REVIEW: The Price We Pay

Reviewed by Marc Glassman

The best documentaries, just like the finest fiction features, can be summarized in one line. The huge doc hit The Corporation is a great example. What’s its take-away line? “The corporation is alive and it’s a psychopath.” Harold Crooks, who co-scripted The Corporation has a new film out in theatres today, a Vancouver Film Festival award-winner, The Price We Pay. What’s its take-away? “Off-shore banking has a location—it’s London, England.”

Even Karl Marx would have been hard pressed to denounce William the Conqueror for the creation of rampant capitalism but Mr. Crooks makes the case that a decision made in 1066 has dealt a devastating blow to modern democracy. It seems that when William and his troops arrived at the gates of London, a treaty was signed in order for Norman troops to enter the city peacefully. No taxes would be levied on London—ever.

After World War Two and the decline of the British Empire, bankers operating in the ancient section that is truly London—the modern city being made up of old villages—quietly began to press their advantage. Using tax loopholes and precedents going as far back as the Norman Conquest, they created off-shore banking, a fiction which theoretically placed billions of dollars in places like the Cayman Islands. Two points emerge: bankers and corporations have created nearly impenetrable tax havens and as someone in the film says, the Caymans could disappear beneath the ocean and it would still be the fourth-largest financial centre on the planet, because there’s nothing there.

How does this affect democracy? The billions of untaxed dollars are sucking away the resources needed to provide the services and social structure that are the underpinnings of our liberal democratic states. Where is the money for education, health and transportation? It’s gone somewhere; apparently it’s in the Cayman Islands and other tax shelters. Actually, it’s in banks in London and, cleaned up by corporate lawyers, in other financial centres in the world, turning millionaire into billionaires.

Meanwhile, the middle class and the poor are being taxed more heavily than ever as governments desperately attempt to meet the public’s demand for the type of services they’ve always had. As Judy Wolfe has written in POV: “Countries all over the world are facing growing fiscal crises, unable to hold on to their basic infrastructure, let alone maintaining their social safety net, because of tax avoidance on a truly staggering scale. The golden age of the liberal welfare state is over, replaced by a new feudalism.”

Harold Crooks has combined forces with economics writer Brigitte Alepin and a dedicated crew to make this nearly unfilmable project come alive. Experts including best-selling writer Thomas Piketty (Capitalism in the 21st Century), politicians and media activists weigh in with facts and opinions throughout the film. There are punchy archival excerpts and atmospheric shots of the Caymans to create a more cinematic flavour to the work.

The Price We Pay is a brilliant, unsettling documentary. Beneath its scholarly surface, there’s indignation at the unequal world that is being created in front of us. Harold Crooks has created a good old-fashioned muckraking documentary. Millions should see it; heck, let’s say billions. That may be the number needed to address the issues raised in this compelling documentary.

Order a copy of POV’s Spring 2015 issue to read an exclusive interview with the film’s director, Harold Crooks.