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Decency: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

October 12th, 2011

Les Misérables

Kristel Jax/Flickr*

In 1862 Victor Hugo, widely considered one of France’s greatest poets, published Les Misérables, literally translated to The Miserable Ones. The story, which has been adapted into dozens of versions in film, television, radio, and most famously as a musical—follows the story of a man who survives persecution amidst social and political upheavals in 19th century Paris. While the story traverses countless themes and motifs, one of the central ideas of the novel is social injustice and Hugo uses the novel as a platform to condemn the unjust class-based structure of the times.

Today Action Aid released data on the UK’s biggest businesses and their presence in tax havens. Action Aid found that the 100 FTSE-registered UK firms had 34,216 subsidiaries altogether and of those about 25% are in tax havens. The data is reminiscent of a U.S. GAO study that found 83 of the 100 largest U.S. corporations have subsidiaries in tax havens.

In its third week, the Occupy Wall Street movement, which began on the streets of New York, has spread across the country and the world. Most people call the protestors “anti-bank” or “anti-corporation,” but the movement is neither. The media portrayed them as scatterbrained, listless, and fractured. Even some liberals declared the movement wanting in solutions, demands, and goals.

Everyone seems to have their own suggestions for the protesters’ demands. “Support a financial-transactions tax!” “Return to Glass-Stegall!” “Support a nationwide write-down in student loans!” They yell.

Even the Economist has suggested that the protestors should “chant more about…the damage done by offshore finance.” Perhaps I should leap to embrace this endorsement of our cause. But I’m hesitant. While offshore finance is certainly something to chant about, the Economist is missing the point. The protestors already are chanting about offshore finance—whether they know it or not. But they are also chanting about something more fundamental.

The Occupy Wall Street movement doesn’t have pithy slogans, quick sayings, or easy solutions because it isn’t about any one problem. It isn’t about offshore finance, or bailouts, or CEO pay, or tax evasion. All of these events are the symptoms of an underlying problem—the status quo. It is a status quo that allows 25% of the FTSE 100’s subsidiaries to lie in tax havens. The status quo that allows the same person to hold both positions of CEO and president of the board. That allows Warren Buffet to pay a lower tax rate than his secretary. And that allows the average American to earn 1/10,800th of the average Forbes 400 earner.

In a recent statistical analysis of We Are 99% Tumblr, a site where people hold up signs explaining their current circumstances and support for Occupy Wall Street, Mike Konczal analyzed the most frequently appearing words of interest in the signs. They weren’t words like “bonuses,” “CEOs,” or “bailouts.” Rather those most common words included: “job,” “bills,” “food,” “debt,” “work,” “college,” “pay,” “student,” and “home.” Konzcal notes “the 99% looks too beaten down to demand anything as grand as ‘fairness’ in their distribution of the economy…It’s straight out of antiquity – free us from the bondage of our debts and give us a basic ability to survive.” In fact, it is remincent of the same themes we see in Les Misérables.

Like the inhabitants of nineteenth century Paris, the protesters today are asking for decency. And integrity. It doesn’t even go as far as fair.

It fits perfectly with the agenda of those of us who call for financial integrity and transparency. Though we often call it “tax fairness,” I think that word is too strong. Fair means equal opportunities; fair means a robust middle class and social mobility based on merit not privilege; fair means a set of tax laws that makes Warren Buffet pay more than his secretary. We are asking for tax decency. We are asking to end a status quo that allows major corporations to drastically reduce their owed taxes with a global financial system obscured in secrecy. We are asking for financial integrity. We’ll worry about fair later.

About ten years before Les Misérables was published, Victor Hugo wrote Histoire d’un Crime (The History of a Crime), a novel about Napoleon III’s takeover of France. In this novel he wrote “On résiste à l’invasion des armées; on ne résiste pas à l’invasion des idées,” which is literally translated to “one resists the invasion of armies; one does not resist the invasion of ideas.” Today we quote this as “nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come.”

If today’s movement has shown us anything, it is that the time has come for decency. In tax. In health care. In education. In politics. As we do, the Occupy Wall Street movement is asking for a shift in the status quo that confronts social injustice by promoting decency. And it will happen. Because it is an idea whose time has come.

*Image license: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by ‘Lil

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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