Why the Panama Papers Are a Big Deal

Last week, the first results of a masterpiece in investigative journalism, civic attitude and international collaboration started to show up. Lots of people owning great fortunes ran into the misfortune of having not only their hidden wealth, but also their tax-avoiding ways exposed to the world at large, thanks to a massive document leak.

The Panama Papers consist of 11.5 million confidential documents that provide detailed information about more than 214,000 offshore companies listed by the Panamanian corporate service provider Mossack Fonseca, including the identities of shareholders and directors of the companies. The documents were made available to the Süddeutsche Zeitung beginning in early 2015 by an anonymous source, an unremunerated whistle-blower using the pseudonym “John Doe”. We will probably hear about the Panama Papers^ quite often in the weeks to come.

Heads already started to roll. The highest profile resignation so far is that of Iceland’s prime minister:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/06/world/europe/panama-papers-iceland.html^

And of course, it is just lovely when the leader of a superpower declares that this is a plot by another superpower. Nothing says “I’m guilty” louder than this:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/08/world/europe/vladimir-putin-panama-papers-american-plot.html^

It’s not the first time we’ve seen such leaks, but this is one of the largest yet. Stashing money in tax havens is an ancient practice of the super-rich. It’s known how and why it is done. However, the Panama Papers go a long way towards illuminating the details of these affairs – we have numbers, names of people, dates and connections.

Of course, it’s all legal, but it’s the wrong kind of legal; the cowardly kind – the kind that says “my fortune has too many zeros to afford paying taxes in my country” or “I don’t want you to know how filthy rich I am, because then you’ll start suspecting that I’m a politician on the payroll of corporations, a puppet that will do their bidding and sell my people’s country to them”.

Indeed, the Panama Papers are a big deal and I think it would be great if you start reading more about this subject. Find people from your country that are involved in the scandal and raise awareness about this. I believe that these discoveries will help us on our way towards economic and political reform.

I wanted to say that “perhaps some of these wealthy tax-dodgers will learn from this scandal and change their ways”. Then, I observed the sad joke hidden in that phrase. Of course they’ll change their ways: they’ll find other ways to hide their wealth instead of using it to improve our world and to ensure a better future for our followers.

Still, I’m ever the optimist, so I harbor the hope that the truths we uncover go towards advancing our society’s self-knowledge and therefore lead towards evolutionary steps forwards. In time, these people will realize that it is far more satisfying to invest in our future rather than stressing out to hide their insubstantial wealth, numbers in a computer.

Updated on May 9, 2016: the Panama Papers are now searchable online. Here’s how to navigate them^. And this is where you can find them^.

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