Sitting in Libe earlier today, I was in convenient earshot of some interesting conversations going on around me. Most conversations in Libe, as every undergrad at Cornell knows, center around one of four topics: how much studying you haven’t done yet, what happened last night, whether or not you should get coffee or something completely random I couldn’t even begin to guess at in a single column.
Today, the most interesting conversation in my vicinity was one I was genuinely impressed at Libe Cafe for hosting. It included two students (grad students in the Johnson School, I’m guessing), two aggressively large cups of espresso and a heated debate about the recent emergence of the Panama Papers into the public eye.
The Panama Papers, as they are unfairly labelled according to President Varela and his high-profile New York Times column published today, are a “particular trove of documents [that] came from a single law firm based in Panama” highlighting the existence of previously undisclosed shell companies. The scope of the illegally obtained and subsequently released information in itself is unparalleled. As Johnson grad student #1 so eloquently described it, they’re “basically the Wikileaks of rich people and their bank accounts.”
While not an unfair description in itself, the Panama Papers do more than just shed light on alleged government and corporate misconduct worldwide. They are specific, very specific about the people involved, about their money, about how much money, about where and about how. The papers have referenced “12 current or former world leaders, as well as 128 other politicians and public officials, including associates of Vladimir Putin — the Russian leader isn’t himself mentioned by name in any of the documents — FIFA executives, the prime minister of Iceland Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, his wife and Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri.” They are also the largest data breach we have seen yet.
So what do the Panama Papers imply that Wikileaks or Edward Snowden’s controversial exposé of the NSA’s doing haven’t already brought to the public’s attention? Well, as our aforementioned Johnson grad students chose to highlight over gulps of coffee and a quarter-card covered table, quite literally nothing. The the Panama Papers, at their core, don’t tell us anything we don’t already know. Rich people have money. Rich people want to keep their money safe. Tax evasion is a global problem that exists, has existed and will continue to exist. The Panama Papers bring to light the doings of some unlucky people that got caught — but they don’t really do much else.
There is a slightly more to be said about this (jaded) argument. You could argue that the Panama Papers have taken the away the secrecy that so many believed would keep them from ever being caught. They have revealed something Assange and Snowden could not — the wealthy are wealthier than we originally had thought, and tax evasion is not something we can simply continue to avoid. The point at which the argument remains inconclusive, however, is whether the Panama Papers bring to light an issue we will actually choose to do something about. The question that remains: do we move forward learning from our mistakes or if we will allow for smarter ways to get around our half-hearted attempts at fixing the system exist?
Hebani Duggal is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Teach Me How to Duggal appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.