Tax dialogues: getting beyond ‘too hot’ and ‘too cold’

28Nov16

Last week I was at a conference held by Tax Justice Norway, Chr Michelson Institute (CMI) and the Norwegian School of Economics (NHH) in Bergen. The conference was called “Lifting the Veil of Secrecy: Tax Havens, Capital Flows and Developing Countries”. It included academics, legal practitioners and campaigners, and covered a wide ground ranging from illicit financial flows and tax evasion to corporate lobbying on tax issues, to implementation of BEPs, to whether a broader shake up to the balance between ‘source vs residence’ in international taxation is needed.

screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-12-37-09I am grateful to the organisers for inviting me and asking me to give a brief presentation on myths and truths about the scale of resources at stake from multinational taxation in developing countries (here is the short version, and here is a  longer version I presented at CMI the following day). I also wrote a briefing for CMI on illicit flows (‘are we looking under the wrong lamppost?’)

There were many insightful and thought provoking presentations. Thomas Tørsløv presented his elegant paper investigating whether lower income countries are more exposed to multinational tax avoidance than more developed countries. Brooke Harrington gave an intriguing talk about her time as a trainee wealth manager (and I am off to buy the book). Len Seabroke and Duncan Wigan from Copenhagen Business School talked about their must-read study of the tactics of the Tax Justice Network (Beserking, cornering, narrating and templating) and PhD student Rasmus Christensen (otherwise known as @fairskat) presented his study of the movers and shakers in the tax professionals corner (‘Octopuses’ and ‘Arrows’). (and many more – You can download  all the presentations  here as a zip file).

However, while the individual presentations were interesting, the discussion as a whole was frustrating, and underlined the gap between hope and understanding in identifying the policies that could have the greatest positive impact, and garner broad enough support to be implemented. As one participant said to me ‘we seem to be having the same conversation over and over’. This of course, is not unique to this conference, or to conferences on this topic. But dialogues about tax and development, do tend to behave like a particularly difficult water tap which swings between ‘freezing’ and ‘scalding’ settings; they veer towards polite and a bit fluffy on one hand or oppositional and acrimonious on the other.

Some ideas

How can we design events to  constructively bring together practitioners, researchers and campaigners on this topic? I came up with three ideas. You may have more.

  1. Start with definitions and concepts

Starting with definitions sounds a bit dry and academic. But without them distinctions, for example between what is illegal and what might be challenged as immoral get blurred. Parts can come to stand in for wholes; for example particular estimates of ‘trade misinvoicing’ stand in for illicit financial flows, or the handful of cases that made the headlines from the Panama Papers stand in for interpretation of the other 11.5 million documents. While in many cases definitions are themselves contentious, nuances and different assumptions could be set out in pre-reading. Given that these discussions move around the world this does not need to be drawn up afresh for each conference or meeting, but iterated on in open-source style.

  1. Draw a map

Graphic recording of conferences is old hat, and sometimes just results in pretty cartoony wallpaper. But when it is well done and integrated into the design of an event it can help to organize issues and capture the emerging picture of themes and questions.

Trying to keep track of who was talking about what, this is what I doodled in my notebook.

screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-12-31-29     screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-12-31-36

(the lines connect the presentations in order)

No one wants to end up with this on their wall (except perhaps a physics teacher drawing Brownian motion), but maybe a visual map of the issues could support the design of dialogues that cluster participants together on key questions, and then record  how the emerging questions and insights relate to each other

  1. Matchmake joint presentations

The conference included a couple of great presentations by pairs of researchers working together. What would be amazing though would be joint presentations between individuals from different sides of the fence on contentious issues. Pairing the ‘cornerers’ and the ‘arrows’, so to speak. Give them a specific question and ask them to develop a joint presentation that do not require them to agree on everything, but rather be clear on the things that they agree on, the things that they disagree on, the state of the evidence and the things that are unclear or unknown.

Upton Sinclair famously said that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”. Conferences and dialogues like this bring together people whose salaries and expertise lead them to understand, and to discount, different things. Building understanding beyond our own bubbles demands that we find ways not to re-run the same conversations.



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