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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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.