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June 25, 2013


Athens had its day in the sun, as did Venice and other city-states, but all failed. Athens left us democracy and philosophy, plays, tales, gods, art, sculpture, present day ruins, and present day political gridlock. Venice left us similar legacies along with a lesson in the dangers of over-expansion, however successful Venetians were in commerce, war and some then new theological expressions we may loosely define as humanistic. All the city-states of yore made their contributions to today, of course, but these are two I think important to an understanding of who we now are and how we are where we are.

The foregoing is preface to mention of the few remaining city-states today. City-states as a political model have many shortcomings, mostly because of their narrow bases of operation (though Venice expanded greatly during its heyday). Vatican City, for instance, is an entirely theological enterprise and is unique. Monaco is a casino comprised of wait staff and the claim of some to royal leadership. Political and economic hegemony are not likely to be achieved via confessionals and roulette wheels, so from that perspective, both such city-states are already on the junk heap of history awaiting burial.

The main topic of this short foray into the built-in political and economic instability of city-states is Singapore. Its narrow geography and mixed-race population has brought on draconian measures in how its citizens must conduct themselves. Some of the measures of control are anti-democratic but are justified on grounds of its miniature geography, resulting in an Athenian/1984 mix of directives. Singaporeans are generally busy and prosperous due to their strategic position in Southeast Asia and their gung-ho capitalism/low tax atmosphere. Foreign capital has been attracted; debt markets are doing well, but unlike Venice of old, Singapore is not likely to expand its territory in search of new markets and resources. Why bother? The colonial model of an expansionist Europe is dead and gone.

Like the rest of the West, it has found that territorial expansion by war and/or diplomatic artifice is unnecessary. Globalization and World Bank and Merkel-led intrusions into the capital markets (and even sovereignty) of other countries produces the desired result for those who would plunder other capital-poor states, set their interest rates, (effectively) write their legislation, monitor their compliance on pain of shutting off their loan spigots etc. Why have war and diplomatic intrigue when you can attain the same objectives – and even pretend to be “the good guys” in the process? You can have it both ways!

Even so, and given its success of sorts to date, I think the Singaporean model will not succeed over the long term and that it will go the way of all city-states. A world-wide depression along with the concomitant crash in equity and debt markets and total wipeout of demand for its products and services could bring on its demise. Other factors, including environmental degradation, could cause or contribute to its end or at least to its marginalization as a world player, however pro-capitalist its policies. It probably will not take much of such or similar events to persuade the international playboys of  banks, finance,  hedge funds, tax evaders and others to take their investments (if any remain) elsewhere.

Last week the seasonal burning of forests by farmers in Sumatra, an Indonesian island across the straits from Singapore, put out so much smoke that Singaporeans were walking around with masks attached. The Singaporean government complained to Indonesia, which ignored it, but which points up one of the fundamental problems of miniature states – size. There’s no place to go. Size matters.  GERALD  E

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