I came across a Parag Khanna editorial in the New York Times that starts of documenting the CIA’s “Alternative Worlds” scenario – one of which is a so-called “non-state world” – and culminates in some kind of weird romance about the Silk Road days of yore when prosperous traders were the lifeblood of the Arabian Peninsula.
I need to make two quick points, one positive and the other normative. Khanna’s principal charge is that this “non-state world” is already here. The emergence of special economic zones, Dubai, and Hong Kong as centers of international commerce somehow hark the end of the international system as we know it:
A quick scan across the world reveals that where growth and innovation have been most successful, a hybrid public-private, domestic-foreign nexus lies beneath the miracle. These aren’t states; they’re “para-states” — or, in one common parlance, “special economic zones.”
Across Africa, the Middle East and Asia, hundreds of such zones have sprung up in recent decades. In 1980, Shenzhen became China’s first; now they blanket China, which has become the world’s second largest economy.
The Arab world has more than 300 of them, though more than half are concentrated in one city: Dubai. Beginning with Jebel Ali Free Zone, which is today one of the world’s largest and most efficient ports, and now encompasses finance, media, education, health care and logistics, Dubai is as much a dense set of internationally regulated commercial hubs as it is the most populous emirate of a sovereign Arab federation.
This complex layering of territorial, legal and commercial authority goes hand in hand with the second great political trend of the age: devolution.
In the face of rapid urbanization, every city, state or province wants to call its own shots. And they can, as nations depend on their largest cities more than the reverse.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York City is fond of saying, “I don’t listen to Washington much.” But it’s clear that Washington listens to him. The same is true for mayors elsewhere in the world, which is why at least eight former mayors are now heads of state.
Scotland and Wales in Britain, the Basque Country and Catalonia in Spain, British Columbia in Canada, Western Australia and just about every Indian state — all are places seeking maximum fiscal and policy autonomy from their national capitals.
There’s a good argument that as urbanization proceeds and technology improves, cities ought to have more autonomy in local decisions. But that’s hardly true right now. Mayor Bloomberg can say whatever the hell he wants but, as it happens, he has to listen to Washington. It is the American people from the Dakotas and Carolinas that signed into law Dodd-Frank, which will regulate New York City’s largest and most important export. It was a Federal Judge that ruled against stop-and-frisk, and Bloomberg wasn’t even able to strongarm the state judiciary when it came to his ban on Sugary drinks.
If there’s one city-within-a-nation that has the political and economic clout, it’s New York City. If there’s one man to exploit that, it’s Bloomberg. And it’s not really worked out all too much in his favor. Indeed, since the death of Benjamin Strong, economic power has shifted from New York City to Washington, where the most important financial and economic decisions are made. And as shitty as the government in DC may be, they represent the people of the United States, not New York.
Let’s take the more surprising example of India, which as far cry from “autonomous cities”. Take a look at this McKinsey report (which, as far as they go, is pretty good) on India’s Urban Awaking. One of the clearest detriments to progress in urban India is the abject disempowerment of the urban voter. Few Indian cities – aside from New Delhi, which is its own state – have a more-than-ceremonial mayor. City politics are dominated by the Chief Minister of encompassing state. That means local action in Chennai is dominated by the mess-of-a-women that is Jayalalitha. And it’s no better in the more “advanced” cities of Bombay or Bangalore. Local politics is slave to rural concerns.
The money is in the cities, but the votes are in the country. National pro-urban policies are in complete disrepair, while India’s urban taxpayers fund the world’s largest welfare program for the villagers. It’s a good program as far as redistribution goes, but horrible in its effect on the productivity and progress – modern commerce – about which Khanna speaks. Not only does it come with the inefficiencies of taxes in general, but it engenders a culture of demechanization as the Indian government wants to guarantee maximum employment in the shittiest jobs as far as they are in the country.
A city-state? I think not.
And sure, there will always be a Dubai, Singapore, or Hong Kong. But as far as commerce go, the whole of the United States doesn’t do too badly. We’re the most economically free country, save two Asian city-states with a population less than New York City, and that counts for something. Power is also concentrated at the national level. As far as international politics go, who even cares what the Sheiks in Dubai want? It’s all about Obama, Putin, Assad, and Jinping. These are people who derive their powers from a national electorate.
But there’s a deeper, more normative problem, with Khanna’s assessment:
The Arab world will not be resurrected to its old glory until its map is redrawn to resemble a collection of autonomous national oases linked by Silk Roads of commerce. Ethnic, linguistic and sectarian communities may continue to press for independence, and no doubt the Palestinians and Kurds deserve it.
And yet more fragmentation and division, even new sovereign states, are a crucial step in a longer process toward building transnational stability among neighbors.
The classical world is gone. And thank god for it. It’s not like being born anywhere in Arabia is great today, but it is infinitely better than it was when Islamic culture ruled the world. It’s too easy to think about the “more cultured” days of our classical past.
At a more analytical level, nation states are key to economic mobility and prosperity. Think about what Dubai, Singapore, and Hong Kong represent – other than a gleaming success story of Khanna’s brave new world. They represent inequality and exclusivity. They represent don’t represent talent as much as wasted talent. Indeed, each of them almost solely represents all that was wrong with the world in 2008. Finance is key to a modern economy, and no one is going to deny it. But it would be a brutal joke to say that the kind of nonsense exported from these “modern city-states” is anything like what America (and, ugh, Britain) once did. It’s a joke to assume the real innovation comes from real estate in Dubai instead of modern ways to improve livelihoods in the heart of India and Africa (not the urban fringes thereof).
Within a nation state, because of fiscal union, someone can dream of settling in the country, but also making it to Manhattan. What kind of dream does Dubai represent in the world – other than young American grads that want a useless consulting gig for two years so they can party a little harder.