Common good decays as rich avoid paying their tax

Our national political discourse needs to change, couching the rhetoric of economic imperatives within concern for the common good, writes Ian Harris.

Blessings upon the head of whoever leaked the Panama Papers!

The documents reveal how the corrupt and the super-rich contrive to wriggle through legal loopholes in countries like ours to stash their fortunes out of reach of governments elsewhere, and so evade paying the taxes due on them.

"But it's legal!'' we were told again and again. So blessings upon the head of the television reporter who responded: "But is it moral?''


Now there's a word that used to count for something in our national consciousness, but which seems to have dropped out of political discourse.

The mythic world of trickle-down prosperity, where new wealth created is supposed to spread around the many but instead gushes up to the wealthiest few, doesn't seem to leave much room for morality.

It's gone the same way as concern for the common good - when did you last hear our political leadership mention that as an ideal?

Yet without it, politics degenerates primarily into a branch of economics, and in recent years the emphasis has been on preserving the privilege of those in a position to exploit the system for their own benefit.

Hence the ever-widening gap between those tucking away stacks of cash, and the growing number who scrape to give their families the secure start that all children need and deserve.

As for them buying a family home, forget it.

Last month, New Zealanders had a further glimpse of inequality working out, in a New Zealand Herald report on the salaries paid to the CEOs of the country's top-50 listed companies last year.

They received on average $1.68 million (top was $4.94million), after an increase for the year averaging 12%, or $180,000.

For one CEO the increase was $1.4 million - that's a weekly top-up of $26,923.

Meanwhile lower-paid workers overall got 3.2%.

All perfectly legal, just like the hide-away for overseas trusts, but how is it moral - and what about the common good?

Looking at New Zealand through ordinary human eyes rather than economic blinkers, does anyone really need $32,300 a week to live a decent life?

There must be plenty of able people around who would do the job equally well, perhaps better, for half that, and still consider themselves well-off.

And to say so is not venting the politics of envy but asserting the morality of justice in a society that once prided itself on caring about the common good, both within companies and beyond them.

If a company has multiple thousands to splash around, let it consider the good of all its employees, not just keep cosseting the top elite.

As for the wider community, it is a prime responsibility of government to work to ensure no family is left to spiral down into despair.

For starters, what exactly is the moral case against paying a living wage to those who have the least?

Equally grotesque, here and elsewhere, is the huge disproportion in the wages of those in the top echelons of business and government and those at the bottom.

In Britain last year, the CEOs of the top 100 companies were paid on average £334.6 million ($NZ$681.6 million).

In the United States, company directors in the early 1990s received 42 times more than the average for blue-collar workers.

A decade later they were getting 419 times more - and there in a nutshell lies the populist appeal of Donald Trump.

Growing disparity breeds political discontent.

A market economy has real virtues but when self-serving values come to dominate everything - that is, when it morphs into a market society - the human consequences are dire.

Poet Oliver Goldsmith saw something similar happening in the 18th century and wrote: "Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey/ Where wealth accumulates and men decay.''

That's still true.

In England, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes: "What is morally unacceptable from a Jewish point of view is not the free market itself, but the breakdown it is creating in the sense of social solidarity, the increasing segregation of the wealthy from the poor, and the waning sense of the responsibilities of success.''

As for the Panama Papers, when high-fliers move their wealth around to evade taxes, they also duck contributing their legitimate share to essential public services.

Then wealth, instead of strengthening community, weakens it.

Political leaders can change our national political discourse by couching the rhetoric of economic imperatives within an over-arching concern for the common good.

The rest of us should demand that they do.

- Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator.

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