Friday, April 08, 2011

Must-Read: Runciman on Offshore

I don't know how much can be credited to the reviewer, how much to the  book under review, but please make time for David Runciman's London Review of Books item on Nicholas Shaxson's Offshore.  In a way it is a replay of a recurrent theme: Christopher Lasch's deracinated elite, Martha Nussbaum's cosmopolitanism, blah blah.  But Shaxson makes it operational through the clearest filter of all: the healing power of money.  Runciman explains:
This is the world of ‘offshore’. Shaxson doesn’t limit the term to its technical meaning, as a simple description of the particular jurisdictions that enable people to eliminate their tax bills. He applies it to people as well as places, and to a way of life along with a state of mind. Seen like this, it turns out to be a very useful word. ...The essence of offshore is the need to keep up a solid appearance of respectability, while allowing money in and out with as little fuss as possible. Tax avoidance (unlike tax evasion) is not a clandestine activity, and tax havens don’t exist just to enable people to squirrel their money away from the authorities. The money needs to be accessible, and it needs to be liquid. For that reason, people prefer tax havens where they can conduct their business relatively openly, and the most successful offshore jurisdictions are the ones that ask no questions but also tell no lies. Shaxson’s memorable phrase for this is ‘theatre of probity’
Turns out the Brits are particularly good at this sort of thing:
It is because offshore is the offshoot of an empire in decline. It perfectly suited a country with the appearance of grandeur and traditionally high standards, but underneath it all a reek of desperation and the pressing need for more cash.  ...
 And not just the Brits per se.  Runciman points out that so many other great offshore havens are in the detritus of the old British Empire  Jersey.  The Caymans (where the national anthem is still "God Save the Queen").  He might have added my own favorite: the Cook Islands, a heap of bat guano 2,000 miles off New Zealand, which remains as the world's most effective haven for fraudulent transfers.  Oh, and Hong Kong.  Have we all noticed how the Beijing Commies, very far from destroying Hong Kong, have turned it into an offshore haven of their own?

Runciman brackets his review of Shaxson with another for Winner -Take-All Politics
 by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. Runciman thought both books "brilliant." Maybe, but I must say I thought Hacker's last was rather a disapointment. Shaxson, in any event is on Kindle pre-order.  I'd be reading it today if I had a copy.

 Fun Fact:  I see that Shaxson  lives in Zurich.  No fool he.   

Fond Memory:  I'm recalling a jibe my friend Scott hurled at me one day 30 years ago.  "You don't want a family," he said.  "You just want a safe place to park."  I take no view of whether he was right then or would be right now, but it's a pretty good description of Shaxson's new class.


Ebenezer Scrooge said...

I think that the dynamics of offshore are a bit different.

Offshore arises from a certain set of constraints. Nobody wants to trust their money to a guy named Anatoly Ripoffovich. By extension, nobody wants to trust their money in a jurisdiction where the judges are named Anatoly. And most jurisdictions with a decent rule of law are subject to the displeasure of their neighbors, and have to comport with certain minimal standards with regard to taxes and secrecy.

Enter the Crown Commonwealths. They have keen lawyers and decent courts, with all appeals ending at the Privy Council in London. And they're politically stable. The UK military is there to protect them against coups and invasions, and to throw out the more unsavory local PMs. And best of all, they have no visible means of support, so they don't really care what their neighbors think of them. The result? A wonderful place to put tainted money, knowing you can get it back with no questions asked.

You don't need to invoke the louche culture of the Raj to explain these jurisdictions. Boring politico-legal factors are enough.

Buce said...

The Cook Islands advertise (or used to) that one reason they are safe is that they have good Anglo-Saxon judges (they fly 'em out from New Zealand). It was one of those good Anglo Saxon judges who looked at a particularly egregiious Cook Islands trust and said -- "That's not what I learned in law school!"--and struck it down.

Ebenezer Scrooge said...

Outsourcing is always dangerous. That's why the Caymans does it better. I've dealt with their excellent local counsel, who help write their egregious local laws.