“We choose love,” Madonna said from the podium at the national Women’s March in January. She was speaking a day after President Donald Trump had been inaugurated, leading a crowd to chant about love a moment after joking that she had “thought an awful lot of blowing up the White House” since Election Day 2016.
There’s little doubt the irascible pop icon’s public loathing of Trump as an individual is sincere. But at the broader level of the systems that govern how the human world works, Madonna and Trump are closer to peers than to opponents — as the latest massive dump of financial secrets from inside the opaque world of offshore accounting revealed over the weekend.
The 13.4 million documents in the “Paradise Papers,” as editors from the German outlet Süddeutsche Zeitung and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) call them, further pull back curtains opened in 2015. That year, the “Panama Papers” leak exposed tax avoidance work by a firm called Mossack Fonseca just months after the publication of a separate, narrower cache of information from inside Switzerland’s secretive banking industry.
Much of the early coverage of the Paradise Papers has centered on U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. Ross turns out to have used offshore firms — the corporate law equivalent of slapping some concealer on a hickey — to handle one of his many major holdings. A shipping company once led by the billionaire relies in substantial part on business from a Russian energy firm controlled by oligarchs close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ross did not divest his holdings in the company, as the New York Times notes he did with “numerous other holdings” in order to take the Commerce Department job.
The spotlight on Ross here is understandable, even laudable. After all, the U.S. company whose success puts money in Ross’ pockets was expanding its business relationship with the Russians at the same time that the U.S. government was weighing sanctions of Russian elites in response to that country’s invasion of Ukraine. While none of the revelations indicate Ross broke any laws, they do raise new questions about his commitment to avoiding conflicts of interest while running the cabinet agency with greatest authority over international trade. (His prior ethics disclosures had mentioned his holdings in the American shipping firm but not its ties to the Russian energy company, the Times reported.)
Ross isn’t alone. White House economic adviser Gary Cohn, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and longtime Trump backer Tom Barrack all appear in the Paradise Papers in various squirrely ways apt to raise eyebrows with self-styled #Resistance members.
But so too do Madonna, Bono, former Democratic presidential hopeful Gen. Wesley Clark, prominent philanthropist Queen Noor of Jordan, Keira Knightley, and three stars of a hit BBC sitcom called “Mrs. Brown’s Boys.”
Bono’s money-men used offshore accounting magic to get him a stake in a Lithuanian shopping mall. Madonna used the tactics to keep earnings from a medical supply company outside the tax jurisdictions of the governments whose services she actually uses. Clark shows up in the papers due to a network of online gambling companies whose actual business leader has since been indicted for insider trading in Canada. The BBC comics stashed about two million pounds in offshore accounts as part of a scheme to minimize their tax liabilities. Knightley put some of her wealth into an offshore-based real estate fund, incurring similar legal tax advantages.
This ideologically haphazard cast of characters puts a grim tinge on the old proverb that despite our polarized political times, there is more that unites us than divides us. A Democratic presidential hopeful, an outspoken symbol of sexual liberation, and a trio of regionally-renowned middle-brow television characters turn out to have plenty in common with the plutocrat liars who staff the White House of an alleged serial sexual predator and open coddler of violent white supremacists.
They are all rich people — from Trump Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to Madonna, with thousands of stops in between — who can buy an escape hatch from the rules governing the rest of society.
People who aren’t born famous and rich, like Knightley or Bono, swiftly find themselves catered to by what must seem like a volunteer army of lawyers, accountants, and financial advisers eager to help them. They sign paperwork they understand to signify a legal means of skirting tax liabilities, or deferring them for some period of time, and move on with their careers.
But while the celebrity class present in the Paradise Papers may seem to have cleaner hands than the business titans and literal royalty who appear here, their involvement is testament to the modern brokenness of our commitments to one another as human beings. Somebody like Queen Noor may have her mind on the massed billions who subsist through lives of toil on a few dollars a day when she’s writing checks to UNICEF. But at all other times, she’s entrusting part of her wealth to legal functionaries whose sole purpose is to keep it from being redistributed to the needy through public policy structures that theoretically reflect the aggregated will of the people of the world.
While each leak gives rise to a dizzying number of specific, narrow news flashes about this or that company, individual, or tiny nation built on helping the hyper-rich avoid taxes, the chorus of specific revelations threatens to overshadow the broader truth of the thing.
No one really cares, as evidenced by the global failure to meaningfully address tax havens and letter-of-the-law swindling after the Swiss leaks and the Panama Papers illustrates. With sums so staggering in the headlines, you might expect world leaders to change things up — disincentivize tax avoidance, clamp down on the shadowy industry that helps rich celebrities and sanctioned governments alike dodge the rules without technically committing crimes, and shrink if not close the regulatory holes that the firms covered in recent leaks use to pierce the spirit of international tax law without openly defying its letter.
Instead, U.S. policymakers are recycling two failed, old ideas on how to do tax. One would reward corporate tax avoiders with a “repatriation holiday” that would only enrich shareholders of companies that used accounting tricks to pay a lower tax rate than that paid by the average American worker. The other — Trump’s planned rewriting of the individual income tax code — would force working families to pay a larger tax bill at the end of the next decade than they do now, while giving hyperwealthy people a tax cut on average over that same window.
This neglect of a documented problem with modern humanity’s approach to the most basic governmental task — collecting money from people who have it to fund programs the system has decided people need — illustrates that only one ideology really holds sway across all other social divisions. Extreme deference to plutocratic wealth breeds the presumption that money ends up exactly where it is supposed to, guided by an indifferent market machinery that lies outside our moral apparatus.
When progressives see that icy self-justifying logic applied to those they identify as political enemies, they rightly revile it. But when the person wielding it feels like an ally in some broader cause, it’s all too easy to lose sight of the root reality: The hyper-wealthy’s con never stops remaking the world we all share.