New paper: Stuck in the middle with EU

Why it’s time we cut out the middle man and become global citizens.

EU membership has been made redundant by global regulators, according to a new paper from the Adam Smith Institute released today. Published independently of both the major campaigns, the report reveals that the UK often has little say over EU regulation, as in reality so much of it originates at the global level. 

Rather than the expected ‘bonfire of regulations’ upon exit, or a situation where the UK is at the mercy of Single Market regulations without having any influence on them, the free-market think tank has highlighted that 80% of Single Market legislation falls within the ambit of existing international organisations and is consequently open to global regulation. The EU itself originates very few market standards and rules, the study shows, despite its sprawling size, and it frequently outsources and copies global agreements verbatim.
The new paper Global Regulators: Stuck in the middle with EU, written by European Union expert and ASI fellow Roland Smith, lays out how the UK’s ability to influence global legislation would change for the better following an exit from the EU.
The author notes that whilst we are told EU membership is necessary so that we “have a say” in the rules affecting our industries, the fact is that everything from fishing to food packaging and car standards to disability rights are now driven by a myriad of global organisations – even the infamous rule on straight cucumbers is now in the hands of a global body.
Contrary to popular belief, the adoption of standards by the EU from bodies such as Codex is not voluntary, and is enforceable by the World Trade Organisation’s Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement. The TBT Agreement makes global bodies the ‘manufacturers’ of the law, whilst the EU is often merely the ‘wholesaler’.
The paper goes on to argue that rather than stay in the EU, the UK should focus on formalising and democratising the UK’s global governance involvement, bringing the UK’s full voice to it as an open, global trading nation. In the context of Brexit, ‘isolation’ is near impossible in the globalised world, in which Britain could operate at the new global top table as opposed to the EU’s shrinking one.
Author of the report Roland Smith said:

“The rhetoric about the UK being isolated is out of place when you consider the global landscape. If the EU didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be in a rush to invent it. The global single market is overtaking the EU, and since we are not in the Euro and have no need for political integration, it is time to leave and take our place as a truly global citizen.”

Sam Bowman, Executive Director of the Adam Smith Institute said:

This report shows that the strongest argument for staying in the EU is actually rather weak. The EU is increasingly best understood as a regulatory intermediary, codifying for member states rules that have been agreed at an international level. If so, it is not clear at all that the UK would have less influence on global regulation if it left the EU – indeed, paradoxically, Britain may have a louder voice at the top tables if it was outside the EU rather than in.

Read the whole paper here.

The Morality of Tax Avoidance

In the wake of the Panama Papers leak debates about the morality of taxation are back in vogue. Unlike tax evasion, tax avoidance is, by definition, legal. This is not the same thing as saying it’s acceptable. No one wants to live in a society where everything questionable is banned or where you cannot criticise someone for doing something legal.

There is certainly scope for closing the tax loopholes that create the biggest avoidance schemes. There is something fundamentally unfair about the very rich avoiding the punitive rates paid by ordinary people. But this is a policy question that can only be answered by serious proposals for reform, not self-righteous pontificating about tax dodgers being ‘disgusting’. And, in any case, the biggest problem with the UK’s convoluted and twisted tax code is that ordinary people are overtaxed due to, for instance, the insidious creep of fiscal drag. 

But given that, picking an example at random, having a beneficial interest in an offshore investment trust that does not pay UK tax (even if you do later pay UK tax on your dividends) is completely legal, is it ethical? The idea that people are obligated to enthusiastically pay as much tax as they can is perverse and absurd (it’s also usually hypocritical, but I’ll set that aside). The view that all taxation is theft may not have much currency outside of hardcore libertarian circles. The opposite view, that there’s no such thing as ‘your money’ and you have an absolute obligation to give up whatever the government thinks is fit, sadly seems to be gaining currency. 

The perspective that avoiding tax is inherently theft rests on some very peculiar assumptions. It needs to be accepted that current tax rates are either just, or not high enough, that the right things are being taxed in the right way, and that taking advantage of any loopholes is wrong. 

For instance, in order to think that setting up a company to avoid income tax is immoral, you need to assume that: (i) income should be taxed at a higher rate than corporate profits; (ii) there is an obvious and absolute moral distinction between income and profit; and (iii) there are objective grounds to determine when it is legitimate to register a company. 

And what about government encouraged avoidance schemes, such as ISAs and tax relief for risky investments? Is it wrong to take advantage of these?

It also needs to be assumed that providing the government with all the funds it demands is moral. It’s easy to talk about hospitals, schools, the roads, defence, and welfare. But that skirts over the real question of whether government should be funding these things at all and, if so, whether they should cost what they do. 

It also ignores less palatable areas of expense, such as spending on foreign wars, nuclear weapons, a quixotic and destructive drug war, nonsensical vanity projects, bloated and pointless government departments, and corporate welfare. The same people who attack tax avoidance also (I think correctly) decry much of this, yet remain absolutely committed to the ‘obligation’ to fund the state’s largesse above and beyond what the law requires. 

These issues may not have an obvious answer. But that’s exactly why tax dodging cannot just be lazily and self-righteously vilified as ‘disgusting’ by definition.

Nostalgia Must Not Distort British Industrial Policy

The collapse of the British steel industry is not an easy process. The job losses from the closure of Port Talbot could cause serious social and economic problems for the local community, much as the loss of manufacturing industries around the UK has. 

There is an important debate to be had about how to compensate the losers from trade. Perhaps deregulation and other market promoting policies will stimulate growth of new businesses and jobs. Perhaps the government should do more to fund and promote retraining programmes. Perhaps a basic income is the answer for easing transitional periods of structural unemployment that can result from creative destruction. 

However, the notion that the government should step in and subsidise a private buyer or even nationalise Tata steel is absurd. The Port Talbot plant is out-dated and not profitable. Even without the present supply glut, British steel faces an uphill battle to be competitive. The money required to sustain the industry would astronomical. Imposing tariffs can and will cause a trade war and will harm industries that use steel. And, in the long run, the industry will collapse and the jobs will be lost anyway.

So why is there widespread enthusiasm for terrible industrial policy? At root, I suspect, it comes down to nostalgia. There’s an odd romanticism that surrounds heavy industry, which comes from several, equally ill-conceived, notions.

There’s the nationalist sentiment that bemoans the loss of Britain’s former glory as a manufacturing powerhouse. There’s the fetishisation of industries dominated by organised labour. And then there’s the eternal pull of strategic trade policy hubris and the vanity of thinking that economic policy can be strategised and directed.

Most of all, though, I think that manufacturing nostalgia stems from the belief that manual labour is inherently morally superior to the service industry and, especially, finance. This may represent a hangover from the labour theory of value, and an emotive mistrust of capital and exchange. ‘Real work’ is obviously more important, more honest, and more inherently valuable, than facilitating, administrating, and furthering networks of production and exchange. The idea that prices are determined by supply and demand, and that value cannot be measured by effort and exertion alone, is either an alien concept or offensive. 

People losing their jobs and communities being faced with turbulence cannot be waved away. However, mythologizing manufacturing and propping up unviable plants is not only economically nonsensical but it creates and perpetuates a false and dangerous cultural narrative.

Panama, ethics and the law

Discussing the Panama Papers with the BBC's Moneybox presenter Paul Lewis, I said I thought it odious that politicians were deliberately conflating (illegal) tax evasion with (legal) tax avoidance – such that innocent people who simply park their money offshore because it would be taxed to death at home are lumped in with Russian mafia bosses and scumbag dictators concealing the proceeds of their thefts. Lewis was having none of it: there is a big difference, he claimed, between simple folk putting a few bob in an ISA, as Parliament fully intended they should, and smart advisers setting up short-lived paper companies in Panama just to get round the tax rules.

For some years, UK Chancellor George Osborne have been on the same bandwagon, criticising "aggressive tax avoidance" – such as companies shifting cash round subsidiaries in other jurisdictions in order to get the best tax treatment, celebrities billing the BBC from purpose-made companies so that they don't pay 40% income tax, people paying themselves in ways that are not liable to national insurance contributions, wheezes to avoid capital gains tax – and all that sort of thing. And Prime Minister David Cameron has fully signed up to that line.

Now he is being hoist by his own petard. As his father, a financial adviser, put clients' funds in Panama, people naturally wondered whether the Prime Minister benefited from Panamanian tax avoidance. He yielded to pressure to publish his tax returns. These showed that (among other things that will be pored over by the papers) he stood to save £80,000 in inheritance tax by using the 'lifetime gift' mechanism. 

Millions of middle-class families do the same, of course. But when you have been so strident in denouncing 'tax avoidance', it looks – and is – hypocritical. The Prime Minister could, of course, do the Paul Lewis thing and say that 'lifetime gift' tax-avoidance is allowed by Parliament and is OK, but 'aggressive' tax-avoidance is shady and unpatriotic. But the distinction is lost on most people – who don't know what a 'lifetime gift' is and certainly would not have enough money to benefit from it.

The pressure is now on all politicians to reveal their tax affairs. The claim, by critics such as the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, is that this will expose tax-avoidance, self-interest and corruption. Some chance: smart accountants would have no problem concealing the affairs of their career-politician clients. What it would do, however, is to discourage talented people, such as those who have had a successful career in some other sector, from going into politics in the first place. You might be a model citizen, but would you want your finances, and those of your family, exposed in the national newspapers?

As the journalist Janet Daley says, this is the sort of mess you get into when politicians wander away from legislating and start moralising instead. The trouble with morals is that everyone has a different view on them. If you break the law, it is a matter of fact; whether your actions are moral or not is a matter of debate. Moralisers open themselves up to constant criticism.

The solution to this mess is quite obvious. Taxes on businesses and individuals should be so low that it is not worth evading (or even avoiding) them. And much simpler – the more complicated your tax code is, the more places there are to hide in it: and the UK tax code is one of the most complicated in the world. Indeed, George Osborne has made it even more complicated with all kinds of new reliefs, subsidies, schemes, limits and whatever else. If you are worried about money drifting off to Panama, you really need to start at home. 

Brexit and Britain reborn

Among the pro-EU misconceptions is the idea that Europe somehow represents "the wider world." The reverse is true. The EU is a self-seeking regional block of diminishing significance in the world.  It is inward looking and self-regarding, often seeking to exclude, or at least delay, modern developments. By leaving the EU, the UK could step into that global movement and face its own future with confidence as it has done before.  

I wrote some thoughts on this for CapX:  

I have witnessed occasions on which the UK has undergone a break with the past and moved with confidence into an uncharted future determined to do things differently and to become better in consequence.
One was in the early 1950s.  Exhausted by war and the privations of the post-war government with its continued shortages and rationing, the future seemed drab and bleak.  In a short space of time three things happened to renew the nation’s faith in itself and its confidence for the future.
The 1951 Festival of Britain showcased the nation’s technical expertise in a reprise of the 1851 Great Exhibition a century earlier.  It captured the imagination and boosted the country’s self-esteem.  Winton Churchill was returned to office, and his government began the deregulation and the end of rationing that closed the chapter on World War II.  King George VI, beloved and esteemed for inspiring Britain through the dark days of war, died and was succeeded by a young Queen Elizabeth, aged 25, who represented the passing of a torch to a new generation.  These three events renewed the nation and lifted its spirits.

You can find the full blog post here.

What tax dodging?

It's somewhat unlike us to come to the aid of any politician at all but we do think that this David and Ian Cameron story has got just a tad out of hand. As far as anyone can tell from the information we've got the allegation seems to be that Ian Cameron checked with lawyers to see that he was obeying the law. And David Cameron has, as his father did, obeyed every jot and tittle of said law.

That we live in a country where the powerful do indeed obey the law is something that we should all be rather happy about we feel.

As to the details of the arrangements Jerry Hayes tells us this:

Today I can tell you the truth about Blairmore Holdings. Not from any contact in Number 10 nor any friend of Cameron, but an old friend who is one of the leading tax specialists in London. This is not his opinion, it is a set of facts. This is what he texted me. I put it in direct quotes to show that I am not putting a personal spin on it.
“Blairmore Holdings was a perfectly legitimate offshore investment fund. It’s underlying investments were very largely if not exclusively non UK. The fund was registered with the UK revenue as a ‘distributer fund’ which meant that it had to pay out to investors at least 85% of its income each year. The investors would be liable to UK income tax on those payments if UK resident. Equally, if they sold their investment they would be liable to capital gains tax”

So we know that the fund was legitimate. Question one. Was Ian Cameron a UK resident? Yes. Was David Cameron a UK resident? Yes. This really is a no brainer. Their can be nor could have been any possible tax be benefit under this fund for the Camerons. End of story.

That "men pay taxes due" becomes a film at 10 story makes us concerned for the metal health of society as a whole.