The internet is exploding with conversations about the Panama Papers — the largest data dump in history of secret files about rich people hiding and hoarding money. And yet the biggest story of all is hardly getting any attention.
That story, of course, is how this widespread systemic corruption has been able to grow its tendrils across the entire planet without anyone stopping it. People have known for decades that something feels a little off about the way our political and economic systems function. And yet most of us continue to go about our daily lives as if none of it were happening.
How is it possible that people can get so riled up by the hate-mongering of Donald Trump, for example? And yet barely a peep is made that tax havens, trade agreements, tax policies, and more (and entire architecture of wealth extraction at the planetary scale) are operating invisibly all around us to make societies more unequal and hoard wealth among a shrinking elite with unprecedented political power.
"People have known for decades that something feels a little off about the way our political and economic systems function. And yet most of us continue to go about our daily lives as if none of it were happening."
To find the answer, you’ll have to look inside your own mind.
Evolutionary forces have given human beings the profound capacity to perceive fictional worlds that we call “culture” — things like money and the economy that exist as symbolic representations inside our minds. As my former mentor, George Lakoff, would say there are semantic “frames” that give structure to our thoughts about abstract ideas that must be grounded in our lived experience if they are to be understood.
And so it is that we understand money as pieces of paper that change hands between buyers and sellers. We see the economy metaphorically as a marketplace or perhaps an engine of productivity or a human body that is healthy or ill. What we don’t see is the diffuse, systemic nature of today’s real economic systems. Most of the money is nothing more than numbers stored in digital databanks spread across server farms or “in the cloud” as the tech vernacular goes.
The economy makes sense in our minds as a collection of stories about things that may be quite true and valid (there is a cost to anything one would like to acquire) or ridiculously false if we look at the evidence (wealth hoarded by the super rich will “trickle down” to everyone else as so-called prosperity). We live within our stories as the fish lives within the water around it. Just as the fish cannot see the water, we often do not see the culture we are swimming in.
This alone would be difficult enough to overcome but the situation is worse. As biological beings we are wired for survival. Our minds have built-in biases for dealing with threats and opportunities that are readily experienced and understood. This is why we have an easier time reacting to a mugger stabbing at us with a knife than we do with the gradual destabilization of a banking system or the slow-motion warming of the world ocean. It is much harder for the human mind to grasp systemic causation.
Let’s apply this to the Panama Papers.
There are any number of political problems that could be tackled with policy responses to the revelation that shell companies. Offshore accounts (and the shell game of anonymously owned companies) are used to hide billions (even trillions) of dollars from the societies from which they were taken. But there’s a deeper question we need to explore if we want to understand the full depth of the crisis we are looking at in all of these reports. Yes, there is vast fraud by the global elite. The corruption is on a staggering scale. The real problem isn’t that people aren’t being thrown in jail for illegal activities, it’s that most of these activities are legal.
"The real problem isn’t that people aren’t being thrown in jail for illegal activities, it’s that most of these activities are legal."
We can — and should — debate the politics of this. We should look for policy solutions, as NGOs like Global Witness, Transparency International and ActionAid routinely do. All power to them. But there’s another angle here that is given far less attention than it deserves: our bodies and brains.
Why do we find it so difficult to react to stories about systemic corruption in a way that gets to the heart of the problem? Many policy-analysis groups have tried drawing attention to it for years now. There have even been attempts to tackle the issues of global tax systems in the UK, US, and Germany — a lot of song and dance as the Titanic continues sinking into the dark abyss.
My colleagues at TheRules.org have previously described what we call the One Party Planet phenomenon where a singular logic unfoldss as if it were the operating system for the global economy. Strip off the superficial differences between most political parties and you’ll find that — on economic matters at least— they function as if they were one party. Democrats and Republicans, for example, are both in support of TPP and deregulation of financial markets. And neither has any interest in bringing the tax haven system to an end or jailing bankers who orchestrated the 2008 financial collapse.
It’s very difficult to communicate this nuanced point-of-view because of all the cognitive traits mentioned above. We cannot think (or see) systemically if we don’t know how to look for the deep patterns that reveal how the rules of this system are set up. Not just for this national economy or that, this bank or that, but the mother-system; the global operating system.
So what are the deep patterns — what we might call the DEEP RULES that govern our planetary civilization right now? First and foremost, is the modus operandi that economies must grow no matter what the cost. If the Amazon rainforest must be bulldozed to the ground, so be it. But never question the primacy of growth.
Accompanying this logic is another one that is more subtle and less talked about. That is the rule saying all value must be measured in monetary terms. If it doesn’t have a price tag on it, it’s not worth anything. What this does is ignore the real sources of wealth (being healthy, having enough food and clean water, having free time to pursue your passions, or spending time with family and friends). In their place is material wealth in the form of consumable products. A large house is the surrogate for time spent at home — never mind that most people are too busy working overtime to pay their mortgage, if they own a home at all.
Another key rule is that money is debt that must always be repaid with interest. This is why the economy must grow. We aren’t taught in school where money comes from so it has the air of mystery surrounding it. The reality is so deceptively simple that it still alludes us most of the time — that money is “created” every time someone goes to the bank and takes out a loan. As this money is, by definition, a contractual debt it must be repaid with the interest rate attached to it.
And so the money supply grows as the amount of debt grows. And every step of the way, we must consume more just to keep up. It’s like a treadmill that increases its slope and speed every time we push a button. Thus the imperative to destroy that rainforest. You gotta pay your debts, right?
"We must systematically replace these rules with better ones."
Then there is the nefarious rule declaring that rich people are morally superior to poor people. This is where a condescension enters the scene. Does it really matter if that billionaire hid a few million from the tax collector while working-class Joe has to pay his fair share? Not if we apply different moral standards to each of them. It’s like the quote from Stalin that killing one person is murder, but killing a million people is a statistic. The rich operate above the fray where normal rules of conduct simply don’t apply. Cognitively speaking, it’s as if they don’t compute.
Take these rules together and you see why our minds keep us from seeing the architecture of wealth extraction — even though it is all around us like The Matrix surrounding Neo before he unplugged. We live in a fog of implicit rules that our culture has taught us to blindly accept. And since we are social beings, it feels right and natural to go along with what everyone else is doing.
But we are in an end game now. The Earth’s ecosystems are being raped and pillaged at an epically unsustainable pace that will collapse the entire system — if, that is, political destabilization from extreme inequality doesn’t do it to us first. And so we must systematically replace these rules with better ones.
The purpose of an economy is not naively to grow, but rather to grow up to health and maturity (then, like our adult bodies, to grow no more). Our currencies should reflect real value rather than obscure it. And every human being should be treated as equally worthy (alongside our nonhuman kin in the biosphere with whom we share this spinning rock in space).
Our hope is that the Panama Papers will open up a conversation about why we have let this Ponzi Scheme go on so long and what we collectively would like to replace it with. Getting at the deep rules that give rise to pattern-level behavior of the whole system is going to be necessary before we can make the change.