Inside the palace-turned-kleptocracy-museum of former Ukranian president Viktor Yanukovych
What do American billionaires, Russian oligarchs, and London bankers have in common? They’re all residents of Moneyland, the shadow country where the rich can buy anonymity and impunity.
“In the decade after 2000, the richest 1 percent of the world’s population increased its wealth from one-third of everything to a half,” writes Oliver Bullough in the first chapter of Moneyland.
It’s the kind of statistic we’ve all probably heard at some point and half-remembered — simple, definitive numbers to convey what most of us already knew intuitively: the ultra rich are screwing us, and the intensity of that screwing seems to be increasing exponentially.
Even though we’ve basically accepted that the fabulously wealthy seem to live by different rules, the public’s brief glimpses into what that truly means, in tangible terms, are fabulously lurid. The Panama Papers. Jeffrey Epstein being able to keep a harem of underage girls for decades using money no one seems to know the origin of. Actors and hedge fund managers being able to buy their children prestigious college degrees. Fund manager Jho Low taking money from Malaysian taxpayers to finance yacht parties, gambling excursions, and notably, the production of The Wolf Of Wall Street. Paul Manafort laundering money earned doing PR for kleptocrats and spending it on python-skin jackets.
We suspect these stories are all somehow related, but the precise how of it is difficult to explain — mostly because the schemes involved are complex by design, cooked up by people with the means to sue you into bankruptcy if you report on them. The schemes differ in the details but they’re all the same in the end, money flowing upward, toward those with the most.
As with the 2008 financial crisis, all of that virtual money moving from entity to abstract entity requires some good metaphors to make sense of it. Luckily Bullough, like Big Short author Michael Lewis before him, has a knack for them. Beginning with the one in the title.
“This is the place that I call Moneyland — Maltese passports, English libel, American privacy, Panamanian shell companies, Jersey trusts, Liechtenstein foundations, all added together to create a virtual space that is far greater than the sum of its parts. The laws of Moneyland are whichever laws anywhere are most suited to those wealthy enough to afford them at any moment in time.”
“It is as if the very wealthiest people in countries like China, Nigeria, Ukraine, and Russia have tunneled into this new land that lies beneath all our nation-states, where borders have vanished.”
Reporting on the very wealthy isn’t just idle fascination or some true crime escapism. In his book, Bullough connects the crimes of Moneyland to what it means for the rest of us. How does it affect our ability to afford a house or apartment, for example, when 50% of residential real estate purchases over $5 million in the United States are made through opaque shell companies? As wages stagnate and housing prices explode, how does all that free-flowing capital from the world’s crooks and their enablers inflate and distort markets the rest of us rely on?
In his book, Bullough makes the case that not only does all that free-flowing capital have the ability to distort markets, it’s actually a direct threat to democracy itself. Is Donald Trump really a “Russian asset,” or are Trump and Putin just two symptoms of the same problem of unaccountable global capital? I spoke to Bullough by phone this week.