Friday, 8 April 2016

"Different From You And Me": Some Thoughts On The Panama Papers.

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.

11 comments:

Guerilla Surgeon said...

And, if we’re honest, don’t we find the unrepentant arrogance of the 1 Percenters just a teeny bit thrilling?
Er... no. Catching them and putting them in jail – now THAT would be thrilling. With a touch of schadenfreude.

And wasn't the reply to“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”
– "Yes, they have more money."? :)

Personally I think a better quote would have been, "only the little people pay taxes." :)

Anonymous said...

My friends Grandson works for a bank. He works 2 weeks on and then they fly him anywhere in the world he wants to go for a couple of weeks. I thought of John Grisham's The Firm.
I had an ex merchant banker as a tour leader "I wasn't averse to having a bob each way on myself when I was young" (he would say). He didn't like a bus driver giving a commentary (it bothered him for some reason).

Unknown said...

You can bet your boots those buzzing around Alan Hubbard knew those better than average results (that made him a magnet for peoples money) were shonky.
....

Once worked together at race meetings throwing trestles up on trucks, boxes of crockery etc. One becomes ambitious property lawyer. Other is excited at having bought first house, calls acquaintance: "how much is it?" "$43,000" "Not interested!" says a Rumpole voice (slams phone down).

Anonymous said...

Chris, what has John Key's wealth got to do with anything?. Is it a crime to be rich?. You are rich compared to many NZ'rs and most people in the world!.

New Zealand people, it's Parliament, it's business and financial sectors are all indifferent.

Across the rest of the world this is a big story in some countries and international business's.

After that, the rest of the world is indifferent.

peter petterson said...

And the National Party and its over-privileged elite think they are so superior to the rest of us? Yeah right!

greywarbler said...

The 'greenback' in your image does not seem soggy, actually remarkably waterproof. Have they coated it, indeed sprayed the whole of the USA, with this 'superhydrophobic spray-on coating':
(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7is6r6zXFDc

This means that it never needs cleaning, always manages to come up shiny and perhaps the august gentleman on the monetary note, smiling. Perhaps they will invent hydroponic systems for growing such notes, or form them with holograms? Exciting isn't it what modern professionals can fashion out of seemingly thin air.

If the air gets thicker, more polluted say, will it enhance or detract from this advanced development?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7is6r6zXFDc

greywarbler said...

I did a rather sombre comment yesterday starting off with an Eat the Rich clip, moving onto Peter Greenaway's film on 'strange food' on The Standard.
I thought it made an interesting visual feast!
http://thestandard.org.nz/obama-calls-for-international-tax-reform-what-will-key-do-now/#comment-1157229

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Is it a crime to be rich?."

Not necessarily. We're not talking about being rich as such, but the sort of attitudes that have them refuse to pay their dues, much of which goes to the infrastructure that enabled them to build their fortune in the first place. They are simply a selfish pack of bastards.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i5dBZDSSky0

markus/swordfish said...

Ha Haaa !!! Like the Bertie Wooster-to-Richard Roper reference, Chris. Hugh Laurie, of course, playing Bertram Wilberforce Wooster back in the early 90s, with Stephen Fry as Jeeves. Just watched a few episodes on Youtube a few weeks ago (first time in more than 20 years).

Charles Pigden said...

I must say I am with Chris as against Guerrilla Surgeon: I do 'find the unrepentant arrogance of the 1 Percenters just a teeny bit thrilling'. I disapprove , of course, but I am not as immune as Guerrilla Surgeon appears to be to the ideological influences of the of the age.