TAX, SOCIETY & CULTURE

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Does a country's willingness to exchange tax info alter the character of its trade in services?

Published Oct 21, 2017 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

Delimatsis and Hoekman have posted National Tax Regulation, International Standards and the GATS: Argentina—Financial Services, of interest especially in light of ongoing discourse about what kinds of tax competition are approved versus harmful in OECD terms. Here is the abstract:

Can a WTO Member discriminate against foreign suppliers of services located in jurisdictions that refuse to share information with a government to permit it to determine if its nationals engage in tax evasion? Does it matter if the Member uses standards developed by an international body as the criterion for deciding whether to impose measures? In Argentina—Financial Services the WTO Appellate Body held that services from jurisdictions that share financial tax information may be different from services provided by jurisdictions that do not cooperate in supplying such information. It overruled a Panel finding that measures to increase taxes on financial transactions with non-cooperative jurisdictions were discriminatory. We argue that the AB reached the right conclusion but that an important opportunity was missed to clarify what WTO Members are permitted to do to enforce their domestic regulatory regimes, and how international standards could have a bearing on this question. By giving consideration to arguments that the likeness of services and service suppliers may be a function of prevailing domestic regulatory regimes, the AB increased the scope for confusion and future litigation.

Tagged as: scholarship tax policy WTO

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Update: The Price of Entry: Latest Research plus Infographic

Published Apr 18, 2017 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink



* September update: I've found some more information on Russia's program, which brings it closer to the global averages instead of being a glaring outlier. I've also now uploaded my working paper, Buying in: Residence and Citizenship by Investment, and would welcome comments. Here is the abstract:
States have complex and often conflicted attitudes toward migration and citizenship. These attitudes are not always directly expressed by lawmakers, but they may be reflected quite explicitly in tax regimes: for the world’s most prosperous individuals and their families, multiple states extend a warm welcome. Sometimes prospective migrants are offered fast track to physical residence which can lead to citizenship if the migrant desires it. Others are offered a mere commercial transaction, with citizenship granted to applicants with the right credentials and a willingness to pay. Migrants might seek to obtain residency or citizenship for personal, family, economic, or tax reasons, or some combination of them. For the granting country, the tax significance of obtaining new residents or citizens will vary depending on domestic policy goals. However, the consequences of residence and citizenship by investment programs could be severe for the international tax regime: the jurisdiction to tax and the allocation of taxing rights among countries are commonly based on residence and citizenship factors. This article accordingly surveys contemporary residence and citizenship by investment programs on offer around the world and analyzes their potential impact on international tax policy.

* update: I've found a couple of additional programs (e.g. France has a lower cost program, making it less of an outlier)--thank you twitterverse) and I've corrected a few currency conversion errors. This is still a work in progress as previously noted, and I expect to be revising again in the coming weeks.

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I've been working on residence and citizenship by investment programs, and thanks to some stellar research assistance by Jake Heyka, have developed a set of data comprising what I believe is a fairly thorough look at the residence and citizenship by investment programs currently on offer around the world. I made the above infographic to show the lowest cost program per country for all countries that offer either residence or citizenship by investment.

The lowest cost residence by investment programs are offered by Panama and Paraguay, each coming in at about USD$5,000, while the most expensive is Russia, at over USD$5 million now Austria, at about $3.3M. The average price for all residence and citizenship by investment programs that we found is about $1 million, but this number isn't perfect because some programs are based on job creation rather than investment (e.g., Portugal, Turkey, UK), some involve having entrepreneur/angel investment support rather than a direct investment (e.g. Australia, Canada), and some involve annual amounts (Italy and Switzerland).

One of the things I wondered about in looking over the programs is the inequality factor at play--that is, how much can richer/larger countries demand in terms of higher prices and more stringent requirements (such as actual residence) for entry, and how much must poorer/smaller countries be satisfied with smaller investments and fewer commitments by the applicant? The answer seems to be that there appears definitely a "rich get richer" quality to the distinctions among programs, but there are lots of details in the programs that require further thought.

The paper itself is still in progress but here is an explanation of what I am looking at:
International law and political theory scholars have long wrestled with the normative implications of commodifying citizenship and access to immigration with pay-to-play visa programs, but the analysis does not typically consider the role the tax system plays or could play in these schemes, nor how such schemes might impact the tax regime in terms of gross revenue or distributional effect.  Yet governments increasingly view their tax systems as a means of potentially increasing the value of residence and citizenship in their countries, whether intrinsically or in relation to the treatment of those who gain such status by other means.  Given the cost involved in reducing revenue from those arguably most able to pay, whether the programs actually produce the predicted outcomes is one obvious question to be asked.  Even if the programs in fact achieve their goals, a second question surely arises regarding the normative justification for using the tax system to lure the wealthy away from other countries in this manner. Does the normative case differ when applied to humans as opposed to companies? Does it differ when the luring state is richer or poorer relative to the countries of origin of prospective immigrants? To sketch out a framework for analyzing these questions requires a sense of the various competing programs on offer. This essay takes the first step by comparing national programs that use their taxing power in some manner in order to attract immigration, and highlights some of the factors that raise normative questions about the appropriate design and uses of a tax system. 
Comments welcome.

Tagged as: migration research tax policy

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Shu Yi Oei: The Offshore Tax Enforcement Dragnet

Published Mar 31, 2017 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

Shu Yi Oei (Tulane) has posted an important new paper on U.S. offshore tax enforcement, of interest. Here is the abstract:

Taxpayers who hide assets abroad to evade taxes present a serious enforcement challenge for the United States. In response, the U.S. has developed a family of initiatives that punish and rehabilitate non-compliant taxpayers, raise revenues, and require widespread reporting of offshore financial information. Yet, while these initiatives help catch willful tax cheats, they have also adversely affected immigrants, Americans living abroad, and “accidental Americans.”  
This Article critiques the United States’ offshore tax enforcement initiatives, arguing that the U.S. has prioritized two problematic policy commitments in designing enforcement at the expense of competing considerations: First, the U.S. has attempted to equalize enforcement against taxpayers with solely domestic holdings and those with harder-to-detect offshore holdings by imposing harsher reporting requirements and penalties on the latter. But in doing so, it has failed to appropriately distinguish among differently situated taxpayers with offshore holdings. Second, the U.S. has focused on revenue and enforcement, ignoring the significant compliance costs and social harms that its initiatives create.  
The confluence of these two policy commitments risks creating high costs for the wrong taxpayers. While offshore tax enforcement may have been designed to catch high¬-net-worth tax cheats, it may instead impose disproportionate burdens on those immigrants and expatriates who have less ability to complain, comply, or “substitute out” of the law’s grasp. This Article argues that the U.S. should redesign its enforcement approach to minimize these risks and suggests reforms to this end.
The paper provides a thorough review of the panoply of offshore enforcement programs and mechanisms and documents the harms of their dragnet approach, especially on the most vulnerable and least likely targets. A significant contribution to the literature.



Tagged as: CRS FATCA FBAR offshore tax policy u.s.

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Some Recent Scholarship on Tax and Human Rights

Published Feb 28, 2017 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

I've posted on SSRN a new work in progress and two recently published works on the topic of taxation and human rights:

Human Rights at the Borders of Tax Sovereignty

Tax scholarship typically presumes the state’s power to tax and therefore rarely concerns itself with analyzing which relationships between a government and a potential taxpayer normatively justify taxation, and which do not. This paper presents the case for undertaking such an analysis as a matter of the state’s obligation to observe and protect fundamental human rights. It begins by examining existing frameworks for understanding how a taxpayer population is and ought to be defined. It then analyzes potential harms created by an improperly expansive taxpayer category, and those created by excluding from consideration those beyond the polity even if directly impacted by the tax regime. It concludes that a modified membership principle is a more acceptable framework for normative analysis of the jurisdiction to tax, even while acknowledging the overwhelming weight of existing perceptions about the bounds of the polity and the state-citizen relationship as significant barriers to acceptance.
Taxpayer Rights in Canada
Canada is one of many countries where taxpayer rights are becoming an increasingly common topic of discourse among policymakers, practitioners, and the public. Especially in light of recent developments regarding the global expansion of taxpayer information exchange, the role of taxpayer privacy and confidentiality rights have emerged as significant legal issues. This chapter surveys the contemporary theoretical, legal, and political landscape of taxpayer rights in Canada. Part I outlines the theoretical and legal sources from which taxpayers may be said to have rights. Part II examines Canada’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights and considers some of the historical, legal, and political issues that give rise to their core principles. Part III focuses in on the taxpayer’s right to privacy and confidentiality in the context of evolving global trends surrounding the use and exchange of taxpayer information. The Chapter concludes with some observations about where taxpayer rights may be headed in Canada.
Taxpayer Rights in the United States
Despite abundant sources of legal and quasi-legal protection against abuses of individual rights and freedoms, there are areas of contention regarding respect for taxpayer rights in the United States. This chapter lays out the framework of taxpayer rights and considers their meaning by considering a contemporary case, namely, the recent expansion of citizenship-based taxation through globally enforced financial asset reporting and information exchange. Part I outlines the theoretical and legal sources from which taxpayers may be said to have rights. Part II examines the US Taxpayer Bill of Rights and considers some of the historical, legal, and political issues that give rise to their core principles. Part III focuses in on the taxpayer’s right to be informed in the context of citizenship-based taxation in a globalized world. The Chapter concludes with some observations about where taxpayer rights may be headed in the United States.

Tagged as: fairness justice scholarship sovereignty tax policy

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Cockfield on Information Exchange

Published Jan 17, 2017 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

Arthur Cockfield has posted a paper of interest, entitled How Countries Should Share Tax Information. Here is the abstract:

There are increasing policy concerns that aggressive international tax avoidance and offshore tax evasion significantly reduce government revenues. In particular, for some low income countries the amount of capital flight (where elites move and hide monies offshore in tax havens) exceeds foreign aid. Governments struggle to enforce their tax laws to constrain these actions, but are inhibited by a lack of information concerning international capital flows. The main international policy response to these developments has been to promote global financial transparency through heightened cross-border exchanges of tax information. The paper discusses elements of optimal cross-border tax information exchange laws and policies by focusing on three key challenges: information quality, taxpayer privacy, and enforcement. Relatedly, the paper discusses how the exchange of automatic ‘big tax data’ combined with data analytics can help address the challenges.
Cockfield seeks to find a solution that balances the need of the state for extensive information in order to protect the integrity of the income tax system against the need of the individual for protection from abuse by the state. That is no easy balance to strike. From the paper:
All of [the recent information gathering and exchange] efforts seek to provide governments with more and better tax information, and reduce costs through agreement on underlying EOI rules and principles. The reforms, however, largely do not address how financial secrecy laws subvert global financial transparency initiatives. Nor do they address legal technical complexity that raises transaction costs, and makes it even harder for low and middle income countries to implement and enforce EOI. While the EOI reforms are positive steps, given an environment of high transaction costs it may be difficult to make progress in addressing key policy challenges.... 
Data availability, usefulness and verifiability are three components of high quality information that can help governments pursue their cross-border investigations and audits. In particular, transferred information should be relatable to domestic tax identification measures, and checked against third party reporting, and withholding tax disclosures. Once this is done, governments can conduct analysis to determine audit risk by focusing on issues such as taxpayer segmentation, dealings between the taxpayer and offshore service providers, and cross-indexing tax and financial information against non-tax data (e.g., insurance policy disclosures). 
Against this desire for high quality tax information stands (shrugs?) taxpayer privacy concerns. The apprehensions arise from the varied levels of domestic legal protection afforded to privacy rights, along with the risk of abuse or misuse of transferred information. Accordingly, broader multilateral agreement on privacy protections is likely a prerequisite to effective EOI. This hoped-for cooperation is hindered by the fact that many countries refuse to abolish their financial secrecy laws, which stands as one of the main barriers to optimal reform.
My view is that maintaining the integrity of the income tax system appears to require building the panopticon, and much more besides. The steady decline of support for coherent corporate income taxation makes greater and greater individual surveillance necessary, while also making personal income taxation harder. I am not sure where the point lies at which the costs and risks attendant to building the necessary compliance and enforcement infrastructure exceed the benefits of maintaining personal taxes based on income.

Tagged as: information institutions rule of law scholarship

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Analysis of Canada's Tax Gap Pre-Study

Published Jul 26, 2016 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

Further to my last post on the newly released Tax Gap study by the Canada Revenue Agency, the following comes from guest blogger Iain Campbell (ARC, UK):

I hope this comment is not too long but I’ve been following Tax Gap discussions for so long that it’s hard to pass by the chance to comment!

Background
This is an interesting development. Writing from the UK I’m not in regular contact with developments in Canadian tax administration. But I do recall there has been some entertainment over the Tax Gap, with the Parliamentary Budget Officer asking for the CRA to do some work on it - and being rebuffed.

In fact, the CRA has not been keen on preparing a Tax Gap analysis. In 2002 it reported that attempting to estimate overall levels of reporting non-compliance such as the ‘tax gap’ or the total amount of smuggling activity was fraught with difficulty. (CRCA Performance report for the period ending 31 March 2002.) Ten years later the CRA were still not convinced. At the start of 2013 they told the PBO:

The CRA later pointed out “the significant debate about the precision, accuracy and utility of any methodology to calculate the tax gap”. It drew attention to critical comments from the UK Treasury Select Committee, as well as the fact of 52 tax administrations surveyed by the IRS, 33 did not produce one, and the high costs of doing so. (CRA, PBO Information Request IR0102: tax gap estimates, letter 20 March 2013,] and PBO Information Request IR0102: tax gap estimates, letter 1 August 2013.) In 2014 the PBO even threatened to take legal action in order to compel production.
But in the recent election there was a promise to undertake such a study, ending this long standing reluctance to follow the example of other countries, including the USA and UK.  And following the Panama Papers the Revenue Minister said in January a tax gap study would be done. The new Canadian study comprises a 31pp paper on a conceptual study of the Canadian tax gap and an 11pp study on the Canadian GST/HST, which gives a gap of 5.5% in 2000 and 6.5% in 2014. (It explicitly references the decision announced by the Minister of National on 11 April.)

Basis of study – what’s in and what’s out
The conceptual study does, to an outsider, seem to spend a lot of time in not saying a great deal. It seems to add qualification to qualification, caveat after caveat, so that at times I wondered if the CRA really wanted to publish anything at all. Gus O’Donnell is the UK civil servant who wrote the Report that led to the UK Customs and Excise combining with the Inland Revenue to form HM Revenue and Customs. In that Report he surely got it down to a few words: “Making estimates of the tax gap is methodologically and empirically difficult, although easier for indirect taxes where tax can typically be related to consumption. Direct tax gaps are particularly difficult to estimate because the aggregate figures for income, for example, are built on tax data.”

The CRA's conceptual study refers a lot to the HMRC papers and policies on calculating the Tax Gap. But in some of the key areas it dances around what might be difficult decisions e.g., whether to report the gross tax gap, or, as in the UK, the gap after action to tackle non-compliance.

Avoidance
More controversially, the UK includes tax avoidance.  This is a good illustration of its overall approach.


On the other hand, academics and members of the accountancy profession have argued the opposite, that any estimate should not include avoidance as referenced by the “spirit of the law”. For example, during a Treasury Select Committee Hearing on The Administration and Effectiveness of HMRC, Judith Freedman (Professor of Tax Law, Oxford University) commented “I really take issue with the spirit of the law part, because either you have law or you don’t have law and the law has to state what it is.”

The Canadian paper discusses this option and concludes “the appropriate treatment of tax avoidance is less clear”. It seems Canada has decided to not include avoidance in its definition: “In general the CRA’s approach to the tax gap encompasses non-compliance related to non-filing, non-registration (in the case of GST/HST), errors, under-payment, non-payment, and unlawful tax evasion” (p29).  There seems to be no explicit position on avoidance but, although I doubt it will happen, “under-payment” is potentially broad enough to include under-payment via avoidance.

Other “Gaps”
Another area the study did not address is what the IMF and EU call the “tax policy gap”. I agree with this decision (which mirrors the UK). The IMF would widen the definition and use of the Tax Gap approach. It suggests including the effects of policy choices that lead to reduced revenues. In a study on the UK Tax Gap it refers to the impact of compliance issues on revenue as “the compliance gap” and the revenue loss attributable to provisions in tax laws that allow an exemption, a special credit, a preferential rate of tax, or a deferral of tax liability, as the “policy gap” (para 68).  As part of this they recommend tax avoidance schemes deemed legal through litigation should be considered part of the policy gap, not the compliance gap, and this distinction should be made clear.

A similar point was made by an EU report on VAT. They suggested that a possible link between the policy and the compliance gaps, since using the reliefs and allowances intended by policy could make compliance more difficult. “Reducing the policy gap may often be the simplest and most effective way to reduce the compliance gap. “ (p21)

In my view these kinds of proposals are likely to be very complex, perhaps contentious, and hard to administer. It seems a sensible decision to not refer to them or suggest their inclusion.

Then there are the base erosion issues where tax is avoided through the use of legal structures that make use of mismatches between domestic and international tax, e.g. permanent establishments. The Canadian study nods in the direction of BEPS and then passes by.

What’s the point of working out a Tax Gap?
But putting aside these sorts of issues, or whether “top-down” targeting is better than “bottom-up”, does the size of the hidden or “informal” economy predict the level of GST/VAT underpayment (or is it the other way around?), perhaps the  big $64K question is whether any of this means anything. If there is no clear agreement on the numbers, how they are calculated and their reliability, then is there are any point in preparing them?

The very concept of the tax gap is not universally agreed to be a useful analytical or strategic lever. Apart from the earlier Canadian reluctance, the Australians were slow to go down this road. UK Parliamentarians have been less than keen. In 2012 the Treasury Select Committee said they thought it was essentially a waste of time and resources. Worse, they feared it would misdirect HMRC away from ensuring every taxpayer paid the right amount of tax. Such fears have not died. The current TSC is examining UK corporation tax. Their early work involved scoping the problem and they heard some evidence on the tax gap. Andrew Tyrie (the Chair) seemed less than enthused at the very concept.

I think it has merits. But it ought not to be elevated to some shibboleth. It is one high-level measure of how successfully legislation is being applied, use of resources, etc.  The UK Government’s official position is that that “thinking about the tax gap forces the department to focus attention on the need to understand how non-compliance occurs and how the causes can be addressed—whether through tailored assistance, simpler legislation, redesigned processes or targeted interventions. Measuring the tax gap helps us to understand whether increasing returns from compliance activity reflect improved effectiveness or merely a decrease in voluntary compliance.”

The Canadian paper says broadly the same things (pp22-24). It talks of providing insight into the overall health of the tax system, of understanding the composition and scale of non-compliance, but warns of their limitations.

If that is how it used then I think it is a useful aid to policy making and how robust is the assurance being provided by the tax administration.


Tagged as: Canada tax gap tax policy

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Canada "Tax Gap" Study Released

Published Jul 05, 2016 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

The Government of Canada has released its first study of the "tax gap," which the Government defines as "the difference between the tax that would be paid if all obligations were fully met in all instances, and the tax actually paid and collected." The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) has not completed a study of the income tax, but has released this paper on the concept and methodology. It has presented a report for GST/HST (Canada's VAT), estimating the tax gap to average about 5.6% per year over the period 2000-2014. For 2014, this produced an estimated tax gap of about $4.9 billion:



This study has been undertaken after many calls from academics and nongovernment organizations, including Canadians for Tax Fairness, which according to the CRA will be involved in consultations regarding the ongoing study. Canadians for Tax Fairness estimate that Canada loses $7.8 billion in income tax revenues to "tax haven" use, a number they constructed using Statistics Canada's foreign direct investment data.

The Government acknowledges that there is no reliable method for measuring the tax gap, and that the exercise is one in speculation based on imperfect information:
There are a number of challenges facing tax administrations undertaking tax gap estimation. The key challenge is access to the comprehensive and good-quality data necessary to produce estimates. A significant proportion of the tax gap involves unreported or under-reported income and assets and economic activity that are deliberately hidden from the government. As a result, many countries that publish tax gap estimates highlight their uncertainty.
Expect more to come from this exercise as the tax gap study is a key component of the Government's pledge to spend $444 million over five years "to enhance [CRA] efforts to crack down on tax evasion and combat tax avoidance."

Tagged as: budget Canada compliance CRA evasion governance

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Tax Coop 2016: "Winning the Tax Wars" May 23-24

Published May 16, 2016 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

Tax Coop and the World Bank are hosting a conference on tax competition and cooperation to be held in Washington DC on May 23-24. As last year, I've constructed the debate, which this year will be livestreamed on May 23 at 16:15 EST.  I'll post the link when I have that information. At last year's conference, Dan Mitchell (Cato) and Richard Murphy (TJN) put corporate taxation on trial, debating the continuing viability of this tax in the face of technological innovation and economic globalization. This year's debaters are Alison Holder of ActionAid and Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

They will debate the following:

What’s Better for Developing Countries: 
Tax Competition or Tax Cooperation?

This question will be explored through a series of three resolutions, as follows:
  1. First, be it resolved that: tax competition harms developing countries by reducing their capability to raise fiscal revenue to finance physical and social infrastructure needed for economic growth and social inclusion.
  2. Second, be it resolved that: tax competition increases developing countries’ reliance on foreign aid, making them more vulnerable to aid volatility. 
  3. Third, be it resolved that: tax competition aggravates existing income disparities between developed and developing countries.
Arguing the “affirming side” of each resolution will be Alison Holder of ActionAid. Arguing the “opposing side” of each resolution will be Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Evidence from all jurisdictions will be admissible. The emphasis will be on persuasive, clear, and logical argumentation. The debate will proceed in four rounds and will be moderated and judged by Louise Otis of McGill University and Jay Rosengard of Harvard University. Last year's debate was definitely a highlight of the conference and I look forward to hosting Ms. Holder and Ms. DeRugy for this year's event. 

The full conference program features a slate of distinguished speakers from around the world and across public, private, and academic sectors.  Registration is free; additional program and speaker information available here and you can follow @taxCoop on twitter for updates and links. 







Tagged as: conference corporate tax economics globalization governance institutions Tax law tax policy

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May 4: International Tax Governance in Action at Tilburg University

Published Apr 28, 2016 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

Next week, I will be participating in a workshop at Tilburg University in the Netherlands on the topic of International Tax Governance, a timely topic especially given the recent developments in the coordination of the international organizations, the expansion of the OECD's global forum idea to monitor BEPS, the impact of the state aid cases within and beyond Europe, and the increasing role of NGOs in shaping international tax policy. Here is the program:
10:00- 10:30 Welcome and registration
10:30- 11:00 Opening
Cees Peters (Tilburg University): International Tax Governance in Action
11:00- 12:30 Session 1 - Transparency
Edwin Visser (PwC): reaction of MNC's to transparency pressure: CbCR and CSR discussion (30 minutes + 15 minutes discussion)
Maaike van Diepen (Tax Justice Network): The perspective of an NGO (30 minutes + 15 minutes discussion)
12:30- 13:30 Lunch break
13:30- 15:00 Session 2 - EU State Aid
Allison Christians (McGill University): a US perspective - the reaction of the US government and US MNC's
Anna Gunn (Leiden University): an EU perspective - the reaction of the EU Member States and EU MNC's
15:00- 15:30 Break
15:30- 17:00 Session 3 - Compliance of states with new norms of international taxation
Carla De Pietro (Tilburg University and University of Bologna): Implementation of the OECD BEPS measures (Action 6) in the light of the relationship between international and EU law.
More details and registration information are here.





Tagged as: conference governance institutions international law tax policy

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Evasion, Avoidance, and Bashing Panama in a World of Aggressive Tax States

Published Apr 19, 2016 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

I've talked to a few journalists and commented a bit on the Panama Papers (e.g. here at 6:09 and here) but I've refrained from writing much to date because I am uneasy about a couple of central themes in this story: first, the constant confluence of tax evasion and tax avoidance, which are two completely different phenomena that require two very different responses in my view, and second the bashing of Panama as if only bad things can be done there, so anyone who does anything there from anywhere else must be doing a bad thing.

I am uneasy about this bashing because, although I think there are bad guys doing bad things in Panama, I also think there are bad guys doing bad things all over the world and I don't like Panama being singled out; I am also wary of suggesting that in a world of global trade and investment flows, anything and everything done through or with Panama must eternally be tinged with a sense of wrongdoing. This sense seems to imbue the imagination in the campaigns to "shut down the tax havens." What, exactly, does that mean? Does it mean that some countries, because someone decides they are mostly bad actors, must be effectively cut off from the global financial system and no one must be allowed to transact with or in these countries from the outside? What if most of the world are actually bad actors, each scheming to use its tax system to undermine and undercut the others? That's essentially the vision drawn by the OECD in countering BEPS, so we will run into some problems if we take this reasoning to its logical conclusion. But if this is not the idea behind shutting down tax havens, then what is envisioned, exactly?

Tax justice advocates seem to envision an invasive global regulatory regime in which every person in the world will have all of their assets and financial information catalogued and tagged and made public to everyone else, in order to make sure no one can break any tax rules. If this is being done just for tax--that is, if this is what it takes to make the income tax "work," I am not sure that the income tax is worth all of that trouble and everything given up to achieve it. That includes privacy, which appears to itself have become a suspicious word in certain circles, as if only those doing bad things have a desire to keep anything about their lives private. Let us recall Glenn Greenwald's words on why privacy should not come to be seen as a sinister desire. It is possible to break the tax law like it is possible to break any other law. But is requiring everyone to show all of their assets to everyone else in order to prove no laws have been broken a valid response to this enduring problem? I cannot agree with this Orwellian vision of the world. I also do not think this view is sensible if the issue is really driven by tax. If it is, then surely we can find a less invasive way to fund public goods and services.

This brings me to the evasion/avoidance point, which I find being abused just as much by lawmakers and policy advocates as it is by journalists who don't know any better.

Tax evasion is a crime that involves hiding things from a legal authority. Tax avoidance is not a crime that involves hiding: it is achieved in full view of the legal authorities. The former is a very very difficult problem but is not primarily a tax policy problem. Instead it is primarily a global financial system problem that is created, like most global financial system problems, by virtue of the difficulty of regulating behaviours in a world in which technology has moved us far beyond the frontiers of the nation state.

On the other hand, 'aggressive" tax avoidance (loosely speaking; more analysis here)--that is, avoidance not intentionally allowed by rules such as those to defer tax on retirement savings--is a tax policy issue. Taxpayers and their advisers are always going to cook up new schemes to get around inconvenient tax rules. Knowing this, regulators must decide whether and how to react. They may react with any number of tools that create an infinite call and response loop among regulators, taxpayers, administrators, and judges. These include such things as general and specific anti-avoidance rules, uncertain tax position disclosure, and random audit strategies. None of these things has the first thing to say about how to deal with a corrupt government official who steals money from the public fisc and invests it in US and European stocks and bonds through a maze of trusts and companies formed in other jurisdictions. It's just a totally different problem.

I know and understand that bad guys are always lurking around to defeat the tax law, as they are in any regulatory field. I don't have any special insights about how to deal with corruption and criminality. But in my experience with tax, when a government moves to "crack down" on bad guys, the really serious criminals--including government officials themselves--all too often escape while everyone else finds themselves increasingly tracked, surveilled, and treated like criminals even as the resources to cope with fixable tax policy flaws diminish. I don't have any answers for these worries.

Tagged as: evasion governance offshore tax policy

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