For avid Le Carre fans like yours truly, the the Panama Papers feel like the most wonderful vindication for the great man. Of course he hinted at the greyness of this particular Latin grey area many moons ago when he penned 'The Tailor of Panama'. But back then John's main area of forensic focus was still spooks. And then he moved on to a new set of bad guys: corporate crooks.
In book after book, John put flesh on the bones on the men behind the offshore ghost companies we are suddenly hearing so much about. And let's face it, it is pretty hard not to secretly believe that the name Mossack Fonseca hasn't actually jumped out from the pages of a Le Carre novel and into the blinding noon light of the real world.
Mossack Fonseca. What a name. What a completely perfect name. A boxy office complete with palm trees outside and blank faced security guys whose dads probably cut their teeth torturing people for Noriega.
A quiet office on a quiet tropical street providing a home to eleven million secrets. In 'The Night Manager', John's arms dealing bad guy Dickie Roper was called 'the worst man in the world.' And now we can see the place where all the worst men in the world hide their secrets and their treasure. The tyrants and the gun runners and people traffickers and the drug cartels. The place to stash your cash when you've closed out a deal for a quarter of a tonne of heroin or a thousand M16 semi automatic rifles.
All that is bad in our worsening world hidden away in a quiet office building in a quiet tropical street. In a place bearing the name plate Mossack Fonseca.
It is the biggest story in the world. It is a story about the worst people in the world. An up close and personal view of just how the wheels of evil are oiled. At one end of the story there is the destruction wreaked by the arms dealers and the drug dealers and the slavers. And at the other end of the story is Mossack Fonseca.
Have we discovered anything new? Not really. Not at all. Instead we have been given the thrill of seeing actual names on actual pieces of paper. We have been treated to the sight of what lies behind a bland letterhead for Pan Global Holdings BVI Ltd.
A reality TV guy. A Chelsea midfielder. A one legged model. A Russian dictator. A Etonian Prime Minister. And the media has done what the media does. When in doubt, obsess about celebrity. I guess there must have been much whooping and hollering when one of those 11 million documents yielded up the name Simon Cowell. And who needs the big picture when you have Simon Cowell?
And then of course the magic name Cameron also jumped out. Cameron + Mossack Fonseca = Feeding Frenzy. Well of course it does, especially when the Cameron in question suddenly looks as guilty as a double glazing salesman trying to pass off pine as teak.
So all of a sudden the pieces of paper telling the tale of how a container load of claymore mines can make its way to the Democratic Republic of Congo holds no interest whatsoever. Because David Cameron might or might not have benefited from flogging £30 grand's worth of off shore shares.
Is this immediate obsession with finding a few celebrities named and shamed in the leaked papers a deliberate smokescreen? Or is it merely proof that the unwashed masses are incapable of taking in anything that resembles a big picture? It's impossible to say.
Once we look beyond David Cameron and Simon Cowell, the big picture is as terrifyingly ugly as anything Heironymous Bosch ever committed to canvas.
If only our media would step away from the names and take a moment to focus on the numbers. The utterly terrible numbers. Numbers that are so big as to be almost meaningless. Numbers that simply have to be somehow broken down into something small enough for us to wrap our heads around.
So here goes. The big one. The huge one. The worst number in the world.
Right now there are 31 trillion dollars stashed away in the likes of the British Virgin Islands.
As in thirty one thousand billion dollars.
As in three hundred and ten thousand million dollars.
It's too big, isn't it? Way too big to make much sense. Context? The annual turnover of Great Britain Plc is about $3 trillion. As in every single penny 60 million of us spend or earn for a whole year. So it would take a whole ten years for every single penny and pound the whole lot of us spend to catch up with all cash in the off shore treasure chests.
Maybe there is a better way to look at it. Our beleaguered planet is home to 7 billion human beings. 3 billion of the aforesaid human beings get by on the princely salary of $2 a day. As in $700 dollars a year.
What if the off shore $31 trillion was seized under some kind of global version of the Proceeds of Crime Act and re-distributed to all those getting by on two bucks a day. Each and every one of the poorest people in the world – all three billion of them – as in three thousand million – as in the population of Britain fifty times over – every man Jack (or Jill) of them would receive a windfall of $10,000
The equivalent of fifteen years worth of salary paid out as a one off bonus. As John Lennon said,
If the booty was split between every one of us on the planet, we would all get about $4500 each. £3000. Were such a thing to happen I reckon the global recession would end in the blink of an eye. Don't you?
Or maybe the confiscated cash might be channeled into solving a few of mankind's more intractable problems. We humans are pretty good at overcoming big hurdles. The only thing that tends to hold us back is a lack of cash. With a completely open cheque book, it is hard to believe that we wouldn't find ways to nail all the big problems one by one. A cure for cancer and malaria. A way to keep the world's lights on care of energy pulled from the tides of the Oceans. A way to coax the food we need from what agricultural land we have left.
$31 trillion would be enough for mankind to completely re-invent ourselves - to find a way of buying ourselves another few hundred years of history to write up.
Like John said. Imagine. But those two words Mossack and Fonseca say something very different. They confirm that we live in the world of John Le Carre and not the world of John Lennon. And in the world of Le Carre, the propaganda and the corruption will roll on relentlessly and all the worst men in the world will be allowed to do what the worst men in the world do. When it comes to the biggest and the baddest things in life, it is always a good idea to sub contract out the job of describing them. So cue Mr Shakespeare.
man, proud man
the angels must be weeping at the sight of the squirreled away $31
trillion. Enough to make a life worth living for all of those
desperate souls whose lives are barely worth living. And for what?
The money will never be spent. How can you spend such a sum? There
are only so many Lear jets and villas in Antigua. Instead this money
which could be life blood for our failing world will never be
anything more than numbers on a screen. A 21st
Century version of the kind of treasure chest that once upon a time
got Long John Silver hopping about.
Dressed in a little brief authority,
ignorant of what he's most assured—
His glassy essence—like an
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
makes the angels weep.'
If you ever visit the museum at Auschwitz you will find rooms filled with paperwork. Reams and reams of paperwork. And it is beautifully compiled by guys who were meticulously educated in schools where perfect hand writing was deemed to be a big deal. Copperplate. Precise. How many documents? I have no idea. At the time there must have been millions of pieces of paper. How many sheets per person? What kind of paper trail tracked a person from ghetto to crematorium? Maybe 11 sheets per person? Maybe 11 million pieces of paper for the million who went up the Birkenau chimneys?
Train time tables and coal requirements and staff rostas and Zyclon B orders and the take from every arriving train accounted for down to the last dollar note and diamond ring.
The paperwork that allowed evil to be super efficient. To be all conquering. To prevail. Mossack Fonseca and the biggest numbers in the world and the worst men in the world. And the angels are weeping like they have just sat through Bambi for the very first time.
Here are another couple of numbers. Not as big as $31 trillion. Not even close. But big in a different way.
The population of the British Virgin Islands is 32,000. OK. Fair enough. How many companies have chosen those sun kissed shores as their corporate home?
Angels weep on. And on....