“Paying taxes is a noble enterprise.”
These words spoken by Neil Brooks, professor of tax law at Osgoode Hall Law School, served as a leitmotif of the Tax Fairness Summit in Ottawa, March 29-30, organized and run by Canadians for Tax Fairness.
As Brooks and other speakers at the Summit pointed out, this motif resonated a few decades ago when the concept of a social contract still held significant weight, but sounds counterintuitive in public discourse today where taxes are discussed as though they were an affliction rather than a virtuous contribution to the common good.
To this mentality, the conference offered a reality check: taxes pay for innumerable services that we take for granted, from public education, to law enforcement, to public parks, to clean water and safe food. Canadians for Tax Fairness notes that the average Canadian household receives a bargain $41,000 in public services each year. In other words, taxes enable us to live in a way that we never could on our own.
In light of the demonization of taxes so characteristic of our current political and economic climate, speakers stressed the paramount need to reframe our perspective of taxation. Contributors like All Together Now! and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives offered ideas based on past and current campaigns. Among the top priorities: repairing the sense of disconnect between paying taxes and their provisions for a caring society.
This disconnect may not be as wide a divide as it seems, however. Keith Neuman from the Environics Institute reported that 75% of Canadians still believe that taxes are fundamentally a good thing, suggesting that our historic value of the social contract has not been entirely undermined.
Beyond perspectives of taxation, the Summit covered a range of issues related to tax fairness. A key theme was the issue of inequality and the central role taxes play to achieve a more equitable society. The topic was most candidly addressed by journalist Linda McQuaig who recently co-authored “The Trouble with Billionaires.” McQuaig spoke about the extreme growth of income inequality between the middle class and upper class in the United States and Canada. As an illustration, she noted that in 2010, U.S. hedge fund manager and billionaire, John Paulson, earned more than 82,000 nurses in America combined.
Representatives from the Tax Justice Network (TJN) raised the pervasive problem of offshore tax havens. According to TJN, over half of all world trade passes through tax havens. Estimates suggest that offshore assets represent an annual tax loss of about $250 billion, more than three times the OECD countries’ annual official development assistance to the entire world. This activity undermines tax legislation, slows economic growth, and promotes criminal activity. The consequent losses are shouldered by tax-paying citizens and especially by the poor.
Other Summit workshops addressed issues like reforming regressive municipal taxes, shaping tax systems to better address poverty, and using taxes to better care for the environment.
In providing insightful reflection on the key issues surrounding the tax debate today, the Summit held true to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s maxim that “taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.”
I think most of us would agree that it’s a price worth paying.