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Bono defends Ireland’s low taxes

Bono participates on a panel discussing Mobilizing for Impact at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting in New York.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC
Bono participates on a panel discussing Mobilizing for Impact at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting in New York.

One of the depressing things about conferences like the Clinton Global Initiative meeting taking place near Times Square this week is the oppressive lack of controversy. Everyone is so supportive of the good deeds and progressive projects of everyone else that it's easy to forget that real controversies exist even among the would-be world-improvers.

Fortunately, we have Bono to liven things up.

Bill Clinton was late to the first panel of the day at CGI. After a minute of waiting for the former president to take the stage, Bono decided to take his place.

In a perfect imitation of Clinton's drawl, Bono said: "When I first met Bono, he walked into the Oval Office and I thought he was a member of his road crew. He wasn't dressed right. By God, I felt like the rock star that day."

The dirty little secret about Bono is that he's a capitalist. It's a reluctant sort of capitalism, of course. But it's deeply embedded.

"My father was Labour, classic Dublin Northside household. And I still carry that with me. And though I believe that capitalism has been the most effective ideology we have known in taking people out of extreme poverty, I don't think it is the only thing that can do it, and in some ways I wish it wasn't," he told the Guardian recently.

Strip away the qualifiers for a moment and look directly at that statement: Capitalism has been the most effective ideology in taking people out of extreme poverty. Not charity. Not socialism. Not a third way. The ideology of capitalism.

(Read more: Clinton is 'mobilizing for impact')

Now add back the qualifiers. There are other things that can take people out of poverty—but they are less effective than capitalism. He wishes capitalism wasn't the most effective way—but it is. So he's no Ayn Rand, but then very few of us are.

And so on stage at the morning CGI panel, Bono stepped in to defend Ireland's low corporate taxes.

Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese billionaire telecommunications entrepreneur, said that the "first thing" global technology corporations could do to benefit Africa is "to pay their taxes."

"Frankly, the whole taxation system around the world is really broken," Ibrahim said. "Business can globalize but out taxation is still country-based. And then countries compete. Ireland tells Google…"

This is where Bono interrupted. It was the first time anyone cut in on someone else's remarks all morning.

"We're very pleased to compete on that front," Bono said.

In the Guardian interview, Bono elaborated more on this.

"Tax competitiveness has taken our country out of poverty. People in the revenue accept that if you engage in that policy then some people are going to go out, and some people are coming in. It has been a successful policy. On the cranky left that is very annoying, I can see that. But tax competitiveness is why Ireland has stayed afloat. When the Germans tried to impose a different tax regime on the country in exchange for a bailout, the taoiseach said they would rather not have the bailout," he said.

(Read more: 2030: A 'perfect storm' of shortages)

The panel quickly passed back into cozy consensus over the issue of transparency for international mining contracts. Clinton, the moderator of the panel, didn't seem eager to push on this point of contention.

But for a brief, glittering moment the reality of disagreement shone through.

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