Postcards from Panama
The rich and powerful of the world who hide their wealth so that others can not get to it – those who were named in the Panamanian Papers and those who weren’t – are not evil people. They are probably not even bad people. They have just realised that no one is looking.
Before the opinion piece window on the Panamanian Papers story closes forever, I want to throw one more thought onto the bonfire of copy that has resulted, for even now, the blue tipped flames of indignation are receding and the familiar scent of indifference can be distinguished amongst the wood smoke.
While the pundits beguile us with how much data has been leaked; go into the forensics of how the leak occurred and walk us through the mechanics of off-shore shelf companies, no one seems to be asking the most interesting question of all. Why are we so upset?
The Panamanian Papers told us what we already knew. They told us what the Luxembourg Leaks told us in 2014. They told us what Edward Snowden told us in 2013 and Bradley Manning before that. They told us what Wikileaks and Anonymous have been telling us since 2006. That we are flawed. That somewhere inside each of us is the capacity to flout the rules, and that deception and dishonesty are shared endeavours; their success equally dependent on silent spectators as they are unscrupulous knaves.
For the last month, media outlets have been running the Panamanian Papers story. At face value it’s another ‘the truth is revealed’ story; hundreds of high net-worth individuals, many of them politicians, who have been off-shoring cash and assets in an effort to avoid paying tax on this wealth in their countries of residence.
When the story broke the outcry was heard all around the world. We celebrated as one when the Prime Minister of Iceland fell on his sword. Giggled as we watched David Cameron back away from any association to his father’s trust as if he were reversing his Range Rover onto a main road.
It would be easy to interpret this as yet another story about the super-rich. A story that provides further confirmation that a small percentage of humanity has exited the economic system in which the rest of us live. More proof that, living amongst us, is a street gang that has worked out how to get free cable television. Knowing that this is occurring and that we are not part of it leaves us feeling indignant on the one hand and, well, envious on the other.
Who doesn’t want to get in on a good thing? Finding out that there is a kink in the system is like finding out that the Death Star is in the middle of being re-built and that most of the hanger bays have already been sold off the plan. It brings out the ‘empire’ in each of us. The thought that we could be missing out on something good; on something that others have access to and are collecting on, does not sit well with us.
But does this explain the chest beating that we have seen over the last month? Do we just want to get in on the act? Surely our sense of morality has been offended more than our baser instincts. Surely it’s our intrinsic understanding of what is right and wrong that has us reaching for the gavel and uttering judgements. After all, these people have money. They should be contributing to the societies in which they live by paying their fair share of tax.
Moral outrage may account for a thump or two but I don’t think it explains our collective distress. You see, individuals have been thinking of ways to minimise their tax for as long as they’ve been required to pay it. Tax havens are just the disfigured progeny of this labour. They have been around for a long time. So long in fact that we have made them legal. They were in when car phones came with battery packs. They have become the oyster farms of the rich and powerful; managed by smart people who have dedicated themselves to navigating the shallow shoals of taxation law.
It works like this. Rich people employ these smart people (who also want to be rich people) to make sure that the oysters are always submerged so that they are hidden away from view. The minute they are visible anyone can motor out in a tiny with a bottle of balsamic and help themselves.
The smart people employ even smarter people (lobbyists) to convince average people (politicians) to pass laws to make it harder to spot the oysters. The harder they are to spot, the more oysters the rich people get to keep. The average people pass these laws knowing that when they want oysters, all they’ve got to do is ask. Tax law and oyster farming have more in common than you think.
Tax havens have been around for as long as people have been burying treasure. In fact they are normally located in the same places. Belize, Barbados, and the Bahamas; anywhere where rum has been smuggled in wooden barrels and the jolly roger has fluttered atop a mainsail is a prime location for a tax haven. Panama, by all accounts, isn’t even where the action is.
Tax minimisation is not news. Who can forget our very own Kerry Francis Bullimore Packer taking the Australian federal parliament to school in 1991 when, pressed on the question of whether he was evading tax he said, ‘I am not evading tax in any way, shape or form. Now, of course I am minimising my tax, and if anybody in this country doesn’t minimise their tax they want their heads red, because as a government, I can tell you that you’re not spending it that well that we should be donating extra.’ Thank you Kerry. Pure gold.
If tax havens are old news and the behaviours associated to minimising tax even older, what was it about the Panamanian Papers that got us so riled up? What got us pouring gunpowder down the barrel and searching the pouch for a musket ball?
A more testing analysis might have us conclude that what disturbs us most about the Panamanian Papers are the number of world leaders and politicians that have been named. These are people who have ascended into public office as a result of the trust placed in them by the people they represent. Presidents and Prime Ministers who appear to manage their own private wealth with as much enthusiasm as their countries. The hypocrisy is so thick in the air it forms condensation.
For those involved, it’s a bad look, but are we surprised by the individuals that have been named? The King of Saudi Arabia; the Presidents of the UAE, the Ukraine, and Syria; the Prime Ministers of Pakistan and Iceland. These are countries with form; better known for their human rights violations and financial crises than their principled virtues. Where going soft gets you shot (or be-headed) just as easily as voted out of office. Do we expect constraint from leaders whose countries don’t often show it?
Should we be surprised by those who were smart enough to hide their loot in someone else’s name? David Cameron aside, whose claim not to have benefited from his father’s offshore trust reminded us all of a Saturday afternoon at the fish markets, was anybody left dumbfounded when it was revealed that Xi Jinping, the President of China, has a brother-in-law with a holding company, the affairs of which are managed by Mossack Fonseca? Did anybody slap their forehead in open-mouthed astonishment when we read that Vladimir Putin, the leader of the largest Kleptocracy in the world, stashed his boodle away in the name of Sergey Roldugin, a childhood friend who, besides playing cello for the St Petersburg orchestra, also happens to own 3% of the Bank of Russia. Who would have thought playing a stringed instrument could be so lucrative?
I don’t think our shared angst over the revelations contained in the Panamanian Papers can be explained by the conceit we might feel for a bunch of brigands hiding away their treasure. We’ve always had an inkling that the rich and powerful were doing everything they could to stay rich and powerful. This was already a working theory – we’ve just had confirmation that the double-blind test gives us the same results as the single-blind did. That the test group returned the data we were expecting it to. Herein is the problem. Herein is the real reason for our indignation.
We are upset with ourselves. For letting this happen. We are upset at our own passive compliance. Upset at the fact that in most matters of government and legislature we fail to participate and that this is the result. That this outcome, like others before it, is only achieved by a failure to hold people to account, and in so doing, we ourselves become complicit. In choosing to ignore we renounce our right to complain.
This story is not about tax havens or the super rich; it’s not even about morality. It’s about our growing sense of apathy towards misconduct. It’s about our increasing ambivalence towards exploitation, favouritism, partiality and one-sidedness. It’s about a global population that is gradually becoming numb to wrong-doing, and believing it to be inevitable, anaesthetises itself on a cocktail of reality television and click-bait, while the world is slowly appropriated from under them.
Somewhere inside every thinking person is the silent knowing acknowledgement that all is not what it seems. That big business has penetrated governments around the world and shapes policy with a stronger hand than the people they purport to represent. Surely we know this. Surely we can just agree this is happening.
Somewhere inside each of us we suspect that we are doing damage to the planet and can conceive of a scenario in which this damage becomes irrevocable. Surely this is a plausible possibility and surely one can build a strong case to argue that we are already on this path, the only unknown being the distance down which we have already travelled.
Somewhere inside each of us we look upon the instability in the Middle East, and in a moment of quiet introspection, acknowledge that this is a mess partly of our own making. That we have probably had a stronger hand in this than most of us would care to acknowledge. That Paris and Brussels are as much a result of western foreign policy as they are fundamentalist Islam.
Somewhere inside each or us we know there are secrets. We know that there are some amongst us who conspire to fix and rig and arrange. Like an opaque mirror that reflects back form without revealing detail, we are vaguely aware of our own manipulation. We know it without being able to name it; a conundrum that fills us with just enough uncertainty to not want to try.
In 1961 John F. Kennedy gave a speech at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York in which he warned of the threat of secret societies, secret oaths, and secret proceedings. He warned of a ‘monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies primarily on covert means for expanding it’s sphere of influence.’ Whether the business of secrets has in fact been industrialised and given birth to exclusive societies, I can’t tell you, but the Panamanian Papers serve to remind us that we live in a world of secrets; some of them shared and well kept.
What I think Kennedy sort to do in this speech was remind us of what happens when ‘good men do nothing.’ Remind us of our own frailties and darker nature. Of our capacity to ignore the greater good and to suggest that, but for the means and circumstance, we ourselves might make the choices that have been revealed to have been made, not just in the Panamanian Papers, but in the countless revelations that have been and are yet to come. If Kennedy’s words warned us of what might happen, the Panamanian Papers have shown us what does happen.
So where to from here? Is there a moral to the story? A teaching perhaps? Far be it from me to tell people what they should or should not do – the world has enough people barking at one another. All I can tell you is what I’m doing.
I’m taking an interest in how the world works and how my country is run. It’s hard – I’m busy, but I’ve grown to understand that unless people like me look up from what they’re doing and stop to notice; take the time to understand and respond; first with a shout, then, if necessary, with a pitchfork, then evil will triumph. Good men would have done nothing.
What right does anyone have to bellow from the bleaches at an injustice they are already aware of? To bugle madly over something that has occurred before as if it were the first time?
Even now, as I write, we are forgetting about the Panamanian Papers. Forgetting about what happened and who was involved. Forgetting in the same way that we forgot about the war in Iraq and weapons of mass destruction that were never found. In the same way we forgot about the war in Afghanistan; a sovereign country invaded so that one man, one single, solitary man, might be brought to account. We are a species with Amnesia; opening old wounds convinced that they are new ones.
The rich and powerful of the world who hide their wealth so that others can not get to it – those who were named in the Panamanian Papers and those who weren’t – are not evil people. They are probably not even bad people. They have just realised that no one is looking. That the guard detail at Fort Knox has long since deserted it’s post. That most of us are so busy working and bringing up children and trying to make something of our lives, that we don’t have time to call one another to account.
Forget the indignation you feel over the hypocrisy of world leaders who publicly countenance transparency and privately amass wealth. This only serves to distract us. The Panamanian Papers remind us of who we are, what we are, and what we might be if left unchecked.
They remind us that to do nothing is to give consent. They remind us that not knowing is to acquiesce. They remind us of all that has gone before and all that will come again, and placing their papyrul lips against our hearts, ask us to consider what we might do now.