13. Tackling Corporate Globalization

The excesses of abusive corporate power are multiple and mounting. I’m not going to write about the carefully engineered efforts to privatize the Post Office in the UK, nor about similar efforts to sell off the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in the US, nor the outsourcing of various tasks at the UK’s National Health Service, nor even about the corrupt acceptance by some Members of Parliament of paltry sums of money from corporate lobbyists. These are all minor diversions in the larger corporate game. The tightening corporate grip on government and public institutions is increasingly becoming apparent in the media,1 but my focus is on foundation of our modern democracies: the ability of the state to collect taxes.

Undermining the tax collecting process are the large multi-national corporations whose obsession is maximizing their take to the exclusion of all else. Their flagrant abuse of the new opportunities offered by globalization has enabled them to shift their money and even their accounts into offshore tax shelters. Some of the big time tax avoiders, like Amazon, Apple, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, Google and Starbucks have recently come to the attention of the tax collecting states, but this handful is merely the frosting on the corporate cake.

The hundreds of top global corporations, hedge funds, banks, investment groups and their innumerable dependencies (like the big four manipulative accounting firms, the PR and Consultancy giants, and the foremost law firms) are all involved in obfuscating and manipulating the balance sheets and their financial obligations so that the nation states in which the profits are produced are deprived of the tax revenues necessary to cover their universally mounting debts. Admittedly, as Chrystia Freeland has pointed out, “closing the tax loopholes or tightening the lax tax enforcement … is politically difficult and technically complicated.”2

Thus the battle lines are being drawn. Prime Minister David Cameron is trying to control the multiple tax-havens located in overseas British territories that are siphoning-off undeclared corporate profits. The Cayman Islands, for example, has a government accountable to Westminster but does not level company tax, maintains strict banking secrecy and is consequently the headquarters for huge money laundering and tax-avoidance & evasion schemes.

President Obama is still finding it difficult to distance himself from Wall Street and the vast corporate lobbying industry in Washington. For their part, the corporations are cleverly keeping as low a tax profile as possible while bloating the media with advertising lauding all that is being done by their individual enterprises on behalf of the environment, education, health, the world’s poor etc. At the same time these corporations are studying how best to shift their overseas accounts to states, such as Ireland or Fiji with the lowest taxes and the most relaxed regulations or regulators, as the opportunity might provide. This overall process of avoidance is the key to the corporate furtherance of “globalization without responsibility.”

Which party is going to come out on top? The nation state, dependent on corporations for employment, investment, political funding and economic growth — or the corporations focused narrowly on profits and how to keep these from the grasping hands of governments? The corporate strategy has also focused on merging their corporate and financial power into the very heart of the nation state: revolving doors have been opened between top political & public officials and the corporate hierarchy in order to shape policies in their best interests. Companies like Nestle, Unilever, Cisco, Telefonica Procter & Gamble, and Statoil have all been paired with ministerial “buddies” in the British cabinet. Such cozy relationships always favor privatization, low taxation on the rich, low taxation on capital gains, lower expenditures on protection of the environment etc.3

Personally, I believe the creeping incursion of corporate influence into the mechanisms of the national state is too strong for the elected officials to take decisive action to curb its advance. An international agreement on the taxation of corporate profits would be a step in the right direction, but it is not likely to be forthcoming. Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz wrote at the end of May that “It is time the international community faced the reality: we have an unmanageable and unfair global tax regime.” Even Vince Cable, Britain’s Business Secretary, suggested before the G8 meeting in Northern Ireland in June that reforming “a dysfunctional international tax system” was necessary. “The underlying problem is a messy patchwork of international tax rules, some almost a century old.”4

Drastic change is needed. However, as I noted in a previous blog, radical change is viewed with trepidation by both the electorate and elected officials. I have long advocated that the state use its full powers to enforce something far more fundamental to the entire structure of our economic system: a measure which would help tackle such fundamental problems as economic inequality, youth unemployment, environmental degradation, as well as the current obsessive focus on “growth.” However, that major shift will be the subject of my next blog.

1See Seumas Milne, The Guardian, May 2013
2International Herald Tribune, “Taxes, titans and the greater good,” May 3, 2013
3‘More multinationals to get access to ministers,’ The Guardian, January 19, 2013, p.4
4Vince Cable, “International tax law is a mess,” The Observer, June 9, 2013

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12. Time out

I am disturbed by the global obsession with time. Driven as it is by capitalism, which depends on borrowing time, the pressures exerted by time on us seem overwhelming; our beings seem obsessed by it. Our minds are restricted by the literal ticking of the clock; locked into the irresistibility and irreversibility of time.1 But difficult as it is to find the minutes to meet my daily commitments, the challenges of time as a construct to be explained by physics have steadily increased.

Such a quandary over time is not new. Human time and cosmic time are our inventions. We created the idea of time in our earliest cultures. Today the most pertinent question might be: what could make us less dependent on time? Meditation? Dreaming? Sleep?  Drugs? Or an end to the economic system which prevents us from following an easier and more desirable way of life?

Focused energy has been devoted to measuring time since our earliest records — mostly by priests in such diverse cultures as those of ancient Egypt, China, India, Peru and Central America. The Hindu Vedas, written two millennia before Aristotle, proposed that the Universe goes through repeated cycles of creation, destruction, and rebirth, with each cycle lasting 4,320,000 years.

Many of the ancients held beliefs about time which were based on intelligent speculation: The Incas regarded space and time as a single concept, named “pacha”. The ancient Greek philosophers believed that the universe had an infinite past with no beginning. And The Bible reads: “A thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past.”2

Two thousand years later time remains a profound unknown, a construct which would appear to be closest to metaphysics. We struggle to understand how time will pass for those cosmonauts traveling in future generations who will age less swiftly than those humans living on earth.

And if speed is the determining factor in this difference, what is the impact – if any – on our own longevity from the high speed at which our planet is spinning as it rotates around our sun which itself is circling around our galaxy?

Modern Science has made notable breakthroughs in measuring time, including atomic clocks, digital time-keeping, calibrating the rate of decay of radioactive material, and discovering the speed of light itself which enabled cosmologists to estimate the very existence of the universe at around 13.5 billion years. I ask myself: Are the photons reaching our telescopes on earth actually the physical left-overs from that “Big-Bang” billions of years ago?

Personally, I remain disturbed by the many fundamental questions which have arisen over the past few decades about time. Not only are there different forms of time: like Cosmic time, quantum time and our Earth-bound time, but in physics and astronomy it is also very hard to specify with any exactitude the time in space-time itself: How and when did time begin? Why is the arrow of time tipped forward? (And, it is speculated, goes backwards in black holes?) Could time be sped up or slowed down, or even stopped? Could time take different forms in other universes? If our universe of galaxies ultimately implodes, might that end time?

The theoretical astrophysicist, Prof. Adam Frank, has speculated that if there is more than a single universe, then in this “multiverse” there might not be any time because there might be no universal flow to time in any direction.”3

Paul Dirac, the great physicist credited with predicting the existence of the black hole, asked the provocative question: “What is time itself?” And astrophysicists and other scientists have been trying to come up with answers ever since. One young student, Julian Barbour, was so disturbed by Dirac’s challenge that he spent thirty years pondering the question before coming up with an answer in his book,  The End of Time.

His ultimate conclusion was: There is no such thing as time. Instead he regarded each individual moment as a distinct unit, a “now”, the sequence of which he called “nows” which exist in a Platonic realm where “time” does not exist. Past and future simply vanished in Barbour’s vision.4

The concept of time as a measure of change was not challenged by Einstein in his formulation of “space-time” into a single four-dimensional entity which was blind to any distinction between past and future. In today’s cosmological formulations one must ask which part of the equation that describes space-time is arbitrary? Time is not treated as a separate entity. The implications for basic physics are disturbing for they imply that its laws are not fixed but variable.

In quantum physics particles, such as electrons, have no definitive properties and, strange as it may seem, the electrons can co-exist in many places at the same time. This challenges the very notion of space-time itself. Those scientists engaged in quantum cosmology have gone on to try and explain the entire universe as a quantum object. For example, Stephen Hawking in his celebrated A Brief History of Time  proposed a model of the universe in which no origin of time appears.

Prof. Adam Frank suggests that “by recognizing that we have invented and are re-inventing time, we give ourselves the opportunity to change it yet again.”5

I would add: That’s just like any myth. Most myths are attempts to explain or elucidate our human role on this planet. Alas, the complexities of time seem to make our life passage harder to understand. Frequently the layering and overlapping of the various interpretations of time seem of such a daunting order that, perplexed as I am, I should like to shout: “Time Out! NOW.”

1Paul Davies, About Time, (1995) p. 28
2Psalms xc, 4.
3Adam Frank, About Time, (2011) p. 292
4Julian Barber,The End of Time, (1999) p. 47
5About Time (2012) p. 319