New Orleans If we ever needed another reminder that the notion of being “transparent,” is little more than the name of an Amazon television show, the so-called Panama Papers are just the latest example in a pantheon running directly from WikiLeaks to Edward Snowden and now a huge data drop from a secretive Panamanian law firm. In some ways this latest expose is the least dramatic of the series. No wars are involved. No killings observed. No dissing and gossiping about world leaders. So far from what we’ve seen this is little more than a bunch of rich peoples’ scams and tax dodges, so who could be surprised at any of this?
Yet, amazingly, some are!
The Prime Minister of Iceland took enough heat on the frozen island that he was history in 48-hours. The Prime Minister of Britain in a first for that country released his most recent tax returns which until Donald Trump has been pretty much a requirement for USA politicians. The head of the Labour Party, the Secretary of the Exchequer, and the head of the Scottish National Party also released their taxes. There’s a lot of talk about sneaky deals involving friends and family hiding filthy lucre in China, Russia, and parts near and far. The posh folks in the gazillion dollar fine arts commodity market are fuming that some of these Panamanian shell corporations might have scammed them for millions by flipping large collections with the help of art auction houses.
The money the rich and their wannabe-rich political friends are hiding is not small potatoes. If the US were able to collect taxes from all of the money discovered as hidden offshore through the Panama Papers revelations the Treasury would collect $124 billion a year in additional taxes, $36 billion from individuals and $88 billion from corporations, almost enough to eliminate a quarter of the national debt.
So, your first thought might have been, “How did they all think they could get away with this?” But, if so, your second thought had to have been, damn, this is what they have been doing all the time and everywhere. Americans certainly don’t need to go to Panama, since Wyoming, Nevada, and Delaware require virtually no information to set up similar shell companies. There have to be hundreds of law firms and thousands of lawyers who set up these shell operations to dodge taxes on a daily basis, and that doesn’t count the in-house corporate legal departments for whom this is part of the main job description. The real truth has to be that the rich have always been about avoiding taxes and have built up a specialized industry to support their efforts for centuries.
What we are seeing has to be the tip of a very deep iceberg. Reports on the way the committee of journalists are handling this data throve also are clear that they are only dribbling out the information in dibs and dabs, so who knows what is still coming, and of course there is more that we will never know. Law firms around the world have to be racing to throw more money at their tech support workers to make sure they are doing a daily happy dance. Computer whizzes have to be working overtime to assure their bosses and their bosses in turn their rich and important clients that, “hey, it can’t happen here,” but the truth is that this is just the way the world works for the rich and powerful. This just happens to be a brief moment when we’re allowed a quick look, before the window closes again.
The message is that transparency is just for all of us suckers, just like paying taxes is. The rich and powerful know people, and we just don’t know any better. And, the world goes round.