Monday, December 3, 2012

Teaching journalists to cover tax dodging

Interesting development from the Tax Justice Network, which seeks to train journalists how to research and write about tax avoidance and evasion:
Over four days you will be shown how to investigate corporate accountsoffshore activity and corporate corruption. We will show you where to find documents, how to analyse them and other practical tools to help uncover financial secrecy.
Students of my tax policy classes inevitably come to the conclusion that so many tax policy outcomes are bad because "the people" really don't understand tax, and the educational barriers to their understanding are so high. With this initiative, it seems the TJN seeks to increase public discourse on tax, make tax more salient to the public by training the translators of human experience, news reporters, to see what the TJN sees.


  1. Last night I was going back and looking at all of the previous guests that have appeared on the Agenda with Steve Paikin on TV Ontario. Not one out of the hundreds came from a tax law background or discussed tax policy in any detailed sense. Now why I am using the Agenda with Steve Paikin as an example. Well I think it one of the best if not the best public affairs TV shows in North America and I say not just in the context of it being a Canadian TV show but also to the degree it covers many US public affairs issues that the US media doesn't cover(even PBS) plus all of the show are available online to everyone anywhere. If look through the guest list you see many people from academia both in the US and Canada discussing many obscure issues that are not really covered any other show.

    So one thought of mine is that well even on shows like the The Agenda tax law and policy is just too booring for even them to cover. I think that is part of the story but far from complete. A second part is the fact that I am increasingly believing that many in other tax policy community would rather NOT be discussing issues such as FATCA, Information Exchange, Transfer Pricing, and governance of the OECD in front of a general audience in the realm of public affairs. Some of the problem is the general consensus in the tax law community on all above issues if explained to even well educated open minded people(people such as the normal guest roll of the Agenda) would look and smell really bad. The OECD Transfer Pricing guidelines basically suck, the OECD's internal governance is terrible and their is only so much lipstick that can be applied to the pig.

    I have absolutely no problem with investigative journalism and I think it is great that you are seeing somewhat of crackdown of corporate tax avoidance in places like the UK however, there is a bigger picture and bigger story of how and why we got here which we need to understand if we want to get out here and that story is not being told to the public.

  2. thanks for this comment; i haven't watched the Agenda but will look for it.

    I am not sure why the tax community would not produce outspoken critics willing to discuss these things in public; isn't it the case that it is the contrary, plenty of outspoken critics, esp on FATCA? Isn't the media problem here that the issue doesn't sell advertising (yet)? It doesn't bleed so it doesn't lead, so to speak.

    One way to explain that is that it is not (or not necessarily) that tax is boring but rather that teaching the public about tax is really difficult because it is mind-numbing--too hard to explain almost anything in soundbites or in a format that doesn't up with MEGO-level discussions.

    Among the many reasons why the media might not cover things like FATCA and transfer pricing is that the terms themselves are practically designed to hide the story and confuse the reader. Getting past that involve translating them into a story the public will see as controversial. But to tell a story about tax I think you mostly have to be a master.

    Tax is complex because the economy it regulates is complex, the rules combine to different results for each and every taxpayer, and it takes many years of technical study to produce the kind of understanding that can lead to policy-minded thinking. So of the folks who transcend all those barriers to understanding and thinking clearly, who among them can then take the next step and translate that into a clear and compelling story?

    In my mind the best tax teachers in America right now are Steven Colbert and his lawyer, who have single handedly managed to demonstrate the interplay of campaign finance rules and tax rules in just such a story. Consider the hours of research and study by Trevor Potter, Colbert's team of writers, and Colbert himself that must have gone in to producing these segments. Liken it to the life of an Olympic athlete, who makes things look so easy in the moment of performance, but whom we all know spent years and years in toil, pain and repetitive and even-dare we say-boring training, all for that moment of public glory. There aren't too many moments of public glory in the field of educating the public about tax (or economics, or math, etc).

    Of course, making that which is complex and nuanced into a simple and understandable story is what gets us in to this mess in the first place, namely through political rhetoric that leads to bad laws (or at least laws that can be applied badly, as in FATCA to US/Canadians).

    And there again we come to the media, upon whom we rely to sort things out, research, and above all identify what matters and translate to the people why it matters. That means they need to have people willing and able to tell stories, but stories based in a deep knowledge base. No doubt you've seen many examples of the media's increasing unwillingness or inability to "do journalism"-root out the truth and expose the half truths and deceptions; instead, giving a "he said she said" account of everything so that it is just a barrage of competing stories, as to which the public has no way to independently assess. That is a bad failing, but very likely based in the real culprit here, which is that media is on the whole driven by advertising. So if you can't tell a story that will attract clicks, then you don't have a story to tell.