The Republic, Revenue and the Pinhole Camera

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The on-going public and parliamentary debate around the admissibility or otherwise of the e-levy, its scope, margins and the most acceptable percentage inter alia, is not only unprecedented but interesting as well.

In a special way, it draws some parallels with the good old pinhole camera, which forms the basics of modern photography. The pinhole camera in its simplest description is an unsophisticated lightproof box with a tiny perforated hole (which explains the name “pinhole”) in one side, through which light from a scene passes, and projects a laterally-inverted image of the object which, when shot or captured, is cast onto the opposite side of the inner pinhole camera, also called the “camera obscura” because of its dark chamber.

Obscurity was so critical to the success of the pinhole camera that, its inner chamber was shielded from light. Used in commercial photography, the camera obscura provided infinite revenue for the “photographer” as long as objects were available to be captured. In order to appreciate the analogy in “The Republic, Revenue and the Pinhole Camera” as used in this write-up, it is assumed that the Republic represents the photographer, while the revenue represents the camera and the tax payer becomes the object to be captured.

Irrespective of the quantum of objects (revenue) administered, the camera obscura maintains infinite capacity. The objects captured eventually change in character to become virtual images, and now pay loyal allegiance to the state “photographer”, who assumes full guardianship over the objects or revenue.

The interesting connotation then is that, money when earmarked for taxation appears as “real images” but once they are taxed through the pinhole of the camera, they immediately turn into virtual images, and tax payers often no longer control them. Since the pinhole through which the taxes pass are tiny, tax levels are also generally formulated in tiny units (often in percentages) but they converge into huge sums comparable to an iceberg whose only visible part is its tip, and only the state photographer administers the full size of the iceberg.

Another interesting connotation is that, after the photographic objects were captured on films, they underwent a process called “development” in a dark chamber before they were printed. Today, the pinhole camera, having given way to digital photography, it appears that the major concern is that, tax payers have become more sensitive, and curious to see what happens in the dark chamber of the camera obscura in order to appreciate how their taxes are used to ensure the much needed development projects as well as social facilities and amenities.

In principle therefore, the citizenry, I believe, appreciates the prime place of taxation and its effective appropriation for social development, and do not necessarily oppose taxes. To help the citizenry appreciate the use to which their taxes are put for public good, this article simply wishes to submit that, duty bearers who represent the citizenry belong to two sides of the same coin and should therefore invest substantial energies and interest into healthy dialogues towards up-scaling accountability and transparency, ensuring best value for money that make it possible for all to collectively make reasonable prediction of the quantum that the taxes accrue in order to ensure in concrete terms, how and what these taxes are used for, and accounted for accordingly.

It is particularly imperative that, such dialogues are devoid of partisanship so that irrespective of which party assumes power, there should be adequate revenue for tackling the development dilemma. Additionally, a visibly measured use of such state revenue exudes hope and confidence among tax payers.

In the context of the newly proposed e-levy, given its wide wingspan, this paper wishes to add its voice to the contemplation for exploring and justifying the most appreciable benchmarks. A reduction in this e-levy percentage can have a great positive impact on its admissibility, and we encourage Government to consider this in the healthy context. Next, since it is also tacitly suggested that the coming into being of the e-levy is partly responsible for the cessation of road tolls, this paper is keen on seeing a legislation to outlaw the re-introduction of road tolls by any subsequent regime in the foreseeable future (if not perpetually) so long as the e-levy remains in force, otherwise it would be unfair to the tax payer.

This might not be easy because even in the most developed economies, road tolls still play important roles in revenue generation, and the tolls have not disappeared, but if this is what we are giving ourselves, then we owe ourselves a collective responsibility to make it work. Who knows: other jurisdictions might want to learn from us in abolishing road tolls!

The Veil of Ignorance:

In order to de-politicize the debate, let us invoke the letter and spirit of John Rawls’ “Veil of Ignorance” as upheld in the principles of fairness within which Benjamin Franklin once reasoned: “Justice would not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” This is best appreciated in the idea that, when considering whether to endorse a proposed law or policy, we should ask: “If I did not know whether this would affect me or not, would I still support it? This rhetorical is anchored on two critical that, those who make the big decisions that shape the lives of large numbers of people are almost always those in positions of power; and that, those in positions of power are almost always members of privileged groups.

A more illustrative variant of this holds that, certain species of ants, though are able to form viable colonies alone, they would often unite to form more resilient and productive colonies. However, once the first group of worker ants reaches maturity, the queens often fight to death until only one remains. The analogy here is that when they first form a colony, the queen ants uphold the “Veil of Ignorance” since they do not know whether they would be the sole or ultimate survivors.

All they know by instinct is that, co-operation is beneficial for their species. This symbolizes strength in unity, and like people behind the Veil of Ignorance, the ants make decisions which, by necessity, are Selfless rather than selfish. By implication, the continuum of debate on the proposed e-levy should be informed by selflessness within “Unity in Strength”. This can contribute to attaining the much needed consensus-building for durable peace and sustainable development while exuding hope, confidence and satisfaction among tax payers. The current near 50-50 majority-minority in parliament holds extra-ordinary opportunity to demonstrate this consensus-building dialogue, in reciprocity for the goodness of government machinery: we encourage them to “engage” one another with unity of purpose.

Making Revenue Locally-relevant

In several respects, the more advanced states are wealthier than we are. However, it can be argued conveniently that the principles of taxation and their place in nation building appear better understood by the populace than what pertains in Ghana. One can hardly escape the truth that many development projects overseas are heavily financed including through tax revenue. On the contrary, commonplace concerns that the impact of taxes are neither seen nor felt in our part of the world including Ghana is very high, thus fuelling the continued questioning of the use to which our tax revenue are put. One is therefore tempted to contemplate that there is a disconnect between revenue mobilization and its effective utilization in the best interest of the people by governments over the decades.

Paying taxes is not an interesting patriotic act, especially when one has reason to suggest that he or she would not derive its best benefits. On the contrary, people are inclined to pay taxes willingly and willfully when they are convinced about the tangible products emanating from their taxes. The above scenarios paint mental images of the camera obscura or the pinhole camera as containing far more revenue than meets the people’s eyes. This calls for governments to scale up its efforts at making the citizenry to understand and appreciate how their taxes are used to address national development concerns.

A common controlling idea that has run through the e-levy debate suggests lack of trust and confidence in how the intended revenue would be used in the best interest of the people. Perhaps this explains why a dominant posture of its antagonists have suggested outright rejection or at best, made disinterested concessions. For instance, despite assurances that some 11m people will benefit from the proposed e-levy, its antagonists remain unconvinced. Paraphrasing extensively from the Hon. Minister of Finance’s address to thousands of youth at a Springboard Youth Dialogue at the Cape Coast University under the theme: “Building a Sustainable Entrepreneurial Nation; Opportunities for Ghana’s Youth”, proceeds from the proposed 1.75 e-levy will be used to support young entrepreneurs in the country as a way of tackling unemployment including for some 11 million people who have no clear employment path to employment opportunities.

In the opinion of this paper, such an initiative is very critical in a nation state where some 58% of its’s population are between 15 and 59 years, translating to about 18million people. It is imperative that Ghana takes best advantage of such huge human resource in its youth bulge including through sustainable entrepreneurship

Obviously, however, one of the greatest challenges revolves around the fact that, perhaps government communication machinery has not sounded convincing enough in explaining concretely and specifically, how it intends to translate the proposed e-levy into addressing its noble ambition. In effect, the strengths and merits in the counter-argument hold that, history has recorded several comparable interventions in the past but they were simply either unsuccessful or unsustainable. How then is this going to be different from the failed ones? What are the new modalities for checks and balances; monitoring and evaluation? How resilient are its policy guidelines and different? Have any of the intended proposed strategies for the e-levy worked elsewhere to serve as reference points? What specific research analyses have gone into shaping this intervention?

This is where this paper opines that a kind of prior Participatory Action Research could have brought a wide range of stakeholders together to interrogate the initiative, fine-tune and give it a broad-based appeal while highlighting whatever flagship unique selling proposition it might have. It is the fervent view of this paper that both protagonists and antagonists of the e-levy can leverage on the near 50-50 Parliamentary membership to appreciate that perhaps more than ever before in the annals of Ghana’ political evolution, both sides need each other to dialogue and critically examine; engage in healthy debates that sidestep party affiliations and rather deepens our democracy. Should we broaden the e-levy discussion in a dispassionate all-inclusive manner, rather than only focus on its possible weaknesses, self destruction might set in.

Our development and industrialization remains lethargic due, among other factors, to over-reliance on foreign aid partly as a result of our incapacity to develop and sustain the most needed internal development architecture capable of addressing our peculiar challenges. Thus, in order to actualize the African Union’s Continental Strategy on TVET, in consonance with the Union’s Agenda 2063, it is important that we generate new corpus of strategies to confront the unending quagmire of our development void.

It is particularly imperative that we align our contemporary social development interventions with sustainable approaches that give practical meaning to Amartya Sen’s “Capability Approach”, which could lie in what our human resource is capable of doing to challenge us out of the poverty trap. In this direction, the e-levy portfolio is a Pandora’s Box worth opening through detail discussion beyond what we have done so far. Can we consider investing more interest and energies at exploring how its intended revenue could be effectively policed and appropriated most prudently?

While doing so, however, let us remember that Hamartia and its counterpart Hubris, both of which are from Greek tragedy, share a common chord of “missing the mark”, and offer relevant lessons here. The former refers to a tragic flaw, especially one brought about by a misperception through the lack of some important insight or some theme of blindness that ironically results from one’s own strengths and abilities. Thus, one’s own Hamartia could cause catastrophic results after one fails to recognize some fact or truth that could have saved him or her by missing the mark.

Hubris, on the other hand, refers to a kind of self-inflicted pride which is so inflated that it blights and blinds an individual or a group, leading an entire people into self-destruction. May neither Hamartia nor Hubris be our Achille’s heels. Let no one miss the mark! Let protagonists and antagonists engage each other in true reconciliatory reciprocal postures!! Let Democracy prevail in its truest sense!!!

Article By: Dr. Prize McApreko
fourthprize@gmail.com

The author holds a PhD in International Studies in Peace, Conflict and Development, and is a Senior Lecturer, Department of Water Resource and Sustainable Development (WRSD), School of Sustainable Development (SSD), University of Environment and Sustainable Development (UESD), Somanya, Eastern Region, Ghana.

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