Monday, 8 February 2010

Who do we like better: the banker or the tax collector?

When Benjamin Franklin wrote "in this world there is nothing certain but death and taxes" he probably did not know how right he was.
Could Mr. Franklin imagine that today the US tax code, or any tax code for that matter, gives employment to thousands of specialist tax lawyers (leave alone tax collectors)?

Today, taxes even play a role in international diplomacy. The Swiss are busy reinventing their fabled banking model due to problems with the US authorities. Thousands of US citizens are in trouble for hiding income and taking advantage of Swiss secrecy laws. Countries as diverse as Lichtenstein and Singapore have had their banking secrecy laws questioned.
There are benefits to living in an ultra-efficient city-state like Singapore. For the individual filing tax returns is relatively easy. There are few complications and the online calculator and the tax man takes care of most calculations, including exemptions. All one has to do is declare gross income.
Given the all pervasive nature of Singapore's identity card (yes, the one with the race category) most financial information is automatically captured by the authorities. Charitable donations, dividend income, interest income and the like are automatically and electronically recorded for each individual.
Most individuals pay taxes through a monthly direct debit system so cash flows are easily managed. It seems things are slightly different in the US where taxes are often paid lump sum by the due date (April 15).
Such a payment mechanism seems like a dangerous luxury. Individuals cannot always be trusted to manage their cash flows to meet chunky payments (especially with Singapore's casinos up and running)!
But economies and businesses develop to meet all sorts of requirements. Personal credit or loans in the US are a major part of the financial sector. In an economy where personal consumption comprises 67% of US GDP, personal loans fuel the wheels of commerce.

Large and small banks encourage such emergency loans; rack up debt to pay taxes, travel, purchase an iPad or whatever. Consume now and pay later. Irrational exuberance may be out of fashion but paying taxes is not. Is it better to be in debt to the tax man or a bank?
Either way, life sometimes seems like a torturously slow journey marked only by tax payments.

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