Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Ethics and Personal Responsibliity

I was only 14 when I realized I held myself to a different standard than my father did himself. It was late one evening, my dad was behind the wheel and we were coming home from a family gathering.

Roads were empty and we were making good time until those flashing red lights appeared behind us. Busted. 120 in an 80 zone. I know, I got a quick peek before Dad cursed and pulled over.

Some weeks later I was aghast to learn that Dad was going to court to fight the ticket.

"Why?" I asked, "You were caught speeding, and you were doing 120 in an 80."

"Son," he explained patiently, like a father does explaining grow-up things to young child, "the law allows me to have my day in court. I am just exercising my rights."

"But Dad, you're guilty, you're just wasting tax-payers dollars fighting this." I figured that would cinch the deal. As an ardent Conservative, he hates wasted tax dollars.

"Son, it's my right, and I'm going to use it."

That was the end of it. I don't think my Dad ever realized the stature he lost that day. My childhood idol was proving to be human, his sense of right and wrong changed when it was personal. To me it wasn't about rights. It was about taking responsibility when caught doing something wrong. The idiom "the scales fell from my eyes" sums up my experience that day.

Though I've received many a speeding ticket myself, I've never fought them. I've been caught dead to rights every time. (Though I was awfully tempted when I was pulled over for doing 115 on the 401 during the morning rush. That was the most anal OPP traffic officer I've ever encountered.)

This is the standpoint from which I view the Banyan Tree debacle. Many taxpayers are upset that they are being asked to pay back tax credits. I am 100% in agreement with Minister Gordon O'Conner when he states "You invest $100 in a charity and you get a tax return of $300 or $400 dollars — there's something wrong!"

I happened to mention how I had no sympathy for the taxpayers caught in this scam to a colleague at work. He snorted, "I'm one of them."

I was startled, "You donate to Banyan Tree?"

"Well not them, but another firm that does the same thing."

It dawned on me, he had previously informed me of a scheme cooked up by his financial adviser when they purchased their home. It involved some intricate trickery that allowed him to claim his mortgage as a tax deductible investment. At the time he confided that he and his wife felt uneasy about the whole thing. That it didn't seem quite ethical, a fact that his adviser was quite open about. The whole tax credit scheme worked due to a loophole in the tax system that allowed them to use the system in a way it wasn't intended.

He reiterated that point again during our conversation. They had a hasty meeting with their financial adviser, he assured them the loophole still exists, but their risk had gone up significantly due to the ethical issues around it.

So they are quite worried about getting a big tax bill in the mail in the near future. They have a combined income in the 6 figures and have only been paying about $1000 in income taxes for the last few years (compare that to your income tax statement). Oh, and they've been to the emergency room several times in the last few years. Guess whose tax dollars paid for their visits?

This anecdote illustrates the central point of my argument. Even though Banyan Tree was a charitable organization, from the standpoint of the individuals involved, this had nothing to do with charity. It was about tax credits.

Legalized greed, exploiting loopholes to personal advantage. The charity aspect is just a salve on the conscience, allowing them to steal tax benefits from their friends and neighbors while avoiding paying taxes themselves.

So I shed not a single tear for these folks. For the charities that have lost revenue, yes. For the suckers cheating the system? Not a damn tear.

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