Today at McGill Law, Prof. Sam Singer of Thompson Rivers University will present his work in progress, entitled "Evaluating Canadian Tax Remission Orders: A Debt Relief Vehicle for Taxpayers," as part of the annual Spiegel Sohmer Tax Policy Colloquium at McGill Law.
Here is the abstract:
Remission orders, although rare, serve important functions in the Canadian tax system. This paper draws from a comprehensive study of federal tax remission orders issued between 1998 and 2017. It presents general findings about remission orders in that time period, including the number of remission orders issued, their reported costs, and the number of remission order applications. The paper identifies the five most common categories of reasons cited for granting remission orders. It then applies tax policy analysis to assess the two most frequent reasons for granting remission orders: to provide debt relief for financial hardship and/or extenuating circumstances, and to provide remedies for government errors and delays. This study also highlights concerns about the federal tax remission system, and provides recommendations for improving its fairness, transparency, and accountability.For those not familiar with the practice of remission in tax, this is a regime under which the taxpayer can ask the tax authority to forgive their tax debts, manly due to hardship or extenuating circumstances. This was a new concept to me when I came to McGill in 2012 and learned about a rather generous remission order granted to Blackberry in what I assumed to be a last-ditch effort in the nature of industrial policy and national protectionism--but Prof. Singer's paper makes clear that the remission order is not only (or even primarily) for massive multinational companies. I am bothered by the idea that the tax authority has a more or less obscure power to forgive the tax debts of some taxpayers under unclear circumstances and using criteria that are not transparent or reviewable. This seems to me to be a tool which could create great distrust in the tax system, in terms of both procedural fairness for taxpayers who don't know about or get remission orders but also in terms of the opacity behind which some officials appear to have a tool to help selected individuals at their will. I look forward to the discussion of Prof. Singer's paper and the implications of this research for the big questions of tax governance.
The tax policy colloquium at McGill is supported by a grant made by the law firm Spiegel Sohmer, Inc., for the purpose of fostering an academic community in which learning and scholarship may flourish. The land on which we gather is the traditional territory of the Kanien’keha:ka (Mohawk), a place which has long served as a site of meeting and exchange amongst nations.
This fall the Colloquium will explore a range of contemporary tax topics across three disciplines--law, economics, and philosophy. The complete colloquium schedule is below and more information is available here. As always, the colloquium is free and open to all.
The Colloquium is convened by Allison Christians, H. Heward Stikeman Chair in Taxation Law.
Tagged as: colloquium McGill tax policy
This event is free and open to the public.
Tagged as: conference history McGill Tax law
2017 marks the centennial of Canada's federal income tax, so it is appropriate that this year’s tax policy colloquium at McGill Law will focus on the theme of 100 Years of Tax Law in Canada. The colloquium is made possible by a grant from Spiegel Sohmer. The land on which we gather is the traditional territory of the Kanien’keha:ka (Mohawk), a place which has long served as a site of meeting and exchange amongst nations.
The distinguished speakers who will contribute to this year’s colloquium include:
- Kim Brooks, Professor of Law, Dalhousie University. Former Dean, Dalhousie Law, Prof. Brooks is an internationally recognized tax scholar. On October 2, she will present a keynote and take part in a half-day symposium on the history of tax law in Canada.
- Amir Pichhadze, Lecturer, Deakin University, Australia. Prof. Pichhadze is an emerging scholar who studied comparative tax law in the U.S. and U.K. and completed a Judicial Clerkship at the Tax Court of Canada. On October 23, he will present work in progress on the development of value added taxes in Canada, the U.K., and the U.S.
- Shirley Tillotson, Professor of History, Dalhousie University. Prof. Tillotson is a recognized expert in Canadian tax law history, and has written multiple articles and books on the subject. On November 6, Professor Tillotson will present on her new book entitled “Give and Take: The Citizen-Taxpayer and the Rise of Canadian Democracy,” and her upcoming research plans.
- Ajay Mehrotra, Executive Director and Research Professor, American Bar Foundation, and Professor of Law, Northwestern University. Professor Mehrotra is a leading voice on tax history in North America who has studied various aspects of interrelationships and influences in Canadian and U.S. tax law history. On November 20, he will present a work in progress on intersecting developments in Canadian and U.S. tax law history.
- Ashley Stacey, Associate, Olthuis, Kleer, Townshend. Ms. Stacey is a junior associate whose practice is focused on advising First Nations and First Nation-owned businesses on corporate and commercial transactions and who blogs at oktlaw.com on tax and governance issues relevant to First Nations communities. On December 4, Ms. Stacey will present her work in progress on historical and contemporary intersections of taxation, sovereignty, and autonomy of First Nations in Canada.
The colloquium is open to all.
Tagged as: colloquium McGill scholarship tax policy
If you are an IFA member or are attending IFA this fall, you can now download the full IFA 2017 Cahiers. The general report for Subject 1 on BEPS is co-authored by myself and Stephen Shay and is also available on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The G20/OECD’s multi-year campaign to combat base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS) marks a critical step in the evolution of the international tax regime and the roles of institutions that guide it. This General Report for Subject 1, IFA Congress 2017, provides a snapshot of the outcomes of the BEPS project by comparing national responses to key mandates, recommendations and best practices through the end of October, 2016 based on National Reports representing the perspectives of 48 countries. These National Reports reveal that the impact of the BEPS initiative on a particular country corresponds to at least three key factors, namely: (1) the extent to which domestic law is already in substantial compliance with BEPS outcomes; (2) the degree to which implementation of BEPS outcomes appears capable of delivering positive revenue or economic results, or both, relative to a country’s experiences and perceptions prior to BEPS; and (3) the type and degree of involvement of a country in the formative stages of the initiative preceding the release of the final BEPS action plans. As BEPS continues to unfold, it is difficult to gauge the full extent to which countries in fact will adhere or defect from the rules. However, the BEPS project has witnessed the transition of global tax governance from the OECD countries exclusively to global fora. This leaves open questions regarding agenda-setting for international tax policy going forward. As we conclude this interim snapshot of the origins, standards, and responses to BEPS to date, we look to future IFA congresses for answers to these questions and a final assessment of the BEPS project.
Tagged as: BEPS OECD research scholarship tax policy
Next week, I will be participating in a workshop at Tilburg University in the Netherlands on the topic of International Tax Governance, a timely topic especially given the recent developments in the coordination of the international organizations, the expansion of the OECD's global forum idea to monitor BEPS, the impact of the state aid cases within and beyond Europe, and the increasing role of NGOs in shaping international tax policy. Here is the program:
|10:00- 10:30||Welcome and registration|
|Cees Peters (Tilburg University): International Tax Governance in Action|
|11:00- 12:30||Session 1 - Transparency|
|Edwin Visser (PwC): reaction of MNC's to transparency pressure: CbCR and CSR discussion (30 minutes + 15 minutes discussion)|
|Maaike van Diepen (Tax Justice Network): The perspective of an NGO (30 minutes + 15 minutes discussion)|
|12:30- 13:30||Lunch break|
|13:30- 15:00||Session 2 - EU State Aid|
|Allison Christians (McGill University): a US perspective - the reaction of the US government and US MNC's|
|Anna Gunn (Leiden University): an EU perspective - the reaction of the EU Member States and EU MNC's|
|15:30- 17:00||Session 3 - Compliance of states with new norms of international taxation|
|Carla De Pietro (Tilburg University and University of Bologna): Implementation of the OECD BEPS measures (Action 6) in the light of the relationship between international and EU law.|
Tagged as: conference governance institutions international law tax policy
Last week I presented a work in progress on the OECD's newest global forum, which is being created to fulfill and further its BEPS initiative, as part of the BYU symposium "The Cutting Edge Of International Tax Reform." I tentatively titled my paper (ok, outline) "Not So Soft Law: The OECD Tax Regime" but I don't think I will stay with that title because soft law is still a fairly obscure notion among tax academics and practitioners, at least, in North America (it seems somewhat better-understood elsewhere). In any event I don't have a working paper yet but here is my working abstract:
Tax jurisdiction gaps and overlaps are inevitable in a world economy powered by constant cross-border flows of capital and income. States have long sought to overcome issues thus created by engaging in consensus building over nonbinding “soft law” norms via the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). But with its most recent exercise, the Base Erosion and Profit Shifting initiative, the OECD is hardening these norms into a genuine global tax regime. It is doing so with model legislation, peer monitoring, and institutions that supplant its more inclusive policy rival, the United Nations, bringing in non-OECD countries as "BEPS Associates". This Article argues that the implications of these developments include building a new international tax organization (or world tax order) to avoid the encroachment of the United Nations as a potential tax policy rival, thus ensuring the continuing global tax policy monopoly of a core set of OECD nations.I'm still thinking through all of the fascinating institutional changes taking place as part of the BEPS process, and don't have any grand conclusions. International tax governance has become infinitely more complicated over the past several years, with multiple institutions popping up as potential rivals for the OECD's monopolistic grip on global tax policy norms and processes. I welcome the OECD's desire to develop an inclusive forum to enable more effective participation in global tax norm development. However I am wary about whether and how inclusive the proposed institution can be in light of the observation that agenda-setting is such an important aspect of effective participation. BEPS Associates don't quite seem like full partners yet, hence their title unfortunately seems all too apt.
If non-OECD countries set up a new forum, to which they invited OECD countries as Associates, would the major action items be those covered in BEPS? I am not convinced. A serious study of formulary apportionment as an alternative to transfer pricing seems like a topic that a truly inclusive forum would insist upon immediately. That is not to say that formulary apportionment is wonderful or great or a panacea--I am not sure it is. But there are so many calls for it, it seems to me impossible to understand the continued insistence by the OECD to quash the discussion. If it's not a great idea, fine: study it and reveal its weaknesses. If it is a great idea, why suppress it? Perhaps there are good reasons, but in general I favour studying things to not studying them, especially when not studying them looks like an attempt to intentionally thwart progress. Similarly, I would expect such a forum to tackle items of interest especially to "less developed" countries (as far as that term may be adequately defined), such as the longstanding source/residence compromise and the expansion of the permanent establishment regime to deal with services.
If these items were to become topics of attention and study within or because of the new OECD forum, I think I would reflect on this new tax order as a success story in developing the means for effective participation of more countries in the global tax dialogue. If not, I would be less sure that progress has been made. At this stage I have far more questions than answers.
Tagged as: institutions OECD scholarship tax policy
Jinyan Li of Osgoode Hall recently posted a paper of interest: China and BEPS: From Norm-Taker to Norm-Shaker. Here is the abstract:
This article considers the implications for China of the G20/OECD Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) initiative and the international implications of China's BEPS measures. More specifically, the article examines China's transfer pricing, anti-treaty shopping and general anti-avoidance rules. It suggests that China is transforming itself from a taker of international norms to a shaker of such norms.Li notes that China is viewed as a victim of BEPS, that the phenomenon "highlights the unfairness in sharing the tax base between developed countries and developing countries," and that the OECD initiative is an opportunity for China to gain traction in global tax governance. From the conclusion:
China’s BEPS measures go beyond the scope of the BEPS initiative. ... China has high hopes on the outcomes of the BEPS initiative. At the same time, China appears to be realistic regarding what can be achieved at a global level. The BEPS initiative is not about redesigning the basic international tax rules and the system continues to be biased in favour of capital exporting countries (CEN), i.e. residence countries. The BEPS initiative is not designed to rethink the arm’s length principle to assign more value to productive activities and markets in both developing countries and developed countries. Instead, the BEPS initiative pursues the objective of attributing more profits to the jurisdiction where intangibles are generated, which are predominantly developed countries.
China has a high stake in the future of the international tax system, as it is both a major recipient of foreign direct investment (FDI) and a major source of outbound FDI. The BEPS initiative marks the beginning of a process that involves China. It is uncertain if the G20 and OECD member countries will be able to agree on the recommendations of the BEPS initiative and introduce the necessary legislative changes to initiate the reforms. It is even more uncertain as to the effect of the BEPS initiative on developing countries, in spite of the efforts of the UN Subcommittee and the DWG. However, to the extent that BEPS is shaking up the international tax norm, China is surely an active norm-shaker.
Tagged as: BEPS governance OECD scholarship tax policy
José Antonio Ocampo posted a plea for institutional reform in tax policymaking today, in which he decries the jealous guarding of tax policy exclusivity by OECD countries, especially the US and the UK. At the recent Financing for Development conference, developing countries called for a greater role for the UN in global tax governance but the OECD countries balked. Ocampo writes:
The OECD, whose members are essentially the world’s 34 richest countries, certainly has the capacity to set international standards on taxation. Yet the domination of a select group of countries over tax norms has meant that, in reality, the global governance architecture for taxation has not kept pace with globalization.
The Monterrey Consensus reached in 2002 included a call to enhance “the voice and participation of developing countries in international economic decision-making and norms-setting.” But although the OECD invites some developing countries to participate in its discussions to establish norms, it offers them no decision-making power. The OECD is thus a weak surrogate for a globally representative intergovernmental forum.I understand that it is costly and complicated to develop institutions that allow for meaningful participation by all people affected by transnational tax policy norms. But the international tax system is a resource allocation machine that has significant impacts on people's life chances across all populations. I fail to see what principles of justice support a world in which a small and privileged group of people make decisions of both process and substance that directly impact, and yet purposefully and systemically exclude, the majority of the world's population. The substance of norms, rules, and standards may matter in global tax governance, but ultimately institutions matter even more.
Tagged as: institutions justice OECD political malfunction tax policy
Last year, I participated in a symposium at NYU on the topic of tax and corporate social responsibility, on a panel with the above title. The NYU Journal of Law and Business has published the symposium issue, including a transcript of the discussions. You can view the entire symposium issue here,. Below I excerpt from my contribution but the entire exchange is worth a read.
... I think the story Josh is telling is that using transparency as a means to generate the political will for corporate tax reform poses some risk, real risk, to the tax system administration. I think we'll have some discussion about how genuine that risk is and how it should be measured against other risks, like firm competitiveness and proprietary information and so on. But I'll leave that discussion aside for now to focus on the first part of the proposition, and that is that what we're trying to do with corporate tax transparency is generate the political will for reform.
Now I should preface this by saying that I am by nature and profession a curious type of person, and I would love nothing more than to be able to pore over the 57,000 pages of some corporation's tax return ... I think if you've read some of my prior work on the subject, you will no doubt be unsurprised to hear me say let's raise the curtain and have a look. Let's call it an issue of accountability and governance, and let's keep lawmakers on their toes by letting folks at this data that lawmakers are so jealously gardening for their own reasons. We humans don't seem to have too much privacy from the government, so let's us get to the business of crowdsourcing, the monitoring of the artificial people among us.
But I keep coming back to the problem of what are we trying to solve here. If the goal is to generate political will for change, then I'm actually not so optimistic that corporate tax return disclosures is going to get us there. Instead I think it will lead us to continue having interesting discussions about whether or not we should be taxing corporations at all, or the variation that we had earlier today, which is how to draw the line between avoidance and evasion.
That's to say we've already been taught, even without corporate tax disclosure, to expect that most American companies, especially those with a global footprint, aren't paying much tax anywhere. The jig is already up. This is not a secret. We're not rioting in the streets about it for the most part. Sure, corporate tax disclosure will confirm what we already know, but I'm not sure if getting all the gory details is going to push the political picture that much further. Maybe it will, because we clearly have an "Overton Window" in which really taxing American corporations is not thinkable. And maybe widespread naming and shaming, or just naming, will move that window. I think it's also possible that the sheer enormity of everything that you're going to see laid bare is going to very quickly lead to resignation and more handwringing, and not so quickly to actual reform.
But if we're already at that stage now, we already have the stories - we already know the story. If we're already there, then we don't have to wait for corporate tax disclosure, do we? We can already accept the notion that if we're going to collect more from any taxpayer, corporate or not, what we need is not more public information, but more withholding and more third-party reporting.
So let's see if I can unpack that a bit because I know that's to say a lot. I think it's worth noting that for the vast majority of people, it is not the case that the income tax system is voluntary. And why is that not the case? It is because for that vast majority, every dollar they earn is reported to the IRS by someone else. And most of these dollars are also subject to withholding, and so you have to work some to get any of it back at the end of the year. And if you are an employee, you won't get much opportunity in terms of base erosion at all; you're basically paying a gross receipts tax. We have made wage earners easy to tax with withholding and third-party reporting. And more or less, gross basis taxation with a few exceptions.
But corporations are different. They are really hard to tax, especially when they are crossing borders. We give them lots of opportunities to carve away their gross and get to a very small net. Withholding and third-party reporting and filing for refunds is generally not the way we get corporations to pay tax. For them, as Reuven said earlier today, the income tax system really is voluntary, and lawmakers have given them a lot of discretion. Transfer pricing is just one very prominent example of this.
... maybe disclosure is a way to have more informed public debate about the income tax system. But if we're having that discussion, then it seems not at all clear to me why we would be limiting the conversation to publicly traded corporations at all, when we are as or more interested in Cargill or SC Johnson or your local mom and pop cash flow all-cash business as we are in Google or Apple, who have at least to tell us a few stories about their tax affairs.
And if we have that conversation, you must admit we are limiting ourselves to corporations ... and not looking at other untold billions of dollars that go untaxed because they're not subject to reporting or withholding.
So now we come to the punch line, and that is that it is possible that corporate tax transparency is going to throw back the curtain on one sector of society - publicly traded corporations - but the irony is these are the people, this is the very sector about whom we actually have more information about tax than any other, precisely because they already have disclosure rules. That disclosure is exactly why we already know there's a problem, and yet we have not mustered the will to solve it.
GE has been in the news with its zero corporate tax rate for years. ... I think little is likely to change with more info ... the conclusion, I think, we will be eventually forced to draw is that we, the public, haven't really mustered the political will for reform that would lead to more taxation of American companies. And we really can't help the IRS administer or enforce the tax system. In fact, as Josh suggests, we run the risk of undermining that effort, so disclosure might not get us very far at all.
What we're going to have to do is start figuring out ways to do a lot more withholding and a lot more third-party reporting, and we are going to have to do that for all of our taxpayers, corporate or not, publicly traded or not. Maybe some or most of us already know that. We didn't need to read the corporate tax returns to tell us that, and we won't know anything new about the corporate tax system when we get that opportunity.
Now I hate to end with the topic of FATCA. For those of you who don't know, FATCA is a global third-party reporting and preemptory withholding regime designed to make sure Americans declare and pay their taxes on income and assets held overseas. It is not a workable system, it's a mess, but think about the design. In theory, it says the IRS could eventually, once all the kinks are worked out and everybody gets onboard, track every dollar ever paid to any American anytime, anywhere. If that's true, if that's even partially possible, we can see the problem here is not at all about capacity. It is purely a question of political will and nothing more, and it never has been.
A parade of stories about offshore tax evaders got the U.S. to adopt FATCA. Yet a parade of stories about GE, Google, and Apple avoiding their taxes has not got the U.S. to embrace corporate taxation.
In fact, we seem to be seeing the opposite response in the base erosion and profit shifting initiative, but that's another story altogether. I'm not convinced, therefore, that corporate tax transparency will lead to more corporate tax. However, I would still love to get my hands on GE's tax return. Thank you.
Tagged as: corporate tax disclosure governance politics scholarship
Tomorrow I will be participating on a panel on "Illicit Financial Flows" at the Engineers Without Borders 2015 National Conference, currently taking place in Montreal. The goal of the session is to discuss the nature and impact of so-called illicit financial flows in Canada, the United States, and the world's developing countries.
I have been asked to address the question "what promising policy instruments or reforms could potentially curb outflows of illicit finance?" The use of the term illicit in this context seems to be an attempt to elide the distinction between avoidance and evasion. Those familiar with my work know that I approach this terminology with caution because I think it is a mistake to conflate evasion and avoidance into a single category for purposes of advocating generalized policy reform. In a paper I published last year on Evasion, Avoidance, and Taxpayer Morality, I argued why I think the phenomenon of tax evasion is distinct from tax avoidance, each represents a different type of governance failure, and each requires a tailored response. But I certainly understand the instinct to see both tax avoidance and tax evasion as essentially drains on public resources that we'd like to imagine would otherwise be available for various socially useful projects.
I'll try to lay out the field as I see it in the time allotted. It is a big topic to cover in a limited time. I suppose I could just plug Martin Hearson's very good work on this subject. I am curious as to how Engineers Without Borders came to concern itself with this issue; the rest of the conference focuses on innovative, sustainable, and inclusive development. I think it is another sign that tax justice advocacy groups, like the Tax Justice Network, are successfully inducing NGOs across a broad spectrum to view taxation as a human rights issue that permeates all facets of social and economic development.