What do the Paradise Papers tell us about capitalism, globalization and ageing?

On the 5th November the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) released a trove of over 13.4 million leaked documents mostly from the offshore law firm Appleby and the Singapore-based international trust and corporate services provider, Asiaciti Trust, along with corporate registries in 19 tax jurisdictions, which reveal the financial dealings and tax avoidance of politicians, celebrities, corporate giants and business leaders. These have been dubbed the Paradise Papers as many, although certainly not all, of the offshore financial companies identified in the documents operate in tropical islands such as the Cook Islands, Cayman Islands and Bermuda. The leaked data covers seven decades, from 1950 to 2016. Although the investigation in the extent of any financial irregularities and tax avoidance is ongoing early revelations show that there is a vast network of such companies and agreements that are used by the global rich to move money around the world.

Alongside any personal or political interest that we might have in this story I would argue that, as gerontologists, each of us should have a professional interest in this issue and what any investigation will eventually show for 2 reasons:

  1. Because they highlight the often-neglected role of capital in the debates on population ageing
  2. Because they expose the fallacy that national governments are helpless in the face of global corporate power

We are continuously being told that, on both an individual and societal level, we cannot afford to grow old in the way that we have done in the past. The argument, crudely put, is that as more and more of us live for longer we draw down on a finite and shrinking pot of public funds. So, on the one hand, we are told that we must reduce public spending on things that matter to many older people like pensions, healthcare and social care, under the guise of austerity politics. Yet on the other hand the Paradise Paper reveal that global corporations and the super-rich are allowed to avoid paying huge sums of money in taxes. As Murray Worthy, Global Witness corruption campaigner, states;

“The Paradise Papers have exposed how some of the world’s most prominent public figures, including The Queen and a key Trump associate, are involved in a global secrecy scandal of offshore accounts and hidden financial dealings. They have laid bare the social damage, undue influence and corruption hard-wired into our financial system, and the failure of governments around the world to tackle the role of tax havens and the white-collar professionals who facilitate such deals.”

These are not insubstantial amounts. It is estimated that between $7.8-$10tn of global GDP is held offshore beyond the reach of tax authorities. This is money that is being taken out of various countries that could be going to pay for essential public services. Moreover, the evidence shows that it is the super-rich who are benefitting from these offshore financial institutions. A report this September, co-authored by the economist Gabriel Zucman, says 80% of all offshore cash is owned by 0.1% of the richest households, with 50% held by the top 0.01%.

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These figures show how these offshore financial companies allow global corporations and the super-rich to take huge sums of taxable income out of the country. This has particular salience to the debates and research on extending working lives. Here we have seen some of the most radical shifts in policy to both cut back on state and occupational pensions pay-outs and get people to remain in work until later in life. We have seen the state pension age rise from 60 to 65 for women which has had a huge impact on many women. From 2019, it will increase for both men and women to 66, then to 66 to 67 between 2026 and 2028 and it is planned to rise to 68 by 2037-2039. At the same time, we have seen a huge shift away from more generous defined benefit (DB) to defined contribution (DC) occupations pensions. Yet in the debates on extending working lives we very rarely, if at all, talk about productivity or, more importantly, profits. For example, if we take the ‘old age dependency ratio’, which is often used to justify the argument that we need to reduce pension spending and work for longer, is based on the simple relation between the number of people in ‘working age’ versus the number of people in ‘pensionable age’. This reduces the old age dependency to one between different classes of workers – capital is conspicuously absent from this equation. Yet, as both Robin Blackburn and Chris Phillipson have shown, capital is heavily engaged in the construction of (the conditions of) work and retirement. On the 100th year anniversary of the Russian Revolution it seem appropriate that we need to bring capital (back) into the debates on ageing and later life.

However, in bringing capital back in to our discussions and analyses we must not make the mistake of assuming that national governments are impotent in the face of these global economic giants. National governments often paint themselves as hapless victims in these new global realities. However, as a number of writers have pointed out, the nation-state is a complicit actor in these developments. As Paul Higgs and I showed in our book on Ageing and Globalization, state agencies, alongside global organisations such as the World Bank, play a key role in shaping these ‘global’ economic landscapes. In fact, when we look at these so-called ‘off-shore’ companies we see that many of them are very much ‘onshore’. Many of the tax havens identified in the Paradise Papers, such as Bermuda and the Isle of Mann, are British Crown Dependencies. The BBC’s Panorama investigation suggests that these changes to the tax laws in the Isle of Mann were approved by politicians and the HMRC. Moreover the City of London acts as the facilitating hub for Crown dependencies and overseas territories that channel trillions of offshore dollars. On the other hand, the EU and UN are pushing for policies to prevent tax avoidance. Ministers at the EU have called for a blacklist of global tax havens backed by sanctions; new transparency rules for tax intermediaries, bankers, and lawyers; and mandatory country-by-country reporting for profits. Indeed, what the Paradise Papers show, and what Paul and I argued, is that rather than being truly global the current world order is made up of a myriad of overlapping geo-political and jurisdictional spaces. The challenge for gerontology is to develop models to examine how the relations between these spaces, ranging from the global to the local, affect and are in turn affected by population ageing.

 

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