Receiving our own stolen money
(The Despots’ Guide to Wealth Management, February 2017, JC Sharman)
It took until the 1990s for the West to admit that its donations to developing nations were largely stolen by local officials. Finally embarrassed as to how useless it has all been, the UN and the World Bank both instituted programs to recover stolen funds. (In the West, bribery is more common than theft, to the point where it was until recently a deductible expense. As a proportion of the economy, it is trivial.) Since then, various nations have slowly come around to implementing laws whereby they can seize and repatriate assets. Sharman focuses on four of them: Switzerland, Australia, UK and USA. This is the juicy theme of The Despots’ Guide to Wealth Management.
Sharman says many of the world’s governments are actually “criminal conspiracies” for elites to “plunder the countries they rule”. Even (if not especially) candidates who run on anti-corruption platforms turn out to be as corrupt as any, blocking investigations while spending billions abroad as the nation starves. Not caring where the money came from, many countries love the influx of currency. Australia in particular says it is nobody’s business as long as it is put to legitimate use in Australia. So it has become famous for noncooperation and even obfuscation of victim countries’ efforts. It has also become a prime attraction for Chinese and Papua New Guinea billions. China estimates several hundred billion dollars has gone missing, and well over ten thousand nationals have been buying houses, apartments and businesses overseas — then following along (usually via a third country to avoid suspicion) once their families are safely ensconced.
The game is rife with hypocrisy. While Xi Jinping purges 180,000 officials for corruption, his own family has suddenly been able to purchase tens of millions worth of Hong Kong and Chinese luxury real estate. Possibly more obnoxious is the USA, where the government berates banks for not catching deposits of ill-gotten wealth, while the government itself welcomes the same criminals to state dinners, debt forgiveness and billions in more aid.
Sharman is not the easiest author to read. He is laborious, constantly telling readers what he is about to say in the next few paragraphs and telling them that he has already mentioned some fact or person several times in previous paragraphs or chapters. Getting to the point is not a priority of his. But the basic investigative facts are impressive and revealing. What has been recovered is a rounding error on the total, and the patchwork of laws does little to crack the overall scheme of money laundering. Sharman sees little light on the horizon; laws will remain weak or unused, reporters will find out more than prosecutors, and the lawyers will continue to do best of all.