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.

The Second Great Wall of China

Reading Martin Jacques’ “When China Rules the World” during a week when the New York Times’ website was taken offline in China after it published claims about the wealth of Wen Jiabao. News about Mr. Wen’s alleged fortune of £1.7bn was characterized by the Chinese as a “smear” and resulted in news blackout on the subject. The BBC was similarly off air for months after its detailing of the Bo Xilai case.

 

Jacques’ well-documented book shows China as a “civilization state” that the West will not be able to challenge in its essential ideals based on 2,000 years of civilization and then Confucianism. The desire of its people – massed in a vast area with one-third of the world’s population – for solid government and their Confucian appetite for family connections leads many to believe that their form of government and control is the only way for China and that the rest of the world will not be able to change it.

 

The Wall of Legalism

 

Francis Fukuyama in his excellent book “The Origins of Political Order” http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Origins-Political-Order-Revolution/dp/1846682576/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1351345981&sr=8-1on focused how the origins of the rule of law was central to the proper governing of a state. Success, where no government or leader was above the law, is contrasted with such states as China, where, except for brief period, the ruling elite has been above the law.

 

Many believe that a state with Confucianism on the outside and Legalism on the inside is how China is governed today. Legalism, a creed formulated and emerging properly in the Warring States Period up to 221bc, seeks to ensure that strict laws keep dissent down and people equal. The Emperor was in place because of the law and was above it – but had to be flexible in intent to ensure that the leading cliques were satisfied.

 

Coming forward 200 years and the so-called Communist Party has assumed the role of Emperor. A Communist Party that that no longer believes in Communism but in power from the centre; that not just tolerates corruption but uses it throughout China to keep its leading cliques in check; that exports corruption to its supply-chain (its raw materials suppliers) throughout the word in order to keep them sweet; that deals harshly with any dissent and criticism; that only reacts to the worst crimes and then only when it has to (such as with Bo Xilai – who became too much of a burden).

 

Legalism as a creed best describes the current Chinese government style – no longer driven by the equality of Communism – where a ruling elite has taken over the State and drives it according to their own requirements.

 

The post-World War II political and economic direction of the West has been democracy and capitalism. Human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml has been a solid framework on which political thought has been based. The development of the European Union (notwithstanding economic upsets through the Euro) was based on this political fulcrum and a liberal economic system.

 

This post-war consensus in the West has also been the basis on which we have tried to hold the rest of the world to account – to develop democracy and capitalism on a worldwide basis.

 

No use for Wallpaper

 

Now, the western consensus is threatened by China. Having taken the economic principle of capitalism and thrown the centralized system of communism into the gutter, the Chinese are rapidly gaining economic muscle. This was not surprising once the shackles of the communist economic model was broken and Deng XiaoPing was able to redirect the Chinese to a better economic future.

 

This had already had enormous impact in China as wealth has increased and will continue to do so. But, a country with huge numbers of people but limited natural resources (apart from their own intelligence and rare earth minerals) has to then engage with the rest of the world in order to maintain that direction of travel.

 

This is now breaking down the political and governance consensus that the West has tried for the last sixty-seven years to impose. What does this mean? It means that the Chinese are overturning the route to democracy and democratic institutions. It means that elites in developing countries now have huge financial backing from the Chinese – through sales of raw materials to China and through the fact that they are witnessing another political model.

 

The West cannot wallpaper over the political cracks in the political wall. While capitalism is clearly now shown to be the best worst system of improving our material wealth, democracy is no longer the only political product on sale. After the bloody years of fighting against communism and fascism, which World War II was supposed to have won, the challenge is not so much religious fundamentalism (which we have been understandably so fearful of) but the enormous influence that China will have on a world where the most serious challenge to democracy is arising.

 

Taking a brick from the Wall

 

The battle for ideas is just starting. China needs a healthy west and a healthy India and Brazil and rest of Asia and it needs the raw materials from across the planet. Apart from the environmental catastrophes that are likely to be exacerbated by the drive for material growth (upon which the Chinese legalist approach relies in order to keep its people happy), the influence of Chinese political thought is likely to grow exponentially.

 

Recent riots in Ningbo –   http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-20109743 – against a chemical plant expansion and the Chinese authorities’ methods of dealing with it (which includes the hiding of road signs so that journalists won’t find their way to the riots!) are a simple sign that Tiananmen Square was by no means a low point.

 

As the world waits for the US Presidential election, a change of at least equal importance will be taking place in Beijing and no-one will know who has come out on top until the new politburo of the Chinese Communist Party is unveiled around 15 November.

 

Not that this will change anything. In the US, the economics will be substantially changed by the possible election of Romney and (Ayn Rand influenced) Paul Ryan. The political system will not change.

 

In China, nothing will change and the political, legalist system will continue internally and externally. This is a continuing challenge that is currently seen as economic but will eventually be seen as dramatically political and on a world scale. For Chinese economic growth will challenge the democratic ideals built up by the West and hard fought for by millions. It is now ranged against 2,000 years of Chinese centralism legalism.

 

How (or if) the West reacts to this will be a far bigger story than the economics – and arguments over tariffs and who owns Treasury bonds. We need to start taking the brick from the Wall before it is built around us.