Shaving Slices of Salami from a Smurf

Originally published in Now Then Sheffield 29, August 2010.

The so-called Robin Hood Tax (RHT) is a proposed tax on transactions within financial institutions. It does not include transactions by individuals and is estimated to be able to raise up to £200 billion per year based upon levies of between 0.005% to 0.05%. There is an extremely coherent explanatory video on the website.

This is an example of accumulating many tiny amounts of money into a much more significant whole. I remember hearing the term “micro payment” for the first time in 2001 although it was nothing new. Like many people, I was introduced to the concept of “salami slicing” by the movie  “Superman III” (1983, dir Richard Lester). The salami metaphor can be applied in either direction. A large sum can be made up of lots of small pieces, or small amounts can be shaved off a large amount without being noticed. The proposed RHT would accumulate an enormous amount of tax revenue whilst being an insignificant burden on its target.

The term “Smurfing” was coined in the 1980’s and refers to the practice of dividing large transactions into several smaller ones in order to avoid being noticed by regulatory or statutory bodies who might want to tax or investigate them.

In “SuperMan III” the character Gus Gorman discovers how to collect all the fractions of cents left over due to the rounding down of computer-based calculations. He writes a computer program that gathers them all together and pays himself a fat salary cheque of $90k. Back in the real world, the only people earning that kind of monthly bonus are bankers. Makes you think, doesn’t it? Gorman foolishly buys a sports car and drives it to work at the same employer that he has just embezzled, apparently not familiar with that whole Smurf concept.

In this country tax is a dirty word and most people resent having to pay a single penny. It does not take a genius to understand that without taxation there would be no public services, but the resentment is so ingrained that political campaigns are often based upon promises of lower taxes. In practice each incoming government changes so may rules, regulations and allowances that it is impossible to work out if you are better or worse off. Is this just a subtle, salami-slice of intended confusion or simply the lone Smurf of incompetence? Taxation is inevitable in a developed and urban society, so let’s get used to the idea.

Our newly elected government has just issued a new budget but has not implemented the RHT although it is widely supported and easily implemented in a system which is universally computerized.

Despite the rhetoric of Tweedle Cameron and Tweedle Clegg, who talk about a fairer Britain, the Conservative Party (despite the conjoined, facile LibDem idiot-child) has never been shy of favouring the haves at the expense of the have-nots. By increasing Value Added Tax (VAT) to 20% they have put extra tax on almost everything we buy, and it even taxes the homeless, the unemployed, and those without a bank account. If the price of everything goes up then they can penalise the most vulnerable, directly and indirectly. We’ll call it the General Belgrano Tax and it will sink everyone, regardless of status.

On the other hand, the National Lottery is a voluntary tax, some say a tax on the poor. Well I say it is a tax on people who want something for nothing, and if that’s their motivation then they deserve being parted from their money. It’s actually giving most people nothing for something. However, the National Lottery has one saving grace, despite having no say in what it’s spent on, at least you can choose not to contribute. Let’s call it the Peter Stringfellow Tax and it’s just another form of gambling.

Does no-one else find the thought of government-endorsed gambling repellent? The democratically-elected, holier-than-thou, busy-bodies who believe that they know best for the British people by progressively denying us the pleasures of smoking and drinking, are the same morally corrupt manipulators who are directly and indirectly promoting the extremely destructive and addictive obsession that is gambling. Gambling is the most invidious of vices and these days it’s everywhere thanks to government relaxing its regulation and advertising restrictions.

Having said all this, I have a few a suggestion for a new, voluntary tax initiative that our current government could implement, given that they have already demonstrated their lack of scruples by not implementing the RHT in their emergency budget.

One of the truly astounding phenomena of social gaming is the puzzlingly successful FaceBook game, FarmVille. Pundits criticized its developers when they decided to “monetize” it. For the uninitiated, the word means adding options in the game that need to be paid for with real money. The Guardian published a story about a 12-year-old boy who blew £900 on FarmVille, buying virtual nothings. He squandered his own savings then hit his mother’s credit card without her knowledge. Many of these games are highly addictive, but merely exercises in resource management that promote nothing educational nor lasting, just unfounded aspiration, excessive consumption and a limitless horizon of frustration. The developers, Zynga, have effectively discovered a legal way of stealing pennies from children. Maybe we should called it the Fagin Tax.

Governments could learn from this, and why stop at pennies? This kind of pervasive, chewing-gum, self-subjugation is ripe for exploitation. Which more malleable, easily identified and vulnerable market is there than children? Zynga have found a way of inspiring the same desperate, clutching-at-straws that is gambling, whilst appealing to an extremely impressionable and irrationally addictive demographic. And it’s legal. According to the Guardian, FarmVille has 63 million players. That’s more than the population of the United Kingdom. They are not all children, of course, but if we could shave a penny from each player, every day, we could have that £200 billion of funny-money that the Bank of England has “quantitatively eased” into the economy paid off in a year, and the poor suckers would hardly notice it.

We’d call it TaxVille and it would be a resource management game where you have to balance the nation’s budget. It would, of course, be endless and ultimately impossible but success would be vaguely promised by the buying of optional fantasy add-ons such as Quantitative Easing, Public Borrowing and Proportional Representation.

I am joking, of course, although nothing I have written is untrue.

I believe the Robin Hood Tax is one of the few universally justifiable taxes and should be implemented forthwith, although I have a suggested extension to it that might be implemented:

What the hell, let’s levy micro-payments on every single electronic transaction for every product, service or financial exchange including any transactions that move money offshore! Go ahead, put your money in a Jersey bank and we’ll tax it on the way out and tax it again on the way back in. Every payment into, out of, or within any bank, building society, insurance company, or any commercial organization whatsoever. Neither salami-slicing, penny shaving nor smurfing will enable you to avoid it and it would be a percentage, a very small percentage, which would make it a proportional tax, so the rich pay more. It would trivial, annoying and unavoidable and we’ll call it the Russell Brand Tax. Simples!

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