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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Why are taxes so complicated?

Apple’s skirmishes with the taxman have brought the issue of taxes to the fore again. It all started with Warren Buffet’s assertion that he paid less tax than his secretary. We wondered what magic formula achieved that!

What is wrong with taxes? Why don’t we understand what is going on? Many reasons but mainly because tax is complicated — too damn complicated. I haven’t met a person who can mentally calculate his or her taxes even when they know their income precisely — not even with a calculator. These calculations aren’t even in the ballpark. So why is tax so complicated? Politicians and taxmen alike tend to confuse the debate with many terms and jargon.

What is a Tax?
Tax is actually a charge paid to the government for the services it renders — i.e. maintaining law and order, national security and general governance to cover the costs for that (such as salaries of army, police, judiciary, bureaucracy etc). It is also a source of finance for government investments say in infrastructure (think highways, dams, railways, space program etc). Taxes also pay for government expenditure on other things such as bailouts, promotion of job-creating industries, pensions, healthcare etc.

To pay for all these activities, government formulates a “tax strategy”. Tax strategy is combination of various taxes imposed on the public (citizens and non-citizen residents) to make up its income. It generally combines Direct and Indirect taxes, income and expenditure taxes etc. It may also include tariffs, duties, cess and fees under many different names.

Direct versus Indirect Taxes
Now government can take the taxes in two ways. Direct taxes are taxes those directly collected by the Government like, say, income tax etc. Indirect taxes are levied on the manufacturers or employers and these are then passed on to the citizens.

The direct and indirect taxes are important because of ease of collection. Indirect taxes are easier to collect but increase the transaction costs in the economy. Thus, if there are excise duties across the value chain, then such products have to be that much more competitive with respect to other global products just because of tax accounting.

Income Tax and Expenditure Tax
Government has at its hand two types of taxes. It can tax income at the hands of the earner. It can tax the consumer at the time of consumption. Notice that the timing the taxes are collected is different. That has an important bearing on this discussion. Between receipt of income and actual consumption is a quantum of time that can be controlled by the citizen. This has important bearing on the nature of tax government wants to impose.

When recessions strike the government is required to give a fiscal stimulus. When the tax backing such investment can be collected is now left to the consumer. After recessions typically, the consumers are reluctant to spend thus delaying the tax collection and putting government commitments to lenders at risk. An income tax, however, comes in as soon as income recovers. That used to create a big problem for the governments. However, with present technology and statistical analysis, governments need not have these

Expenditure tax has its advantages. It penalises those who consume more as against those who consume less. The argument against expenditure taxes is that incomes are higher than expenditures and thus tax collection is more. The counter argument is that expenditure tax leads people to invest rather than consume.

Tariffs, duties, cess and other fees
All these items are basically a charge on specified group of persons (natural persons i.e. people or legal persons i.e. corporations). These charges are meant to nullify some anomalies arising out of policies. Thus, if tax on cars is 30% on price of car, then if you import the car then you will also have to pay 30% “import duty” to bring you inline with those buying locally.

Why are taxes so complicated?
There are three sources of complexities in taxes. First is that tax law itself is complicated. Secondly, the constitution of the country creates complications that show up as complexity in taxes. Third type of complexity is result of Governments using tax laws and bending constitutional mandates to further their public policy.

Complications of Tax law
When you read the tax law, it is usually in two parts — tax rates and “interventions”. Interventions generally take the form of exemptions,deductions and tax breaks.

First part deals with tax rates. Tax rates by themselves may be different. Income tax rates are decided on slabs. For example, income below $20,000 may not be taxable, between 20,001 to 50,000 be taxed at 10%, between 50,001 to 100,000 be taxed at 15% and so on. It is easy to understand that the higher the tax exempt income, higher the tax rate others have to bear.

Exemptions are incomes or expenditures by law exempted from tax. Thus, income from renting a housing may be exempt. So when computing your taxable income, you don’t include the rent in it.

Deductions are amounts you invest in certain schemes that you can deduct from your taxable income. Thus, amount invested in pension plans may be deducted from your taxable income before tax is computed.

Then there is something called Tax-break. These are most notorious of all interventions. By this mechanism certain persons (natural or legal) can be made exempt from paying taxes if they satisfy certain conditions.

If taxes seem complex by now wait till you hear of this new type of complexity.

Constitutional complexity
The constitution in most countries grants the right to the government to levy tax. Now no country has one government, there are at least three sets of government in any country — city level, state level and national government. Constitution has granted each of them some tax they can levy. It is different for different countries but the principle is the same. These taxes taken together result in massive compliance exercise that is both time consuming and complex.

Governments overreach when they want to increase tax collection. So they invent some other thing to add to the tax burden adding to complexity. For example, if state or city government can tax land, national government may impose environmental cess on those lands which are not tree covered. It may be so that environmental policy is with national government, and land taxes with city government but now national government has got its pound of flesh out of land taxes.

Tax as an instrument of public policy
Governments, with all nice intentions, tend use taxes to further their public policy aims. For example, to promote job growth, they may want to give tax exemptions to various industries, tax breaks, they decide what the level of exemptions — what incomes are exempt from taxes. Or, say when they want to support home buying, then the government may give you deductions if you buy a house and lighten your tax burden. All these things combined make the tax calculations too complicated. These interventions are nothing but Government trying to influence society — they are using tax as instrument of public policy. It is wrong for many reasons.

The concessions given to further public policy have two ill effects. Firstly, they do not convey transparently what benefits were given to whom and thus it is underhanded. Secondly, they are wasteful as they cannot be pin-pointed to deserving persons. There remain, deliberately or not, various loopholes that creep into the legal draft of the law when it does come out. US tax code is rife with instances where industries on one side of the road has received tax-break while that on other side hasn’t.

I once heard a (fictional I think) story about Britain. In the 90s it was noticed that more Brits preferred to stay single than to marry. Naturally, the cable channels were quick to host debate shows on declining moralities of the Brits. It was then discovered that despite not marrying, Brits tend to stay with same partners. Quickly the hollow debates went after religion values of marriage etc. Ultimately it was discovered that this so-called moral decline was because of an innocuous clause in the tax code which imposed additional tax on married couples than two single adults. Talk of unintended consequences!

If government wants to subsidise certain industry let it do it by direct transfers or refunds. The problem with this argument is that citizens themselves do not accept it because government is quick to accept money but very lethargic when it comes to a refund. In corrupt countries there are palms to grease — if you are in India you have to grease the entire bureaucratic system and bureaucrat themselves.

The resulting of Complexities
The complexities in Tax system are not the only problem. They are genesis of the worse problems.
Individuals v/s corporates

There is a fundamental flaw in the tax system that treats income tax of individuals and corporates differently. The tax system believes that income of the corporation is its profits which is revenue less costs (crudely). In case of individual no consideration is given to expenses. Thus individual is taxed on revenues while corporates are taxed on profits. This difference has to go away. Now to be fair, individual tax rate is lower than corporate tax rate for precisely this reason. Yet, this difference coupled with tax avoidance mechanisms and other invented devices contribute heavily to discrepancy between the individual who cannot game the tax system and the corporate which can.

Tax avoidance
When the underlying system is complex, private parties more than government agencies are able to take advantage of the system. In the 2008 financial crisis, the average paying rating agencies were not competent enough to see through the complexities created by highly-paid bankers. Same logic holds for tax too.

With loopholes this wide, rich people with boundless ingenuity come up with schemes that help them avoid taxes. So people invest more in housing if rents are tax free. Such tax avoidance has created an industry of accountants whose only job is to avoid taxes. It is also in the interest of these accountants to keep tax codes unnecessarily complex.

When tax avoidance increases the burden falls on the poor who are ill-equipped to handle the complexities of taxes.

Transfer pricing — The bigger problem Tax evasion
One of the worst ways of evading taxes is by using transfer pricing technique. Let us imagine I make shirts under my company X Inc. and it costs be $50 to make the shirt which retails for $100. But I am based in a country where tax rate is 20%. So I make incorporate a different company X Ireland Inc. where tax rate is 1%. So X Inc. sells all the shirts to X Ireland Inc. at $51. And I pay tax on $1 at 20% i.e. 20 cents. Then X Ireland Inc. sells the shirts at $100 world wide. I pay 1% on $49 profit i.e. 49 cents. So my total liability is 49+20 = 69 cents. If I was doing business completely from my home country I would have to pay 20% of $50 i.e. $10 in taxes. This $9.31 is deemed to be legitimately avoided. I think not! This is tax evasion not tax avoidance. A small business cannot compete with this company.

This transfer pricing game is played at various levels. Corporates play countries v/s countries, pit state v/s state and city v/s city to extract maximum benefit. This benefits are solicited through industry bodies, professional institutes and other mechanisms of lobbying. Eventually tax payers are paying for this too.

Money laundering
The Global cooperation in taxes was brought about because of money laundering. All money laundering channels were discovered and they remain operational because of their use in tax avoidance / tax evasion. These networks have now been used to finance terror network which brought them into focus.

Taxes need urgent global reform
We need a simpler tax system that is easy to understand and easier to comply with. The complexities need to be resolved. Most of the countries in the world have a unified expenditure tax system (GST it is usually called). Such a system should be created for all taxes. We need to do away with exemptions, deductions and tax-breaks. The government aid, if necessary, should be given directly by cash transfer.

Second, we need international cooperation with respect to tax regimes. It is in the interest of all the countries of the world that tax is paid to the government to which it is due. There are efforts being put together to track and prosecute tax evasion through Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information for Tax Purposes. This is a welcome initiative, though too many bureaucrats are discomforting. I hope it does not end up complicating the Taxes rather than simplifying and checking evasion.

If tax is a necessary evil, it is unnecessarily complex convoluted evil. May the Founding fathers should have put in a fundamental right that taxes shall be simple to understand and easy to compute and pay. Taxes should be simple and straight-forward. A healthy global tax system will empower our governments.