Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Tax evasion is a crime. Tax avoidance is a .... ?

In the good old days, this was an easy cliche. Tax evasion (breaking the law) was a crime. Tax avoidance (minimising paying the tax within the law) was something you were duty bound to do. Whether you are an individual, company, whatever. Period. Now it isn't so clear cut an answer.  And that says something about our times.

Witness the case of Apple. It does aggressive tax planning (all within the law). It has a big subsidiary in Ireland and has done a deal with the government there for a low tax rate. It does not bring overseas profits into the US, because it is double taxed then; so it leaves all its overseas profits overseas. All very legitimate. And yet there has been a huge outcry and a Congressional hearing where Apple is accused of not paying "its fair share of taxes".

Similar accusations are levied on Amazon, Google and Starbucks in the UK and indeed in many other countries. Nowhere are the authorities claiming they broke the law. They are just angry that these companies pay a low or zero tax despite large businesses in those countries.

From a public's point of view, there is no difference between evasion and avoidance. The expectation is that all companies must pay lots of taxes irrespective of the law and facts. Equally all rich people must pay big amounts of tax even if the law does not require them to do so. But for each individual himself, it is perfectly OK to evade tax (breaking the law). Queer set of values.

Almost everybody in India breaks the law when it comes to taxes. And before you protest too much, please answer if you have disclosed your savings bank interest as income in your tax return and if you have done no cash transactions above Rs 10,000. The less said about professions like lawyers, doctors and the like, the better. The salaried class is one of the worst offenders - their salaries are caught by the taxman under the withholding tax regime. Everything else, in the eyes of the salaried man or woman is not to be disclosed as after all they are paying "lots of tax" on their salaries.

Why does this work like that. Why is it OK for us to evade tax, but not for others even to avoid it. Is it just pure jealousy against the rich ? Is it just one law for everybody else and one law for us ? What is going on ?

For corporates and rich individuals, there is an expectation of  social responsibility at play here. It is not enough to follow the law. It is now required to be seen as "being fair to society" everywhere. This is a woolly concept ; after all what is the concept of fair.  But each company has to make its own "contract" with society. The more successful you are, the more demanding the contract.

Social responsibility has gotten an altogether new meaning, A far more challenging meaning. Companies have to be seen as "good citizens, whatever that means. Notice that the public's definition of a good citizen is "I break the law, but you shall do over and above the law". "

Its a tough world out there.