Thursday , October 29 2020
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Pain, brioche, and the language of taxation

Summary:
Ireland's Supreme Court recently ruled that the buns Subway uses in its sandwiches contain too much sugar to be considered "bread", and are thus subject to Value Added Tax (VAT). The decision lead to headlines and discussion along the lines of "Irish High Court Rules Subway’s Sandwich Bread Is Not Legally Bread" or "Ireland declares that Subway’s bread is basically cake". The emphasis was on how "confused" and "bizarre" the entire debate was, and the cost and arbitrary nature of distinctions made in tax legislation: "Having moral distinctions between foodstuffs in your tax regulations turns out to be an awfully expensive thing". Yet the discussion of whether or not Subway buns are bread is only confused and bizarre in English, with our barren culinary language. In French, the

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Ireland's Supreme Court recently ruled that the buns Subway uses in its sandwiches contain too much sugar to be considered "bread", and are thus subject to Value Added Tax (VAT). The decision lead to headlines and discussion along the lines of "Irish High Court Rules Subway’s Sandwich Bread Is Not Legally Bread" or "Ireland declares that Subway’s bread is basically cake". The emphasis was on how "confused" and "bizarre" the entire debate was, and the cost and arbitrary nature of distinctions made in tax legislation: "Having moral distinctions between foodstuffs in your tax regulations turns out to be an awfully expensive thing".

Yet the discussion of whether or not Subway buns are bread is only confused and bizarre in English, with our barren culinary language. In French, the discussion would not seem peculiar. French distinguishes between three broad categories of baked goods: unsweetened bread is "pain", sweetened bread (often made with eggs and milk) is "brioche", and cake is "gâteau." Hence the expression "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche" is (somewhat misleadingly) translated as "let them eat cake", because there is no English word for sweetened bread.

Subway's response to the ruling was that “Subway’s bread is, of course, bread.” Yet even though the English language does not distinguish between "pain"-type bread and "broiche"-type bread, the distinction does exist - and can hold up in court. Yet the fact that Subway believed they had a plausible case, and the bemusement the case generated in the English-language media reveal the extent to which language and culture influence the types of distinctions tax systems are able to make.

The national and first official language of Ireland is Irish, rather than English. I don't know whether "arán"  - the Irish word for bread - also encompasses brioche, or the extent to which various forms of bread are distinguished in everyday speech. If you know, please leave a comment! 

Frances Woolley
I am a Professor of Economics at Carleton University, where I have taught since 1990. My research centres on families and public policy. My most-cited work is on modelling family-decision making, measuring inequality within the household, feminist economics, and tax-benefit policy towards families. I hold a BA from Simon Fraser University, an MA from Queen’s, and completed my doctorate at the London School of Economics, under the supervision of Tony Atkinson.

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