One of my favorite comments from Patrick, one I’ve quoted and linked to a number of times, is about how much energy we should put into caring who is surprised about what and when.
I have an inchoate, perhaps indefensible, and yet powerful sense that conversation about this whole range of issues would be improved immeasurably if we could all just fucking stop one-upping one another over what is and isn’t legitimately surprising.
If we spend our goddamn lives sneering at one another over whether we were angered or amazed or appalled at exactly the right time or not, we’ll have wasted our goddamn lives.
But I’m a tester, you know, and I always knew I would eventually find an edge case to prove that rule. Well, now I have, in a quote from the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. In an interview in the Telegraph today, he says,
I was shocked to see that some of the very wealthiest people in the country have organised their tax affairs, and to be fair it’s within the tax laws, so that they were regularly paying virtually no income tax. And I don’t think that’s right.
I’m talking about people right at the top. I’m talking about people with incomes of many millions of pounds a year. The general principle is that people should pay income tax and that includes people with the highest incomes.
“Shocked”! Really? Honestly? Or, as the internet says, What is this I don’t even.
With notable self-restraint, Guardian writer Polly Curtis treats this statement as fact and attempts to check it. While she admits that emotions cannot be proven or disproven, she looks at his previous speeches and widely available information to determine if he should be surprised. Her article is remarkable both for the amount of linked evidence she brings to the BGO* and the constructive tone she uses to discuss it. But in the end, there’s not much to say beyond duh, so she discards fish-in-barrel marksmanship and gets interested in what his comments mean for the future of British tax avoidance†.
Her colleague Larry Elliot is much less patient, comparing Osborne to Claude Rains in Casablanca.
In one of the best scenes from the film, Rains says he is “shocked, shocked” to find gambling going on in the establishment, only to be handed his winnings by a member of Humphrey Bogart’s staff.
Elliot is blunt where Curtis is tactful:
Osborne is not short of a few bob himself. He has plenty of prosperous friends and is supposed to know a thing or two about the UK economy. If he is genuinely surprised by the tax arrangements of the well-heeled in the UK, he has either been living in a cave for the past 20 years or is unfit for his current post.
I think everyone who follows British politics knows that Osborne is neither clinically insane nor terminally stupid. So I wish to hell that he—and all of our politicians—wouldn’t act like they think we are.
But I’m not surprised when they do. Just in case anyone’s wondering.
* Blinding Glimpse of the Obvious
† Technically, tax avoidance is the use of legal means to reduce one’s tax burden. Tax evasion is the use of illegal means to do so. This entire discussion concerns the former, not the latter.