With apologies for my lack of decorum, I would like to howl – not in the manner of a wild beast, mind you, but in the spirit of Allen Ginsberg, the late poet, angel-headed hipster and platonic conversationalist.
In the 1950s, Ginsberg wrote his poem Howl because he saw the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness – starving, hysterical and naked as they dragged themselves “through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix”.
I don’t have anything quite that dramatic to report, but I do feel the urge to raise my voice, at least a little bit if you don’t mind, because of what I see happening to so many of the best minds of my generation.
This week has brought fresh evidence that they spend way too much time thinking about the US tax code. I realise that is not the sort of insanity detailed by a Tangier-to-Yucatán eyeball-kick collector such as Ginsberg, but it is worrying.
The code runs for millions of words and for many of our best and brightest it has become a labyrinth. Their lives are spent inside it, routeing offshore cash flows or structuring financial products to lower tax rates.
The complexity of corporate tax manoeuvring was detailed this week by US Senate investigators who accused Apple of, among other things, circumventing Subpart F restrictions (in sections 951-965 of the code) on shifting profits to tax havens.
The centrality of tax policy as a political issue, meanwhile, was demonstrated in a House of Representatives hearing into how the Internal Revenue Service vetted Tea Party groups seeking to become tax-exempt 501(c)(4) social-welfare organisations.
I am a native of this country but when the television talking heads start gabbing about all these subparts and subsections, I don’t recognise the language. I’m not even sure this talk is suitable for children. Why torture them with debates about the differences between 501(c)(4)s and 501(c)(3)s when we could be teaching them the political poetry of a Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King?
How we landed in this situation should be clear to anyone who peruses the Apple report prepared by Senator Carl Levin’s subcommittee on investigations: there is big money to be made by exploiting the gaps in the tax code. Apple, the panel alleged, avoided taxes on $44bn by bobbing and weaving through Subpart F. I also can see the intellectual appeal of such tax work. As part of its strategy, for example, Apple set up affiliates that were in Ireland, but were not residents of Ireland. The company was there and not there. It reminded me of the way James Joyce remained in Ireland even after he left Ireland. The mind reels.
But my soul tells me to howl: “Enough!” We exert too much energy in the US dealing with tax rates and designing and avoiding elaborate rules – not only from an economic perspective, but as a cultural and psychological matter, too.
It is just not healthy for so many Americans to spend so much of their lives being so furtive. Nor is it in the public interest for so many business people, like the ones at Apple, to devote so much time to cooking their books when we still live in a world without an Apple car or an Apple microwave oven (the iCook?).
It pains me to say this – after all, I am the kind of guy who includes Allen Ginsberg in a column about accounting, for Buddha’s sake – but I am coming around to the idea that it would be better for our national mental health to just have a flat tax for people and businesses.
A progressive tax system is a noble goal (to paraphrase Howl, I would say: Carl Levin! I’m with you in Subpart F!). But I doubt I’ll ever see a real one in the US and I find myself thinking instead of the psychic pleasures of tax simplicity.
I paid a flat tax for several years during a sojourn in Hong Kong in its final days of British rule, and what I liked best about that system was how little effort it took to satisfy the government.
The authorities would mail you a letter telling you to pay 15 per cent of your salary, or something like that, and you would send them a cheque for the money. It took no more time than you would spend brewing a cup of tea or making a sandwich, and that represented a fair trade in my book.
The taxman got his money and you had the rest of your day. You could go back to sleep, look out the window or maybe even read a poem.