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Millionaires for Humanity Petition: Who does not want to sign

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Recently millionaires from different countries signed a petition under the name “Millionaire for Humanity” demanding their respective governments to raise taxes on them to help with the coronavirus pandemic. More than 80 individuals have signed the letter, and most signatories belong to the developed nations like the US, UK, and Germany. One of the key aspects of the petition is that taxes can only create a huge impact against charitable contributions, no matter how generous these contributions are. It might be a rare and historic moment to witness wealthy individuals quoting “Tax us, Tax us, Tax us” to fund the social sector like health, education, and security. The phrase “rebalance our world through wealth tax” seems like a unique moment of truth for the wealthy to play their part towards humanity.

But is the voluntary action enough to counter the state’s inaction to tax the wealthy? A few individuals’ voluntary actions are a drop in the ocean that might not even make a dent to make all wealthy accountable?Wealthy do indeed pay proportionate taxes according to their state laws in many parts of the world. But the bitter truth is that there are also increased tax avoidance cases by the wealthy, which the Paradise Papers, Panama Papers, and other evidence show. That is why there is a rigorous debate on taxing the rich even more.

According to Oxfam’s 2020 report world’s 2,153 dollar billionaires had more wealth than 4.6 billion people or 60% of the world population in 2019. Even in the aftermath of COVID-19 there has been no change in the millionaire’s status quo who actually saw their wealth grow exponentially. According to Forbes magazine report, 10 billionaires gained $51.3 billion or Rs 3.9 lakh crore (at exchange rate of Rs 76) in just a week between April 2 and 9 when the global economy was almost shut (except for a few essentials) and millions were losing their incomes and jobs.They did this through the stock market. These billionaires included Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Mukesh Ambani.

Thus the paper analyses two main issues in relation to the petition. Firstly, why similar actions were not taken by the wealthy in the developing nations, with focus on India? Secondly, will a voluntary compliance mechanism via a petition resolve the ongoing issue of tax evasion by the wealthy?

  1. Why there is no similar petition in developing countries?

The petition seems to appear as a global movement, but in reality, it is a mere representative of the few wealthy individuals residing in developed economies. The less participation and debate amongst the developing countries on taxing the rich can be understood in terms of their societal and cultural background. In India, it is easier to project it as a home to the poorest, but it is also a home for some of the world’s wealthiest people. In this context, it is essential to understand how the wealthier population’s nature changed significantly since Independence and how a favourable tax system helped them to grow.

1.1. From Inherited wealth to private enterprise:

When the British left, a handful of business families and dynastic royalties were in charge of key economic industries. These dynastic royalties had amassed and inherited great fortunes over time due to their close ties to the colonial administration. Although there was poverty amongst the general population, the most lavish lifestyles were only enjoyed by the princely classes, some business houses and large zamindars (landlords).

Primarily the inherited wealth was the primary source of wealth amongst the wealthier population.

However, between 1961 and 1986, India’s notorious macroeconomic plight undermined a progressive effort to reduce the incumbent rich’s size and importance. Low economic growth was accompanied by a sharp reduction of the real value of wealth held by the top 0.1%. The backdrop for this decline was itself rooted in the integration of India when the government quickly took steps to abolish inherited wealth amongst the super-rich royalty. Hence inflation, progressive taxation, and nationalization that characterized the late 1960s and 1970s punished the outdated rentier class and expropriated much-existing wealth.

In the 1990s, domestic and external liberalization happened in India, resulting in the deregulation of taxation and private investment. This led to a rapid increase in stock market capitalization relative to GDP. In fact, given the tremendous rise in stock market capitalization, it seems possible that wealth concentration in India may have surpassed its pre-1970 levels in recent decades. This transformative wealth dynamics of the 1960s and 1970s are crucial to understanding how the elite class, once populated by inherited wealth, is now made up of private enterprises.

However, the rise of the new private enterprise did not address income inequality, only to make the rich richer and the poor more miserable. According to Oxfam’s January 2020 report ‘Time to Care‘ said, in 2019, the wealth of top 1% Indians went up by 46% while that of the bottom 50% by 3%. In 2019, the top 1% Indians held 42.5% of national wealth, which is, more than 4 times the wealth of 953 million people constituting the bottom 70%. The bottom 50% held just 2.5% of national wealth. According to the Credit Suisse’s ‘Global Wealth Report of 2019‘, there were 7,59,000 dollar millionaires in India 2019, up from 725,000 in 2018 and 34,000 in 2010. This shows that even as a developing economy we do not have a dearth of wealthy people who are unable to participate in the petition.

1.2. How the tax system works favourably for the wealthy?

In developing countries, the governments’ primary focus is on resource mobilization, which dictates their tax system. This is due to the unequal income distribution. However, the tax system is also designed in such a way that makes it harder to tax the rich. This is because wealthy taxpayers’ political and economic power often prevents the government from developing fiscal reforms to increase their tax burdens.

Moreover, there are high personal exemptions and the plethora of other exemptions and deductions that benefit those with high incomes (for example, the exemption of capital gains from tax, generous deductions for medical and educational expenses, the low taxation of financial income). India has been an active recipient of FDI for decades. As a result, it results in lower effective tax rates for MNCs.

Simultaneously, the government keeps on slashing the corporate income tax rate during every budget, providing strong incentives for taxpayers to choose the corporate form of doing business for purely tax reasons. For instance, the Indian government slashed corporate tax to 22% (without exemptions) for domestic companies in September 2019, bringing the effective rate to 25.17%  (with surcharge and cess). Such a move happened when the economy had nose-dived for several consecutive quarters.

According to the IMF, the combination of tax incentives and low corporate tax rates leads to the following:

  • Increased incidences of tax evasion due to the ease with which multinationals seem able to avoid tax, combined with the three-decade-long decline in corporate tax rates, undermines both tax revenue and faith in the fairness of the overall tax system and
  • the current situation is especially harmful to low-income countries, depriving them of much-needed revenue to help them achieve higher economic growth, reduce poverty and meet the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Hence, it can be observed that wealthy individuals are provided with a plethora of tax incentives in a developing economy to prevent capital flight. However, this does not translate into high tax morale for these individuals due to increased tax evasion incidences. Now is the time for the wealthy to take part in the petition to share responsibility in rebuilding the economy.

  • Will the Petition be effective in achieving fair taxation by the wealthy?

2.1. Assessing the problem of tax evasion by the wealthy

Empirical data has shown (e.g., E. Hofmann, Voracek, Bock,& Kirchler, 2017b[1]), that the motivation to engage in tax avoidance and evasion increases with wealth. Recent studies indicate that tax evasion is directly proportional to wealth, with the top 0.01% of the wealth distribution (i.e., households with more than $40 million in net wealth) evades almost 30% of their wealth and income tax versus 3% by taxpayers overall (Altstaeder, Johannesen, & Zucman, 2017[2]). With the aim to minimize their taxes, it is easier for the wealthy to hire tax agents who are skilled in devising ways to achieve that(Sakurai & Braithwaite, 2001[3]).

Tax avoidance is a huge issue that amounts to $240 billion every year (Rs 18.24 lakh crore), according to OECD-G20’s anti-tax avoidance initiative, ‘Action Plan on Base Erosion and Profit Shifting’ (BEPS). Recent data by Fair Tax Mark shows that Facebook, Google and four other US tech giants, described as the Silicon Six (others being Netflix, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple) had avoided paying $100 billion tax (Rs 760,000 crore) between 2010 and 2019. Due to tax evasion, according to 2019 IMF study, the non-OECD countries are losing 1.3% of their GDP or $200 billion of revenue every year while the OECD countries about 1% of GDP or close to $450 billion.

Nonetheless, the blame cannot be squarely put on the wealthy for causing tax evasion. It is the legal, political, and economic context of national tax loopholes which not only give the wealthy many more opportunities to avoid taxes than the average citizen but might also create an ideal environment that legitimises aggressive tax avoidance behaviour.

2.2. How the petition will help in combating massive tax evasion problem?

It can be said that the petition is an example of committed motivation by the wealthy which drives them to pay taxes because of a felt moral duty(Gangl et al., 2015[4]) or due to emotional stress, caused by anticipated guilt or shame (Blaufus, Bob, Otto, & Wolf, 2017[5]). However before delving into the question whether such an initiative will be effective to combat tax evasion in the long run, it is important to understand the social psychological process that motivates the wealthy to either pay or evade taxes.

The wealthy can easily identify and compare themselves with other wealthy individuals as a result of pychological process in relation to belonging to a particular group. As a result they imitate not only lifestyles but also tax behviours out of comparison and competition, because one does not want to fall behind in the financial race (Mols & Jetten, 2017[6]).For instance, if all wealthy friends move money to offshore tax havens, then the individual will also more likely do that.

Also, wealthy individuals do acquire a heightened sense of self-esteem, freedom, and perceived control, which increases the willingness to resist anything that hinders freedom (Brehm, 1966[7]). Taxes on the wealthy is a classical case where the rich find it as an attack on their personal freedom for which they look for ways to fight against it. In fact, experimental research shows that coercive fines and audits increase taxpayer reactance more than less coercive attempts by the tax authorities (Gangl, Pfabigan, Lamm, Kirchler, & Hofmann, 2017). Thus, when faced with coercive form of taxation wealthier individuals will be motivated to employ more resources (compared to the average taxpayers) to escape this situation. This might make the classical coercive attempts to increase the tax honesty less effective.

In such a scenario, the voluntary form of tax compliance might appear as the ultimate solution to fight against reactance. Such a form of compliance comes with trust in the tax system, and thus, people accept their tax obligations without threatening audits and fines. However, state measures like suspending fines and audits or tax amnesties, which gives leeway to rich taxpayers to repatriate their money from tax havens without being fined, also show no long‐term positive effect (Alm & Beck, 1993[8]; Toro, Story, Hartnett, Russell, & Van‐Driessche, 2017[9]). Thus, it is important to combine voluntary and coercive tax measures to ensure fair taxation with a sense of tax honesty on the part of the wealthy individuals.

3. Conclusion

In view of the COVID-19 it is apparent that the petition by the few wealthy individuals brings in a wave of hope towards achieving fair taxation for the sake of humanity. However, the outreach is still not global, with a participation of a fraction of wealthy individuals from a few developed economies.Thus, there is a need to ensure the huge participation of wealthy people, not only from developing economies but those involved in tax evasion.

As discussed in the article,  tax-related decisions of the wealthy are different from average taxpayers due to social psychological differences of belonging to a particular community. So a unique approach must be followed to motivate the wealthier population to pay their share of taxes.

3.1. Possible solutions:

There are many ways to motivate the wealthy, either in developed or in developing countries, to contribute more taxes to the benefit of society. It is true that mere public plea to join the campaign will not attract the attention of majority of wealthy individuals. On the other hand, coercive audit or fines to ensure fair taxation also does not help much towards the cause. For example, a fine of 18.8 million Euros imposed on Portugal’s football superstar Cristiano Ronaldo did not diminish the fame and positive image associated with the player.

One possible solution to influence the tax decisions of the wealthy is to combine coercive and voluntary state measures by publicly naming and shaming the wealthy individuals who resist to be part of the global campaign or pay their fair share of taxes. Thus, if such accusations on famous wealthy individuals like Chief Executive Officers or politicians violate ordinary citizens’ tax morale, these latter might start questioning the reasons for their tax honesty. For instance, after Greece published a blacklist of over 4,000 citizens who owed tax money to the state (Aswestopoulos, 2012[10]),  it experienced a decline in the shadow economy’s size from 25.4% in 2010 to 22.0% in 2016 (Schneider, 2016[11]). This way, identifying evaders publicly may act as punishment and a deterrent from engaging in aggressive tax avoidance. However, it is equally true that shaming needs active public support and media coverage, without which the debate towards fair taxation will lose its grip. So the time is ripe for citizens to join their hands in the global movement towards fair tax and compel the wealthy to be accountable.


[1]Ackermann, L., Becker, B., Daubenberger, M., Faigle, P., Polke‐Majewski, K., Rohrbeck, F., … Schröm, O. (2017, June). Cum‐ex. The great tax robbery. Zeit Online .

[2]Altstaeder, A., Johannesen, N., & Zucman, G. (2017). Tax evasion and inequality . Retrieved from http://www.nielsjohannesen.net/wp-content/uploads/AJZ2017.pdf

[3]Sakurai, Y., & Braithwaite, V. (2001). Taxpayers’ perceptions of the ideal tax adviser: Playing safe or saving dollars ? Working Paper No 5, The Australian National University, Centre of Tax System Integrity.

[4]Gangl, K., Hofmann, E., & Kirchler, E. (2015). Tax authorities’ interaction with taxpayers: A conception of compliance in social dilemmas by power and trust. New Ideas in Psychology37, 13–23. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.newideapsych.2014.12

[5]Blaufus, K., Bob, J., Otto, P. E., & Wolf, N. (2017). The effect of tax privacy on tax compliance – An experimental investigation. European Accounting Review26(3), 561–580.

[6]Mols, F., & Jetten, J. (2017). The wealth paradox. Economic prosperity and the hardening of attitudes. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

[7]Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance. Oxford, UK: Academic Press.

[8]Alm, J., & Beck, W. (1993). Tax amnesties and compliance in the long run: A time series analysis. National Tax Journal46(1), 53–60.

[9]Toro, J., Story, T., Hartnett, D., Russell, B., & Van‐Driessche, F. (2017). Italy. Enhancing governance and effectiveness of the fiscal agencies. Interantional Monetary Fund. Fiscal Affairs Department . Retrieved from http://www.mef.gov.it/inevidenza/documenti/Rapporto_FMI_Eng.pdf

[10]Aswestopoulos, W. (2012, January). Finanzamt stellt “Liste der Schande” ins Netz. Focus Online . Retrieved from http://www.focus.de/finanzen/news/staatsverschuldung/liste-der-schande-viele-deutsche-unter-griechischen-steuersuendern_aid_706059.html

[11]Schneider, F. (2016). Estimating the size of the shadow economies of highly‐developed countries: Selected results. CESifo Dice Report14(4), 44–53.

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Indonesia’s political will is the key to a successful carbon tax implementation

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Authors: I Dewa Made Raditya Margenta, and Filda C. Yusgiantoro*

A carbon tax should be overviewed as an oasis of post-pandemic recovery. The proper carbon tax scheme will solve two of Indonesia’s extensive homework; reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and boosting revenue to support economic recovery. In the end, Indonesia’s political will is crucial in completing this mission.

Recently, the carbon tax has become an exciting topic of discussion in Indonesia. This carbon tax is introduced in a revised General Taxation Law bill and becomes this year’s Indonesia National legislation Program. According to the bill, the government plans to collect a carbon tax of IDR 75,000 (US$ 5.25) per tonne of GHG  (tCO2e). The carbon tax could target emissions on the use of fossil fuels such as coal, diesel, and gasoline by factories and vehicles.

The introduction of the Carbon Tax is quite astounding. Previously, the Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment of Indonesia, Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, said that President Joko Widodo planned to issue a Carbon Trading regulation in December 2020. However, there has been no signal that the regulation will be issued until now.

Implementing a carbon tax is seen as a strategic step for the government to reduce GHG emissions and boost state revenue to increase development funds. As a result, the carbon tax scheme must be well constructed, specific, and well-targeted so that the carbon tax implementation can recover the environment and Indonesia’s economy.

However, the carbon tax implementation will not succeed without strong political will and commitment from the government.

Carbon tax as a climate action plan

As the sixth-largest GHG emitter in the world, Indonesia becomes vulnerable to climate change impact. According to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry of Indonesia, the transportation and manufacturing sectors contributed to around 64% of 2017 national GHG emissions. This number will rise considering the increase in energy demand and manufacturing activities to stimulate the economy. Therefore, a new climate policy, such as a carbon tax, needs to be promoted as a climate action plan.

As an economic-environmental instrument, a carbon tax is more straightforward to address this issue. Also, the revenues gained from this tax can be recycled to support green development. Thus, the target of this tax must be well identified, and the carbon tax scheme must be designed correctly to avoid a deadweight.

Singapore can be the lead example to emulate its carbon tax scheme. Based on Singapore’s climate action plan, the tax is applied to the facilities that emit abundant GHG annually. They also promote clean and simple carbon tax to preserve fairness, uniformity, and transparency. Its carbon tax scheme, which takes place from 2019 to 2023, will be reviewed by an impact assessment in 2022.

From Singapore, Indonesia can learn that the scheme may have the flexibility to respond to the dynamics that will occur, including the opportunity to move towards a carbon trading scheme in the future. Besides, having a solid political like Singapore will give Indonesia’s carbon tax implementation an upper hand.

Building Indonesia’s political will for a climate action plan

Indonesia’s successful climate action plan relies on various variables such as GHG emissions reduction, identifying the most appropriate instruments, and introducing new climate policies. However, all of these variables are highly dependent on political will.

Indonesia’s political will on climate mitigation would be a perfect start and a powerful tool to take immediate action in climate mitigation initiatives. Instead, Indonesia’s political will may face a political challenge during the policymaking process. A lengthy policymaking process of the New and Renewable Energy Bill is one of the examples. Hence, Indonesia’s political will to address climate change at the beginning of the policymaking process is crucial.

Gaining public trust and being severe are essential steps that should be carried out before introducing a carbon tax.

At first, the government must improve its accountability and transparency, reflecting on what Singapore has shown. Indonesia should also consider complementary economic policies that minimize a carbon tax’s negative impacts on business and household sectors.

Then, Indonesia could consider removing fossil fuel subsidies and replacing them with direct subsidies to low-income households.

Finally, Indonesia should guarantee that the obtained revenue from the carbon tax will be recycled for green development and improving community welfare.

Conclusion

In brief, implementing a carbon tax in Indonesia will determine the nation’s and its citizens’ future.

Ensuring the carbon tax implementation will be on point, Indonesia’s political will is the brain, which can be seen from a carbon tax scheme and the supporting policies. The success of this policy will be seen from intensive GHG reduction, positive economic growth, and improve Indonesian people’s welfare simultaneously.

*Filda C. Yusgiantoro, Ph.D., chairperson of Purnomo Yusgiantoro Center and an economic lecturer in Prasetya Mulya University


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Central Bank Digital Currencies: What do they offer?

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The decision of the government of El Salvador to adopt bitcoin as legal tender has invited mixed reactions from around the globe. Notwithstanding the pros and cons of the issue, the message is loud and clear – digital currencies are here to stay.

The total market cap of bitcoin has reached 600 billion US dollars by March 2021. Cryptocurrencies have captured the imagination of rich and poor alike. The percentage of cryptocurrency users has been steadily increasing in countries facing financial instability and grappling with weak currencies. Latin America has seen large scale activity in bitcoins, especially in countries like Venezuela and Columbia. Nigeria likewise has emerged as a hub for bitcoin trade given the challenging economic climate in the country. The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), in a February directive, had warned banksand financial institutions of facilitating payments for cryptocurrencyexchanges.Cryptocurrency trade has grown to such volumes that it can’t be overlooked by the state actors.

States and Central Banks unable to buck the trend are contemplating their own version of digital currencies. So, do ordinary citizens gain something from the Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDC’s)?

Societal and Environmental concerns

Experts have already pointed out serious pitfalls of allowing a free hand to decentralised currencies outside the regulatory framework of the governments. Crime syndicates use cryptocurrencies as safe conduits for money laundering, cross-border terrorist financing, drug peddling and tax evasion. Recently an FBI operation, “Trojan Shield”, which busted a criminal underworld along with the seizure of millions worth of cryptocurrencies, further echoed the proximity of criminals with the crypto-world. Several cryptocurrency frauds have unearthed in recent history. The widespread popularity of cryptocurrencies has diluted the globalstandardson KYC (Know Your Customer) and AML (Anti Money Laundering), providing room for criminals and lawbreakers. 

The energy-intensive nature of cryptocurrency mining has raised concerns about its impact on climate change and pollution. China and Iran have recently put stringent controls on bitcoin mining owing to environmental pollution and power blackouts. It is bizarre that the total electricity used for bitcoin mining surpasses the total energy consumption of all of Switzerland.

Threat to sovereign power 

Decentralised currencies pose a grave threat to the sovereign power of the governments. Several States and Central Banks have thus stepped in to maintain their relevancy, by announcing their version of digital currencies, backed by sovereign guarantee. In the latest Bank of International Settlements (BIS) paper, 86% of 65 respondent central banks have reported doing some research or experimentation on Central Bank Digital Currencies.

China leads the rest

China is quite ahead in the development of its CBDC compared to all other nations. China has already distributed some 200 million yuan (US$30.7 million) in digital currency as part of pilot projects across the country. By early implementing the digital yuan, China expects to challenge the US dollar’s hegemony as the international currency. In future, China hopes to achieve more international trade through a digital yuan, which would further China’s global ambitions and effectively push plans like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Moreover, it provides China with sufficient strength to effectively bypass US sanctions in any part of the world.

The Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank have taken a more cautious stance and indicated that they are not in the race for the first place. In late May, Fed Chair Jerome Powell announced plans for a discussion paper on digital payments, including the pros and cons of the US Central Bank currency. European Central Bank Chief Christine Lagarde said her institution could launch a digital currency only around the middle of this decade.

Why CBDC’s may not offer anything new

Only stringent regulations or an outright ban on decentralised currencies could control money laundering and financing of crimes through digital currencies. It is unlikely that the introduction of CBDC’s would hamper the flow of illicit money through decentralised channels. In all probability, criminal elements would still run their show through decentralised currencies where there is anonymity and the lack of regulations.

CBDC’s may perhaps offer fast and real-time settlement of payments. While this is a plus, the existing bank payment systems already provide for swift and sophisticated transaction processing. So, real-time settlements are nothing new and certainly not a novel innovation. Moreover, cross-border transfers might not see any revolutionary change because these transfers still have to go through the existing regulatory frameworks.

CBDC’s would boost the surveillance mechanisms of the State. It would put every transaction under the government scanner. Individual privacy will be a major causality if proper safeguards are not incorporated. Brighter sides are that the government could effectively target economic crimes like tax evasion with greater ease and a reduced carbon footprint.

Threat to the banking system

Though the actual modalities have not come out, reactions from Central Banks indicate that CBDC’s will co-exist with the existing fiat currencies. The new system can potentially destabilise the present banking system and the financial intermediaries. Proposed digital currencies are backed by the Central Bank, which could never go bankrupt. In the existing system, money is secured by the guarantee offered by private banks. In a period of economic instability, citizens might pull too much money out of banks to purchase CBDC’s, backed with better security and consequently triggering a run on banks.

Back to centralisation

The introduction of digital currencies is out of necessity to preserve Central banks’ legitimacy in the face of the cryptocurrency boom. It possibly will protect the citizens from the extreme volatility of decentralised currencies and may serve as safer mediums of exchange. Since it is backed by sovereign guarantee, it might also act as a better store of value. But, CDBC’s would expand the state power and cause the continuance of the regime based on “trust” in governmental institutions, which was precisely what decentralised currencies like bitcoin had intended to annul. Essentially, CBDC’s would bring in more government to our daily lives, which is rather regressive and goes against the spirit of modern libertarian values.

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Rise of Billionaires In India, Lobbyism And Threat To Democracy

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Let me start by asking you – Have you watched Oliver Stones’ 1987 masterpiece, ‘Wall Street’? Great! For those who haven’t, here is a quick reflection of its storyline. This movie is a premise with a promise, and exert its audience to seek an answer to one of the most neglected question in the philosophy of ethics and greed – ‘How much money is enough money?’. Michael Douglas plays an unsparing millionaire raider Gordon Gekko. Bud Fox, played by Charlie Sheen, is a stockbroker full of ambition, doing whatever he can to make his way to the top. Fox is enchanted by Gekko, and entice him into mentoring him by providing insider trading information. Although Fox is loyal to his mentor Gekko, throughout the film, he is seen asking the millionaire trader Gekko, “How much money do you need to be satisfied with? How much is enough?”. And each time Gekko ponders and thinks hard, but the truth is, he himself doesn’t know. There is a scene in the movie where Gordon Gekko uses Fox’s inside information to manipulate the stock of a company that he intended to sell off, while throwing its workers, including Bud’s father. When Bud hears about his father losing the job along with other workers, he experiences deep agony and immediately repents his participation in the millionaire’s duplicity and deception. He storms to his office and asks again, “How much is enough, Gordon?”

And, Gekko answers – (Source :Wall Street, 1987)

“The richest one percent of this country owns half our country’s wealth, five trillion dollars… You got ninety percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own. We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price per paper clip. We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it. Now, you’re not naïve enough to think we’re living in a democracy, are you, buddy?  It’s the free market. And you’re part of it.”

Now, what this scene exposes is the adrenaline rush of power that wealth provides. But, what this scene also highlights is how this power of wealth has created a society where corporate empires are thriving through lobbyism, while middle-lower class are palpitating in a life of destitution. And in case you are thinking how a 1987 American classic like ‘Wall Street’ is relevant to the rise of billionaires in 2021, here is the answer – wealth, national morality and democracy all symptomatic of a thriving country. But, with the rise of billionaires in India, this is exactly what is at stake.

Corporate Political Activity (CPA) – When Corporations Colonizes The State

Luis Fernandez said, “Either we can have democracy or a great amount of wealth concentrated in the hands of few. We cannot have both”. So, what did he mean by this? For starters, hoarding of wealth not only gives you the liberty to buy luxury goods, but it also gives you the freedom to buy votes, laws, and legislation. How? Well, corporate involvement in any democratic ecosphere is usually manifested into a corporate political activity (CPA). This corrupts the democratic process by excluding the citizens from policy decision-making. Thereby, privatizing profits for corporation and socializing the loss among citizens(Daniel Nyberg,2021). So, how is this accomplished? It’s achieved through a specialized team of people called – Corporate Lobbyists. They act as a mediator between the political parties and the corporation they work for. But, what do these billionaires lobby against? Mostly tax deregulations. However, the devil hides in details – Most billionaire monopolists lobby against anti-force entrustments, giant banks lobby against risk regulations, polluters in the private sector lobby against environmental regulations, and private corporations lobby against public services. Each one of these is detrimental to the growth of any democracy because lobbyists act out in the interest of billionaires and influence government policy-making by taking in no account of public interest (Mehrsa Baradaran, 2019). In simple words – they suggest extraneous elements in decision-making and subvert the public interest in areas like infrastructure (highways, airports, and massive scale projects under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission in 63 cities), natural resources, and energy (gas, oil, petrol, energy), telecom (3G and 4G technology),military (weapons and aircrafts), mining (where giant corporations have developed stakes making billions on India’s tribal heartland), and agribusiness (seeds, privatization of agriculture sector), etc. And, how does this work? Keep reading.

You must be aware of the ongoing farmers’ protest since last year. It is strictly against two issues. First being the ‘three new farm laws’ introduced by Modi government. Second, being the agitation against India’s two richest billionaires – Mukesh Ambani and Adani, who are close to Modi and is believed to profit from these new farm laws. These two billionaires have been eyeing India’s farm sector for a while now. In 2017, Ambani expressed his interest in investing in the agriculture sector. His Jio Platforms, today, is leveraging its partnership with Facebook to dilate into this domain with Jiokrishi app, which will ease out the farm-to-fork supply chain. The company’s records suggest that it source(ed) 77% of its fruit directly from farmers. Now, currently, the farmers take their produce to wholesale markets, governed by APMC (government body). APMC in every State decides the price it will pay to the farmers for their produce. Remember, this market becomes the central point for government acquisition of food grains. With the new farm laws, a giant corporation can directly approach the farmers, buy and pay for the produce at an agreed amount. In short, this new farm law aims to abolish this structural network and privatize it. But, this is just structural damage for farmers. As I mentioned earlier, the devil hides in details – The news laws do not make a written contract between the farmers and corporations mandatory. This means that if there is a conflict of interest between both parties, it will be extremely difficult for farmers to prove that a corporation has breached that agreement. Additionally, this law states that a farmer has no right to take these disputes to an independent judiciary for justice. Instead, they would have to reach out to two bodies – a conciliation board (district-level administrative officers) or to the appellate authority. Now, both of these bodies are dependent on government, which can potentially revert the case in favor of corporations. This law also has a grave danger of impacting the minimum support price that government bodies offer to farmers in case of a declined price fall for their produce during a particular season. The farmers here are sailing on a boat of uncertainty, economic chaos, and policy madness —- all favoring the interest of the giant corporates instead of the public; more specifically, the farmers, who are the beating heart of an agrarian economy like India.

Remember, The Rafael deal? The deal was given to a Ambani brother, who had minimal to no experience in aircraft. Rafael offset contract has been given to Reliance Defense, which was formed 12 days before the announcement of the Rafael deal. ‘Mediapart’, a French-language publication, quoted Francois Hollande (2018), “It was the Indian government that proposed this service group (Reliance), and Dassault which negotiated with Ambani. We had no choice. We took the interlocutor who was given to us.” Two weeks back, the French newspaper ‘LeMonde’ dropped a bombshell stating that the French authorities passed off Anil Ambani’s $162 million tax after Modi-led NDA government negotiated Rafael deal with France based Dassault Aviation. Another example- Back in 2018, when the Modi government approved the privatization of six airports, it also relaxed the prerequisite requirements. BJP allowed companies with no prior experience in this sector to present their bid. After deliberation, all six airports were given to Gautam Adani, the second-highest billionaire in India with no history of running airports. Today, in 2021, Adani Airports has acquired 23.5% stake in Mumbai International Airport Ltd(MIAL), and is set to extend the stakeholding percent to 74%, which will give Adani group the ownership of the upcoming Navi Mumbai airport in which MIAL holds majority stakes. His other ventures in sectors like Adani green energy, power, and transmission hold a close-by narrative. His Carmichael coal mine project in Australia has earned him an infamous ‘climate change villain’ title. Tax deregulations is the primordial goal of corporate lobbyists, and they seem to be winning. The Indian government last year announced that it had reduced the rate of tax for certain existing companies at 25.17% , the lowest since 2010. There is an extra tax deduction of 15% from earlier level of 25% for start-ups. One would argue that the low tax rate would increase international corporate investments. But recent studies show that businesses are moving to countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia for labor-intensive operations. Thereby, failing to bring employment to the country.

Figure 1: The rate of tax imposed on corporates by the Indian government in the last ten years

Figure 2: Mukesh Ambani’s $2 billion house overlooking the slums of Dharavi – The world’s largest slum. Source of the image : www.thecharette.org

Tax deregulation, tax invasion, and corporate lobbying are not the only problems that manifest with the rise of billionaires in India. The most chronic and malignant effect is the ever-widening gap between the rich and poor, threatening economic justice and social cohesion in a society. This economic gap is so dilated that it becomes a life of excess for these billionaires and destitution for the rest of the 1.38 billion Indians. According to Forbes magazine, the third richest Indians – Mukesh Ambani ($84.5 billion), Gautam Adani & family($50.5 billion) and Shiva Nadar($ 23.5 billion) own 60% of the country’s wealth. India’s top three richest people have added over $100 billion between them. In fact, since the initial lockdown in March 2020, India’s top billionaires increased their wealth by 35% during COVID-19 pandemic. According to Oxfam report, India’s top 100 billionaires witnessed their fortune increase by staggering number of Rs 12.97 trillion. This amount could have provided every 364 million poor Indians a cheque for ₹94,045 each. So, what was the economic status of the working class? They suffered abominably during COVID, while billionaires thrived. The study, ‘State of Working India 2021 – One year of Covid-19’, by Azim Premji University, revealed that the economic recession caused by the COVID-19 has pushed 230 million Indians below the poverty line. This number accounted for and contributed to the global increase in poverty by a whopping 60% in 2020. The study shows the loss in monthly income earning for all kinds of workers. The fall was 17% for temporary salaried jobs, 18% for self-employed, 21% for daily wage workers, and 5% for permanent salaried workers. This ever-widening gap of economic inequality in India goes against every fiber of true democracy, where public resources and rights like healthcare, education, COVID relief financial aids, etc., instead of being elevate, are subverted. Gabriela Bucher, Executive Director of Oxfam International said, “Rigged economies are funnelling wealth to rich elites who are sailing through the pandemic in luxury and ease, while those on the frontline of the pandemic — medical assistants, healthcare workers, and market vendors — are struggling to pay the bills and put food on the table”. Existence of these billionaires in any society is symbolic of a theocracy thriving and a democracy that’s palpitating. Times like these demand a moral obligation to question, resist and fight against the economic injustice, not just for ourselves, but for our children and many generations to come by. Remember, power seeks self-preservation first and foremost. The billionaires will do anything and everything to continue hoarding resource, wealth and pass it to their heirs. So, the question is not – when will this stop? But, what are you going to do about it?.

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