The past week was memorable for any number of reasons, not least of all the deepening of the Anglo-Irish bank scandal that inaugurated Ireland’s economic freefall and all but bankrupted the country. (Note: the Irish economy just slipped back into recession.) In Italy, the multi-millionaire former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was convicted of low crimes and misdemeanors (again) and sentenced to seven years in prison and banned from ever holding public office again. An appeal is in the works and it is widely believed that given his age and Italy’s legal eccentricities, he will probably never spend a night in prison. His media empire is vast, and hundreds of thousands of Italian voters routinely vote for him.
On a far more global scale, the world is now gathered, metaphorically, at the bedside of Nelson Mandela, “Madiba,” the 94-year-old ex-president and champion of human and civil rights who spent 27 years in prison for his campaign against apartheid in South Africa. He is not expected to survive for very long, though he has managed several times to outflank the lung infections he acquired so long ago during his awful 20-year imprisonment on Robben Island and in two other prisons.
Mandela is regarded as an icon of integrity and human values, one of the great revolutionary figures of the twentieth century whose place in history is secure alongside other champions of human rights and dignity. He has no great wealth, no media empire, no pocketed politicians growing rich off his patronage.
The contrast between two former heads of state could hardly be sharper. The great mystery remains, however: can money and power earn a morally dubious, conniving prevaricator anything more than a minor footnote in history compared to Madiba? It would hardly seem likely, but it’s a funny old world.
Ireland is calming down, which is not a bad thing given the return of blustery summer weather. The G8 meeting near Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, garnered a huge amount of attention early this week as leaders from the richest nations on earth gathered to talk to one another. Whether anything comes of it is a different matter entirely. There were many street protests, but no violence to speak of. Security was tight, of course.
Down here in the Republic, the Obamas came, saw, and conquered the media and charmed all but the most jaundiced reporters. They are now gone, leaving behind a nice warm feeling for the most part, although Malia and Sasha looked fairly bored at Glendalough, at least until the midges descended on them. The Kennedys have also come and mostly gone from New Ross, where the new visitors’ center was very ceremoniously inaugurated yesterday. Quite a lot of Kennedys (and Fitzgeralds) still belong there, and the welcome extended to Caroline, her children, Jean Kennedy Smith, and their relatives to commemorate JFK’s visit exactly 50 years ago was warm and genuine. A flame from the memorial graveside in Washington was flown over especially for the occasion and will burn in perpetuity at the New Ross center.
The Kennedy Celebration (and the Edward Snowden affair) tended to eclipse the earlier discussions at Enniskillen, which history will probably notice more carefully. Those took place in the midst of a number of unsettling revelations about tax havens and corporate evasions involving some of the largest conglomerates on the planet, especially good guys like Google and Amazon, which are so dear to consumers’ hearts everywhere.
Collectively, it is estimated that these companies, along with Apple, Starbucks, and many other multinational corporations, have avoided paying corporate taxes in their home countries by employing a series of dodges engineered by lawyers, accountants, and politicians to the tune of something like 3 trillion dollars. With the global economy in tatters and Europe struggling hard to hold a severe recession at bay, this is not an insignificant sum, being equivalent to one-fourth of the US national debt among other things. And things seemed to be going so well just five years ago.
But the rot had long set in, as “First World” bankers, government ministers, and regulators looked the other way while dodgy deals and criminally reprehensible policies undermined the world’s financial health and further enriched the already rich. Strikingly, very few of the perps have seen anything like effective investigation much less prosecution. Too big to jail, as they say… One might think that Bernie Madoff was the evil genius behind it all. Or Martha Stewart…
Although comprising only one-seventh of the world’s population, the eight countries constituting the G8 control half the world’s wealth. There seems to be something wrong with this picture. Granted, the emergence of the G20 in 2008 tended to balance the situation somewhat. It is worth noting, however, that only one African nation — South Africa — is included among the gaggle of finance ministers and bank governors. But all told, these countries represent two-thirds of the world population and account for about 80% of the gross world product. However the wealth is actually not in the hands of the politicians who govern even the eight richest and most powerful nations, or the twelve more that make up the G20, or even the bankers themselves, but rather in the multinational corporations that generate — and, it seems, hoard that wealth.
As I ruminated over the emergence of the new economic order, I was reminded (again!) of some lines from Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning script for Network, the brilliant (and prophetic) film of 1976, which was named one of the ten best scripts of all time by the Writers Guild of America. In a climactic scene, the newscaster Howard Beale is being lectured by Arthur Jensen, the network boss, who asserts that “There is no America; there is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.”
Times have changed, of course. Apple, Microsoft, and Google have climbed to the pinnacle of the heap, and it is curiously relevant that the richest man in the world, the media baron Carlos Slim, lives in Mexico.
In any case, Jensen continues, “You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations; there are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems; one vast, interwoven, interacting, multivaried, multinational dominion of dollars.”
Yes indeed. And quite a lot of them seem to be stashed away in tax shelters. And we wonder why there is unrest in the streets of Enniskillen? Or, rather, why there isn’t more. Or even in Brazil, where it seems that a Great Awakening may be underway. And Brazil is one of the G20. This could get interesting.