Sunday, February 12, 2012

Whither the Nation State

Rights and Responsibilities Diverging

Mike Luckovich | Mitt Romney is making other rich caricatures look bad
 ~ As citizens we have responsibilities in return for our rights. We pay taxes. We follow the law or we suffer fines or jail time. We might even be conscripted to defend our country.

At least, that's the theory. However, the very rich and the largest corporations seemingly are no longer burdened by responsibilities these days.
As Jared Diamond wrote in his book Collapse (Viking, 2004) a society begins to die when the economic elite divorce themselves from all loyalty to place, people, culture or principle and essentially disconnect themselves from the consequences of their actions. They feel no pain and therefore pain does not exist, for them. The pain of others is no fault of theirs or not important in the greater scheme of things as they see it. It is this sense of indifference on the part of the movers and shakers of the economic powers that drives all the ills of the world.
Likely GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney fits right into the mold:
Romney's situation is actually quite typical for a man in his societal position. He has enough money to make himself attractive to a variety of financial odd-duck "nations" around the world who would be more than pleased to "host" his wealth in exchange for the occasional transaction fee, without pestering him about financing their schools, healthcare, roads, war, or any of the annoying trappings of civilization. The question remains -- is that moral? Isn't Mitt Romney a citizen of a particularly large nation-state already? Does he not owe that nation-state taxes, given that he is such prominent citizen that he may actually be elected president of the place? What is going on here?
In the same way that Wall Street has perfected taking one thing and slicing it into several things, each packaged, positioned and placed separately, the rich can now separate their personal aspect of citizenship from the domicile of their wealth, or the obligation to pay taxes based on their citizenship. Corporations are doing the same thing. Nominal US companies, which thus must be supported by tax preferences and bailouts, nonetheless keep vast assets abroad, send jobs offshore, and generally behave as global carpetbaggers. Meanwhile, to pick up the national slack, the rest of us have faced decades of income inequality and increasingly regressive taxes.

Robert Kaplan wrote a great essay in 1997 entitled, "Was Democracy Just a Moment?" He looks prescient today:
A hundred years ago millionaires' mansions arose beside slums. The crass accumulation of wealth by a relatively small number of people gave the period its name—the Gilded Age, after a satire by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner about financial and political malfeasance. Around the turn of the century 12 percent of all American households controlled about 86 percent of the country's wealth.

But there is a difference, and not just one of magnitude. The fortunes made from the 1870s through the 1890s by John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, and others were American fortunes, anchored to a specific geographic space. The Gilded Age millionaires financed an economy of scale to fit the vast landscape that Abraham Lincoln had secured by unifying the nation in the 1860s. These millionaires funded libraries and universities and founded symphony orchestras and historical societies to consolidate their own civilization in the making. Today's fortunes are being made in a global economic environment in which an affluent global civilization and power structure are being forged even as a large stratum of our society remains rooted in place. A few decades hence it may be hard to define an "American" city.

Even J. P. Morgan was limited by the borders of the nation-state. But in the future who, or what, will limit the likes of Disney chairman Michael Eisner? The UN? Eisner and those like him are not just representatives of the "free" market. Neither the Founders nor any of the early modern philosophers ever envisioned that the free market would lead to the concentration of power and resources that many corporate executives already embody. Whereas the liberal mistake is to think that there is a program or policy to alleviate every problem in the world, the conservative flaw is to be vigilant against concentrations of power in government only—not in the private sector, where power can be wielded more secretly and sometimes more dangerously.

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