The world is far more corrupt than anyone imagines. The ruling classes feel entitled to steal tax money at will, stash it in overseas accounts, and spend it like it was legitimate through shell companies and trusts. The “country” that enables this is one Oliver Bullough calls Moneyland. It has no borders, no government, and no taxes, but gets it power and support from all of those. Its citizens are welcomed worldwide, no questions asked. The richer they are, the wider the doors swing open.
It used to be that local officials were limited in their greed, because there was only so much they could spend locally. But thanks to globalization and the internet, they can buy condos and buildings, yachts and whole companies right from their laptops, and no one will know. Bullough says “It’s the financial equivalent of never feeling full, no matter how much you eat.” The result is a hollowing out of major cities all over the world, as “corporate” buyers snap up apartments and townhouses, which remain empty. They are simply laundering money for some unnamed “investor”. Meanwhile, their real countries are impoverished as money disappears from them.
They create companies by the boatload. Tens of thousands are created and have their head offices in a townhouse on Harley Street in London, for example. They are sold on the internet for $250-$1000 apiece. Attached to a bank account, they can receive bribes and kickbacks, and purchase condos and yachts. The companies are owned by other companies, which are owned by other companies. Eventually, a real person is named, with no apparent connection to the real owner. (Vladimir Putin’s shell company is in the name of a cellist who was a friend and neighbor of his growing up. It reportedly has a billion dollars in it. Not bad for a cellist.)
The poster child Bullough explores is Ukraine, where “Corruption had so hollowed out the state that it had all but ceased to exist except as means of illegal enrichment.” From the president on down, everyone seems to be on the take, having budgets diverted to their own accounts, or getting kickbacks direct deposited when they pay outrageous prices for equipment or services. Hospitals have no supplies because management has diverted all funds. Doctors get paid $200 a month and must beg patients for money, even though healthcare is guaranteed free. The police are not there to serve and protect, but to be avoided. The courts toe the line of the ruling class. If a company won’t pay bribes, it will find itself unable to operate, and suing will not help.
This is the way of the world, where all the aid money from foreign sources disappears before it reaches anyone in need. Politicians sport $300,000 watches while most of the population has no access to clean water. Their countries are money machines for the ruling classes, and no one else matters. Bullough quotes US Marine Corps General John Allen on his time in Afghanistan: “They (Taliban) are an annoyance compared to the scope and magnitude of corruption with which you must contend.”
It is so entrenched that Bullough cites a local Ukrainian politician: “The choice isn’t between taking a bribe and being honest: it’s between taking a bribe or your children being killed. Of course, you take the bribe.” It consumes even the most naïve and fair. The result is 52% of Russian wealth is held offshore, 57% of Gulf wealth and 30% of African wealth. That doesn’t leave much for the 99%. Or the country.
While the internet has enabled the thieves to open accounts, companies and trusts, countries have enabled them to protect themselves by selling them passports. St. Lucia in the Caribbean alone has issued nearly 13,000. The US sells green cards to anyone willing to invest at least $400,000 in a house or condo. It has issued tens of thousands of these cards.
A new fashion has been added to the sale of passports. Now, thieves can also purchase diplomatic immunity through any kind of ambassadorship. It could be to a country, or just a committee of the UN. It’s a get out of jail free card that dreams are made of.
As corrupt as so many countries are, it seems to pale beside the western countries like the USA and the UK, which provide endless pools of lawyers, bankers and advisors to enable the corruption. Citibank comes up repeatedly as glorying in the fat fees it obtains for laundering millions for corrupt African politicians. If you need your stash structured and hidden, if you need to attack an enemy or defend yourself against government calls for information, it’s the USA that will rush to your side. States like Nevada and Delaware are famous in the rest of the world for their Swiss-like protection of fraudulently-obtained wealth. The hypocrisy of the US whining about tax havens while providing the biggest haven of all is just too clear. While it fines Swiss bank UBS, it lauds the American financial sector on its impressive growth, laundering stolen money by the billions.
One thing missing from Moneyland is the attitudes of the corrupt. Because the revenue stream is endless, money means absolutely nothing to them. Overpaying for cars, parties, or wedding gowns is all trivial. Tipping with hundred dollar bills too. The money is so plentiful it actually has no meaning in their world.
What makes Moneyland so strong is that Bullough has done all his own, original research, onsite. He digs, pesters and perseveres. If a lead goes nowhere, he finds a different angle, on his own. Not once, for example, does he refer to the Panama Papers, which exposed the phony corporate shell business two years ago. The scandal is so deep, he has been able to fill yet another hard-hitting book with its virus.
Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.
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