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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation