"When something such as the Panama Papers [disclosures on global tax avoidance] happens, we seem to be surprised. We should not be."
— Vito Tanzi, former leader of international tax policy at the International Monetary Fund; author of "Taxation in an Integrating World" (1995)
"Taxes are what we pay for civilized society," said the famed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. So what does it say about society when it tolerates a skewed tax system that applauds tax avoidance, accommodates tax evasion, mocks the compliance of honest taxpayers and drags its feet on tax cooperation?
Those are some of the philosophical (and pointedly political) questions that are being debated this week at the World Bank, at a conference that has gathered some of the world's foremost authorities on international tax policy along with international advocates of fair and effective taxation.
If you can't make it in-person to the Bank's Preston Auditorium this week, many of the conference sessions are being livestreamed and the video will be archived at live.worldbank.org/winning-the-tax-wars
The livestreamed sessions include a pivotal speech by a determined tax-policy watchdog, former Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan) — the former chairman of the U.S. Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations — whose address on "Reducing Secrecy and Improving Tax Transparency" will be one of the highlights of the forum.
Coming just a week after a global conference in London on tax havens, tax shelters and abusive tax-dodging — a conference that highlighted some wealthy nations' lackadaisical approach to enforcing tax fairness — this week's Bank conference, "Winning the Tax Wars: Protecting Developing Countries from Global Tax Base Erosion" will propel the fair-taxation momentum generated by the recent Panama Papers disclosures. That leaked data exposed the rampant financial engineering (by high-net-worth individuals and multinational corporations) to avoid or evade taxes.
Melissa Thomas, author of Govern like us, speaking at the World Bank recently raised a very interesting question: is our expectation that poor countries with limited resources can deliver high-quality governance unrealistic?
Can these countries provide the public goods and services that citizens demand and need, to be able to forge a strong social contract?
She compares the levels of revenue per capita in rich and poor countries and finds that in the poorest countries, levels of revenue per capita are so low that it would be years, or even decades, until they have enough to provide a decent level of public goods and services.
It is in that context that I thought of Sri Mulyani’s appeal during the Spring Meetings when she spoke of the need to clamp down on tax evasion and avoidance and boost the domestic resource mobilization (DRM) capacities of developing countries as a means of finding resources for financing development going forward.
The rhythm of NGO advocacy and campaigning sometimes makes it particularly hard to work on complicated issues, involving drawn-out negotiations where bad guys have more resources and staying power than we do. Campaigns on trade, climate change, debt relief etc often follow a similar trajectory – a big NGO splash as a new issue breaks, then activists realize they need to go back to school (I remember getting briefings on bond contracts during the 1998 Asia financial crisis) or employ new kinds of specialists who can talk the new talk. And then for a while we get geeky, entering into the detail of international negotiations, debating with lobbyists and academics. When it works (as in the debt campaign), we contribute to remarkable victories or to stopping bad stuff happening (which I would argue was a big civil society contribution at the WTO).
These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.
Google's uProxy: A Peer-to-Peer Gateway to Internet Freedom
“In parts of the world where repressive governments control the Internet with unassailable firewalls, netizens don't see the same web that people in other countries can.
Now, Google wants to give people in these countries a tool to circumvent those invisible barriers, and defeat censorship. Called uProxy, it is meant to be an easy-to-use, peer-to-peer gateway to the open Internet. With uProxy installed, somebody in Iran could use a friend's Internet to connect with him or her.” READ MORE
Designing policies that promote innovation and growth is key to development. In many countries there is also considerable corruption, with government officials seeking bribes and many firms underreporting their revenues to the state to evade taxes. Might there be a set of reforms that allow policymakers to kill two birds with one stone, both reducing corruption and boosting innovation? New research suggests financial sector reform may be able to play this role.
In a recent paper with co-authors Meghana Ayyagari and Vojislav Maksimovic, we look at corruption—defined as both bribery of government officials and tax evasion—and how this is associated with firm innovation and financial development. Using firm-level data for over 25,000 firms in 57 countries, we investigate whether firms are victims, who pay more in bribes than they gain by underreporting revenues to tax authorities, or perpetrators, who gain more by avoiding taxes than they lose in paying bribes.
Of particular interest is the effect of corruption and tax evasion on innovative firms. Specifically, we explore the following questions: