It is well-known that multinational companies use complex group structures, involving a rats’ nest of bewilderingly interconnected companies, to shift profits to places where they are taxed lightly or not at all. If the structure is complex enough it can become impractical for government agencies to invest the considerable time needed to understand the structure and work out whether it is hiding something socially harmful. Tax avoidance is not the only practice that can be masked by such deliberate complexity. Money laundering and putting assets out of the practical reach of creditors are other ends that can be achieved. Employment and environmental standards may also be avoided.
This essay outlines a law reform proposal that I believe would dramatically reduce the complexity of corporate groups, and thereby make it harder for them to hide socially undesirable practices. In short, I propose changing tax laws so that money cannot flow through a company without penalty unless its owner has convinced the government that allowing that to happen provides some benefit to society.
Under my proposal, a country, call it N (for nation), would maintain a register of ‘Fair Dinkum’ companies (‘FD companies’), which would include both companies based in country N and companies based in other countries. For my non-Australian readers, ‘Fair Dinkum’ is an Australian adjectival phrase indicating that the person or thing to which it refers is honest and generally wholesome.
Any company, domestic or foreign, could apply to the government of N to be granted FD status. If granted, the company would be added to the register.
The incentive for companies to apply for FD status is that any payment made by a company subject to country-N tax law to a company in the same corporate group would only be able to be used as a tax deduction if the company to whom it was paid is Fair Dinkum.
Requirements for a company C being given FD status, and for retaining it, would be:
- The social benefit test. A convincing argument that granting the status to C would allow beneficial business activity to take place that otherwise could not take place to a similar degree. ‘Beneficial’ means beneficial to society in general, and can be interpreted fairly widely. If the activity creates jobs in an activity that is not regarded as harmful to human well-being, or generates taxable profits that would otherwise not occur, or provides a non-harmful service that people would be expected to want, that would be seen as beneficial. But it is not enough that the social benefit would be expected to arise after the company was given FD status. The government must also be convinced that the same benefit could not be achieved without that status. In particular, there would have to be a reason why the corporate group could not achieve the same goal using the FD companies it already had.
- Company C makes no tax deductible payments to any non-FD company in the group.
- Company C is based in a country that has tax laws and rates deemed by country N to be reasonable. That is, C cannot be in a tax haven.
- If any other companies in the group ceased to have FD status in the previous five years, an explanation of the reason would have to be provided for each one, that removes any concern that the group might be using ‘burner’ companies to flout the intentions of the framework.
- Company C does not own shares or debt instruments of any non-FD company in the group.
- No company in the group has a mortgage or other lien over any assets of Company C, either over individual assets or a floating charge over all assets.
- An application would have to be sponsored by a country-N resident, who would be held personally responsible, under threat of criminal penalty, for the correctness of information provided to the country-N government by company C in support of its obtaining or retaining FD status. This resident will be called the company’s ‘sponsor’.
At the end of each tax year in any tax jurisdiction to which company C is subject, the sponsor would be required to certify that C had met all the above requirements throughout the year, and that the full amount of required tax had been paid to the relevant tax authority.
In the first instance, the tax deduction incentive acts only as a reason for a company in a corporate group that is subject to country-N tax to apply for FD status. However the above set of requirements make that status unattainable unless all companies that receive tax-deductible payments, directly or indirectly, from the first company are also FD, and all companies that are directly or indirectly owned by C are also FD. Hence any corporate group whose structure is deliberately over-complex will be unable to earn profits in country N without a heavy tax burden, unless it creates a very simple, quarantined, sub-structure within its group for that purpose. Because of the simple nature of the sub-structure, it will be very difficult for it to avoid tax, launder money or put assets beyond reach of creditors.
The application would be assessed by officials of the country’s government. A non-trivial fee would be levied to cover the cost of the assessment. Since the assessment would be personal and not automated, this would need to be of the order of one to two thousand dollars.
In order to ease the transition, companies existing at the date of the announcement of these measures would be granted temporary FD status, that would cease after a few years unless a full application had been made and accepted. Companies formed after the announcement date would get no such period of grace.
The status would expire and need to be renewed every few years, at some frequency set out in the law. The renewal process would be less onerous than the initial application, but the company would need to certify that it had not undergone a major change in either ownership or business activity. If it had, a new application would need to be made. The purpose of this measure is to prevent corporate groups from gaining FD status for a company on the basis of one projected use of the company, and then using it for a different purpose, or selling it to another entity that uses it for a different purpose. Spot audits would be conducted on the statements made in renewal applications. The company sponsor, and all directors of the company would be required to sign renewal applications, thereby placing the responsibility on them to ensure the statements were truthful.
A significant change in the business activity of a company with FD status would cause its status to immediately lapse. So companies would need to apply for a renewal of status if their business activity changes significantly. Such an application would be required to be made within some specified period – say three months – after the change of activity had occurred. There would be capacity for the status renewal to be backdated in order to allow companies nimbleness and flexibility of movement, such as a snap takeover bid for which the company would be disadvantaged if the company’s bid became known to the market before the deal was closed. But the backdating would not be guaranteed. If the new activity was not deemed an acceptable use of the status, the renewal would be denied and loss of status would date back to the time the new activity commenced. Again, if it was discovered through spot audits or other means that a FD company’s business activity had significantly changed and the company had not either applied for renewal or relinquished the status within the specified period (again, say three months), the directors of the company would be liable to criminal penalties.
Here, a ‘change in activity’ is not so much about a decision to add a new widget to the range of widgets the company currently makes. That would create undesirable bureaucratic obstacles to good business practice. Rather, it is about opening up new channels by which significant slabs of the company’s revenue either come in or go out to/from other companies within the group. Details of this would be encoded through relevant definitions in the law.
Impact of, and Reasoning Behind, the Proposal
Under the proposed framework a non-FD company could no longer be used as part of funnelling profits through labyrinthine channels to move them either to a low tax jurisdiction or from a jurisdiction with lax controls on money laundering. Why? Because these labyrinthine structures rely on money coming in to such a company and then going straight out again, with no tax impact. But for a non-FD company the money coming in would be taxable while the money going out would not be, making the transaction economically non-viable.
The reason for the non-deductibility of intra-group payments to non-FD companies may not be obvious. There will often be worthy reasons for company C operating in country N to set up a local subsidiary that conducts its sales and other operations there, so FD status will be easily achieved for such a subsidiary. But we do not want to allow profits to be shifted from that company to an offshore company that is subject to a less careful regime, where they may be eventually channelled to a tax haven. Dodges such as ‘transfer pricing’ make this easy to do and hard to police. Requiring the recipient company to be FD would make this much more difficult. For a start, the criteria deny FD status to any company in a tax haven, even if that company is the group’s ultimate parent. Secondly, no group company to which the domestic subsidiary transferred revenue by anything longer than a very short chain would be granted FD status. It is hard to imagine any genuine reason why payments should have to pass through more than two intermediate sets of corporate hands within a group before reaching the ultimate parent company. If this rule forced a company to channel payments from country N to the parent company via a shorter, simpler route than that used for payments from subsidiaries in other countries, that is a consequence of the group’s choice to have a complex global structure, and it is in the group’s power to change that if it does not like having to deal with the extra accounting work involved in having two separate payment streams. Note also that the constraint on payments is only on tax-deductible payments and so would not include dividends on ordinary shares.
We can imagine that less scrupulous companies might seek to develop sneaky ruses such as bouncing revenue off a non-group company in a tax haven and then back into the group through a sweetheart deal with that external company, in order to avoid the tax deductibility problem. However any such ruse would need to be highly contrived and would be subject to the usual rules and penalties that apply to any arrangement that is constructed with the primary aim of evading tax.
I have not managed to convince myself of the impossibility of avoiding some amount of tax in the year in which a company ceases to be FD. As soon as a company relinquishes that status it is free to make any payments it likes. I can imagine a company somehow storing up wealth in a tax-effective way while FD and then suddenly ceasing to be FD and paying the stored wealth out to a group company in a tax haven. But I think the potential for such abuse is limited. Firstly, the accumulation of wealth cannot span across tax years, as the company has to either pay a fair amount of tax on any profit in the year it arises or lose FD status. Secondly, if the company is subject to country-N tax, it would not get a tax deduction for the payment. Hence the profits that built up the payment would be fully taxed. It is conceivable that some losses may occur in the year of ceasing to be FD, but that final year would be only a small part of the time that company is FD, as long as the group doesn’t churn FD companies. Such churn is prevented by the requirement within the application process to justify any cessations of FD status within the group.
Potential Reaction, and a Comparison to the History of Companies
Extreme free-market libertarians might howl in protest, liberally sprinkling their complaint with terms like ‘red tape’. But it would be in vain. First, this proposal would cut red tape, not increase it, since it would dramatically reduce the number of companies in a corporate group, and hence the amount of pointless legal and accounting work, not to mention subsidiary board meetings, that the presence of all those companies necessitates.
Further, the suggested action is not unprecedented. Commercial companies have only existed since about 1600, when the East India Company was formed, followed by the Dutch East India Company in 1602. Formation of these companies required royal assent, which presumably required quite a high level of work, cost and currying favour to get it granted. In 1720 the British government forbade the establishing of companies by the British Bubble Act, which remained in force until 1825. Limited Liability did not become a feature of British corporations until the Limited Liability Act of 1855.
It was only in the early twentieth century that the widespread use of companies really took off. I don’t know when the creation of labyrinthine corporate structures using two-dollar shell companies began, but I suspect it was much more recent than that.
So we see that companies have only been a feature of the economic landscape for a small part of the period in which international trade and other economic activity occurred, and for a large part of even that short time, the formation of companies was very far from the rubber-stamped, automatic right that it is taken to be now.
Conclusion and Commendation
Nothing in this is proposal is hostile to the formation of companies. I fully accept the argument that allowing companies to be created enables business to be generated, with the social benefits of employment, services, profits and tax revenue following from that. But it is exactly that social benefit that my proposal would require to be demonstrated before allowing a company to be used. Demonstrating that would be very easy for companies that actually do useful activity, and for most non-shell companies that have existed since companies were invented. But it would be very difficult for a company whose sole purpose is to complicate a labyrinthine structure and thereby aid in tax avoidance, money laundering or otherwise evading a corporate group’s responsibilities to the society without whose rule of law it would not be able to function at all.
Implementation of this proposal would make a national tax office’s task of ensuring that appropriate levels of tax are paid by a company that sells goods and services in that nation much easier. It would make money laundering more difficult and it would make it harder for companies to put their assets out of reach of deserving creditors.
I commend this idea to the law makers of the world, in the hope that some nation may take it up, and maybe start a trend leading to most nations doing it. Of course, implementing the proposal would not prevent all tax evasion, money laundering and other corporate hoodwinkery. But I believe it would greatly reduce it.
No doubt there will be some wrinkles to be ironed out and perhaps some unforeseen obstacles to be surmounted, but I am hopeful that the core of the idea is sound, practical and effective. This essay may change as people point out loopholes that need to be closed, or undesirable obstacles that such a framework would create, and the proposal adapts to remedy those. At worst, somebody may point out a fatal flaw in the proposal, in which case it will become petrified as a monument to the powerful yet hard to fulfil human wish to stop or at least reduce exploitation by the rich of the not so rich.
We shall see.
Bondi Junction, March 2018
I am fed up, completely fed up.
Too many times have I listened patiently while people with strongly-held but not-critically-examined opinions explain that the trouble with politicians these days is that most of them have never held a ‘real job’ (see list of examples of media whinges at the end of this article).
I am generally too polite to make the obvious retort: ‘Oh, I didn’t know that some jobs were real and some were pretend. Which ones are the real ones then?’
A favourite here in Australia is to hold up the example of Ben Chifley, who worked for the railways for a few years. Ironically, those for whom he is a poster child eulogise him for ‘having worked as a train driver’, little knowing that train driver was – at the time Chifley did it around 1912 – a very prestigious position – the pinnacle of the railway industry. Hardly the sweat-of-the-brow, in-touch-with-the-common-man position that people dream it was. Chifley did work at lowly, manual jobs in the railway trade, including shovelling coal, but that was in order to work his way up to the lofty (some might say ‘ivory tower’) position of train driver.
When the criticism is made, it usually includes union organiser among the ranks of ‘pretend jobs’. I find that criticism astonishing. A good union organiser is a combination of human rights barrister, public relations consultant, aid worker, counsellor, logistics engineer and CEO. The job sounds so hard to me that I can’t imagine any amount of money being enough to induce me to take it on. They have to persuade people to join unions, negotiate with powerful business interests, chair union meetings to try to get workable decisions from groups of employees that may have quite disparate aims, organise strike funds, conduct legal battles against laws aimed at removing any remaining negotiating power of employees against their big business employers, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Given the skill set needed to be a successful union organiser, I imagine any business looking for a new head of HR, finance or operations would be happy to take them on – as long as they promise not to organise any strikes.
Yet, somehow, all that activity is not regarded as being a ‘real job’. I have nothing against real estate agents, pathologists, car vendors, fast-food checkout operators or NHS statistics processors, but I cannot see what life experience or exposure to the ‘real world’ those jobs provide that being a union organiser does not.
Another apparently ‘pretend job’ is being a political aide. I don’t know much about political aides but, from the outside, it seems such a job would be a combination of super-PA and media advisor. They have to make sure the MP or candidate they advise gets to all their engagements in time and is briefed on the issues they need to know about, as well as being properly dressed, fed, rested and toileted. Hardly a walk in the park. And hardly a low-skill profession.
But is it something else rather than a lack of skill that is being insinuated about political and union jobs? If so, what exactly is it? Does the job have to be strenuously manual and involve almost no brain work in order to be ‘real’? Then a brickies’ labourer has a real job but someone gutting fish in a cannery does not? That makes no sense to me. And why does there have to be no brain work? Is that just the current anti-intellectual fashion playing out? Are people with clever minds required not to use them in order not to stand out from the crowd and seem elitist? Could it not just be possible that if somebody has a clever mind it would be better employed trying to find ways to raise the wages of the working class or make sure that our politicians are actually well-informed on the issues they are deciding, than in digging a ditch? The good book itself tells us (No, not the HitchHikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. The other one), in the Parable of the Talents, that it is a sin not to use the talents you’ve been given.
Often the accusation of politicians ‘never having held a real job’ is equivocated with the accusation of ‘never having experienced real life’. This is as nonsensical as the other lines of attack. The challenges of real life are things like trying to find a home to rent, save up money and maybe eventually borrow to buy a home. They are going through the joys and pangs of love found and lost and maybe searching for a life partner. They are trying to carve out a sense of purpose in a world that is a babble of noise, shallowness and competing interests. They are trying to find communities to which one can belong, to gain acceptance in them and then work to benefit the community and to help it achieve its goals.
I think most of these are experienced by everybody, and all of them are experienced by most people, regardless of their chosen occupation. The occupations that are least exposed to these challenges are those that are tremendously well-paid – investment banker, business tycoon or senior barrister. Yet somehow those are regarded as ‘real jobs’ while being a lowly-paid political aide or union organiser is not.
The phrase ‘out of touch with real people’ is another popular one to throw around. Again one wonders what one needs to do to be a ‘real person’. How can I tell if I am one? Wouldn’t it be terrible if, after years of thinking you were a real person, you suddenly discovered you were a fake? Could you demand a refund? From whom, I wonder?
I think what they mean is just ‘has regular contact with people that don’t work in unions or politics’. Well that criticism doesn’t stand up to scrutiny either. Most of a politician’s day seems to be spent meeting people, and only part of that is with other politicians. As an MP they have to meet whatever constituents ask for a meeting, within reason, and my understanding is that they do plenty of that. If you have a grievance, make an appointment to go talk to your local MP about it, rather than sitting at home whinging!
Now senior ministers don’t do much meeting with constituents, because the other demands on their time are so great. But the only people that get to be a senior minister without serving their time as a backbencher – with all the time ‘meeting real people’ that that entails – are those that come straight into parliament at a senior level, typically from a career in either business or law, two professions that are mystifyingly regarded as ‘real jobs’ even though the average big businessman or senior lawyer meets far fewer working class people per week than just about any politician. Those that have to work their way up as a backbencher before becoming a minister will have had plenty of exposure to ‘real people’. Are we then going to complain that, once they are Treasurer or PM, they should set aside a large proportion of their precious time for yarning with locals at the pub, rather than spending that time studying and reflecting on the pros and cons of an important decision that will affect the lives of millions of citizens? If we want to make that criticism, why do we not also make it of the senior people of any organisation, be it a business, a church, a charity or a sport federation? Why should politics be the only profession in which one is expected not to devote one’s efforts to making the best decisions possible, and achieving the best possible outcomes.
Now I’m not suggesting that all politicians do spend all their time studying and agonising over policy. If they did, the policy would never be enacted. In business, selling a product is as important as designing and manufacturing it. A business that devotes all its efforts to the latter and none to the former will soon be a dead business, and the same applies in politics. If politicians have a policy they believe is worth selling, they need to put their utmost into selling it and, because of the adversarial nature of our political system, that will always be a difficult job. Selling it means speeches, private negotiations, cajoling, counting numbers, nurturing votes from fence-sitters, and so on. It’s a really hard task, and not one I’d have the stomach for. But it has to be done. Otherwise somebody else with less benevolent motives – a Putin or Trump – is likely to get up and sell their alternative, and we’ll all be worse off.
A good policy needs effort to sell it, and that effort is worthwhile. Where I get cross at politicians is when they cook up useless or even harmful policies solely in order to sell themselves, ie to increase their popularity and thereby the likelihood that they will retain power. They may be selling themselves to the public, as is the case with politicians that flirt with the xenophobia that can always be found in any population under a moderate amount of stress. Or they may be selling themselves to a king-making power group within their party or to powerful financial backers. The current Australian PM seems to have sold off so much of himself to those groups that he is now indistinguishable from his reactionary, climate-change-denying, Muslim-hating, would-be-theocratic predecessor, with the sole exception that the predecessor at least had the virtue of being true to his own values.
Politics, including being a political aide or a union organiser, is a tough job. You have to work really hard, for pay that is much lower than you would get if you were working that hard, and with that level of skill, in private industry. You have to endure public hatred, mockery, accusation and vilification. You are always at work – none of your time is your own. You are regularly confronted by failure and heartbreak, when you lose an election or maybe just fail to get approval of the policies you believe in. You are always on the move, often living out of hotel rooms rather than in the comfort of your own home.
The way I see it, a job in politics is as tough and as real as it gets and, as long as they are not using their position to corruptly enrich themselves (which, mercifully, is fairly rare in my country, and in most other OECD countries) politicians deserve our respect for that, even if we vehemently disagree with their policy proposals. Someone who has always worked in politics has always had a tough job, more so than somebody that spent their first ten years after uni at Wernham Hogg, playing office pranks like putting their co-worker’s stapler in jelly (not that I have anything against office workers. I’m sure they can be good citizens and lovely sons or daughters-in-law too).
So let’s all stop whinging about our politicians’ backgrounds and start engaging with them about their policies.
It’s all just so silly. If we were to apply the same standard to other professions as we do to politics we’d have job interviews containing lines like:
‘The university is very impressed by this thing you’ve invented called Gravity, Mr Newton, but what we really need to know before we consider employing you as a research fellow, is whether you have had any experience as a blacksmith’.
Bondi Junction, March 2018
In searching the internet for examples of this opinion I have been railing against, I came across a couple of reasonable-sounding defences of the view. While they do give pause for thought, I am not persuaded by them. Here they are.
Argument 1 – Requiring a previous career screens out the young
This argument says that, if a starting-out politician has already had a career in another profession, they are likely to be at least middle-aged, with the wisdom and life experience that people generally expect to come with age. It is undeniable that life experience accrues with age, and most people would agree that wisdom generally increases with age for most people, at least until dementia sets in. But very few people would argue that we should therefore only allow people aged over forty to enter politics. That would be a very different, and highly controversial argument, and while it may have some points in its favour, I would not be inclined to back it. Furthermore, it would be an argument about age, not prior profession, and would exclude people who had worked in bakeries, hair salons, at building sites and at law firms as much as it would those who had worked in unions or political offices. So I don’t see this argument as providing any support to the ‘must have worked at a proper job’ case.
Argument 2 – Having a fall-back career allows greater integrity
This argument says that, if somebody has worked successfully in another occupation, they have the option of returning to that occupation if their political career doesn’t work out. Hence, the argument goes, they can tell the party’s Chief Whip to get stuffed when she demands that the new MP vote along party lines for a bill with which the MP does not agree. Somebody who does not have a fall-back career may follow the Whip’s orders because they fear that if they do not, they will lose party pre-selection and hence lose their job at the next election.
I don’t find this convincing either. Somebody that has worked as a unionist or a political staffer will have developed skills and experience that enable them to return to working in that capacity just as easily as one can return to working in an office or a hospital.
Secondly, if we pursue the logic of this argument, we should favour politicians that are rich, because they don’t need the salary and hence will presumably have greater integrity. Experience shows again and again that that is not the case. It is the lure of power, not money, that makes many rich people still desperate to retain their political appointments. Australia’s current PM is enormously wealthy, wealth gained from working so-called ‘real jobs’ (ie lawyer and investment banker), and yet has comprehensively sold his integrity to the reactionary right of his party – an influential group that opposes every value that the PM used to stand for – just so that he can hang on to his position as party leader, and hence PM.
Thirdly, it is not a tautology that a system in which MPs vote according to their individual views, without any sanction for departing from the party line, leads to better, more democratic, outcomes. Sure it sounds good, the idea that our representatives follow their conscience. But in practice in can generate some very unsavoury results. Party discipline may be oppressive but it also provides a defence against manipulation by powerful lobby groups. Nowhere is this more evident than in the US Congress, where the NRA targets individual MPs in non-safe seats, threatening them with a targeted hostile campaign at the next election unless they vote against gun control bills, even if their own party is promoting those bills. The reason the NRA can do that is because party discipline is so weak that it easily outbalanced by the NRA’s threats. If party discipline were such that voting against the party line would mean losing pre-selection, and hence losing the seat anyway, the threats of groups like the NRA would be futile. It is certainly arguable that one reason US politics is so much hostage to certain sectional interests is the ability of those interests to target individual MPs, something that cannot happen in countries with tighter party discipline like the UK or Australia.
I am still not entirely sure whether the benefits of party discipline outweigh its disadvantages (although given the recent terrible gun tragedies in the US, it’s hard not to lean that way), but regardless of one’s view, it is certainly far from self-evident that making it easy for MPs to vote against their party’s policy would be a good thing.
I was jogging on the beach, trying to think of something else because the last couple of days had been rather upsetting. I settled on thinking about an essay I am trying to write about The End of The World. Very soon I found that I had the REM song It’s the end of the world as we know it running through my head on repeat.
After a while I noticed somebody running along next to the concrete promenade, where the sand is softest because it is furthest from the water and almost never gets wet from the sea. The sand was pretty soft where I was, about halfway between the promenade and the water. But maybe it was softer over near that other guy. In any case, we’d had heaps of rain recently, so if water makes sand pack together harder, presumably where I was would be just as water-hardened as next to the promenade.
But then maybe seawater has a different effect. Perhaps it makes the sand stick together better than rainwater does. If so then the sand next to the promenade really would be softer, unless the sea ever gets up to there.
That led to me wondering about whether, in the wildest sorts of weather, the sea ever came all the way up to the concrete wall below the promenade (about fifty metres from the high tide mark).
Thinking of stormy weather made me think of the scene in the movie The French Lieutenant’s Woman where the female lead stands at the end of a long jetty in a storm, only a metre or two above the rough sea – a precarious position, deeply evocative.
That led me to wonder whether it is sexist to refer to the character as somebody’s ‘woman’, thereby seeming to suggest ownership. That led to my thinking about the reverse phrase ‘somebody’s man’, which led me to think of the Tammy Wynette song Stand by your man.
And without any conscious decision to do so, there I was, jogging along the beach, mentally humming Stand by your man instead of It’s the End of the World as we know it.
Bondi Junction, April 2017
Featured Image is from the 1981 movie The French Lieutenant’s Woman, showing the jetty called ‘The Cobb’ at Lyme Regis UK.
Hallelujah! I have found a solution to the most difficult dilemma faced by those of us on the anti-Fascist fringe of 21st-century politics. I am referring, of course, to the problem of how to accurately criticise the new US president without either falling foul of Godwin’s Law on the one hand, or understating the harm he is causing on the other.
In case you don’t know, Godwin’s Law states that ‘As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1‘, meaning somebody is bound to make the comparison sooner or later. The Corollary of this law is that, if you have to resort to comparing somebody to Hitler, you have lost the argument.
I try to assiduously observe this rule by never making that comparison myself, as a consequence of which the comparisons I make for the most unpleasant of the world’s leaders and policies cover a wide range of alternatives, starting with the perhaps too-obvious Stalin, running through Mao and Pol Pot, Augusto Pinochet, Vladimir Putin, Robert Mugabe and then, just for variety, taking in some serial killers like Fred and Rosemary West.
But the following tweet from some Trump toady, in response to the President summarily banning travellers from a range of countries with Muslim majority populations, causing heartbreak, despair and airport chaos, had me stumped. Here it is, from someone called Kellyanne Conway:
Get used to it. @POTUS is a man of action and impact.
It is just screaming for somebody to respond ‘So was <He with whom, out of deference to Mike Godwin, we will not make comparisons>’
The idea that being a person of action is a virtue, regardless of the morality of that action, is so gob-smackingly asinine that it is beyond parody (which leads to another, lesser-known, internet law: Poe’s Law, which says that it is impossible to tell the difference between a parody of the US fundamentalist right, and the real thing).
But how can one respond, without invoking that famous Austrian, and thereby implicitly losing the argument?
Fortunately, I have found the answer, and it is…………..
That’s right, all you need say in reply to such thuggish ejaculations as Conway’s above is
So was Voldemort
There is even a scriptural basis for this comment. In ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone‘ the wand-maker Ollivander sells Harry his first wand, and is fascinated to find that the wand – which chose Harry, rather than Harry choosing it (don’t ask) – is the ‘brother’ (don’t ask about that either) of the wand that Ollivander had sold to Voldemort as his first wand, decades earlier. Ollivander says:
‘we must expect great things from you, Mr Potter …. After All, He Who Must Not Be Named did great things – terrible, yes, but great‘.
So there you are: when apparatchiks or groupies of the US government confuse – deliberately or otherwise – decisiveness with virtue, or power with goodness, you can now skewer their idiocy without impaling yourself on the spike of Godwin. Just remind them about Voldemort, and all the great, powerful things he did.
By the way, just as an aside, in the course of researching this painstakingly-researched and highly-detailed essay, the internet has made me aware that, contrary to my belief and that of most other people, apparently Mussolini didn’t make the trains run on time.
Post Script: Just prior to posting this I searched for images of Voldemort to decorate it. To my bemusement, I found that many of them have the new president’s face photo-shopped over that of Voldemort, and there was even an article explaining why he really is Voldemort. I also came across reports of Joanne Rowling’s tweets about Trump and Voldemort, saying facetiously that the comparison was unfair to Voldemort. Well, bother! I had previously been aware of those tweets, but had utterly forgotten them. Apparently my subconscious hadn’t though. Well, never mind. If something’s worth saying, perhaps some things are worth saying more than once, by different people, as long as they don’t deliberately copy. I’ll put a nice, unphoto-shopped photo of He Who Must Not Be Named on this anyway, and I hope you’ll forgive my subconscious plagiarism.
When I first read Les Misérables, I was miffed to find that the first one hundred or so pages were taken up with a character that does not even appear in the musical – Monseigneur Myriel, the saintly bishop of Digne (saintly as in incredibly kind, not as in pious). That hundred pages is basically devoted to painting a picture of just how saintly Mgr Myriel is.
When you know you have 1800 pages ahead of you and are impatient for Jean Valjean (the hero) or Javert (his primary antagonist) to appear, you don’t have much patience for detailed portraits of peripheral characters, however saintly. Mgr Myriel’s sole role in the story is to be the first person that shows the cold, starving, exhausted Jean Valjean some compassion, as Jean makes his way on foot from the prison galleys in Toulon, where he was finally released after nineteen years’ penal servitude, to Pontarlier in Central Eastern France, which is several hundred kilometres to the north. Valjean’s attempts to buy food or shelter along his way are rejected by innkeepers, peasants and even local jail-keepers who distrust and fear him because they know he is a former convict. Valjean seems destined to starve or freeze to death until the bishop takes him in and treats him like an honoured guest. Despite that, Valjean sneaks out of the bishop’s house in the middle of the night, stealing away most of the bishop’s silverware with him – the bishop’s only possessions of any value. When the police arrest Valjean next morning and bring him to the bishop, expecting the bishop to accuse him and thus complete an easy arrest for them, the bishop instead says ‘No, I gave all that to M. Valjean, and also, you silly sausage, you forgot to take these that I gave you as well’ (and hands over to the astonished Valjean the few remaining pieces of silverware). This act of unfathomable kindness stuns Valjean, gives him much to think about, and changes his life (but not instantly: he still manages to steal a shilling off a small kid later that day before he finally ‘sees the light’ – a baroque flourish that is omitted from the musical).
There you have it – one hundred and fifty pages summarised in a paragraph!
Victor Hugo is given to these long diversions. Later in the book there is a very long, technical diversion about the topography of the field in which the battle Waterloo was fought – apparently just to show what a villainous knave the innkeeper Thénardier is (‘Master of the ‘ouse’). And another later on, almost one hundred pages long, describing the construction and layout of the sewers of Paris – just because Valjean will escape the police by going through these, carrying the half-dead body of Marius, his daughter’s boyfriend.
In most cases these interpolations are irritating. They subtract momentum from one’s reading and cause one to lose interest. That’s how I felt on my first reading of Les Mis. There was no momentum to lose, because Mgr Myriel is introduced on page 1, but one is beset by impatience to meet Jean Valjean and come to grips with the famous story. ‘Why are we wasting time on this bloody bishop?’ the impatient reader (me) asks themselves, and ‘We get it already, he’s a very kind person, can we move on now?’
But on the second reading it was different. I already knew the story. I knew when JvJ would enter, and why, and I knew what role the bishop would play. So, the impatience having been neutralised, I was alert for little details, items of colour and feeling, that were not essential to the plot, but instead artistic features of what is better considered as a vast tapestry.
And on that second occasion, I found myself entranced and inspired by Mgr Myriel. Unlike cardboard cut-out goodies like Dickens’s Little Nell or Little Dorrit (with Dickens, you always know you’re in for some insufferable Victorian sentimentality when somebody appears with the word Little prefixed to their name), Mgr Myriel seems real. One can imagine that there really are such people – rare, yes, but not extinct. I heard the retired heretical bishop Richard Holloway interviewed on ABC radio a couple of years ago and he sounded a little like what one imagined Mgr Myriel might be like.
How was it Inspirational? Basically, it just made me want to be like Mgr Myriel. I am sadly aware that my troubled, deeply flawed character is a million miles away from that of Mgr Myriel – a ridiculous seething mass of passionate good intentions with very little in the way of good actions to match. But just observing first hand the operation of Mgr Myriel’s apparently bottomless well of compassion made me want to be more like him – even if it meant travelling only a few small steps along the way between where I am and where he is. And in addition, Hugo managed to make it seem possible, that one could be at least a little bit like that.
It’s hard to put a finger on what it is that makes Hugo’s presentation of Myriel so inspirational and believable and so different from the goody two-shoes vaunted by other Victorian-era authors. Being honest, I have to concede it’s possible that it’s just a consequence of the frame of mind one has when one reads about them. Maybe if I’d read about Little Nell in the right time and place she would be my inspiration. I doubt it, but one must always remain open to the possibility of being mistaken.
One key difference is that Hugo doesn’t content himself with telling us how kind Mgr Myriel is, or with quoting dialogue in which Myriel says pleasant, amiable things. Talk, after all, is cheap. No, what we see beyond his gentle, friendly speech is a long string of tremendously kind actions. Myriel, piece by piece, gives away almost everything he has to those less fortunate than him. Since he is a bishop, and bishops in those days were very wealthy, with palaces, coaches, large incomes and expense allowances, there is an awful lot to give. Having given away almost everything he has, he then researches what other allowances and claims he can make from the church in virtue of his office, does the paperwork to claim whichever ones he can, and then gives those away too.
But never does Myriel congratulate himself. He seems to subscribe to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s ‘property is theft’ adage. When asked why he gave this or that thing away, he replies to the effect that he was never entitled to possess it in the first place. But Myriel is no anarchist. His comments are not generalised philosophical points about the nature of private property, but about the specific treatment by society of the people to whom he gives these things. They have been dispossessed, by the operation of law, of privilege, of capitalism, of raw temporal power. As his employer’s policy manual says ‘Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them’. Bishop Myriel does his humble best to redress the imbalance created by the church and state by returning some of the world’s good things – those that he has in his power – to those from whom they have been taken (whether directly or indirectly).
Hugo writes Myriel’s dialogue in such a way that one can imagine doing and saying such things. His lines are not ethereal or sanctimonious, but practical and down-to-Earth. After giving the last remaining silver to Valjean, as well as saving him from a return to penal servitude (this time for life), he professes relief, telling his sister and housekeeper that he was embarrassed to be dining off silver when others in the village had no utensils at all, and that he feels much more relaxed eating his soup out of a wooden bowl.
Here’s a sample. Mgr Myriel is talking to the director of the small, overcrowded church hospital that is attached to his large, luxurious bishop’s palace, and has learned that they have too many people crammed in, in unbearably uncomfortable conditions. After a series of probing questions about conditions in the hospital, Myriel comes out with:
‘Look, Mister Hospital Director, this is what I reckon. There’s obviously been a mistake. You have twenty-six people in five or six little rooms. We have only three people in here [in the palace], where there is room for sixty. It’s a mistake I tell you. You have my lodgings and I’ll have yours. Give me my house [meaning the little hospital]. This one here is your house.’
No moralising, no sermons, no verbal niceties, just ‘Look – this is what we need to do‘.
He even has a sense of humour – a quality nearly always lacking in nineteenth century heroes. When the housekeeper discovers that Valjean has disappeared overnight and so has the silverware, the following dialogue ensues:
Housekeeper: Your excellency, your excellency, do you know where the basket of silverware is?
HK: Jesus-God be praised! I didn’t know what had become of it.
Bish: [Picks up and presents to the housekeeper the empty basket that he had spotted lying under a hedge, where Valjean had jettisoned it last night] Here it is!
HK: What!? There’s nothing in it! Where’s the silverware?
Bish: Ah, so it’s the silverware you were worried about. I don’t know where that is.
One might be tempted to think that Myriel is a Marxist in disguise – a fifth-columnist usurping the rich, corrupt church from the inside by giving away whatever of its wealth he can lay his hands on. But that is not the case. For instance he does not give away the (very valuable) robes and ornaments of the cathedral – presumably because he feels that they belong to his congregation, who enjoy seeing them as part of their religious rituals every week. He even believes in a good God – quite an achievement given the corruption and cruelty of those around him who claim to represent that God. He holds fast to a humble, optimistic spiritualism in which God is identified with Love – the value that guides his life in every waking moment.
But he has no time for theology. He has no interest in doctrinal favourites like the trinity, the resurrection, sexual purity, salvation by faith or grace, or the damnation of sinners and unbelievers. When his ecclesiastical colleagues discuss such things he does not criticise them for wasting their time on meaningless arcana. He just shrugs his shoulders as if to say ‘They must be terribly clever to understand such things, but it’s much too complicated for a simple man like me‘. If he has a theological position, it is something like that everybody is worthy of salvation, and will ultimately be saved. He never quite articulates this though. If he did, he’d be at risk of punishment as a heretic. But all his actions seem to me to suggest such a belief. He expresses no theological opinions except for the primacy of love. He judges nobody, and is happy to admit his ignorance and uncertainty on all ‘ultimate questions’.
In general I am not a fan of clergy. But I make an exception for Monseigneur Myriel, even if he is fictional. He is an inspiration. I could never be anything like him. But if reading those 150 pages again, without the impatience this time, has motivated me to move even a little bit more from where I am towards where he is on the spectrum of compassion, it will have been worth it.
Bondi Junction, February 2016
Now the preceding paragraph is equally valid for a fundamentalist Christian. They may wish to live in a world in which people act, under compulsion or otherwise, according to their interpretation of the ‘law of the Bible’, so it is rational for them to campaign to bring that about. Neither I nor the fundamentalist is being inconsistent, nor can we be validly accused of hypocrisy.
These two views will often come into conflict. A common source of conflict is where some Christians (certainly not all!) wish their religion to be taught, or other Christian activities such as prayers to occur, in a publicly-funded school, whereas freethinkers such as myself do not wish that to occur. Let us assume that there are no laws either requiring or forbidding such activities (unlike for instance, the USA where the first amendment of the constitution bears on many of these cases). If I campaign against school prayer by saying that the Christians are imposing their values on others, and ‘should not’ do so, they can validly reply that, by trying to prevent the prayers, I am trying to impose my values of tolerance on them. I am implicitly trying to get an ought from an is, asserting that my value system is more valid than theirs.
What I can do, however, is to argue that our society will be ‘better’ in some way if the prayers are not allowed, than if they are. I might argue for instance that a society that does not officially sanction any particular religion will be more tolerant than one that does, that a tolerant society will be a less conflict-ridden society, and that people will generally be happier if the level of conflict is lower. This is an essentially utilitarian appeal, and will cut no ice with the fundamentalist, but they are not my target. My target is the undecided voters, lawmakers and law implementers such as judges or education department officials. For my argument to succeed I need to do two things:
- I must persuade those undecided people to value what I value – general human happiness; and
- I must persuade them that my proposal will be more likely to satisfy that value than the alternative.
Essentially, I am doing a ‘sales job’, selling my worldview to the undecided people, in the hope that they’ll ‘buy’ it. The fundamentalists will do the same on their side, perhaps telling people that school prayers will bring more people to Jesus, which will lead to more people escaping eternal torment in Hell. Neither of us is necessarily inconsistent or hypocritical. What we have is not a contest of logic, but a contest of values, trying to persuade the undecided to value what we value. I hope I win.
Not all disputes about religion are like that. It is often the case that both sides claim to hold the same values, in relation to the issue at hand, but reach different conclusions. In such cases, accusations of inconsistency or hypocrisy do become possible. Take for example the Vatican’s attempt to argue that condoms should not be promoted in Africa as a defence against HIV transmission, because they do not work. Here the Vatican is claiming to hold the same values as its opponents, viz a concern for the physical welfare of the people engaging in sexual activity. Such a claim can be rebutted on purely logical grounds, using scientific evidence. This then lays the Vatican open to a charge of hypocrisy on the grounds that it is pretending to be motivated by a concern for human physical welfare, when in fact (we allege) that is a smokescreen to hide its true concern which is about compliance with what they believe to be God’s laws.
Likewise, in the school prayer case, if the fundamentalists had made an argument that there would be more kindness and less crime if we had school prayer (a la Ivan Karamazov’s contention that if there is no God, everything is permitted), that could be attacked on logical grounds, as it implies the same value as the nonbeliever – a happier society.
So, in summary, I think it is possible to argue for a tolerant society in two ways that maintain integrity and consistency:
- by appealing to the undecided to share values, such as minimising suffering, that I hold, or
- if those values are already shared, to argue that the values are likely to be better satisfied in a tolerant society than an intolerant one.
The first is an appeal to the passions, the second is an appeal to reason.
Common sense is very useful, in fact essential, for checking the reasonableness of ideas or conclusions. However it can only ever be effective as a screening technique, not as a final determinant of what we believe. If we only believed what common sense supported we would never have had flight, electricity, steam power, space flight or the internet. Common sense should always be invoked as a challenge to new ideas, but only as an indicator of when we need to reinvestigate the reasoning behind the idea and the assumptions underlying it. If, no flaws are found in that reinvestigation, we should accept the new idea. As Sherlock Holmes said ‘when all other possibilities have been excluded, the remaining possibility, however improbable, must be the truth’. Or something like that.
So next time you hear someone claim that something can’t be true because it doesn’t agree with ‘common sense’, tell them that, if that’s the only argument they have, then they have no argument at all.
The value of common sense is that by causing you to reinvestigate reasoning and assumptions, it can lead you to find the true reason why a conclusion is not correct. If it doesn’t lead you to that then you need to update your idea of what constitutes common sense.
Shock jocks like Alan Jones love to appeal to common sense as their argument, whether it be that climate change doesn’t exist, that shifting the focus from prohibition to harm minimisation will increase drug use, or that lowering taxes will be good for the economy. Remember, valuable as common sense is, if that’s all you have then you have nothing.
A proper use of common sense is to say that if an idea isn’t consistent with historical observations and generalisations, then there’s a high probability that it’s wrong. An abuse of common sense is to say that the idea must be wrong. Most of humanity’s greatest advances have come from ideas that defied common sense. A society that insists on abusing common sense in this way will never make any new inventions or discoveries. It will wither and die.