Archive for the ‘Corruption’ Category
Interesting story in today’s Sunday Times about the price of death notices in newspapers. We all know that the newspaper industry is an industry in crisis, that ad revenues have been falling, and that many titles are struggling to survive. We also know that over much of Ireland there are many thousands of people for whom the death notices are the most important part of a newspaper – you only have to look at the Irish News or the Anderstown News to see how important. So there is something about this that leaves a very bad taste in the mouth, especially given the importance of death notices in working-class communities.
The cost of placing a death notice in Ireland’s national newspapers has increased by up to 17% in the past three years, more than five times the rate of inflation. Charges have also been introduced to view funeral arrangements online.
It’s hard to argue with the Consumers’ Association of Ireland.
Dermott Jewell, its chief executive, said: “This is an area where consumers don’t want to question prices. They are not in anything resembling a frame of mind to query costs.”
However, like everything else, it seems things are beginning to move with the times, with the emergence of the free website Rip.ie. I’m not saying newspapers shouldn’t charge for death notices, but 300 euro seems like a hell of a lot. The profit imperative as usual steamrollers human decency.
I’ve just put this up over on Cedar Lounge, but I’m sticking it up here too. Because I can.
There has already been some mention here of the remarkable ten minute televisual feast that was Junior Finance Minister Martin Mansergh and Margaret Ward of the Irish Times debating the southern economy on Hearts and Minds last night. Available to us all thanks to Pete Baker at Sluggerotoole. Without him some of us may have been denied the opportunity to see Mansergh demonstrating that he is not cut out for the cut and thrust of frontline politics by nearly losing it. Noel Thompson’s introduction pulled no punches, describing the Celtic Tiger as “toothless tabby” and the south set to be the worst performing developed economy in the EU, as well as raising the issue of a European bailout. Margaret Ward has offered her account of the debate, and I want to pick up on some of what she said, and how it relates to the emerging discourse of crisis we discussed here.
So what was Ward saying? She accused the government of fiddling while Rome burned, arguing that its inaction was itself a form of action. Here is her own paraphrase of what she said
Paraphrasing it I basically said this was an emergency and that we were at war for our economic survial. It was
time for unity. The time for party politics is over. We all need to come together, start talking to the social partners and make cuts
across the board. Why isn’t the Financial Regulator organisation in the dustbin? All senior bank management still not gone?
People are frightened – they’re losing their jobs, emigrating, huge numbers of small businesses are failing with banks refusing to
make loans…They need some hope.” I asked him loads of questions and asked him what they were doing about it. Why weren’t
they asking for help from the extraordinarily intelligent experts we have in this country? Why weren’t they communicating a plan to
As with Eoghan Harris, John Gormley and others, Margaret Ward is convinced that there is something rotten in the state of the Irish economy, and that we are now fighting for our very life. Engaged in a war no less. I’ll come back to the implications of this argument at the end. However, unlike them she believes that the corruption scandals have hurt the Irish economy in the eyes of the world.
If you are not extremely angry about what is going on then you should be. Ireland will be bankrupt in about 12 months. We are burning through about €1 billion or so a week. Internationally, Ireland Inc. is viewed as corrupt country where cronyism is rife and that’s accurate. Are you happy with that reputation? I’m not. It’s embarrassing. We ALL have to inform ourselves about the FACTS and then take action – quickly.
She was more explicit on Sluggerotoole
No one wants to lend to us because we are seen as corrupt fraudsters. As a result, we pay more to borrow money than other countries.
The other half of her argument was that the government was not ensuring that enough money was getting to private enterprise from the banks, and that a new bank should be created by the state to loan to small business. No arguments from me about the need for a new bank, about the need to ensure that businesses do not go to the wall where possible, but of course we also need to expand this to individuals, and especially to their mortgages.
It’s fair to say that Mansergh was not best pleased with her attitude and arguments. It’s also fair to say that I find myself in the unpleasant and unexpected position of being on his side of the argument. Mansergh made the point that the government was not going to clobber the people all at once. Ward’s response was an outraged and repeated “Why not?” The implications of her question are remarkable. While trying to appear as the voice of the man on the street, alone, abandoned and ignored by government, the actual consequences of her policies being adopted are simple. She said the government needed to talk to the people, to communicate with it. That is all well and good. But what does it seem she thinks the government should actually be saying? We are cutting your wages, your benefits, your public services, your schools, your hospitals, and our commitments to you and to social welfare. Instead we are going to concentrate on ensuring that we give money to business so that if you are lucky some of this will trickle down to you (because there was no mention of helping individuals out, just businesses). This is her version of offering the people hope. Spare us.
As I’ve noted already, this argument is being made by a range of government and media figures in the language of war. Ward in fact argued that there was a danger of being “economically colonised” by Europe. Yet it never seems to dawn on any of them to ask what governments do during times of war. Do they cut public spending? Do they reduce their activity? Do they downsize their role in the economy and in the lives of the citizens? Of course not. In order to win a war, the government takes into its own hands the direction of the entire economy. It creates new factories and new jobs. It suspends political ideology in favour of the efficiency offered by the collective energies of the people harnessed by the state. Perhaps when they meditate a little more on that, Ward and co might rethink their use of the terminology, or even the supposed solutions they are offering to the crisis.
The Daily Telegraph has the outrageous story of the arrest for breaking the Official Secrets Act of a British military officer working for NATO in Afghanistan. His crime was to give civilian casulty figures from NATO bombing. What sort of world do we live in?
Today’s Guardian story on the tax avoidance schemes of multi-nationals has done us all a great favour. Not just people who pay tax in the UK, but taxpayers everywhere. The figures involved in what the paper calls the “complex and secretive” schemes are staggering. Remarkably, not even the government seems to know how much is involved, but estimates vary from the Customs and Revenue’s estimates of £3.7bn to £13bn, to the Commons Public Accounts Committee’s £8.5bn, to the TUC’s £12bn. If the TUC is right, that is the equivalent of the tax take of 2.4 million householders. Below are some examples of how ridiculous the situation is:
According to the National Audit Office, in 2006 more than 60% of Britain’s 700 biggest companies paid less than £10m corporation tax, and 30% paid nothing.
Britain’s top taxman, Dave Hartnett, told the Commons public accounts committee last year that 12 major corporations had “extinguished all tax liabilities in 2005-6” thanks to avoidance schemes.
Diageo, parent company of Guinness and other drinks brands, has average profits of £2bn per annum, yet paid an average of £43m – or just over 2%. Two drugs companies have registered themselves elsewhere so they can charge themselves royalties in the UK, reducing their tax bill, and a “household name” has loaded itself with debt so there are no profits, and therefore no taxes.
The worst of it is, all this is entirely legal, and has had a blind eye turned to it by successive governments, decade after decade. Nor is it a problem limited to the UK. As The Guardian report points out, action is being taken in Germany and the US, and some moves in the UK too. In the Republic, we know only too well what the attitude amongst the political and economic establishment is to the paying of taxation.
But, the right wing will cry, in a globalised world regulation to ensure taxation will simply ensure these companies move elsewhere. There is a certain element of truth in that, that there headquarters will move elsewhere. However, that does not mean that production and sale that does take place in a state cannot be taxed there. Nor is there any reason that the tax loopholes that allow independent contractors to avoid the level of tax they should be paying by declaring themselves as corporations, for example.
Such loopholes must be closed. At a time, especially in the Republic, when there is a concerted campaign by the right in positions of business leadership and the media to attack ordinary workers and their living standards in order to pay for the mistakes generated by corporate irresponsibility, reckless speculation, and arrogance, we must ensure that the interests of ordinary citizens are not sacrificed to those of big business and its lust for superprofit. We need a resumption of the type of action by workers that was seen in the marches by PAYE workers in the 1980s. French workers have recently demonstrated what is possible, with their general strike demanding that the corporations and not the people suffer the consequences. The left must provide leadership, as it has done in the past. Trade unions, political parties, and in the UK the government must stand firm and act against these scandals. We must be very clear. This is a class matter, a conflict of interest between the workers and the leading institutions of capitalism, in both its financial and industrial aspects. We must mobilise.
Oh, and in the comments here you can find a link that suggests The Guardian is being more than a little cheeky in running this story.
UPDATE Here is The Guardian Database of the FTSE 100 tax payments
Italy again. A few weeks ago I saw the film Gomorrah, a study of the extent to which the Neapolitan equivalent of the Mafia, the Camorra, literally poisons and controls the lives of those who live in that region. It is based on the book of the same name written by Roberto Saviano, an extremely brave author who has been living under constant police protection since October 2006 as a result of his writing the book and cooperating with legal efforts against the Camorra. Saviano has recently gone almost completely to ground, partly because a small group of 6 to 10 Camorra members that has been killing almost one person a week for six months has been discussing killing him. He now plans to leave Italy in the search for a normal life led by someone in their late 20s. The film of the book won the Grand Prix at Cannes.
I have to say that I didn’t find the film all that great. It tells a number of stories that reflect how the Camorra affects the lives of various groups within Neapolitan society – those who produce clothes for high fashion, petty criminals, drug users, the ultra-violent Camorra members themselves and their families, and the victims and beneficiaries of the incredibly lucrative trade in the disposal of toxic waste, mostly from the north and centre of the country. Each of these stories is interesting in and of itself, and acts as a window into the impact of the Camorra on society, but I didn’t think they were properly tied together, and they left me feeling slightly unsatisfied.
The bare figures given at the end of the film in many ways struck me more powerfully than the film itself. 4,000 deaths in a thirty year period; the Camorra investing in legal business around the globe, including in the project to replace the Twin Towers. The movie website (linked above) contains further details. Italian organised crime’s estimated turnover of 158 billion Euros per year dwarfs that of Fiat at 58 billion Euro, and makes it a hugely significant player in the Italian economy. Nor should we forget the proof that Italian prime ministers have effectively been mafiosi, and that many current politicians are deeply tainted by their links to organised crime, not least Silvio Berlusconi, who has abused his control of Parliament to pass laws protecting himself from prosecution. The political element was one that was missing from the film, possibly reflecting the fact that the Camorra has seemingly been less interested historically in political power than its equivalents.
One of the main themes of the film, and the one aspect of the Camorra’s activities that have attracted the most international attention, is waste disposal. Attempts to reform the collection of rubbish in Naples resulted in violence from the Camorra, and the rubbish lying uncollected for months. Eventually, the army was sent in to ensure the rubbish was collected. If the illegal waste dumped by the clans was piled high, it would be 14,600 metres high, and almost three hectares wide – Mount Everest is “only” 8,850 metres high. As well as poisoning farming land and the water table, the toxic waste secreted on farmland and in the most unlikely places is responsible for exponential growth in tumours among the population. Illegal waste is poisoning the people of Naples, and often its poorest and most vulnerable such as small farmers who give over their land for waste disposal for a pittance – 100 Euro per shipment according to the film.
The film does a good job of showing the lengths the Camorra goes to to win contracts, and how it employs sophisticated, educated middlemen to interact with the businessmen who know full well what the situation is but turn a blind eye to it. In other words, large elements of so-called respectable society are firmly in bed with organised crime, placed there by the profit motive that is the bottom line of capitalism, and also hatred of progressive politics that would challenge their domination of society. The attacks on the old PCI by the mafia began shortly after the Second World War, and the rhetoric of Berlusconi and his cronies against the judiciary probing the links between organised crime and politicians as Communists shows that this mentality is alive and well. As long as the violence and suffering is restricted largely to the working class and away from the industrial centres of central and northern Italy, then few voices are raised in protest among the Italian right. This is a stinging indictment of the Italian elite. In fact, it is not too far of a stretch to suggest that for much of the last 50 years, Italy has been a mafia state; and that with Berlusconi in power in alliance with the extreme right and hostile to the judiciary, the gains of the early 1990s are being reversed, and that organised crime is becoming more entrenched and dominant.
We all know that there was only one regime in Italian history that successfully tackled the mafia, and none of us advocate that a democratic state in the early 21st century adopts the tactics of Mussolini. Nevertheless the political will must be found to tackle this level of corruption that has perverted the Italian body politic, and is destroying the lives of so many. How can that will be found? Difficult to see. We cannot look to the leading political elements, and there no longer exists a serious political alternative. There have been elements of a popular revolt, but with the government at war with the judiciary which is the most dedicated element against organised crime for political reasons, there seems little hope of that feeling finding an institutional outlet. It will require a change in political leadership, and in the business culture of Italy, to even make a start like the serious pursuit of laws like the US RICO statutes. Citizens must themselves try and steer clear of activities such as drugs and counterfeit goods that fund organised crime. It is hard to see how such a top to bottom change is likely to come soon.
The themes here – corruption of the body politic, violence and organised crime, fake goods – are not unfamiliar to Irish readers. I don’t want to suggest that Irish society and politics are as corrupt as that of Italy, though sometimes I do wonder. And I certainly don’t want to be seen to be adopting a Jim Cusack the paramilitaries are everywhere, super-rich, and are about to overthrow the state line. I don’t believe that is true, not even in Northern Ireland, where some of them are in government. Nevertheless, when we can see illegal fuel, fake dvds, perfume, washing powder, and other counterfeit goods sold all over the place, as well as smuggled drink and cigarettes sold by paramilitaries in every working class housing estate in NI, we have to acknowledge that there is a danger here of organised crime taking a serious grip, and the blind eye turned to it for political advantage could corrupt the whole legal and political edifice (Pete Baker has been working hard to document this over at Sluggerotoole for several years, as has Newton Emerson in his Irish News columns). Even the dumping of rubbish illegally can be seen in Ireland, with waste from the Republic regularly dumped in NI, and fish kills often the result of toxic waste poured into rivers. The links between big business and the political elite in the Republic need no elaboration. We on the Left must find ways to fight this corruption. As Italy shows us, the main political losers of a corrupt society are the Left. I certainly plan to read Saviano’s book.