The List

And You Thought the IRS Was Bad?

The world's five most out-of-control tax agencies.

Taxes are a testy subject the world over. The controversies over whether the Internal Revenue Service was politically motivated in screening groups seeking tax-exempt status based on loaded keywords -- and Tuesday's congressional hearing about Apple's alleged tax evasion -- are just the latest manifestations of America's distinct complex about taxation. In the United States, though, at least there are investigations into allegations of political intent; elsewhere, the politicization of the tax system is unambiguous. If the IRS is serious about hounding the political opposition, the agency's got a long way to go -- as these five countries attest.


The Russian government isn't terribly good at keeping track of tax records -- the Los Angeles Times reported last month that the "government has no idea how about 44% of the country's registered workers are making a living" -- unless, that is, you're the subject of a political investigation. When, in March, the Russian government started investigating NGOs and civil society groups with international funding under its "foreign agents" law, state prosecutors showed up unannounced at the organizations to request tax records. That's still happening; just today, the New York Times reported that the Levada Center, Russia's only independent polling agency, may be forced to close because the government is targeting it with "foreign agent" provisions.

The tactic isn't limited to NGOs, though. Auditor Sergei Magnitsky revealed a $230 million tax fraud scandal that implicated members of the Russian police, judiciary, and mafia, only to have tax charges brought against him. After Magnitsky died in prison under mysterious circumstances, the Russian government went after his former employer, William Browder, of the British firm Hermitage Capital Management, with similar charges.


When François Hollande swept into office last year, the biggest unknown was how his socialist credentials would translate into policy. Ever since, some of the biggest policy fights have centered on taxes. A one-time tax on 2011 incomes reportedly required 8,000 French households with more than $1.67 million in assets to pay more than 100 percent of their annual income, while other severe tax rates on high-earners have been struck down by France's Constitutional Council. Some wealthy French notables aren't waiting for the tax system to sort itself out; actor Gérard Depardieu, for instance, made a big show of renouncing his French citizenship over taxes on the wealthy. Depardieu has adopted Russian citizenship instead -- but it's OK, he's friends with Putin.


Approximately a third of Argentina's workers get paid off the books, part of the country's unofficial economy and a thorn in the side of a government trying desperately to get a hold of its finances. Argentina's Federal Administration of Public Revenue (AFIP), the country's tax agency, has vestiges of the past: Under an old rule still on the books, if an AFIP agent dies on the job, the agency is required to try to hire the surviving spouse or a child. But it's also begun surveiling citizens' digital records and using satellite imagery of agricultural production to detect tax evasion. These high-tech tools can be used selectively, though, and for targeting government critics; President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has used tax investigations to discredit opponents and AFIP has routinely targeted journalists and media organizations.


For decades, Chinese leaders engaged in half-hearted crackdowns on tax dodgers. Xi Jinping pledged to root out corruption among Communist Party officials when he became president in March, but so far politicians have primarily been targeted for accepting bribes and keeping mistresses, not tax evasion. While government officials may be getting a pass for now, the same is not true for political dissidents. The noted artist Ai Weiwei and his company Fake Cultural Development Ltd., for instance, have been slapped with $2.4 million in fines for allegedly violating tax laws.


It shouldn't be surprising that taxes in Israel are a sensitive matter, especially when you consider the delicate arrangement the Knesset has with the Palestinian Authority. Israel collects taxes on all imports entering the country and forwards to the PA taxes on goods that wind up in the West Bank. Israel also returns to the PA taxes on Palestinian labor and purchases; likewise, though to a much smaller extent, the PA is liable for taxes collected on Israeli transactions in the West Bank. This all works fairly well -- until a crisis. During periods of violence, the Israeli government has suspended the transfer of tax revenues to the PA (which, as of 2006, financed about half of the PA's operating expenses). This included a two-year hiatus after the intifada in 2000, and more recently, a four-month suspension from December 2012 to March 2013 in retaliation for the PA seeking observer status at the United Nations. The PA didn't get that money back, though -- it was held to pay off the PA's old water and electric bills.


The List

The 5 Best Tumblrs for Foreign Policy Nerds

Is this worth a billion dollars?

Monday's news that struggling Internet pioneer Yahoo! bought popular blogging site Tumblr inspired us to find the best foreign policy-related Tumblrs -- loosely defined -- on the ‘net. Several great ones that have come and gone deserve a mention, including the one-time-only Vladentines Day and the sadly obsolete but viral Texts From Hillary, but we chose to focus on those accounts that are (for the most part) still active. Scroll away!

Kim Jong Un looking at things

The only real glimpses the rest of the world gets into North Korea are through state-released photos of Kim Jong Un -- photos, more specifically, as this Tumblr duly noted, of Kim Jong Un looking at things, a.k.a. providing "on-the-spot guidance," just as his father did before him.

Taking advantage of widespread interest in a shrouded country, its photogenic supreme leader, and the wide range of curious situations in which he is pictured (gazing at South Korea, looking at a floor plank, inspecting a child's track suit), "Kim Jong Un looking at things" is both a hit and an exposition. If there's one blog that sums up the bizarre, ridiculous, and fascinating nature of North Korea, its bizarre leader, and its propaganda machine, it's this one.


International Relations as Depicted by Cats

In one of the recent photos posted on "International Relations as Depicted by Cats," a cat is pictured suspended half in, half out of a fish tank, clinging to the edge while gazing at the fish swimming below. You're unsure whether the cat is trying to climb out or drop in; in the meantime, it has no choice but to hold its position. The caption reads: "American stance on intervention in Syria."

IR Cats goes on to successfully depict topics from "unbalanced multipolarity" (a pile of different sized cats facing different directions) to "China on North Korea" (a cat "in between a kim and a hard place") to "moderates" (a small cat cowering under a hat), proving that sometimes a picture of a cat really is worth a thousand words.



In March, FP blogger Tom Ricks pondered how communism -- one of the most (if not the most) defining factors of the 20th century -- will be remembered 500 years from now. Is it possible that Cosmarxpolitan, which incisively reduces nearly a century of communist ideology, leadership, and purging to teenage magazine cover sound bites ("Karl in the bedroom: 'From each according to his ability, to each according to her needs'"), provides the answer?

(Bonus Tumblr: To see Joseph Stalin as brooding revolutionary rather than mass-murdering dictator, check out Fuck Yeah Young Stalin.)


International Relations Ryan Gosling and International Development Ryan Gosling

It was only a matter of time before Ryan Gosling memes made their way into the realm of foreign policy. Though both these Tumblrs haven't posted anything since 2012, they are worth a mention for showing us that, when preceded by a simple "Hey Girl," even the most clinical fo-po jargon can take on new meaning.


It's Always Sunny in Kabul

"Its Always Sunny in Kabul" is mostly sardonic but sometimes sincere in its mission to find "the silver-ish lining in Afghanistan's Emerald City." The caption to one photo, of bureaucrats around a conference table, reads, "This is what it looks like when people talk about having further talks." Another pictures "uh-dorable kids in uniform of the day." With a few pictures and sarcastic captions, the author, a development worker who has set up shop at "The Republic of Snarkistan" and tweets as @ElSnarkistani, regularly challenges the argument that Peter Bergen made for FP in March: that Afghanistan is better off than is commonly thought.