Book Review: Moneyland

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Oliver Bullough dissects how global mega wealth and corruption really work, and offers a possible if unlikely solution

"Moneyland" pulls back the curtain on the shady, secretive underworld of the world's mega-wealthy, in which they move vast sums of money around with the intention of keeping it away from tax authorities, and knowledge of it away from taxpayers.

Author Oliver Bullough takes the reader on a trip through "Moneyland", his name for the real world of kleptocrats, offshore shell companies, fake passports, threats of lawsuits, and vast sums of stolen money, as well as how it has been able to grow and what can be done to stop it.

Offshore wealth controls much of the world

Bullough explores how offshore wealth has changed the world in recent decades. After World War Two the Bretton Woods Agreement was designed in 1944 in part to specifically prevent illicit financial operations and shady dealings from taking place. Up until the agreement's collapse in the 1970s and the financialization of the global economy and deregulation of the financial system in the 1980s, it was difficult to move money across borders in order to keep it out of the clutches of tax authorities. However, these changes opened up the door to what has grown today to be a complex global web that hides and moves massive amounts of money around the world electronically.

Bullough contends that it is because of these very changes, creating the conditions in which offshore wealth could balloon, that kleptocrats have been able to thrive, and that societal problems such as a sharp decrease in public service expenditure in countries across the globe have risen.

A shady global haven protects and enriches the mega-wealthy

The author illustrates how the super-rich use an array of techniques to move and hide money, avoid and evade tax, and protect themselves from identification and investigation.

Bullough reveals that the super-rich are able to move, hide and of course spend their enormous wealth. This is done in part through the proliferation of schemes such as the so-called "golden passports", in which countries grant citizenship or long-term residency in return for a large investment, in addition to complex shell companies setting up in offshore havens that are often closed down and set up again. It requires a vast global network of highly capable, expensive professionals, from bankers and lawyers to real estate agents and accountants. Should journalists attempt to investigate the mega-wealthy who inhabit "Moneyland", they are often threatened with potentially costly legal proceedings, effectively shutting down any possibility of bringing findings to light.

The author's exploration of this underworld takes him all over the world as he delves deeper into its myriad connections, including Russia, China, Malta, Nevada, the Caribbean island of Nevis, and playgrounds of the super-rich, such as London and Monaco. He aims to make the book as accessible as possible using an array of catchy, memorable metaphors to illuminate his points, such as "Moneyland" itself to describe the entire underworld of illicit financial activity the world over.

The depth of detail is meticulous as Bullough supports his arguments with an abundance of examples. For instance, demonstrating how far ahead of global governance "Moneyland" is, he writes that "the US government had no idea who owned [buildings] it leased for high-security purposes".

A possible solution, but little hope

To put an end to this shady financial underworld, Bullough calls on global governments to be strict and proactive on financial regulation, international laws, inter-governmental co-operation and financial transparency. The problem with this proposal is that, while it may sound good in practice, implementing it and sticking to it in reality is another matter entirely.

After the 2008–2009 Global Financial Crisis, financial regulation such as the Dodd-Frank Act came into effect. In March 2018, however, a mere 10 years later, the U.S. government rolled back much of what this bill enforced, essentially deregulating the banks, in a sign of how the world is embracing deregulation once again and falling back into the kind of bad habits that allow such illicit financial activity to prosper.

"Moneyland" is a well-written, expertly researched book that anyone who wants to truly understand how power, corruption and unimaginable wealth really work must read. It offers an eye-opening, astonishing scrutiny of a shady world about which the vast majority of people have little idea, and which, as Bullough argues, can shape the economic course of entire economies, potentially generating wealth and ruin in one and luxury and excess in another.

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