Alistair Darling’s Pre-Budget Report perfectly captured the air of desperation swirling around the government. With the general election looming, it was no surprise that Darling decided to throw a populist bone to the masses, in the shape of a 50% tax on bankers.
Politically astute though this may prove to be, one can’t help thinking that Darling was simply responding to massive pressure from campaigning sites such as 38 Degrees – rather than coming up with the policy through his own initiative.
How different the state of our economy might be if the Treasury was prepared to think outside of the box. For all New Labour’s talk of blue sky thinking, not one of Gordon Brown’s apparatchiks has the vision of someone like the Emperor Vespasian (9-79 CE) who, when the public finances of Rome were tight, decided to impose a tax on all the urine collected in the city.
Nero had experimented with a similar tax a decade earlier but Vespasian was the first to see urine as a keystone of his economic policy and, as such, placed huge pots throughout the city for the people to use. Tax was payable by the head of each household every four years. The urine collected was then sold to be used in tanning, to stiffen cloth and as a source of ammonia to whiten togas. Titus, Vespasian’s son, complained about the tax but, unlike Alistair Darling, the Emperor had a ready answer for him.
When Titus found fault with him for contriving a tax upon public conveniences, he [Vespasian] held a piece of money from the first payment to his son’s nose, asking whether its odour was offensive to him. When Titus said “No,” he replied, “Yet it comes from urine.”
(Suetonius – De Vita Caesarum 121 CE)
The Latin proverb Pecunia non olet (‘Money does not smell’) may date from this time – and is something that Darling should think about as he lashes out at the bankers.
Vespasian, unlike Alistair Darling, was to be long remembered for his taxes – even today, the street pissoirs of France are known as Vespasiennes and in Italy as Vespasiani.