Thanks for the philanthropy, billionaires. Now pay your tax

It is, perhaps, the greatest surprise since the citizens of Troy discovered that the wooden horse in their town square was not the generously gifted piece of public art they’d hoped. Sir Allen Stanford — the Texan billionaire who landed his Trojan helicopter at Lord’s cricket ground and emerged with crates of cash — has turned out not to be the exquisitely cultured philanthropist his every action hitherto had indicated.

Stanford is now accused of masterminding a multibillion-dollar fraud, and many of you will be facing up to the possibility that everything you thought you knew was wrong. You might be desperately searching for something, anything, that could count as a chink of light. If it helps, I have found my mind returning to the strongest of rumours that, during the course of that edifying Twenty20 tournament last October, Sir Allen discovered that his fiancée had been — how to put this euphemistically? — overly charmed by Chris Gayle, captain of the Stanford Superstars, and the man to whom Stanford eventually had to present a million dollar winner’s cheque with a big smile. At the time, Stanford leapt on to the record to deride this suggestion of spectacularly hilarious, up-the-workers irreverence on Gayle’s part as “horse manure”.

We shall discover precisely how much store can be set by a Stanford denial in the months ahead, but in the meantime, the process of rebuilding our shattered worldview must begin. Anyone sensible will have done their crying long ago for the ECB’s unwillingness to look this gift horse in the mouth. In any case, they are relative minnows in the story. Stanford is a symbol of something far greater and systemically wrong: the meekly accepted rise of the so-called “philanthrocapitalists”.

The wealth creation of the past quarter century has dwarfed any other period in history, anointing billionaire after billionaire, philanthrocapitalists who have reached into all aspects of society.

It’s not just social policy over which such people’s influence has been brought to bear, but the arts, broadcasting, charity — all areas of public life. Including cricket, evidently.

Of Stanford himself, an Antiguan neighbour once remarked to this newspaper: “He is either one of the world’s greatest philanthropists or one of its biggest crooks.” The temptation is to ask which way, if you’d had a fiver, you’d have staked it, but in practice the question was rarely asked. “Billionaire philanthropist” has been one of the Homeric epithets of the age in which it has seemed as if one implied the other.

Those were the good times, though, and it suddenly seems deeply absurd that the very same people who brought the banking system to the brink of collapse have spent much of the past decade being praised for things such as working awfully hard to keep an important painting in Britain.

Were they really “putting something back”, or is the bell now tolling for this age of showy philanthropy, this world of benefit galas and humanitarian award ceremonies? In light of new information, many of these now look like legitimising poses, profile-enhancing activities which, when set against our rich philanthropists’ failings in their day jobs, don’t add up to much more than fig leaves for the great and the good — who have turned out to be neither very great nor very good at all.

Writing in a philanthropic periodical, the director of a private American foundation pointed out the irony of visiting Malawi last September as the financial crisis unfolded, and “instructing painstakingly well-run shoestring village organisations in prudent financial management … If there was ever a moment to turn the tables in our discussions of accountability,” he concluded, “and to require from the sources of our funding the same transparency, good faith, and reliable results that we require from our guarantee partners, this was it”.

Perhaps the most fundamental discussion we ought to have is how for years we allowed routine tax avoiders to be classed as “philanthropists” because of their other activities. There isn’t space to return to the matter of Bono’s tax affairs, alas, but unless my copy of The Gospel is Wealth is missing some pages, it is complete doublethink to suggest that anyone who weasels out of paying prole rates can also play the saint.

Charity may begin at home, but philanthropy begins with paying tax. Not only was Stanford a “philanthropist” who owed $212-million in unpaid taxes, but a man whose business was dedicated to enabling countless others to evade tax. This week, the tax campaigner Richard Murphy considered the Stanford-assisted hardship Antigua will now face, and declared: “Now is the time for developed countries to show to secrecy jurisdictions that there is life after this pernicious activity: that aid will be given to help them redevelop their economies and that there are alternatives.”

Even a man of Stanford’s preposterous bluster would struggle to explain how enabling tax dodging has anything to do with giving a toss about other people. He and his ilk are fauxlanthropists. If governments are brave enough, the real philanthropy should begin now. –

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