Money loves the dark. Economic scandals and abuses make headlines, yet we refrain from bringing up “taboo” financial topics around our friends and family. From our income to our debt, we like to keep our fiscal matters private. Yet our shared economic resources seem to remain in a constant state of deficit. Corruption, overspending, and a prominent wealth gap in society all point to a troubled, but often unspoken, relationship with money. But as we begin to dig beneath the surface, it becomes clear that this norm of secrecy may be the cause of many of our collective and personal financial struggles and failures.
This was most recently brought into focus by the Panama Papers, a series of 11.5 million documents that were leaked on April 15. They contain the fiscally sensitive information of 143 politicians and their families,among others, and highlight the exploitation of secret offshore tax havens. At least 12 national leaders, including familiar names like Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, are involved..The leak linked thousands of names to Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm which, “helped clients launder money, dodge sanctions and evade tax[es].” Just yesterday the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists released a searchable database of more than 300,000 people and companies linked to Mossack Fonseca, including at least 36 Americans.
Initial reactions from the public and media outlets were mixed. For many, the Panama Papers were not a surprise. Authoritative and oppressive regimes have a long track record of finding loopholes and deceiving others for personal gain.However, according to The Atlantic, “Iceland, France, Chile, and Botswana—all of which have officials listed as clients of Mossack Fonseca—are ranked highly on anti-corruption indexes such as the one from Transparency International.” For the citizens in these countries, the news brought outrage and a demand to restore justice.
In Iceland, for example, documents revealed then Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson had hidden millions of dollars in claims. Icelanders quickly mobilized and held protests demanding his resignation. Gunnlaugssonstepped down within days of the leak and has since been replaced, a move which several news sources dubbed as the first “political casualty” of the Panama Papers.
"From the Panama Papers to our personal finances, the secret life of our money is having unintended consequences..."
The Panama Papers not only underscore a violation of trust and a misuse of power, but they threaten the values inherent to participatory governments.
“Lost tax revenue is one consequence of this hidden system; even more dangerous is its deep damage to democratic rule and regional stability when corrupt politicians have place to stash stolen national assets out of public view,” the New York Times reported. Leaders took great liberties on the norms of privacy that have long been associated with money. But in the end secrecy trumped servitude, and tax money that should have been used for public benefitwas kept in the dark.
However these financial failures do not have to be the norm, nor does this storyline have to be repeated. There are direct ways in which we can advocate for transparency at a governmental level. In Norway, for example, everyone’s earnings and tax contributions have been published since 1814. When Norway won it’s independence, tax information was made public to ensure that everyone was contributing their fair share. As a result of this openness, Norway is considered one of the least financially corrupt countries in the world.
Our aptitude for openness is not only a practice our leaders need to cultivate, but one that we need to harbor as well. Everyday corruption is all around us. We see discrepancies in pay between men and women, as well as massive wage gap between low-income workers and the heads of corporations. The majority of this information, though, is kept private. What if every place of business published its employees earnings? It would certainly be easier to identify payroll differences between men and women, or overindulgences in the bonuses of various CEOs. But before we can get to this place of transparency, we need to take a serious look at “money talk”, and why it makes us uncomfortable.
Perhaps the root of our discomfort is pride. We are all too often ashamed of what we don’t have, and when we find ourselves with riches, we fear that they will be taken away. We like to store things up for ourselves, often living out of plenty while we minimally tithe or give to charity. On the topic Pope Francis has said, “The world has become an idolater of this god called money... Men and women have to be at the center (of an economic system) as God wants, not money.” Whatever brings us to this place of economic justice and fairness is certainly worth personal and public reflection- and worth our discomfort.
From the Panama Papers to our personal finances, the secret life of our money is having unintended consequences on our well being. We’re overdue for a shift towards public justice. We must hold our leaders and government accountable, while at the same time re-imagining what it looks like to be more transparent in our own day-to-day finances.
-Jenny Hyde is a recent alumna of Gordon College, where she received her degree in International Affairs. She is currently living and working in Washington, D.C.