Lessons of the Panama Papers: Yes, the rich are different from us -- they stole our money

A vast web of lies and corruption protecting the super-rich is revealed -- and it's only the tip of an evil iceberg

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published April 6, 2016 11:00PM (EDT)

 (<a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/portfolio/skynesher'>skynesher</a> via <a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/'>iStock</a>)
(skynesher via iStock)

F. Scott Fitzgerald apparently never told his Parisian drinking buddy Ernest Hemingway, “Ernie, the rich are different from us,” only to be rebuffed by the legendary comeback, “Yes, they have more money.” Like so many famous anecdotes, that one was cooked up years after the fact (probably by Fitzgerald’s posthumous editor, the literary critic Edmund Wilson). One reason that apocryphal exchange possesses such enduring cultural resonance is that both observations are true, and what sounds like a contradiction is not a contradiction after all.

What have we learned so far from the Panama Papers, the largest volume of leaked documents in history, which have begun to peel the lid off a vast web of global greed, deception and iniquity among the highest level of the moneyed classes? For starters, they should serve to remind us how different the very rich are from the rest of us. Yes, it starts with the fact that they have more money, but it doesn’t end there. How did they get all that money, and what are they doing with it? Why do they have so much more money than the rest of us — unimaginably more, and on an unprecedented scale? Why do they seem so perpetually unsatisfied with their wealth, and so desperate to nurture it, shield it and multiply it? To quote someone else who confronted a society of immense injustice and economic inequality, a few years before Scott and Ernie’s imaginary Left Bank conversation: What is to be done?

What are the Panama Papers? For starters, they represent a data dump of literally staggering size, many times larger than any trove of government or corporate secrets ever disclosed by Wikileaks or anyone else. They also represent one of the biggest scoops in the history of investigative journalism, one that left the New York Times, the Washington Post and the rest of the mainstream American media completely flat-footed. More than a year ago, an anonymous source apparently provided the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung with about 11.5 million files, or 2.5 terabytes of data, from the archives of Mossack Fonseca, a worldwide law firm based in Panama whose specialties include the creation of imaginative offshore tax havens and other strategies for “wealth management.”

Overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information, the Munich newspaper decided to share the trove with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and ultimately with other large publications and broadcasters, including the Guardian, the BBC, Le Monde in Paris and La Nación in Buenos Aires. According to the fascinating report published on the SZ website (in English), 400 journalists from more than 80 countries have spent the last year combing through millions of documents, rendering them into searchable text and cross-referencing names, dates, companies, transactions and other data points.

I’m tempted to dive into a tangent about New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan’s agonized discussion of why the Times wasn’t involved in the ICIJ’s research effort and didn’t even know about the Panama Papers until their existence was first reported last weekend, and why it took three days for any related story to reach the Times’ front page. Let’s put it this way: The Gray Lady has a long and tormented relationship to the powers of big government and big capital, which largely speaks for itself.

Outside of those teams of journalists and a few thousand people around the world who operate in and around the upper reaches of the financial elite, almost no one had heard of Mossack Fonseca before Sunday. It might be comforting to think of their designer-suited minions as lizard-people with forked tongues and the power to turn day into night, and black into white, when not cleaning their clients’ Louboutins with their tongues, and who can melt the will of mortals with the Black Breath of the Nazgûl. (Please note: That is hyperbole! And satire! Not libel!) But even they can’t make themselves disappear into the Olympian ether again, not after this.

The Panama Papers reportedly cover more than 40 years of Mossack Fonseca’s operations on behalf of a who’s-who list of the global elite, including numerous important politicians and current or former heads of state, international criminals and star athletes, along with any number of less charismatic but equally wealthy corporations and individuals. Close associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin appear in the Mossack documents (although Putin himself is not named), as do the father of British Prime Minister David Cameron, members of the Saudi royal family, the president of Ukraine and the prime minister of Pakistan. The Icelandic prime minister, named as a Mossack client with offshore holdings, was forced to resign on Tuesday, before apparently reversing himself on Wednesday. It’s safe to say the ripple effects of these revelations will be felt for years, if not decades.

Mossack evidently created some 214,000 anonymous offshore companies for its moneyed clientele — “shell firms” with sham directors and phony boards of directors, reports the SZ, designed such that their “true purpose and ownership structure is indecipherable from the outside.” In most of these cases, “concealing the identities of the true company owners was the primary aim,” and the documents suggest that Mossack routinely engages in business practices that “potentially violate sanctions, in addition to aiding and abetting tax evasion and money laundering.”

Those are explosive charges, and one should of course be cautious in characterizing a powerful law firm that has tried to deny or deflect most of these allegations in a vigorous if laborious rebuttal, published in full on the Guardian’s website. In a long-winded letter signed by Carlos Sousa, the firm’s public-relations director, Mossack Fonseca insists it “does not foster or promote illegal acts,” respectfully disagrees with the conclusion that it sought to help anyone avoid paying taxes or launder dirty money, and claims to “have operated beyond reproach in [its] home country and in other jurisdictions” for 40 years. Furthermore, if any of its clients misused its services or did anything illegal, the firm professes itself deeply shocked and distressed (I am paraphrasing, but not by much). In short, Mossack says it did nothing wrong or at least didn’t mean to, and has recently added 26 new hires to its “compliance department” to ensure it continues to do nothing wrong in the future.

Here’s what else the Panama Papers are: They’re just the tip of a really big iceberg. That’s true in several senses. First of all, although Mossack Fonseca is a major player in the lucrative international industry of helping the rich get richer, it’s only one company among the network of bankers and lawyers and honey-tongued advisers competing to grovel before the world’s elite caste and make safe their massive wealth. But there is another and more important sense too. Most of the Panama Papers stories so far revolve around relatively narrow legal questions of criminality, tax evasion and political scandal. I understand the journalistic imperative at work here: Stories linking Mossack’s shell companies to prominent individuals like Putin or Cameron, to outlaw regimes like North Korea and Zimbabwe, or to egregious criminal activity make legitimate headline news.

Larger issues are at stake, however, than whether anyone committed a crime under the current rules of international business and commerce. As even the SZ’s hard-hitting piece takes pains to make clear, owning an offshore company is not illegal in itself, even when the intention is clearly to conceal the company’s real owners and true purposes. It was quite likely legal for Ian Cameron, the late father of Britain’s current prime minister, to avoid paying taxes in the United Kingdom by running his investment fund through a Mossack shell firm in the Bahamas. As the Guardian observes, "It is not illegal to own property through an offshore company," as the children of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif evidently do (four luxury apartments in London’s Park Lane, owned through shell companies in the British Virgin Islands).

Let’s put it this way: Who writes the laws, in a society dominated by finance capital, neoliberal economics and the ideology of free trade and globalization? In a system, to quote the author I alluded to earlier, “under which the market is the regulator of social production,” including the production of culture and thought? (Yes, that would be V.I. Lenin, of October Revolution fame.) Whose interests are those laws meant to protect? Does the world of Mossack Fonseca and its ilk, where morphing, shifting corporate entities shepherd amazingly large sums of money in secret from one jurisdiction to another, sound like the operation of a free and fair market society where everyone who works hard or has talent has an equal chance to become Donald Trump or Kim Kardashian? Or does it sound like a rigged system designed to delude the powerless and make them accomplices in their own impoverishment, while ensuring the indefinite oligarchic rule of the rich and powerful?

One of Lenin’s main points, in the essay “What Is to Be Done?,” was that the market system produces its own rules, its own ideology and its own self-justifying structure of thought. Those things are enforced upon the entire society, and you can’t do anything to fight the system until you get outside that ideological structure. One does not have to agree with Lenin’s concrete solutions (which I am not inclined to defend) to see that the problem is still with us. It may be the secret narrative behind the Democratic primary campaign between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, for instance: While they are nominally not far apart on many issues, Clinton is a member of the Mossack Fonseca-level social stratum, and represents its interests. Whatever his flaws as a candidate may be, Sanders isn’t and doesn’t.

Fitzgerald never had that famous conversation with Hemingway, but in his 1926 short story “The Rich Boy,” he did write this: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves.”

We could rephrase that for the 21st century by saying that the rich are different because they have more money, and because they stole it from us and keep hoping we won't notice. They stole it from you and from me, and even more from billions of other, poorer people around the world. Wealth and poverty have always been with us, and probably always will. But the disparity we see around us, far greater than anything Fitzgerald's rich and innocent Jay Gatsby could have imagined, is an enormous historical crime, and on some level everybody knows it. The Panama Papers hint at the scale of that crime, and the scale of the coverup.

Perhaps the rich still believe they deserve to be rich, and too many of the non-rich believe it too. But their desperate attempts to hide their wealth beneath armies of lawyers and nests of imaginary companies and mailing addresses on distant islands suggest otherwise. They're afraid that the illusion may be crumbling. They're afraid that one of these days we'll figure out how they got that money and decide to take it back.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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