Moneyland by Oliver Bullough

by Oliver Bullough
St. Martin’s Press, 2019

Moneyland by Oliver Bullough St. Martin’s Press, 2019

Journalist Oliver Bullough’s book Moneyland: The Inside Story of the Crooks and Kleptocrats Who Rule the World opens with the simultaneously delicious and disturbing accounts of the excesses and corruption of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates as well as Viktor Yanukovych, the disgraced former president of Ukraine.

When Yanukovych was removed from power and fled, protesters entered his Mezhyhirya Residence where “they marveled at the edifice of the main building, the fountains, the waterfalls, the statues, the exotic pheasants. . .The site was so large that there was no other way to see the whole place without exhaustion, and it took the revolutionaries days to explore all of its corners.” With an opening like this the salivating reader is indeed prepped for the promised inside story.

Although we aren’t really provided a succinct definition, we should first say what Moneyland is: rather than a geographic place, we are told, it is basically a system that allows the elite to become internationally nomadic, avoid taxes, and stash ‘looted’ cash.

Now, exposing absconding kleptocrats is practically an inherent good. Unfortunately, the book is tinged with a bizarre political context that confuses our author’s analysis and distracts from its mission of illumination. Two points set up this context:

First we are introduced to the late economist Mancur Olson’s theory of state evolution:

Olson traced the origin of civilization back to the moment when prehistoric ‘roving bandits’ realized that, instead of raiding groups of humans and moving on, they could earn more by staying put and stealing from their victims all the time. Early Humans submitted to this because, although they lost some of their freedom . . .they gained in return for stability and security. The bandits’ interests and the community’s interests became aligned.

Bullough completes the point by telling us that “Stable government aligns the interests of the strong and the weak, since they both want to see everyone get wealthy.”

Second, we are told that because Moneyland protects assets from confiscation it “has neutered the core function of democracy – taxing citizens and using the proceeds for the common good.” This is reinforced by Bullough’s unsettling tone about “the philosophical question over who really owned money – the person who earned it, or the nation that created it.”

In the first case, Bullough’s point coupled with Olson’s would mean that the state is essentially a profit-maximizing institution, which is tenuous. The second completely misses the mark because democracy is a method of choosing doctrines that specify the scope of government, and so tells us nothing about what the aims or functions of government ought to be!

Nonetheless, the issue is that these points imply that government policies are ipso facto in the service of the common good and so any disruption of its revenue stream is harmful to that good. Indeed, this is the guiding principle of the book and leads Bullough astray from the very beginning.

For example, an especially nefarious part of that amorphous system, Moneyland, are offshore companies or tax havens. We are told the term offshore originates from the time when “only the BBC could legally broadcast in the UK, and it was backward when it came to sharing new pop artists with its listeners.” Entrepreneurial shipowners moored their boats outside territorial waters and broadcasted back into the UK. Offshore they were outside the authority’s jurisdiction, yet just as present as BBC broadcasts. However, our author doesn’t stop and wonder if the BBC monopoly was the problem here.

Likewise, when companies or individuals use shell corporations to avoid gratuitous taxes or burdensome regulation, it is never considered whether or not the taxes are in fact gratuitous or the regulations too burdensome. And so when Bullough continuously laments about capital flows without borders (oddly explained by analogies to children’s puzzles and oil tankers) it sounds a lot like a desire to insulate governments from consequences such as capital flight.  

Importantly, Moneyland is not only used by kleptocrats. Bullough knows this but far from adequately addresses it. He recognizes that “among the first clients were European Jews who had hidden their money in Switzerland from the Nazis, and who had finally found a way to make a living from it. The problem was that the privacy, the portability and the convenience…also attracted dentists in Antwerp, insider-trading bankers in London and Nazis in Buenos Aires.” There is at least one other mention toward the end of the book about “people with legitimate reasons to disguise their identity” and Bullough tells us this “should be provided systematically and consciously, for clear reasons, and to anyone who needs it, not just to the rich. . .at present, the factors of Moneyland go only to those who can afford them, not to those who need them.” Even if this opaque statement were true, and although it is not remotely obvious how, or by whom, such anonymity would be offered, it again doesn’t seem to cross Bullough’s mind that someone who could afford it might also need it.

Lastly, his political context also causes him to place too much faith in the ability of money to solve, or lack thereof to cause, political problems. He tells us that “When corruption is widespread, it becomes impossible to know whom to believe, since money infects every aspect of state and society.” And he blames poor healthcare in Ukraine, for example, on a lack of funding and corruption. This may well be true, but if Moneyland came crashing down tomorrow and all its treasures flowed back into state coffers it still would not solve the fundamental problem: a broken social contract.

Oliver Bullough’s book to some extent fulfills its purpose of giving ‘The inside story of the crooks and kleptocrats who rule the world’ but is too muddled by an unnecessary political context that misplaces criticism, neglects moral ambiguities, and places more explanatory power on Moneyland than it can bear.

David Murphy holds a Masters of Finance from the University of Minnesota.