Dec 16 2016

Where’s the organised civil society pushback on big finance and monopolies?

Posted by: Nicholas Shaxson in: Thoughts

Rupert Murdoch knows: monopolies are profitable

Tax is a complex and bewildering subject: and international tax is an order of magnitude more complex. Throw in tax havens, and it’s a blizzard of confusion.

But it’s a testament to the success of groups like the Tax Justice Network (TJN), an organisation that I’ve worked with (part-time) for some years now, that despite all the complexity tax has recently come to the centre of the public’s attention, and there is now a broad-based ‘tax justice’ movement that goes far beyond TJN (and goes far beyond tax, notably by including tax havens, which are about so much more than tax). As a TJN Director, John Christensen, likes to put it, there are now two three-letter words ending in -x with enormous potential to create newspaper headlines.

I’m focusing mostly on Europe here, where TJN itself has probably been most influential, but the broad point about the need for an organised civil society response to the concerns raised in my headline is of course relevant globally.

There are other tides of history supporting this trend of course: rising concern about inequality; anger at unaccountable, offshore-diving elites and monopolising corporate power; government efforts to raise revenue in the face of crisis-related economic stagnation; and more.

But organised civil society’s role has been pivotal in getting a powerful set of arguments out there into the  mainstream, shaping the debates. And I’d place TJN at the centre of this game, especially in Europe. When I joined in 2007, before this tiny bunch of renegades had become well known, I could see that they had potential to be one of the most influential groups in the world. And so it has proved. TJN’s success has been analysed by several players. For example, by TJN itself, here, in a brief history. Second, by Leonard Seabrooke and Duncan Wigan of Copenhagen Business School – here. Both explore the reasons for (among other things) TJN’s success: more academic studies are in the works.) See also Christensen’s recent presentation to Finance Watch in Brussels looking at what has worked. (Many other civil society organisations are hugely influential in a range of areas: I’m choosing TJN as my example.)

There are lots of reasons for TJN’s success, but for me the core of it is probably “noisy, snarling, organised, networked, cross-disciplinary radical expertise”. What I mean by ‘radical’ is that it has sought to break open established consensus, and to do that you need the ‘snarling’ bit – to be provocative, obstreperous, difficult, and constitutionally driven to expose uncomfortable truths (and even, when called for, be rude to powerful people.) Break the crockery. Seabrooke and Wigan call it “Berserking – entering an environment and aggressively challenging key policy ideas.” But to get away with that, you have to know what you’re talking about. So ‘expertise’ is a core component: and links with professionals, academics, players, accountants, economists, government officials, and so on are all essential. And of course ‘noisy’ means, among other things, a deliberately big media presence. Cultivate journalists. And ‘organised’ goes without saying: TJN has done it by putting huge resources into networking.  And it’s got to be cross-disciplinary: this is about tax, accounting, economics, politics, international relations, financial regulation, and plenty more. Another thing that TJN does is that it seeks to appeal to the (moderate) right wing of the political spectrum. On the basis that those on the left will generally agree anyway: if you can get much of the right too, you have got a broad national consensus.

Before TJN came along, these debates were dominated by experts, often from the Big 4 accounting firms, whose world view reflects the needs of their corporate clients: tax cuts (for them) at all costs, use tax havens wherever possible, and so on. Now that there are expert counterweights out there,  journalists and others looking to understand and navigate these complex issues have a completely different set of viewpoints, available on tap. TJN always had a “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach to this – encouraging more and more civil society players to join the debates and letting them get on with it, creating a far broader range of expertise and knowledge and voices than TJN could possibly have managed alone. But it’s been more active than that: actively targeting and courting lots of different constituencies.

Alongside all this, TJN and others have create a whole ‘tax justice’ worldview, a diverse and internally coherent set of arguments that together constitute a new angle of attack on neoliberalism itself.

All this is a potent mix, and it’s helped change the world.

Anyway, the point of this blog is to ask: why is there not an equivalent organisation in Europe to weigh in on similar areas? Particularly, but not exclusively, these two:

- Finance. Big banks, shadow banking, financialisation and all that stuff. In the United States, there are such groups: the likes of Americans for Financial Reform, Better Markets, and others, combine expertise with political pushback and a big media presence. Not so in Europe. Europe has Finance Watch, which has the expertise, and which can be radical, but I don’t see the “noisy” part or the “snarling” part either. Both are crucial.  Other organisations and people and journalists and academics and other experts are, of course, going after these issues all over the place, but not in an organised and focused way, as far as I can tell. A go-to organisation that every journalist should turn to, to provide balance – and I mean aggressive, unashamedly opinionated balance — to counteract the oceans of pro-financial spin.

- Monopolies. Oligopolies, market power, and all that stuff. I don’t just mean the traditional monopolistic sectors such as utilities and so on.  Like many people, I’m increasingly worried about the likes of Amazon, Facebook, or Google which are contributing to the rise of Donald Trump, to mention just one small detail.  A very current example is Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox, which has just launched a giant bid to take full control of Sky. Why is there no TJN-like organisation going after this on competition grounds? Murdoch has vast political and media influence in the UK already: this will worsen matters further, posing grave democratic threats. But where’s this particular fightback?

Take a look at this Guardian article on the subject, for instance. The Guardian, of all newspapers, ought to be citing the opposition. But the only cited pushback against the move, in this particular article, comes from shareholders (who, in general terms, favour shoring up the profitable monopolies they’re invested in), and from Tom Watson, shadow culture secretary, with a wishy-washy slip-slap:

“The secretary of state must refer the bid to Ofcom, to assess whether it would result in too much media power being concentrated in too few hands.”

(It also cites a group called Hacked Off, which again doesn’t make particularly competition-related arguments.) Elsewhere in the Guardian there’s Nils Pratley, arguing that the investors could get a better deal, and Polly Toynbee, arguing that the Murdoch empire is essentially a force for evil. Which are perfectly respectable arguments, on their own terms. But there is no organised fightback on competition grounds. The Economist magazine is getting exercised about this stuff, generally in a good way, but we can’t rely on them.

There needs to be an organised counterweight. It needs to be constitutionally rooted in its opposition to inequality, to excessive market power.

There should be a go-to expert group that monitors competition issues and presents a big fuckoff statement in no uncertain terms about monopolising influence, the dangers of monopolies, links to various blogs and podcasts and reports and studies and a whole worldview about how to think about this stuff.   This would be a group that any journalist writing about these issues, whether it’s the Guardian, the FT, Le Monde, WSJ, BBC or anyone else, would automatically turn to, if only to say they’ve got balance in their stories.

PS You may be thinking “well, xyz isn’t really a monopoly, is it?” I could argue with you about this, but the point is that we need an organised set of people to make these arguments. There are loads of people out there who could do a brilliant job here: but what there isn’t is a movement.

PPS Blogging has been rather scarce because I’m writing a new book, about the Finance Curse. I’m on sabbatical from TJN while I write it.

PPPS this blog is entirely my own opinion – it is not necessarily the position of TJN or anyone else.

PPPPS apologies if there’s a noisy, snarling, organised, expert, radical group out there that is doing this stuff, and I’m overlooking them. This is quite possible. But even so, I am pretty sure there isn’t anything like a movement out there yet.

PPPPPS Wigan and Seabrooke have another paper called How activists use benchmarks: Reformist and revolutionary benchmarks for global economic justice which (unfortunately in hyper-academic language) goes into more detail about the “radical” bit, making the contrast between “reformist” benchmarks (which seek to create change within the dominant system); and “Revolutionary benchmarks” which seek to challenge and change the system itself. It’s the latter that is needed here.

PPPPPPS Matt Stoller, a US commentator, has put together a fascinating account on Twitter which has been summarised in a post entitled Monopolization Is the Problem BEHIND “Fake News”. Well worth a read, and providing yet more evidence why these questions are so urgent to address. See also his Washington Post article Democrats can’t win until they recognize how bad Obama’s financial policies were.

Matt Stoller  ✔@matthewstoller
36. There are many policy approaches to this problem. But it is not a problem of ‘fake news’, it is a problem of concentrated monopoly power
6:15 PM – 17 Dec 2016

Matt Stoller  ✔@matthewstoller
39. What we need to restore democracy is a wholesale anti-monopoly approach to our media ecosystem, starting but not ending w/ the platforms
6:17 PM – 17 Dec 2016

PPPPPPPS Update 3: I’m told that in the US at least, the closest thing to an organiser of the anti-monopoly movement is Barry Lynn. I have ordered his book Cornered and look forwards to reading it.

PPPPPPPPS This blog has tended to focus on rich countries. But in my personal experience of living in many of these places, it’s the poorer and less well governed countries where this problem seems to be greatest. A global movement needs to grow roots in developing countries too.

PPPPPPPPPS This online petition to stop Murdoch taking over Sky does contain some welcome competition-related pushback, but it’s thin on argumentation and context – and hardly a movement. In any case, please sign (if you’re UK resident) and urge others to.

PPPPPPPPPPS This FT headline Global cartel fines hit new high, powered by $4.1bn in EU alone is encouraging, but does nothing to detract from my central point about an organised civil society pushback.

Update 11 – This FT article Policing the Digital Cartels contains some useful warnings, links and analysis.

one comment

Luzia Schmid 12th December, 2016 10.48 am

Dear Mr. Shaxson,

Having carefully read your book ‘Treasure Islands’, I am turning to you with a cordial request for a background discussion on international taxation with regard to my hometown Zug in Switzerland.

I am a journalist and documentary film-maker and have been developing a film about the economic history of the canton of Zug. What is important to me is to show the parallels between how the tax haven Zug developed in conjunction with the global emergence of offshore schemes.

Specifically, I am interested in your assessment of the most recent developments.

I would be curious to hear your thoughts on the BEPS program of the OECD—would you see this as an opportunity to bring about lasting change? How do you weigh the UK government’s announcement to cut company taxes in light of Brexit? What are the implications of a new US administration under Donald Trump? What effect will either of these developments have on international tax competition?

Switzerland and Zug have implemented measures in response to the growing criticism of bank secrecy, holding companies and domicile companies. Recent developments are the introduction of the patent box and the corporate tax reform III.

Yet is what we are seeing a paradigm shift, or are these simply new instruments with similar ‘fiscal management’ possibilities?

A few words of about myself: I grew up in Zug. My parents moved to Zug about 50 years ago because they were unable to afford living in Zurich. Fifty years later, the formerly middle-class neighborhood of my childhood has become an exclusive residential quarter that commodity traders, ship owners, entrepreneurs and one Viktor Weckselberg call home.

I have been living with my family in Cologne for many years, working as a freelance documentary filmmaker for public television. In 2011, I received the Grimme Award (Germany’s BAFTA) for my film ‘Geschlossene Gesellschaft.’

I am not an economist, nor has economic policy ever been my beat. I am finding my feet trying to understand the world of offshore finance and to develop ways of conveying this to a film audience. I am driven by a basic question: Why has Zug not changed its approach to taxation, despite being exposed to 40 years of regularly repeated criticism that tax havens are morally reprehensible?
If the old instruments of avoiding taxation are dropped, how will this shape taxation around the world?

I will be in Switzerland for a few days from January 4th and would be delighted if you might be able to find the time for a personal meeting. If you still live in Zürich, if you live in Berlin, I happen to be in berlin on January 3rd.

I look forward to hearing from you.

With best wishes,

Luzia Schmid

PS. I will also be sending you this email to another Email adress of yours.
Hoping to get in touch with you one way or the other.

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