Sinking In A Sea Of Scandal: If the world has been left open-mouthed by the Panama Papers, it is largely on account of the sudden transition of fiction to fact. No matter how painstakingly John Le Carré or John Grisham construct their plots; no matter how realistically they draw their characters; their readers have, until now, been able to console themselves with the thought that, in the end, it’s only a story. Well, not anymore!
THEY’RE CALLING THEM “The Panama Papers”. A vast haul of electronic documents, said to be several orders of magnitude bigger than the infamous Wikileaks “dump” of 2010, which is leaving the world open-mouthed. Stolen from the secretive Panamanian-based law firm, Mossack Fonseca, the Panama Papers have exposed the dodgy financial dealings of the global elites for all to see. Or, at least, read about.
But how shocked are we, really? For decades now, novelists and screenwriters have been entertaining us with dark tales of criminal law firms and offshore tax havens. We’ve been told, in detail, how arms dealers and drug traffickers launder their ill-gotten gains through the international financial system. We know all about front organisations, dummy companies and blind trusts. In the world of fiction, none of this is new.
This coming Sunday, for example, tens-of-thousands of New Zealanders will watch the final episode of the BBC’s superb thriller, The Night Manager, hoping against hope that the devilish arms dealer, Richard Roper (played to perfection by Hugh Laurie) will get what’s coming to him.
But, we will not be surprised (because John Le Carré has taught us not to be) if the villain somehow manages to slip through the hero’s fingers. Happy endings aren’t what they used to be. If the global financial crisis proved that some banks are “too big to fail”, is it really that big a stretch to believe that some people are too big to catch? And, if we’re honest, don’t we find the unrepentant arrogance of the 1 Percenters just a teeny bit thrilling?
If the world has been left open-mouthed by the Panama Papers, isn’t it more likely on account of the sudden transition of fiction to fact? No matter how painstakingly Le Carré or John Grisham construct their plots; no matter how realistically they draw their characters; their readers have, until now, been able to console themselves with the thought that, in the end, it’s only a story. They think about the hum-drum nature of their own lives, and, reluctantly file the whole the notion of swashbuckling villainy, enacted on a global scale, under “I” – for implausible.
Well, not anymore!
It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”
It’s not something those of us who are not very rich care to admit, but the Panama Papers prove beyond all reasonable doubt that Fitzgerald was right. The very rich are very different from us.
It’s not that they’re immoral, more that they are absolutely certain that the morality that constrains the rest of humanity simply doesn’t apply to them. As Fitzgerald put it: “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. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are.”
That’s why they need law firms like Mossack Fonseca: to hide their dealings from the eyes of all those silly people who subscribe to the utterly ridiculous notion that we are all equal. People like that, ordinary people, just don’t understand – will never understand – the needs of the very rich.
Not that the very rich think about ordinary people very often – why would they? What does get their attention, however, is the frightening news that ordinary people are thinking about them. Nothing turns a genial Bertie Wooster into a ferocious Richard Roper faster than the unwarranted scrutiny of the lower orders. Popular envy the very rich can tolerate, even enjoy: but popular interference; that is another matter altogether.
John Key’s reaction to the global release of the Panama Papers has been interesting. Where the Opposition parties have greeted the news that their country’s less-than-robust tax laws are being exploited by the likes of Mossack Fonseca with demands for official inquiries and swift legislative action, New Zealand’s Prime Minister has evinced a lofty nonchalance.
There were many, perfectly legitimate, reasons that a foreign investor might set up in New Zealand, Mr Key told journalists. It was quite wrong, he insisted, to call his country a “tax haven”.
A very different response from the one people like you and me might expect. But, then, Mr Key is very rich.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 8 April 2016.