Sunday, August 23, 2009

Welcome back, old friend --the grey economy

Taxation is theft. We tolerate it because the thief, government, uses at least some of the loot rationally and sometimes we (civil society) get a piece of it back when using a public service such as education, the police and, in a number of countries, basic health care. When the system starts to break this implied promise, or otherwise grossly disappoint or appear to deceive us, society takes spontaneous action to keep more of the wealth it creates under its own direct and, generally, radically de-centralized control.

This is not meant as some kind of libertarian economic tirade, but a forecast that in Latvia, we will very likely see a resurgence of the grey economy -- the kind where most economic activity works as it should, but as much of it as possible takes place outside the tax system.

It is important to understand that the grey economy is nothing but the everyday, legal economy with a strongly diminished or completely absent incentive to make payoffs (taxes) to the state. It is not the black economy, where many activities are malum in se (evil per se) such as knowingly selling guns to criminals, trading in goods stolen or obtained by fraud, selling the fruits of forced labor and the like. Many would include the trade in state-prohibited intoxicants in black market activities, but that is another issue.

Latvia has a history of grey market activity going back to the 1990s and beyond. It stems from Soviet times when most of the population rightly regarded the state as a totalitarian monster(the Gulags, the KGB) and/or a pathologically lying buffoon (Brezhnev, Communist ideology, promises of socialist prosperity) and did everything in their power to deny to the state or expropriate back from it the fruits of their labor. To put it concisely -- stealing from the state was a virtue. It was the only relatively safe form of resistance.

The grey market continued to evolve during the 1990s, in the general chaos of legislation and system transition. Those who had “stolen” from the state under the Communists often saw little reason or incentive to stop. Only as Latvia reformed and rationalized its tax system, as the state bureaucracy became marginally less byzantine, as accession to the European Union approached and was achieved, did the grey economy recede. With lower tax rates and an apparent “return on taxation”(schools were built, roads fixed, hospitals upgraded), there was less to gain from trying to beat the system, plus there were considerable internal costs in doing so. A bookkeeper keeping two sets of books will ask to be rewarded (on or off the books) appropriately. Concealment and evasion strategies must be formulated in addition to the management time needed to run the core business.

By the middle or the end of the 1990s, the superprofitable business of plundering Soviet-era assets for a song and selling them in foreign markets was also drawing to a close. While making 300 % profit on selling the metal from an abandoned Soviet factory (with most of the labor bartered for vodka) was an incentive to keep such transactions off the books, there was less incentive when earning 25 % from a foundry that did most of its work buying legitimate scrap and selling to export customers that did not want to look like they were buying from bandits and insisted the business at least look like it was paying taxes.

What I see happening is that the massive state budget cuts, hitting at core public services such as education, health care, public safety and pensions, will trigger another boom for the grey economy. If anyone has not caught on to this destruction of “return on taxation”, they will catch on when the government raises a whole slew of taxes (the new tax on residences, higher income and VAT taxes -- in short, whatever was dreamed up this week and may be shuffled around next week). It is time to dust off the grey market experiences of 10 years ago.

The government is very aware of what its own actions are inciting in society -- otherwise it would not be urging the State Revenue Service/VID (or what is left of it after planned massive staff cuts), regulatory bodies and the police to crack down on tax evaders and “illegal” business. Instead of becoming more service-oriented and business friendly, the VID will, if government directives are carried out, revert to its worst inquisitorial auditor/punisher face. File your quarterly papers a day late (even if the taxes they refer to were transferred on time) -- fine ‘em, fine ‘em. Misspell your company name, forget a digit of the registration number, whatever -- off with your head! Now that makes deceiving these fuckers an honest sport again!

Aside from reverting to a state of low intensity civil-war-by-deception with the tax-collecting, regulatory and repressive organs of the state, some businesses (I like to think) have other incentives for paying wages by envelope rather than paying them after tax. Business owners see that off-the-books wages have tangible social benefits, while paying the state social tax has the opposite result. Beggars still huddle on downtown streets, hospitals are closed (for whatever reason), teacher’ s salaries are cut to barely above minimum wage, no matter how much taxes and social fees are paid. When paying envelope wages, the employer knows that the money is being spent by Jānis for his sick mother, by Ieva for her child’s education, by Sergey to modestly renovate his apartment. In other words, the enterprise becomes a kind of private welfare space, spending the money denied the state in more visibly and tangibly beneficial ways. This is not to say that all envelope wages are paid with this kind of consciousness, probably in many cases, this arrangement is part of haphazard and often exploitative labor relations. But then again, back when taxes were paid, weren’t they paid to have labor law enforcers do their job?

In a very rough and often uneven way, a functioning grey economy can at least partly replace the missing “return on taxation” from the Latvian government, which has, during the blind and foolish administrations of the “fat years”, painted itself into a fiscal corner in several dimensions. Officially, the IMF and other lenders are telling it to get its act together, save billions in the next couple of years, cost what it may socially, while society and the real economy are saying -- we won’t pay! (but we will pay some of those deserving it). In effect, the collapsing public services are replaced, in an unevenly distributed way, by the funding diverted to the grey economy.

The grey economy is no replacement for a functioning modern moderate welfare state (as Latvia has tried to pass itself off as being), nor is it a rational step in consciously moving toward a night-watchman state or minarchy (which Latvia seems to be stumbling toward, whether it knows it or not). It is an improvised solution based, not on a reform of the system of governance, but is a symptom of chronically bungled and incompetent governance.

The next developments in Latvia’s economy are going to be pretty rough. European countries with labor markets accessible to Latvian citizens will recover ahead of Latvia. There will be another wave of labor emigration, numbering in the tens of thousands, in the period 2010-2013. Like their predecessors to Ireland and Great Britain in the late 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, these Latvian economic immigrants are unlikely to ever return permanently to Latvia. Their presence, however, will generate additional repatriated funds, which will be of some limited benefit to Latvia. The Latvian economy, however, will be deprived of much of its best, brightest, most skilled and entrepreneurial labor, increasing the demographic burden on those remaining beyond the mere numbers of those emigrating. Not only warm bodies, but productivity will emigrate, and with that, there will be less value generated by the domestic Latvian economy to reallocate to pensioners and already depleted public services. As for basing an economic recovery on exports, it will be pretty hard when many of the best export producers will have “exported” themselves.

So where will those remaining behind go? Not abroad, obviously. It is a bit exaggerated to think that there will be a day when the last Latvian shuts off the lights at Riga Airport. But in terms of economic and demographic tipping points, there may well be a point at which a sufficient number of “the best and the brightest” have departed, effectively switching off the lights at the end of any tunnels.

So where will the remaining ones go? I think they are already moving into the virtual, tentative, experimental, not-as-disfunctional-as-the-official-economy space that is the burgeoning, resurrected grey economy. And I do not blame them at all.


Anonymous said...

For me and I assume for others as well (I represent new generation, aged under 30)this will burn in our brains some kind of permanent mentality where you can't trust government. I see government as obstacle and enemy rather my friend and aid, looking at the way how they treat people I guess I will live with grudge for a lifetime (I will avoid to pay taxes to Latvian government and don't expect anyone to look after myself when I get sick or old other than myself and close people). How many times have we seen evidence of wrong doing??? Too many to count...Government is completely useless. I don't cooperate with people who let me down in real life twice, I will not cooperate with government for sure. In one way this has silver lining. People are harder to deceive, they develope thick skin and at some day they might get back at government. Sometimes we need a bad guys really to put crap on us to see what are the changes we want really to see in our lives. There is no life lived good with good guys only. We need a crooks so when we win we feel that we have something achieved!!!

Wannabe Sorosieši said...

Mr or Ms Anonymous,

I was and am sorely tempted to agree with you. I kinda do to a significant extent. I feel cynical and cheated by our politics and political class. But... where have we been? We have been voting for these thieves and clowns for twenty years now. They do not get these jobs totally by accident. Okay, I can't vote (American) but still we have opportunities to participate (our org Pro Futuro does) and too often we, as a society, dismiss the opportunity. In fact, when we (Pro Futuro) talked back to govt in the past, many people shushed us down. Where have you been? What is your responsibility here? What could you/we do to create a workable society and govt?

Tom Schmi

Wannabe Sorosieši said...

Jūri - BTW- I do not agree that taxation is theft. I would not see the analogy as perfect, but taxation is like paying for any other service, we pay for something and get a service. In this case it is not only service but a discharge of our commonly agreed to responsibilities to each other and society at large.


Anonymous said...


"commonly agreed"? you gotta be kidding. I didn't co-sign the Constitution. I didn't elect our Saeima or government. I just happened to be born on the plot of land where the organization called "Latvian government" monopolized the use of force, and uses that force to tell us what our responsibilities are and how we must excersise them.

And no, it's not like buying a service. When you don't want to buy a service and part with your money, the seller will not stick a gun in your belly. We call such people "robbers". Therefore taxation is actually not just theft, it's robbery.