Unpaid debts… Learning to be ashamed again

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british parliament
A view of the British House of Commons in Westminster Abbey, London, UK. Photo – thebureauinvestigates.com

In the last few weeks our rather mild mannered PM seemed to lash out in a personal attack. It was veiled under the garb of moral outrage but it was a personal attack nevertheless. PM David Cameron took umbrage to the tax avoidance of a hitherto unremarkable comic (Jimmy Carr), whose humour (or the lack of it) had never elevated him to the pole position of tweeting trends before (not to this extent given his long list of faux pas). Several newspapers went into a feeding frenzy, here is an article that caught my eye:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/jun/20/jimmy-carr-tax-david-cameron

According to the British prime minister, Mr. Carr was “morally wrong” to use an offshore tax haven scheme to ensure he paid zilch on his earnings. The story caught the imagination of the British public – and the pendulum swung from moral outrage to sympathy for being singled out, from critique of the PM to a very public apology from the accused, and to several different skeletons emerging from the cupboard…

One may also raise eyebrows at the tax management of the current British cabinet – we have a government run by millionares no less. The backlash against the PM was perhaps never anticipated, and the furore did take time to die out but only to be restocked!

We now have a cumulative figure of the world’s best tax dodgers – $21 trillion of public taxation siphoned off into neat little seemingly legal and above board arrangements. The BBC gives a rather watered down statement (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-18944097) from the treasury vowing to ‘crack down’ on presumably morally wrong tax payers. The mood in the UK is as yet lukewarm to the revelations, but discussions have moved beyond pleasantries across the pond:

http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2012/07/22/tax-justice-network-wealth-held-in-tax-havens-skyrockets

This prompts me to mention a roundabout ramble amidst the rosebuds to the central theme of this musing. Have we, as a generation, forgotten what it feels like to be ashamed? Ethics and morals, once the staple diet of inky thumbed schoolboys (oh definitely the posh schools!), have they given way to amateur dramatics and social media lessons? The alarm bells begin to ring when tweeting etiquette gets broken, but we raise barely a sigh as we witness a global disintegration of the moral fabric. Grand sounding empty terms I hear you say. I agree. Did we ever have a moral fabric? Speaking of England, we happily plundered pillaged, swapped religions and monarchs as it suited us. Cast your eye onto the soul diary of other nations and you may not come across one which has managed to survive pristine.

What is it that allows us to feel entitled to ‘get away’ with it. Is it the self assurance that comes with commercial success? Is it the affirmation of inherited riches? Is it a great divide between the West and the East? Are both worlds not equally muddy with stains of corruption and deceit? It is a universal phenomenon, one that is steadily gaining pace and popularity…

We are no longer ashamed of what we owe, to whom we owe, and how we manage what we earn and what we owe. The heady romance of speeches such as “Ask not what your country can do for you” seems to be the remnants of a bygone era, sepia coloured, all too eagerly forgotten, or remembered with rosy selective glasses. As a family, region, nation, community, and world economy, we are all trying our best to get an advantage and to go beyond the norm. Perhaps it boils down to the incessant need to become better, adapt, improve, and become the next generation version of ourselves in our ill-fitted designer clothes.

One can sigh and despair, cling down the teacup and worry the cats with universal umbrage (perhaps that is just my curmudegeon self surfacing). If I can leave you but with one thought, let it be this – shame teaches us what ignorance can never hope to – a sense of responsibility (moral, financial, ethical) which is at best frayed, at worst completely lost. If we cannot expect the world to become a morally better place, perhaps we can start from the place we are best suited to – our own skin – and question our individual acts of avoiding the truth, or playing footloose with the law. Perhaps we shall never change, but an ownership of guilt would be a start. While political battlegrounds are carved out, and contestants shove down large slices of morality cake down our throats, let us pause – let there be a time of self reckoning, and a rolling of heads in acceptance and shame. It is then that we can begin to move on, and clear the now stagnant waters, and breathe fresh life into channels of trade, finance (personal or commercial), and a better way of earning what is rightfully ours.

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