Monday, May 17, 2010

A Tale Of Two Nations

The following images come from Norway. Norway is a large country in the Northern hemisphere, notable for regularly and routinely clocking into the top ten for life expectancy, quality of life, education, health, air quality, water quality, environmental quality and pretty much every other positive aspect of a decent human existence that ever gets polled and turned into a pretty graphic for the UN.

Pretty, aren't they?

Of course, Norway has an unfair advantage. When they realised they were sitting on a truly fucknormous oil field, the Norwegian government of the 1970s set up the State Oil company (Statoil) to handle the resource. The capital investments required to become a major oil producer and exporter were so great that the oilfields didn't actually become revenue positive until somewhere in the 1980s... but for some reason the Norwegians felt it was reasonable for their national government to bear the costs, develop the infrastructure, and do all the things that privately owned oil companies do elsewhere in the world.

Possibly they thought this was okay because they saw the oil as a national resource, which could be used for the benefit of the whole nation. Possibly they felt that a democratic government was more likely to look after the environment and not just the bottom line. Either way, the outcome was pretty good. Although Statoil was privatised in 2001, the Norwegian government - and hence, the people of Norway - remains the single largest shareholder. According to Wikipedia, Norway is the the third richest (in monetary terms) country in the world, and has the highest capital reserves of any country.

From inception, the profits from Statoil have been turned to the use of the Norwegian government: for infrastructure, for social welfare, and as a safety margin against the unknowns of the future. And today, by practically any standard of decent human living that you care to apply, Norway is one of the very best countries of the world in which to live.

So much for Norway. Now, let's take a look at a few more images. These come from the South Pacific island nation of Nauru:

Unlike most other green and lovely South Pacific island nations, Nauru looks like a pile of shit. And while poverty is endemic amongst the smaller nations of the South Pacific, Nauru is an outstanding case. Things have been so bad for them that in the 1990s, they tried becoming a tax haven, and a front for all kinds of exciting money laundering and banking operations run by (most notably) the Russian mafia. When the global financial heavies got together and shut down these operations, Nauru turned to Australia. More specifically, they turned to John Howard, who paid them all kinds of interesting monies and "aid" in exchange for acting as a concentration camp for boatloads of refugees trying to get to Australia.

Of course, with the unstable governments in the region, one might well think this is par for the course - just a blip, an outlier on the curve of marginalisation caused by factors like isolation and small size. But there was a time, once, when Nauru was wealthy. No, not wealthy: stinking, filthy rich. For a time in the 1960s and 1970s, Nauru boasted the highest per-capita income of any sovereign state on the planet. Including Saudia Arabia, yes. And other small-sized nations like Lichtenstein, Luxembourg and Monaco, where banking has brought wealth.

So... what happened?

Well, it was all about the phosphate rock. Phosphate is vital to agriculture, and very handy in munitions, and Nauru was pretty much made of the stuff. Throughout the 20th century, various corporations and nations pulled an unbelievable amount of phosphate out of Nauru. Just -- ripped it out of the earth underfoot, packed it into boats, and shipped it off. And as the figures and the historical facts show, a rather incredible profit was made.

But not by the people of Nauru, no. They now rank among the poorest on the planet. There's literally nothing left in Nauru that anybody wants. In fact, what with the damage left by the mining operations, there's hardly a Nauru to speak of. Just a fringe of green around a wasteland. Just the kind of place where a real bastard might send boatloads of helpless and vulnerable refugees from a range of war-torn countries -- a place so utterly dispiriting in aspect that places like Afghanistan and Iraq were supposed to look good in comparison.

So. Two countries. Each with a (proportionately) massive fortune in natural resources. In one country, the development of those resources was wholly managed by the state, and the profits were put back into the country. In the other, the exploitation of the resources was handled by corporations and the free market, and the profits went... where profits go.

And the point of this discussion?

Simple. I live in a large but isolated South Pacific country, with what is a rather marginal ecological structure. This particular country has truly enormous assets in the form of mineral deposits: iron, coal, aluminium, magnesium, copper, lead, tin, zinc, gold... you name it, we've got it.

Our Prime Minister has just suggested that we should tax the profits -- not the gross, mind you, but the profits -- of mining companies operating in this nation at 40%. Our Prime Minister seems to believe that the government of the country, and therefore the people of the country, and their inheritors, deserve a 40% share in the bonanza being reaped by the corporations currently getting fat on the natural wealth of this land.

For some reason, the mining companies don't like this idea. Well, fine. But oddly, there are a lot of otherwise sane and normal people who seem also to dislike this idea. And to me, that's just beyond bizarre.

Nauru versus Norway. I know where I'd rather live. And if the mining companies really don't like it -- why, they can fuck off out of my country completely, because it looks to me as though the Norwegians had it right.