To be very rich is to have the luxury of constructing a plausible theory of morality that allows you to hold on to everything you have. It is to believe that you can sit in the shoeshine booth and drive a $300,000 McLaren and raise money for Donald Trump and lobby for a zillion-dollar tax cut paid for on the backs of the poor and still be a good American. And to never have to think twice about it.
-- Hamilton Nolan
Raise your hand if you remember the "Panama Papers" scandal. Don't feel bad if the details don't immediately leap to mind; this particular story, after it broke, was buried at record speed with no headstone to mark the grave. The reasons for that become manifestly clear pretty quickly. I first wrote about it more than a year ago:
It was recently revealed by way of a massive document leak that the wealthiest of the global wealthy have taken trillions of dollars and, through the services of a secretive Panamanian law firm, squirrelled that money away inside virtual coffee cans in tax havens all over the world. The "Panama Papers" scandal, as it has come to be called, has ensnared a large number of world leaders, and cost Iceland's prime minister his job. Those 11 million pages contain the names of hundreds of Americans who also used the services of that Panamanian firm to hide their money.
The grim fact of the matter is that this nation's billionaires -- a few of whom own pretty much the entirety of the corporate "news" media -- have absolutely no interest whatsoever having their dirty financial laundry aired. By the time the names of some Americans listed in the Panama Papers were released, the report had been put on Ignore by virtually every major news outlet in the country. Thus, not with a bang but a whimper, one of the most important stories of the era was quietly stuffed under the couch cushions with the potato chip crumbs and the lost dimes.
Well, the story is back, and as it turns out, it is bigger than anyone imagined a year ago. Researchers have combined what they know about the Panama Papers with what was discovered in 2007 after the release of what became known as the "Swiss Papers" -- a document leak that described the hidden wealth of some 30,000 clients of HSBC Private Bank, a Swiss subsidiary of the British banking titan. The results, to date, are nothing short of astonishing and infuriating.
From a recent Washington Post report:
Researchers in Scandinavia and the United States use the Swiss and Panamanian leaks to show that global tax evasion is likely much more prevalent than previously thought. Their estimates indicate that the top 0.01 percent of the wealth distribution own about half of all offshore assets and may be hiding roughly a quarter of their wealth offshore. Their estimates show that the wealthiest people are getting away with paying far less than their fair share. If the top 0.01 percent have 30 percent more wealth than their tax returns indicate, that puts far more distance in the yawning wealth gap between the haves and have-nots. The findings imply that governments are missing out on a lot of revenue that is being hidden by the super wealthy.
Let that sink in nice and deep. The wealthiest of the wealthy using tax dodges and offshore safehouses to hide their money from the tax man is an international phenomenon, to be sure, but the issue takes on a decidedly unique slant here in the United States. It was confirmed in the original reporting on the Panama Papers last year that hundreds of the wealthiest US citizens enjoy the privileges of offshore cash havens, even as the new government in Washington pleads abject poverty while seeking to bleed the poorest among us for the benefit of the richest.
Look no further than President Trump's own budget proposal, a truly monstrous document that would, among other things, strip $800 billion (that's "billion" with a "b") from Medicaid, and obliterate educational services, job training programs and nutritional assistance programs like school lunches for children and "Meals on Wheels." The foolish border wall gets a couple billion dollars in this budget, and the Pentagon gets a 10 percent bump in its revenue. Natch.
Trump and congressional Republicans put their heads together a little while back and concocted what are essentially matching tax plans. These plans, if reconciled and passed, would represent a massive transfer of wealth to the richest people in the country, again. Remember the George W. Bush tax cuts of fifteen years ago? Like that, but strapped to a rocket pack and launched into space.
And then there is the American Health Care Act, the witless GOP answer to Obama's Affordable Care Act. Beyond stripping more than 20 million Americans of their access to health insurance, the AHCA is also a stealth tax cut for the rich. The ACA is supported by various taxes, mostly on wealthier Americans who can presumably afford it. The AHCA would cut those taxes by around $765 billion, and a vast majority of that money would go to the top of the financial heap, again. "According to the Tax Policy Center," reports NPR, "the top 20 percent of earners would receive 64 percent of the savings and the top 1 percent of earners (those making more than $772,000 in 2022) would receive 40 percent of the savings."
An ancillary benefit to the GOP in all this is the fact that another victim of the AHCA would be, again, Medicaid. Through their plan, funding for Medicaid would be diminished significantly and control of the program itself would be taken out of federal hands and put under the purview of the states. In this, they get two entitlement birds with one stone: The end of the Affordable Care Act, and the end of Medicaid as we have known it.
Why in the name of all that is holy and good would any reasonable person wish to inflict such pain on ordinary, innocent people? Put the question to a conservative advocate of these ideas, and they'll tell you lickety-split that it's the responsible thing to do. We're broke, see? Big debt, big deficit, we're all out of cash, so we have to make some painful choices to right the ship.
These people are doing this because, for whatever reasons, they are driven by one sole purpose: fathomless greed. They are going for the loot, period. Whatever they have, they want more, and they don't want to share even a little bit they wouldn't notice was gone, so they hide it away in bank vaults spread across a global network of financial spider holes to avoid paying taxes, peeling off a few bills now and again to pay a politician to go on television and talk most earnestly about how broke we are.
Between the lost revenue to be found by taxing all that hidden money and one big audit of the Pentagon and the "defense" budget, we would have more than enough revenue on hand to solve problems we didn't even know we had. Education reform, infrastructure repair, actual health care reform … the money for it is all there, stuffed inside bank vaults on islands you've never heard of. The next time you see one of these animated mouthpieces talking about the necessity of austerity on your television, know to the very well of your soul that you are looking at a liar, a peddler of poison, a wrecker and a thief-in-waiting.
We are not broke. Our national priorities are merely broken. If any of the plans outlined by Trump and the congressional Republicans are allowed to see the light of legal day, two things will happen at speed: 1) This country will descend into a bleakness that will make our current estate seem like The Good Old Days by comparison; and, 2) The money they steal -- yes, steal -- by way of any or all of these bills will also disappear overseas, never to be seen again. They are going for the loot. They always have, and they always will.