The Guardian view on the Paradise Papers: a light on murky dealings

the gaurdian editorial on Monday 6th November, 2017

Allowing the very richest to secede from the rest of society and choose the jurisdiction they operate under has led to an astonishing rise in global inequality.

The millions of leaked files in the Paradise Papers once again shine a bright light on where the uber-elite stash their cash. Until very recently the hidden web of investments made by the super-rich operated in the comforting darkness offered by secretive tax shelters. The disinfecting sunlight provided by whistleblowing-led investigations since 2013 has fundamentally altered how the world looks at, and regulates, tax affairs. Last year’s Panama Papers cost the leaders of Iceland and Pakistan their jobs. More than a dozen nations have changed their laws and the offshore law firm at the heart of the Panama Papers closed offices in tax havens. It is work that is both necessary and brave: one of the journalists involved in investigating the Panama Papers was blown up by a car bomb last month.

This latest dump of data centres around the Bermudian law firm Appleby, a 119-year-old operation favoured by the global super-rich and big corporations, as well as the Singaporean company Asiaciti Trust and the mostly opaque company registries of 19 tax havens. The first stories have already generated global headlines: about why millions of pounds from the Queen’s private estate went into an offshore portfolio which included an investment in the retailer BrightHouse, criticised for exploiting poor families with high-interest loans to purchase white goods; and about why anti-poverty campaigner Bono has so much money he didn’t know some of it bought a piece of a Lithuanian shopping centre via a tax haven.

It’s clear a dramatic shift is under way: not only is the amount of wealth flooding into tax shelters around the world rising to unprecedented levels, but so much of wheeling and dealing is also done by a tiny fraction of humanity. Some of this is historical: until the early 1980s the wealthy really could only squirrel away their cash safely in Switzerland. Since then there has been an explosion in no-tax, high-secrecy locations at the same time that deregulation and globalisation swelled the ranks of the super-rich. Tax havens have facilitated the rise in global inequality. If it feels like there is one set of rules for the rich and another for the poor, it is because there is. A report in September, co-authored by the economist Gabriel Zucman, estimated that approximately 10% of global GDP – about $7.8tn (£6tn) – is held offshore. This is about the size of Japan’s and Germany’s economies combined. The academic says 80% of all offshore cash is now owned by 0.1% of the richest households. In Britain the top 0.01% of households stash about a third of their wealth in tax havens – and, once this is accounted for, their share of wealth is significantly higher today than in the 1960s.

Taxes are, as a noted American jurist put it, the price we pay for civilisation. Voters tax themselves, among other things, for schools, roads, a health service, for welfare provision, to pay their soldiers and build a diplomatic corps. When a group at the top of society secedes and forms a globally mobile republic, able to choose which jurisdiction they wish to operate under, the public is right to ask why we allow this to happen. Why should taxes just be for the little people?

This is true of corporate entities as well as individuals. Increasingly – and worryingly – the international profits of many corporations are showing up in tax havens. It’s no good for ministers to claim the sharing of information on British residents will assuage public anger. There’s little evidence that the tax authorities or the police have the resources to go toe-to-toe with the global elite. The government could shrink the tax avoidance industry overnight – by banning giving public sector contracts to big consulting firms that offer tax advisory services. If crown dependencies and overseas territories want to trade on an association with Britain then tell them to accept mainland standards for regulating financial services.

After the austerity years of private affluence and public impoverishment, there are few takers for the idea that the rich shift cash offshore for laudable reasons. The public mood is one of cynicism, not merely scepticism – and it’s justified by the revelations that politicians have failed to take seriously enough for years.