There are problems with wealth taxes but avoidance, for once, isn't one of them

Taxing illiquid assets is, well, taxing.

Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, has a column in today's Telegraph arguing that George Osborne needs to learn the lesson that "wealth taxes simply don't work". He writes:

The problems involved were fairly basic. Do you tax people’s worldwide wealth? If so, those much-needed businessmen will stay away. Do you tax only British wealth? Then people will move their investments abroad. The Treasury warned Healey that the proposed wealth tax was “political dynamite” – and not in a good way. At a time when Britain was in a desperate economic state, it risked dragging the country down further still. Healey gave up, saying he could not find any wealth tax that would be worth the political hassle.

This is disappointing, because Nelson is largely duelling with straw men here. It is indeed true that a tax on overall wealth could well lead to tax avoidance by the relatively simple tax planning strategy known as "keeping your cash in a Swiss bank account". The thing is, that isn't actually that much of a problem. After all, people avoid income tax as well, yet somehow we struggle on.

The measure for a tax is never "will everyone pay it rather than put their energy into avoiding it?", but "will enough people pay it to make it worth our while?" That's a different calculus, and one which Nelson doesn't address.

But the real disappointment is that, for all Nelson talks about the rising support for a wealth tax, he neglects to mention that most of that support is for taxing a very specific type of wealth: property. It's a shame, because that sort of tax – a "mansion tax", a "land value tax", or whatever form it takes – has its own set of problems which are under-discussed.

The important thing to note about property taxes do is that they completely fix the problems Nelson is concerned about when it comes to wealth taxes in general. You can keep money overseas, but a house in Britain is rather stuck where it is. To the extent that such a tax it increases the cost of living in Britain, it may keep wealthy foreigners away – but only those who haven't already been put off by the extraordinary cost of the sort of houses wealthy foreigners buy.

The thing is, land and property taxes aren't the golden bullet that many on the left like to think, for the key reason that houses aren't particularly liquid assets.

We've all heard the sob-story of the elderly pensioner who could be forced to sell the house he's lived in all his life to pay the land value tax (although we rarely hear it alongside its counterpart, the elderly pensioners who are being forced to moved out of houses they've lived in all their lives because of benefit cuts), but the key concern with such a tax is related to that problem.

If you are taxed, say, 20 per cent of your cash holdings, you pay that tax by handing 20 per cent of your cash to HMRC. If you are taxed on 20 per cent of the value of your land, you can't just hand a wing of your house over to the taxman. You either have to have the cash equivalent available, or sell your house.

Taken individually, that's not the end of the world – few will cry too hard if the odd landowner has to sell a few acres to pay the bill. The problem comes if the tax is set high enough that that sort of sale becomes commonplace.

If too many people end up trying to sell their mansions or land at the same time, then you're stuck with a sadly inevitable collapse in the price that land can go for. That's not just unfair – it means you would be taxing people on assets which are no longer worth what they were when you assessed them – it's also staggeringly inefficient. A well-designed tax should not encourage a fire-sale of assets.

These problems aren't insurmountable, by any means. But they do give pause for thought when considering the truely radical proposals like Peter Tatchell's plan to set the wealth tax rate at 20 per cent. Although back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest such a tax would generate truly staggering revenue, a more modest rate would be a better idea – at least at the start.

This mansion, in Kensington, London, was once the most expensive in the world. What'd the tax be? Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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This week, a top tip to save on washing powder (just don’t stand too near the window)

I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

Well, in the end I didn’t have to go to Ikea (see last week’s column). I got out of it on the grounds that I was obviously on the verge of a tantrum, always distressing to witness in a man in his early-to-mid-fifties, and because I am going to Switzerland.

“Why Switzerland?” I hear you ask. For the usual reason: because someone is paying for me. I don’t think I’m going to be earning any money there, but at least I’ll be getting a flight to Zurich and a scenic train ride to Bellinzona, which I learn is virtually in Italy, and has three castles that, according to one website, are considered to be “amongst the finest examples of medieval fortification in Switzerland”.

I’m not sure what I’m meant to be doing there. It’s all about a literary festival generally devoted to literature in translation, and specifically this year to London-based writers. The organiser, who rejoices in the first name of Nausikaa, says that all I have to do is “attend a short meeting . . . and be part of the festival”. Does this mean I can go off on a stroll around an Alp and when someone asks me what I’m doing, I can say “Oh, I’m part of the festival”? Or do I have to stay within the fortifications, wearing a lanyard or something?

It’s all rather worrying, if I think about it too hard, but then I can plausibly claim to be from London and, moreover, it’ll give me a couple of days in which to shake off my creditors, who are making the city a bit hot for me at the moment.

And gosh, as I write, the city is hot. When I worked at British Telecom in the late Eighties, there was a rudimentary interoffice communication system on which people could relay one-line messages from their own computer terminal to another’s, or everyone else’s at once. (This was cutting-edge tech at the time.) The snag with this – or the opportunity, if you will – was that if you were not at your desk and someone mischievous, such as Gideon from Accounts (he didn’t work in Accounts; I’m protecting his true identity), walked past he would pause briefly to type in the message “I’m naked” on your machine and fire it off to everyone in the building.

For some reason, the news that either Geoff, the senior team leader, or Helen, the unloved HR manager, was working in the nude – even if we knew, deep down, that they weren’t, and that this was another one of Gideon’s jeux d’esprit – never failed to break the monotony.

It always amused us, though we were once treated to a terrifying mise en abîme moment when a message, again pertaining to personal nudity, came from Gideon’s very own terminal, and, for one awful moment, for it was a very warm day, about 200 white-collar employees of BT’s Ebury Bridge Road direct marketing division suddenly entertained the appalling possibility, and the vision it summoned, that Gideon had indeed removed every stitch of his clothing, and fired off his status quo update while genuinely in the nip. He was, after all, entirely capable of it. (We still meet up from time to time, we BT stalwarts, and Gideon is largely unchanged, except that he’s now a history lecturer.)

I digress in this fashion in order to build up to the declaration – whose veracity you can judge for yourselves – that as I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, I, too, am in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

There are practical reasons for this. For one thing, it is punishingly hot, and I am beginning, even after a morning shower, to smell like a tin of oxtail soup (to borrow an unforgettable phrase first coined by Julie Burchill). I am also anxious not to transfer any of this odour to any of my clothes, for I will be needing them in Switzerland, and I am running low on washing powder, as well as money to buy more washing powder.

For another thing, I am fairly sure that I am alone in the Hovel. I am not certain. To be certain, I would have to call out my housemate’s name, and that would only be the beginning of our problems. “Yes, I’m here,” she would reply from her room. “Why?” “Um . . .” You see?

So here I lie on my bed, laptop in lap, every window as wide open as can be, and looking for all the world like a hog roast with glasses.

If I step too near the window I could get arrested. At least they don’t mind that kind of thing in Switzerland: they strip off at the drop of a hat. Oh no, wait, that’s Germany.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times