F. Scott Fitzgerald apparently never told his Parisian drinking buddy Ernest Hemingway, “Ernie, the rich are different from us,” only to be rebuffed by the legendary comeback, “Yes, they have more money.” Like so many famous anecdotes, that one was cooked up years after the fact (probably by Fitzgerald’s posthumous editor, the literary critic Edmund Wilson). One reason that apocryphal exchange possesses such enduring cultural resonance is that both observations are true, and what sounds like a contradiction is not a contradiction after all.
What have we learned so far from the Panama Papers, the largest volume of leaked documents in history, which have begun to peel the lid off a vast web of global greed, deception and iniquity among the highest level of the moneyed classes? For starters, they should serve to remind us how different the very rich are from the rest of us. Yes, it starts with the fact that they have more money, but it doesn’t end there. How did they get all that money, and what are they doing with it? Why do they have so much more money than the rest of us — unimaginably more, and on an unprecedented scale? Why do they seem so perpetually unsatisfied with their wealth, and so desperate to nurture it, shield it and multiply it? To quote someone else who confronted a society of immense injustice and economic inequality, a few years before Scott and Ernie’s imaginary Left Bank conversation: What is to be done?