Saturday, January 03, 2009

Worrisome levels of ethical collapse: Portent of the future?

Many eminently notable indications of dishonest and even cruel policies by public figures in high places have come to light in the recent past (one place to see more than enough is Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos). We wonder what an emerging world will be like if this kind of behavior continues among those in power. It is impossible to predict the future, which is by definition an impenetrable fog, but a few serious disciplines, notably economics, have developed in the attempt to establish sign posts that can, even if unclearly, be seen through the fog ahead. For those of us who worry about the trends in ethical behavior it is more precarious, but we never cease to wonder, to speculate on the basis of what is going on among us at the moment. Some thoughts.

A recent issue of the New York Review reports on issues of enduring importance for our understanding of the kind of ethical world that may be in store. Alan Rusbridger, editor of the The Guardian, explains how elaborate, intricate, even convoluted devices of great corporations veil strategies of tax evasion that are unfair if not illegal. “Tax avoidance is a growth industry, with global accountancy firms and boutique tax avoidance specialists devising strategies for sheltering companies from tax through ingenious offshore arrangements, tax havens, registration in multiple jurisdictions, complex derivative instruments, restructuring, and charging for intellectual property” [Jan 15,09, p 57]. Given that tax avoidance is still considered a legitimate strategy for businesses, illegitimate strategies are difficult and costly to identify and prosecute. That is – what is crucial for the public – the intricacies of tax evasion restrain and resist the ability of a free press (to say nothing of the government) to track and expose criminal evasion. Rusbridger says that “the advanced tax planning undertaken today by most global companies is as intelligible to the average person as particle physics” [p58], and he quotes the admission of the managing editor of the Financial Times: “financial journalists … don’t really understand this stuff, and they join a long list of people that starts with bank regulators, central ban regulators and money managers.”

Rusbridger was actually recounting the story of The Guardian’s struggle with Tesco, a huge British based corporation, that had sued the paper for liable in the most complaint-friendly liable court in the world, London. He explains that the costs of protection from liable claims are so great as to restrain serious journalistic inquiry into corporate tax evasion. In Britain, in fact, “it is fairly safe to predict that almost no British paper will investigate in any detail how companies today increasingly fund and structure their overseas expansion with an eye to avoiding tax.” In the mean time the British government estimates that “thousands of major companies” are unfairly (and thus illegally) avoiding tax obligations through elaborate evasion schemes.

All the more reason to encourage journalism – and government service -- that helps enforce transparency.

But when those at the highest rungs of the government ladder put into practice regulations that betray their public responsibility we are in even greater danger of entering a future whose structures could become repressive of the weak and vulnerable. The glaring example of abuse of power that in fact offends the public sensibility [and thus must be masked by the power elite] is of course the practice of torture by the current administration. Although practiced illegally before George W. Bush, it was his administration that made it legal, or at least claimed to have made it illegal. It is now clear on the basis of many accounts [for example, Philippe Sands, 2008, Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betrayal of American Values.] that those at the highest levels of authority authorized it, notably of course Secretary of Defense Richard Rumsfeld, number three in Department of Defense Douglas Feith, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Gen. Richard Myers, and many others under their authority; and in the White House the Vice President himself, who has admitted to endorsing the abuse of prisoners, as well as Chief Counsel to the President Alberto Gonzales and John Yoo, and others. But then, when the practice of torture came to light, known to the public these officials were supposed to represent, not one of them took responsibility: that allowed the regular troops, who were in fact only doing as they were told, to take the rap.

I would like to believe that the George W. Bush administration was the nadir of ethical collapse in this country's history. We all hope for a more upright leadership in the future, but what we have just seen, and what so many human beings have endured because of these irresponsible actions, is a warning. Betrayal of the public trust is always a possibility, given our human frailty. There is a continuing need for courageous reporting on the truth as it is found, not as those in power would like it be reported. I pray that the world will be spared another round of power abuse such as the world has just endured.

[A note of irony: Washington has expressed concern that some inmates released from Guantanamo could be tortured or persecuted if they were returned to their home countries.(BBC News, Re Canberra rejects appeal to take US prisoners, 3 January 2009)]

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