Cleanliness, taxes, politics: The good, bad and ugly

By Michael Lashley

“The Doctor say to pay as you earn
But Sparrow say you paying to learn
And my Father say he sharpening the axe
For when the collector come, to chip off the income tax.”
(Pay as You Earn – the Mighty Sparrow)

Perhaps I should apologize for that cheap shot in the headline on this column.

The presence of the word “cleanliness” is meant to introduce the issue of ethics, and to avoid any blatant suggestion that either taxation or politics is in and of itself dirty! Taxes have always got a bad rap. When difficulties arise in the finances of the country, the province or the city, too many put the blame on taxes, instead of blaming those who decide on and manage the taxes we pay.

That is not my opinion. On the contrary, I have a feeling the Mighty Sparrow agrees with me that his Daddy was in fact threatening the taxman in the famous calypso quoted above about the PAYE tax system (pay as you earn”) just introduced in a certain country by a premier known as “The Doc”. I have no problem with a healthy approach to taxation to pay for the goods, services and policies that we want government to provide for us.

The last part of that sentence is of the utmost significance: “to pay for the goods, services and policies that we want the government to provide for us”. Almost everyone accepts that some level of taxation is necessary to pay for our society’s collective needs. The challenges arise from our conflicting views on what our collective needs are, how many of them are to be delivered by government, at what cost, whether any policies are also to be implemented through taxation and if so which policies.

As if those challenges were not enough, we also have the major factor of distrust. There are many important areas in which our political managers do not enjoy our trust: telling the truth, telling the truth before elections, and using tax revenues (all kinds of tax revenues, not just income tax revenues) for the specific purposes for which they are intended.

Too many politicians fear that telling the truth will cause them to lose an election. Some politicians even believe that most taxes, especially taxes aimed at sharing the country’s wealth equitably and at assisting the needy, violate our right to keep and manage our own hard-earned monies. And a whole lot of politicians and members of the public are convinced governments are inherently dishonest and inefficient in the use of our collective monies.

We should not allow such concerns, fears, and entrenched convictions to lock us into a position of hopelessness and helplessness. Personally, I am not in the business of giving up and leaving all public policy issues to politicians, public servants / technocrats, members of think-tanks and academics at our universities.

I refuse to walk that cop-out road. I prefer to seek out those who, like me, are searching and working for solutions.

And therefore, in a more positive approach, I venture to recommend a three-pronged strategy for moving forward. My opening gambit would be that we should take the hot-potato issue of taxes out of the lose-lose domination of politicians, because they cannot be counted on to call a taxing spade a taxing spade, neither before nor in-between elections.

The initiative in proposing areas and levels of taxation should be taken by the other diverse interest groups. Then, as always, we need to nurture a culture of policy development based on discussion, negotiation and compromise, not on sham public consultations gerrymandered and infiltrated by politicians and political parties.

Lastly, in order to get taxation on a reasonably balanced footing, we need mechanisms for more effective transparency and accountability.

In that regard, I dare to suggest that we need to upgrade or even replace the existing avenues for civilian oversight and freedom of information. If a legislative or constitutional measure is required, then let us fight for it. But let us not fold our arms and wait for that legal process to be completed.

Michael Lashley
Michael Lashley