The Panama Papers and Wisconsin

The following piece, “The 1% Hide Their Money Offshore—Then Use it to Corrupt Our Democracy,” by Aditya Chakrabortty, in the 10 April 2016 issue of the guardian is relevant to Wisconsin politics considering the overbearing influence the Koch brothers have had in our state’s recent history. I excerpt the piece below and provide a link at the end.

Over the past 72 hours, you have seen our political establishment operating at a level of panic rarely equalled in postwar history. Britain’s prime minister has had yanked out of him some of his most intimate financial details. Complete strangers now know how much he’s inherited so far from his mum and dad, and the offshore investments from which he’s profited. Yesterday he even took the unprecedented step of revealing the taxes he’d paid over the past six years. Leaders of other parties have responded by summarily publishing their own HMRC returns. In contemporary Britain, where one’s extramarital affairs are more readily discussed in public than one’s tax affairs, this is jaw-dropping stuff.

And it will not stop here. Whatever the lazy shorthand being used by some commentators, David Cameron has not released his tax returns, but merely a summary certified by an accountants’ firm. That halfway house will hardly be enough. If Jeremy Corbyn, other senior politicians and the press keep up this level of attack, then within days more details of the prime minister’s finances will emerge. Nor will the flacks of Downing Street be able to maintain their lockdown on disclosing how many cabinet members have offshore interests: the ministers themselves will break ranks. Indeed, a few are already beginning to do so.

But the risk is that all this will descend into a morass of semi-titillating detail: a string of revelations about who gave what to whom, and whether he or she then declared it to the Revenue. The story will become about “handling” and “narrative” and individual culpability. That will be entertaining for those who like to point fingers, perplexing for those too busy to engage in the detail – and miss the wider truth revealed by the leak which forced all this into public discussion.

Because at root, the Panama Papers are not about tax. They’re not even about money. What the Panama Papers really depict is the corruption of our democracy.

Following on from LuxLeaks, the Panama Papers confirm that the super-rich have effectively exited the economic system the rest of us have to live in. Thirty years of runaway incomes for those at the top, and the full armoury of expensive financial sophistication, mean they no longer play by the same rules the rest of us have to follow. Tax havens are simply one reflection of that reality. Discussion of offshore centres can get bogged down in technicalities, but the best definition I’ve found comes from expert Nicholas Shaxson who sums them up as: “You take your money elsewhere, to another country, in order to escape the rules and laws of the society in which you operate.” In so doing, you rob your own society of cash for hospitals, schools, roads…

But those who exited our societies are now also exercising their voice to set the rules by which the rest of us live. The 1% are buying political influence as never before. Think of the billionaire Koch brothers, whose fortunes will shape this year’s US presidential elections. In Britain, remember the hedge fund and private equity barons, who in 2010 contributed half of all the Conservative party’s election funds – and so effectively bought the Tories their first taste of government in 18 years.

To flesh out the corrosion of democracy that is happening, you need to go to a Berlin-born economist called Albert Hirschman, a giant in modern economic thinking. Hirschman died in 2012 at the age of 97, but it’s his concepts that really set in context what’s so disturbing about the Panama Papers.

Hirschman argued that citizens could protest against a system in one of two ways: voice or exit. Fed up with your local school? Then you can exercise your voice and take it up with the headteacher. Alternatively, you can exit and take your child to a private school.

In Britain and in America, the super-rich have broken Hirschman’s law – they are at one and the same time exercising economic exit and political voice. They can have their tax-free cake and eat it…

Aditya Chakrabortty, “The 1% Hide Their Money Offshore—Then Use it to Corrupt Our Democracy,” the guardian 10 April 2016.

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