Yesterday Switzerland’s parliament approved a much-anticipated tax information exchange agreement with Germany. The country has made similar agreements with Britain and Austria and is already in talks with Italy to make a similar deal.
Under the agreement, Swiss banks will make anonymous advance payments to German tax authorities for undeclared money. Germany stands to make big gains: lawmakers already plan to levy a retroactive tax of 21 to 41 percent on their citizens with undeclared accounts. With holdings of an estimated 222 billion euros ($291.8 billion) in Swiss accounts, about 60 percent of which are undeclared, German citizens can expect to pay up big time. That is, if the agreement even passes German parliament. There is significant opposition to the agreement, lead by the Social Democrat, who believe it is “too soft” because it would allow Switzerland to preserve most client confidentiality.
A few years ago, such a thing might have garnered international headlines. But in many ways this news came and went without much of a to-do. The reason for this is the abruptly shifted paradigm in Swiss banking. After years of pressure from the U.S., UK, and other European countries, the tide has shifted strongly in Switzerland. And now these deals seem more like a matter of course than a revolution.
In Brazil, there is an agency known as “the Lion,” whose agents fly around the country in black helicopters, conducting operations such as the “Black Panther” and “Delta.” They aren’t looking for drugs. Or gangs. They’re tax agents.
The Lion, dubbed for its official emblem and its ferocious hunt of tax dodgers, uses nearly any tactic conceivable in its pursuit. With a force of about 12,000 agents, the agency monitors tax receipts of millionaires, hunts for smugglers, sizes up mansions from the air, and scrutinizes tax returns.
Gary Becker would be proud. Brazil’s approach follows from the classic “economics of crime” model, which Becker developed in 1968 and applied to tax compliance by Allingham and Sandmo in 1972. While it has many permutations, in its most simplified state, the model describes a rational individual who gambles on tax evasion by weighing the expected return of his evasion against the probability of detection and his expected punishment if caught. If the expected return of evasion is higher than his expected penalty, he chooses to evade; if not, he does not.
In many ways their request was simple. Bread. Freedom. Social Justice. Those are things most of us can agree are human rights. And in January of 2011 when protestors took to the streets in Egypt, and chanted “Aish, Horreya, Adala Egtema’eya” (“bread, freedom, and social justice”) they were calling not just for political reform, but for economic and social reform, as well. And while their slogan reflects the complex interdependence of those forces, none of them can be attained with chanting alone.
The advantage of political uprisings is that they provide quick headlines. They may focus attention on a singular, isolated problem [a dictator, a war, a certain law], but they do not need to address—or agree upon—the solutions to the world’s complex problems. Now, after the uprisings and after the rulers have been deposed, Arab Spring countries have to put together the pieces. But over a year later, those pieces continue to be very disjointed. Food riots have continued, inflation and unemployment have reached new peaks, and freedoms continue to be repressed.
Of course, dozens, even hundreds, of scholars have already addressed the whats and the whys of these challenges. But most have ignored the pressing challenge of illicit financial flows, particularly in how their flows are both caused by and contribute to these challenges. Here’s my attempt to begin to fill that gap.
When we talk about economic growth and corruption, it is often in one direction: corruption hurts economic growth. One of the major reasons for this is that corruption increases risk and uncertainty for businesses and investors and provides a distinct disincentive for their investments. Lower investment levels lead to less economic growth.
Less frequently, we say economic growth is an antidote to corruption. But this is also almost certainly true. The reasoning is somewhat complex and indirect, though. Economic growth does not directly ameliorate corruption. Rather, economic growth leads to better access to education, awareness of rights, empowerment of citizens, and then sometimes leads to improvements in human development indicators and therefore less corruption.
There may also be one other direct link. In a recent paper studying the relationship between economic growth and corruption in India, Bhattacharyya and Jha (2011) argue “economic growth creates additional resources which allow a country or a state to fight corruption effectively.”
The fallout from the scandal surrounding the discovery that Wal-Mart headquarters suppressed an internal investigation when it discovered its Mexican subsidiary had been systematically paying bribes has been swift and significant. According to an investigative piece in the New York Times, Wal-Mart used bribes not only to obtain permits for its stores, but to reduce the time required for those permits, from months to days or weeks. The public outcry to denounce the corporation has been loud.
But not everyone has joined the opprobrium. Many have said, either implicitly or explicitly, that Wal-Mart was doing business the way business needs to be done and that ultimately Mexico came up better off for Wal-Mart’s presence, both for the consumers and its thousands of employees. For example, an article by Holman Jenkins in the Wall Street Journal argues this point. He notes:
Indeed, Wal-Mart will likely be more severely mauled now for failing to act on its own inquiry than for any bribery its Mexican affiliate may have engaged in.
It’s an outcome that will fill many with ambivalence. Mexico’s failure to provide itself with better governance hardly seems a reason to deprive Mexicans of the benefits of Wal-Mart. Just the opposite: Multinational investment is usually seen as a fillip to development, and development as the antidote to corruption, environmental recklessness, human-rights abuse and all the debilities poor countries are thought to be prone to.
This is partly true. At least the part about economic development being an antidote to corruption certainly is.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog post criticizing the philosophies of Dan Mitchell, a libertarian scholar from the Cato Institute. I asked for a “thoughtful discussion” and I got it—both from the comments section of our blog and from Dan himself. On his own blog, Dan replied with a thought-provoking point-by-point critique of my piece.
Dan made several interesting points in his rebuttal. As much as I’d like to take on the whole post right now, my reply would be far too long and I don’t think our readers would appreciate a blog post that resembles a novella. Rather I’ll focus on a couple of his comments that I find interesting on a philosophical level (there were many) and which demand a continued conversation because I believe they are the basis of our differences.
In a rather offhand remark, Dan indirectly refers to financial privacy as a human right.
And unless I am very much mistaken, Dan’s belief that financial privacy is a human right arises out of his fundamental value of freedom. My disagreement with Dan, therefore, does not arise from a difference in the desire to promote human rights (I believe we both do), but rather in the different relative weights we each place on the value of privacy, which Dan (I am supposing) would call an extension of freedom.
In many ways, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia contains one of the most unique styles of government and political culture in the world. The central institution of the government is the monarchy—headed by King Abdullah. The Holy Qur’an is the constitution of the country and the nation is governed on the basis of Islamic law or Shari’a. The reaches of the king’s power are essentially limited only by Saudi tradition, Shari’a, and consensus among the royal family and religious leaders.
Saudi Arabia holds a tight grip on the nation’s government, politics, and culture in large part because the country has so much oil wealth–Saudi Arabia holds nearly 21.5 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves. The Kingdom’s ability to maintain control over this political structure depends on its ability to use oil to increase well-being in the nation and maintain a position as the leading player in the region’s power politics.
When the rest of the region was rocked by anti-corruption demonstrations and regime change during the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia, with the exception of some demonstrations by a Shia minority in the east, remained relatively calm. These political demonstrations against corruption have little opportunity or likelihood of success for two major reasons. First because the monarchy has deep pockets of military power and isn’t afraid to use it. Second because the general population is generally content. Saudi citizens may be interested in reform, but not fundamental change. In fact, according to a nationwide survey in 2008, 80 percent of Saudis supported a free press, but a nearly equal majority (79 percent) also supported an absolute monarchy. King Abduallah enjoyed a 95 percent favorable rating.
Officially Dan Mitchell is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, a conservative public policy research organization, and a researcher on tax reform. Unofficially, he has (perhaps ironically?) called himself the “world’s self-appointed defender of so-called tax havens.”
Oddly enough, Mitchell and I agree on many of the facts about these havens. We both have observed, for example, that there are buildings in Delaware and the Cayman Islands that house thousands of corporations. Mitchell concludes there is nothing wrong with either; I conclude there is something wrong with both. Mitchell also agrees that the United States “could be considered the world’s largest tax haven.” On that topic, he’s even cited my paper on non-resident deposits in secrecy jurisdictions. In his comment, he does not take issue with my methodology or my results, but rather concludes that my finding that the United States is the largest holder of non-resident deposits “makes the case for pro-market policies.” I, on the other hand, have argued that these findings support across the board reform, rather than that limited to traditional offshore financial centers.
So how is it that two (relatively intelligent?) people can draw such different conclusions? I would argue our differences lie not in our facts, or perhaps even our economics, but in our underlying philosophical and theoretical differences.
It’s an interesting time for east Africa. Until recently, no one believed it had much energy wealth at all—6 billion barrels, tops, compared to its western counterpart, which boasts at least 60. But the times they are a-changin’. At the end of last month, Kenya sent the world and the markets a buzz when the government announced Canada’s Africa Oil Corp discovered oil in the northern region of Turkana. Given the geographical proximity and similarities, this discoverey also has implications for Ethiopia. And additional discoveries have already been made in neighboring Tanzania and Mozambique.
The oil strike in Turkana does have the potential to transform Kenya’s economy and propel its ambitions to become a leading regional power. But despite the almost-auditory-cheers echoing from Kenya’s leaders, the discovery is not all good news. Of course, analysts are already cautioning the country against falling victim to the resource curse. Many point to Uganda, another in the east African nation that recently joined the energy club, as an example of what not to do.
No one is going to start drilling tomorrow. For one thing, a worldwide rig shortage is delaying production. But in many ways, Kenya itself isn’t ready. The discovery was unexpected enough that the country does not have the experience or the regulatory framework to handle the oil sector. James Phillips, chief operating officer of Canada’s Africa Oil Corp., said “the company won’t…move ahead with its plans in the area until Kenya’s energy ministry develops rules that would determine how that gas could be produced and sold.” Kenya has insisited it is ready. Yet the country regulates oil and gas production and exploration with the Kenya Petroleum Act, a 13-page law passed around 1986. And Kenya’s leaders are on the verge of passing an exemption in its value-added tax for oil and gas exploration companies, in an effort to avoid the “cooling effect” that the tax would have on imports and purchases in the scramble.
On a large scale, corruption undermines development and democracy, exacerbates poverty, erodes civil society, stifles social services, and worsens public health. When it involves cross-boarder flow of money, it is damaging to economies not just because of the underlying corrupt acts, but also because it deprives the country of both public and private resources—including financial capital—that might otherwise be diverted to productive activities.
Most of the corruption that we talk about on this blog and in the general dialogue about corruption and economic development—concerns this sort of large-scale corruption. But there is another kind of corruption that is often overlooked: and that’s when it occurs on a mush smaller scale.
Corruption on a small scale, sometimes called “petty corruption,” occurs in thousands of contexts daily. Every day people, usually in developing countries, make thousands of everyday payments to building inspectors, customs officials, and other bureaucrats for the services that those employees are obligated to perform, but don’t without a little extra. This type of corruption has a much different effect than its large scale counterpart. When a person pays a bribe, the venal official need not necessarily transfer it abroad. In fact, they are more than likely to just spend the cash. But, as U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre points out, petty corruption can still impose “a heavy financial burden on individuals, especially the poor, … facilitate illicit activities such as smuggling and trafficking and ultimately foster the development of informal activities and shadow economy.”
Eastern Europe has been wracked with corruption scandals over the past few weeks. In Hungary, Transparency International released a report about the cozy relationship between business and government in the country, and warns that the government’s internal checks and balances are breaking down. In Slovakia, Smer-Social Democracy party took over the government in part due to a massive corruption scandal. Earlier this year, two ex-ministers of Romania were jailed on corruption charges and Romaina’s former prime minister became the country’s first head of government to be convicted of corruption.
The truth is, though, that corruption in Eastern Europe is not a new problem. In fact, our friends at Transparency International have been warning the world about these problems for years. Most scholars blame the “long hangover” left by communisim in these ex-Soviet states:
Under communism corruption was considered by many a necessary part of life. Small ‘gifts’ of sweets, alcohol and other goods were taken to doctors or civil servants to get proper or quick services. Waiting periods of months for imported or scarce goods could be shortened considerably by offering officials ‘gifts’ or money.
Studies have repeatedly shown that people living in former communist states see corruption in all levels of society, from business to the school system to police and government, but often most strongly in the health sector and the judiciary.
If you’re not one of the 112 million people to have already watched Jason Russell’s Kony 2012 video on YouTube, you might be inclined to tune in here first.
Kony 2012 is part-documentary, part-over-produced-Hollywood-flick that has engendered an enormous amount of attention and emotion on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. It concerns Joseph Kony, a warlord from Uganda who, with the help of his forces, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), has abducted and enslaved tens of thousands of children in his own country, as well as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic. He remains at large, despite the fact that he is wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court and that President Obama has sent U.S. soldiers to help hunt him down.
But in the media, the video itself hasn’t been the dominant issue. Rather it is the fact that the video has generated so much attention itself that is, apparently, the most attention-worthy. And perhaps as a direct result of all this attention, the short film has also generated a whole lot of obloquy.