2017, Books, Non-Fiction

A Fine Mess: The Global Quest for a Simpler, Fairer and More Efficient Tax System (2017, T.R. Reid)

Well I’m convinced.

This is a journalistic overview of the tax policies of various countries around the world as examples to reform the US Internal Revenue Code. It’s well-written and it’s engaging. It is probably a good place to start before a deeper dive into taxation.

To me, tax evasion/avoidance is the second biggest problem facing humanity today. (The biggest is climate change.) In so many countries the richest people and corporations transfer huge amounts of their money to jurisdictions where it is taxed less or taxed not at all, so that a huge chunk of a particular country’s economy is essentially untaxed. As the man said, “Taxes are the price we pay for civilization”. When the wealthiest are not paying their share, our civilization suffers (mostly because our infrastructure, which we rely upon, suffers as a result of lower revenues.) This book is not necessarily about ending tax evasion/avoidance, but it is about simplifying tax systems which has been shown to improve compliance and also increase faith in the tax process (and therefore government).

Though Reid is not an economist, I find all his proposals convincing. (BBLR, VAT, FAT, etc. Some of which we have some variation of where I live.) However, Reid treats this book very much like a newspaper article so you often have to take his word for it when he says things like “study after study shows” and the like. I do take his word for it, but I remain open to the possibility that some of this is either an oversimplification or flat out wrong. Basically, after reading this, I want to read something a little more rigorous on what (behavioural) economists believe is the best tax system.

The other criticism I have is that it is far too US-focused. When I first heard of the book, I didn’t realize it was about reforming the US tax system. And the subtitle suggests it isn’t, exactly. But it is and so the non-US reader is left wanting to know more both about how international systems compare – is New Zealand’s really the best in the world? – and how we can try to create an international system which creates penalties for avoidance and evasion.

But it’s still pretty good as an introduction to how tax systems in general can (and sometimes have) been improved, and it does make me want to see some of these changes implemented in my own country (as we only have a few of Reid’s favoured policies in operation at the moment).


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