A GIGANTIC FUNNEL IN LUXEMBOURG
Invisible Money 4
At the end of Invisible Money 3, the ink was drying on the latest tax evasion scheme in Marius Kohl’s office at 18, rue du Fort Wedell in Luxembourg’s capital. Kohl, head of the tax bureau at Sociétés 6, was formalizing the tax deal for the world’s third largest pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmithKline. He and the Bureau d’Impots are happy to provide fast service for an untold number of companies – Amazon, Google, The Guardian (yes, that Guardian, through the Eden Company), iTunes, Procter & Gamble among them. His is a busy trade and still very much ongoing in luxurious Luxembourg, which profits from loopholes in antiquated European tax law. 40,000 pages of such instances give some hint of how widespread the tax avoidance business is.
Marius Kohl is the head of a department in a small government apparatus dedicated to tax affairs. But he is not the man who sets the policy. He has bosses above him who do that, persons readers will soon know more about. Because if Marius Kohl ever deviated from considered policy, if his actions were at variance from his superiors’ dictats, Marius Kohl would be gone at the end of the day, whether he set a new raft of origami organizations afloat or not.
Let’s freeze Marius Kohl with his pen an inch away from making that marvelous signature of his, just before he signs on to the latest fictive, intracompany entity. We’ll leave him right where he is, while we turn around to take a quick look at the landscape in which Luxembourg operates, a landscape which makes the financial funnel in Luxembourg possible.
It has been a busy month or so in politics and on the tax/debt front. Are the two inextricably linked? Of course they are. "The fact that many men are occupied in making clothes for one individual is the reason so many others go without." Does that make sense?
In Athens in October, protesters greeted Angela Merkel with a banner in front of Parliament that read "Angela weine nicht. Da ist nichts im Shrank, was zu holen wäre" – "Don’t cry, Angela. There’s nothing left in the cupboard for you to take." The line is originally Bertolt Brecht’s.
Is Chancellor Merkel the uncrowned Queen of Europe? Europeans might be forgiven for thinking she is. So when Ulrich Beck, a German sociologist, published an article last week depicting Merkel as a devoted student of Machiavelli, it was widely read across the continent and gave rise to a new moniker for Germany’s leader: Merkiavelli. The empress has a new set of clothes.
Beck argues that Merkel must walk the fine line between being loved at home – enough to be reëlected – and loathed outside Germany – but not so loathed as to be detested and lose her preëminence. "Merkiavelli’s power rests upon the desire to do nothing, her penchant for avoiding action, acting later, hesitating. This art of selective delay, a mixture of indifference, a refusal of Europe and European engagement, is the source of Germany’s powerful position in a continent stumbling through the crisis."
"Madame Merkel prefers – and this is the full Machiavellian irony of her position – to make the willingness of Germany to provide assistance to indebted countries dependent upon their acceptance of the German policy of stability."
"Politically, inside Germany the Chancellor reassures Germans, who fear for their retirement, their little house and their economic miracle, and with a very Protestant rigor she defends the politics of No in measured doses, all so that she gives the appearance of being the one instructor at school capable of teaching Europe a lesson."
"The more Germans become critical with respect to Europe, the more they feel encircled by countries peopled with debtors who only want to get their hands into German wallets, the more difficult it will be to maintain her two positions."
None of it is really working. It is worth pointing out that of the ‘bailout’ loans Germany sends to a country like Greece, not a penny goes to the people but is instead "paid into an ‘escrow’ account and is used exclusively to repay past loans and to re-capitalise near bankrupt private banks." This is the essence of the message that Alex Tsipras delivered to Merkel upon her arrival in Athens in October. One has to assume that every current head of state knows this, and yet none of them says a word. Why? It’s a modern version of omerta: be very careful what you say, and above, do nothing, because if you take action, the great financial powers will invoke their often employed and quasi-mystical "crisis of confidence," and that government will be on its knees in short order. This is the fine line Merkel treads.
But, Beck argues, it cannot go on forever. "It is nevertheless possible that la méthode Merkiavel is little by little hitting its limits, if only because it must be admitted that the politics of German austerity has yet to record a single success. To the contrary, the debt crisis is now threatening Spain, Italy and perhaps very soon even France." [i]
They put on a good show in Parliament in the UK last week. The Public Accounts Committee held hearings, and Committee chair Margaret Hodge put executives from Amazon, Google and Starbucks through the ringer. Amazon grossed £3.3bn in UK sales last year and yet somehow – need I whisper the name of a certain Duchy? – it paid not so much as a pound in corporate tax. The government’s chief auditor, Amyas Morse, found the evidence submitted by the Big Three Friendlies "insulting." The suit from Amazon was dismissed like a junior staffer who’d shown up in the wrong hearing room.
Coalition leaders and in Labour’s shadow government say they are angry, even furious with the multinationals. The English, who know something about tongue lashings and moral tirade, will, in the persons of Cameron or Osborne or Cable, deliver jolly, blistering speeches and nothing will come of it. Were they completely out of the loop until now? Doubtful. They are afraid of omerta.
The best was saved for last in those hearings. On video, the committee heard a few words from Prince Phillip, taking a break from driving his buggy around the royal estates. "All money nowadays seems to be produced with a natural homing instinct for the Treasury," he opined. Well said by a man who has lived his entire life on the public dole, or as Polly Toynbee put it neatly in the Guardian, straight from the Treasury to his trouser pockets.
Even tiny Antigua – hereditary ruler, one Queen Elizabeth II, also known as Phillip’s wife – is getting shivers that it may be "game over" for their brand of off-shore banking. "The large financial centres are going to try, and have been trying, to strangle the Caribbean banking sectors," said Barbados-based financial expert Avinash Persaud in early November. "They are imposing regulation that is risk intolerant, that is size intolerant and therefore we have to invest as much in anti-money laundering as large centres. They are going to make it expensive to operate in the Caribbean." Persaud argued that since most money laundering takes place in the largest financial sectors, they, and not the Caribbean, should be investing more in regulation.
Antigua, Barbados and the Caymans now realize they might be offered up as sacrifices on a platter if the Big Boys to the north become desperate enough to preserve their fiscal paradises. Au diable avec vous les Noirs!
And meanwhile back in France, with strong majorities in his favor in both regional and national legislatures, François Hollande – the same François Hollande who campaigned as an enemy of the world of finance – has proposed a budget as austere as anything Nicholas Sarkozy ever hustled into law.
Several possibilities loom on the horizon, and not so far away that one can’t make their shapes out in the haze.
Just as, once upon a time, the crowned heads of Europe did roll down the hill, the current crop of leaders from Norway to Greece, incapable of an honest discussion about the financial crisis out of fear of retribution, will roll down the hill and into the obscurity of historical abyss, a footnote at the bottom of the page. Cameron in the UK, Mario Monti in Italy, Mariano Rajoy in Spain, Antonis Samaras in Greece, President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel – no one will remember a single thing about them. There are two possibilities. There is a good chance they will be replaced by far right nationalists or spineless "centrists" but the drift will be the same: A ‘new’ Europe based on "cheap labor, deregulation of the labor market, low public spending and tax exemptions for capital." Those are Alex Tsipras’s words, and he ought to know, living in the country where it is already being put into practice. Take a look at what is happening in Hungary and Spain. That’s one possibility.
We are reaching a critical mass about fiscal paradises, a first plateau in a long hike. Word is getting out. Politicians, habitually used to funking an issue beyond the endurance of mere mortals, are feeling a bit of heat. No concrete measures, for sure. Those are still a long ways off. But speeches – a kind of smoke signal. All the elements of real drama are in place: indefensible greed, outrageous circumstance, secret manouevres, nations at odds, corporate disarray. The moment awaits one brave man or woman in power to seize the issue and run with it, to lead the charge.
The U.S. has made some initial moves towards demanding transparency from the oil companies on a country by country basis but nothing is really happening yet in Europe. In France the Senate spent several months investigating tax fraud this year. They contacted Ed Perrin to see what he knew. And when they were done they advocated prosecuting VAT-evaders and cigarette smugglers riding donkeys over the Pyrannees from Andorra. Meanwhile billions go missing from the ledgers of wealthy corporations and governments mired in feckless austerity.
For Invisible Money 5 we unfreeze Marius Kohl in his office on rue Fort du Wedell and snoop around for his superiors. Stay tuned.
Iddhis Bing writes about politics and culture from Paris.
 Beck’s essay appeared as Angela Merkel, nouveau Machiavel, in Le Monde, November 13, 2012.