Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Work in the spirit of service

Another chapter opened recently in the ongoing saga of multi-national corporations and the payment of tax. The European Commission demanded that Apple (the technology developer) pay €12 billion to the government of Ireland in back taxes. Apple seemed unhappy with this request, and the Irish government was initially uncertain how to react, as it felt it had gained advantage from the arrangement with Apple.

The problem is that large companies, who provide goods and services in a number of countries, find ways of avoiding the payment of tax at a reasonable level, comparable to what is paid by other companies or by private citizens. They amass huge resources, and have more money than do some small countries. In a sense, they operate “above the law”, because they choose which laws to subject themselves to, by choosing which country they claim to be based in. The situation is such that poor countries and small island nations are tempted to offer lower tax rates, just so as to attract some economic activity into their territories.

What is the purpose of taxation? The tax that is collected from people and companies pays for hospitals, roads, schools, police and so on. The multi-national companies receive the benefit from these. Their employees are educated in schools paid for by taxes. The companies use the roads to transport materials and goods. The employees may well benefit from public health systems, and so on. It therefore seems fair that, as they benefit from public services, the companies should contribute to the taxation system which pays for them.

The governments of the world are struggling to find ways of coping with the activities of these multinational companies. Fundamentally, each of the companies has an executive who can take clear decisions. The world, however, still does not. Part of the solution, therefore, must be some form of world government or world authority which can ensure that there are no tax havens, and that tax will be paid by “multi-national” corporations into a “multi-national” system.

But this is not the only change that has to be made. A change in the spirit of commercial enterprise is also necessary. Honesty and trustworthiness need to be regarded as essential qualities which should shine out from every individual and from every business. These qualities will themselves benefit everyone involved. Bahá’u’lláh wrote: “The eyes of this Wronged One are turned towards naught save trustworthiness, truthfulness, purity, and all that profiteth men." It should no longer be necessary for businesses to employ lawyers and accountants to try to find ways of hiding wealth, nor for the authorities to employ yet more lawyers and accountants to try to discover where it is hidden.

If the Bahá’í principle of seeing mankind as one family were accepted, this also would greatly reduce tax avoidance. People would not wish to cheat their own relatives, their fellow human beings!

Another fundamental principle of Bahá’u’lláh is that work should be performed in a spirit of service to others. He said further that when it is performed in this spirit it is a form of worship. The reason why any employment exists is simply that other humans need this work to be done, so the very performance of work is, logically, a service to others. A realisation of this truth should be coupled with a change of heart, and “work in a spirit of service” should become the measure of all human activity. Many multi-national companies would do well to realise this. Producing or providing more useful telephones, computers or browsers can be seen as service to others. So can providing tasty coffee. However, paying people to try to find tax loopholes can not.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

We are not alone

Within each constellation, the brightest-looking star is called Alpha, the second brightest is referred to as Beta, and so on. When it came to measuring how far away from us each star might be, the brightest star in the constellation of Centaur (“Alpha Centauri”) seemed to be the nearest to our Sun, at “only” 4.2 light years in distance.

When astronomers tried to learn more about Alpha Centauri, it was discovered that there are actually two stars operating together as a binary system, and these are known as Alpha Centauri A and (you guessed it) Alpha Centauri B. But books usually still refer to Alpha Centauri as if it were one star.

In 1915, the Scottish astronomer Robert Innes discovered another star nearby, too dim to be seen with the naked eye. When the distance was calculated, it was found to be nearer to our Sun than the Alpha Centauri stars are! So, although we can see several thousand stars with the naked eye, the nearest one is simply invisible to us. I find this quite exciting, a red dwarf star (yes, really) that is our nearest, but secret, neighbour! Its name, “Proxima” Centauri, actually means “nearest”. And yet, although this star has been known for over a hundred years, many sources still state that “Alpha Centauri is our nearest star”.

Proxima Centauri is a less massive star than our Sun, slightly older and with a lower surface temperature. And yet, this month, a new discovery has been announced. Our nearest star has a planet circling it, now named “Proxima b” (artist's impression above). This planet is at the right distance from the star to enable it to have liquid water, which is important because many scientists believe that water is essential for life to exist. The zone in which this sort of planet should exist has been nicknamed “the Goldilocks Zone” – not too hot, not too cold, but just right!

Writing before Proxima Centauri itself had even been discovered, Bahá’u’lláh said, “Every… star hath its own planets, and every planet its own creatures…” The life of a planet, and indeed of a star, stretches over billions of years, and it is perfectly possible that different planets go through different stages in the evolution of life at vastly different times. So even if “Proxima b” has had/will have life, it may not necessarily exist there now. What the discovery of “Proxima b” does do is show that the presence of planets around stars is even more of a feature than previously realised, and that theoretically inhabitable planets are also more common than was realised. Crucially, to have habitable planets, the star does not have to resemble our Sun. This hugely increases the number of stars which may support habitable planets, and therefore the chances that we are not alone.

Certain scientists are already considering new theoretical ways of speedier space travel, essential if we are to travel to the nearest star systems. While that research is under way, it would be wise to sort out conditions on our own planet, ensuring that we are in a fit state to set off to visit the neighbours! Firstly, we need to establish some sort of genuine co-ordination at the planetary level. That would be greatly assisted by the choice of a world shared language. We need to abandon the practices of various kinds of warfare, including terrorism – no other planet will want us exporting violence to their worlds. If we want to have anything positive to offer our planetary neighbours, then we need to improve our economic systems, and ensure that everyone has an acceptable standard of living, before we start trying to visit other planets! Bahá’u’lláh wrote that “All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilisation”. Let us work on overcoming the world’s immediate problems so that we can present a positive and friendly face to the neighbours.