I am not by profession a film critic; in fact, I am singularly unsuited for this noble form of parasitism. But the latest James Bond film The World is not Enough, has me frothing at the mouth. I love the technological Gizmos, the unthinking English arrogance, the political incorrectness and the sarcastic humour. I do not mind the silly mistakes, like making the Azeris out as Christians near the beginning of the film. What is annoying me is the unspoken, and therefore unchallenged assumption that oil, and access to oil, is everything.
Firstly, let me get one small gripe off my chest. In the opening scene the baddy (clue for non-Bond fans Ė baddies have a foreign accent), a Swiss banker says, "Iím only giving back what is not mine" to which our hero replies "unusual for a Swiss banker." What cheek! This witch-hunt against the Swiss must stop. In the holocaust, millions died many of them with liquid or moveable assets. Gold, bank accounts, shares, paintings, insurance policies; six million people in a developed economy are going to collectively have substantial amounts of wealth. The holocaust meant that many of these assets were without owners. You may not realize it from the media coverage, but it was not just the Swiss, or even mainly the Swiss, who acted shabbily. German companies (many still trading) used slave labour from the concentration camps, as in Schindlerís List. London auction houses sold looted paintings. French and Italian insurance companies refused to pay life insurance without death certificates, and banks all around Europe made little effort to notify heirs of bank accounts. So why do the Swiss attract more media and government attention than the rest of these scandals combined? Perhaps it is the Swiss attachment to bank secrecy, and antipathy to other aspects of the New World Order (Switzerland has never been a member of the United Nations for example). If the principle of bank secrecy is broken for the sake of auditing whether the banksí have properly accounted for Nazi gold it lets open a deliberately undefined loophole. What about the accounts of deposed third world dictators, drug dealers, organized criminals, money launderers, pimps, tax avoiders, rich divorcees, political dissidents, you, me? I pass on, without comment, the information from the Economist that the chairman committee to monitor the response of the Swiss banks, is Paul Volcker who until 1BG (Before Greenspan) was the head of the Federal Reserve, Americaís bank regulator. It is a slippery slope, and enough material for another column, which I wrote last week. Next time you hear the hue and cry about Swiss gold, ask if the motives are 24 carat.
However, let me return to my main gripe, oil pipelines. The basic idea of the plot is that the British secret services, in the gallant shape of Mr. Bond, are trying to make sure that a pipeline is built that bypasses Russian control. As Bondís boss, M (played by Judi Dench) says "this pipeline will secure our economic future for the next century." The pipeline builders are beset at all times by terrorists, who aim to restrict the choice of pipelines and, by their actions bring fantastic profits to the pipeline owners while bringing the Western economy to its knees. I really cannot say much more on this, as cinema experiences may be ruined.
There are as many silly excuses for empire as there are silly imperial apologists. One of the most common is the resources argument. It goes something like this, "we are not self sufficient in [delete as appropriate] oil/iron/food/bauxite/cashew nuts/Christmas decorations/anything else. If the supply of this commodity dries, our economy will be forced to its knees. Country X is an exporter of this commodity and has an unstable government. If we stabilize/depose/restore the government then we will never need to worry about shortage again." Therefore, we commence upon another high road to Empire.
It is amazing that the most ardent proponents of this doctrine style themselves Conservatives (or Neo-Cons) and profess profound admiration for the workings of the market. It seems that they have spent so long admiring the market that they have failed to take the time to understand it. So what if the pipelines are cut or Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait, what is the worse that will happen to the economies of the West? The price of oil will go up. The price will act as a signal to other suppliers, suppliers of alternate sources and consumers. Oil traders, those shady people that Bond sneers at in Casinos, will find different ways of selling the same oil to us, as they did the last couple of times OPEC raised the price. Other oil producers will produce more. Marginal oil production, such as many of Britainís North Sea fields, will be bought back on line and it will become more profitable to prospect for new oil fields. Other sources of energy such as coal, wind turbines and nuclear energy will be harnessed. Cars that use lots of petrol will be avoided in favour of more efficient models and goods that take a lot of energy to produce will become more expensive and will be produced less. There will be dislocations here, but nothing like going off on needless wars to defend the right to wear a tee shirt in the house in the middle of winter. In the end we will survive, and by letting the market rip, be far stronger in the long term. One does not tell an addict to keep on heroin because going cold turkey is a bad experience.
Consider the alternative. We are engaged in a genocidal war against the Iraqi people for the simple reason that their (non-elected) leader made a particularly ill advised and bloody grab for higher oil market share ten years ago. There is a moral price, half a million mostly innocent lives, that I am simply unwilling to pay. Playing the Great Game also puts our tax bills up to pay for otherwise unnecessary weaponry and foreign aid. It also puts one of the few political achievements of the late twentieth century, an end to military conscription, at risk. War is the health of the State, and a bloated state is far less healthy for a modern economy than a short-term jump in oil prices.
The fact is that this forcible appropriation of other countriesí oil is the conclusion of the open door policy, where we force other countries to let their markets open to the West. In that we do not let other countries decide just how they are going to sell us their natural resources, or decide how they are to go through their countries, we are pillaging weaker and poorer states. As an aside, the policy of protection is going to logically lead to the same sort of economic imperialism, probably in the same ill-fitting humanitarian dress, as the present policy of managed trade. Those who sincerely call for the American government to look after America first by raising tariff barriers should remember that no country can get self-sufficiency in all things. Eventually a protectionist policy will make the republic seek an empire to get the resources that the republic just cannot get on its own. Free trade is the only logical policy that a non-interventionist can advocate. Trust me, as a Brit I know we lost you guys when we tried to force you into a systematic trading bloc. What do you think the Boston Tea Party was all about?
The attractions of oil pipelines are strong for certain types of armchair generals, like me. The Italian fascist (sorry, post-fascist) party, the National Alliance, claim that the Kosovo war is an American plot to strangle the economy a United Europe, by bombing a certain pipeline route. More plausibly, Stratfor.com points out the massive investment that states will have to make, as most of the companies lobbying for a Trans-Caucasian pipeline will not foot the bill. And to bring the Bond analogy home, the excellent George Szamuely points out that we will gradually be drawn into a needless conflict with Russia, which unlike BP-Amoco controls nuclear bombs.
The 1990s have been an orgy of self-congratulation on how we have learned the economic lessons of the 1980s. As Mr. Bond and our political class show, this ainít necessarily so.
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