Arriving so soon after the first reports of Burger King’s corporate maneuvering to enjoy a whopping big tax break by establishing a new legal address in Canada, “The Price We Pay” seems all the more timely, if not prescient. This well-crafted documentary from director Harold Crooks (“Surviving Progress”) offers a concise, engrossing and occasionally infuriating overview of the ways multinationals avoid taxes by stashing profits in offshore havens — and in the process, according to several onscreen interviewees, seriously undermine the ability of governments to provide services and safety nets for citizens. Although the film most likely will wind up preaching to the converted in limited theatrical and home-screen distribution, it could, ironically, reach a wider audience if it is attacked by the right people.
To provide background, connect dots and, yes, stoke outrage, Crooks has assembled an impressively diverse array of talking heads, many of whom repeatedly emphasize that the tax-dodging and loophole-exploiting practices examined here are, for the most part, perfectly legal. With the system so cunningly rigged, an interviewee pointedly asks, “Why bother with illegalities?”
It’s a system whose beginnings Crooks traces back to the post-WWII U.K., when the city of London evolved into “the mother of all tax havens” after the Bank of England greenlit unregulated offshore trading of U.S. dollars. From the 1980s onward, one thing led to another — first in the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas, then in various other locales — until multinationals had access to several territories where they could relocate headquarters (or at least establish legal addresses) and enjoy maximum benefits of minimal taxation. By the end of 2010, according to a Tax Justice Network report cited here, somewhere between 10% to 15% of the world’s wealth, an amount estimated as high as $32 trillion, was safely tucked away in offshore tax havens.
“The Price We Pay” focuses on the fallout of this “tax inversion,” vividly illustrating how income disparity in North America and elsewhere has drastically increased during the past few decades, and how a steadily shrinking middle class is being hit with the triple whammy of diminished employment prospects, heavier tax burdens and fewer “welfare state” protections thanks to an economic system skewed toward the increased enrichment of One Percenters.
Author, tax expert and co-scripter Brigitte Alepin, whose book “La Crise fiscale qui vient” is cited as an inspiration for this documentary, goes so far as to posit that society has come “full circle” since the era of the French Revolution. Others warn that economic inequities such as those described in “The Price We Pay” will only serve to fuel more movements like Occupy Wall Street, and might even pose an existential threat to capitalism itself.
Not surprisingly, Crooks’ interview lineup is conspicuously short on defenders of the status quo. But he does show representatives of Google, Amazon and other corporations defending their tax-avoidance policies during grilling by skeptical members of the U.S. Congress and the British Parliament. It can’t be said that any of these reps come off as particularly persuasive. On the other hand, they do manage to maintain their composure, even when a scolding Brit MP claims what they are doing to game the system is, if not illegal, then “immoral.”
“The Price We Pay” offers a few suggestions for remedies — including the so-called “Robin Hood Tax” on stock trading, something actually supported by the likes of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and George Soros — but even the most optimistic interviewees point out that it will require cooperation between governments to counterbalance the power and influence of multinationals. And as long as countries compete against other countries for jobs and private investments, such co-operation will be difficult, maybe impossible, to achieve and sustain.
In terms of production values, “The Price We Pay” is a slickly polished product. But that in no way diminishes its compelling credibility or its potent impact.