Remember the scandal about the Panama Papers, about money laundering and tax evasion which broke in 2016?
Towards the end of 2019, the film “The Laundromat” was released by Netflix, starring Meryl Streep. – I really enjoyed watching it this Christmas. The book is based on the actual secrets revealed in the Panama Papers and explained in Jake Bernstein’s book ‘Secrecy World.’ Netflix’s movie pulls back the curtain on a complex system of laws that enables wealthy individuals and corporations to avoid taxes and evade consequences.
The Panama Papers are an unprecedented leak of 11.5m files from the database of the world’s fourth biggest offshore law firm, Mossack Fonseca. The records were obtained from an anonymous source by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The documents show the many ways in which the rich can exploit secretive offshore tax regimes. Twelve national leaders are among 143 politicians, their families and close associates from around the world known to have been using offshore tax havens. More than $1.2 billion in back-taxes and penalties has been publicly collected by governments around the world after the 2016 investigation.
In the film, our heroine (Meryl Streep) loses her husband in a boating accident. When trying to collect the life insurance, she learns that the boating company can’t pay out the settlement deals because of a corrupt insurance policy. She starts digging and asking questions and eventually discovers the heart of the issue: a law firm called Mossack Fonseca. “The wealth management you deserve” is the Panama firm’s motto, and Ellen’s deepening investigation soon teaches her all about wealth and money: “The idea of money. The necessity of money. The secret life of money.”
She researches and digs into the company’s shady doings, wanting justice for her husband. She just wants to know that these people are being held responsible for their transgressions. Ellen feels strong moral calling: “to put an end to massive, pervasive corruption.” As Ellen begins to uncover what Mossack Fonseca is doing, the narrators describe the financial laws that allowed the firm to get away with it using falsified documents, offshore accounts, fake companies, and with clients ranging from government leaders to drug lords and gun runners.
Mossack and Fonseca’s nonchalant treatment of innocent people in their financial schemes comes very close to home for the characters who are victimized in the process. And although we see Ellen, our heroine, triumphant in the end, it is very clear that many corporations still benefit from laws that allow them to shelter billions, tax-free.
The film disturbed me as it clearly illustrates how greed is the primary motivator in our financial system and how money corrupts so easily.
Paul’s statement that “the love of money is at the root of all kinds of evil,” (1 Timothy 6:10) is well described in the film. We see ‘all kinds of evil’ coming out of the practices described in the film.
The antidote? Paying all taxes due – fully and on time, as a discipline of honouring God, who appoints the governments – whether we like it or not. There is a big difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion. There are legal ways and some loopholes could be found to avoid paying taxes – but even then, not everything which is legal is morally right.
“For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honour to whom honour is owed.” (Read Romans 13:1-8) The key question is – does it honour God?