I first met Pascal Saint-Amans, director of the OECD’s Centre for Tax Policy and Administration, last fall, when he visited the Virginia offices of Tax Analysts. I had just taken the helm as editor of Tax Notes Internationaland was in the midst of a major paradigm shift. For 30 years I had worked as a tax litigator for the U.S. Department of Justice, where my cases focused on events that had occurred in the distant yesterday. Now I was editing a weekly magazine, where we focused on what was going to happen tomorrow.
I knew a little bit about the base erosion and profit-shifting project and was anxious to learn more. During an extended interview conducted by our talented reporters, Pascal enthusiastically taught us more about the project’s origin, goals, and timing than we might have expected during an afternoon conversation. And that knowledge – tempered by reading the supportive and contrarian views of tax professionals around the world – helped guide my understanding and our coverage of the OECD’s work under Pascal’s stewardship of the BEPS project.
Last year Pascal was the unbridled optimist. He described his enthusiasm at having been given the challenging task of getting the world’s tax administrations to agree on how to re-engineer a broken, outdated international tax system. He explained that all too often, that system taxed some income twice, some income in the “wrong” place, and other income not at all. Pascal seemed like a cheerleader who had a lot of faith in his team, even though it was just halftime of the first game of the season and the outcome was very much in doubt.
I saw Pascal earlier this month at New York University, where he delivered the 20th annual David A. Tillinghast Lecture on international taxation. He displayed the same enthusiasm for the BEPS project as he had a year earlier. But now Pascal was no longer the cheerleader. He was the lead architect of a team that had completed the challenge to design a new structure for international taxation. And unlike Pascal the cheerleader who last year was urging his team to succeed, Pascal the architect was proudly touting the blueprints that his team had designed, and talking about how construction had already begun.
If it sounds like I admire this charming Frenchman, who has taken on and executed with apparent joy what some might consider a fool’s errand, I do. But not because the project is perfect. Certainly not because the project will transform international taxation overnight. No. I admire Pascal because he is the right person for the job, appointed at the right time, with the right skills, and perhaps most importantly, the right attitude. Pascal began his talk at NYU by downplaying its timing, coming less than one week after the G-20 finance ministers approved the BEPS final reports. He then explained the series of events that brought the world to this moment. He talked about the challenges his team faced in completing the project, as it sought and received input from hundreds of keenly interested stakeholders. And he talked candidly, but still enthusiastically, about the challenges and opportunities the final reports present. Only time will tell whether the BEPS plans ultimately succeed. But observers have enough information now to conclude that Pascal Saint-Amans has proved a worthy steward of the BEPS project. I look forward to watching him use the personal and professional skills that brought the OECD this far, to oversee the implementation of the architecture – regardless of how beautiful or ugly any given tax professional may view the design of the building itself.