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Treasure Islands: Dirty Money, Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole Your Cash Paperback – International Edition, February 6, 2012
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Nicholas Shaxson is the author of Poisoned Wells, the Dirty Politics of African Oil, an Associate Fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) and an experienced journalist.
About the Author
NICHOLAS SHAXSON is the author of Poisoned Wells, the Dirty Politics of African Oil, an Associate Fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) and an experienced journalist writing regularly for The Financial Times and The Economist.
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Top Customer Reviews
Big claims were made about former colonies and developing countries being sucked dry by tax havens, but there were very few examples that were not really fleshed out enough. It often felt like the author was just putting a buckshot of facts on a wall, and leaving the reader to make the connections between the facts. The language was dry, yet somehow not informative- it was very difficult to get through certain sections of the book.
What I learned from this book, I could have learned in roughly 30 pages. The rest was a lot of quotes from officials on how bad things are, and lots of terms like "bamboozling" which I feel were unnecessary editorialization- show me the actual money trail, and I can decide who is the bamboozler/bamboozlee.
Personally I think this book could have used a bit of editing and more of a bottom-up approach. Walk me through how Apple gets away with paying an 8% (or whatever the number is) tax rate, then explain how others do the same thing, and I would have found the book a lot more compelling.
Treasure Islands does a really incredible job in shedding light on an arcane, complex international financial system that has evolved mainly over the past 100 years. Like most people, when I heard the term tax haven, I would think of a few rogue Caribbean islands who helped a few rich people and crime lords launder money or hide it from taxation. Shaxson turns that conception on its head. While the term tax haven sounds like it specifically refers to taxes, Shaxon defines it more broadly: "Tax havens can be loosely described as a jurisdiction that seeks to attract money by offering politically stable facilities to help people or business entities get around the laws, rules, and regulations of jurisdictions elsewhere."
Using that definition, Shaxson aggregates the international network of such jurisdictions under the label "the offshore system". In this book, he investigates the three main components of the offshore system, which may surprise you. While the small island states are integral fortifications of the offshore system, the main poles are actually the United States, London, and a grouping of states in continental Europe (mainly Luxembourg, Switzerland, Lichtenstein, and the Netherlands). Considering that about one half of world trade passes through tax havens, they are integral to the current global system. Also, while terrorists and crime lords are significant users of the offshore system, the primary beneficiary and architect is the financial services industry. The bankers on Wall Street and in London have constructed a system to help them undermine democracy, drastically boost profits, destabilize the global markets, shape international regulation to their liking, and evade taxes, and this very same infrastructure enables the financing of international terrorism, corrupt third world rulers, and greatly facilitates the illegal drug trade. One key takeaway from the book is that all of these phenomena have their roots in the same underlying financial network, and none of them can be addressed without confronting the offshore system.
The main services that tax havens provides are secrecy, tax evasion, and freedom from unwanted regulation. A very important consequence of such a system is the creation of a race to the bottom in terms of regulatory environments. Shaxson examines this process both in the United States and internationally. While the US is an international tax haven (offering secrecy to foreign donors, allowing banks to accept proceeds from criminal activities as long as they were committed abroad, offering tax breaks to foreign investors), there is also a tax haven network at the state level. States such as South Dakota and Delaware, in an effort to attract corporations to incorporate in their states, abolished interest rate caps, giving birth to the credit card industry in the 80s. Delaware also has a long history of offering the most permissive rules of corporate governance, giving maximum power to corporate managers. Barack Obama criticized the Caymans, where he alleged that there was a building where 12,000 corporations supposedly had business offices. Well, there is an office building in Delaware with about 219,000.
Internationally, the offshore system allows banks to exercise this deregulatory leverage at the national level. The city of London, which has long maintained an extremely lax regulatory environment for fascinating historical reasons detailed in the book, began attracting massive amounts of business from US banks chafing under the Bretton Woods system of capital controls and Glass Steagall regulations separating commercial and investment banking. London had no such controls, so US banks were able to begin doing business there and use the threat to relocate to London to eventually force the US to deregulate in the late 90s and 2000s. As we know, this was a crucial development in setting the stage for the financial crisis of 2008. In addition, the unregulated markets that were based in London allowed banks to set up investment vehicles that were free of reserve requirements, allowing them to issue massive amounts of debt.
A final theme discussed in the book is the devastating effects of the offshore system on poor countries. For every one dollar of foreign aid that has flowed into developing countries over the past 30 or so years, TEN dollars have left the country and into the offshore system, building the portfolios and secret accounts of corrupt ruling elites. The offshore system creates a neocolonial dynamic where western countries back corrupt leaders and their allies, and provide the international financial infrastructure for these corrupt elites to steal their country's wealth and hide it abroad, free of tax. As pernicious as that is, the real consequence to that is that poor populations are saddled with the debt (the proceeds of which the rulers stole), which then of course requires the IMF to come in and radically undermine democracy by imposing harsh structual adjustment programs that mainly benefit rich investor countries and cause great pain to average people.
In summary, this book details the most important aspect of the global economy that you probably never knew existed. If you are interested in understanding poverty, inequality, development economics, international terrorism and the drug trade, and how corporations have amassed such great political power, you are missing a huge piece of the puzzle if you don't read Shaxson's epic work.
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