Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Rich, the Poor and Sovereign Real Estate

[Editor to Buce: an interesting first draft, but needs work.  I think one difficulty is that you can't make up your mind whether you are (a) annoyed at petty sovereignties that carve themselves off from the multitude; or (b) wryly amused that they can only survive as part of the larger organism.]
Which nations are rich and which poor? It was in reading Kenneth Pomerantz (in The Great Divergence that I saw how this is a rigged question. Compare (say) the English midlands around 1800 with all of Imperial China, you compare a society that is vibrant, thriving, on the move. But what if you compare the midlands with, just the richest parts of coastal China? You'd come up with much different picture.

Flip it around and you see the same distortion through a different lens. We often talk about the wealth of Hong Kong or Singapore or Switzerland as if they were independent loci of wealth and power, as distinct from what they really are--namely, organs (vital, perhaps, but still organs) in a larger system. So goes the discussion of how we ought to create new cities in, say, Belize, or on a repurposed oil rig off the Pacific Coast of California. It's not merely that these "entities" are (as they so often are) mere tactics for the exportation of poor people. The real point is that they aren't really "entities" at all. None of these off-shore nirvanas will make the slightest sense unless they are plugged into the trade and cultural emoluments of a larger social network.

But now, a point which must be old stuff to some, though new to me. That is: can't we treat segments of our present world in exactly the same way. E.g., we often talk about how disturbingly low appear United States (e.g.) mortality, health, education tables compared to (e.g.) Denmark, Finland, maybe Japan.

Can't quarrel with the numbers but what if we just carved out (say) Manhattan together with Stamford CN, maybe Cobble Hill in Brooklyn. Or the Silicon Valley. Or Washington NW plus Alexandria and Fairfax County? Or "Massachusetts" from Cambridge up to Bedford, New Hampshire? We'd have socio-economic indicators that would be the envy of the world. And Michael Bloomberg would end up looking as good as Lee Kuan Yew.

I can't really say that all of this, if any, is a new idea. The nuclear strategists back in the 60s used to divide the country into (if memory serves) "Country A," "Country B," and "Country C," the first having the least real estate and the most wealth--the designated survivors in triage (you can guess where all the nuclear strategists lived). Starting s generation ago, Michael Barone and his co-authors have habituated wonks everywhere to think about who gives and who takes in Congressional politics. Lately any number of commentators have savored the irony the most reactionary, most (allegedly) anti-government segments are the country are the ones with their snouts deepest in the trough. Barry Goldwater famously remarked that it would be better for everybody if you just sawed off the Eastern Seaboard and let the lest of the country go its way. Plenty on the Eastern Seaboard may be thinking the same thing.

I've heard it said that Hitler--whose career crashed in Russia--was the last political leader who thought it a good thing to control a lot of real estate. Lee Kuan Yew, or Michael Bloomberg, or whoever it is that wants to anchor an old oil rig off the California coast, could be quick to explain to him why he was wrong.

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