Barclays was cornered this week in the UK by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs into paying back around £500 million for entering into a tax avoidance scheme – despite signing up to a Government scheme not to do such things. Bob Diamond now looks foolish after his vow to make Barclays a good citizen.
For many years, it has been “OK” for companies and high income earners to shield their earnings behind tax avoidance schemes. Since the introduction of welfare states across the world, companies and individuals have sought to minimize the tax that society needs to work through the system. They have systematically sought to challenge the efforts of democracies to manage the tax base. In some countries like Greece, there has been a tacit buy-in by Governments (and those in Government with their fingers in the till) to allow tax to go unpaid. This leads inexorably to financial chaos and, as we now see in Greece, to progressive civil strife and poverty. This is what has happened in Africa for so long – the wealthy shield their income from the State (who are paid off to look away).
In those countries which do make a real effort to collect taxes, the best tax avoidance comes through the use of tax havens and the real killer for economic equity is the way the world accepts tax havens as a reasonable and acceptable part of our global economy.
David Cameron and many others talk a lot about fairness: the fairness that makes bankers bonuses almost a criminal offence. But, this is two-faced. While George Osborne says that the HMRC will work towards killing off general tax avoidance schemes, we have in our midst a main centre of tax avoidance – the City of London.
Nicholas Shaxson wrote brilliantly in his book “Treasure Islands” about the tax havens that bedevil the world of finance and economics. Tax havens distort, they do not equalize. Tax havens provide the wealthy (individuals and corporates) alongside the wealthy criminals and wealthy terrorists with the ability to shield themselves from legitimate taxation. Providing a legitimacy to tax havens (and allowing them to proliferate worldwide – even shielding them as the UK does the Cayman Islands and elsewhere) creates massive market distortions and inequalities. Legitimate and democratic tax collection is continuously stymied by the tax havens – just a step from the wealth-grabbing in Angola or the tax avoidance mentality that is Greece.
Taxation is a central plank of democratic society. While the Tea Party and similar libertarians might rage against central government tax and tax collections as a scourge of society, we know that society is centred on a democratic ideal of the wealthy properly financing the society on which it depends to provide a basic source of welfare to the poor and sick, for defence, for infrastructure. Society is more than just the wealthy and privileged creating an elite life. Angola is a good example of how fortunate elites manipulate the wealth of a nation to appropriate its total wealth and Sonangol (its so-called publicly owned oil company – really commanded by its country’s leadership who reap its financial benefits) has been built to achieve the grabbing of oil and energy wealth from the citizens.
The nations that democratically elect their leaders (and, it is to be hoped the new rich of China and Brazil and others) should take heed to the dangers posed by the examples of the wealth grabbers in the energy-rich nations. It is here, in the UK (City of London, Jersey), the USA (such as the state of Delaware) as well as the better known haunts of the Dutch Antilles or the Cayman Islands, where huge financial flows (from the legitimate wealthy alongside the illegitimate) travel in order to reduce the legitimate tax take of the countries in which the wealth is created. Tax havens are wealth destroyers.
Wealth is destroyed by tax havens because they eat away at the main body of a nation – its mass of people, its true wealth creators. Education and education systems suffer dramatically because taxation is unavailable to finance schools. Health systems suffer for the same reasons – in the UK, where we have moved vast sums to the NHS in the last Government, cut-backs are now biting as the tax take is diminished along with economic growth. In poorer countries, the wealth shift is much more dramatic.
Ambassador Nancy Soderberg (appointed by President Obama earlier this year) was in London this week to campaign for Argentina to live up to its duties in economic areas. She mentioned its lack of adherence to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) requirements for responsible national supervision of illegal financing – Argentina was placed on FATF’s grey list over corruption issues. But, FATF and other international bodies have failed to oversee a sustained reduction in how financial flows travel the world and to institute a level of good citizenship on a worldwide scale amongst our companies and wealthy individuals.
While steps have been taken to reduce terrorist financing and, to a much smaller extent, the benefits of illegal drug trafficking and gambling and prostitution, very minor shifts have been made in (a) defining what global good citizenship means (b) reducing tax havens and the financial flows through them.
The G20 states from time to time that tax havens are to be reduced in scope but the battle against them has hardly started. Tax avoidance on a grand scale is as bad as grand corruption (maybe bigger in scale): two sides of the same coin. Good global citizenship requires a new definition to be made – where a global consensus is sought to reduce hugely the ability of companies and individuals to create their wealth in one place and move it offshore to save tax. This simple example of good global citizenship is a cornerstone to increasing wealth creation on a wider scale. It is not socialism but realism and pragmatism. It is good citizenship.