Why tax avoidance is like porn

I know it when I see it.

I know it when I see it.                                                                                                                                                        

Justice Potter Stewart of the US Supreme Court gave one of history's least fulfilling answers when he was asked to define "hard-core pornography"; but the grain of truth contained within is important.

The same temptation to throw one's hands up at the difficulty of defining complex phenomena is everywhere. The Economist's Daniel Knowles, for instance, suggests that it applies to poverty while the Sorites paradox – a close relative – attaches the problem to bald men and heaps of wheat.

It also applies, pretty much perfectly, to tax avoidance.

We all know it when we see it. Take, for example, Polly Toynbee's column from the Guardian today:

The big sell is trusts, special ones devised for this company's clients, guaranteed to protect almost all your wealth from inheritance tax. They are right, it can be done easily. Put all moveables and all cash and investments into a discretionary trust, and it passes to your heirs without tax as soon as you die, not even waiting for probate. It counts as a gift so the beneficiaries need pay no tax either. Called a "discretionary trust", as technically St James's are the legal trustees, the discretion in fact remains in all but name with you: the company will do whatever you ask, so you still control the fund and you can still take money from it. But for reasons that defy basic tax fairness, it avoids all inheritance tax. Why?

Or this example from the New Yorker back in March:

Since New York City tax laws don't apply to people who are deemed to be nonresidents, even if they own a residence in the city and work there, Robertson was allowed to spend no more than half a year – a hundred and eighty-three days – in New York City. This exile was self-imposed. If he had paid New York City tax, which in the top bracket reaches a rate of 3.6 per cent of taxable income, he could have spent as much time in the city as he wished...

Friday nights were particularly risky, since Robertson or his wife often had social events scheduled in the city. In order to "earn a tax day," as he put it, he usually left town on Friday before midnight, even if his wife stayed at the apartment. Robertson's driver had to be on alert: as long as they crossed the Queens border en route to Locust Valley by midnight, Robertson didn't have to "waste" a Saturday as a New York day. Even one minute of a day spent in the city counts as a day of residence. (Exceptions are made for people who are in transit from one destination outside the city to another – from Newark airport to Long Island, for example, or to LaGuardia for a flight.) Robertson said he never missed the midnight deadline, although when he couldn't get his driver or a limousine service in time he occasionally had to hail a cab. On one occasion, Robertson came back from a trip and found himself crossing into Manhattan at 11:45 P.M. That mistake cost him a full New York City day, which he could have avoided by whiling away fifteen minutes at the airport.

Or the three multinationals hauled up in front of the Public Accounts Committee, about whom Richard Murphy writes:

For Amazon things were much worse. Their rep could not justify how an order made in the UK for a product in a UK warehouse, shipped by UK staff through the UK post and with a bill enclosed printed in this country could somehow have anything to do with Luxembourg when so very obviously it hasn’t. Despite this he had the gall to claim tax must be paid where the economic substance of the deal is – even though Amazon does nothing of the sort…

Google tried harder but they had created one insurmountable obstacle for themselves. Their argument was profits should be taxed where they are earned and they said US technology drove their European profits. But for their admission that the payments made from Europe for that technology never reach the USA and instead get parked in tax-free Bermuda ended whatever shred of credibility they’d tried to create.

All of these things are as clearly tax avoidance as Reader's Wives is clearly pornography. The problem comes when you try to come up with a definition which encompasses all of these examples while not also covering whatever the taxation equivalent of Last Tango in Paris is.

You can try to define it as acting to deliberately minimise your tax take – but then, what is taking out an ISA? That is an action which is performed for no other reason than the tax benefits, but it's clearly not tax avoidance.

There must, then, be some definition of the spirit of the law. Loopholes in tax are put there for a reason, but sometimes that reason is tricky to specify completely. So, for example, the loophole that investment income in taxed less that earned income exists to encourage people to invest their money (which is good for growth) – but when hedge fund managers are payed through "carried interest", that gets classed as tax avoidance, because it is technically investment income, but hasn't actually required any investment from the people benefiting.

Unfortunately, that definition doesn't work either. The absence of VAT on books, for example, is to promote an educated, well-read population; but even though 1001 reasons Britain is shit doesn't do that, we don't call it tax avoidance.

The problem persists even if you just look at specific examples of avoidance. Multinational corporations, for instance, sometimes headquarter themselves in of tax havens. Other times, they leave their headquarters where they are, but manipulate their accounts so that it looks like all their profits come from tax havens. Tempting as it is, it's very tricky to come up with a catch-all definition of avoiding behaviour in this situation.

Is it "not paying tax where you are headquartered"? Or is it "not paying tax where the money is earned"? Or is it a third, "pretending money is earned in one place, when it's really earned in another one"? Or a fourth, "paying tax in a tax haven"? Or even just "operating out of a tax haven"?

Perhaps the real solution is to just stop trying. Call out egregious examples of tax avoidance, but resist the lure to dictate a full definition of the term. Make clear to those who set policy that building a tax code which is easily abused will result in protest, and that avoiding tax will result in bad press. But save definitions for the courts, because it's a fight which seems nearly impossible.

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.

Photo: Getty
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No, the battle in Momentum isn't about young against old

Jon Lansman and his allies' narrative doesn't add up, argues Rida Vaquas.

If you examined the recent coverage around Momentum, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was headed towards an acrimonious split, judging by the vitriol, paranoia and lurid accusations that have appeared online in the last couple days. You’d also be forgiven for thinking that this divide was between a Trotskyist old guard who can’t countenance new ways of working, and hip youngsters who are filled with idealism and better at memes. You might then be incredibly bemused as to how the Trotskyists Momentum was keen to deny existed over the summer have suddenly come to the brink of launching a ‘takeover bid’.

However these accounts, whatever intentions or frustrations that they are driven by, largely misrepresent the dispute within Momentum and what transpired at the now infamous National Committee meeting last Saturday.

In the first instance, ‘young people’ are by no means universally on the side of e-democracy as embodied by the MxV online platform, nor did all young people at the National Committee vote for Jon Lansman’s proposal which would make this platform the essential method of deciding Momentum policy.

Being on National Committee as the representative from Red Labour, I spoke in favour of a conference with delegates from local groups, believing this is the best way to ensure local groups are at the forefront of what we do as an organisation.

I was nineteen years old then. Unfortunately speaking and voting in favour of a delegates based conference has morphed me into a Trotskyist sectarian from the 1970s, aging me by over thirty years.

Moreover I was by no means the only young person in favour of this, Josie Runswick (LGBT+ representative) and the Scottish delegates Martyn Cook and Lauren Gilmour are all under thirty and all voted for a delegates based national conference. I say this to highlight that the caricature of an intergenerational war between the old and the new is precisely that: a caricature bearing little relation to a much more nuanced reality.

Furthermore, I believe that many people who voted for a delegates-based conference would be rather astounded to find themselves described as Trotskyists. I do not deny that there are Trotskyists on National Committee, nor do I deny that Trotskyists supported a delegates-based conference – that is an open position of theirs. What I do object is a characterisation of the 32 delegates who voted for a delegates-based conference as Trotskyists, or at best, gullible fools who’ve been taken in.  Many regional delegates were mandated by the people to whom they are accountable to support a national conference based on this democratic model, following broad and free political discussion within their regions. As thrilling as it might be to fantasise about a sinister plot driven by the shadow emperors of the hard Left against all that it is sensible and moderate in Momentum, the truth is rather more mundane. Jon Lansman and his supporters failed to convince people in local groups of the merits of his e-democracy proposal, and as a result lost the vote.

I do not think that Momentum is doomed to fail on account of the particular details of our internal structures, providing that there is democracy, accountability and grassroots participation embedded into it. I do not think Momentum is doomed to fail the moment Jon Lansman, however much respect I have for him, loses a vote. I do not even think Momentum is doomed to fail if Trotskyists are involved, or even win sometimes, if they make their case openly and convince others of their ideas in the structures available.

The existential threat that Momentum faces is none of these things, it is the propagation of a toxic and polarised political culture based on cliques and personal loyalties as opposed to genuine political discussion on how we can transform labour movement and transform society. It is a political culture in which those opposed to you in the organisation are treated as alien invaders hell-bent on destroying it, even when we’ve worked together to build it up, and we worked together before the Corbyn moment even happened. It is a political culture where members drag others through the mud, using the rhetoric of the Right that’s been used to attack all of us, on social and national media and lend their tacit support to witch hunts that saw thousands of Labour members and supporters barred from voting in the summer. It is ultimately a political culture in which our trust in each other and capacity to work together on is irreparably eroded.

We have a tremendous task facing us: to fight for a socialist alternative in a global context where far right populism is rapidly accruing victories; to fight for the Labour Party to win governmental power; to fight for a world in which working class people have the power to collectively change their lives and change the societies we live in. In short: there is an urgent need to get our act together. This will not be accomplished by sniping about ‘saboteurs’ but by debating the kind of politics we want clearly and openly, and then coming together to campaign from a grassroots level upwards.

Rida Vaquas is Red Labour Representative on Momentum National Committee.