Among the great unwashed, our idea of "hiding" wealth consists of dumping spare change in a coffee can on the kitchen counter. So it's a bit hard to get one's head around the concept that an international consortium of ascots squirreled away an estimated untaxed 8 percent of the world's wealth, or about $7.6 trillion, in secret offshore banking accounts.
And some people fret about raising the minimum wage to $15 as if the economy would descend into a dystopian Mad Max-like society?
How much is $7.6 trillion? Let's put it this way. You could pay off your student loans. That's how much.
The magic moolah disclosures were the result of a worldwide effort involving 100 news organizations that worked together to expose 11.5 million financial records related to 215,000 companies and 14,153 clients of a shadowy Panamanian law firm. The information was contained in 2.6 terabytes of leaked documents, whatever a terabyte is. It's all pretty incredible, including the notion that scribblers across the globe who ordinarily couldn't organize a two-car funeral managed to pull off this story without someone prematurely spilling the beans.
Great wails of consternation followed the Panama Papers story. After all, the disclosures indicate the Panamanian law firm of Mossack Fonseca, which sounds like something out of a John Le Carre novel, represented at least 12 current world leaders among the 143 politicians, their families and close pals who have been shielding their wealth from public scrutiny. And consider that Mossack Fonseca is only the fourth-largest law firm in the world handling these sorts of financial arrangements. One can only guess what monetary chicanery the other three firms have been up to.
Indeed, some world leaders reportedly taking advantage of the mother of all stuffed mattresses include British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose government just cut welfare payments to the poor; the alleged "best friend" (cough, cough) of Russian President Vladimir Putin; and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who oversees a nation whose citizens earn an average of $1.25 a day. Awkward. There's also Syrian despot Bashar Assad, who apparently has been maintaining a — ahem — rainy-day fund should that whole civil war thing go south.
Another victim of the negative Panama Papers publicity was Iceland Prime Minster Sigmundur Davio Gunnlaugsson, who resigned and thus spared journalists from worrying about ever spelling his name again.
Big shots of one kind or another spread out over more than 50 countries, including the United States, have been linked to planting their wealth in offshore tax havens. It goes on and on: the king of Saudi Arabia, the new president of Argentina, the president of Ukraine, even a North Korean finance minister. There also are at least 33 individuals and companies blacklisted by the United States, including drug lords, arms dealers and suspected terrorists.
Did all these folks get a toaster with their deposits?
Yes, the revelation that the planet's wealthiest people are cloaking their assets in a vast, complex web of banking transactions to escape their tax obligations is ethically abhorrent. Shame on all of them. And now let us take a respite from all the self-righteous indignation.
There is some good news here.
In the movie Network, a bloodless business titan explains to the certifiably insane anchorman Howard Beale that there are no real nations. The world, he rants, is ruled by corporations and currency.
Yes, countries do saber-rattle. They bluster and fulminate. And occasionally somebody invades somebody else for old times' sake. But what the Panama Papers prove is the universal glue that holds the world together is greed.
Consider that, on the record, Pakistan and India hate each other. But do the collective military, government and private sector powers that be really want to blow each other up over a desolate patch of rocks like Kashmir and put at risk ill-gotten billions of dollars resting comfortably in offshore accounts? Do the United States, Russia and China, all members in good standing in the Panama Papers club, want to risk their investments over such a silly thing as who has the bigger … bomb? No. Avarice is thicker than national anthems.
As we've learned over the past few days, the only international borders that count are tax havens like the British Virgin Islands, Switzerland, Cyprus and the Isle of Man — where the currency is strong, the deposits are good and the lack of scruples is way above average.