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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.

 

Ageing and Globalization

Sometime last year my parents called me to say that they wouldn’t be able to meet up on the coming weekend as they had to go and look after my brother’s kids. Nothing unusual about this as more and more retirees find themselves called upon to perform grandparenting duties in times of need – in this case my brother had to travel for work and my sister-in-law was not feeling well. What made this somewhat more unusual was that my parents were in France at the time and my brother lives in Australia. So, they duly cut their stay in France short, bought return tickets to Australia, flew back to the UK packed their bags and went out to Australia for 3 weeks (my brother had had to go to China and South Korea).

Unusual but not unique. As families become increasingly transnational, more and more people are drawn into these long-distance family and caring relationships. But this is not limited to family relationships. Wherever we look, from travel and transport to economics and the media, we seem to see evidence of the increasingly globalized nature of social action.

Workers across the world are increasingly believed to be caught up in the global economic flows of trade and investment that encircle the world and bind countries together as part of a global market. Advances in transportation and communications have also appeared to shrink the world around us. Email and video calls make it possible to instantly speak to people thousands of miles away. Satellite television and internet streaming make it possible to watch foreign TV, news or sporting events from your home or even on the move. This movement of images and things is mirrored by the movement of people. Cheap flights have made it possible for many in the high-income countries to explore the world, whilst millions of people are forced to migrate to escape war and poverty throughout other parts of the world. All of which is reconfiguring our notions of social geography.

Globalization and ageing

This series of transformations poses challenges for gerontology as well as for older people themselves. If we assume that notions of time and space are intimately interconnected then the changing nature of space raises many questions about how we see time, and ultimately, how we think about ageing. Yet it is widely acknowledged that there is still relatively little research on the interconnections between globalization and ageing. Redressing this gap is important, not simply because a more integrated approach to globalization is increasingly necessary, but also because the continuing effects of the global economic crisis of 2008 have destabilised many of the assumptions and policies formulated in the twentieth century for old age.

However, we must also be cautious of claims made about the ‘global’ nature of population ageing as well as arguments that globalisation has a uniformly negative impact on older people. Indeed, when we look at the evidence we can draw two conclusions. Firstly, there is no single ‘spatial logic’ of ageing and later life. Rather there are significant historical and future differences in the timing, speed and level of population ageing as well as in the spatial distribution of older populations and the ageing of the older population itself. As figure 1 shows, there is an intersection between economic geography and demography.

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So, while it is true that life expectancy is increasing and fertility rates are declining in almost all countries, at present and in the near future, older people only make up a small proportion of the population in many developing countries. The fact that population ageing remains relatively confined to the advanced industrial nations is perhaps the most potent argument against the emergence of a global time-space for later life. Rather, the economic, political and cultural co-ordinates of later life are located in a series of overlapping, sometimes conflicting, and sometimes co-ordinated spatial logics and temporal frames. Our second conclusion is that the material aspects of globalization have a very weak effect on the conditions of later life. Our analyses of the data show that global actors have not created a ‘race to the bottom’ in the services and institutions that aim to ensure the well-being of older people. Rather there are still wide international variations in spending on healthcare, rates of labour market participation and pension provision. Moreover, as the data in figure 2 show, exposure to economic openness has little or no impact on these aspects.

Figure 2. The relationship between economic globalization and public spending on old age benefits in the OECD countries: 2011

hyde-fig-2

Source: (Dreher 2006, OECD 2015);

The new masters of the universe

However, this is not to say that global actors have no impact. Several ‘epistemic communities’ have emerged, around anti-ageing medicine, the new pension orthodoxy and active ageing. Müller (2003) has defined epistemic communities as networks of knowledge-based experts, potentially drawn from a variety of fields, who share a common belief in ‘specific truths, a set of normative and causal beliefs, patterns of reasoning, and discursive practices’. In each case the networks we identified comprise global actors, such as the World Bank, the UN and multinational cosmetics corporations, as well as regional actors, like the EU or ASEAN, and national governments. The existence of these epistemic communities problematizes the dominance of methodological nationalism in the formulation of both the policies and the cultures of old age. They also challenge, once again, the too simplistic equation of globalization with the imagery of an unstoppable juggernaut which operates with its own deterministic logic. Instead we have to move away from the either/or of national or global actors being determinant for the production of the conditions for ageing and later life and rather that we need to examine the assemblages of actors operating at different spatial levels.

Future directions

Overall our analyses show that although global processes are having an effect on the experiences of ageing and old age, so too are many other things. Of significant note is that it is often older people themselves who, through their own social and cultural engagements, are responsible for reconfiguring the field of ageing and it this continuing engagement that ensures that the relationship between later life and the development of these new spatialities will be one of transformation rather than determinism. This conclusion has been starkly underlined by recent global events. On the one hand we have witnessed the continued mass migration of people around the world. Alongside this we are seeing the reassertion of the sovereignty of the nation-state, a return of protectionist and isolationist rhetoric and the creation of both symbolic and actual borders. Yet the current trends towards deglobalization are not associated with a push to improve the lot of older people, demonstrating that a return to the ‘nation state’ is no guarantee of better protection for older people.

This blog first appeared on Ageing Issues https://ageingissues.wordpress.com/2016/11/17/globalization-the-challenges-for-gerontology/