What if they held a mammoth document leak and nobody came? That seems, with a slight allowance for hyperbole, the impact of the release of 2.6 terabytes of data from the inner sanctums of Mossack Fonseca, the high-rolling Panamanian law firm. Mossack Fonseca—which is, appropriately enough, the joint brainchild of a scion of an émigré Nazi family and a Panamanian lawyer-novelist—is maniacally dedicated to the instant incorporation of obliging shell companies for an elite clientele seeking to shelter their fortunes from revenue collectors in their economic homeland. More than 100 newsgathering outfits across the globe collaborated, under the aegis of the nonprofit International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, to roll out the lead disclosures arising from the leak—a project that is still ongoing. But American news operations largely consigned these lurid revelations of how diligently the international political and economic power elite conceal their pelf from prying auditors to their back pages.
Indeed, the redoubtable hot-take maestros at Vox media leapt fearlessly into the fray to declare that, you know, when you really think about it, offshore tax shelters can be kind of cool—like when, for instance, wealthy dissidents in authoritarian countries use them to shield their fortunes from grasping strongmen! Of course, this enormously charitable view of things suffers a good deal from the actual material leaked about Mossack Fonseca’s enormous client base, which leans heavily toward authoritarian strongmen and their enablers, from Vladimir Putin to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to Bashar al-Assad’s enterprising cousin-cum-financial fixer, Rami Makhlouf. It also didn’t help the slapdash case that Vox quisling—er, excuse me, “reporter”—Zack Beauchamp was hoping to make that he staked it largely on an interview with Yale political science professor Margaret Peters, who went out of her way to praise the transparent business climate of the authoritarian regime in Singapore, without bothering to disclose that Yale is partnering with the National University of Singapore in a glorified tax shelter of its own. (Indeed, Yale, like many an elite institution of higher learning, is a centuries-old master of tax dodging.) But hey, as Beauchamp cheerily assures us, “the relations between individuals, states, and offshore accounts isn’t as straightforward as we might think.”
The unexamined presumption in such recursive and rudderless counter-taking is that Beauchamp and his colleagues, or anyone else notionally tasked with reporting on the inner workings of wealth accumulation in our new millennial gilded age, thinks at all about offshore capital shelters. Far from being an exotic plaything of thuggish world leaders like Putin, or merely corrupt ones like Iceland’s ex-Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson (who laid the groundwork for his parliamentary exit on Tuesday in the wake of the news that he’d used Mossack Fonseca shell firms to conceal banking assets at the height of the global financial crisis), the phony incorporation trick is at the heart of America’s own decrepit, financialized, and top-heavy economic order.
That would be why, for example, Apple—which has surpassed merely industrial-age corporations like General Motors and Exxon as the most heavily capitalized company in the world—has routed sales through Ireland (while concertedly soaking its labor force in China). After depositing more than $200 billion in overseas accounts, the computer giant actually borrowed $17 billion in 2013 to finance a massive stock buyback to artificially spike its share prices—and thereby reap hundreds of millions for its lead shareholders to store in their tax-avoidant nest eggs. As finance scams go, the Apple ownership structure admittedly lacks the screwball ribaldry of Ukrainian President Poroshenko busily at work with Mossack Fonseca, worried about his private assets and providing a current utility bill to document his home address, on the very day Russia was (again) invading Ukraine. But, structurally speaking, there’s no bright line to distinguish Tim Cook’s Cupertino tax dodges from the more downmarket variety east of the Black Sea.
Far from being an exotic plaything of thuggish world leaders like Putin, or merely corrupt ones like Gunnlaugsson, the phony incorporation trick is at the heart of America’s own top-heavy economic order.
Indeed, the reason that more American financiers and political figures aren’t named in the Panama Papers is that most of the elaborate ruses of Mossack Fonseca are perfectly legal within American borders, and indeed, the standard m.o., for the American financial sector. Nest-feathering American investors “mostly don’t go to Panama,” says Ken Silverstein, who published a major Mossack Fonseca expose for Vice in 2014. “Hey, Goldman Sachs has private banking systems all over the world.”
America has conspicuously refrained from adopting automated data-sharing protocols promulgated by the OECD to crack down on offshore tax havens—for the simple reason that more robust enforcement of global tax laws would impair the bottom line of the U.S. financial sector. As the Tax Justice network notes, even as America has sought to ride herd on other lax global banking refuges such as Switzerland and the Cayman Islands under the 2010 Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, the American government “provides little information in return to other countries, making it a formidable, harmful and irresponsible secrecy jurisdiction at both the Federal and state levels.”
That would be why industry leaders such as Mossack Fonseca have established a firm foothold within U.S. borders—within the regulation-allergic jurisdiction of Nevada, to be precise. Technically of course, the Panamanian firm’s American satellite—MF Corporate Services—can’t be traced back to the parent company via any straight legal line of ownership or proprietorship; it’s a shell company-incorporator’s shell company. That way, deniability is assured all around—which is how, for example, two Argentinian oligarchs were able to establish more than 100 Nevada-based shell companies in Nevada, managed by another battery of Mossack Fonseca firms nominally headquartered in the Seychelles, as prosecutors allege and Silverstein reports.
This, too, seems like the head-spinning intrigue out of a John le Carré novel (or a lame Andrew Ross Sorkin Showtime treatment). But again, it’s now pretty much the dominant American model of business-building. As Time columnist Rana Foroohar notes in her forthcoming book Makers and Takers, shady offshore wealth transfers are the lifeblood of global financial networks:
American firms do a lot of this, redirecting to the most tax-advantageous country the intellectual property that may have been the work of many people in many countries. Basically, this strategy funnels the profits from the ‘knowledge’ economy, where the innovation actually occurred, to a different economy that offers the cheapest cash haven. . . . Because there are European Union tax agreements in place that allow money to move freely between EU countries, American firms can set up Dutch subsidiaries and transfer more money from more countries into Irish subsidiaries. The whole thing creates a global race to the bottom, which underscores one of the key problems of tax avoidance: the so-called ‘tragedy of the commons,’ where, in the end, everyone loses.
Why don’t American news organizations take more painstaking notice of the obvious affinities between how Mossack Fonseca shuffles cash around and the way it’s done on Wall Street? Well, largely because they, too, are leveraged up to their eyeballs in the same system. The Washington Post’s owner, Jeff Bezos, is a notorious bottom-feeding tax-jurisdiction shopper, as is Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, one of the lead financial backers of the New York Times. (And this is all to say nothing of the nauseating litany of mobbed-up editorial and op-ed defenders of the economic status quo at both papers, from Tom Friedman, David Brooks, and Nick Kristof at the Times to Robert Samuelson, Charles Lane, Marc Thiessen—and well, everyone but Eugene Robinson and E.J. Dionne at the Post.) And do not get us started on the tax-dodging antics of Fox News-Wall Street Journal impresario Rupert Murdoch. Every time a global economic scandal explodes, a plutocratic press will recur, reliably, to the same empty Punch and Judy spectacle, in which all the most outlandish trespasses are the handiwork of light-fingered foreign autocrats. There’s a reason, after all, that the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists is a nonprofit.