The “paradise papers” shine a light on the mechanisms utilized by global elites and corporations to avoid paying taxes. These latest revelations on the dark mechanisms of global finance, known as the “paradise papers,” emerge a little more than a year after the “panama papers.” But a clear distinction must be made between the two giant leaks: the panama papers were about illegal financial activities, while the paradise papers expose the legal financial and fiscal instruments available to the global elite and corporations.
Over a period of a year, 13.5 millions documents were analyzed and verified by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and its 96 partners, such as the BBC, The New York Times, and Le Monde. These revelations are based on a leak of documents in 2016 shared to the german newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. This year long investigation has permitted to expose the complex mechanisms of fiscal optimization utilized by corporations and the global elite (see here the documentary by Vice on the investigation). The documents are composed of three major categories:
- 6.8 million internal documents belonging to the international offshore law firm, Appleby, located in Bermuda with branches in ten tax heavens,
- 566,000 internal documents from the law firm Asiaciti Trust in Singapore,
- and 6.2 millions documents from confidential registries in 19 tax heavens.
The paradise papers are particularly damaging for the transatlantic global elite involved in this massive tax evasion. The “paradise papers” are in fact the obvious demonstration of a total disrespect of democratic and social values by a segment of the transatlantic elite. As argued by an editorial of the french newspaper Le Monde, this mechanisms “endanger the principle of the equality of all in front of taxation.” Among them, so far the Queen of England, Elizabeth II, members of Trump and Trudeau’s entourages, and other wealthy individuals appear to have had prior or ongoing activities to avoid contributing to national taxation.
Politipond argues that the “paradise papers” are even more scandalous than the “panama papers” considering the current transatlantic political, economic, ideological and social climate. The “paradise papers” ought to be put into perspective along four points.
The first point ought to be political. The transatlantic political class has increasingly been more connected to, or simply is, the global elite. In the US, Donald Trump was brought to D.C. on the pledge to ‘clean up the swamp’ and on a variety of ‘America first’ slogans. Even though these rhetorics gathered great appeal on the campaign trail, the composition of his administration tells a completely different story. These latest papers show that three leading figures of the Trump
administration, Wilbur Ross, Secretary of Commerce, Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State, and Gary Cohn, Economic Advisor at the White House have or are utilizing these optimization mechanisms for personal profits. Other individuals and influential republican donors, such as Robert Mercer and the Koch brothers, appear in these documents. So far the most damaging allegations go against Mr. Ross, whom is potentially facing a conflict of interests, as he is still retaining “investments in a shipping firm he once controlled that has significant business ties to a Russian oligarch subject to American sanctions and President Vladimir V. Putin’s son-in-law.” This financial connection does not imply that Mr. Ross is a piece of the Russian puzzle involved in the meddling of the 2016 American elections. To the contrary, Ross’ spokeperson claimed that Mr. Ross has been supportive of the American sanctions against Russian entities. But this connection demonstrates an absolute lack of morality in the behavior of some members of the American elite and government officials. In a ‘normal’ democracy, Mr. Ross should have already provided his letter of resignation to the President (watch here Mr. Ross’ response).
The second point is economic. The Euro-Atlantic community has been confronting a considerable decline since the 2008 financial crisis. If the US has recovered quicker than European economies, the economic crisis has considerably affected a wide segment of the transatlantic citizenry. In both American and European economies, taxpayers were the one to fit the bill to bail-out, rightfully so, the banking and financial sectors in order to avoid a complete collapse of the transatlantic economies. But since then, the stock market, particularly in the US, has done fantastically well, while transatlantic wages for the middle class have stagnated. Unfortunately, strong financial data and performance have not translated into the real economy. Taxation is an important equalizing instrument in the hand of governments in order to finance the state and social programs among others.
The third point is related to ideology. These allegations contradict the push occurring in the US and some countries in the EU, lately in France with President Macron, to promote trickle down economics, meaning tax cuts on the wealthy, in order to promote investment. The concept/theory implies that income and capital gains maintained thanks to tax breaks and financial benefits to wealthy individuals and businesses permit to stimulate economic growth. This theory was, once more and recently, demonstrated as fantasy by the Kansas experiment.
In the US, the blame usually falls on the shoulders of the poorest and weakest. Elected officials have historically blamed welfare programs, such as food stamps, in order to explain the ever expanding deficit. In this case, the American elite is demonstrating that in a country wherein taxation is not the highest in the world, fair contribution via taxation is not as automatic as expected. The New York Times reports that “Americans — companies and people — dominate the list of clients.” Among these American corporate giants, Apple, Nike and Uber, have avoided taxes legally through creative bookkeeping.
Helping the wealthy getting richer through offshore maneuvers is not a “benign benefit,” said Harrington, a Copenhagen Business School professor. “When the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, because individual wealthy people are not paying their fair share of taxes.” The inequalities within the Euro-Atlantic societies are increasing and the gap is becoming wider between the ultra-wealthy and the middle class.
As illustrated above in the chart from an analysis published by Chicago Booth Review, the gap is not only wider, but the income of the bottom 50% earners has not increased in the last 34 years and the middle 40% only show a rise of its income by 42%. A 42% increase is not small, but compared to a 121% for the top 10 and 205% for the top 1%, it is quite minimal. In addition, over the last 30 years, the quality of the American welfare state has declined forcing Americans to increase their spending on their healthcare spending. Income inequality has considerable grown wider in the US since the 1960s. For instance, a recent report explained that “the richest 1% of families controlled a record-high 38.6% of the country’s [the US] wealth in 2016.”
Last but not least, the greatest consequence is social. Tax evasion, in this case legal, undermines that basic structure of Euro-American democratic societies. These directly undermine the basic ‘social contract’ and fabric that citizens have with their fellow citizens and governments. Taxation for too long has been framed as a punishment, when in fact it is an individual contribution, a civic duty, to the construction, physically and psychologically speaking, of the society, country and ultimately the defense of the public good. In a Western democracy, citizens are expected to contribute. But as it was demonstrated by the Trump campaign and rhetorics, a significant number of American voters agreed and supported a man proudly exposing his successful cheating (he has yet to release his taxes, which could prove the contrary). In an even more grotesque move, Mr. Trump pushed the argument further claiming that because he had successfully cheated, he would be the best person to ‘fix it.’
So far, we are only in the first weeks of the release of the documents. The “paradise papers” demonstrate the facility for the global elite to hide their wealth in all legality and impunity in tax havens through shell companies or other complex mechanisms. It is difficult to image Euro-Atlantic states pushing for an end to this legal loopholes, when states are increasingly in the hands of the global elite. “It won’t be lost on wealth managers and those in the offshore industry,” Professor Harrington said, “that we are reaching sort of French Revolution levels of inequality and injustice.”
In the case of Europe, the EU and other international organizations such as the OECD (listen here in French the recent interview of Pascal Saint-Amans, Director, Centre for Tax Policy and Administration at the OECD), have put pressures on offshore havens in order to reform their laws. As argued by Samuel White of EurActiv, the “paradise papers” may “provide the impetus the EU needs to finalise an effective tax havens blacklist and end tax competition between EU member states.” In the case of the US, the Congress has had no desire to address these issues in recent memory and the data in this latest leak demonstrate it. The Euro-Atlantic societies need to wake up and start pressing elected officials in order to tackle these systemic tax avoidance mechanisms. These inequalities are directly at the heart of the problem of the Euro-Atlantic societies seeking for alternatives in the extremes. Surprisingly enough, these allegations have not had the impacts as one would have expected. Impunity can only continue if the citizenry is consenting.
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