Sunday, April 17, 2016

Panama Papers and the Paralyzed Public


Close to 800,000 French citizens lost much if not all of their monetary wealth including a reported 15,000 single women in the Panama scandal.  510 politicians had pocketed bribes to keep the matter out of the public eye.  Many were indicted.  Of the few who went to trial for admitted corruption, all were acquitted save one minister for city development who committed suicide.  After the press broke the scandal, there were allegations that the leak of information to the public was part of some deeper anti-Semitic agenda as some of the middle-men were dodgy Jewish financiers.  When all was said and done, corrupt politicians involved in covering up the deception pocketed over half the total 1.8 billion Francs that were stolen from the public.  And nothing changed.  This was 123 years ago and the event was the bankruptcy of the Panama Canal Company.  The public outcry led to lasting reform and the people all got the justice that for so long had been denied them.   Oops!  No.  In fact, this evisceration of public investment led to the distressed acquisition of the Panama Canal by the United States for about $40 million dollars and the permanent loss of economic assets by the French public. 

When the report of the leaked 80 gigabits of records of Mossack Fonseca was published in February 2015 (a year before the public learned of the “Panama Papers” scandal) in Süddeutsche Zeitung the scope of corruption of public officials and corporations was not fully understood.  The next 2.6 terabytes of data – ultimately uploaded to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in Washington D.C. – were reviewed revealing the records of nearly 10% of all offshore companies with land holdings in Britain.  Edward Snowden referred to the Panama Papers as the “biggest leak in the history of journalism,” knowing full well he’s holding onto the even bigger leak about other corporate activities that will make tax evasion and asset hiding child’s play.  And by this, I’m not referring to the SZ comment that, “what’s coming next,” may include a lot more information about Americans and American corporations.  What I’m referring to is the massive number of U.S. corporations that have used their commercial access around the world for corrupt and clandestine purposes referenced in Hank Crumpton’s The Art of Intelligence: Lessons from a Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service

What do the Panama Paper’s tell us about ourselves?  What is the significance of the Panama Papers in the larger context of the economic system in which we operate?  What does it say about our political leadership to realize those who are setting public policy see their own policies as so odious that they need to evade their own rules? 

The Panama Papers evidence, above all else, that the illusion of the dominant economic framework of our time is a rigged game.  While I’ve been a long-standing critic of the immoral worldview that was promulgated by the Judeo-Christian contrivance of human “dominion” over everything – these papers genuinely indict those who perceive beneficence in the “unseen hand” in the market place.  The unseen hand is connected to the public’s pocket and has been picking it for longer than anyone wants to admit.  The hypnosis under which most of the general public operate – that finance and politics are beyond the remit of the pedestrian brain – is as much to indict as the actors that prey on this apathetic social meme.  And it’s rather important to note that the ICIJ did not release all of the records.  In other words, editorial decisions about who to vilify and who to shield were part and parcel of the “greatest leak” to date.  In short, even those who are allegedly at the vanguard of disclosure are still holding onto the illusion that someone somewhere needs to be the “bad guy” and someone else is “not”.  Like so many disclosures before, the paternalistic determination of what the “public needs to know” supports the very information arbitrage that keeps those in power in power and those without power impotent against the certainty that corruption marches on unabated. 

The Panama Papers conveniently demonstrate the genius of the British Empire.  In the First Article of the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812, the groundwork for revenue shifting and base erosion (the OECD’s term for tax evasion) was laid in subtle most favored nations concessions ratified by the United States, His Britannic Majesty and the Dey of the Regency of Algiers.  In the agreement to an inviolable, universal peace – a lofty sounding concession – the ability for the Empire to preserve its banking and asset shielding status was solidified.  And while the United States – having recently gained independence from Great Britain – was going to turn into an industrial juggernaut compared to its former colonial master, Great Britain, its laws, its concessions to aristocracy, and its financial institutions was going to have the last laugh repatriating the wealth from the very lands it had “lost”.  In short, the brash American experiment failed before it even had a generation under its belt and the Panama Papers are just the tip of the iceberg when we see how much the British Empire controls or holds in terms of global assets.

I have encountered, over the past month, a stream of humanity who have all lamented their incapacity to “do something” about the certainty that they have that the economic house of cards is about to collapse in a manner far worse than the GFC in 2007-08.  From the “consciousness-minded” to the mercantile industrialist to the entrepreneur, the sense that the game is rigged is universal but equally universal is the perception that there’s not a damn thing that you can do about it.  This is not the case.  But like most other systemic failures, when massive “leaks” are released, it’s important to look at what else is moving in the shadows while the focus is on the “leaks”.  For example, during the week that the world was focused on the Panama Papers, no one seemed to focus on the 2016 National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers issued by the White House.   In this document, the Obama Administration addresses the motivations behind the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement signed in February 2016 in Auckland.  So while we’re talking about tax shelters, we’re explicitly working to install tax policies that favor U.S. trade advantage for the estimated $131 billion per year from our trading partners in the Pacific, “because we know that when the playing field is level, our workers and businesses can compete – and win – in the global economy.”  Cool thing is that when level means “flowing in favor of the U.S.” the winning is a bit easier.  Create enough noise in the Atlantic and Caribbean and no one will look in the Pacific!

So what’s it going to be?  123 years from now, will this bluster in the Caribbean be yet another in the long line of humanity being robbed, feeling like it’s incapable of responding, and then being primed to be robbed again?  Is this another time when we acquiesce to the establishment and our notion that corruption is a necessary evil?  Are we unwilling to call out the violations of social dignity because somewhere we know we’d do it ourselves if we had the resources and the power to do so?  Or are we ready to play on a different playing field – one that doesn’t require leveling because all the contours and sand traps are known to all the players?  Are we willing to use models that are not based on corrupt incumbencies and be courageous enough to face a world in which our “salaries”, “assets” and our “economic status” do not define us but our productive engagement and social utility does?  

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Abundance Manifesto – What’s Mine?


“And so in war; if the campaign is in summer the general must show himself greedy for his share of the sun and the heat, and in winter for the cold and the frost, and in all labours for toil and fatigue. This will help to make him beloved of his followers." – Xenophon’s Cyropaedia

“And then the banquet came to an end: the guests rose, and Cyrus stood up with them and conducted them to the door.
And to those who went home he gave many gifts and sent them away well content, both officers and men.  After this he distributed among his own soldiers all the wealth he had taken at Sardis, choice gifts for the captains of ten thousand and for his own staff in proportion to their deserts, and the rest in equal shares, delivering to every captain one share with orders to divide it among their subordinates as he had divided the whole among them.  Thereupon each officer gave to the officers directly under him, judging the worth of each, until it came to the captains of six, who considered the cases of the privates in their own squads, and gave each man what he deserved: and thus every soldier in the army received an equitable share. But after the distribution of it all there were some who said:
"How rich Cyrus must be, to have given us all so much!"
"Rich?" cried others, "what do you mean? Cyrus is no money-maker: he is more glad to give than to get."
When Cyrus heard of this talk and the opinions held about him, he gathered together his friends and the chief men of the state and spoke as follows:
"Gentlemen and friends of mine, I have known men who were anxious to have it thought they possessed more than they really had, thinking this would give them an air of freedom and nobility. But in my opinion the result was the very opposite of what they wished. If it is thought that a man has great riches and does not help his friends in proportion to his wealth, he cannot but appear ignoble.  There are others," he went on, "who would have their wealth forgotten, and these I look upon as traitors to their friends: for it must often happen that a comrade is in need and yet hesitates to tell them because he does not know how much they have, and so he is kept in the dark and left to starve.  The straightforward course, it seems to me, is always to make no secret of our own resources, but to use them all, whatever they are, in our efforts to win the crown of honour.”
With these words he proceeded to point out his visible treasures, and he gave an exact account of those that could not be shown. He ended by saying:
"All these things, gentlemen, you must consider yours as much as mine. I have collected them, not that I might spend them on myself or waste them in my own use: I could not do that if I tried. I keep them to reward him who does a noble deed, and to help any of you who may be in want of anything, so that you may come to me and take what you require."  - Xenophon’s Cyropaedia

From everyone who has been given much, much will be required: and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.  – Luke 12:48, The Bible

The gospel accounts in Matthew 25:13-30 and Luke 19:11-17 have been a near constant obsession since I was 11 years old.  The story is simple – or at least it should be.  A master is heading out on a trip.  He calls together three servants and to one he gives five measures, to another he gives two, and to another, one.  And then he leaves.  After an indeterminate time, he returns and asks them to give account for what they’ve done.  The one that was entrusted with 5 invested and returned 10.  The master was pleased and entrusted him with charge over ½ of his estate.  The one who had 2 also doubled his wealth and was given charge of ¼ of the estate.  And the one that had one said that he had buried it for safe keeping and was returning it intact.  The master was furious and ordered the one measure to be given to the one that had returned 10, and punished and banished the last servant.  (Bummer for the communists among us – Jesus justified the rich getting richer!  Occupy that 99%ers!).  And these two stories fuel the fabled admonition that if you’ve been “given much, much will be required.” 

But the cunning linguistic avoidance of all the wisdom in this story and the failure to put it in the context of the passage where the admonition actually comes from robs us of much wisdom.  No one in the story was “given” anything – they we’re entrusted as stewards.  And their accountability was not to aspire to being defined by their assets but rather to return even greater value to the master.  At no point did the assets change ownership.  They remained, at all times, in the discretion of the master.  And nothing about being a steward transformed the servants into “masters”.  Cyrus the Great did not see spoils of war as “his” but merely that which he “collected”.  Throughout the accounts of his life, he constantly embodied stewardship.

stew·ard·ship (n):  the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care

I’ve experienced some poignant reminders lately about why Cyrus and the gospel parables have been both haunting and motivating throughout my life.  Several years ago, an armed soldier thrust the barrel of an automatic rifle at me and yelled, “I can take your life.”  Without missing a beat I responded, “You can’t take something from me which is not mine to give.”  When you have a gun barrel at your chest, it’s a bad idea to confuse the gun wielding angry man.  But it was somewhat amusing to observe that the power of the gun seemed to be entirely overtaken with the cognitive dissonance my response unleashed in the poor guy’s head.  He lowered the barrel and simply gazed at me with a far-off puzzling look as I walked away.  This experience, for me, was confirmation of the reflex of stewardship.  The recognition that life, ideas, experiences, people, and resources are not mine.  I am merely the collector and steward of those things that have been placed within my sphere of influence. 

So I’m puzzled when I hear people refer to ideas that I’ve shared as something they “control”.  I find myself deeply hurt when I hear someone refer to groups of people as “my contacts” or “my group”.  When work that’s been developed in collaboration suddenly is appropriated as “mine” or subject to “my” control, I wonder what purpose is purportedly served.  When I developed the technologies that have ranged from laser surgical devices to linguistic genomics unstructured data analytics to hieroglyphic enciphering to anechoic materials to optomagnetic synthetics to accretive arbitrage finance, I know that none of these were “mine”.  They represented the accumulation of all my observations and experiences in a context in which their manifestation was possible. That they achieve scales of impact beyond the ordinary and are of inestimable value doesn’t make “me” rich or powerful.  Because these concepts (wealth, power, status) born of aspirational dominion are of no consequence in reality.  They feed illusions that beget separation and isolation.

I’m working with two different groups on highly disparate projects.  In one instance, I’m seeking to build enterprises around the many assets that have been manifest in my corporate activity.  I have carefully conscripted individuals with precise competencies to the table to work with us on harvesting the value that we’ve validated.  And much to my sadness, this impulse has engendered a response of appropriation.  “I’ll take this from you,” is the response to an offer of collaboration.  This response has been a near constant companion to each moment I’ve extended the enterprise table to others.  In another deeply personal instance, I’ve watched as a massive catalyst for deep social transformation has become the basis for claims of proprietary control all the while knowing that the substance of the catalyst – an impulse coherent with humanity’s best expression – transcends containment and dominion.  When did we lose the recognition that we’re in this thing called life together and we’re entrusted with the tools, insights, connections, and networks through which we’re provisioned and by which we can provision others?  When did we stop observing Light and recognizing that energetic transmission – not hording or absorbing – is the ideal condition? 

I stood on the green marble rostrum at the United Nations General Assembly hall yesterday in New York City.  I was invited to speak about the work I’ve done to find peaceful resolution to conflict in places ranging from Central America to Central Asia to Bougainville, Papua New Guinea.  I have no idea whether I will ever stand in that spot again.  So this was “my” moment, right? No, I spoke about the wonderful experiences I had with combatants and refugees during the Nicaraguan conflict in the 1980s, the amazing fellowship I had with Lawrence Daveona, Chris Uma and the combatants at the Morgan Junction access road to Panguna Mine, and the myriad of people around the world with whom this life has intersected – people who will likely never stand in the great hall of the United Nations.  This was not MY moment.  It was a moment for all those who have shared their journey with me and entrusted the story of our lives to me!

We’ve all been entrusted with various amounts of life, experience, story, legacy, resources, networks, friends, capabilities, etc.  These are not “ours” and they defy the idolatry of turning them into appropriated artifacts.  They are merely those energies over which we have the opportunity to exercise stewardship.  And, if we’ve been entrusted with much, let’s let it flow in channels that maximize those impacts to others.