Living on a luxurious tropical island, surrounded by people who are some of the most wealthy in the world, I hope you took the time to read and fully digest the recently released Paradise Papers: Secrets of the Global Elite.
The Guardian, as a part of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, illustrated in its overview of the Paradise Papers how most of us — almost all of us, really — live in the “ordinary” world of daily work, metered income and proportional taxes. No matter how meager our paychecks, we pay our fair share to maintain our societies.
Others, though, think they are above such trivialities, including corrupt sheltering schemes throughout Asia, using the tropics as tax havens. As the Paradise Papers clearly illustrated — literally — coexisting with us are many sneaky “offshore” people, forming an “international oligarchy,” wealthy beyond belief and transcending national borders as well as common-sense decency.
These people amass obscene riches and use some of that money for expensive lawyers and accountants just to avoid paying their fair share of societal costs, even for common infrastructure, such as roads, wastewater treatment systems, power grids, schools, military, etc., which helps to systematically maintain and protect their fortunes. In many places around the world, this behavior is shady but legal.
In the United States, representatives in both houses of Congress right now are trying to slicken and slide through massive and complex tax legislation, with little public debate, to even further tilt the rules toward the rich.
Ridiculously dishonest in their portrayals of it, most Republicans are stressing short-term and temporary benefits to the “middle class” without much mention of the substantial welfare and giveaways for the wealthiest people and most powerful corporations.
Not only will the ultra-rich be paying much less under these plans, according to a nonpartisan analysis by the Tax Policy Center, “ordinary” folks will be paying more to make up the difference. Refer to any part of the Paradise Papers to show just how screwy and skewed an idea it would be to give away more money to people who don’t need it.
Hawaii, and Oahu in particular, has a shortage of affordable housing, and an abundance of highly overpriced housing fueled by that lack of supply. A few years ago, the interconnection with illegal tax evasion burst into our public consciousness through the curious case of Japanese billionaire Genshiro Kawamoto.
Kawamoto reportedly used tax-evasion schemes to hide millions while he simultaneously was buying dozens of properties in some of Oahu’s most popular areas — such as Kahala, Hawaii Kai and Kailua — creating even more competition for the land, raising prices and creating various neighborhood concerns over lack of maintenance on those properties.
But Kawamoto is just one of many around the world who use Oahu, and other Hawaiian islands, to store their money in property or make detatched investments, often to the degradation of our communities. For the ordinary folks living here, affordable housing shrinks and disappears while another new wave of luxury development sprouts condos and townhouses costing as much as $20 million.
Billionaires, of course, can afford property wherever they want, but they often choose to buy in Hawaii and even spend their precious time here, protected by the most ferocious, far-reaching and feared military in human history; it’s like having the best bodyguards in the world at your service (which seems particularly desirable if you’re not paying the taxes that funds such a service).
As the Paradise Papers revealed, several people and institutions in Hawaii not only are benefitting from the protective and legal systems in the U.S. but also from the shadowy tax havens in other tropical locales. About 200 journalists, from 70 countries, have collaborated for a year to get this information in your hands, so you can decide what to do with it.
This investigation revealed how more than 120 politicians and world leaders — including 13 advisers, major donors and cabinet members of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration — maintain these secretive offshore accounts.
It showed how more than 100 multinational corporations, including Apple and Nike, engineered the tax structure in their favor, akin to what’s happening now in tax plans before Congress. Many of these companies then hide their activities inside shell companies, to protect their identities, allowing for extravagant but tax-free shopping sprees and secretive deals.
Despite several direct connections to our islands, and the many investigative leads those present, local media has not covered the Paradise Papers story at all. None of the largest media sources in the state, including the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Civil Beat, KHON, KITV and Hawaii News Now, have done any local reporting on the findings, released documents and searchable database. Besides one Hawaii Public Radio report, which piped in a nationally produced piece on the matter, the rest of the recirculated media mentions have been cursory.
Yet it only takes a few seconds to type in database search terms that might raise interesting questions for local reporters, such as “Hawaii,” which identifies a related 11 “entities” and 43 addresses in the Paradise Papers’ database.
Then there are the other documents linked to any number of local-sounding search terms such as Oahu, Honolulu, Waikiki, aloha, mahalo, shaka, luau, Kamehameha, Kalakaua, Kahala, Kailua, North Shore, Kapolei, Punahou, Likelike, Dole, some even showing local addresses as identifiers. If names were cross-referenced, like in searches other reporters have done, less-obvious Hawaii connections might emerge, too, masked by code words or buried within other documents.
Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton, for example, turned up in the Paradise Papers’ documents for evading taxes on his luxury jet, which he just happened to use in 2012 to stop in Oahu for a Christmas vacation.
For most of us, Honolulu isn’t just a place to park a jet and enjoy the beaches and nightlife of Waikiki. Where we live, I have explored many open houses over the years in which I have become increasingly desensitized to the out-of-reach prices. I also have become weary of the stories of the tycoons who are dumping the property because they only visit once every few years and otherwise keep it empty, holding it in limbo as just another investment.
What exactly are they investing in, I have to wonder? Because it’s not Hawaii.
Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at email@example.com.
Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.