Panama Papers: ‘Never mind financial literacy, what we need today are some grown-up lessons in economics’

There is a danger that the sanctimonious response to the leak will distract young people from discussion about serious financial matters, says the director of the Institute of Ideas

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This April is Financial Literacy Month. Quite apt perhaps, when the headlines have been dominated by lurid tales of tax returns, off-shore shenanigans and rich folks’ creative accountancy. Financial literacy became "a thing" in schools after 2008 when it was touted by then education secretary Ed Balls as one answer to the Crash. (Why did so many people sign up for sub-prime mortgages/max out on their credit cards? Dunno, but surely teachers can solve it.) I am no fan of adding ever-more policy priorities to an already crammed curriculum, but regardless, what lessons might there be from the present outrage over tax, transparency and inheritance? 

Is the sanctimony in response the Panama Papers likely to help the young understand financial matters? Hardly. In fact, perhaps we might warn pupils to avoid the sort of cheap moralising that has been spouted by so many commentators about the evils of the undeserving rich. Instead we might remind them that money matters are rarely so black and white. 

Privacy concerns

I learned about money from a young age, but from my parents rather than teachers. My Mum’s mantra was "earn your own, never rely on a man". Meanwhile my Dad warned me and my sisters that we should never discuss family finances outside of the home: "We don’t want the buggers to know how little we have." Sometimes, keeping your salary or tax returns private is more about pride and dignity than sinister secrecy. What is more, my Dad worked incredibly hard all his life (before dying far too young) and was driven by benefiting us, his kids, and wanting to share what he made to help improve our lives. Surely admirable? So why, in all this endless furore about the Panama Papers, do we always assume the worst of motives about anyone who wants to keep their finances to themselves or to leave their inheritance to their families? 

It matters not a jot whether the wealth we are talking about is immense or paltry, unless this really is just an exercise in rich-bashing. This is not about sympathising with the besieged Tories per se – they have been hoist with their own petard; after all it was chancellor George Osborne who initially described perfectly legal tax avoidance as "morally repugnant" in his populist 2012 Budget. However, there are principles involved here and they have implications for education and pupils’ attitudes to financial matters. 

Entrepreneurial spirit

Attacking people’s moral worth – even if they are well-off political toffs – for having parents (or even being parents) who are anxious to do the best by their children seems a rather unhelpful message in educational terms. Why is it seen as selfish to want to spend your own money on your own kids? Don’t we approve of those parents who see their offspring as a top priority? Another popular argument among tax activists is that it is excessive individual wealth among the few that is responsible for social inequality. 

Of course we might be concerned about the impact of economic privileges on meritocracy but today’s moralistic denunciation of the rich may become a disincentive for aspiring to better oneself. How does this square with the endless initiatives encouraging the young to become entrepreneurial? "You too could be the next self-made man/woman; but watch out, there’s a tax militant about, ready to point an accusing finger at you as the cause of world poverty." And although I have reservations about the argument that schooling is the key to social mobility, it seems a bit mad that if any of our pupils climbs the social ladder and makes a few quid on the way, society could then end up labelling them as avaricious parasites. 

Avoiding the real problem

Demonising and penalising the super-rich seems another type of avoidance (beyond tax) – avoiding solving the difficult problem of a stagnant economic climate. It seems ironic that at the same time as so many "radicals" hold their nose in disgust as those with filthy lucre, the self-same are on a mission to court one such business mogul precisely for his personal wealth: please, Sanjeev Gupta, can you use your multimillions to bail out Port Talbot steelworks. The real financial crisis is not private tax arrangements but the lack of serious investment in future-orientated industrial growth. Never mind lessons in financial literacy, what we need today are some serious, grown-up education classes in economics that goes beyond name-calling.

Before we turn accountancy into the new politics and view public figures’ moral worth in terms of their relationship with Her Majesty’s Revenues and Customs (rather than their principles and ideals), might we ask more probing questions? For example, is paying maximum tax always a virtue? In the recent regional finals of the Institute of Ideas’ Debating Matters competition, sixth-formers were asked to debate "It is wrong for countries to offer tax incentives to attract investment?" (The topic guide, with a comprehensive set of readings for and against, is a useful resource in the classroom.) One student I saw arguing against the motion astutely quoted George Orwell from his 1940 diaries: "Towards the government I feel no scruples and would dodge paying the tax if I could…No one is patriotic about taxes." I was delighted to hear a teenager being prepared to put forward such an interesting, anti-conformist argument. He understood that financial literacy – whatever that means – can never just be a technical matter. Rows over taxes are no more clear-cut than writing-off Orwell as merely an immoral, tax-dodging cheat. A lesson for us all.  

Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas and a former FE teacher. She tweets as @Fox_Claire

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