Gambia: Money Land –


In our time of oligarchs and gangsters, murdered journalists and outmoded tax inspectors, Putin and Trump, how do you write a critical book about money and power in the world that doesn’t seem totally futile? This is a question Oliver Bullough often asks himself. In this volume, he lists some of the companies that operated in Ukraine during Viktor Yanukovych’s infamous presidency from 2010 to 2014: “his coal mining companies … which were [for legal purposes] detained in the Caribbean ”; a “drug racket … out of Cyprus“; an “illegal arms trade tracing back to Scotland”; a “marketplace selling counterfeit branded products … legally held in Seychelles”. The sheer complexity of corruption under Yanukovych, writes Bullough, “makes me dizzy, like a math problem too complicated to understand, a chasm opening at my feet.” We are only on page nine.

Then there is the problem of overfamiliarity. Tax evasion, illicit financial networks, parasitic elites and many other topics in this ambitious book are nothing new, Bullough admits: “The rich have always tried to keep their money out of government hands. More recently, the global growth of secrecy and crime made possible by modern capitalism and the end of Soviet communism have become such mainstream topics that this year they received their own prime-time television drama, BBC1’s McMafia. , which was loosely based on a best-selling investigative book. by Misha Glenny.

You would have liked him to also write about the offshore maneuvers of the many traditional low-tax companies

Finally, there is the problem of description. Corrupt leaders and organized crime bosses tend to have predictable tastes. When Bullough visits one of Yanukovych’s palaces soon after Putin’s ally is deposed, he discovers “fountains … waterfalls … statues … exotic pheasants. It was a temple of evil. taste, a cathedral of kitsch “. In Bullough’s tired cataloging and alliteration, there is already some sort of defeat.

The book picks up once he stops describing and begins to explain. Bullough’s underlying goal is to analyze the “offshore” economy: the growing labyrinth of tax havens, shell companies and legal blind spots which, over the past decades, has caused enormous damage to many relatively countries. poor like Ukraine and profited in wealthy places like the city of London. , while only vaguely understood by most of us.

Bullough tackles his daunting task by coming up with clear and catchy metaphors of the offshore world and how it works. He explains them, then unfolds them over and over again, like slogans or ominous images in a novel. The main one is “Money land”. He sees it as a secret and parallel world, almost like something out of a fairy tale: “The richest people … .. and themselves wherever they want, choosing and choosing the laws of the countries with which they wish to live. “

Passports are sold to the wealthy by small, income-hungry countries like Malta and the Caribbean Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis. The process is euphemistically presented by intermediaries as “citizenship through investment”. While most adults pay taxes, in Money Land the wealthy minimize their contribution by setting up trusts, often based in Jersey – another pretty and secretive island. While many companies remain tangible and regulated entities, in Moneyland opaque shell companies are formed and reformed so quickly that even the most powerful states cannot keep track of them and their assets. In 2017, the US Government Accountability Office found that “the US government had no idea who owned… one-third of the buildings” that it “leased for high security”.

Bullough’s concise and confident book is full of mind-boggling examples. It also covers a lot of historical ground. A single first chapter describes the anarchic and elite-led nature of the early 20th century global economy – a less technologically advanced version of today’s – which ultimately led to the Great Depression and fascism; then the more regulated and stable economy which replaced it, from the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s; then the ways in which she was again deliberately destabilized by ingenious bankers in Switzerland and the City, for the benefit of stealthy wealthy interests.

Part of this narrative is a bit too polished. The political forces for and against offshore capitalism, and how they fluctuated over the 20th century, are hardly mentioned. Instead, as if telling a documentary, Bullough sometimes too consciously searches for colorful characters and places.

But more often than not, his busy and determined reporting on the Caribbean, Eastern and Western Europe and the United States – Southeast Asia and the Middle East perhaps presents less than it should – produce memorable and eye-opening scenes. In Balmy Nevis, an official with the government’s Financial Services Regulatory Commission answers his questions about the use of the island’s extensive bank secrecy laws by “corrupt foreign officials,” with a disclaimer that appears to both legally irrefutable and inadvertently revealing: “I can I am not telling you that I accept that there have been multiple uses of our structures to facilitate anything.”

Later, in St. Kitts, Bullough visits an elderly auto parts salesman, a former local politician who for decades kept the minutes of cabinet meetings he attended in “ongoing files. yellow and pink card “on the back of his store. In one, Bullough reads: “Ministers agreed that a passport should cost… $ 50,000 plus ‘substantial fees’.

It is surprisingly successful in opening up to some of the architects of the offshore world, and is sensitive to the fact that some of its users have good reasons to avoid governments, such as wealthy dissidents fearing confiscation of their assets for political reasons. . He also accepts an argument that is frequently made to him in notorious tax havens: that richer and less criticized countries like Britain were also involved in the construction and maintenance of Money Land. In London’s expensive Eaton Square alone, he finds, 86 properties are owned through “anonymous structures.”

What to do with all or part of all of this? Despite the book’s catchy subtitle, Bullough may only devote a few pages to this difficult subject. As he writes with typical liveliness: “Money crosses borders, but not laws. Until this situation changes, lawyers, bankers, and writers of deliberately flexible financial laws will continue to thrive. Meanwhile, governments will continue to lack revenue, global inequalities will increase, economies will be destabilized, and struggling voters will blame everyone – poor immigrants, liberal elites – except those who are really responsible for the creation of the destructive offshore world.

Bullough’s book is quick, clever, and far more entertaining than you might expect from a book on the subject. Sometimes it goes so fast that you suspect nervous lawyers were involved. At other times, you would have liked him to also write about the foreign maneuvers of traditional low-tax companies. But if you still delude yourself about the wonders of liberated capitalism, Money Land will probably cure you.

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