In Cambodia, too, death is certain in life–but not taxes

money_5When you know someone well enough here in Cambodia, sometimes even not so well, it is acceptable to ask financial questions thought elsewhere to be too personal.

To query all but the elite about how much they spend on housing or even how much money they earn every month may not be considered to be the least bit impolite.  Asking about the cost of household help is fine.

And you may inquire without hesitation about the taxes that someone pays. However, you can count on a response that will in most cases be surprisingly short: an unabashed chortle.

I sometimes have had occasion to ask acquaintances about their tax burden — shop owners, freelancers, waiters.  They invariably look puzzled and piteous.  Am I crazy, they seem to wonder?  Don’t I know that almost no one bothers to pay taxes and that no governmental authority pursues them for money theoretically owed?

It seems the only way the government knows that there are taxes to collect from a business is if the owner registers its existence in compliance with the law.  Big enterprises undoubtedly cannot escape notice, I am sure, but small businesses flout the law with apparent impunity.

In addition, when it comes to taxation on personal income, it is left up to employers to pay on behalf of those work for them.  To an appreciable extent, from what I have read, few do.

Obviously, enforcement, to put it mildly, is lax.  And the laxity is not the result of an insufficient number of enforcers; the remarkable photos toward the end of this linked PDF  about the tax department’s monthly meeting suggests as much.

Rather, tax evasion is consistent with a whole culture of lawlessness.  Such a way of life is visible everywhere — for example, among drivers and traffic police officers alike, immigration officers who ask Cambodians returning to the country for “tea money” next to signs that forbid the practice, and scandalously underpaid teachers who demand money from students for each handout they distribute.

There persists, as well,  governmental inefficiency and, in many cases, rampant corruption from the bottom to the topmost levels.  Virtually all approvals require a bribe to officials, who may well specify an appropriate amount without fear of arrest.

I suppose you could chalk up tax evasion to cynicism.

Given widespread poverty and monumental need, the system makes what already is heartbreaking all the more tragic.

The uncollected funds could feed literally millions, provide housing for the hordes lacking adequate shelter, bolster grossly inadequate schools and otherwise somewhat narrow the gap between those who have millions of dollars and those millions who have not.

The lost money could, in short, benefit the larger society beyond measure.

When it come to Cambodia, Benjamin Franklin was only half right about death and taxes. Unfortunately.

E-mail: malcolmncarter@gmail.com

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