See-through Society – transparency


Cleaning Up

Chuka Umuna, the Shadow Business Secretary, recently called for companies in the UK to declare their tax payments to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC). This followed the widely reported, bad publicity surrounding the minimal tax payments made in the UK by Amazon, Google, Starbucks and many others. Whilst not wishing to name and shame, he believes that all companies should glory in the tax they pay. Justin King, head of Sainsbury’s, one of the big four food retailers in the UK, made a similar statement, suggesting that consumers could make change happen through their custom. International Corporations have been cleaning up by transferring their tax liabilities to low tax regimes and tax havens – they can virtually choose where to pay tax.

Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister, states in his most recent letter to LibDem members: “The idea of combining a strong economy with a fair and transparent society is something that will also be seen in an international context this year when we host the G8 in Northern Ireland.”

Transparency is becoming the mantra of the well-meaning in society and many would say “about time, too”. While not the answer to all of societies’ ills, it is a precursor to re-directing society towards solving some of the greatest problems we have – because transparency of key information allows people (civil society) to make informed decisions – either on their own (through the marketplace) or through their government.

Sweeping away the leaves

For years, organisations like Transparency International have campaigned for dramatic improvements in the way governments, publicly owned organisations and companies provide important information. The danger with secrecy (and the UK remains a very secretive country) is that beneath the opacity of information lie secrets that those with vested interests wish to keep hidden. Whilst secrecy is always claimed by Governments to benefit all of us where they wish to enforce it, the evidence is usually to the contrary. The benefits of secrecy accrue to vested interests and results in economic mismanagement at best – at worst, in countries which are, for example, resource-rich and economically poor, it leads to mass corruption, impoverishment of the mass of people, illness and suffering.

Economics and economies thrive on the open availability of good information and only monopolies thrive on secrecy. It is only when information is made available that proper judgments can be made by the mass of participants in the marketplace.  In a world population of billions, markets can only work where information is not controlled from the top down. Stockmarkets and financial markets depend on the freest possible flow of information to the widest audience and there has been a progressive move towards freer access to information along with the spread of technology that enables it to be used. The driving force is the same human one that drives freedom and democracy. There is an inherent motor behind individual freedom and the right to self-govern and the same motor drives transparency because it is with transparency that the potential can be seen and with transparency that informed decisions can be made.

Transparency is not closing your eyes when the wind blows

In the UK, a nation that always appears to be governed by a conservative mindset where change is difficult, where the Official Secrets Act dominates, where GCHQ and CCTV appear ubiquitous, where the challenge to maintain a fairness between an open society and a society that bears down on terrorism often seems so far weighed in the latter’s direction, the motor for transparency often seems to be running in neutral. Conservatism (especially in England) means keeping things the same and with direction from the centre. This often means that vested interests operating from the centre or with the centre will disallow the move towards more openness. The Labour government provided a Freedom of Information Act, for example, to the chagrin of its then leader, Tony Blair., who was and remains a centrist. In a sense the provision of the Act was odd, because Labour remains as much a centrist party as the Conservatives. Nevertheless, the human motor for more transparency was stronger than the urge to opacity in this case – even if the Act is not itself allowing the freedoms desired.

Yet, it was a step towards a more open society and towards transparency that many countries would relish. A free press (the subject of so much discussion following and before Leveson) has helped to unearth the secrecy in banking, for example, that has plagued the UK for centuries. Manipulation of LIBOR, money laundering, sub-prime casino banking and support for tax havens may have helped to make London a key banking centre but it did not insulate the UK from the collapse in 2007 – it made it far worse – and “only when the tide goes out do you discover who was swimming naked” (Warren Buffet commenting on naked transparency). Sometimes, opening our eyes hurts.

Nothing to Hide?

One example of eye strain concerns the opacity of the banks and their cozy relationship with Government (not just in the UK). The secrecy allied to the special relationship has hindered the UK to an intolerable degree. Under Nigel Lawson (one of Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellors) the post-manufacturing society was hailed as the future as banks gained more freedoms and we all kept our eyes closed. Yet, we now see Germany as Europe’s economic motor because of its manufacturing prowess and the revitalization of the British motor industry (although hardly any it owned by Brits) is now lauded much louder than our “success” in financial services. The illusion of banking remains, though – as a key driver of the economy rather than what it really is – a provider of services that should assist the real economy. And the illusion has been propped up by a lack of real transparency which enables banking to remain a secret society.

Transparency is the ability to be strong enough to reveal information because there is nothing to hide. The true strength of transparency is the confidence that it portrays. So, the opportunity for companies and Governments to be open, to be transparent, only exists where there is not much to hide. Clearly, international companies that are paying virtually no corporation tax on sizeable UK earnings have something to hide; clearly, those (companies and individuals) who put money into offshore tax havens or to secrecy jurisdictions may have something to hide.

If banks and individuals had nothing to hide, Wegelin, the oldest Swiss bank, which is closing as a result of its plan to take on all the clients of Swiss banks that had decided to be more transparent with the US authorities over tax evasion would still be open for business. Their clients, who wished anonymity, made their way to Wegelin – which had been founded in 1741. They knew they were doing wrong and Wegelin knew the same – and the bank is closing after a hefty fine from US regulators and after 271 years. Secrecy was in the bank’s DNA – it could not evolve to the realities just beginning to dawn in the 21st Century. It became extinct.

So, lack of transparency in a world with eyes opening can be also hurt and be expensive and the US executive is now proving to be vigilant on  behalf of transparency on a world-wide basis – as is the US Congress which passed legislation in 2010 called Dodd-Frank. Part of this related to section 1504 which requires extractive industry companies registered with the SEC (Security and Exchange Commission) to disclose their revenues and taxes paid on a country by country basis worldwide. This includes all companies registered on the NYSE no matter where they are based. The EU looks to be following this example so that the people of resource-rich, economically poor countries will know how much money their precious natural resources raise in annual income and then can follow through what their Governments do with that money.

However, the American Petroleum Institute and the US Chambers of Commerce (vested interests if ever there were) are trying to fight back and have initiated a law suit in the US to nullify section 1504

How curious that libertarians fight on behalf of secrecy – the proponents of a free market arguing against a main tenet of economics – free information.

Battle lines are being drawn – the light and the dark.

21st Century Schizoid Man, King Crimson’s take on Spiro Agnew, was written in 1969 but the 21st Century does even now witness such schizoid tendencies characterized by corporate and governmental secretiveness, emotional coldness and apathy that typifies the illness. The lack of openness is world-wide and exhibited by the Chinese authorities’ suppression of its Southern Weekly newspaper when an editorial criticizing Chinese leadership was thrown out and one supporting the leadership was superimposed. Anyone reading Martin Jacques book “When China Rules the World” would not be surprised at the suppression. It characterizes the central leadership of this “civilization state” but Jacques argues that we see it too much with western eyes. But, what if we in the West are right and democratic freedom and openness are the motors that drive our human endeavours? What if the Chinese have, for 2,000 years, actually got it wrong. As China grows stronger, the move away from freedom for information will intensify and Chambers of Commerce will battle against laws for transparency that they will argue provides Chinese firms with advantages. This is a battle that has to be fought world-wide.

Our pursuit of progressively greater freedom (whether press freedom, open markets, democracies, freedom of speech) and equality (of race, religion (or non-religion, sex, sexual orientation and more) appears to be the real motor rather than the schizoid tendencies of the centrist control of monopolies, dictators, and vested interests. Transparency is a hugely important base upon which this basic human drive can persist. In a post-2007 world where the risk is that wealth is being driven to the top 1%, the drive for transparency is fundamental.

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