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Time for books seven and eight in the RSA Books of the year list. Tomorrow will see the unveiling of the last two and my choice of the overall winner.

Polly Toynbee and David Walker – Unjust rewards

I am choosing this book for three reasons: First, because Polly and David were ahead of the curve in their attack on the super-rich and those who pander to them; second, because the book contains a series of thoughtful policy recommendations (more on one of these below); and third because some of the comment on the book from old-school right wing columnists and bloggers (who have apparently never forgiven her for being ungracious about Auberon Waugh after his death) was so abusive and gratuitous it continues to need balancing.  

One of the recommendations in Unjust Rewards was to insist on the publication of tax returns so companies and individuals who are abusing tax loopholes can be exposed. I was told the other day that HMRC are, in one area at least, exploring a similar approach. Sadly I didn’t know enough about the tax system to fully understand, so I stand ready to be corrected if I’ve got it wrong. As I heard it companies and individuals wanting to test out new ways of exploiting tax loopholes can take their case to HMRC Special Commissioners. After hearing the case the Commissioners’ ruling is published.

But because companies generally don’t want the public to know how they are trying to evade tax they often withdraw their appeal just before it goes to the Special Commission. The idea being explored (implemented?) is to put appeals into the public domain earlier in the process. Thus, a company seeking to evade the spirit of tax law by exploiting the letter of tax law would have to defend its actions in public.

If I’ve got this right, it is an interesting example of the kind of ‘nudging’ advocated by Thaler and Sunstein, in this case using public opprobrium, rather than more conventional tools of law and regulation, to achieve public policy goals. Not only is this good for the taxpayer but it is ultimately better for the system. If we all obeyed the spirit of taxation rules we would need a much less complex system. As Polly Toynbee said in her lecture here, rich people and companies complain about the complexity of the tax system when that complexity is primarily a result of their own sophisticated attempts to open and exploit loopholes in the system.

Richard Sennett – The Craftsman

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the event with Richard to launch his book – very disappointing, as I count him as a good friend and an earlier book of his, The Fall of Public Man, influenced me greatly.  In The Craftsman, Richard opens up a fascinating debate about the importance of craft in the functioning of society and provides us with an alternative way of thinking about the value of work in our lives – in contrast to the devalued corporate culture he critiques in ‘The Corrosion of Character’.

And all the books mentioned here are available at the RSA Bookshop!

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