Dec 112018

President Macron has just addressed the French people for the first time since 1 December. After weeks of violent protests, his address was anxiously awaited, not least after last Saturday when, according to Le Monde, some 136 thousand protesters of all ages and backgrounds took to the streets of France.

What did you expect from the President? What did I or the yellow-vested protesters?

Ah, but the man is no fool! Rather than scold the demonstrators, he made a sweeping apology on behalf of the establishment for having forgotten the suffering of so many of his countrymen, giving moving accounts of the uphill struggle of untold men and women straining to reconcile work, parenthood (or old age and/or illness) and low income. His examples were numerous and vivid enough to sound sincere. He promised there would be change, plenty of change, starting with a 100 EUR hike of minimum wages from 1 January.

President Macron must have read his Piketti! Have you, Mrs Clinton? I am pretty sure Mrs Merkel has, conservative though she may be. As for the right-wing, so-called populist leaders of Eastern European countries slipping into autocracy, they have evidently only grasped what serves them best, the fact that a majority of voters are disaffected, disappointed and feel disadvantaged.

The question is, will the French president be able to deliver on his promises? Can any president deliver on such promises? I very much doubt it. For instance, how on earth can one sole president put an end to global so-called “tax avoidance” and the use of ugly, if not illegal, tax shields. The way things are, no president can satisfy any electorate in the long run.

Companies need investors. Investors want to be remunerated. After all, investing in a company is not as safe as putting your money in the bank. The company therefore needs to pay sufficiently high dividends to be able to dissuade people from putting their savings in the bank. To do so, the company has to cut more corners than the bank, i.e. pay less tax. If that involves hiring experts, offshore entities, fictitious companies, nominee directors and dodgy accounting firms, all of which will take a cut in the avoided tax, so be it. The outcome is less money to the state, and survival of the company.

Since we all want employment for as many of our citizens as possible, we dare not normally rock the boat. There is just one problem: As a result of tax avoidance, the state has insufficient means to care for its constituents. And large swathes of many populations are growing very disillusioned, even angry. Very angry.

Now in Europe, we tend to disagree with people in the US about the value of “state” and human constituents. Whereas in the US, where disadvantaged human beings and their offspring (excepting younger than 12-week-old embryos) tend to be disparaged, Europeans have invested heavily in the so-called “welfare society”. The term basically embodies the concept that all and sundry should have the right to education according to proclivity, healthcare according to need, and sustenance according to circumstance.

In other words, in Europe, states need income. The problem is, however, that a lot of money is being tucked away. Putting taxable money away is expensive, so only those who are very rich can afford to use the available “loopholes” to do so. One such loophole involved defrauding several European states of a total of 55 billion (yes, billion) euros. Here it is explained by Deutsche Welle. This was the largest tax evasion scam  ever to have been uncovered in Europe. One reason why theft of so much of our (the taxpayers’) money has attracted only limited attention is that some very prestigious banks were among the culprits (e.g. Santander and Deutsche Bank).

You and I, the French yellow vests, the long-suffering Spanish unemployed, the ill-advised Bolsonaro voters in Brazil, the innumerable abused women of Latin America and Somalia, the underpaid teachers and health workers of the world, we are all being outmanoeuvred by companies that manage to avoid paying their fair share of taxes, (such as Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon) and by financial acrobats. It was the financial acrobats who brought down the global house of cards in 2008, trading in futures and shorts and whatnot, and they will do so again, because, basically, nothing has changed, because, basically, those who control the rules of the game DON’T WANT THINGS TO CHANGE, because, basically, they are inevitably the ones to win. This is not just a matter for France or the US. This is a global trend and it applies, I suspect, even to Russia, China and Iran.

In the December issue of Le Monde Diplomatique, Secretary General of Amnesty International Kumi Naidoo stresses that human rights are not just a matter of legal rights and freedom of speech. Economic and social rights are equally important. Kumi Naidoo apologises on behalf of the organisation for having so long delayed in understanding that one of the most important reasons why we need the one is to defend the other. I was very glad to see that apology!

What can the French president do? If he raises taxes on big business, he will be out of work tomorrow. He cannot possibly do anything about tax avoidance, because then companies will simply leave the country. There are plenty of other countries. It’s all interlocked, as Kumi Naidoo pointed out in his article celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, today, 10 December.

Although the German authorities managed to uncover much of the cum ex scam, it was only thanks to painstaking efforts laid down by a network of reporters from various news outlets, that the extent of the scam came to light. They also uncovered that it is STILL GOING ON. Read about it. I promise you, this is hot stuff.

My point is that in this case the press actually served the purpose it can and should serve, as a corrective: It exposed what we were not supposed to see.

However, in many countries, most media are owned by the powers that be. Hence they are not free. Hence people will make ill-informed electoral choices and will accept slashes to their legal rights and freedom of speech. Discovering, too late, that they are the ones to go on paying the austerity bill, they will be put in jail for voicing their discontent.

You can just imagine what conflagrations we will see when the climate bill has to be paid. We have just seen a small hint of that scenario in France.

Apr 042016

I knew, of course, that this is done, and I knew, roughly, how; how some of the rich and powerful, as opposed to most of us, manage to pay little or no taxes. (Hear for instance BBC’s “file on 4”, “Dirty Money UK” of 11 October 2015).

The problem is that more often than not, these people (some of the rich and powerful) are able to avoid paying taxes without breaking the law. Hence the fine verbal distinction between tax evasion, which is a criminal act, and tax avoidance, which is not.

They find loopholes. And the loopholes don’t get closed because the greedy bastards (excuse my French) have contacts in important places (or bribed flunkies in various countries’ civil services, including  – I have no doubt –  our own) and because the tax avoidance schemes are so complex that even the most adamant prosecutors can’t crack them (cf. my post “Speaking of Crime” a while back).

If an honest prosecutor can’t unravel these cases, how is the general public supposed to? So, to my grief, the general public in each country has until now, at least, been mute about the monumental siphoning off of what should have been tax money. While the lower and middle classes pay for the upkeep of their countries – and the penal sanctions for not doing so are very harsh, indeed – some (I really must insist on this some) of the filthy rich do not. No penal sanctions, no public outcry, no nothing.

Mind you, not only tax money! Once you have obtained a secret little series of PO Box companies in distant lands (or more probably, on islands) to which you can divert the proceeds of your business – and why on earth should you bother to do that, unless the purpose is to cheat your compatriots – you can very easily embark on a criminal career in a big way, all the while apearing devout and well-meaning back home.

But now… Oooo, what an exquisite moment I have just enjoyed! In the wake of the monumental release of the “Panama Papers“, I have been watching an Icelandic Prime Minister trying to explain that he was absolutely innocent of cheating the taxman – and besides, he did not know anything about it – and making such a blessed fool of himself that finally his long-suffering countrymen have been vindicated a little bit:

First Iceland was raped by the country’s bankers, bankers’ friends, and bankers’ government flunkies, and the country more or less collapsed in 2008. (The crooked bankers had victims abroad as well, as many Britons will bitterly remember.)  Iceland had to accept gigantic loans to pay for the running of the country, a debt that its citizens are paying dearly, to this day. Most of the funds that had been siphoned off by the crooked bankers and their friends have not been recovered. They had been sucked into a great black hole. They had been vamoosed.

Next, Iceland was bamboozled by a political party which had in effect nurtured the crooked coterie that brought the country to its knees. In the run-up to the last election, that party (the so-called Progressive Party) lied so outrageously and effectively to the voters that it actually regained the power it had lost after the collapse. (Democracy definitely has its weaknesses!)

The Progressive Party’s leader has now been undressed and humiliated. For the record I express the futile hope that he and his like stay away from Icelandic politics for ever.

More importantly, in a global perspective, the Panama papers are documentation of what we knew but couldn’t prove:  A very considerable part of the planet’s wealth is unaccounted for, stashed away in secret places, vamoosed into black holes.

The Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca  is merely one of many that provide similar services to greedy people.

There is no end to easily accessible statistical material illustating how an infinitessimal proportion of the world’s rich owns and earns far more than the vast majority of the rest of all of us humans added together. I will not bore you with such figures, though they are truly quite stark.

Consider, though, that an unknown but undoubtedly enormous proportion of the world’s wealth is not visible to economists, social scientists, financial researchers, etc, and is not subject to tax. An unknown but undoubtedly enormous proportion of the world’s wealth has vanished down a black hole, has been vamoosed.

Can the planet feed all its inhabitants? If not, why?

Feb 272016

Why murder? Why the inevitable corpse in all crime films? After all, the basic plot is almost always that Protagonist A is missing or found killed and that Protagonist B (police officer, accused innocent by-stander, or close relative/friend) sets out to discover what happened, in a life or death race with Protagonist C (perpetrator).

Why do we keep watching these things? What is there to be learnt from glimpsing, for the umpteenth time, a killer’s warped mind? Occasionally, the victim’s mind is as warped as that of the killer. So?

Each murder is a personal tragedy for the victim, of course, and for the murderer, and for anybody who deeply cared for either of them. Say a dozen people, maybe two.

On the other hand, financial crimes, whether or not they have been deemed such in court, can harm, more or less dramatically, all the tax payers in an affected country. In an article 24 January 2016 “We all want Apple to pay more tax”, the Telegraph writes:

About a month ago the bankers Goldman Sachs published a list of the biggest and richest firms in the world. The top three, in order, were Apple, Google and Microsoft – and Facebook and Amazon were also in the top 10. All these tech companies make staggering sums from an avid British population. We love this stuff. We can’t get enough of it. We buy tens of billions of pounds’ worth of American hardware, software and services – and yet these companies pay quite derisory sums in tax to the UK Exchequer: derisory, that is, when you consider how much dosh they are earning from us all.”

The article goes on to defend the practice of tax avoidance schemes. It is true that technically, the Gargantuan tax avoidance schemes hatched out by influential transnational corporations are not necessarily violations of law, but they certainly would be if the average voter/tax payer had a say in the matter. But we voters don’t see and cannot understand the intricate technicalities involved.

Worse, we lack the technical insight to see our own countries’ dirty financial linen. Speaking of Iceland again: The entire country went bust, mostly as a result of the book cooking and irresponsible investments of a few financial crooks who would probably never have been exposed had it not been for the domino effect in the wake of the Lehman Brothers.

In my country, most of us hardly even noticed when the great big multinational Transocean was let off the hook a couple of weeks ago: The public prosecutor who had been pursuing Transocean for years on charges of criminal tax evasion was forced to apologise (!) to Transocean. A rather touching local article describes Norwegian legislators’ reaction as shocked and dismayed after a lecture about multinationals’ tax avoidance machinations. There’s a bad world out there, so bad that most of us think it’s just fiction.

Afterall, how can you fathom, if you run a little shop and pay your weight in gold to the taxman, that Transocean or Google or Apple can cheat and lie as much as they like as long as they have a battery of top ranking tax lawyers on their payrolls. Who can grasp there is so much iniquity in a civilised country?

Whose informed opinion weighs the most, Google’s or the voter’s? By whom is the voter’s opinion informed? Why do we prefer a film about a murder to a film about the effects of multinationals’ crooked machinations? Why don’t we even know about multinationals’ crooked machinations in spite of people’s loosing their jobs and/or homes because of them?

Whose acts, then, are the more sinister, the murderer’s or the multinationals’ crooked machinations? So lets have lots of  crime films about multinationals’ crooked machinations. We might learn something we really  need to know.