taxconf

So you’re a Chief Financial Officer or a tax advisor and you see That The Irish Times is trying to sell you tickets to a conference entitled “Corporate Tax. Are we Predator or Prey?”.    I reckon that two things will put you off right from the start.

Firstly, the conference title is provocative, and is very much in line with The Irish Times’ house view (which mirrors ICTU’s view) that a business-oriented low-tax system is in itself suspect.  So if you make your living by advising companies on how to reduce their tax bills, you would have to be prepared, while attending this conference, to be treated as if you were a smear of dog poo on somebody’s shoe.

Secondly, somebody with a sense of humour has lined up Fintan O’Toole as a speaker.  This strikes me as akin to having Donald Trump speak at a feminist conference, or The Iona Institute inviting Richard Dawkins to address their annual conference.  For O’Toole is your typical left-wing bubble-dwelling artsy social warrior, who regards all profit as either undistributed wages or a mortal sin.  That doesn’t prevent him being an excellent writer, by the way; it just means that when he writes about business or economics or taxation, he is completely out of his depth and the result is risible.

This is hardly surprising, as FO’T is literary editor of The Irish Times. Not the business editor, not the economics editor, not a taxation specialist, in fact not anybody with any expertise on these important subjects.  I can think of dozens of left-wingers who know more about economics and taxation that Fintan, any of whom would be capable of offering a useful contribution to this Corporate Tax Summit.  But The Irish Times insider gets the gig.

As I have said previously, The Irish Times wouldn’t habitually commission an economist or an accountant to write controversial articles on, say, literary novels or the theatre, where these are outside their sphere of competence.  So why does it regularly publish economically illiterate articles on finance, economics and taxation matters, written by a social and arts commentator?

Recent typical pronouncements by FO’T on Corporation Tax can be seen here and here. So if you pay good money to attend this conference, don’t say you weren’t warned.

 

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In August 1922 a newspaper publisher named Robert W. Sawyer attempted to define what constitutes “news”.   The nearest he could come, he said, is: “If the paper wants it worse than the person handing it in, it’s news….if the person handing it in wants it published worse than the newspaper, it’s advertising.”

A variant of this has been attributed variously to Lord Northcliffe, William Randolph Hearst and others: “News is what people do not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.”

It helps to keep this principle in mind when reading the “Letters to the Editor” section of one’s newspaper.

The letters page with which I am most familiar is that of the Irish Times, which newspaper I still consume daily — albeit sometimes with gritted teeth, thanks to its over-concentration and preachiness on gender issues, an approach exemplified by (but not limited to) Una Mullally.

If you think that the “Paper of Record” would have the sense to shield its readers from too much propaganda and special pleading in its letters page, think again. Most days, the letters originate from people who have a vested interest in the matter on which they are commentating, and the writers appear to be given free range by the editor to bang their own drum.  Maybe the editor reckons that the readers of the Irish Times are a sophisticated lot who can see through such obviously self-serving contributions.  Or maybe he is fixated with the concept of “balance” and is afraid to close off his columns to all and any hired guns – sorry, lobbyists – sorry, I mean spokespersons.

Today’s letter page is not untypical. A mere 6 letters, so a bit smaller than usual.  But they include letters from:

  • three “masters” of Dublin maternity hospitals, explaining why the mastership system needs to be retained;
  • a senior executive with the International Energy Research Centre, advocating greater stimulation by the government of low-carbon technologies;
  • a representative of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation LGBT Group, voicing concern about how teachers are expected to deal with the recent papal document Amoris Laetitia;
  • a resident of one of Dublin’s most expensive neighbourhoods arguing that the local property tax is unjust and should be the subject of greater agitation (as in water-tax-protests).

Insofar as I can tell, the remaining two letter-writers have no vested interest in the matter about which they are writing.

So two-thirds of the letters appear to be from people expressing views which they are paid to propagate or which are in their own personal interest. This is not to say that the views being expressed are wrong, or that they are not genuinely held; however it is helpful (nay, vital) to understand the context in which the letter-writers operate, and how that context might be influencing or accentuating their views, or making it much more likely that they will feel the need to publicly advocate them in the letters pages of our newspapers.

So I have adopted an invariable practice when reading these letters: start at the end of the letter, and take note of what role the writer performs or is representing. Not only will this help to put the content of the letter in its proper context (as Upton Sinclair said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it”), but it also allows me to forego reading the letter completely on some occasions, on the grounds that my store of objective truth will not be thereby enhanced, and life is too short to waste on mere propaganda.

And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson,
Jesus loves you more than you will know.
God bless you, please Mrs. Robinson.
Heaven holds a place for those who pray,
Hey, hey, hey
Hey, hey, hey

So our ex-President Mrs Mary Robinson is to open the State’s first presidential archive and research centre in 2017.  Good for her.

In a touching piece in the Irish Times, Robinson-biographer and acolyte Lorna Siggins tells us that “A quarter of a century after her promise to keep a symbolic candle in the window of Áras an Uachtaráin, former president Mary Robinson has outlined plans to brighten her north Mayo birthplace with the State’s first presidential archive and research centre.  The €8.35 million centre in her former family home – the 19th-century Victoria House, overlooking the river Moy in Ballina – will open in the second quarter of 2017, Mrs Robinson said in Ballina at the weekend.”

€8.35 million!  Wow, that’s very generous of her, isn’t it?  Why, I’m almost ready to forgive her for quitting her pathetic little job as President of Ireland in 1997 two months early so she could nail down a real job with the United Nations as their High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Oh but wait a minute, Mary isn’t paying for the house – you and I are footing most of the bill it seems.  Here’s what Lorna tells us:

  • €1.5 million has been provided by Mayo County Council to buy the house and to provide an adjoining site for construction of an annexe, along with architectural and design services;
  • The State has committed just over €2 million through the Department of the Taoiseach;
  • Mrs Robinson has donated her archive, valued at €2.5 million, to the State, under section 1003 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997, which provides that people who donate heritage items can credit the value against certain tax liabilities.

So this vanity project for Mrs Robinson will cost the Irish citizens up to €5.5 million, depending on what is the net effect on the State coffers of the tax foregone as a result of the big fat tax credit she will get.  She may not have thought enough of us to serve her full term as President, but obviously our money is as good as anybody else’s.

It seems that the archive “will house files relating to Mrs Robinson’s legal work, her presidential engagements from December 1990 to September 1997 and her term as UN high commissioner for human rights from 1997 to 2002.”

I am impressed with the prescience she showed in keeping safe all those boxes of files spanning some five decades.  She must have been confident from an early date that history was being created.

However, in my self-appointed role as intrepid defender of the hard-pressed Irish taxpayer, I have to ask two questions: (a) How come the archive is worth €2.5 million and who decided this?  And (b) how come the papers in the archive are Mrs Robinson’s to donate in the first place?

The latter question is interesting.  Mrs Robinson, both as President of Ireland and as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was effectively employed by and paid for by Ireland and the United Nations respectively.  Under most legal systems and contractual arrangements with which I am familiar, any materials produced in the course of the execution of the paid-for role belong to the employer organisation, not the individual involved.

Why are the files relating to her presidential engagements from December 1990 to September 1997 not already the property of the State?  Why are we effectively paying for them twice – the first time through her salary when she was President and was generating the relevant papers, and now in giving her an 80% tax credit for handing them over to us?   Maybe we need to take a look at the terms of our Presidential “employment contract”.

If Mrs Robinson is anything, she is ethical and law-abiding.  So I’m sure everything is above board.  But somebody has to ask the right questions.  If you are waiting for the Irish Times to ask any challenging questions of her, don’t hold your breath.

PS…. I note that for our money we also will get a research centre that will have “a particular emphasis on the ‘critical area of women’s leadership’, unleashing ‘energy for change’ through women’s empowerment”.   I can’t wait.

We’d like to know a little bit about you for our files
We’d like to help you learn to help yourself.
Look around you all you see are sympathetic eyes,
Stroll around the grounds until you feel at home…..

 

If you were a senior politician in this decidedly unpopular Government and wanted to promote yourself through the medium of a laudatory and unchallenging newspaper profile, preferably one that takes up almost two whole pages in a weekend edition (which more people have time to read), how would you fancy your chances of achieving same?  Well you might reasonably think that the probability ranked somewhere alongside the chances of winning the Lotto jackpot, even if you have a fleet of handlers and spin-doctors who are paid handsomely to promote your merits on a daily basis.  After all, our newspapers are usually wall-to-wall with caustic and unflattering articles about politicians of all parties, particularly the current Government parties, it would seem.

But there is one class of politician, and one particular newspaper, to which this does not seem to apply.  They are, respectively, well-educated women and The Irish Times.

On Saturday 1st November, the wimmin who pull most of the strings in our Paper of Record excelled themselves by according our new Minister for Justice a lavish and soft profile on the lead page (and most of the second page) of its Weekend Review section.  You will get a flavour from the heading “Minister with a Mission to Deliver”, and even more so from the sub-heading “Practical, tireless, sharp and fast-moving, Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald is showing she has a flair for the feasible”.  Enough to make even a politician blush, I would have thought.

The writer, Kathy Sheridan, also makes sure to provide space in the article to promote Ms Fitzgerald’s suitability as our next Taoiseach:

She could yet make it to Taoiseach. Does she want it? “I’ve had a chequered political career, so I don’t even go there,” she says.  True. But surely she would say yes, if offered?  “There’s no question of the Taoiseach going anywhere.”   But supposing it opened up? “You’d have to examine the circumstances . . . I don’t think a woman should say no to anything.” So she would take it? “Of course,” she says, with some exasperation.

I can picture other senior Government members, and potential successors to Enda Kenny, gnashing their teeth and shaking their head in disbelief as they read the article.  But there’s more:

Many doubted her ability for justice – why is not clear, since she had been a resounding success elsewhere. In a glowing reference, Fergus Finlay, chief executive of Barnardos Ireland, said she had “worked tirelessly” as minister for children. “She wasn’t afraid to listen, learn and debate with those working directly with children . . . Her commitment to the role is evident from her long list of achievements, accomplished in an impressively short tenure.”

Now Ms Fitzgerald is probably one of our more capable politicians, despite her less than stellar electoral record, but it’s a bit tiresome to have to continually witness the gender bias of the Irish Times, particularly in its coverage of politics (see here for another example).

And even she, as Minister for Children for the past 3 years, might have been slightly embarrassed by the proximity in the Weekend Review of another article, this one about child poverty, which starts with the words “Before the recession, Unicef ranked the State as one of the 10 best places to be a child.  Now it is one of the worst, ranked 37 out of 41 countries.”  No mention of that in Kathy Sheridan’s article.

Ms Fitzgerald, a former head of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, can be confident that the sisterhood, and particularly its many representatives in the Irish Times, will be looking after her interests in the months and years ahead.

 

..

… when I find myself heartily agreeing with this letter in the Irish Times today:

Sir, – Can I assure the compiler of “What’s Hot/What’s Not” (Magazine, May 5th) that many of us who are over 60 are more than capable of navigating the intricacies of the Ryanair website.     Believe it or not, we actually also know how to boot up our computers, open a web browser, send an e-mail, and we even know that a mouse is not just a furry little creature you might find running around the house from time to time. – Yours, etc,  Finian Matthews,  St Margaret’s Road, Malahide, Co Dublin.

It was in response to a crass bit of “journalism” in the Irish Times magazine last Saturday (see picture).  It confirms my suspicion that editorial content in the magazine has been surrendered to a bevy of 20- and 30-year old women who have more in common with Ross O’Carroll Kelly than Kathleen Ni Houlihan.

Dan O’Brien had a good piece in Saturday’s Irish Times about house prices in Ireland.  But a couple of comments should be made.

Firstly, Dan (or the sub-editor) gave the piece the title “How low can house prices go?”  While the article was interesting in many respects, I don’t recall him answering that particular question.  OK, so headlines are always making false promises which the actual article fails to deliver;  not exactly Man Bites Dog.  Also, if you read the article expecting to see Dan’s own view, you would have been disappointed.

In fairness he does say “If the 2011 rate of decline in residential property prices continues for another 12 months, prices will fall by about 15 per cent from their current level. Given the headwinds facing the market, that is more likely than not.”  And he also notes that the Banks’ Stress Tests had a baseline assumption “that prices will fall by a further 20 per cent before the market hits bottom. In their worst-case scenario, the decline would be almost 30 per cent. That would bring the fall from the 2007 peak to 59 per cent.”

But it would have been nice to have the personal view of the Economics Editor of the Irish Times on the matter.

Secondly, and more surprisingly, Dan doesn’t seem too hot on the calculation of percentages.  Two sentences in the article offer contrasting views on the extent of the rise in Irish house prices during the bubble phase:

Compare “In the decade from the index’s start date, in early 1997, Irish property prices quadrupled” with “Although the US did not look out of the ordinary in the property-price rises it experienced from 1997 to 2006 (130 per cent compared with Ireland’s 400 per cent), it has suffered the second-worst rich-world crash (after Ireland)…”

Surely Dan doesn’t think that if a number quadruples, it has risen by 400%?  Surely he knows that it has only risen by 300%?  Must be an error by the pesky sub-editor again.

You may have read about a report prepared by Amárach Research which said that if consumers were to spend as little as €4 extra a week on Irish-produced goods then over 6,000 new jobs could be created. Minister for Enterprise and Jobs Richard Bruton formally launched the research in Dublin last Monday.

This prompted an Irish Times editorial urging us to Buy Irish, and the editorial was in turn criticised by a letter to the editor of 8th September .

The letter-writer was 100% correct in his scepticism about these developments, for such campaigns constitute a form of “soft” protectionism: if we are consistently willing to favour Irish products which are either more expensive or of lesser quality than the equivalent import, then we allow Irish producers to be less efficient than foreign competitors, and thereby almost ensure that they will not be able to compete with them in overseas markets.  This condemns Irish firms to being small-scale domestic producers.

Any campaign to Buy Irish is against the spirit (if not the letter) of the law governing the Single Market, and we have more to lose than to gain if other EU countries follow suit.

The Irish Times editorial did admit that “long-term prosperity depends on winning in world markets” but asserted that “a shot in the arm for the domestic economy is desperately needed in the short term”.  But what constitutes the short term?  Irish firms cannot postpone the achievement of greater efficiencies for even a short period, and I have no doubt that firms (under pressure from their workforce and the trade unions) will see any indulgence by the Irish consumer as an opportunity to postpone hard decisions.

More importantly, many of the inefficiencies and cost burdens under which Irish businesses toil are directly as a result of Government policy or inaction.  Whether it’s electricity costs, local government charges, unrealistic pay rates, gold-plating of EU directives or monopolistic legal fees, it is the government that is to blame for imposing high costs on Irish businesses, or allowing others to do so.

The “Buy Irish” campaign is a potential distraction from the meaningful reform that is needed to make Ireland competitive once again in the world marketplace; it should be regarded with suspicion, and treated as a red herring.