Monday, January 31, 2011

Davos In Space

I want to tell you about a few things that inspired the back history of The Quiet War. Let’s start with the World Economic Forum. An annual gathering in the small alpine town of Davos where, inside a ring of steely Swiss security, the mega-rich mingle with world leaders and high-grade chugging teams from humanitarian aid charities:
There's a definite pecking order to the annual jamboree of global leaders. The creme de la creme of the world elite get a chopper in from Zurich airport. Mere chief executives of multinational companies arrive by limo. Meanwhile, charity leaders, religious figures, journalists and hoi polloi trundle up the mountain around icy hairpin bends in complementary shuttle buses.
The 2011 meeting has just ended. But what would happen if the guests never left?

That’s kind of like the scenario in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. The novel’s elusive driving force, John Galt, disgusted by the way in the world has turned to socialism, sets up a refuge in the Colorado Rockies where innovators and go-getters hole up and go on strike while all around them, for want of their talent and energy, everything goes to hell in a hand-basket. An unlikely scenario, it seems to me: a fantasy underpinned by the kind of enormous but fragile egotism that prompts little boys to take their ball away when it looks like they’re about to lose the game. More likely to fall apart in all kinds of interestingly savage ways than to hold the line. I much prefer El Rey, the dark mirror-image of Galt’s Gulch in Jim Thompson’s The Getaway: a luxurious Mexican hideout where criminals can enjoy the fruits of their big scores until the money runs out - and that’s where their problems begin, because once you’ve checked in to El Rey, you can never check out . . .

It’s no surprise that something like the World Economic Forum Meeting should be held in Switzerland. Aside from scenery, chocolate and cuckoo clocks, looking after other people’s money is what Switzerland is all about. Protected by the Alps, the Swiss armed forces and secret police (every other person in Geneva looks like a secret police), and centuries of imperturbable omerta, it’s one of the oldest tax havens.  Great Britain isn’t far behind. British citizens able to claim that they are non-domiciled residents can stay at home and pay only a notional amount of tax. Others can shelter their cash in the offshore tax havens of the Channel Islands (more secret-police omerta) and the Isle of Man (Viking omerta). And doors along the streets of the capitals of British overseas territories and former protectorates and colonies in kinder latitudes glitter with brass plates for local firms that are fronts for international banks, businesses and individuals who benefit from low, low local tax rates.

If the rich can’t keep their money close to where they have to live, they like to visit it as often as possible. And because most tax havens are islands, or border the Mediterranean or Caribbean or the Indian Ocean, many of the mega-rich own a yacht. Preferably a really big yacht. Not only because it screams out your status as it jostles amongst its fellows at Cannes, say, or Bermuda’s Hamilton Harbour, but because it can act as a temporary refuge should things go badly pear-shaped: in theory, your creditors can’t touch you on the high seas.

But suppose things go pear-shaped all over the world? Even the biggest floating tax refuge, The World, needs to touch land and resupply. If climate change, economic collapse, popular revolutions and war collide in a perfect storm, the mega-rich will need their own Galt’s Gulch/El Rey.

We’re back to The Quiet War, where the mega-rich flee first find refuge from that perfect storm in New Zealand, a stable Western democracy that’s nicely remote and pretty well placed to ride out the worst effects of rapid climate change.  Then things get worse and the mega-rich up and leave Earth for the Moon, and take over and expand a Japanese colony. (Do you really think Richard Branson is interested in space tourism? It’s really cover for development and manufacture of space yachts for the far-sighted rich.)

But even the Moon isn’t far enough. As the Earth recovers, its new power blocs chase after the mega-rich, who split into two. The more aggressive group heads to Mars, tries to drop an asteroid on Earth, and are blasted to oblivion. The rest, including most of the scientists, engineers and technicians who kept the Moon colony running, flee to the moons of Jupiter, and then spread to the moons of Saturn, where they develop a scientific utopia quarantined by distance. But eventually even that isn’t far enough . . . The taxman has a longer reach than even John Galt could imagine.

UPDATE: Those yachts keep getting bigger. Also, Galt is the elusive mastermind of Atlas Shrugged, not The Fountainhead: corrected (thanks, N.E.).
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