The perils of non-compliance

Ireland and America are suffering the same problem with their contentious taxes.

A flat tax, levied on milllions of people matching a basic selection criteria, is being fought vehemently. Although non-payment is ostensibly illegal, in practice it is unlikely to result in any real punishment. This in turn could result in a major headache for the government. Am I talking about Dublin or Washington? Both, obviously.

The Irish property tax is the subject of a massive campaign of non-payment. At the first deadline for registration, last Saturday, only half of Ireland's 1.6 million households had registered to pay. There will be many more waves of deadlines, threats and posturing before it comes but the theoretical end-point is jail.

Clearly, that isn't going to happen to 800,000 homeowners. But what other possibilities do the government have? They can't afford – politically or finanically – to back down. The expected year-one revenue of €160m is too much to turn down and in a country seems to have taken all the austerity it can bear, a moment of weakness could well mark the end of the project.

The government may simply hope that attrition (and increasingly scary letters) will reduce the number of holdouts. It is possible to jail a few thousand people in a way that it isn't with a few hundred thousand.

But they then have a further problem, in that they are "only" fighting over around €80m. If they still want to come out on top financially, they can't go for expensive measures of coercion. For instance, it costs over €75,000 to keep a prisoner in jail for a year; if each holdout manages to take up just five hours of a civil servants time, then at the average wage, they would cost the government more than they owed.

As a result, any enforcement the government does will have to be enacted on the cheap, which won't be easy given the scale of the problem.

On the other side of the Atlantic is a tax that nobody wants to admit is a tax. The Affordable Care Act – Obamacare to its detractors – imposes a $695 charge on anyone who fails to purchase insurance. This individual mandate is the subject of a supreme court hearing which is baffling many economists – because it really is all in the name.

The constitution, after nearly 250 years of interpretation, allows for the imposition of taxes by Congress for pretty much any reason it sees fit. There are still limits to the legislature's power, but it is universally agreed that if the individual mandate were a tax, it would be legal. In fact, the Republican alternative to the act is essentially just that, except instead of imposing a tax on those who don't buy insurace, it gives a tax credit to those who do. In fact, the credit, which is over $2,000, imposes a far bigger penalty on non-purchasers than Obama's plan.

The administration knows how unpopular new taxes are, however, so it is refusing to call it one. And the opposition is playing along, because they know that their best chance to get the bill overturned involves pretending that the new tax is a fine along with the government. And so the court case continues.

That's not the only strange political compromise in the bill, though. In the one measure that supports the claim that the mandate is not a tax, there are no legal penalties for non-compliance. The IRS, which administers the charge, is able to send threatening letters, but ultimately non-payment means nothing.

Even more worrying for the admistration is the fact that the charge is actually far too low to do what it is meant to do. Its implementation is due to the fact that Obamacare requires insurers to take anyone who asks, and cover all pre-existing conditions; but this led insurers to fear that people would remain insurance-free until they got ill, then buy healthcare until they got better. If this were the case, health costs would shoot up, and everyone would be worse off.

Hence, people are penalised for not buying insurance even if they are healthy. All well and good, no?

Not quite. Health insurance is really expensive. That's what got the US into this mess in the first place, after all. $695 a year is actually less than almost every insurance package currently on the market, so the fear for many is that healthy young people will take a decade of paying the charge (or not paying it, if they have the courage), then join up when they get ill. If that happens too much, then insurance premiums will rise further – making that course of action even more appealing.

As President Obama and his Irish counterpart Enda Kenny are learning, making people do what you want them to is hard.

Barack O'Bama: The president with the Irish Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. Credit: Getty

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

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation