Call for papers: Women & Tax Justice conference

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Call for Papers: Women and Tax Justice Conference at Beijing+20, Ontario, March 2015

FEMINIST LEGAL STUDIES QUEEN’S and WOMEN FOR TAX JUSTICE and FEM TAX INTERNATIONAL

CALL FOR EXPRESSIONS OF INTEREST IN PRESENTING PAPERS
International Women’s Day Conference: Women and Tax Justice at Beijing+20: Taxing and Budgeting for Sex Equality

Kingston, Ontario, March 6-7th 2015

In 1995, the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing. This was a turning point for women’s movements internationally as activists and advocates came together to discuss, debate, and mobilize around gender issues. The result was that at this conference, an unprecedented number of governments made commitments to implement gender-based impact analysis of all existing and proposed programs as laid out in the Beijing
Platform for Action.

2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Conference.  This Beijing+20 Conference takes place at an historic moment when major international efforts to advance human development and human rights converge with intensify ing efforts to accomplish the eight Millennium Development Goals by their 2015 endpoint, and with the final drafting of the post-2015 development agenda and sustainable development goals as a global roadmap for the future.

Since 1995, however, growing reliance on tax cuts to stimulate growth, recessions, and austerity budgets have undercut women’s movement toward economic and social equality. Cuts to progressive taxes like personal and corporate income taxes have left heavier burdens of consumption taxation on women, particularly those in poverty and Indigenous populations, and reduced tax revenues are used to justify cutting public services, employment, and ODA.

At the same time, generous tax cuts, investment incentives, and corporate exploitation of offshore and tax haven regimes have enabled those with the highest incomes to increase their shares of wealth.

This conference focuses on identifying the tax and spending laws that are undermining sex equality, and on ensuring that governments develop sex-equal tax and budget policies that will raise the revenues needed to meet their Platform and other human rights obligations.

The organizers are seeking expressions of interest in presenting papers on these issues.  Right now, all we need is a short email with one sentence on each of these points:
•  What your research is about (country, type of tax, spending program, or budget issue)
•  Your organizational position and relevant qualifications
•   Approximate cost of travel/accommodation expenses you might need to attend

This call is to all those involved in all aspects of policy formation, critical scholarship, or applied forms of research at all levels pertaining to tax policy and gender, social welfare legislation, and gender-based budget analysis. This includes academic and practicing lawyers, policy analysts, interdisciplinary and comparative scholars and experts, law and graduate students, and those in development studies, sociology, political studies, economics, and other university disciplines, and NGO or community organizations.

This conference is being organized and presented in collaboration with Women for Tax Justice, a policy and campaign platform supported by Tax Justice Network, and by Fem Tax International, a research network of interdisciplinary scholars and policy analysts.

Date and Location: The conference will be held at the Faculty of Law, 128 Union St., Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, on Friday March 6 and Saturday March 7, 2015

Accessibility: The venue is fully accessible; please contact the coordinators with any questions.

Submit your expression of interest by December 31st to either or both:

Prof. Kathleen Lahey      Prof. Bita Amani
Co-Director                         Co-Director

kal2@queensu.ca             amanib@queensu.ca

Tax justice and violence against women

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Linkages between systemic economic injustice and acts of violence against women need to be made carefully.  Everyone in mainstream political discourse is outraged by non-state-sanctioned acts of violence against women, while economic inequality is understood by many to be merely an inevitable and rational consequence of morally neutral economic policies. As US politician Debbie Wasserman Schultz discovered recently, if you characterise neoliberal politics as a species of violence against women, you will be publicly disciplined for your transgression.

In a recent blog post about tax and sanitation, veteran tax justice campaigner Richard Murphy mostly left these linkages to our imagination. He points out that proper sanitation requires publicly funded infrastructure, and public funds cannot be raised in the places where basic sanitation is lacking if income arising there goes untaxed.  So far, so relatively uncontroversial. However, he finishes by asking “What if it was your child who had to go into a field at night to relieve themselves?” This raises the indelible vision of the bodies of two teenage girls in Uttar Pradesh, raped and murdered and hanging from a tree near where they had (as was their habit, not having a toilet in their home) gone into a field to relieve themselves.

In February, the Times of India quoted the police in another district of Uttar Pradesh as saying that 95% of cases of rape and molestation took place when women and girls left their homes to “answer a call of nature”. The link is indirect but nevertheless clear: when the accumulation of wealth is not subject to adequate levels of taxation, the cost is physically visited upon human bodies, and in particular the bodies of the most disadvantaged and discriminated against: often women in poor countries.

And who are the people who benefit from low levels of taxation?  Where, if we dare put it this way, did the money go that might otherwise have been spent on sanitation infrastructure in rural India, and on social welfare programmes concerned with lifting its people out of extreme poverty?  Richard Murphy rightly identifies as beneficiaries of the world’s failed tax system (i) the wealthy elites (largely men) and (ii) multinational corporations: the top percentiles of male-dominated human wealth, and beyond them a huge inhuman nexus of corporate wealth.

But to stop there is to fail to follow the global inequality chain to its far end, over the bell-curve of wealth and down the other side.  That huge inhuman nexus of corporate wealth (managed largely by male executives who are more likely to adopt aggressive tax positions than their female counterparts) yields income and gains to institutional shareholders: pension fund trustees and their ilk.  And benefiting ultimately from those institutional portfolio holdings is the entire spectrum of asset owners, including everyone whose only participation in global capital is to make tax-relieved contributions into an occupational pension fund — the wealthier half of the populations of rich countries rather than the wealthiest 0.1% of people in the world.

Even among this wider asset-owning class, however, the benefits of inadequately taxed corporate profitability accrue predominantly to men.  Women earn less, are more likely to work or have worked part-time, and are more likely to have spent periods of their lives not earning, and so the volume of institutional investment of which they are beneficial owners is relatively small. And what is more, the men whose assets predominate in pension funds have those assets subsidised through pension-related tax reliefs which are prioritized and maintained while public funds for domestic violence prevention & prosecution are slashed.

Therefore it seems to us that, rather than shying away from the linkages between violence against women and systemic economic and fiscal injustice, we have to examine them closely and unflinchingly, and follow them where they lead, understanding them not merely by reference to the barely imaginable savagery of the rape and murder of two girls in field in rural India, or the barely imaginable wealth and power of global elites and corporations, but as part of an interconnected global system of social and economic injustice in which women are dispossessed and disempowered at every level.

Yes, we must see more women on the boards of multinationals, yes women should be better represented among the asset-owning classes of the global north, yes there must be better provision for dealing with sexual and domestic violence whether it be in suburban England or rural India, and yes there must be sanitation infrastructure for the hundreds of millions of households worldwide who currently lack it.  But while fighting for these things it is necessary to understand how an invisible global balancing act between private profitability and state power links them all together.  There are victories to be won for women everywhere, but the underlying system which creates economic advantages for some and visits the cost upon the bodies of others must also be challenged if there is to be equality and justice anywhere.

‘THE BOYS’ WILL BE BOYS

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There is an interesting kerfuffle brewing in the upper echelons of the UK tax industry, among senior tax barristers.  These men, Queen’s Counsel as they are known by virtue of their formal stamp of approval from no less than the UK head of state herself, are the be-all-and-end-all of UK tax advice.  Supposedly, no one speaks more authoritatively on the application of UK tax law than they do.  And it turns out that a number of them have been systematically giving wrong advice, because it pays much better to tell tax avoiders that their plans work than it does to tell tax avoiders to go away and pay their taxes.  This has all been revealed by whistle-blower Jolyon Maugham in a blog post – and the current state of the ensuing brou-ha-ha is described in this piece by the Society of Trusts and Estates Practitioners.

What we at Women For Tax Justice find interesting about this is the expressly gendered way in which the discussion has been framed.  All over the (admittedly obscure) corners of Twitter where such matters are debated, Maugham’s label for these tax-cheat’s-tax-cheats, “The Boys”, has been adopted without question.  And it is easy to see why if you look at membership of London’s five leading tax barrister outfits, Pump Court Tax Chambers, Gray’s Inn Tax Chambers, 15 Old Square, Temple Tax Chambers, and 11 New Square. There is only one female QC among them, and she appears to have a litigation-focused practice so probably has little time for telling expensive lies about the law to tax planners in order to buy herself another Bentley.

This is not to suggest that men are somehow genetically more likely than women to be venal, or to be drawn to professional practices that are low on integrity and high on personal reward, often at the expense of society’s poorest and most vulnerable.  But it does tell an important story about privilege.    Because no doubt these men do not feel that they are behaving wrongly, and their moral self-satisfaction comes in part from being top dogs in their field.  If your wrist cannot be slapped because you are the final arbiter, it is very easy to fall into a habit of thought whereby you cannot see it as needing to be slapped.  The exercise of power and privilege is self-legitimizing in the minds of those who exercise it.

This is no mere philosophising; it is the practical reality.  Suppose Mr. Maugham were to report this QC whose opinion was “at best incompetent, at worst criminally fraudulent” to the professional tribunal that could in theory call “The Boys” to account.  Who is to gainsay the QC when he says his advice represented a reasonably arguable position?  It is after all the job of these men to present what their clients do to ‘plan’ or avoid their taxes in as reasonable a light as possible, and tax QCs do it better than anyone.  For a tax QC to say that his advice represented a reasonably arguable position is for him to make what is in effect a self-truthifying statement.

This is what happens when accountability is sidelined and when privilege is permitted to be systematic and self-governing: truth and justice are subordinated to that privilege.  And as the gender make-up of the top end of the UK tax bar demonstrates, there is no more obviously systematic and self-governing privilege than male privilege.

Taxes and gender norms: who cares?

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Taxes can seem far removed from women’s daily struggles; however in reality they play a crucial role not only in distributing wealth and resources, but also in perpetuating sexist gender stereotypes.

One of the major factors in defining women’s time, opportunities and income is their unpaid care work. This includes cooking, cleaning and care of children and the elderly – and also, in many developing countries, collecting water and fuel for domestic use. All over the world, women spend much more time than men on unpaid care, and indeed work longer hours overall when this unpaid work is taken into account. Unpaid care responsibilities profoundly impact women’s ability to take on paid work or pursue economic opportunities, and the types of work they are able to find and do. For many women and girls, their domestic duties also shape their educational opportunities and attainment. Many other important areas of women’s lives and rights are also affected, ranging from health to political participation.

Is this an inequality we are prepared to accept? As many development and human rights actors have argued recently (see Oxfam GB, ActionAid, the Gender & Development Network), tackling the gendered distribution of unpaid care work should actually be a core part of poverty reduction strategies – not to mention progress towards gender equality.

To achieve the change needed, it is certainly necessary to improve access to childcare, public service provision and workplace policies – but also to take a close look at tax systems.

Tax codes and tax policies are stuffed full of implicit and explicit assumptions about women’s role in society. In particular, income tax policies in many countries are based on the idea the men are/should be the breadwinners (and manage the household finances), while women are/should be carers and homemakers. Indeed, tax codes entrench and perpetuate this social arrangement. For example:

  • In countries with joint filing systems for couples, many women face a higher marginal tax rate on their first dollar earned than they would do as an individual (because their husband likely earns more than they do – hello, gender pay gap!). Faced with the prospect of low after-tax earnings, many women will decide it makes more financial sense not to enter the labour force at all.
  • When two-earner couples are taxed at a higher rate than one-earner couples, this may also be a disincentive to women working (given that the person who stays at home is usually a women, thanks again to pernicious gender stereotypes constraining the choices of both men and women).
  • Tax codes that attribute the non-labour income of a wife to her husband: e.g. the profits of a family business may be regarded as his income, regardless of her role in said business.
  • Tax exemptions and allowances that are automatically granted to the male spouse.
  • Tax allowances that favour households based on a male breadwinner/female carer model over a dual earner/dual carer model. For example, in many countries a taxpayer (implicitly envisaged in male form) can claim allowances for a household member who is financially dependent and contributes unpaid labour – representing a payment for unpaid work that goes to the spouse of the worker herself! These type of provisions may also create disincentives for men taking on more of the unpaid care work in the home – because if two parents split earning and care responsibilities more equally they would no longer be eligible for such support.

Simultaneously, measures on the expenditure side of fiscal policy that cut funding for health, care and social security (such as austerity measures) often increase women’s unpaid care work, as they step in to fill unavoidable care needs (for the sick, elderly, disabled people, or children) that the State will no longer meet. To politicians and policy-makers, women’s unpaid labour appears to be a cost-free, limitless resource – when in reality women have to make major sacrifices in order to increase their workload in the home, often at the expense of their health or financial security. (Meanwhile, serious measures to tackle tax evasion, close tax avoidance loopholes or raise taxes on the most wealthy could prevent the need for these cuts altogether.)

Tax systems do not exist in a vacuum. They embody and entrench all sorts of social norms and expectations. Some of these may be of social value: higher taxes on cigarettes, alcohol, or carbon emissions for example. However, others are profoundly damaging and discriminatory against those who do not conform to traditional family models or gender roles. It doesn’t have to be this way. If tax systems are capable of enshrining outdated gender norms it must be possible to design them to promote new, more egalitarian gender models. (One idea floated recently in the UK is redesigning tax credits to enable a separate work allowance for second earners, thereby encouraging more women in single earner couples to enter the labour market.) As Diane Elson says, the “design of income tax systems should proactively promote an equal sharing of both paid and unpaid work between women and men, not give incentives for the perpetuation of families with breadwinner husbands and dependent wives”.

Corporate inversions – the winners and losers

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The debate over corporate ‘inversions’ (the practice of US businesses reincorporating overseas in order to avoid US taxes) has gone mainstream Stateside. Recently, both Jon Stewart (on the Daily Show) and Stephen Colbert have dedicated segments of their shows to inversions.  You can see both (funny and insightful) pieces on this page. (If the videos don’t work where you are – apologies, you should be able to find versions that will work for you on Comedy Central’s website or by Googling using the search engine of your choice.)

Stewart characterizes the inversions as “a win-win for everyone – and by everyone I mean only the corporations and their shareholders.” Congress estimates that inversions will cost the Treasury $19.5 billion over 10 years, but experts (and “communist rag” Fortune Magazine) say this estimate is far too low. What Colbert and Stewart do not mention are the victims of these schemes – tax avoidance in general being very far from a victimless practice. It is everyday people who feel the effects of these missing billions – from the burden of taxes shifted on to their labour and consumption to make up the revenue shortfall, to the declining quality of services and infrastructure funded from public resources. As we have outlined previously, women often take the biggest hits in this regard – and of course, are vastly under-represented among the corporate executives and shareholders who benefit.

A Republican senator shown in the Daily Show clip claims that “in a way, these corporations are economic refugees” from over-high taxes. Political blustering aside, what these inversions really mean is that there is less money to deal with the real refugees who are flooding into the US from Central America – tens of thousands of whom are unaccompanied children, who are being held and processed in woefully inadequate conditions.

[And here is a reminder that inversions aren’t the only way that US corporations avoid taxes.]

 

 

Tampons and tax avoidance on the high street

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If you are in the UK shopping at Boots the Chemist you are likely a woman (around 70% – 80% of Boots’ customers are female).  Baby products, domestic healthcare products, beauty products: these are all targeted at women, in the roles that we are expected to adopt as mothers, domestic goddesses and sex objects.  A small number of the products are VAT-free but most of them are not, which means that (however low our income) tax is collected from us by virtue of the money we spend on them.  VAT is, in theory, not applicable to essentials, but many of these so-called non-essentials are hardly luxuries. Few UK mothers would want to be without things like sticking plasters and baby wipes. Few UK women would view tampons as a frivolous ‘luxury’: does the government expect us to use rags instead? The price you pay for these things is marked up by 20% (although VAT on sanitary products was cut to 5% in 2001, in line with EU regulations, after years of campaigning for a zero rate) – whether you are the daughter of an oligarch or a single mother in a minimum wage zero-hours job.  20% added to the price of a cheap eyeliner or some sticking plasters may not be much, but with millions of these transactions taking place every day, the amounts add up.

You would probably expect some of your spending in Boots also to represent Boots’s profit margin, and you would be right: Boots is a highly profitable business.  And you would also probably expect that profit margin to be properly taxed, so that Boots’ business bears its fair share of society’s costs (benefiting as it does from the UK’s infrastructure and healthy educated workforce, for example).  In this you would be wrong.  In fact Boots’ profits are heavily subsidized out of public money; out of the money you pay in tax.  How does this work?  It works because Boots was bought out in 2007 via an offshore structure using borrowed money, and Boots gets a UK tax deduction for the interest paid on that borrowed money.  What used to be UK taxable profits became a financial flow leaving the UK untaxed, by virtue of nothing more constructive and socially useful than Boots getting a new owner.

The UK government likes to think of this kind of thing as “investment” and that is why these transactions benefit from generous tax breaks, but in fact it is the opposite of investment into the UK – it is moving profitability offshore, out of any country’s tax net.  The state wants to attract big money but the only thing it has to offer in exchange is skewing its tax system in favour of that big money, thereby defeating the purpose of attracting the money to the UK in the first place.

Deliberate shortfalls in the tax system have to be made up from elsewhere, and that is where the VAT paid by shoppers at Boots come in.  The whole system is in effect a massive forcible transfer of wealth from millions of not-so-well-off women in the UK to the billionaires who run the private equity firm that bought Boots out.  Those billionaires make a profit out of you, and at the same time the state takes extra money from you in order to provide them a little extra sweetener as a reward for profiting from you, even though they are already vastly wealthier than you.  And neither of them looks like they ever felt the need to wear make-up to a job interview.

These men and their investment partners are in the process of exiting their position in Boots, and while we bid them a hearty good riddance, the tax break they have been benefiting from will continue to benefit Boots’ new owners (Walgreens), who appear to be buying it as part of a structured transaction to avoid gigantic amounts of US tax.

Why tax justice is a feminist issue

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Globally, women are more likely to live in poverty than men. They are paid less, they own less, they do more work overall, and poverty and discrimination increase their exposure to the risk of violence. At the same time, poor women and girls bear the brunt of the government spending cuts that are taking place in developed and developing countries alike. In most cases, these spending cuts could be avoided altogether were governments to take strong measures to tackle tax abuse by corporate entities and the wealthiest in society, or commit to taxing them at higher rates.

Instead, both powerful corporations and wealthy individuals put pressure on States to reduce their own tax burden in the name of “efficiency” and “competition”, and to perpetuate a global system in which international financial flows, massive profits and huge personal fortunes are allowed to escape tax. Meanwhile, governments turn to workers and consumers to generate public revenue. The result is that giant amounts of corporate income – and the wealth of the 1% – accumulate untaxed and in tax havens, while rich and poor countries alike struggle to provide for their populations’ basic needs.

These are policies whereby, in effect, the poor subsidize the rich. Since the asset-owners and shareholders of the global North are predominantly men, and the global poor are predominantly women, these mechanisms essentially represent a massive global transfer of wealth and power from women to men. Millions of women around the world have little choice but to sell their time and labour for meagre wages; and while their labour and consumption is taxed, the corporations and financiers who ultimately make vast profits from their toil pay little or nothing into the public purse. Schools, hospitals, roads and energy infrastructure – and other goods and services essential for human flourishing and for progress towards gender equality – remain inadequate and under-financed.

At the national level, studies across different countries have shown that women bear a disproportionate share of overall tax burdens, while government expenditure tends to privilege men. The benefits of tax cuts for corporations and high earners largely bypass women, while they feel the brunt of regressive VAT/consumption taxes, as women tend to use larger portions of their income on food and basic goods for the household – because of gender norms that assign them responsibility for the care of dependents. Indeed, tax policies themselves play a crucial role in entrenching these social norms, tending to be based on an outdated sexist ‘male breadwinner’ model. So, as well as direct effects on women’s income, tax policies enshrine social norms and gender stereotypes that are profoundly discriminatory and constrain women’s opportunities, political voice and progress towards equality.

Over the last three decades politicians in most countries have substituted regressive consumption taxes (e.g. VAT) for wealth, income and corporation taxes. This has reversed the largely successful progressive tax policies of the previous half-century, worsening inequality and substantially impacting the expenditures of poorer households. Women have born the brunt of this reversal. Combined with the gendered impacts of government spending cuts that have created more unpaid work for women while slashing their benefits, in many countries poor women’s resources, time, health and coping abilities are being stretched to breaking point – with those who experience additional forms of discrimination (on the basis of e.g. race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or national origin) often suffering most.

Therefore, national and international tax systems entrench patriarchal power structures in the economy, in public life, and in the home – making women’s full economic equality a mirage under the current tax status quo. Tax justice should be firmly on the agenda of the women’s movement; while equally, gender inequality should be a core concern of tax justice advocates.