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HOW TAX POLICY, TERRORISM ARE LINKED

Freshly returned from a week of intellectual sparring at the Conference on World Affairs, an annual gabfest in Boulder, Colo., I find making connections between headlines mere child's play.

After a week of contemplating Persian poetry, the possible aphrodisiac effect of black licorice, American foreign policy, what we do in the name of God (an actual panel title), war and medicine, I scarcely blink at such simple topics as tax policy, international finance, terrorism and offshore money laundering.

This started with a report in the New York Times last week that the administration is finding heavy sledding in its efforts to go after terrorist financing.

The Times reports a classic "little-noted provision" in the intelligence reform bill passed by Congress in December. It gives the government new tools to go after specific suspects and, "more broadly, to analyze patterns in terrorist financing and other financial crimes. They said they were mindful of privacy concerns that such a system is likely to provoke and wanted to include safeguards to prevent misuse of what would amount to an enormous cache of financial records . . . tactics . . . (that) have already caused something of a backlash among banking compliance officers -- and even some federal officials, who say the effort has gone too far in penalizing the financial sector for lapses and has effectively criminalized what were once seen as technical violations."

Like what "technical violations"? Perhaps we find a hint in a recent report by the Tax Justice Network, an international group of tax experts and economists. The network estimates the rich have stashed an impressive $11.5 trillion in tax havens. John Christensen, coordinator of the network and ex-adviser to the government of the tax haven island of Jersey, told the Observer of London: "This is one of the defining crises of our times. One of the most fundamental changes in our society in recent years is how money and the rich have become more mobile. This has resulted in the wealthy . . . feeling no obligation to pay taxes."

Now see if you can make a connection to this report in the March 30 New York Times: America lost more than a quarter of a trillion dollars a year in tax revenue due to cheating in 2001. "The IRS said that 80 percent of taxes owed but not paid by individuals were a result of underreporting of income."

"Ah ha!" you think. "All those waitresses failing to report their cash tips." Nope. According to the IRS, underreporting of "business income" by individuals costs the treasury $100 billion, while underreporting of wages, salaries and tips accounts for $18 billion. The IRS said that in total, it was cheated out of $353 billion in 2001, the most recent such study since 1998. That would cover the cost of Medicare and the war in Iraq, with change left over.

Which brings us back to the howling over the plan to give government access to hundreds of millions of international banking records in order to track and deter terrorism. As a good civil libertarian, I'm concerned about the privacy issues here myself. But money laundering, whether for terrorist purposes or tax evasion, is a crime.

Now consider the plight of the Bush administration. It has gone and upset the banking industry, rather a large donor to the Republican Party. Fifty-two banking associations around the country wrote a letter to the Treasury Department in January complaining that they should not be held responsible if drug dealers dump bags full of cash with them. (They didn't actually say that, but it's what they meant.) A mere technical violation. Not to mention the fact that many of the "mobile rich" who stash their money offshore are also generous donors to Republican causes. What's a poor party to do?

The Times reports a growing backlash among congressional leaders. What do you think will happen now? Any chance the Justice Department will be reined in from its "overly aggressive tactics" in this field?

Good for you. Now you, too, are ready to go to Boulder and find the connections between Persian poetry and licorice.