Saturday, October 17, 2009

Beggars for Capitalism

The artists’ tax exemption scheme should be scrapped and replaced with an arrangement where artists are assessed on all their income over a five-year period. None of us likes paying taxes, yet, proverbially at least they are as inevitable as death. Taxes are what we rely on to pay for health care, education provision, culture spend and much else besides.
I’m opposed to the Artists’ tax exemption scheme because I believe it is morally indefensible and not of real benefit to real artists anyhow. Most artists in Ireland do not earn enough to pay taxes and most people who benefit from the artist’s tax exemption are not artists. Bono is not an artist: he is a composer of pop ephemera and no qualification is necessary to dismiss Celia Ahern (millionaire chicklit author and Mrs to another millionaire pop ephemerist) as an artist. The argument that these millionaires and others should be exempt from tax while an individual on the minimum wage supporting an unemployed spouse and children in rented accommodation should contribute tax towards the funds needed to provide policing, roads, street lighting etc. that these millionaires also benefit from is morally indefensible.

Most poets, visual artists, dramatists etc do not earn enough from their imagination to make a living, let alone pay taxes. If someone does not earn enough to pay taxes, then they don’t pay taxes, nothing could be simpler than that fact. The less money you earn, the less complicated your relationship to tax is. The problem for most artists who do earn enough to pay tax is that they have good years followed by fallow years. A novel which earns its author €200,000 in a single year may have taken five or more years to write. It would not be unusual for this to be the only significant earning for a novelist in a long, long time. Assessed over a five year period these earning would equal an annual salary of 40,000 a year – the average industrial earnings. Someone on this wage with a single parent or marriage tax allowance would currently face annual deductions of about 5,000 euro. If the novelist deducted as business expenses her spend on computer and peripheral costs, stationery, post, phone, internet, web design etc. she could arguably reduce her tax liability to close to zero. I would propose that the artist/poet/novelist be assessed on their earnings over a five year period to allow for this situation. In any case most artists would still not earn enough from their creative efforts to pay tax.
Currently, if you are a writer who earns from giving readings or lectures or workshops you are obliged to declare these earnings for tax purposes. Most writers earn more from readings and workshops than they do from royalties. If all of a writer’s earnings, not just royalties, were assessed over a five year period, most writers would legally benefit more than from the present situation – and they would still be paying their fair share of tax – the same as anyone else on the same earnings level.
If all the millionaires and other high earners benefiting from the artist’s tax exemption paid their fair share the government would have more money available to increase bursaries to those artists who need them.
One of the biggest drawbacks in the current system is that not the Arts Council, not Aosdana, nor any artists’ representative organisation is consulted by the Revenue as to who should qualify for the exemption. The Revenue decide for themselves. And the sort of individual who is benefiting most often is bringing the scheme and the reputation of the arts sector in to disrepute. Why should a professional historian already receiving an exorbitant salary or pension from a university qualify for a tax exemption on his book royalties? Why should a brainless popular broadcaster whose book was ghostwritten? Why shouldn’t “ordinary tax payers” be enraged when they hear of these examples? Why should anyone on a good income from whatever source not pay their fair share of tax?

Artists are codding themselves by supporting the tax exemption scheme. Most of them will never earn enough to be charged tax and if there were fewer tax exemptions in all spheres of Irish life there would be more money in state coffers to provide for artist bursaries, grants, commissions etc.

Artists are special in the irregularity of their earnings – this reality should be accommodated by assessing them for tax over a five year period, not by exempting them entirely and obliging even poorer people to shoulder the burden of financing state services on artists’ behalf.

The average artist or writer who supports the current tax exemption scheme is like a street beggar who supports extreme capitalism just in case he one day becomes a millionaire.

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