Why I signed the tax haven open letter

You may not know this, but if you’ve purchased a book online, you’ve used a tax haven. Tax havens exist to allow individuals and companies pay less tax than they would otherwise pay, by arbitraging the taxation regulations of different jurisdictions. When you buy a book, the funds you pay flow through one of these tax havens.

Tax havens impose large costs on society by depriving cash-strapped governments of much-needed taxation revenues, at the same time as governments impose austerity on their populations who can’t avail of these tax avoidance mechanisms.

Before taking to the streets and burning brands to oust the capitalist scum who gnaw at the marrow of our society like grass-starved guinea pigs on a summer day, let’s think a little about what it means to be a tiny open economy in the financialised world of 2016.

Capital flows from around the world into Ireland, and out of Ireland. During economic expansions like the one we’re going through right now (and over the 2002 to 2007 period), foreigners increase their purchases of domestic Irish assets and Irish people will increase their purchases of foreign assets. That’s why in 2005 you couldn’t get a cab without the taxi driver telling you about his two holiday homes in Bulgaria and Croatia and why today your apartment block in Dublin is owned by some goatee-enthusiast internet fanboy from California.

Irish people’s savings travel the Earth in the form of investments searching for a higher yield. Cheap investment funds bought to pay for children’s education at pillar banks exist, in practice, as offshore investments. They are designed as co-mingled investment funds, domiciled offshore so that the owners of units of these funds don’t get taxed twice for owning underlying shares as well as the index product built on top of those shares.

So if you buy one of these products from your local bank, or if you buy and sell things outside of Ireland and pay tax on these purchases elsewhere, are you unwittingly engaging in the kind of practices Apple and other large companies are getting in hot water with the European Commission over?

In a way, yes.

We all use the global economy’s massively networked systems of finance to enhance our lives. It’s when that system is bent to the will of gigantic corporations – rather than fathers saving for their daughters’ college fees – that we seem to have a problem.

Beyond the political dog whistling, there is a problem of scale. Charities and think tanks such as Oxfam and Action Aid and left wing outfits like the IMF have shown us a system where tax treaties stop very poor countries from collecting much-needed tax revenues from multinationals. Action Aid in particular showed precisely where profit-tax exemptions, withholding tax exemptions, and capital gains tax exemptions are limiting the ability of these countries to develop. The IMF’s research estimates that developing countries may lose $200 billion a year to corporate tax avoidance.

So it’s a problem of scale, and of a national taxation system trying to cope with a global market for capital. There is a global response for climate change, and so there may be a global response to reduce the effectiveness of tax havens and unfair tax treaties, but there may not be.

Ireland has functioned as an export hub for large businesses since the mid-1950s. Our policy since the first Programme for Economic Expansion has been to encourage foreign direct investment. – We have been phenomenally successful at that. But something has changed since 2000. The flow of funds to Ireland coming for productive purposes, such as building a factory or upgrading a plant or hiring more workers, has been dwarfed by unproductive ‘hot’ money, coming in to ‘rest in our accounts’, as it were, for a bit, before being moved on.

We’re not quite Father Ted with a Nespresso machine, but we are getting there.

To the extent that Ireland facilitates this global network — how could we not, given our openness — we are culpable in the failure to eradicate the problem. What’s the problem? The problem is not that some company can use an offshore trust to sell me a cheaper life assurance policy. That’s one of the benefits of globalisation. The problem is the diversion of profits displaces economic activity and compounds economic inequality.

Last week I, along with hundreds of other economists, signed a letter asking this month’s anti-corruption summit in London to make significant moves towards ending the era of tax havens.

Big letters might not lead to anything. Or they might. By focusing on those mandated to reduce the corruption of tax havens, and not the rest of the global financial system, we have the chance to end them. This is only good for Ireland, and perhaps more importantly, for the developing world.