Did Jimmy Carr cause the crisis?
The Times/Twittermob hounding of Carr is based on a dodgy belief that bad behaviour caused the recession.
British comic Jimmy Carr is in a spot of bother it seems. Not for his part in the comedy-avoiding, satire-dodging 10 O’Clock Live, a show adored by the right-thinking and ignored by just about everyone else. (To be fair, he deserves a volley of abuse for that calamity of smugness.) No, Carr is in trouble because he’s not paying very much tax. And being a tax avoider is deemed by liberal-lefty types – that is, the very people who might just watch 10 O’Clock Live without dying inside – as just about the worst, most sinful thing you could be. That, or the owner of a pitbull.
According to The Times – which clearly felt a stand-up comic’s entirely legal tax arrangements were important enough to make the front page – Carr, along with just over a thousand other wealthy individuals, is part of some Jersey-based tax-avoidance scheme. This involves Carr paying the vast majority of his earnings, reported to be £3.3million, into the Jersey scheme, which, through a trust, ‘loans’ the money back to him, or rather a set of companies he owns. And because this money is considered a loan, which could be recalled at any time, it is not susceptible to tax.
A bit cheeky? Yes. Taking liberties? No doubt. Carr even did a skit on 10 O’Clock Live mocking banking giant Barclays for paying a similarly minuscule rate of tax on its earnings. But the backlash against Carr is out of all proportion to his hypocritical actions. It is marked by a desire to blame Carr for the sins of our current world: he is its avaricious incarnation, its embodiment of greed and self-interest. He is, in short, representative of the reason why we find ourselves in this economic mess.
Fellow comedian Frankie Boyle took time out of being smirkingly grim to indulge in the game of ‘blame Carr for the world being a bit shit’: ‘It’s ok to avoid tax providing every time you do a joke about a town being shit you add “Partly down to me I’m afraid” under your breath.’ Another alleged comedian tweeted: ‘Why is everyone acting as though @JimmyCarr has killed a baby?! Because babies die in underfunded hospitals.’ The equally witless Left Foot Forward blog preferred to dream of revenge: ‘Let’s hope the taxman has the last laugh.’
That Carr has been effortlessly demonised shouldn’t be a surprise. The script for this has been prepared well in advance by our political class. Back in March, chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne followed up the budget with the proud announcement that he regarded ‘aggressive tax avoidance as morally repugnant’. His Lib Dem partner in scapegoating, Danny Alexander, had already joined in the anti-tax avoidance chorus, declaring it ‘morally indefensible’. Serial London mayoral candidate, Labour’s Ken Livingstone, likewise saw fit to attack the ‘rich bastards’ who ‘just don’t get it’, concluding that ‘no one should be allowed to vote in a British election, let alone sit in parliament, unless they pay their full share of tax’.
It hasn’t just been mainstream politicians, of course. ‘Hang the tax avoiders’ has also been the cri de coeur of would-be radicals, too. UK Uncut, which acts like a youth-training scheme for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, has spent the best part of two years attacking tax-avoiding types like Arcadia’s Sir Philip Green, largely by supergluing themselves to the windows of the offending individual’s companies.
The justification for this obsession with tax avoidance is ostensibly economic. Hence The Times’ editorial this week claimed it is not just about fairness or the politics of envy. ‘Tax avoidance has got out of control and is now financially significant’, thundered the ‘Thunderer’, costing the state £4.5 billion out of every £7 billion lost to the HRMC. The Independent’s Matthew Norman was also keen to play up the economic significance of tax avoidance: ‘What would be an outrage at any moment in economic history isn’t merely a rank obscenity but a symptom of national insanity today.’
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But don’t be fooled by the hyperbole and big sums quoted. There is no real economic critique underpinning the current, near-uniform outcry over individuals’ tax arrangements. People not paying enough tax neither caused the economic crisis in which we find ourselves, nor will making people pay more tax provide a solution. For that we need to forge a wealth-creating, productive economy, not a heavily taxed society.
No, the pursuit of tax avoiders is not motivated by economic insight, but moralising ire. And as such it is indicative, not to mention an indictment, of the pre-political impulse which has prevailed throughout the response to the economic crisis. There has not been an attempt to get to grips with the systemic reasons why the economy is in the grip of a seemingly interminable malaise. Instead, there has been an eagerness to find individuals to blame, motives to single out, behaviour to condemn. It’s the bankers, it’s greed, it’s risk-taking… the litany of blame is so familiar now that some even think it’s true. As Brendan O’Neill has argued, this tendency to blame individual behaviour for social and political crises has a long history, from Nero’s fiddling and grape-eating self-indulgence as Rome burned to Marie Antoinette’s cake-eating as absolutist France collapsed. Little wonder that one commentator saw fit to draw a similar analogy in light of Carr’s sinning: ‘This decadence has an overwhelming Last Days of Pompeii aura, and we know what ended the orgiastic self-indulgence there in AD79.’
This attempt to understand our economic woes in terms of individual behaviour is regressive. Historically, it was an advance on the part of the left to understand that unemployment was caused not by individual workers’ fecklessness or moral failings, but by the workings of the economic system. Yet now, too many people, who clearly ache to see themselves as being on the left today, seem all too keen to wind the clock back: they want to blame individuals’ fecklessness and moral failings for the failings of the economy.
Jimmy Carr may not have done himself any favours with the 36 viewers of 10 O’Clock Live, but this myopic focus on the incomes of individuals does none of us any favours in the long run.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.