COUNTRY NOTES: Here Comes the Window Tax

By Nicholas Asheshov
Special to the Andean Air Mail & PERUVIAN TIMES

I have a suggestion for Mr. Castilla, the young Finance Minister, which will help him iron out what he calls disruptions in the economic agenda.  It happens to us all.

My idea is that he create a new tax which will have the merit of aggravating, but not much, the better-off, and pleasing socialists, making it an out-of-the-gate winner.

My proposal is for a tax on windows. If, like some of my neighbours here in Urubamba, your house has just a few small ones or, high in the cordillera, no windows at all, you pay nothing.  If your house in the jungle is all palm-thatch roof, it’s the same. no tax.

For Peru today, the window tax is “Brilliant!,” says Richard Webb,  the country’s top economist.

“A window tax would be a thousand times easier to collect than the present property tax.  No complex calculations.”

Every householder will simply fill in a form on their iPad stating the number of windows in their houses and apartments and make a bank transfer accordingly.

The tax people will, of course, make spot checks and anyone whose maths is found faulty will pay a suitable fine.

This proposal, which I am sure will be taken up immediately by the literate members of the Congress, came to me from Mansfield Park, one of Jane Austen’s six wonderful novels of country life in England two centuries ago: Jane started to write Mansfield Park in 1812 and it was published in London two years later.   They did not even put her name on the cover, just “By the author of Pride & Prejudice and of Sense & Sensibility.”

Jane’s reference to the window tax comes as she is describing the visit of a family to the immense country palazzo of a neighbor where there were so many rooms that their only function, she suggests in her sharp-tongued way, is that they are there to pay the window tax.

All English people,  like myself, are familiar not only with Jane’s stories but also with the window tax of the 18th and 19th centuries, partly because its results can still be seen in old towns and old houses out in the country.  Some of these still have large window-spaces blocked in with bricks in order to reduce the owners’s tax liability.

My 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica tells us that the tax was widely disliked as an attack on “light and air” but was acknowledged to be progressive, meaning that it hit the rich but not the poor.

If your house had more than eight windows you had to pay double the rate, to whit four shillings per window instead of just two shillings.

H.M. Treasury’s website calculation of what two shillings would be in today’s sad sterling is just over GBP11.  That’s $17 per small-house window, call it S/.50, or S/.100 per window for a house or apartment with more than eight windows.

Let’s say there are five million urban houses in Peru with six windows apiece, the window tax would bring in $500mn at practically zero cost in collecting.

There would have to be some clear definitions.  For instance, my own house here in Urubamba has 14 windows, plus six in the playroom and guest house on the other side of the garden.   But two of them on the verandah are absolutely immense, making up a full 20 yards long looking onto the river, the woodland and the snow peaks of the Cordillera Urubamba. If I had to pay, say S/.300 a year just for those, I’d think, at S/.1 per day not including Sundays, that I was getting a good deal, cheap at the price.

I also have some glass-and-wood French windows, which I would maintain are really doors but I bet the tax people would say “Windows!”

The tax, the encyclopedia says, was also levied in parts of France and Germany.

In England it was ended in 1851, maybe because in those days it was not so easy for the Inland Revenue to collect from crusty landowners with bulldogs and shotguns.

“The window tax,” Richard Webb says, “will open the door, ha ha, to the more equitable and more aggressive tax system that Peru urgently needs.”

Minister Castilla can give his new window tax a literary touch by calling it the Jane tax.

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This article was published in Caretas magazine this week in Spanish. 

Nick Asheshov is a Director of The Machu Picchu Train Co., Urubamba. A veteran journalist, noted explorer and entrepreneur, he was editor of the Peruvian times from 1969 to 1990.

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