fist holding paper dollar bills


Following the Dirty Money

To understand how America's democracy moved to the brink of collapse, we need to look at the underbelly of power—and how it’s funded.

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Many times in the last five years of covering Trump/Russia, I’ve been asked to provide a Theory of Everything—a one-size-fits-all explanation for why the United States teeters on the brink of tyranny, why seemingly-intelligent and wealthy people backed a mobbed-up mountebank like Trump, why Russia behaves as it does, why sketchy folks like Steve Bannon and Erik Prince and Patrick Byrne flit around doing shady shit and rarely seem to face consequences, and so on.

Let me say upfront: I cannot do this. It’s impossible. Every character in this global drama, whether Jared Kushner or Rebekah Mercer or Semion Mogilevich, is his or her own person, with motives unique to him or her. And just because individuals happen to have things in common—both members of the Federalist Society, partners at Jones Day, paramours of Maria Butina, etc.—doesn’t necessarily mean they are all in cahoots. Six people won’t agree on where to have dinner; it strains credulity to believe that a lot more than six people secretly run the world in perfect, monolithic congress.

And yet enough of the business of world-running is done in secret, by individuals of dubious origin, unelected by any government, sitting on riches of inexplicable provenance, that we would be remiss to not pull back the curtain for a gander.

Here are the things I know for certain:

1. It’s about two things: money and power. One begets the other. Both are equally important, but the latter is more difficult to quantify. The only way to so much as glimpse this ugly beast is to follow the money.

2. An unimaginably vast amount of wealth exists “offshore,” beyond the reach of the long arm of the law. Money is parked there in three ways: legitimately (to protect its seizure from corrupt governments, as with Jews safeguarding their assets in the 1930s and 40s); shadily (to avoid or evade taxation, as with uber-rich libertarians in the United States and other Western countries); and feloniously (to hide it from criminal law enforcement, as with mafiosi and corrupt officials of so-called Third World countries). As Oliver Bullough explains in his must-read Moneyland: The Inside Story of the Crooks and Kleptocrats Who Rule the World, these holdings are a combination of “the legitimately scared money mixed with the naughty tax-avoiding money… mixed with the evil looted money.”

3. The underworld economy—the dirty money of transnational organized crime—accounts for more than $2 trillion annually by some estimates, which would represent about 3-4% of the world’s gross domestic product. If the underworld were a country, it would rank fifth, after the United States, China, Japan, and Germany, ahead of Great Britain, France, India, and Canada—and far ahead of Russia. Combine that mob money with the wealth being hidden offshore by the mega-rich, and mix that with loot boosted from the national coffers of the Moldovas and Angolas of the world, and what you’ve got is a hoard of money so big it would take an army of dragons to guard it.

4. That dragon’s hoard of money, the huge expanse of it, is shielded from taxation. This means that the federal budget of the United States, and the budgets of Great Britain and Germany and Canada and France and so forth, cannot draw from this Lake Superior-sized pool of cash. The difference must be made up by ordinary citizens like you and me. When rich scumbags avoid taxation, the rest of us pick up the tab. This is a form of theft, reverse-Robin-Hood style. They are stealing from us.

5. Criminals can’t pay taxes. Not because they don’t want to—if mobsters were offered a deal where they paid a percentage of earnings to the government in exchange for immunity, they’d take it. But because they can’t very well declare income from smuggling heroin from Afghanistan, sex-trafficking teenagers from Burma, dealing arms to sanctioned warlords in Libya, bilking Medicare, or offing some recalcitrant underling and making it look like an accident. The challenge of how to “wash” illicitly gained wealth so that it can be used legitimately has been the focus of criminal masterminds since the days of Meyer Lansky, before World War II.

6. This hoard of money—legitimately scared, naughty, and evil—is safeguarded by real-life dragons: politicians, attorneys, accountants, journalists, media personalities, financiers, real estate brokers, art dealers, lobbyists, publicists, fundraisers, TV and movie producers, royal families, failed New York developers turned reality show stars, and so on. Their job, essentially, is to protect the fortunes of the insanely rich. They are paid handsomely for this. Sit-Like-Dragon-On-Rich-Guy’s-Hoard is a multibillion-dollar industry, and everyone who profits from it, whether a lawyer in London, an accountant in Manhattan, or a senator in West Virginia, has zero incentive to blow up the system. Their livelihood depends on it. That’s what we’re up against. That’s the enemy. Not the handful of mega-rich people, but their well-heeled, parasitical underlings.

7. These mega-rich cats are not bound to a single sovereign nation. They bounce from jurisdiction to jurisdiction as they please, depending on what they need at any given time. They might do their banking in Luxembourg or Cyprus, sue for libel in the U.K., incorporate their business at St. Kitts, claim residency in the Caymans, establish trusts in South Dakota—anything to minimize their exposure and maximize their profit. In effect, these ultra-high-net-worth individuals are citizens of a different nation entirely, one that Bullough calls “Moneyland.” Money flows from country to country, from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, with the click of a mouse. It moves to be better saved, better hidden, or better spent. All of this is to serve the very rich, these Moneylanders.

8. In The World Beneath, her podcast about the history of mobsters and spies, Lincoln’s Bible (LB) explains that Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano spent WWII fighting the Nazis, despite having no financial incentive to do so. Their syndicate was subsequently infiltrated and taken over in the 1990s by the Russian mob; Russia, as LB puts it, invaded us “from the underworld up.” Vladimir Putin, once head of the corrupt FSB, was installed by these criminals. The Russian Federation is a mafia state. Oligarchs don’t get to be oligarchs without paying their tribute. Thus the underworld has at least one entire government through which it can launder its illicit loot. And that government has nukes.

9. Money gets mixed together, good with bad, and then is moved along. Facebook took money from Russian oligarchs. Twitter took money from Russian oligarchs. Russian oligarchs buy British football clubs and American basketball teams. Wealthy foreigners own real estate in New York, in London, in Miami. Persian Gulf oil wealth underwrites Hollywood and Silicon Valley. And so on. Not all of this is necessarily bad; capitalism requires capital to innovate and thrive.

10. Let’s take an example: Jared Kushner, while a U.S. citizen and a key adviser to the Former Guy, has cozy relationships with MbS, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia; with Bibi Netanyahu, the former Prime Minister of Israel (an old friend of the Kushner family); with Tom Barrack, the newly-indicted financier accused of spying for the UAE. There is evidence to suggest that, while working for the White House, Kushner used the cudgel of U.S. foreign policy, and possibly also classified intelligence, to enrich his family’s real estate business, by securing a loan on his white elephant of a property at 666 Fifth Avenue. According to crack reporting by Katherine Eban at Vanity Fair, Kushner scuttled the pandemic response in the spring of 2020 because he believed, wrongly, that COVID-19 would only affect “blue states,” and thus help Trump’s re-election prospects. These are not the actions of a guy with even a scintilla of loyalty to the country that issues his passport. Kushner is a Moneylander.

11. The accumulation of this much wealth necessitates dealing with unsavory characters in hostile foreign governments. Opium comes from Afghanistan. Diamonds come from Botswana, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Russia. Nations that are not fighting some forever civil or regional war don’t need arms. Our State Department writes an entire report about the countries—Burma, Turkmenistan, Venezuela—that are hotspots for human trafficking. To acquire this much wealth, one must be comfortable trading in human misery. It’s what HR professionals call a BFOQ—bona fide occupational qualification.

12. The nihilistic, Moneylander mindset is nicely expressed by Orson Welles’s Harry Lime, the villain of the film The Third Man—which was written by Graham Greene, a former intelligence officer. Lime has accumulated his fortune by selling watered-down medicine to hospitals; children die because of this, but he has gotten rich. Looking down from the top of a Ferris wheel at the people below, Lime says to his friend, “Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you 20,000 pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax—the only way you can save money nowadays.” The Third Man came out in 1949. This shit has been going on forever.

13. The pandemic rages on, largely because of anti-vax disinformation. The climate crisis, meanwhile, is a ticking time bomb that will end one in eight species of life on the planet, and make human life unsustainable in many places around the world. By some estimates, 150 million human beings will die because of this. The Moneyland types don’t give a crap—not when there’s so much money to be made from fossil fuel. They are right now, in real time, channeling Harry Lime, calculating how many dots they can afford to spare. (And if you’re reading this thinking I’m overly pessimistic about the state of the Earth, I point to not one, not two, but three billionaires who recently went into space. Is that a lark, or do they know this planet’s doomed?)

14. Very few people in positions of authority—politicians, press—talk about this stuff. Even when certain individuals become particularly egregious (cough Joe Manchin cough), they are generally made out to be rogue actors, lone wolves. In reality, they all play the same game. The difference between Joe Manchin and, say, Corey Booker is a matter of degree. Meanwhile, our supine mainstream media, which ultimately feeds at the same poisoned trough, invests more time in both-sides-ing vaccines and covering the War on Christmas than shining a spotlight on all the looted treasure flowing back and forth.

15. The solution to the problem is to hunt down the money. Expose it, seize it, tax it. Destroy the system. Tear it out by the roots. The civilized world must band together to eradicate tax havens, just as it banded together to eradicate smallpox. Happily, there appears to be some movement on this front. But the complete annihilation of the system would necessitate slaying (metaphorically) all of those rapacious dragons guarding the hoard—the politicians, attorneys, accountants, journalists, media personalities, financiers, real estate brokers, art dealers, lobbyists, publicists, fundraisers, TV and movie producers, royal families, failed New York developers turned reality show stars, and so on. It’s David taking on an army of Goliaths, and his slingshot just broke. Nevertheless, it’s a fight we have to win, or else. Because of the ravages of climate change exacerbated by the behavior of these scumbags, this is not hyperbole… it’s the end of life on earth as we know it.

Aren’t you glad you asked?


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