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Wealth doesn't trickle down – it just floods offshore
July 21, 2012 3:27 PM   Subscribe

"The world's super-rich have taken advantage of lax tax rules to siphon off at least $21 trillion, and possibly as much as $32tn, from their home countries and hide it abroad – a sum larger than the entire American economy."
"These estimates reveal a staggering failure," says John Christensen of the Tax Justice Network. "Inequality is much, much worse than official statistics show, but politicians are still relying on trickle-down to transfer wealth to poorer people.

"This new data shows the exact opposite has happened: for three decades extraordinary wealth has been cascading into the offshore accounts of a tiny number of super-rich."
posted by deanklear (60 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

 
I've always wondered what would happen if these tiny defenseless isles were invaded and looted. Would the wealth be destroyed then?
posted by Renoroc at 3:33 PM on July 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


I've always wondered what would happen if these tiny defenseless isles were invaded and looted. Would the wealth be destroyed then?

The majority of those islands are politically connected to either the US, the UK, or the Netherlands, who would likely step in militarily and restore the status quo.
posted by deadmessenger at 3:42 PM on July 21, 2012


And anyway, can you "loot" numbers on a bank balance sheet?
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:43 PM on July 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Yeah it's not like they are hoarding gold bars. They are hoarding ones and zeroes. How are you gonna raid a database?
posted by spicynuts at 3:47 PM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


A lawyer friend once told me "money is the only thing that flows upwards".
posted by kandinski at 3:47 PM on July 21, 2012 [13 favorites]


SQL injection?
posted by ifandonlyif at 3:47 PM on July 21, 2012 [18 favorites]


It's something of a non-sequitur, Renoroc. "Looting" implies seizing control of assets, not destroying them. And in these cases especially, keep in mind that today, assets are not so much physically located as ...domiciled. So deposits, for example, would be physically represented by some amount of gold bullion which, for convenience purposes, happens to be located in New York or London. At the same time, the deposits are further loaned out to other entities, so could represent anything from the mortgage on the Burj Khalifa to stock held in Exxon via the Wisconsin Retirement System. You don't "loot" that by invading the Caymans.
posted by dhartung at 3:48 PM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


The slap-in-the-face is that most of the physical US money is banked here. It's just accounted for offshore.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 3:53 PM on July 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


A lawyer friend once told me "money is the only thing that flows upwards".

Of course, "up" is only figurative here. We could also imagine the money flowing "down" into the financial sewers where these Gollum's live.
posted by telstar at 3:54 PM on July 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


If you made it all disappear, if you changed all the 1s and 0s to say something less, would there be a real affect on the global economy? I mean, if you lost say 60% of your wealth overnight, would you start making different decisions with the money you legally-acknowledge having? Would you start investing in companies in hopes of making it super-rich again? Would you give up on hoarding because it so unsafe these days? At the moment, I can only think of positives for everyone else, but I'm sure that's wrong.
posted by ifandonlyif at 3:57 PM on July 21, 2012


Money is a katamari.
posted by adamdschneider at 3:59 PM on July 21, 2012 [15 favorites]


When they say "trillion," are we talking short-scale or long-scale? Short-scale, right?
posted by Navelgazer at 4:02 PM on July 21, 2012


ifandonlyif: I see your point, there is way more hoarding than investing going on. I assume this is because of the general economic conditions: there aren't a lot of good investments. Everybody with money is just holding on to their profits and parking them in safe, low yield places. If the economy recovers the money will flow back in. If it doesn't these people and their families will remain safely above the collapse.

The problem, though, is the feed-back loop. There's nothing to invest in because no one is investing...
posted by elwoodwiles at 4:07 PM on July 21, 2012


The funny thing is that if you ask a Tea Partier (sorry, but not very, for making this about the US) why it is they think that it's OK that tax compliance is so low among the ultra-rich that somewhere around a trillion dollars a year in tax is being evaded in the US alone their answer is that they think the tax is unjust in the first place. Apparently it's OK to ignore tax policy you disagree with.

Take Romney's hundred million dollar untaxed gift for example. I was talking to someone about it and they asked why they should care, they don't think the gift tax should exist anyway. I pointed out that it exists so that the estate tax can't be trivially avoided. He then said "oh, I don't approve of the estate tax, so whatever".
posted by wierdo at 4:12 PM on July 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


I would love to ask a wealthy person what the social contract means to them.
posted by Jehan at 4:16 PM on July 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


the bum on the plush is a social leech, blood-sucking day and night...
posted by entropone at 4:17 PM on July 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


elwoodwiles: I guess what bothers me the most is that this is considered a safe practice. You'd think that an outlaw investment would be necessarily less safe than a legal one. In most cases you can't go running to the police when another criminal steals what you already stole. That people think it is perfectly safe to do this, that they won't be subject to "that's a lot of money you have there, it would be a shame if something were to happen to it" just speaks to how institutionalized the practice must be.
posted by ifandonlyif at 4:19 PM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I would love to ask a wealthy person what the social contract means to them.

I have (if being worth thirty or forty million is considered wealthy). He seemed to believe that he (and the rest of the people who did 'real business' in the U.S.) make it possible for there to be a social contract, and in that sense, it applied to others.

The conversation was over at that point, as the nuances of 'not even wrong' would have been lost on him.
posted by Mooski at 4:36 PM on July 21, 2012 [16 favorites]


I think that response is sort of the reverse side of the self-sufficiency coin that gets trotted out as a reason not to fund social services. Once you have had some success, it's really easy to convince yourself that you deserve it and that it was entirely the result of your own hard work and determination and that if anyone could simply apply themselves thusly, they'd be rich too.
posted by feloniousmonk at 4:39 PM on July 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


I would love to ask a wealthy person what the social contract means to them.

You would almost certainly find the answer as dissatisfying as what you would get if you asked a middle class person or a poor person. Because there is no satisfactory answer.
posted by rr at 4:52 PM on July 21, 2012


The satisfactory answer is "I've been helped a lot, and when I'm in a position to help others, I will."
posted by Jehan at 4:57 PM on July 21, 2012 [19 favorites]


The problem then becomes that the location of the position at which you feel you can help others must be escalated so that you can help many others, etc, until the pursuit of the perfect prevents the exercise of the good enough. It's a tough balance to strike, when you never want to be in need of help again.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 5:03 PM on July 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


The satisfactory answer is "I've been helped a lot, and when I'm in a position to help others, I will."

Alternatively, and I believe equivalently, "We all do better when we all do better."
posted by Mental Wimp at 5:07 PM on July 21, 2012 [19 favorites]


The satisfactory answer is "I've been helped a lot, and when I'm in a position to help others, I will."
That would be an easier argument to buy if the majority of tax dollars (in the US) weren't used to fund, say, the Iraq war.
posted by b1tr0t at 5:08 PM on July 21, 2012


Because there is no satisfactory answer.

I found Warren Buffet's, and the late (and awesome) Warren Hellman's answers to be rather satisfying.
posted by smirkette at 5:11 PM on July 21, 2012 [7 favorites]


b1tr0t, the nice thing about being megarich is that you can basically buy citizenship in a nicer country and pay tax there instead. If you're so inclined.
posted by mek at 5:12 PM on July 21, 2012


b1tr0t, the nice thing about being megarich is that you can basically buy citizenship in a nicer country and pay tax there instead. If you're so inclined.
Sure, but that is precisely what is being complained about here.
posted by b1tr0t at 5:35 PM on July 21, 2012


I would give retiring a go on $1M. I could definitely do it on $2M and would consider $10M all the money in the world. (As it is, I'll never retire, I have $0M.)

I have so many things, not expensive things, I enjoy doing...so how to do even get $40M and think "I need to keep going." WTF?
posted by maxwelton at 5:36 PM on July 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


I don't mean moving it into a tax haven b1tr0t, I mean willingly paying say, Canadian income tax, which is substantially more than 15%. There are plenty of socialist democratic states that will gladly take your money and tax it much more than the USA will.
posted by mek at 5:44 PM on July 21, 2012


Why do these things always make my head feel like a watermelon wrapped in rubber bands?
posted by orme at 5:47 PM on July 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


In case you have forgotten, here is what a trillion dollars looks like.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 6:06 PM on July 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


I've always wondered what would happen if these tiny defenseless isles were invaded and looted. Would the wealth be destroyed then?

Some of the wealth "sent offshore" is actually sitting in the Private Bank's accounts (or in various securities accounts) in New York, Toronto, London, etc. It's a consolidation of all their clients - so onshore regulators don't know whose money it is. The money never leaves town.....if the offshore jurisdiction was destroyed, you may lose records of whose money is where, but it would very much still exist.

SQL injection?

So I do a little infosec work offshore. Some of the offshore Private Banks have very little IT infrastructure and I'd guess the minority have any online transactional services / a real internet facing attack surface (some do though, while others will have a read-only non-transactional account statement system exposed). It took me a while to get my head around the fact that there are small Private Banks with maybe 5-10 staff total, where there is no internet connectivity at all (in or out), with the exception of an air-gaped PC to check an email account, and an air-gaped wire transfer system. But they'll still have 000's of millions US under management (sitting onshore in the consolidated account). How do they validate transactions? Well, fax from the client to initate the transaction paperwork, and then both parties turn up at the airport and complete in person...it makes SQL injection pretty difficult....
posted by inflatablekiwi at 6:30 PM on July 21, 2012 [8 favorites]


So, if you check your balance with one of these banks at the ATM, does the receipt come out handwritten?
posted by XMLicious at 6:43 PM on July 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


So, if you check your balance with one of these banks at the ATM, does the receipt come out handwritten?

Well that depends on whether your butler is to lazy to type it up for you or not before they give it to you.
posted by inflatablekiwi at 6:48 PM on July 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


The money's going somewhere! I keep making it but somehow there's never enough left over to save.

I'm convinced the Iraq war was less about oil than it was a chance for Cheney, Inc. to loot the treasury, so this is not at all surprising.
posted by Camofrog at 7:26 PM on July 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


The funny thing is that if you ask a Tea Partier (sorry, but not very, for making this about the US) why it is they think that it's OK that tax compliance is so low among the ultra-rich that somewhere around a trillion dollars a year in tax is being evaded in the US alone their answer is that they think the tax is unjust in the first place. Apparently it's OK to ignore tax policy you disagree with.

Republican Senator On Romney: ‘It’s Really American To Avoid Paying Taxes’
posted by homunculus at 7:44 PM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's really American to distort the lawmaking process with your huge sums of money to enable the legal avoidance of paying taxes on said huge sums.

The sad thing is, that shitbag is right. What could be more American these days than rewriting the rules in your favor so you can legally fuck over everyone else.
posted by adamdschneider at 7:53 PM on July 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


If you had a few million and you could tuck it "offshore" to save on tax money, would you do it?
posted by Postroad at 8:34 PM on July 21, 2012


No.
posted by homunculus at 8:36 PM on July 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


I don't have a few million, and I still do my best to pay my share of taxes. I even fill out the voluntary "Internet sales tax" thing in my state return.
posted by sonic meat machine at 9:06 PM on July 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


Accused Burglar Incorporates Self
posted by telstar at 9:25 PM on July 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


Shit like this makes me briefly consider the possible advantages of having a few years of global, true bloody class warfare to see what would happen. Then I remember Pol Pot, sigh, make some good tea, and spend the rest of the evening reading webcomics to ease the depression.
posted by Iosephus at 9:32 PM on July 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


serious question: if you have billions sitting idle in the bank, does that effectively deflate the value of the currency? (since less currency is effectively in circulation) Why / why not?
Shit like this makes me briefly consider the possible advantages of having a few years of global, true bloody class warfare to see what would happen. Then I remember Pol Pot, sigh, make some good tea, and spend the rest of the evening reading webcomics to ease the depression.
I've known a few extremely wealthy families who sailed right through the Revolution in China. If you really want to get at the wealth of the ultra-rich, you have to create stuff they want. They are pretty good at throwing their minor enemies under the bus when the revolution(s) come.
posted by b1tr0t at 9:37 PM on July 21, 2012


You know what I'd do if I had a million dollars? Buy myself some happiness.
posted by homunculus at 9:39 PM on July 21, 2012


Telstar:

A lawyer friend once told me "money is the only thing that flows upwards".

Of course, "up" is only figurative here. We could also imagine the money flowing "down" into the financial sewers where these Gollum's live.
Yes, but I meant "against the gradient". A hot object won't get hotter when in contact with colder objects. If you connect two water reservoirs, water will flow from the one that's higher up (with more gravitational energy) to the one lower down. But, in our modern society, you put a rich person in contact with poor people, and money flows to the rich person. No trickling down there.
posted by kandinski at 9:48 PM on July 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Venezuela, Nigeria, Russia, Mexico...: I note that many of the countries which seem to be losing large sums of money to tax havens are exactly those where the governments have a particularly good track record of expropriating assets from their citizens. I admit that if I were a citizen of one of these countries with a pile of savings - or a business - then off-shore banking and accounting would look mighty tempting.
posted by rongorongo at 5:12 AM on July 22, 2012


Keep in mind that if the rich pay more in taxes, we pay more for everything.
posted by NotSoSiniSter at 7:37 AM on July 22, 2012


Keep in mind that if the rich pay more in taxes, we pay more for everything.

An interesting bit of convoluted logic. If the executive board of Ford, just as one example, were expected to pay their fair share, are you rationally stating that the price of a focus will go up?

Because what is required for your statement to be true is that the board members would simply increase their pay AND them not to screw over the lower ranking employees (i.e. no pension, less vacation time, lower wages, less 401(k) matching, etc.).

And personally, I can see them screwing over their employees more than I can see them asking Impala/Charger prices for a Focus. Even with the unions.

The same would be true for Hellmans or Colgate or Tropicana or Shell or whomever.
posted by Blue_Villain at 7:58 AM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


telstar: "A lawyer friend once told me "money is the only thing that flows upwards".

Of course, "up" is only figurative here. We could also imagine the money flowing "down" into the financial sewers where these Gollum's live.
"

I have a theory that if you think of M = Money = Mass and start to grok that concentrated mass = "gravity", then you have the flow of money moving towards the most massive clusters of money. In this sense, in the same way that we say water "trickles down" and we really mean, flows towards the center of gravity, then you realize that money "trickles down" and flows towards the center of economic gravity.

And the more mass you have in a smaller location the more dense something is, the more gravity it exerts, so the fewer people with larger amounts of money = more "gravity" to draw more money unto itself.

Eventually creating an economic black hole, destroying all in its vicinity.

So yes, money does trickle down, it's just that the concept of down is different than what we normally think. It's not the base of the pyramid that's "down" it's the eye at the top, a singularity.

"As above, so below" and all that. "The first shall be last and the last shall be first". Once you grok that, it all makes sense.
posted by symbioid at 8:21 AM on July 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


I have a theory that if you think of M = Money = Mass and start to grok that concentrated mass = "gravity", then you have the flow of money moving towards the most massive clusters of money. In this sense, in the same way that we say water "trickles down" and we really mean, flows towards the center of gravity, then you realize that money "trickles down" and flows towards the center of economic gravity.

And the more mass you have in a smaller location the more dense something is, the more gravity it exerts, so the fewer people with larger amounts of money = more "gravity" to draw more money unto itself.


I like to say, "Money is magnetic".

Keep in mind that if the rich pay more in taxes, we pay more for everything.

Keep in mind that if the turtles sleep more in shade, we cry more for Argentina.

Mad libs are fun! I think mine makes more sense than yours, though.
posted by adamdschneider at 10:08 AM on July 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


The more Fords we buy, the more the CEO makes. Therefore, by buying a Ford you are screwing over the Ford employees.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:20 AM on July 22, 2012


I assume this is because of the general economic conditions: there aren't a lot of good investments.

no good investments??? clean water, clean energy, education, clean infrastructre, ecological restoration...

for the sake of less than 100,000 people, we are cooking our planet
posted by eustatic at 10:22 AM on July 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


I have so many things, not expensive things, I enjoy doing...so how to do even get $40M and think "I need to keep going." WTF?

It's important to understand the psychology of the rich. Most people who amass a large fortune through actual effort at that task, rather than serendipitously through some unique entertainment ability, view money as a score in addition to a resource bringing them direct material benefits. After a certain point, making the score as large as possible becomes the end in and of itself. That's how someone who has $250M can feel not rich, because they look at Warren Buffet or Bill Gates and feel that their wealth is paltry by comparison. They are not interested in public policies that give them less of a chance of getting to Bill Gates-size fortunes and are definitely not interested in those that reduce their chances of building a multi-generation dynasty, with the exception of thoughtful ones like Buffet.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:34 AM on July 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


I favor the 'vacuum' interpretation of monetary physics: as each dollar moves through the economy, it leaves behind an empty space that needs to be filled. A single dollar only creates a small space that can be filled relatively easily, but when dollars flow en masse, it creates a huge vacuum that inexorably draws more money along behind it. Money flows toward the wealthy because, in a sense, they suck more.
posted by logicpunk at 12:15 PM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Keep in mind that if the rich pay more in taxes, we pay more for everything.

This is almost as funny as the one about how the rich will just stop working entirely if their taxes go up a little. Because if there's one thing they like more than less profit, it's no profit at all.
posted by Alexander Hatchell at 5:30 PM on July 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


kandinski: A lawyer friend once told me "money is the only thing that flows upwards".

That and supercooled helium, but for all practical purposes: yeah, only money.


NotSoSiniSter: Keep in mind that if the rich pay more in taxes, we pay more for everything.

Are you a Teapartier, or rich?
posted by IAmBroom at 8:30 PM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


David Brin's 1990 novel Earth has in the backstory the international community invading Switzerland of all nations to force them to open their bank accounts and give back the money saved by former third world dictators, drug cartels, and other such villains. Turns out the Swiss "gnomes" had hidden stocks of nuclear weapons, that would have been used, but the Swiss military's soldiers turned on their officers and sued for peace.
posted by Apocryphon at 8:56 PM on July 22, 2012


ISTR that the Swiss nukes got used in Earth.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:15 PM on July 22, 2012


Keep in mind that if the rich pay more in taxes, we pay more for everything.

This makes huge assumptions, including, e.g., about price elasticity.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:46 AM on July 23, 2012


I have so many things, not expensive things, I enjoy doing...so how to do even get $40M and think "I need to keep going." WTF?

I have the same thought. I just want enough to quit and do all the things I enjoy.

But the thing is, to make that much money, that thing you enjoy doing really has to be making money. At some point, becoming wealthy is not a means to an end, the way it seems like it would be to us of meager means.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:25 AM on July 23, 2012


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