Below is a final paper that I wrote in December articulating the threat Trump posed to Democracy – most of my predictions come true and I also suggest ways we can use social media and organizing to fight back. The paper was written for a PhD Political Science course on Global Financial Integrity taught at Yale University by Professors Thomas Pogge, James Henry, and Krishen Mehta.
Kleptocracy and The Trump Administration
Throughout this course, we have explored the depths of the global tax haven industry and its direct and indirect effects on nation-states and their citizens. One key component of global havens is the shelter they offer for illegal actors, who need to maneuver questionably-gotten funds. The web created by the global haven industry offers refuge to a spectrum of bad actors, including kleptocratic governments. The goal of this paper is ultimately to explore the issue of kleptocracy and assess ways in which the new president-elect of the United States, Donald Trump, may jeopardize America’s representative democracy by moving our government towards kleptocracy. This paper is organized into 3 parts. First, in part 1, I review the global haven industry and cases of kleptocracy in different nations around the world. In part 2, I consider the behaviors Trump has exhibited that implicate he will behave like a kleptocrat once taking office. In the third and final section of the paper, part 3, I will recommend ways in which political and social momentum might be built around issues of keptocracy such that productive action may be taken.
Part 1 – Kleptocracy and the Global Haven Industry
Overview of the Issue at Hand
The global tax haven industry is, by nature, a hard one to quantify and inspect. Conceptually, the global haven industry refers to a set of locations throughout the world that offer the opportunity to hide or invest assets beyond the jurisdiction of relevant national and local tax authorities.[i] While ambiguously defined and encompassing a broad spectrum of unethical financial behaviors, for the purposes of this paper, we will take the global haven industry to include 80 “offshore” locations that allow clientele to store private financial wealth outside of the jurisdiction of relevant tax authorities (both legally and illegally). As Professor Henry notes in his piece, The Price of Offshore Revisited, conservative estimates of the scale of the global tax haven industry as of 2010 range from $21 trillion to $32 trillion.[ii]
The global haven industry poses both a distributive justice problem and a criminal activity enforcement concern. From the standpoint of distributive justice, the haven industry allows for the abuse of complex global systems to extricate financial agents from their obligations to a given social arrangement. These behaviors are not always illegal, but they clearly violate social mores. While in modern times nations are not closed systems, a baseline of ethics and understanding exists that the laws and designs of each nation are to apply to the actors within it. As Professors Pogge and Mehta note in their book, Global Tax Fairness, there is not one single “sovereign” rule-maker in the global regulatory structure. This means that regulations and moral decisions must be made in the actual context of our global reality. It is not acceptable to borrow a set of rules from one nation and some from another nation to bypass any comprehensive system of regulation.[iii]
This assertion can be clarified through assessing the case of Apple Inc., a company incorporated in the United States, and its use (and abuse) of the international global tax system to store profits out of reach from either the United States’ or European Union’s (“EU”) respective tax authorities. Essentially, Apple was able to store profits with the Irish government, through a complex structure of subsidiaries and shell corporations, such that it was only required to pay a mere 50 euros for every million euros of profit made. The company, which has an estimated cash on hand of nearly $230 billion was recently ordered to pay $14.5 billion in back taxes to the EU, but is fighting the ruling in court.[iv] In this case, both the European Union and United States have tax codes that apply to corporate entities operating under their jurisdiction. For example, the corporate tax rate in the United States is 35%. In essence, a tacit social and moral contract exists that for access to the United States market, resources, and culture, a percentage of profits must be returned for the general welfare of society. However, Apple was able to find a loophole by which they would not fulfill this obligation in the United States and did not have to comply with similar statutes in the European Union. This means the mega-corporation’s net contribution to either jurisdiction (from which it reaps the benefits of the society’s mere existence) is far below the expectations established by the rules of each. Instead, it exploits a tax haven in Ireland and never pays its “fair share” as determined by each national jurisdiction (or in the case of the EU a group of nations). This behavior is compounded by international companies the world over and has deeply problematic consequences for distributive justice.
The world is currently facing a global poverty epidemic. The poorest three quarters of the human population earns a collective income that amounts to just 15% of total global household income. In fact, the bottom quarter of the entire human population earns only 1.22% of global household income. “Of the 7.3 billion people alive today, 805 million are officially counted as chronically undernourished.”[v] This represents a massive resource distribution crisis – part of which nations address through the redistributive systems they design. For example, the United States’ Internal Revenue Services (IRS) lays out where American tax dollars went in 2009. This list includes social programs, entitlements, national defense, law enforcement, general government operations, and a category titled, “physical, human and community development.”[vi] Given that a substantial set of spending areas include welfare-style programs, tax-avoidance directly undermines initiatives to achieve redistributive justice (as determined by the mores of a given society – in this case the U.S.). This problem is compounded in that aside from the redistributive losses from tax-avoiding entities who continue to accumulate mass amounts of wealth, these same entities benefit from public good at the expense of those with fewer resources, exacerbating the problem.
A second issue posed by the global haven industry is that in many cases it is exploited by criminal entities looking to cycle or hide funds. From this vantage point, the web of global financial loopholes provides shelter from authorities who can otherwise use financial records to trace and apprehend criminals. This is the aspect of the global haven industry that lends itself to kleptocrats and other international criminals that will be assessed in the remainder of this paper. It is important to note that these havens to not only exist in third world nations as some might assume. In fact, as Professor Henry notes in his book, The Blood Bankers, a good deal of the proceeds of these types of activities are hidden through systems facilitated by ‘First World” established global financial institutions including, “Citigroup, JpMorgan Chase, UBS, Barclays, Credit Suisse, First Boston, ABN-AMRO, Merrill Lynch” and a slew of other prominent institutions.[vii]
Kleptocracy as a function of Global Tax Havens
Kleptocracy is the theft of state-owned assets by those in power. Kleptocracy is a byproduct of the global haven industry in that it allows bad state actors and their affiliates to store funds offshore, making the criminal activity harder to track, as discussed above. For the purposes of this paper, I will discuss two forms of kleptocracy. The first is a more traditionally defined set of kleptocratic behaviors that revolve around the direct theft of state assets including financial and non-financial holdings. I will call this “hard kleptocracy” and this is the type of behavior that has been consistently exhibited by Russian and African leaders. A second, less well-defined, form of kleptocracy is the abuse of state power and resources for personal gain – as we discussed in class, this can take on a wide breadth of activities, given the opportunity to abuse position in government and control of laws for personal gain (instead of working and legislating to benefit the state). This is the type of kleptocracy that more developed nations should fear as the abuses of influence and office are even more challenging to dissect, report on, and regulate. In each case discussed below, those entrusted with the power to represent and design a given nation-state abuse that power either directly or indirectly for their own personal financial or political benefit. These actions compound the redistributive justice and criminal regulation issues discussed earlier.
To start, an examination into the types of kleptocratic behaviors that occur in Russia offer clear-cut iterations of hard kleptocracy, where state assets are directly stolen for profit by the political elite in collaboration with wealthy businessmen. Weak economic conditions and political disorder, ultimately set the stage for kleptocracy in Russia. At the end of the Cold War, the west began to push a defeated Russia away from Socialism and towards the free-market ideals of the United States and Britain. While Russian economists at the time were wary of making this literal and conceptual market shift too hastily and preferred a gradual approach, western economists offered financial incentives and pressured the Russians into a more rapid transition.[viii] It is not possible to ascertain the true intentions of the United States and other western powers at this time. As we discussed with guest lecturer for the course Marshall Pomer, there is a sense that the recommendations from the West bordered on intentional irresponsibility, perhaps a measure to ensure a weak Russia for decades to come.[ix] While there is no specific evidence of this intention, a closer analysis of this “big bang” approach to transition suggests a level of carelessness from the West. This policy led to economic and social disaster in Russia, designing a backdrop that readily lent itself to kleptocratic behavior. As Klein and Pomer explains in their book, The New Russia: Transition Gone Awry,
“Metaphorically, Russia played helpless child, with the West as the omnipotent adult. Free flow of goods and capital was expected to win favor with the West. The policy of minimal government was predicated on the expectation that foreign investment, in league with the automatic self-adjusting properties of the market, would provide the impetus to transform the Russian economy.”[x]
While this theory may match higher-level economic conceptualizations, in practice, shifting from the pre-Cold War socialist regime to this laissez-faire economy relied on a number of factors such as foreign global investment and fuller integration into the modern, western-led, global economy. None of this came to fruition. Pomer notes, for example, total international investment into Russia from 1994 to 1999 was $17 billion. For comparison, international investment in Brazil was $30 billion in just 1999 alone.[xi] The structure of a free market with few tax-provided government services, failed. Part of this failure relates back to our central theme of global tax havens in that, as Sergei Glaziev notes in his chapter, Economic Subordination to the West, “in an attempt to evade taxes, hard currency proceeds were frequently hoarded abroad.”[xii] These circumstances set the stage for economic turmoil that left Russia with a system of extreme inequality, where money, power and influence were maintained by a few government officials and the capital owners of newly privatized industries. In his book, Godfather of the Kremlin: The Decline of Russia in the Age of Gangster Capitalism, Paul Klebnikov summarizes the failed transition that set the stage for Russian kleptocracy, “The introduction of the free market did not produce a more efficient economy — it produced relentless economic decline. Privatization enriched only a small number of insiders. The country is being looted and destroyed by the new property owners.”[xiii]
Given the levels of unchecked power Russian political and business leaders have, kleptocratic behavior is almost blatantly conducted. To skirt legal or tax ramifications, these nefarious actors used the global haven industry. For example, one international trader of commodities (which Russia had more of, as opposed to finished products – again, given the failed economic landscape described above), was able to secure exclusive trade deals that devalued the actual worth of Russia’s state-owned assets. Marc Rich was able to acquire assets below market value and then sell them abroad for high profits. This behavior only benefits the corrupt politicians who were party to this deal and the international businessmen like Rich, who manipulate the global tax structure to hide these illegally obtained profits. In this case, Rich used a tax haven in Zug, Switzerland to hide his ill-gotten gains.[xiv] Kleptocracy in this case contributes to the redistributive issues discussed earlier in that assets meant to benefit the people of Russia are being devalued and sold for profits abroad – never improving the lives or economy of poorer Russians. It also shelters individuals like Rich, allowing him to perpetuate this inequality reinforcing, illegal, activity.
Russia is not alone in practicing direct kleptocracy at the cost of the governed; Many African nations also have institutionalized government theft that is carried out by national leaders. As with Russia, political disorder and limited modernization and development of regulatory mechanism allow for this “hard kleptocracy” to take place. In Nigeria, for example, military dictator Sani Abacha stole almost $500 million in government funds over a 5 year period and hid the money in a Swiss bank account.[xv] Mercy Corps, an international development organization, estimates this money could have built the equivalent of 15,766 middle schools across Africa. The organization also notes, Teodor Obiang, Equatorial Guinea’s dictator, has taken over $1 billion over the course of 30 years. Finally, “perhaps the biggest kleptocrat in Africa’s history is Mobutu Sese Seko, who spent 32 years at the helm of Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo…” who looted nearly $5 billion dollars, which the World Food Programme estimates is enough money to end world hunger.[xvi] In each case, the national leader plunders the resources of the nation instead of spending them on the redistributive needs of those they govern.
Kleptocracy need not be driven only by those at the top of the political pecking order. For example, in India, lower level officials are notorious for requiring bribes. Bribes have become such an integral part of India’s economy that, Transparency International (a corruption tracking organization) estimates nearly 54% of Indians paid a bribe in 2013 alone.[xvii] The problem is so severe that officials require payment even just to perform the tasks that fall under their predetermined job descriptions. For example, in order to access government services such as ration cards, passport issuance, and other daily government facilitated procedures, Indian citizens often pay what has been called “speed money” to get a given government employee to stop artificially stalling these processes.[xviii] In this case, government officials are themselves the government resource (as they are paid with taxpayer dollars), but they deny citizens the resource of their services and charge an excessive rate (essentially double-charging for government services).
Softer forms of kleptocracy include a broad range of political abuses. These are particularly the kinds of behaviors that will become relevant in analyzing the Trump administrations proclivity towards kleptocracy in the following section of this paper. In the case of the Philippines, for example, the politicians collude with the national police force to create an extra-legal economy that bypasses necessary systems of taxation. Exploiting position for personal gain is kleptocratic because of both the misaligned incentives (personal gain, instead of state-advancement) and the opportunity cost (what other actions may have served the best interest of the governed). For example, as in the case of India, bribery is rampant in the Philippines, but at much higher levels and through less obvious mechanisms. In his paper, The Political Economy of Corruption: A Philippine Illustration, James Roumasset discusses typical corruption using dictator Ferdinand Marcos’s presidency as an example, “In the Marcos regime, corruption was highly centralized. Imported goods, for example, were routinely seized and bribes paid to expedite their timely release and facilitate lower duties. Such operations had tacit approval of higher authorities who were repaid with both bribe shares and political support.”[xix] This type of behavior is part hard kleptocracy and part soft. While lower duties cheat citizens out of potential tax revenues that could be spent on public welfare, the influence and abuse of power does not directly steal state assets but manipulates the power that leaders and law enforcement have for personal gain. This type of behavior has been taken to an extreme in the Philippines creating what has been referred to as a “netherworld” economy. In Policing America’s Empire, researcher Alfred McCoy dissects the process by which those in power conspire to abuse their office for personal gain. Essentially, politicians are able to legislate certain industries as illegal and work with national police to selectively enforce these newly illegal industries for kickbacks. This poses a tax-avoidance issue in that, as McCoy explains, “Once banned, illegal goods and services such as gambling or commercial sex are no longer the object of the usual taxation and market regulation, but instead subject to legal and extralegal control.” McCoy estimates this extralegal industry generates gross revenues equivalent to almost 50% of the government’s annual budget.[xx] It is possible that there is good reason for sex work to be made illegal, but clearly it does not benefit the society to ban the industry with the intent of the government and law enforcement selectively enforcing the policy for kickbacks.
Part 2 – Kleptocracy and the Trump Administration
In this section, I will argue that president-elect Donald Trump has already shown several signs of kleptocratic behavior, more in line with the soft forms of kleptocracy touched on above. Mainly, I will focus on two areas where Trump has already demonstrated kleptocratic intentions, despite having yet to take office. First, his refusal to divest from business holdings, compounded with his failure to release tax returns poses great potential for his decisions as president to amount to conflicts of interest. Here, we see elements of soft kleptocracy where Trump may not be stealing money or a hard asset from the United States government, but he can use his position and influence to determine relationships and policies that benefit him and his allies. A second scenario we will explore is Trump’s cabinet selections. To-date he has assembled a team with vast wealth and little experience, prioritizing personal loyalties over qualification. Though, unlike in the cases of Russia, the Philippines and other countries discussed above, the United States has not had a deep history with kleptocracy, the Trump administration seems poised to violate established norms and usher in an unprecedented level of corruption.
Most notably, though he has postponed a scheduled press-conference intended to outline his intentions with regard to his role at chairmen of the Trump Organization, Donald Trump has indicated no willingness to comply with established norms of divestment for presidents. Given the size and international scope of Trump’s business, as president, almost every decision he makes will arguably involve a conflict of interest. As of September 2016, Forbes estimates Donald Trump’s net worth as chairman of the Trump Organization and its subsidiaries to be $3.7 billion.[xxi] The Trump Organization holds a real estate and media portfolio that includes hotels, golf courses, the hit NBC show The Apprentice, and licensed merchandise. The organization’s international holdings include destinations in Ireland, Panama, Scotland, Canada, the United Arab Emirates, Argentina and more.[xxii] His financial interests span the globe. Typically, an individual in Trump’s decision would divest from all financial interests as to ensure a level of purity and ethics to decisions made. A clear example of this precedent in action was the decision of President Jimmy Carter to sell his family run peanut farm and place the proceeds from the sale into a blind trust. At the time the Carter administration clarified that not only would the President and Vice President take all steps to absolve themselves of potential conflicts of interests, but that every member of the cabinet would also be required to take necessary steps to ensure they could execute “their official duties without fear or favor and with an equal hand, unfettered by any actual or apparent conflicts of interest.”[xxiii]
Refusal to divest from his financial interests set the stage for Trump to engage in a myriad of unethical behaviors, that are in line with soft kleptocracy. Trump will be able to use his influence and the goodwill of the United States (an asset) to financially profit. For example, the next president has already begun pressuring international dignitaries to host events at his own hotel in D.C. Most recently, the Embassy of Kuwait relocated an event scheduled at the Four Seasons hotel to Donald Trump’s new D.C. hotel, “citing pressure from members of Trump’s organization.” This is clearly a conflict of interest, but even if the Trump Organization (which the president-elect has remained in control of) didn’t add this pressure, the mere retention of the business interest is an abuse of office. For example, in a related scenario, an Asian diplomat discussed his logic in deciding to stay at Trump’s hotel, “Why wouldn’t I stay at his hotel…so I can tell the new president, ‘I love your new hotel!’ Isn’t it rude to come to his city and say, ‘I am staying at your competitor?’”[xxiv] In either case, Trump and his organization are personally profiting from a state-asset, the prestige and favor of the sovereign of the United States. This asset should only be used to benefit the American people, not the bottom line of the Trump Organization. Further this conflict actually injures other American business, in the case of Kuwait, the Four Seasons, where, the private entity can in no way compete with the force of a White House administration.
Trump’s refusal to divest also makes it possible for the unrestrained president-elect to abuse international relationships with foreign leaders to benefit his corporation. For example, within just the first few days of his election, Trump received a congratulatory call from the President of Argentina and while on the call he used his position to advance his business interest. Both Trump and the Argentine administration now deny these claims, but just days after the phone call, a permit that had been delayed for months was suddenly approved.[xxv] In a case like this, even if no malice was intended or if the Argentine government merely elected to speed up Trump’s permit to curry favor with the incoming president, this provides a conflict of interest where the president may now be making certain decisions based on his business relationships as opposed to based on what is best for the country.
All of these financial conflict of interest issues are exacerbated by Trump’s infamous and unprecedented refusal to release his tax returns. During the campaign, one main issue that arose for Trump and his team was the established norm that candidates release recent years of their tax returns so that the public can get a better understanding of what their financial behaviors have been. Trump managed to reject this norm, citing that he would release his returns after his company was finished with a current audit. While financial information available on Trump reveals that his company owes money to Goldman Sachs as well as some Chinese stakeholders, without a fuller picture of his portfolio, there is no ability to moderate his decisions to ensure they are not being made with his own personal financial interests in mind.[xxvi]
Aside from his refusal to divest from business interests, the way Trump has proceeded with the cabinet selection process also suggests kleptocratic tendencies. To-date, the president-elect has nominated the wealthiest cabinet in American history. A wealthy presidential cabinet is not inherently problematic, however the lack of traditional qualifications and the web of financial conflicts of interests of selected members poses concern. There is concern that Trump is exchanging positions to reward allies who support him financially and politically – a form of kleptocracy in that, again, these are government decisions made for his own personal gain at the expense of the people of the United States.
Perhaps the most egregious selection in this regard has been failed Connecticut Senatorial candidate and ex-World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon. McMahon is Trump’s nominee to lead the Small Business Administration. She was also one of the largest overall donors to the Republican president-elect’s campaign having donated over $6 million to a Trump super PAC.[xxvii] McMahon and her billionaire husband, Vince McMahon, are also the biggest donors to Donald Trump’s “Trump Foundation,” having donated a collective $5 million to the organization over the period from 2009 to 2014.[xxviii] The foundation donations are particularly suspect, as after coming under intense scrutiny for its ambiguous purpose, the foundation has just admitted to the IRS that it engaged in “self-dealing” and appears to act as a fund that Trump exploits for legal convenience in his business dealings – as opposed to serving any charitable purpose.[xxix] McMahon is a businesswoman, but that alone does not qualify her to run the Small Business Administration. As president-elect, Trump should be working to assemble an administration that best-serves the American people, as opposed to his own personal finances.
Another cabinet choice that has come under scrutiny is Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchin. Mnuchin is a Goldman-Sachs alumnus who was a top fundraiser for Trump during his campaign, serving as National Finance Director and raising a collective $169 million. While Mnuchin should not be precluded from the role of Treasury Secretary due to his Wall Street connections, he is a choice that strongly contradicts the president-elect’s anti-establishment campaign rhetoric. Further, while both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush White Houses appointed Treasury Secretaries who had worked at Goldman Sachs, Mnuchin is unique in that he has no government experience. Mnuchin is also quite the Wall St insider, something Trump specifically campaigned against.[xxx] Selecting Mnuchin is an inappropriate choice for two reasons: first, he does not reflect the agenda laid out by the president-elect to the over 62 million Americans who voted for Trump based on a specific platform, and second, he lacks the necessary experience to navigate government. This make him a suspicious choice in that he neither delivers on the populist agenda Trump outlined during his campaign nor does he possess relevant experience, suggesting he was chosen out of personal favor of the president-elect.
Trump’s choice of Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State again poses great concern to government watchdogs. As the current CEO of ExxonMobil, the world’s largest publicly traded oil company, Tillerson is an unconventional choice with extremely limited experience. Both Trump and Tillerson have close ties to Russia and Vladimir Putin, of particular concern given that Exxon’s Russian business partners stand to benefit from easement of current U.S. sanctions on Russia – which Tillerson opposes and could work to lift as Secretary of State.[xxxi] Again, other than his deal-making experience, Tillerson has no relevant qualifications to be Secretary of State. Of greater concern, Tillerson is hesitant to release his tax returns, which, as in the case of Trump who has also refused to release his returns, limits the Senate’s ability to assess potential conflicts of interest during his confirmation process. Tillerson allegedly agreed to submit his returns for confidential review, but has now reneged according to Senate Democrats. One senior Democratic aide noted on December 20th, “It is frustrating because last week it appeared that there was clear communication between the transition team and both majority and minority staff about this issue…obviously, something changed.”[xxxii] Trump’s own ties to Russia emphasis concerns over his choice of Tillerson. As Professor Henry notes in his working paper, The Curious World of Donald Trump’s Private Russian Connections, Trump himself has had a slew of intricate business relationships with key Russian power-players.[xxxiii] This adds to concern that his selection of Tillerson may be based on a personal agenda as opposed to what is best for the American people.
Part 3 – Current Opportunities to Regulate and Act To Curtail Kleptocracy
Attempts at Reform Policies
There have been attempts by developed nations to set up structures that regulate the extent of kleptocracy in their governmental systems. While reforms have been only moderately successful, the theory behind them is an important start. A look at Prime Minister Modi’s efforts to increase financial traceability serves as a strong example of how to approach reforming hard kleptocracy, while President Obama’s lobbying ban succeeds at curbing soft kleptocracy.
Just this year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi passed a sweeping reform banning almost 80% of the currency currently in circulation in India. The initiative takes specific aim at the type of corruption discussed earlier in that it seeks to “clean up a system that has relied on cash to pay bribes and to avoid taxes.”[xxxiv] Again, though in these cases of corruption, smaller level bribes and tax evasion through hoarding cash, there is not a direct link to offshore havens, the same concept of traceability is reinforced in that crime can be hidden and taxes can be evaded without proper means of financial recording and tracking.
The United States has also taken measures to prohibit kelptocratic behavior, though in many cases, the practices are established norms and not legal requirements. This includes the precedents of divestment and financial disclosure discussed above. Additionally, one new reform introduced by the Obama administration was a lobbying ban. This reform sought to curtail what is informally known as the “revolving door.” In American politics, there is concern that, as indicated in the analysis of Trump and his cabinet selections, that there is an unsavory relationship between big business and the politicians in Washington D.C. As one anti-corruption research organization explains, the “revolving door” is the constant back and forth of employment between the private and public sector.[xxxv] This behavior is cause for concern because public servants may have the wrong incentives if their ultimate goal is to exploit relationships for high paying private sector jobs. One 2012 study by Vidal, Dracaz, and Fons-Rosen, found that lobbyists who have previously worked for a current U.S. Senator experience up to a 24% drop in salary once that Senator is no longer in office – suggesting a clear relationship between government connections and private sector payoffs.[xxxvi] This, of course, reflects deeply misaligned incentives in that Senate staffers may have an agenda while in the public sector that sets them up to earn well once they leave to work in the private sector. To help moderate this issue, Obama implemented a lobbying ban, following up on a 2007 campaign promise, “When I’m president of the United States, if you want to work for my administration, you can’t leave my administration and then go lobby.” The administration implemented a two year lobbying ban for affiliates. The reform has had limited success, including the issuance of a number of waiver allowing for exemptions.[xxxvii] However, reforms like these capture the correct sentiment around the ethics of government in that the focus of public officials should be to serve the public as opposed to their own personal agendas.
Building Social Momentum
A main focus of those analyzing the global haven industry has been assessing the specific size and extent of the problem. Professor Henry lays out this approach in The Price of Offshore Revisited,
“We are up against one of society’s most well-entrenched interest groups. After all, there’s no interest group more rich and powerful than the rich and powerful, who are the ultimate subjects of our research. The first step, however, are the estimates. The way is hard, the work is tedious, the data mining is as mind-numbing as any day below surface at the coal face, and the estimates are subject to maddening, irreducible uncertainties.”[xxxviii]
With this excerpt, one of the first assigned readings for this course on tax havens – setting the tone and frame for the puzzle of the haven industry – it is clear the focus of scholars on this issue has been to define and quantify the scope of the haven industry. It seems only logical that a problem must be diagnosed before it can be remedied, however, this level of deep economic and academic analysis is perhaps not accessible to everyday citizens. Given that the scale of the haven industry is clearly in the trillions of dollars, perhaps, a more relatable approach would be to shift emphasis away from economic analysis and instead cite a definitive lower-bound estimate, leaving space to emphasize the political and social consequences – which may resonate more with both media and the general population.
Throughout the course we have discussed the issue of covering the global haven industry, including from the vantage point of exposing kleptocracy. While in-depth research now exists a great number of instances if kleptocratic behavior as well as the broader scope and issue posed by the tax haven industry, there seems to be little action taken by either developed nations or their citizens to rectify this redistributive crisis. In part 3 of this paper, I discuss a few innovative ways through which these issues may gain the social and political momentum necessary to achieve change.
Two main issues surrounding coverage of the global haven industry and kleptocratic dealings associated with it is the that in many cases, by design, the complex web of financial dealings and political maneuverings associated with the industry are 1) too complicated and esoteric for the average information consumer and 2) well understood by academics and researchers who may not be effective mainstream communicators.
From a communications perspective, a lot has changed in the way the of political advocacy and agenda setting. While in the past, media could be relied on to serve as the accountability arm of the government, at least in the United States, the media has come under increased criticism for their coverage. In the recent 2016 presidential election, both the Democratic and Republican parties and their presidential campaigns were critical of the media, embedding a new level of distrust in these institutions. Trump consistently called the media “disgusting and corrupt” throughout the campaign and continues to inspire distrust of this source of accountability among supporters.[xxxix] Just this past week, in his final end of year press conference as president, Barack Obama took the press to task over what he deemed was unfair treatment of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, noting that the media had gone so far as to even detail the risotto recipe of her campaign chairman, John Podesta, suggesting a new level of irresponsible coverage.[xl] Between academics bogged down in the “nitty-gritty” of global haven industry details and a newly discredited press, new solutions must be found to organize political action and empower the public to hold those in power accountable against the types of kleptocratic behaviors outlined in this paper.
A Look To Social Media
One consistent trend, and potential resolution to this conundrum, is the recent rise of technology, specifically social media, as a tool for organizing and activating the public. There are several insights to be gained from successful movements built on social media that have led to direct action and accountability. Perhaps the most relevant example has been the success of the #BlackLivesMatter movement both prior to and during the 2016 presidential election. If academics, activists and the media can coalesce around the issue of kleptocracy the way that they have around police violence, that could inspire direct progress. Like the issue of kleptocracy, the #BlackLivesMatter movement addresses a problem that has existed for decades, but that had failed to receive proper public interest or media attention. Essentially, #BlackLivesMatter is a “hashtag” that has allowed for the constant surveillance of instances of police brutality and flawed accountability in the justice system. Mainly using Facebook and twitter, the issue received so much attention that it became controversial whether policians would or would not utter the phrase “black lives matter” as opposed to “all lives matter.” Ultimately, President Obama weighed in on the issue taking a stance that supported the movement.[xli] The specifics of this politically unrelated movement aside, there is a lot to be learned from this decentralized, social media based, form of accountability. While one instance of injustice may have gone unnoticed this movement created a unifying theme that could be referenced with each new offense.
This is exactly how a movement around Trump’s corrupt behaviors should be built. One phone call with a foreign dignitary plugging the Trump Organization may not rise to the level of public or political interest to result in action, but constant narrative with a unifying message that is disseminated through accessible mediums like twitter and Facebook is more compelling. For example, if online influencers and activists were to use #TrumpTheft as a consistent reference to each conflict of interest or example of kleptocratic behavior by the president-elect the issue may gain the level of traction in the mainstream press that #BlackLivesMatter now has.
Attempts to disseminate information in this way have already begun and are already catching on. For example, scholar on authoritarian states, Sarah Kendzior has taken to twitter to call out Trump’s transition towards kleptocracy and has gone “viral” several times, ultimately leading to her being booked on mainstream media shows – where she is able to further amplify her message as an academic. For example, in one tweet referencing the aforementioned D.C. hotel conflict of interest Kendzior explains, “Kleptocracy continues as promises of divestment broken” and includes a link to further details on the situation.[xlii] Though not as scholarly or detailed as traditional academic work, she has succeeded in disseminating her research in this modern and accessible way. With a current audience of 125,000 followers on twitter, increasingly daily, this initial platform has raised the profile of her important academic argument and demonstrated to the mainstream media that this is a topic of interest. Others have received similar success in this space and as these individuals connect with one another a movement can start to form.
This course has delved into deep analysis of the breadth and scale of the global haven industry. Offshore havens not only cheat the global and local poor out of the necessary redistributive justice they are owed, but they also facilitate crimes and unethical behaviors. Kleptocracy has existed throughout history and across the globe in a number of forms. In this paper we reviewed both what I referred to as “hard kleptocracy,” the more direct forms of state-asset theft or removal, and “soft kleptocracy,” the undue use and abuse of office and influence at the expense of the governed for personal gain. In assessing how the Trump administration might engage in kleptocratic behaviors, it is clear he and his cabinet picks may engage in soft kleptocracy. Mainly this is apparent through his refusal to follow established norms of divestment from his financial interests as well as the team of dubiously qualified personal acquaintances and friends that the Trump Transition team has assembled. Despite the large scale of the global haven problem and issues of kleptocracy, there seems to be little organization and political action around increasing accountability and establishing reforms. While leaders like Obama and Prime Minister Modi have taken some steps to limit corruption, traditional sources of accountability have become less consequential in just this past year alone. There is a two-fold problem in that academic analysis of the complex web of financial and political dealings that fuel kleptocracy and the global haven industry are highly complex and detail oriented, making them hard to communicate effectively to a mass audience. Additionally, the media has lost a certain level of credibility, reducing its role in prompting action. Innovative organizing through a movement similar to those like #BlackLivesMatter that exploit popular new platforms to disseminate information and build a unifying narrative may prove a successful approach to raising these issues to a higher level of importance in the current political discourse.
[i] Shaxson, Nicholas. Treasure Islands: Uncovering the Damage of Offshore Banking and Tax Havens. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print.
[ii] Henry, James S. “The Price of Offshore Revisited.” Tax Justice Network (n.d.): n. pag. Tax Justice Network, 2012. Web.
[iii] Pogge, Thomas, and Krishen Mehta. Global Tax Fairness. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2016. Print.
[iv] Kanter, James, and Mark Scott. “Apple Owes $14.5 Billion in Back Taxes to Ireland, E.U. Says.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 31 Aug. 2016. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.
[v] Pogge, Thomas, and Krishen Mehta. Global Tax Fairness. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2016. Print.
[vi] “Why Do I Have to Pay Taxes?” Pub. 2105 (Rev. 3-2011) (n.d.): n. pag. Department of the Treasury. Web. 11 Dec. 2016.
[vii] Henry, James S. The Blood Bankers: Tales from the Global Underground Economy. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003. Print.
[viii] Klein, Lawrence R., and Marshall I. Pomer. The New Russia: Transition Gone Awry. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2001. Print.
[ix] Pomer, Session 11
[x] Klein, Lawrence R., and Marshall I. Pomer. The New Russia: Transition Gone Awry. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2001. Print.
[xi] Klein, Lawrence R., and Marshall I. Pomer. The New Russia: Transition Gone Awry. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2001. Print.
[xii] Klein, Lawrence R., and Marshall I. Pomer. The New Russia: Transition Gone Awry. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2001. Print.
[xiii] Klebnikov, Paul. Godfather of the Kremlin: Boris Berezovsky and the Looting of Russia. New York: Harcourt, 2000. Print.
[xiv] Klebnikov, Paul. Godfather of the Kremlin: Boris Berezovsky and the Looting of Russia. New York: Harcourt, 2000. Print.
[xv]“Late Nigerian Dictator Looted Nearly $500 Million, Swiss Say.” The New York Times, 18 Aug. 2004. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.
[xvi] “Shining a Light on Africa’s Kleptocracies.” Mercy Corps. N.p., 14 July 2009. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.
[xvii] “A Bad Boom.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 15 Mar. 2014. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.
[xviii] Sukhtankar, Sandip, and Milan Vaishnav. “Corruption in India: Bridging Research Evidence and Policy Options.” (n.d.): n. pag. Dartmouth Dept. of Economics, 2014. Web.
[xix] Roumasset, James. “The Political Economy of Corruption.” (2008): n. pag. University of Hawaii Dept. of Economics. Web.
[xx] McCoy, Alfred W. Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin, 2009. Print.
[xxi] Wang, Jennifer. “Donald Trump’s Fortune Falls $800 Million To $3.7 Billion.” Forbes, 28 Sept. 2016. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.
[xxii] “Trump International Realty.” Trump International Realty Luxury Real Estate Brokerage. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2016.
[xxiii]“Texts of Carter Statement on Conflicts of Interest and Ethics; Appointees’ Guidelines.” New York Times, 1977. Web.
[xxiv]Firozi, Paulina. “Report: Embassy of Kuwait Moves Major Event to Trump’s DC Hotel.” TheHill. N.p., 20 Dec. 2016. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.
[xxv] Walsh, Ben. “Donald Trump Denies That He Asked Argentinian President For Help With Building Permits.” The Huffington Post, 21 Nov. 2016. Web. 20 Dec. 2016.
[xxvi] “Trump’s Taxes to Stay Under Audit, But Will Public See Them?” Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg, n.d. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.
[xxvii]Ballhaus, Rebecca. “Five Big GOP Donors Added at Least $24 Million to Trump Groups in Recent Months.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 16 Oct. 2016. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.
[xxviii] Scinto, Rich. “Vince and Linda McMahon Biggest Donors to Trump Foundation.” Stamford, CT Patch. N.p., 11 Apr. 2016. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.
[xxix] “Trump Foundation Admits to Violating Ban on ‘self-dealing,’ New Filing to IRS Shows.” The Washington Post. WP Company, n.d. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.
[xxx] Crutsinger, Martin. “Treasury Nominee Mnuchin Was Trump’s Top Fundraiser.” The Big Story. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.
[xxxi]“Senators Balk at Tillerson Over Putin Before He’s Nominated.” Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg, 11 Dec. 2016. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.
[xxxii] “Dems Press for Tillerson’s Tax Returns.” CNN. Cable News Network, 20 Dec. 2016. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.
[xxxiii] Henry, James. “The Curious World of Donald Trump’s Private Russian Connections.” JSH,APH, 2016
[xxxiv]Anand, Geeta, and Hari Kumar. “Narendra Modi Bans India’s Largest Currency Bills in Bid to Cut Corruption.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 08 Nov. 2016. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.
[xxxv] “The Pros and Cons of the Revolving Door Practice – the Main Arguments.” Anti-Corruption Research Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.
[xxxvi]Vidal, Jordi, Mirko Draca, and Christian Fons-Rosen. “Revolving Door Lobbyists.” American Economic Review, Dec. 2012. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.
[xxxvii] Gerstein, Josh, Edward-Isaac Dovere, Sarah Wheaton and Paul Demko, and Nick Gass. “How Obama Failed to Shut Washington’s Revolving Door.” POLITICO. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.
[xxxviii] Henry, James S. “The Price of Offshore Revisited.” Tax Justice Network (n.d.): n. pag. Tax Justice Network, 2012. Web.
[xxxix] “Donald Trump Says Media Is out to Get Him.” CNNMoney. Cable News Network, n.d. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.
[xl] Wemple, Erik. “Sorry about the First Amendment, President Obama.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 16 Dec. 2016. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.
[xli] “Obama: ‘Black Lives Matter’ Just Means All Lives Matter.” National Review. N.p., 08 July 2016. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.
[xlii] Kenzdior, Sarah. Twitter. Twitter, 20 Dec. 2016. Web. 20 Dec. 2016.