On August the 19th 2009 the IRS finally reached an agreement with the Swiss banking giant UBS for the latter to disclose the details of some 4,450 US account holders believed to be using their Swiss bank accounts for tax evasion purposes. The deal was hailed as a victory by US politicians from both sides of the fence as they have united in their fight to bring tax evaders to justice – but why is taxation avoidance seemingly such big business in America?
The problem is believed to be so endemic that a so-called tax amnesty was offered with a cut off date originally of September the 23rd 2009. The Internal Revenue Service extended the deadline to October 15 stressing there would be no further postponements. This action allowed US citizens at home and around the world who have previously failed to make full disclosure relating to their overseas and offshore holdings to come forward and face limited fines and reduced repercussions from the IRS.
Perhaps the question one should be asking is why Americans are seemingly driven as a nation to hide their wealth and protect their assets so aggressively. Maybe the problem Americans have is not with tax evasion but with tax rates and the far reaching nature of their policy on taxing a US citizen’s worldwide income and gains regardless of where in the world the individual lives, works or retires. More annoyingly for many American expats is that any wealth earned overseas is also subject to US taxation.
There’s really no doubt about it, the previous American government launched the tax evader witch-hunt in an attempt to deflect attention from the nation’s own failing economy. It whipped up hatred for those it held up as exploiting the tax system and profiting whilst others suffered in poverty in the US. By castigating certain pockets of wealthy society the Bush administration attempted to win the votes of the average person. By suggesting that a handful of US citizens were robbing the economy of billions of dollars worth of tax income, Bush managed to redirect a certain amount of attention away from the gaping cavernous hole that he left the US economy in when he finally left office.
The incoming government has seemingly kept up momentum in this cat and mouse game. They are being wily about it too, keeping their cards very close to their chest to give nothing away to benefit those who have avoided paying taxes but are unsure as to how much the government actually knows about them. In the deal signed with the Swiss government in August a sealed document was handed over that outlines the criteria by which the Swiss will have to select which American clients will have their details turned over to Washington. This document’s contents are being kept as secret as the Swiss banking system once was because Obama’s men and women don’t want anyone getting wind of which criteria make a person’s activities and antics offshore of worthy note and due to an investigation and which don’t.
By holding back and displaying a poker face to the nation, the new government is forcing potential tax evaders into a game of chicken. Who will break, who will reveal their hand first? Well, as mentioned the exceptionally narrow window of amnesty has been offered by the government to allow anyone who has knowingly avoided making a full disclosure over the past 6 years to come forward. Following the end of this amnesty the government has advised that it may make known the contents of the aforementioned sealed letter. If you’re a tax evader are you going to take the risk that the government knows nothing about you – or are you going to ‘fess up – it depends how big your balls are, or how big the fine will be that you’re facing I suppose.
The consequences of this bi-party approach to stamping out tax avoidance has already taken a very high toll – it is alleged that the philanthropist Finn M. W. Caspersen, heir to the Beneficial Corporation fortune took his own life as a net closed in around him following allegations of serious tax avoidance for example. So is it fair to hunt down and hound those Americans who attempt to shield their wealth offshore? Well, in so doing such US citizens rob directly from the mouths of the poor both in their own nation and in developing countries around the world that require support from the US government – so yes, many people apparently think it is acceptable to go after tax evaders – after all they are criminals and what they are doing is high crime. But if that’s true, then why do so many every day Americans go to such lengths to try and squirrel away some of their cash?
If the tax system in America was fairer, if the previous government hadn’t bankrupted the nation and if the current government wasn’t hell bent on implementing an unworkable healthcare reform perhaps Americans would be happy to pay their taxes. If Bush hadn’t marched American soldiers into what may people believe was an illegal war and left them there to die in their hundreds perhaps more Americans would be willing to fund the likes of the Department of Defense with their taxes. And then if Obama hadn’t reneged time and again on his pre-election promise not to raise taxes for Americans, again maybe fewer US citizens would feel so aggrieved to the point at which they make a conscious decision to break the law and protect their own wealth and future prospects by shielding their assets overseas.
The debate is a heated one – and at the end of the day all we have to go on are the facts. The facts are that Americans evade taxation in their thousands – there are believed to be 52,000 US account holders at UBS in Switzerland alone, 4,450 are facing investigation for a start. The Americans who evade taxation come from all walks of life with tax attorneys reporting in the run up to the end of the tax amnesty that they have had calls from those with millions undeclared in typical offshore tax havens, as well as from those who live and work abroad who just run a day-to-day account in another nation that they have never declared. Tax evasion is a crime; legitimate taxation optimisation is not. When you tax someone too aggressively or waste their taxation revenue, you will aggrieve them – an aggrieved taxpayer is far more likely to want to find ways to optimise and protect their fiscal position.
The fact remains however, US politicians from both main parties want American wealth back onshore where they can see it, track it and tax it. They allegedly want the tax to fill in the gaping hole in the economy – although the average American had nothing to do with the nation’s fiscal collapse – and they are trying to promote the idea that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear. Whilst this is true on one level – i.e., if you’ve never been in the business of shovelling your millions into a numbered Swiss account – it is deflecting from the real truth on another level. What the US government is doing is breaching privacy rules, violating a human’s right to confidentiality and stealthily taking invasion of your privacy to a whole new level.
Financial experts are already discussing where they believe the government will look next for a revenue boost – international hedge fund investors are likely to take the brunt – and so you see this is just the beginning. First they strip your rights away from you, then they take what they want. It’s all about control my friends – the American government wants it therefore you can’t have it.