Parasitic behaviour at the top of the wealth chain, while those in the middle or the bottom struggle to earn a decent living, is one of the worst things wrong with the world, writes Fergus Finlay
The richer you are, it seems, the greedier you are. The more money you have, the more lengths you’ll go to to hide it from the tax man.
Maybe there’s nothing surprising in that — maybe it’s something we’ve always known. But when it’s exposed in its nakedness, it’s still deeply shocking. World leaders for years have been telling us about the need to for tax transparency — what David Cameron referred to as the need “to shine a spotlight on who owns what and where the money is really flowing.” And then we start to discover the world leaders who are stashing their money in hidden bank accounts.
You can add hypocrisy to greed. The Prime Minister of Iceland is famous in his own country for his regular attacks on the vultures — his word — who have undermined the country’s banking system. Bit of a hero to the left, he is, because of his outspokenness. You can watch him today on YouTube walking out of an interview when he’s asked about his secret ownership of a company that has claims on some of Iceland’s failed banks.
At one level, it’s very hard to take in what the breaking news stories about the Panama Papers are telling us. At another level, why would we be surprised?
We can be absolutely certain there’s more to come. It has been described as the biggest leak in history — more or less, it seems, the entire database of a company described as the fourth largest off-shore law firm in the world. 95% of their business, according to one of their principals, consists of selling vehicles to enable rich people to avoid taxes. These rich people include 12 current or former leaders of countries.
The Irish revelations are so far thin on the ground, but I’m guessing that as this story unfolds there will be more of them. All sorts of people are going to be puzzled or surprised by what the papers reveal about their activities. All sorts of denials are going to be made, all sorts of injured innocence is going to be put on display.
And of course, no laws have been broken, as far as we know so far. That’s the great thing about having lots of assets — you get to have a lot of influence over how public policy is made, and public policy throughout the “civilised” world has always had a two-faced approach to hidden wealth. Policy huffs and puffs about the need for transparency, but it keeps discovering new legal loopholes it has created for the wealthy. Cue more injured innocence.
Bear in mind a couple of things. Most of us have never heard of this Panamanian company –d1 Mossack Fonseca. It has a beautifully bland website advertising its wares, and it has offices all over the world. They’ll assist clients with everything, from registering their yachts in Panama to protecting their estates.
As they say themselves, and don’t you just love the innocuous language, “through organisations such as Corporations, Private Foundations and Trusts, we assist our clients in their estate planning and asset protection needs. Trust operations can protect assets from diverse threats, including political unrest, reckless heirs and more. Each client has specific and definite requirements, and our solutions are always designed to meet the needs of one of them.” I love that – “political unrest, reckless heirs and more”. That must have been what attracted Vladimir Putin and his friends to become clients of the company.
But here’s the thing. Mossack Fonseca aren’t the biggest company in the world providing these kinds of services to wealthy clients. If you have lots of money, and you’re greedy for more, there are dozens of highly reputable companies with branches in Liechtenstein, the Seychelles, and all over the world willing to protect you from “political unrest and more”. You need never worry about committing a crime and breaking the law. And if your activities become public and you’re forced into some embarrassing disclosure, sure what price a little embarrassment?
Do you remember Ansbacher? It was a great scandal in the early 2000s when a report was published by the Director of Corporate Enforcement. Ansbacher was a tax evasion scam in which people pretended to invest money offshore, but it was actually held in the safe of an accountant called Des Traynor. His, and the bank’s, most high profile client was the late Mr CJ Haughey.
But who remembers the names of the other 200 clients? How many of them were prosecuted for tax evasion? I’ll give you one guess. They all had to endure a weekend or so of media trying to take photographs of them and their houses, and then it went away.
Mary Harney, who was Tánaiste at the time, used tough language. She described the Ansbacher Report as ‘‘a watershed in Irish life …. a damning insight into a world of conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion over a long number of years … a charade, a sham and a legal fiction”.
But that went away too. Instead of the fairness and justice that Ms Harney demanded in the wake of the Ansbacher scandal, the government of which she was a key part embraced “light touch regulation”. That philosophy ushered in an era of reckless and improvident lending, and ultimately led to the collapse of our baking system. So much for the lessons of Ansbacher.
We don’t learn lessons, do we? Every time we discover the need for more effective regulation, something else gets in the way. Every time we’re shocked at the greed of the wealthy, something else pops up to distract us.
Right now there’s a simmering debate about greed in Ireland, sure enough. But the muttering is all about the greed of the LUAS drivers, the teachers and the nurses, who are gearing up to lead the charge for a pay increase.
These are people who, in the main, have seen their pay frozen and cut as a direct consequence of austerity. Right across the public sector, and indeed throughout the community and voluntary sector, there are thousands of people who struggle to make ends meet. And while they’re struggling, they’re asked every day to work harder and longer than they used to, often in conditions of stress and anxiety.
If teachers or nurses go on strike, they’ll be pilloried for their failure to understand how fragile the recovery is, and how much damage their actions can do to the public finances. Everyone will forget how large a contribution their pay cuts have already made to restoring the public finances from a catastrophe they didn’t cause.
Teachers and nurses don’t have offshore accounts. They’re never likely to be able to use the services of nice lawyers from Panama to hide their assets. That’s a privilege reserved for the wealthy.
But it’s also a demonstration, as if we needed another one, that parasitic behaviour at the top of the wealth chain, while those in the middle or the bottom struggle to earn a decent living, is one of the worst things wrong with the world.
Millions starve. Millions more struggle. Massive amounts of wealth are concentrated, and hidden, by a few. When are we ever going to learn?
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