressive globe-embracing tax structures. Numbers and boxes. Heaven.

Of course there was a price. Tax advisors were universally viewed as geeks with psychopathic tendencies who should only be allowed to meet clients if accompanied by a responsible, audit practicing adult.

What a difference twenty years can make.

I am writing this post at 35,000 feet, on the way home from the latest conference in a very wet Barcelona. Nowadays, not only are we allowed to consort with clients, we invite them to join us, unaccompanied, at our get-togethers.

And what events they have become . It was a gradual process. Out went the numbers and flip-charts. In came the sharp spot-lights on a background of blue-haze; and words,words, words. I don’t think I saw a single number over the whole two and a half days except the occasional heart- warming statistic. It seems we have joined polite society.

Unfortunately, he couldn't make it this year

Unfortunately, he couldn’t make it this year

Our gurus talked in sound-bytes worthy of a British news anchor, about the rise of ‘compliance’. Compliance! When did the Detroit of the international tax world become sexy? Any color as long as it’s black! Boring! Not anymore. We listened to the Tax Emperor of one of the world’s very largest companies explain that his compensation algorithm no longer includes the effective tax rate, but instead is weighted towards his level of success in meeting all the group’s international reporting requirements. To put it more succinctly – promiscuity is a thing of the past. Today is all about Safe Tax.

An issue that had a lot of traction was BEPS (Base Erosion and Profit Shifting), about which I wrote a few weeks ago. The latest OECD update had been fortuitously issued a few days previously and this was a chance for sound-byting about the 15 constituent topics. After a panel of talking heads had compromised their integrity to impress the super-intelligent moderator (who is also a genuine ITV News Anchor),  it was left, implausibly, to the Chinese participant to remind everyone that BEPS was not going anywhere without the Americans. And the Americans are not going anywhere. Period. Good night, and good luck.

There was a spellbinding lecture on the mushrooming effect of Big (stored digital) Data on our lives, delivered by a remarkably competent stand-up comedian who triples up as a successful author and university professor. He, too – in what was starting to look like a conspiracy – incredibly avoided numbers, other than those that were so big the conference participants were unable to comprehend them ( a place in their heads previously occupied by lawyers’ fees).

Overall, it was a very successful few days – another strip of asphalt in the long road to acceptance by Society.

Happy New Year to anyone celebrating this week

Happy New Year to anyone celebrating this week

When I get home, I shall put my best suit back in mothballs and hang up my silk ties. Like Cinderella after the ball, it will be back to the daily drudge. No spotlights. No blue-haze. No News At Ten anchor. But lots and lots of numbers. Yippee.

 

 

 

 

 

Fish without an aye?

saltire1The only thing I am prepared to learn from this Scottish Referendum lark is that, if you give people an overdose of democracy, their brains come flying out of their ears.

By the time some of you read this, the whole farce may well be over – decided one way or the other: the only statistical certainty in the entire, tiresome process. Friday’s  papers will either be starting the countdown to secession, or painfully analyzing why the polls were so wrong (I predict a 60:40 No vote, and assuming I am right, am prepared to explain why the polls were so wrong, using a valuable analytical tool called ‘common sense’. If I am wrong, I will be analyzing why the polls got it so illogically right).

The big problem, it appears, is that, while the No campaigners have explained convincingly why, economically, independence is the stuff of fairy tales, the Yes campaign has hijacked half the ‘nation’ on a psychedelic ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ trip.

Worth going to war for

Worth going to war for

If, as has now been promised by Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister and fellow Jock, the Jocks are given devolved powers of taxation and  control over certain spending in the event of a No vote, any remaining hard-hatted economic arguments of that  Fish without an Aye (pronounced ‘I’) Alex Salmond, will evaporate as fast as an open bottle of whisky in a salmon smoker.

Of course, given half a chance, the average  Scotsman in the Glen is bound to take the opportunity to be seen on TV by his mum, declaiming on the future of his nation free of King Edward Longshanks. Scotsman’s mum, meanwhile, sits huddled next to a wood fire in her cottage in the Outer Hebrides which, thanks to successive Conservative and Labour governments, is attached to the National Electric Grid despite the doubtful value to anybody other than her. The lady is only watching the news because she is eagerly waiting for the fresh episode of  Downton Abbey – a series about a bunch of English toffs.

What I really fail to understand is, why the Scots (whoever they are, and however they are described for the purposes of this vote) get to decide alone on the future of the United Kingdom. It is not just about them. Scotland is not a British Colony or Mandate suing for self-determination. It is an integral part of the Three (Two-and-a-half?) Kingdoms and has to take responsibility for the effect on the others. While Ireland really was buggered by the democracy that was two wolves (England and Scotland) and a sheep (Ireland) discussing what to eat for lunch, Scotland has produced a disproportionate number of Prime Ministers, some of whom – notably James Ramsay Macdonald – have made a perfectly  good job of buggering up  the United Kingdom without resorting to independence.

This vote should have included the entire UK electorate. David Cameron must have been having a bad day when he agreed to the current format – one presumes he assumed the No vote would be a formality.

The American who could lead the Scots to vote 'Yes'

The American who could lead the Scots to vote ‘Yes’

And, even if it was right to restrict the vote to the Scots (which it was patently not), what about the Scottish diaspora? On a decision of this magnitude that will affect all future generations of Scots, why was the vote not offered to Scots and their descendants? As the son of a Scot, I should have a say in the long-term future of the country I have visited once in my lifetime. In fact, I feel passionately about Scotland. If  I were interviewed by the BBC, why would I go for the boring ‘No, I like it like it is’ (that I actually believe in), when I could give an emotional speech about the glory-days of Braveheart that might get me onto the evening News? It wouldn’t have to affect how I actually voted in the secret ballot. But let’s wait and see if the polls were right.

The Good Old Days?

These two would have sorted out Islamic State

These two would have sorted out Islamic State

By the time you get to my age (I, just about, remember what I was doing when I heard JFK had been shot), there are not many childhood ambitions you have either not fulfilled or not given up on. I made it to the Volvo, but not President of the United States (an early disappointment reading a DC Comic – if being born on Krypton ruined it for Superman, Stoke Newington wasn’t going to do much for my chances).

Well, last Saturday night I finally fulfilled an ambition that first entered my head one Spring day in 1970. I remember walking into the school library, the most junior of juniors, and asking the duty prefect to order a copy of John Galsworthy’s “The Forsyte Saga”.  I had been gobsmacked  by the 26 hour BBC adaptation that had been showing in 1968/69 and I thought I would have a go at the original. Either because the prefect knew that the book was about something resembling incest (inbreeding), or because he was an illiterate moron,  instead of encouraging my literary pretensions, he threatened me with detention. Illiterate moron. Definitely.

Last Saturday night, having logged out from normal life  for four complete Saturdays in a row, I finally finished the trilogy that is the Forsyte Saga. It did not disappoint.

It possesses  one of those story lines that would not disgrace ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ (which I saw for the first time on Friday – somebody told me a number of the characters were thinking of taking up acting; I hope not). I will try a short synopsis (if you are under 18, despite the word ‘incest’, this is a family  site, so I suggest you clear off). Names are a bit of a bind: there is Jolyon and Jo and Jolly and Jon – not to mention, June. So I shall use letters.

Spot the one with two heads

Spot the one with two heads

Back in the 1880s, Mr A and Mr B are first cousins who don’t like each other very much. Mr A marries first but later runs off and marries his daughter’s governess, abandoning his daughter (A minor)  to her mother and his father (Mr Old A – the wives’ names are not important). Mr B marries Mrs  B (her name is very, very important) but she cannot stick him. Mrs B steals A minor’s fiance, who proceeds to top himself . Mrs B walks out on Mr B. Mrs B falls in love with widower Mr A, and Mr B names them both in a divorce suit. Mr A marries Mrs B, while Mr B marries a French woman who is not important. Mr A and Mrs B have a son (AB minor), while Mr B has a daughter (B minor). AB minor and B minor fall in love and want to get married. This cheeses off just about everybody. Just to add to the fun, Mr A has two children from the governess, one of whom dies in the Boer War, while the other marries Mr B’s nephew (this is a daughter – which would have been stating the  obvious in the 19th century), her second cousin. She is the only really sensible one in the whole book, deciding not to have children because – thanks to the family connection – they might be born with two heads.

There is, however, something that was, to the best of my juvenile memory, completely missing from the BBC series. The trilogy is about unabashed capitalism – Soames Forsyte (Mr B), the books’ main protagonist, along with almost all the Forsytes, is obsessed with property and the individual’s right to own as much of it, in all its forms,  as possible. That fits well with late Victorian England, but there is a great leap to the last book from 1901 to 1920, which Nobel Laureate Galsworthy was writing in real-time (published 1921).

This was immediately after the Great War, when the aristocracy and middle classes were living in real fear of what might happen to the country. Income Tax had already been hiked before and during the War. But, while Soames and various Forsytes bewail the inroads the income tax and super-tax are making into their fortunes, they live with a far greater fear which, given the timing of the book, is almost palpable. Three years earlier, King George’s doppelgänger cousin, together with his family,  had been murdered by the Bolsheviks. In Britain, with universal suffrage (that is ‘the vote’ for any under-18s who did not heed my advice above), the Labour Party was rising rapidly and there was a real concern of either outright revolution or wanton nationalization.  As it turned out Labour foamed and fizzled, it requiring another World War to deliver them a sustainable parliamentary majority. Meanwhile, ignorant of what the future held, Soames (and Galsworthy) hid their Top Hats and flashy cars in the hope of not being noticed.

Spot the one with a brain

Spot the one with a brain

A hundred years on, and it is interesting to note that the Social Protests as well as the writings of the likes of that Frenchman Thomas Piketty have not led the nouveau-riche to hide their  wealth. Quite the opposite – they appear to flaunt it.  It will be interesting to see how this one pans out. Whatever happens, I will not be around for the BBC series in 2068 (although, I imagine ‘The Bold and The Beautiful’ will still be going strong).

 

 

Saving Income Tax

Learning the dangers of offshore structures

Learning the dangers of offshore structures

Early in my tax career, in my role as stenographer, porter and punkawallah to the great and the good, I was instructed to join one of the senior partners at a meeting with Roy E. Disney’s right-hand man. The conversation was going well (I had a walk-on part taking notes and fluttering my eyelashes, or whatever pseudo secretaries were supposed to do in those days) until the partner dropped a fatal clanger. Discussing the need for substance in the international structuring of the proposed investment, he mentioned that the tax authorities did not take kindly to…wait for it…Mickey Mouse Companies. As the orchestral tumult of Fantasia’s  Sorcerer’s Apprentice banged about inside my head, I sheepishly looked up to observe the silent visitor barely controlling his taut facial muscles. “Please do not refer to Mickey in that way,” he eventually complained. “Mickey is very close to our hearts.”

Where did this Disney character hide her floppy ears?

Where did this Disney character hide her floppy ears?

I recalled that incident recently on a rare visit to a movie theatre (my cinematic repertoire over the last decade has been generally restricted to Messrs Batman, Bond and Potter in various incarnations, shapes and sizes). The occasion was the local release of “Saving Mr. Banks”, loosely based on the negotiations, over half a century ago,  between Walt Disney (uncle of the famous Roy)  and PL Travers for the film rights to Mary Poppins. History is written by the victors and this was a Walt Disney production, so I suppose, even though this was a live-action movie about the making of a live-action movie,  I should not have been surprised to see that bloody mouse coming out of the woodwork at every opportunity, not to mention Walt’s (you have to call him Walt – Mr Disney, we are comfortingly told,  was his father) repeated declaration that Mickey is family.

Rereading the first two books on which Mary Poppins was based before attending the movie, I was reminded how much children’s literature has changed during my lifetime. Although not in the same league as Noddy or Tintin, Poppins has its moments of political incorrectness. An example was the housekeeper’s objection to  the soot-encrusted Chimney Sweep (not Dick Van Dyke’s Bert – Julie Andrews’ platonic friend – who was an amalgam) grabbing her arm: “Ow! Let me go, you Hindoo!” Now, two exclamation marks in one short exclamation is unfortunate, but use of the ancient derogatory form of “Hindu” is unforgivable. Nobody would, for very good reasons, get away with that sort of thing today nor, evidently, for that matter, making disparaging comments about an oversized rodent. However, it would seem some things are still fair game. And one of them is “close to my heart”.

Mr Banks of the books is in a perpetually bad mood (the title of the film alludes to that, but I am not in the mood for spoiler alerts so prospective cinema-goers fear not); if it is not because the household gopher has brushed his bowler hat with  polish, it is because he has prepared him non-matching shoes. His biggest blow-out however is over his mislaid bag which his goofy wife locates in the study. Demanding to know who had moved it there, she replies: “You did, my dear, WHEN YOU TOOK THE INCOME TAX PAPERS OUT OF IT LAST NIGHT”. Later in the book she refers to “that AWFUL INCOME TAX”. Say no more; ignorant cow.

I must say that I do not remember many protests against Mrs Travers’s racial prejudice but, one thing is for sure,  there was not even a murmur over her subversive statements about taxation. Isn’t it bad enough that, as kids growing up, we burned with resentment over the annual  sacrifice of a whole early evening’s Children’s TV in favour of a load of boring nonsense called the Budget (in a dreaded election year that crime was committed twice)? Is it really appropriate for our children’s literature to be laced, Tea Party style,  with incitement to revolt? And what are they supposed to be revolting against (as French students have been asked many times in their history)?

Tax is an essential part of modern civilization. Tax is of the people, by the people, for the people.  Tax is no less critical to the moral fibre of 21st century society than Freedom, Democracy and Mandela. But we continue to educate our kids to write it off as bad. (Please note: tax accountants have not yet found a way to write-off taxation but I can assure you, as the consummate hypocrites we do not admit to being,  we are working on it). The time has surely come to excommunicate those who denigrate taxation. It is time for our youth to sport tee-shirts announcing: “My Friend is a Taxpayer” or “Tax is Beautiful” or, for the truly courageous, “I Believe in Safe Tax”.

When you see the whites of his eyes - shoot!

When you see the whites of his eyes – shoot!

While, thankfully,  the time came long ago for the banishment of racism and mockery of the afflicted, I want to stick my neck out and make one exception: Americans (other than Meryl Streep) trying to imitate an English accent. Such people should be pilloried until they give up or die or both. The most dreadful specimen in movie history was, of course, Dick Van Dyke’s diabolical cockney cock-up in Mary Poppins. It bothered me when I saw the movie as a 6 year-old and it still bothers me today. But, in the Disney World, there is one thing perhaps worse. Exactly 10 years ago this month, our family spent a week in Orlando. Despite the cynicism that, I am informed by friends and family alike, oozes out of my very essence (I am sure they are wrong), that was one of the most amazing weeks of my life, not to mention that of the kids. A few years previously we had been to EuroDisney in Paris. Mickey Mouse and Merlin in French? Forget your husband’s bag, Mrs Banks. Why can we never find a guillotine (or better still, an atom bomb) when we need one?

The ultimate illegal alien

Thought-provoking literature

Thought-provoking literature

While Shuster, Siegel and Kane were, without doubt, the Olympians of Action Hero Comics,  the creators of Superman and Batman – each the 24 year-old  son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe – were never going to be the  heirs of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

Man of Steel, the latest Superman blockbuster that I ran faster than a speeding bullet to see last week, is best described as schizophrenic. The first 90 minutes – the average length of a 21st century movie – is cerebral beyond anything Clark Kent’s creative young gods could have possibly imagined, while the 53 minutes of extra time are pure, unadulterated violence, which is what they very probably did imagine. Violence and one single hell of a kiss. (Spoiler Alert – if you don’t know the Superman story by now, go back to Krypton). As our Superhero and Lois Lane embrace amid the ruins of Metropolis they are  watched admiringly by a group of misty-eyed US army officers while General Zod still lurks in the shadows ready to end any chance the studio has of making Man of Steel – The Sequel. The scene is the watermark that proves the movie is genuine, infantile Hollywood.

Whatever Shuster and Siegel were thinking of when they were penning and inking the first adventure in 1938 (whoosh, pow, thwack?) they may have subconsciously been delving into their immigrant roots. They would likely have faced discrimination as kids and young men and this alienation does come out quite starkly in this latest cinematic offering – even if Clark Kent did not sail Steerage Class from Hamburg to Metropolis.

Earlier this month the OECD (the club of rich nations except the rich nations that are not members) published the latest edition of its International Migration Outlook report. 400+ pages of taxpayers money to come to the conclusion that the fiscal impact of migration is broadly neutral – that is to say, immigrants normally pay more in taxes than they claim in welfare.

With xenophobia spreading faster across the globe than  Middle-Eastern  immigrants to Europe, that money may be well spent. Enlightened politicians of developed nations, no longer able to use anti-immigrant arguments based on the lengths of noses or racial inferiority, have in recent years  opted for the economic argument  – immigrants are a drain on social services while not contributing enough to the national coffers. This latest report deflects that contention: while there are pockets where it is true such as Germany, in the main immigration neither adds not subtracts. Having said that,  young educated immigrants are deemed a definite boon.

He presumably robbed an American of his job

He presumably robbed an American of his job

Despite being the grandson of immigrants (and, indeed, an immigrant myself) I am not sure this 400+ page of apologetics quite hits the nail on the council house door. Stating that immigration is a substantially zero-sum fiscal game does not  take into account the effect on unemployment among the indigenous population crowded out of the job market (which was the ubiquitous gripe when I was a young man and should come round once more on the xenophobic carousel sometime soon).

The immigrants a country does need are those that add value to the economy – those that bring skills and diversity of thought (and hence innovation). In addition, unskilled labour is required for the functions the indigenous population are no longer prepared to undertake. Of course, the social consequences must be considered together with the fiscal ones. While cultural diversity is without question a boon to petrified- fossil  countries, any attempt at minority cultural hegemony  must be unceremoniously rebuffed.

And while we are on the subject of the advantages of diversity....

And while we are on the subject of the advantages of diversity….

Michael Chabon’s award-winnning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay tells the tale of a refugee from Nazi Europe who creates a comic strip character that fights Fascism – the immigrant’s superhero. Superman was the ultimate immigrant with  strange, suspect powers  and weird clothes – but he was also the All-American boy who paid his way and devoted himself to his adopted nation. That is what immigration should be all about. Maybe, after all,  there was more to Shuster and Siegel than meets the non X-ray eye.

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