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Friday, November 28, 2014

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Paying taxes and moral leadership

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No one likes to pay taxes. Yet taxes are the lifeblood of our society, paying for our security, health, public education and thousands of other services that we all benefit from. While we can endlessly argue about what’s fair, there’s very little room to argue over our legal obligation to pay the taxes established by our elected officials.

Sadly, though not surprisingly, a survey released recently by H&R Block found that 55 per cent of Canadians say that given a choice, they would pay cash to avoid paying sales tax. Interestingly, 84 per cent admitted to paying cash for a product or service to avoid sales tax. To think that only 16 per cent of Canadians aren’t breaking the law is frightening. Even worse, only 30 per cent of people actually see anything wrong with this. More disturbing is that while 43 per cent of those over 65 say it’s wrong to do so, only 17 per cent of those aged 18 to 34 agree that one should not cheat. The sense of entitlement – of getting something for nothing – is pervasive, but even more pronounced among younger people. Clearly, civics classes are having little effect.

I write these words on the day after Yom Kippur. Many of the sins we begged forgiveness for were those relating to our monetary dealings. While it’s most difficult for those of flesh and blood to never give in to their desires, at the very least, one should have the moral character to admit our wrongdoings. That’s the first step in the repentance process. If 83 per cent of our youth see nothing wrong with cheating on taxes, we have our work cut out for us.

On a practical level, the government should be conducting many more audits raising the probability, currently very low, of getting caught. While more controversial, offering greater rewards for those who report the evasion of others – as in the U.S. system – might help. I doubt there are many people who wouldn’t call the police if their house was robbed. Tax cheats do much the same thing as burglars, albeit in a more “refined manner,” as they steal from all of us behind “closed doors.” With an underground economy estimated at some $40 billion, something needs to be done. We need look no further than Greece to see the relationship between tax avoidance and economic disaster.

Canada is the economic envy of the world. Our gratitude must begin with thanks to former finance minister Paul Martin for slaying the deficit and for his tremendous foresight in not allowing bank mergers – mergers that would have likely seen the financial meltdown wreak havoc on our banking system, as it did the world over.

Perhaps even more importantly, Canada is a moral leader in the world. The government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been unwavering in its support of Israel, of demonstrating to the world that foreign policy must begin with moral leadership. (No, the Conservatives aren’t perfect, but who is?)

While I dislike paying taxes as much as the next person, I consider it an honour to fulfil my legal obligation so that Canada can continue to be a model of economic and moral leadership.

Send comments to rabbijay@torahinmotion.org., Ont.

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