Monday, May 10, 2010

Rule of law ... and getting round the law

Dear Colleagues

I am never quite sure what is more important: Rule of Law; or Getting Around the Law! As a long time observer of the business, economic and social scene around the world, things get very confused.

Bottom line ... modern statutory law now has a very large number of provisions that are very valuable to certain "special interests" and to very powerful constituencies. This is not what I originally thought was meant by the idea of "rule of law". My current view about rule of law is that it is a very powerful device that is available to powerful interests to strengthen their vested interests ... and this idea does not apply only in developing countries, it is widely practiced in the "so called" developed countries as well.

I am not at all impressed by the behavior of US banks in the way that have conducted themselves in the credit card segment of their business. New York State has fairly sensible banking laws that include regulation of credit cards and the check cashing industry ... but almost all credit cards are now issued from states where banking laws are virtually non-existent and "anything goes". Normally one would be able to rely on the idea that State Law is working ... but courtesy of a little piece of Federal legislation it is possible for credit cards issued in one state to by-pass the credit card rules of another state. None of the big name banks operating with thousands of offices in New York State have credit cards that function under New York State banking regulations ... they rely on the virtually non-existent banking rules of South Dakota, Nevada and Delaware.

There are lots of questions about the behavior of banks ... including how come it is so difficult for an ordinary person who has lived for 20 years since birth a block away from a bank branch to open an account while a "big man" from a country well known for its corruption can open a multi-million dollar account with essentially no questions asked. Of course that is not quite true ... there has to be a lot of paperwork produced ... but how valid all the paperwork is going to be is another question. A couple of years back I had a lot of transaction information about a "big man" transferring large moneys to a New York bank ... but the matter could not be progressed because our "paperwork" was flawed. The outcome was that "rule of law" was serving to protect the crook rather than protecting society.

Over the last few decades the big international banks have been very helpful to rich people ... and as technology has improved it has become more and more possible for big transfers to get made efficiently into places where these moneys are safe ... and hidden. To the credit of some of the world's leadership these hiding places have been under siege ... but rule of law has made it very difficult for very much progress to be achieved. I acknowledge some progress ... but there is a huge amount still to do ... and rule of law makes it difficult for what would be right for society to get done. My impression is that all of the big international banks are implicated in the hiding of funds to some degree ... some more than others ... but all too much.

This is an important matter ... because there is way too much corruption in high places ... and corruption is made so very much easier when the proceeds of corruption can be easily hidden. Though I am not a banker, I am an accountant ... and one of the roles that accountants used to have was to ensure that funds were used as intended. When the fund flows are hidden, then it becomes almost impossible for there to be any public accountability ... and resources do not get used for the purposes intended. How else do you explain the five decades or so of failed development that has kept some 4 billion people poor and hungry ... this is not because funds were not made available ... but because funds were never used in the way that was intended!

Rule of law ... it would be good if it could be made to work, and the rules were actually fair!

This is a big subject ... to be continued!

Peter Burgess

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