I think tax avoidance/evasion is the second most important issue of our time. So I wanted to be able to recommend this book highly. Alas, I can’t unequivocally recommend it, though I would say it’s worth reading if you are unaware, as I am, of a better book on the subject. (I’m sure it’s out there, I just don’t know about it. But if you do, please let me know.)
I want to get the bad stuff out of the way.
First, there’s the title: you gotta think somebody involved in the publication of this book could have come up with something better than “secrecy world”. Whether as the title or in the text of the book, the phrase doesn’t really capture for me what continues to go on. It’s money laundering and tax “avoidance”, not just keeping secrets. But this is just nitpicking.
The real problem is what the book covers: the first half of it (or so) mostly covers Mossack Fonseca, an incorporation law firm in Panama which is the source of the “Panama Papers”. It’s not really about the world of offshore banking at large. But even while mostly tackling just this one company and its subsidiaries, there is both too much and not enough information. There are numerous instances of tax avoidance and some instances of laundering and fraud. But there are just endless examples, none of which are really given the detail they deserve. (The two stories from this book that became major parts of The Laundromat barely get any time in this book.) Bernstein would be better off covering fewer of the stories in more detail, I think.
Also, the descriptions of the schemes could really benefit from visuals. Because Bernstein has been surrounded by this stuff for years, he assumes a similar knowledge and interest on the writer. But money laundering is inherently confusing (that’s the point) and having diagrams or other visual aids to show at least examples of schemes would be helpful. (Though Bernstein does his best to explain them.)
Then the book shifts gears into an explanation of how the journalists broke the story. It’s much like the documentary The Panama Papers which is more about the journalists than the story. (Bernstein might well have appeared in that movie, since many of the people in that film are in this book.) I think he needed to pick an angle: either this is a mystery about journalists uncovering evidence of tax avoidance and money laundering, or it’s a survey of the world of offshore banking. I don’t think I the two parts work well together, though I think parts of both of them work well, especially the chapter on the actual publication, which is riveting.
Okay, so, on to the good:
There is a lot of detail here, certainly far more than in the movies I’ve seen. It is the most comprehensive survey of the offshore banking world I’ve come across and, in that sense, it’s a must read. If you want know why governments always run deficits, at least part of the explanation comes from the rich and corporations not only not paying their fair share, but paying far less than that (sometimes basically nothing). If a person at the poverty line doesn’t pay their taxes, the government is out a little bit of money. The impact is far bigger when it’s a business or one of the richest people in the country.
Also, at times the writing is really compelling, especially around the reveal of the documents. It took me a while to get used to Bernstein’s style, and he’s not my favourite writer by any means, but he does a good job building tension at the climax even though I knew what was coming.
But I have now watched two films – a documentary and a black docucomedy (???) – and read a book about the release of the Panama Papers and I still feel like I have not encountered the definitive account, which is frustrating. Maybe there’s just too much information and the better approach to this story would be to tell the stories of a few companies or people and then show how it happens all the time (and still happens).