The Panama Papers and Thomas Piketty

How the Leak May Transform Politics

Protesters call on Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to resign after two members of his government were named in the Panama Papers leak scandal, in Malta, April 2016. Darrin Zammit / Reuters

The Panama Papers—the massive collection of leaked documents from Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm that helps set up offshore shell corporations—have already had political consequences. Iceland’s prime minister, Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, resigned after the leak revealed that he had partly owned an offshore firm. David Cameron, the British prime minister, is facing criticism over an offshore company that his father set up. In Brazil, many of the people connected to the country’s unfolding corruption scandal appear to have held offshore shell companies set up by Mossack Fonseca. And in Russia, Sergei Roldugin, a cellist who is a close friend of Vladimir Putin, appears to control assets of over $100 million. Roldugin has claimed that this fortune is the result of donations from Russian businessmen to help buy expensive musical instruments for poor students. Clearly, classical music has some very generous friends among the Russian business elite.

At first glance, the Panama Papers leak looks a lot like other big leaks, such as the classified documents that U.S. Army soldier Chelsea Manning provided to WikiLeaks or the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s trove of information on international surveillance. Like those leaks, the Panama Papers highlight the hypocrisy of prominent politicians and officials. The leak also recalls a series of less glamorous data leaks on the customers of secretive Swiss and Liechtenstein-based banks, which put pressure on governments to crack down on tax havens and allowed some authorities to pursue cases against tax evaders. Although few may remember, WikiLeaks began with a similar leak from the Swiss bank Julius Baer.

Yet the best comparison—and the best guide to what may happen next—is not to Snowden or Julian Assange but to Thomas Piketty, the famous French economist. Piketty’s book, Capital in the 21st Century, has been interpreted as an economic history, as a grand economic theory and a gloomy political prognosis. Yet few have paid attention to its closing pages, where Piketty lays out the

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