Hillary, the Panama Papers, and the death of American kleptocracy

041816-Hillary-Clinton
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton received more money giving one speech ($225,000 ) than her opponent Bernie Sanders and his wife Jane earned in all of 2014 ($205,271).

Did you see that Sen. Bernie Sanders released his income taxes?....well, his 2014 income taxes, anyway. He did it around 7 p.m. on a Friday night, on the same day that the Democratic presidential hopeful was making international headlines by speaking at the Vatican and meeting Pope Francis, for at least a handshake. In journalism, releasing information at that off hour is what we call "a Friday news dump" -- usually an attempt to bury bad news.

That's weird, because if I were handling PR for the Bernie Sanders campaign, I'd be shouting the news from the Green Mountain-tops. They return showed that Sanders and Jane, his wife, earned $205,271 -- a comfortable enough living for a man who couldn't afford the rent 40 years ago but then clawed his way to the United States Senate. In other words, Sanders made less for a year of exhausting work on Capitol Hill than his primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, earned from ONE SPEECH that she delivered to the massive vampire squid of global capitalism, Goldman Sachs, which paid her a cool $225,000 for a 45-minute job of a speech, a fee that was paid to the once and would-be future White House resident on three separate occasions. (Because, as Hillary shrugged in a 2015 debate, "that's what they offered.")

That's not all. In 2014, Hillary and her ex-president husband Bill Clinton earned just over $28 million, or a whopping 135 times as much as the Sanders household. Their income that year came from giving speeches ($10.5 million for Hillary Clinton, $9.8 million for Bill) and $6.4 million in consulting (or as USA Today called it, "consulting") by the former president. Also known as trading on their political clout as once and possibly future leaders of the United States of America.

The Clinton campaign and her ever-persistent supporters want you to know that the way the Clintons make their money -- just like the way they fund their campaign, with help from Super-PACS and large-scale fundraising from hedge-fund traders, fossil-fuel investors, and others who've been leadfooting the scales of income inequality -- is a big distraction from the "real issues" in the 2016 campaign. They note that even talking about this is only providing fall campaign fodder for Republicans who want your daughter to wear a chastity belt and your son to enlist for World War III.

The defenders don't get it. In 2016, not just in our mashugana presidential race but all over the world, the nexus of politics and obscene amounts of money is no longer a sideshow that finances our endless culture wars or our class warfare. Money in politics is the show, and the average citizen, from Iowa to Iceland, is so sick of billionaires buying not just our elections but our politicians that they are rising up against this kleptocracy, a system of government based on stealing wealth from the middle classes. The Spanish indignados who were at the cutting edge of this uprising five years ago had a saying: "It's not the party, it's the system." Today, people are finally connecting those dots, and the 1 Percent is running scared.

Over the last week in Washington, D.C., a staggering number of people -- at least 900, with more in the works -- have been arrested for sitting-in at the U.S. Capitol, all to support new restrictions on the influence of millionaire-and-billionaire dollars in American politics and to roll back the recent wave of limitations on voting. The Democracy Spring protesters are the vanguard of a growing revolt that is looking outside-the-box of conventional U.S. politics, to attack the corruption at its root source. Not surprisingly, the major media outlets -- which reap millions from the current system of political advertising -- have imposed a virtual news blackout on Democracy Spring.

Yet the movement marches on. A turning point may have come last month with the worldwide release of the so-called Panama Papers, reams of documents that were leaked/hacked/whatever from a Panamanian law firm that specializes in helping the politically connected and their wealthy cronies stash their cash where the taxes are low and the public scrutiny is non-existent. The Panama Papers methodically laid out how the ruling classes from all around the globe -- the prime minister of Pakistan, the president of the Ukraine, the friends and associates of Russia's Vladimir Putin -- hide the vast sums they've accumulated. The supposed do-gooder prime minister of Iceland was ousted when tens of thousands took to the street to protest his secret bank account, and those scenes are being repeated in Great Britain, where protesters are furious over apparent tax dodging by the family of Prime Minister David Cameron.

This week, America's McClatchy News Service, part of global consortium that broke the Panama Papers story, noted that a lot of so-called Friends of Bill and/or Hillary were in on the lucrative tax shelters. The news organization reported:

Among them are Gabrielle Fialkoff, finance director for Hillary Clinton’s first campaign for the U.S. Senate; Frank Giustra, a Canadian mining magnate who has traveled the globe with Bill Clinton; the Chagoury family, which pledged $1 billion in projects to the Clinton Global Initiative; and Chinese billionaire Ng Lap Seng, who was at the center of a Democratic fund-raising scandal when Bill Clinton was president. Also using the Panamanian law firm was the company founded by the late billionaire investor Marc Rich, an international fugitive when Bill Clinton pardoned him in the final hours of his presidency.

There's nothing illegal about the Clintons' close ties to these various international money-stashers, but it's a reminder of how much of their recent life has been spent hobnobbing with the 1 Percent, and sharing their intimate concerns. Indeed, it's important to note that tax havens, by and large, are not illegal, because the most serious graft is almost always the legal kind -- like the tax codes written by the billionaire-backed politicians that have enabled the massive, kleptocratic upward flow of wealth. At the time the Panama Papers story broke, U.S. tax experts said there was no need for Americans to hide wealth in places like Panama when we have havens right here in places like...Delaware.

In fact, you'll be shocked (OK, probably not shocked) to learn that when Bill and Hillary Clinton found themselves in private life and making the real dough, the couple was involved in the creation of five Delaware corporations -- three related to the Clinton Foundation non-profit, one for Bill's "consulting" fees, and one for a $5.5 million Hillary book advance. Why take advantage of the low tax rates and limited public-disclosure laws of the American Cayman Islands? I guess that's what Delaware offered.

Of course, this whaddya-gonna-do shrug extends from the world of personal wealth from the millions in campaign dollars that the Clintons raise from their moneyed friends. Hillary Clinton's reliance on the investor class to underwrite her campaign has caused her to disappear from the trail at strange times, like when she vanished from the heated Iowa caucus to duck into a Philadelphia fundraiser organized by Franklin Square Capital Partners, an inventment fund that has made a huge bet on fossil fuels. This weekend, Mrs. Clinton bolted from the New York primary brouhaha to attend a $33,400-a-ticket Democratic Party fundraiser hosted by George Clooney. Clinton's backers cried foul when protesters -- by and large, liberal Sanders supporters -- tossed dollar bills at her motorcade. But even Clooney said a day later that he agrees with Sanders that the amount of big money in American politics is obscene.

The defenders of the Clintons -- the way they've made their millions, the way they fund their campaigns -- have been so beat up and dizzied by the political bloodsport of the last 30 years that they've lost their ability to see that this was never supposed to be a game. More and more voters understand that the flow of dollars to both parties is what's allowed billionaires to accumulate and stash their wealth while the middle class declares medical bankruptcy or goes deep into debt to pay college tuition -- and so they're quitting "the game." When someone says that he or she abhors all the wealth in politics but that it's more important to win elections than to fight the system, that person is a partisan, pure and simple...and not a progressive.

The defenders of the Clintons say they money doesn't matter as long as her opponents can't demonstrate a quid pro quo. First, the weeds can get pretty quick, but take a second to read this, or this, stories that raise serious questions of a conflict of interest. Second, these self-proclaimed progressives seem to have forgotten the first rule of political graft, which is that the appearance of corruption is just as bad as demonstrable corruption itself.

Take the example of Verizon, where about 40,000 workers are currently on strike, protesting both the steady drip of jobs overseas and the endless flow of resources away from the middle class and toward a tiny band of corporate elites. "My co-workers and I aren’t asking for $18m a year," one striker wrote, referring to the paycheck of Verizon's CEO. "We’d just like to take care of our families." In the Democratic primary, both Clinton and Sanders issued statements of support, and the Vermonter gained some added cred by walking the picket line. Clinton should probably lose some cred, though, since Verizon paid her $225,000 -- that's what they offered -- for a May 2013 speech and showered donations on the Clinton Foundation. That's the appearance of corruption -- when it's not unreasonable to wonder whether a President Hillary Clinton would really be on the side of the picketers...or her corporate benefactor?

The world doesn't have to work like this. Sanders may face long odds in becoming president, but he has already shocked the body politic by proving that you can run a credible campaign without billionaires, on an average donation of $27. Beyond the arrests of Democracy Spring, there are signs of a growing revolt even on the local level from a legion of citizens protesting for more campaign disclosure, for public financing and to overturn the Citizens United court decision -- the type of thing that politicians always gambled "the little people" would never care about.

Hillary Clinton may yet limp her way through this once-in-a-lifetime presidential election into the Oval Office next January, but even if she does win, you have to think that her era of oligarchic rule in winding down. Unlike our former secretary of state, the average citizen isn't eager to simply accept what they've offered.