Friday, April 22, 2011

"Offshore" Again

I've now been able to finish Nicholas Shaxson's Treasure Island (cf. link) and I'm glad I did it although I can't say it quite lived up to its promise. Well: it has its virtues, as I foresaw when I first read about it.  It starts of strong: he's great at big picture. And there it is peppered with good stories all the way through.  But he is up against the problem of any journalist (or academic) who wants to write about a matter of great secrecy: in the end, he doesn't know all that much.   The giveaway is when he starts telling you about what he wasn't able to find out, or about his conversations with others who may or may not know more than he--then you know he is shuffling papers.

But the big picture remains well presented.  Shaxson presents a compelling network of offshore havens, arising mainly from the ashes of the old British Empire, where people who have something to hide, hide it.  The proprietors traffic in rectitude and surface propriety and they control, by any credible measure, a good portion of the world's wealth.  He's also got some fine smaller stories: I loved his account of the evolution of the Caymans, and he told me things I didn't know about the emergence of Delaware as an onshore/offshore haven for the credit card racket (ever notice that the rise of the credit card more or less tracks the decline of the union card--Shaxson doesn't miss the irony).

Yet it is a bit more complicated than that.  Shaxson understands these havens as being the sanctuary of sponges and freeloaders evading their just responsibilities in society.  He touches upon, but does not stress, the point that a good many of those who enjoy the protection of the havens are there to get protection against irresponsible and rapacious kleptocracies.  No doubt there are American zillionaires who enjoy all the solace of a functioning society while burying all their taxable income under a fog of anonymity.  But if I were, say, the three Gupta brothers in South Africa, I'd make damn sure to have a bolthole far away from the rising tide of exclusionary racism.

More: after a while, one finds oneself aching for a further inquiry into the substrate of these devices--the social conventions that support a system of independent nations going back to Grotius.  I'm not saying a system of nation-states is wrong, precisely; I'm saying these tax havens are a natural extension of the system and it his hard even to conceptualize a world that might work any other way.   At the moment, I find myself eager to move on to something that will take me a bit deeper into that substrate so I can consider better how a Grotian state-system leads to such a pernicious result.  Yes, I've read John Scott's Seeing like a StateI think maybe it's time to take a crack at Ashrf Ghani's  Fixing Failed States, with the hope of getting a better sense of just what the idea of "a sovereign state" might mean.  

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