Tax: what's a fair share?

The Public Accounts Committee is back on the tax trail.

And so the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is back on the tax trail. Although did it ever really stop? Certainly, despite the upbeat assessments of the economy made by outgoing Bank of England governor Sir Mervyn King, the pressures on public and private purses haven’t eased. This explains the strength of public feeling that everyone should contribute a fair share of income in taxation. The tricky bit, as the PAC is discovering, is that working out exactly what constitutes a fair share isn’t as straightforward as it might seem.

Having previously called in the tax partners of the Big Four accountancy firms and the heads of companies already publicly called out for not coughing up as much to Treasury coffers as they might (step forward the apparently unholy trinity of Google, Amazon and Starbucks), this round of committee sessions will see some of the same faces hauled back in to answer many of the same questions.

Earlier this week I was at an event where one senior member of the committee was less than positive about the current direction the committee is taking.

He didn’t seem to agree that this fixation on the effective corporation tax rates of firms who decide to base their head quarters overseas was the best use of the committee’s time and resources.

Elsewhere this week tax campaigners UK Uncut Legal Challenge failed in their bid to bring HMRC to book for what UK Uncut claimed was an unlawful deal struck between HMRC and Goldman Sachs.

In dismissing the case the judge agreed that the deal had not been HMRC’s finest hour but he found nothing unlawful about it. To some extent UK Uncut has achieved some of its objectives by bringing the issue of the way big business deals with HMRC into the spotlight and raising the profile of the Goldman’s case in particular. For its part, HMRC continues to deny claims that it is soft on big business.

But getting money out of most large organisations and wealthy individuals is tougher than it should be. And it is certainly tougher than chasing small business owners. In reality, striking a deal with wealthy corporations or individuals might end up being the quickest, simplest and most cost-effective approach to collecting revenues. Ideally this agreement would be one that displeases the entity paying tax more than it does HMRC (although one that displeases both sides a little is probably the most likely outcome). While such an approach may well be cost effective, without the disinfectant of greater transparency such deals will always stink a bit.

Two phrases that have been bandied around so much in the last 18 months that they are rapidly becoming cliché are that we need greater transparency, and that we need a simpler tax system.

Whether Google, Amazon, Goldman Sachs or anyone else with tax affairs complex enough to involve a potential settlement with HMRC has anything to hide or not, the mere fact that details are kept out of the public eye raises suspicions.

The tax affairs of individuals and corporates are between them and HMRC, but if they opt out of the system that the small business owner or the proverbial hard-working family has to settle for then they should do so in the knowledge that the details of the settlement will be made public.

This article first appeared on economia

Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

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Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era