What kind of person reads a tax blog?

WordPress can’t make its mind up if this is my 100th or my 101st post. No matter, I thought I’d mark the milestone by telling you all about who you are. So here are some of the key stats for this blog. Page views by country:

Page views by country

Page views by country

Top 5 posts by total views (or “maybe I could have stopped writing a while ago”):

  1. UN transfer pricing manual: what Brazil, India and China do differently (June 2013)
  2. The United Nations Practical Manual on Transfer Pricing: a bluffer’s guide (June 2013)
  3. What will BEPS mean for developing countries? (February 2013)
  4. ABF’s misleading statements (February 2013)
  5. Why the US and Argentina have no Tax Information Exchange Agreement (September 2013)

Words people search for to get here:

Wordle of search terms

Wordle of search terms

A few typical search terms that brought people here:

  • how taxation can help improve growth
  • base erosion and profit shifting wiki
  • do tax treaties increase gdp
  • “name-and shame campaigns”
  • tax havens for venezuelans
  • difference between un and oecd transfer pricing
  • double taxation treaties benefits to developing countries
  • what do professional advisers say on starbucks tax avoidance?
  • ngo tax studies vodafone
  • base erosion profit shifting what do you think?
  • what have uk uncut achieved?

And some less typical:

  • parental products manufacturers in india “leave a reply”
  • “margaret hodge” “politicised”
  • starbucks tax jokes
  • sol picciotto wikipedia
  • starbucks and (tax or taxes or zerga or zergak or падатак or падаткаў or данък or данъци or impost or impostos or porez or porezi)
  • how much are you taxed when you resign from public service in south africa
  • anything new in taxes

Who gets the most traffic from this blog?

  1. un.org (by a long way)
  2. actionaid.org.uk
  3. bensaunderscta.wordpress.com
  4. oecd.org
  5. guardian.co.uk
  6. ft.com
  7. imf.org
  8. green-tax.co.uk
  9. papers.ssrn.com
  10. twitter.com
  11. sbs.ox.ac.uk
  12. taxjustice.net
  13. ictd.ac
  14. lse.ac.uk
  15. storify.com

Did you spot the double taxation storyline in Mad Men?

Mad Men’s Lane Pryce

I’m a big fan of AMC’s Mad Men, and have only been more greatly endeared to it by the realisation that one of its most heartbreaking storylines was in fact all about double taxation.

In season five, Lane Pryce, the Englishman in New York, is caught out by an unexpected tax bill, with tragic consequences. Here is the dialogue with a man we must assume is his accountant:

Accountant: The Hansard procedure negotiations have concluded as promised, you need only wire the full £2900 by Thursday and your slate will be clean with the Inland Revenue.

Lane Pryce: As promised? Your promise was to extricate me from this situation altogether!

A: My promise was to keep you out of prison.

LP: Thursday! How am I supposed to find 8000 dollars by Thursday? That’s no help at all.

A: Look, Lane, you gave Her Majesty’s portion to a foreign power, and the tax man is keen to make an example of an expatriate. This is the very best news there could be.

Next time I need to explain international tax first principles to a  non-tax audience, I will have a whole new point of reference! “Her Majesty’s portion…”

Book Review: The Politics of Expertise: How NGOs Shaped Modern Britain

I occasionally write for the LSE Review of Books blog. As many commenters on this site have quite strong views about NGOs, I thought my review posted there today might be of interest…

The Politics of Expertise: How NGOs Shaped Modern Britain. Matthew Hilton, James McKay, Nicholas Crowson and Jean Francois Mouhot. Oxford University Press. October 2013.

Writing on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog recently, Tony Wright considered the decline of the political party. “It is perfectly possible,” he concluded, “for parties to continue to structure political life and offer accountable political choice without also being the monopolists of political power.” Into this debate comes The Politics of Expertise, which sets out to challenge the narrative of declining political engagement and to sketch out the landscape of 21st century citizen politics.

Yes, argue its authors, there has been a fall in the membership of traditional organisations such as political parties, trade unions and churches. But they have been replaced in people’s loyalties by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Oxfam, Greenpeace and Shelter, each focused on a single issue. There has been no discernible reduction in the average number of organisations to which a British person affiliates since the late 1950s, while the narrative of declining participation in public life seems as old as democracy itself.

This is not just a simple substitution. Most people’s engagement with NGOs is at a much shallower level than the participative, democratic institutions that they have replaced. The older organisations were democratic structures, while NGOs’ plans and positions are determined by office staff, usually based in London, and offered as a product to supporters. “[P]olitics has become personalised and privatised in the sense that our allegiances are formulated individually in the private realm, rather than in the public arena of associational meetings, votes, and motions.”

Overarching all this is the idea that the growth in NGOs is part of the ‘expertisation’ of politics, through which the expert staff of single-issue organisations seek a public mandate to decide what is best and engage with politicians, while political parties themselves delegate some of their policy formation to those same staff. “It is the very labyrinthine nature of policy formation that accounts not only for the emergence of NGOs, but the reason the public has chosen to support them.” A revolving door between politics, civil service and NGOs, demonstrated by tracking numerous careers, consolidates this ‘epistemic community’ of experts.

I have a particular perspective on this analysis, having spent a decade working in international development NGOs. The historical studies of how NGOs – including some for which I worked – were formed, developed, and came to embrace new challenges and ideologies, were fascinating for an insider. There are many familiar narratives here – the NGO staff who feel like “a bunch of Guardian readers funded by Telegraph readers”, the tension between campaigners’ ideological aspirations and the compromises needed to raise funds, the difficulty of formulating and adhering to a coherent theory of how the world is and should be. The book does an excellent job of opening a window into the tortured soul of many an introspective NGO worker.

But there are also some bits that jar. A throwaway comment that “the young will always chastise their elders for betrayal of principle” ignored the rich diversity of NGO workforces, many of which include a significant faction of ideologically-driven old timers in tension with a pragmatic, evidence- (and career-)driven younger generation. The suggestion that the attraction of the rights-based approach to poverty lies in its political neutrality raised a wry laugh: the present British government struggles with the rights-based approach for exactly the reason that some NGOs like it, because it places the ultimate responsibility for poverty alleviation squarely on the state. I wondered if the book’s methodology, which seemed to rest entirely on documentation, not on speaking to the people concerned, was responsible for this occasional off-target remark.

Near the end, almost an entire chapter is devoted to an extended critique of international development NGOs. It describes NGOs as “dilettantes” who “have not become the focus for the articulation of a general and coherent political vision”, “have lost their critical edge”, “are as much a part of the system of global governance as a critic of it”, and “use the language of rights as it adds a veneer of radicalism to their own agendas.” Each of these allegations may have some truth to it, but a fairer, more three-dimensional analysis could have cited the many counter-examples and the constant debate and self-examination within and among NGOs.  With my hackles raised, I noticed that the footnote referencing a particularly critical comment by “development and human rights activist Firoze Manji” omitted to mention that the book from which it is drawn was published by Oxfam.

One thing that The Politics of Expertise would have benefited from is some international comparison. Each country’s NGO sector is very different, and the UK’s is unusually large in comparison with, say, that in France, where the sector has a more radical centre of gravity. In Sweden, there is a thriving NGO sector despite high trade union membership. A related, and also missing, part of the picture is the internationalisation of NGOs. The global NGO sector is undergoing a wave of mergers, consolidations and restructuring, as NGOs seek to maximise their influence over global issues and tap new fundraising markets. The growing influence of staff from the global South within these federations can have a major influence on their UK affiliates. Finally, the book seems to entirely overlook a new generation of political activist groups, such as Climate Camp, UK Uncut, and Occupy, which have a real influence over the political process, but don’t fit the typical NGO mould.

Overall, there’s a compelling argument in this book that to understand modern politics one has to understand NGOs. There’s also an incisive study of the sector’s history, its structural strengths and weaknesses, and the challenges that it presents. The “qualified ‘yes’” given by the authors in answer to the question ‘have NGOs been successful?’ is surely about right.

Now the horse meat scandal has a tax haven angle

This is most definitely a Friday afternoon story. It seems, according to The Guardian, that the owner of one of the companies at the centre of the horse meat scandal is hidden behind the veil of secrecy in the British Virgin Islands.

Draap Trading Ltd delivered meat to the French company Spanghero, which in turn supplied another French company, Comigel. The Findus lasagne products found in Britain containing horsemeat came from a Comigel factory in Luxembourg.

[…]

An investigation by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project revealed yesterday that that Draap Trading Ltd was registered in 2008 in Limassol, Cyprus. Its sole shareholder is Hermes Guardian Ltd, an offshore company in the British Virgin Islands. A Draap representative, Andreas Mercruri, refused to disclose the beneficial ownership of the company.

Speaking from Cyprus, he told OCCRP: “I’m sorry but with everything that is going on at the moment we are not able to comment on anything at this time.” Mercruri answered from the offices of Trident Trust , a Cyprus firm that provides company formation and incorporation services on the island. Trident Trust mentions on its website that beneficial ownership information of the companies it incorporates is not disclosed to any regulatory authority