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.

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No, Jeremy Corbyn is not antisemitic – but the left should be wary of who he calls friends

The Labour MP's tendency to seek out unsavoury comrades is a symptom of an intellectual and political malady: the long-term ideological corruption of that part of the left in which he was formed.

“The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers,” said the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. “He’s one who asks the right questions.”

The British novelist Howard Jacobson is not a scientist, but he has asked the right question about the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, the improbable-but-likely next leader of the Labour party. Here it is:  “Why can’t we oppose the inequities of a society weighted in favour of wealth, and all the trash that wealth accumulates, without at the same time having to snuggle up to Putin, pal out with Hamas, and make apologies for extremists?”

One answer to the Jacobson Question has been offered by Yasmin Alibhai Brown, a defender of Corbyn. His “tendency for unchecked inclusiveness”, as she delicately puts it, is due to his “naivety”. But that explanation will not do. We won’t find the answer in one man’s naivety, especially not a 67-year-old with a lifetime of political experience behind him.

We must go deeper, reading Corbyn’s undoubted tendency to snuggle, to pal out and to apologise as a symptom of an intellectual and political malady: the long-term ideological corruption of that part of the left in which he was formed.

This corrupting ideology can be called “campism”. It has caused parts of the left to abandon  universal progressive values rooted in the Enlightenment and sign up instead as foot soldiers in what they see as the great contest between – these terms change over time, as we will see – “Progressive” versus “Reactionary” nations, “Imperialism” versus “Anti-Imperialism”,  “Oppressed” versus “Oppressor” peoples, “The Empire” versus “The Resistance”, or simply “Power” versus “The Other”.

Again and again, the curse of campism has dragged the political left down from the position of intellectual leader and agenda-setter to that of political irrelevance, or worse, an apologist for tyranny. 

Only when we register the grip of this ideology will we understand why some leftwingers march around London waving placards declaring “We are all Hezbollah now!”. Only the power of the ideology accounts for the YouGov poll that showed 51 per cent of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters believe America is the “greatest single threat to world peace”, and one in four think a “secretive elite” controls the globe.

The intellectual history of campism has three chapters.  

In the short 20th century, it took the form of Stalinism, a social system that was at once anti-capitalist and totalitarian, and that spread a set of corrupting mental habits that utterly disorientated the left.

Clinging to the dogma that it must have been some kind of socialism that had replaced capitalism, many imagined themselves to be involved in a “great contest” between the capitalist camp and the (imperfect) socialist camp. And that ruined them. They became critical supporters of totalitarianism – notwithstanding their knowledge of the show trials, mass killings, gulags, political famines, and military aggressions; notwithstanding the fact that they themselves were not totalitarians.

The result was the slow erasure of those habits of mind, sensibilities and values of an older leftwing culture rooted in the Enlightenment. In its place the Stalinist-campist left posited lesser-evilism, political cynicism, power-worship, authoritarianism, and sophisticated apologias for tyranny.

In the Sixties and Seventies, the New Left created liberatory social movements that changed the face of the western world for the better. But the New Left was also a cheerleader or apologist for one third world authoritarian “progressive” regime after another, including Maoist China, a monstrous regime responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of “its own” people. Believing the world was divided into an imperialist “centre” exploiting a “periphery”, the New Left thought its duty was to support the latter against the former.

And when the baby boomers grew older and made their way into the universities and publishing houses, they formed the global creative class that has been reshaping every aspect of our intellectual culture ever since. Again, much of that reshaping has been a boon. Schooling us all in the anti-imperialism of idiots, and the romantic cult of the transformative power of revolutionary violence, has not.

After 1989, much of the left didn’t miss a beat. It quickly developed a theory that the world was now made up of a “Resistance” to “Empire”. Here was yet another reductive dualism. But this time there was barely any positive content at all, so campism took the shape of spectacularly inchoate and implacable negativism.

The result has been immense political disorientation, political cross-dressing, and moral debasement across swathes of the left. How else to explain the leftwing social theorist Judith Butler’s astonishing claim that, “understanding Hamas, Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left, is extremely important”?

When we understand how campism creates that kind of ideology-saturated and captive mind, we can better understand Corbyn’s choice of comrades and answer the Jacobson Question. 

The ideology demands two commitments. First, “Down With Us!” – the commitment to oppose the West as malign. Second, “Victory to the Resistance!” – the commitment to side with, or to apologise for, or to refuse to criticise, any “resistance” to the West.

The commitment to oppose every projection of force by the West as malign underpins Corbyn’s commitments to unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from Nato, his attitude to the IRA, and to Putin, and his false equating of the actions of Isis and the coalition in Iraq.

Corbyn will withdraw the UK from Nato because it is the military organisation of the West and therefore “imperialist”. He turns the world inside out and “blames the USA and Nato rather than Putin’s imperialistic Russia for the crisis in Ukraine,” notes Labour MP Mike Gapes.

I believe Corbyn would lead Britain into a warmer relationship with Putin’s Russia, and even thinks it was a bad thing that Poland was ever “allowed” to join Nato.

Astonishingly, given recent history, he also argues that Poland should have, “gone down the road Ukraine went down in 1990”. Corbyn opposes all military support to Ukraine and seems quite uninterested in the Ukrainian bid for freedom from Russian control. What matters much more to him is adherence to the campist ideology: “The self-satisfied pomposity of western leaders in lecturing the world about morality and international law has to be challenged,” he rails.

Campism also explains Corbyn’s comparison of the actions of Isis today and the actions of the coalition forces during the Iraq war. And those comments have a precedent of sorts. Corbyn was national chair of Stop the War during the Iraq war when the leadership circulated a statement that supported the “right” of the “resistance” to use “whatever means they find necessary”. At that point, the so-called resistance was targeting democrats, including the free trade union leader Hadi Saleh.

The second commitment of the campist left has been to side with, or apologise for, or refuse to sharply criticise, the so-called resistance camp. Without understanding this, Corbyn’s apologies for the Muslim cleric Raed Salah remain a mystery, his attitude to the IRA or the antisemitic Islamist terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah will seem harmless, even ahead-of-his-time diplomacy, and the idea that he indulges antisemitism will appear to be a “slur” by a “lobby”.

Corbyn has defended the antisemitic Raed Salah in these terms: “He represents his people extremely well and his is a voice that must be heard . . . I look forward to giving you tea on the terrace because you deserve it.”

In fact, Salah was found guilty of spreading the blood libel – the classic antisemitic slander that Jews use the blood of gentile children to make their bread – reportedly during a speech on February 2007 in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Wadi Joz.

Corbyn said he has no memory of meeting Dyab Abou Jahjah. Within minutes, Twitter was running photographs of Corbyn sitting next to Abou Jahjah – the Lebanese extremist who said, “I consider every death of an American, British or Dutch soldier as a victory” – at a public meeting.

Jahjah then boasted on Twitter of his “collaboration with Jeremy Corbyn” and insisted that Corbyn was “absolutely a political friend”. Again, it seems that Jahjah, being part of the “resistance camp”, according to the ideology, was simply beyond criticism.

It did not seem to matter that Jahjah reportedly referred to gay people as “Aids spreading fagots”, and was arrested in Antwerp for organising a riot. Or that he claimed to have published anti-Jewish cartoons showing Hitler and 15-year-old Anne Frank naked in bed with the caption: “Put that in your diary Anne”.

As the Community Security Trust commented: “I am sure that Corbyn would be the first to condemn Holocaust denial. The problem is not that Corbyn is an antisemite or a Holocaust denier – he is neither. The problem is that he seems to gravitate towards people who are, if they come with an anti-Israel sticker on them.”

Hezbollah comes with the mother of all anti-Israel stickers. That is why – although Corbyn knows that it is a radical Shia militant group that has subverted Lebanese democracy, actively supported Bashar al-Assad's brutality in Syria, and seeks the destruction of Israel – he nonetheless (and campism is a politics of “nonetheless”) tells the left that Hezbollah are our “friends”.

Hamas too. Corbyn also calls the Palestinian Islamist group his “friends” and argues that the organisation should not be called “terrorist”. Yet Corbyn knows that Amnesty International believes Hamas to be guilty of war crimes, torture, abductions, and summarily killing civilians. He knows that when five Jews praying in a synagogue were murdered, along with the heroic Druze policeman who came to their aid, in 2014, Hamas welcomed the attack, calling it a “quality development”. They even called it a “terror attack” – embracing the label Corbyn says they do not deserve.

The problem is not that Corbyn agrees with what all these people say. It is that he agrees with who they are: the Resistance to Empire. The apologies and the contortions and the evasions all begin there.

And then there are the Jews.

The concern here is not that Corbyn indulges in antisemitism. He does not. The concern is that he is has associated with others who have. The concern is that, when he is faced with what is called the “new antisemitism”, he is lost. At best, he is an innocent abroad who – oddly, in the age of “Google it!” – can’t seem to work out who is who, or what is what.

Writing for openDemocracy about Corbyn, Keith Kahn-Harris expresses scepticism about Corbyn’s explanation of his choice of comrades. “Although he has defended his contacts with Islamists, the IRA and others as a contribution to peace-making,” Kahn-Harris notes. “Corbyn does not have the deep relationships across the spectrum [or] the even-handedness that this would entail.”

What strikes Kahn-Harris most about Corbyn’s record is something else entirely: that he “is constantly predisposed to be at least convivial towards a broad swathe of those who see themselves as opposed to ‘the west’.”

He goes on: “Much of what appears to be [Corbyn’s] openness does indeed reflect engrained political pathologies.”

And that has been the claim of this essay, too: we have to look to those ingrained political pathologies – I have used the short-hand label “campism” to describe them – to answer the Jacobson Question.

Alan Johnson is the editor of Fathom: for a deeper understanding of Israel and the region and senior research fellow at the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM).