Is FIFA-world just a microcosm of the real one?

Russia's president Vladimir Putin (left) and Fifa president Sepp Blatter

FIFA-world: a virtual world where you get ahead by what you pay and stay ahead by denying the evidence

“When we get bribed, we stay bribed.”

Jon Stewart on his Daily Show in the USA – his take-down of Sepp Blatter and FIFA. The legal onslaught on FIFA-world  has been 24 years in the making – 24 years before the legal process (headed by the US Attorney General Loretta Lynch) went into motion. As Stewart remarked, “even Switzerland” itself had moved on FIFA.

Yet, Sepp Blatter was overwhelmingly affirmed by FIFA delegates for another four years – on the votes of Africa, Asia and Platini’s France amongst others. This was despite the obviously dangerous legal claims made against many senior employees and representatives of FIFA by the US and Swiss legal authorities. This was despite the fact that Blatter has been President of FIFA for so long – it has been on his watch.

The President of FIFA has (under its latest statutes) the following responsibilities:

32. President

The President represents FIFA legally.

He is primarily responsible for:

a)  implementing the decisions passed by the Congress and the Executive Committee through the general secretariat; 

b)  supervising the work of the general secretariat;

c)  relations between FIFA and the Confederations, Members, political bodies and international organisations.

Only the President may propose the appointment or dismissal of the Secretary General.

The President shall preside over the Congress, the Executive and Emergency Committee meetings and those committees of which he has been appointed chairman.

The President shall have an ordinary vote on the Executive Committee and, whenever votes are equal, shall have a casting vote.

If the President is absent or unavailable, the longest-serving vice-president available shall deputise.

Any additional powers of the President shall be contained in the FIFA Organisation Regulations.

As FIFA’s legal representative on planet earth, it seems clear that Blatter would be held accountable for all its actions whether he knows about them (and he claims a complete absence of knowledge) or not. Yet, FIFA members, by a great majority, supported his continued Presidency.

For some of us, this seems absurd. For those of us brought up under democratic systems, where wrongdoing in an elected body is normally punished by the voter, the inability of FIFA to sort itself out appears naïve as does the apparent understanding of the electorate. Yet, to many of those who voted for Blatter, their response was entirely logical.

How FIFA-World Seems to Work

The world has changed over the last fifty years to an extent that is now becoming highly visible. Until the 1950’s, the great western powers and the USSR held military power (hard power) over the rest of the world. One by one, states outside this power block became politically independent. Asian economic power-houses like Japan grew quickly and then China began its sustained and dramatic economic renaissance. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, instead of democracy, economic power brokers developed (with Putin at the top of that tree).

While we understandably focus on military and security threats posed by those like ISIS, the world has been moving on – with economic growth at the centre (softer power).

However, instead of the west’s domination, there are now various centres of economic power – such as China, India and Brazil – which are breaking down long-established norms.

These norms (such as the desire by Western nations to link good governance with economic aid) are under real threat as newly enriched nations like China care less about the good governance of its supply and customer base outside China than it does internally and less than the stated aims of the earlier economic hegemonies.

This compounds the pent-up pressure on the governments of the newly developing world that may be tired of the continuous pressure put on them to do more of what the west wants them to do – such as reduce corruption and improve good governance. This is not the reaction necessarily of their people (most are completely sick of the bribery and corruption that exists, often sick of the absence of real democracy and the absence of real representation) but in many parts of the world, the people do not have a say.

Also, populations are torn between a natural desire to see things properly run (good governance) and feeding their kids or having a roof over their heads. Elsewhere, like in Russia, the government has a rigid control over their people. The same is true in China.

Finally, nations are now (because of their own economic strength and because of alliances with those like China) less likely to fold against the old hegemonies of the USA and Europe.

For all these reasons, FIFA-world seems symbolic of the new world order that is taking place where an organisation that has been corrupt for so long is able to maintain good relationships with its supporters through its economic success and the ability to pass on that financial success to a range of nations and individuals – upon which it also survives. It pays to support Blatter – even if you are in receipt of dirty money.

Despite pressure from the west (notably the UK – via, mainly, its newspapers like the Sunday Times while government was just as mercantilist when London was in the running for the World Cup), FIFA refuses to change from the inside. As there is no ability to march into Switzerland and take over the company by force (the 19th Century ideal), the only method remaining is via international law as applied by the US Attorney General and the Swiss. It has taken 24 years to get to this stage.

What could we be learning from FIFA-world?

This microcosm represented by FIFA-world must have lessons for the new real world order but it is not easy to overcome the concern that fifty years of working towards better governance (e.g. where we have seen increases in the number of democracies throughout the world) is under threat.

The natural focus on material wealth as the highest priority for all nations and all people is understandable. Worldwide poverty indicators are reducing (even if mainly from Chinese economic success). As Maslow showed so clearly in the 1930’s, most people focus on material wealth creation well before there is a serious thought given to quality of life issues.

MAslow

This is clearly seen in practice as the world pursues economic gains even in those countries that are already wealthy. Even the safety and maintenance of nature and the environment becomes translated into a form of costed “natural capital” so that it can enter into our economic thinking. If it has no valuation methodology, then humans seem unable to evaluate it. If we can’t count it, we can’t imagine it, apparently.

This means that issues like corruption are treated as secondary to economic benefit or economic security in most nations. It is no longer just a case of saying “Corruption is bad, stop!” because the complexity of the each situation means that, in the short term, those who gain through corruption and / or being part of a corrupt environment do not visualise the problems quickly enough. Moral crusades are not high enough on Maslow’s hierarchy (which was developed for marketing purposes but serves as a useful tool elsewhere).

Even the use of legal sanction by the USA, while applauded by many in developed nations, is not so well received elsewhere. Blatter knows how to utilize this reaction by appealing to the sensitivities of nations that do well out of FIFA economically and see themselves (as nations and individuals) threatened economically by the ending of corruption. This is not much different from oil-rich nations like Angola preferring to sell to China than the west – because no-one in China is demanding good governance from Sonangol, the dos Santos-owned oil company. It is similar to tribal leaders in Afghanistan that react badly to the west’s demands for an end to corruption in that country.

Those legal sanctions operating in the West (through a range of anti-money laundering devices, FCPA, Bribery Act and the like) can have great power when used against corporations. They are now extra-territorial in scope and can remove any one nation’s or company’s ability to protect themselves from legal onslaught. However, in the UK, for example, implementation of laws such as the Bribery Act are completely under-resourced so reliance has been placed on the US to widen its military policing role to one of legal challenge – where an individual using US assets (banking, currency or legal) is liable.

Such legal sanction needs to be policed (a) by more than just the USA and (b) in a way that is not seen as hegemony by former military world powers.

The first requires resources and a willingness to attack the problem; the second is far more subtle – a need to assess how to convince the world that corruption is hugely damaging to economies, sectors or society and even security (as is seen in Nigeria, Iraq, Afghanistan and many others vulnerable nations where armed forces are depleted by funding being ransacked by a few elites) when the benefits are clearer than the problems.

As an article in today’s National Post in Canada shows so well, giving the World Cup to a country well down Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Indicator (CPI) is asking for trouble. Yet, not giving the World Cup to such nations (which are developing nations in need of such investment and focus) until they have cleaned up their act would be seen to be counter-productive – and construed as anti-poor. There is no support for such a move.

What needs to happen is that good governance is seen as a central tenet of major corporations and of governments (national and local) and, for this to happen, a huge and relentless shift needs to take place in the way the non-FIFA world works so that the real economic needs of people are met while the ugly needs of vested interests that stand to gain through corruption are not.

For corruption to be minimized should be seen as one of the world’s major aims – where we need nations to meaningfully sign up to this in the same way as we sign up to human rights as corruption erodes human rights as well as any impediment known to humankind.

FIFA-world is a microcosm of how the real world tolerates corruption and the 24-year corruption story in FIFA is by no means finished. We need to learn from that story not just to fix FIFA-world but to fix the way the world tolerates corruption.

Note: I am a Trustee of Transparency International – UK

The G8 at Enniskillen – No Hospitality to Tax Dodgers

Spendthrifts and tax dodgers

Six years on from the bank-induced recession, governments in the G8 are in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland to consider problems that they have failed to solve since the invention of taxation. While not as old as Enniskillen’s oldest building, built by Hugh “the hospitable” Maguire (who died in 1428), it is high time serious politicians acted.

Large sovereign deficits (spendthrifts pre-2007 and financial system saviours post-2007) and the inability of Finance Ministers to take more tax from their citizens has caused some nations to focus their attention after hundreds of years on the anomalies of the corporate tax system. This system enables companies (tax dodgers) to shift their tax burden offshore – away from where they make their money – through transfer prices, royalties and the like to places where the tax burden shrinks to almost nothing.

Margaret Hodge (the chair of the UK Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee – PAC) has pursued a fierce campaign against large companies that have, in her view, not paid their due corporate taxes in the UK.

The HMRC (the UK’s tax collectors) have, for many years, decided to be “pragmatic” and reach deals with those same companies on the basis that tax law is insufficient to compel the larger companies to pay reasonable rates of taxation – and the companies have more and better (and better paid) tax lawyers and accountants than the HMRC could dream of.

The PAC has not accused companies of illegality but has stated often that they should pay tax where they earn profits and has cast doubt on the companies’ honesty and morality. Google claims its sales take place in low tax / tax haven Ireland despite the reality of closing the deals in England – as the PAC has claimed and has brought forth witnesses who have testified to this.

What the debate between public and private sectors have shown is clear (to most of us). It is that corporate taxation is very hard to collect currently and that companies believe they are duty bound to reduce their tax to the minimum possible. For there is no social heart in a company – it is not really a person (even if it is granted that status in law), it has to meet the demands of the legal system and its shareholders (while ensuring its customers are satisfied on the way).

Tax-dodging Companies Have No Afterlife

There is a misinterpretation that great companies can find a soul but we should understand that, while they are all made up of real people, companies (especially large ones) take on a life of their own and are propelled by the dynamics of corporatism. A company knows that it has but one existence – there are no stories of “good” companies going to heaven.

Companies that pursue good CSR (corporate social responsibility) do often have good people working for them but the CSR is there because civil society (which includes a lot of customers – real people) demands it. Sustainability is best developed with a good understanding of the society around the company. This means understanding social responsibility where it is seen to be legally needed or where it will benefit the company in the medium term.

This rarely stretches to paying more tax than is needed. For every Starbucks (frightened by bad publicity to throw money in the direction of HMRC) there are 1,000 Googles and Amazons and Apples. Tax is not for sale and paying tax not required by law does not gain a company angel’s wings.

The Spendthrifts’ dilemma

However, since 2007, there have arisen massive deficits in many sovereign nations’ coffers. Suddenly, there is a need to fill those cavernous holes and the substantial drift in the share of income from individual wage earners to high net worth individuals and companies (companies don’t have a vote – outside of the city of London and there are not that many rich people – even if they control most of the wealth) means that the attention of government has shifted in times of recession.

Angel Gurria, Secretary General of the OECD, said recently that taxing the “man on the street” wasn’t economically desirable or even politically possible, so for many finance ministers the only option was “to cut, cut, cut more, rather than have a proper balance between revenue and the expense”.

He said this while overseeing the signing by more countries of automatic exchange of tax information – Austria, Switzerland and Singapore coming to the table.

However, other than austerity, which is now causing huge unemployment in countries such as Greece and Spain, the only target is corporate. This may be a turning point after hundreds of years – a Clause 4 moment – or it may be just rhetoric.

Spendthrifts chasing tax-dodgers – Tax Havens and Beneficial Ownership

Linking this to the G8 and David Cameron is obvious. Companies are able to avoid tax if they can somehow show that their profits are made outside of the higher tax areas. This can only be done if there are places with very low taxation that will accommodate them – these are the tax havens. Nicholas Shaxson’s excellent book “Treasure Islands” tells the story of these tax havens extremely well and also the appalling impact that they have on the poorest countries of the world.

Developing nations are rife with corruption and the corrupt are big users of tax havens – really, they are laundering their money.  Today’s Sunday Times article on the use of Latvians as front Directors for companies operating scams tells this story.

This is possible because of the secrecy that exists in most jurisdictions. If there was transparency and the only issue was lower taxation, then we would have a real competitive environment. Unfortunately, that is not the situation – although it is changing quietly with projects like the one above. If transparency becomes the norm, then the corrupt and criminal (whether they are terrorists or drug barons) will have far fewer places to go. There is no better place to learn about beneficial ownership than at Global Witness – which has driven this issue from the start – see their “Idiot’s Guide to Money Laundering.” It’s so easy anyone can do it – trouble is, most are!

This is why transparency is so critical and why politicians are attempting to use transparency to open up tax havens – at last – and the end to ownership secrecy.

Once there is transparency, then the next step is to determine where profits are legitimately made. This means that the policing of royalties and transfer pricing cannot be at the whim of large corporates but there has to be international agreements that specify what is allowable. International tax laws should not predetermine rates of tax, but double taxation should not equate to zero taxation – it has to mean that tax is payable in the countries where the business is done.

The final requirement is to ensure that beneficial owners of companies are known by the taxation authorities. Why companies and trusts are allowed to be secret is beyond the comprehension of almost all of us. As Richard Murphy (Tax Research UK) has written, over 500,000 companies in the UK are struck off each year. Around a third never file accounts.  He estimates that the tax lost as a result could be upwards of £16bn per year from companies that trade but do not file accounts or tax returns.

That is in the UK alone.

Can’t Spend, can’t stop spending

Can’t tax, can’t stop taxing

 

The dilemma of western Governments that find austerity too much, too soon and who (outside of those in serious trouble like Greece, Cyprus and Spain) are unwilling to torment their citizens with mass unemployment and soup kitchens is great. This means that the deficiencies that have been all too apparent in corporate taxation for so long are seen as the final option. The 2007 banking-induced calamity has made such huge financial contortions in countries such as the UK and the USA that even the precious not-to-be-disturbed tax havens and secrecy laws are under pressure.

The G8, chaired by the UK and in Northern Ireland (rather than one of the many UK protectorates that operate as tax havens), does provide an opportunity to generate support for the ending of the nonsense that the current corporate tax system provides. Gleneagles (eight years ago) was all about international development and led to significant and positive change (even if not all the promises have been fulfilled). The same pressure and openness about tax havens and secrecy in international finance could lead to more sensible and pragmatic tax systems and, eventually (if pursued vigorously) to far less exporting of illicit funds from developing nations (such funds leave developing countries at a faster rate than aid money is put in). At least $50bn a year is lost to developing nations in Africa alone every year.

This is a great time for Enniskillen – ancient home of Hugh the Hospitable – to be remembered for its lack of hospitality to tax dodgers.

 

Government, Society and Business – People Organisations

Dominic Lawson, writing in today’s Sunday Times, has a good go at attacking Corporate Social Responsibility – CSR. His claim is that business (to paraphrase Milton Friedman) is there to make profits and reward shareholders and it is to Government (through the taking and use of taxation) that goes the rigors of social responsibility.

Lawson’s simplistic assessment of business in society (the article is a reaction to David Cameron’s speech at the Business in the Community awards last week) fails to understand the complexity of the economy and society and the role of the three main parties involved in making the economy and society work.

From his article, anyone would think that there are only two parties in charge – Government (hopefully, elected) and business. Underneath, there appears the mass of the population – deriving their income from either one or the other and buying the means to life and living from one or the other.

What is forgotten in this simplistic overview (and a short article is all Lawson has to work with, so some excuse there, I guess) is that society is not just made up of the two leaders and the proletariat underneath. Society is a complex mix of individuals, groups, associations, lobby groups, small businesses, medium-size businesses, large / multinational businesses, local government, regional government, national government, export markets, importers, international governments – the list goes on.

Lawson’s simple simulation of reality misunderstands society in the same way that economics misunderstands economics. Macro and micro-economics stand uneasily in the same story (for economics is more a story that a science) and have never coalesced.

Business in itself is complex. Recent arguments over bonuses have shown how managers (in a business world where ownership and management are widely separate) have managed so often to take the profits out of the business before shareholders (now operating primarily through a secondary marketplace or via agents such as pension plans – themselves run by managers, themselves divorced from ownership and direct responsibilities) can obtain what Milton Friedman may have believed was rightfully theirs.

This complexity is expanded hugely in relation to business’s relationship with the society that provides them with their reason to exist. Market economics (and I am pro the market economy – any centrally driven economy is doomed) required businesses to be within a complex national and international environment and for governments (operating on behalf of the people) to ensure that they act properly.

This means that government have to ensure that pressures on business allow them to be competitive nationally and internationally BUT that society’s needs are properly considered as part of the trade-off for all the other protections and benefits offered. The latter includes education, infrastructure (roads, railways and the like), banking system, laws that work.

So, while outside the City of London businesses don’t get a vote (the fact that they still do in the City is not just a 19th Century throwback but one much older) they get a huge lobby through trade associations like the CBI. This influences governments of all types and makes the Dominic Lawsons of this world lose sight of the complex, adaptive world in which we live.

The fact that certain companies or their leaders cozy up to the CSR community is rather a cheap, anecdotal simplification in a complex world where businesses, like all “living” things, have to continuously adapt to meet the changing environment and conditions they find themselves in. Society is highly complex and the over-simplification (which we all love to do because we can then mislead ourselves into thinking we understand the issue as a result) too often leads to decisions that are completely wrong.

We live in a complex society where we have to make changes that reflect the complex mix of the various parties involved. There is no such thing as “business” – it is made up of many strands and people and interactions. Governments set the laws and implementation, only people can work within them. Businesses are mere technical constructions that people form – people then have to live with other people. They have to make the decisions not some artificial construct called a business – no matter how we construct its form in law.

Lawson seems to believe that people don’t exist – or, if they do, that major organisations have a precedence. For so many reasons, he misses the complexity. CSR may not be the answer, but it is an attempt to develop relationships between organisations of people (businesses) with others (local communities, consumers or whatever). People and people – not some simulation of them.