Americans will spend the next few weeks angrily debating whether they should pull a little lever marked "D" or "R." Hope everyone has fun with that. However, if current trends hold true, deciding who heads the executive branch of even this most powerful nation in the world may one day be as quaint as that old question: "Blu-ray or HD-DVD?" As technology improves, governments become less necessary. This is true. In fact, we may right now be seeing the signs of a wholly post-patriotic world.
Sound out there? It's not unthinkable.
Consider the fact that we are closer to a truly kumbaya nation-less global community than ever before. Today it is far cheaper and easier to bounce around the planet than at any time in human history. So much so that the notion of travelling abroad "to find one's self" has transitioned from elite status symbol to middle class rite of passage. Furthermore, digital technology has made it possible to work anywhere — from everywhere. And an international financial infrastructure provides us with ATMs and the ability to "charge it" wherever we go.
The biggest barrier to simply "joining" another country isn't the miles between, as has been the case for most of human history, but rather the laws and regulations of the people in charge.
Of course, the vast majority of today's global vagabonds aren't escaping humdrum, they're fleeing poverty. According to the 2010 Census, 40 million people in the U.S. were born elsewhere — mostly from Latin America. This figure represents an all-time high, with nine million more foreign born than in 2000.
The U.S. is not alone in its role as immigrant magnet. In 2009, Eurostat published a report (PDF) showing that there were 20 million foreign-born people residing in the European Union (not including 12 million E.U.-born citizens living in a different member state). Even newly rich, non-Western nations are attracting migrant workers en masse, and mostly treating them crappily.
As countries struggle with their identity issues — some better than others — there's another, stranger immigrant element of this new open world. The past few decades have seen the rise of a small global elite class who use their wealth to avoid being too firmly committed to any one nation in particular. The super rich own homes on multiple continents; keep their money virtual and nation-less in the labyrinth of international banking; and travel with ease amongst it all.
This may seem like the beginning of a screed against the 1% and their lack of civic obligation. But I propose that the more interesting question isn't how can we stop them from living the state-less lifestyle, but rather what if everyone else could?
It's not unthinkable. History has shown time and again that what is exclusive to the super rich one day will become common the next. Who had indoor plumbing, cars and cellphones first? Who has them now? It's not so ludicrous to think that the law of accelerating returns will allow everyone to one day become an international jet setter and just forgo this whole "nation thing."
It's weird, but hear us out.
Citizenship As Wardrobe
Proceeding Facebook's much-hyped, if ultimately clumsy IPO, co-founder Eduardo Saverin (played by Andrew Garfield in the movie) found himself at the center of a kerfuffle that went so far as to directly inspire standing U.S. senators to move to alter federal law because of his actions.
In order to retain more of the $3.84 billion potential haul from his 4% stake in the company, Saverin took the unusual, if practical step to renounce his U.S. citizenship and officially become Singaporean. As a citizen of the south Asian island nation, Saverin would be treated to stunning beaches, dynamic street food, and no capital gains tax in addition to a top income tax of only 20%.
The move was, at the time, speculated to save the Brazilian-born Saverin more than $600 million in potential taxes. This nation shopping by the super rich happens more than you might realize. For example, the same year as Saverin's ex-patriating, socialite Denise Rich exchanged her U.S. citizenship for an Austrian one. (Those of a certain age may remember Denise as the ex-wife of Marc Rich, the indicted fugitive hedge fund manager who was controversially pardoned by President Clinton on his last day in office following donations of Denise to the Clinton Library and Democratic National Party.)
According to the Wall Street Journal, there has been a marked increase in Americans seeking to renounce their citizenship. Last year, 1,800 Americans officially renounced their citizenship, a figure six times that of 2008.
Of course, nation shopping isn't the only way to avoid tax obligations. An easier way would be to allow your assets to couch surf through a complicated web of offshore accounts. Just ask Mitt Romney (though he probably won't say much). While the federal government has moved to regulate these offshore shenanigans, they still happen with some frequency. It is estimated that the total amount of assets from U.S.-based citizens hiding in offshore accounts amounts to the trillions.
How You Can Give Up On Your Country
The super wealthy have the means hire top shelf legal teams and accounting magicians to help them become naturalized citizens of the island nation of Nada. But that doesn't mean statelessness is out of reach from the rest of us schmoes.
As mentioned above, commercial air travel is cheaper than at any time in history. The cost of a plane ticket has become so accessible that our current infrastructure is finding it difficult to keep up with the demand. Cheap seats + plentiful flights = more bottlenecks + delays. There have, of course, been some fluctuations in the cost of travel — largely attributable to price fixing by the global oil cartel. But generally speaking, the cost of consumer travel is down. And advancements in transportation technology — specifically, green, renewable technology — promise to bring the costs of continent hopping down even further. And should scientists ever perfect Star Trek-ish warp drive or transporters (not unthinkable, BTW) all neighborhoods of the world will be a few steps away.
Sci-fi dreams aside, the democratized nature of the Web already allows anyone to establish an international virtual and economic presence. Anyone with a smartphone has the ability to set up their own offshore accounts, buy property internationally or send and receive payments from anywhere.
We are already everywhere. Even if our passports don't reflect as much.
But Don't We Need Governments?
We've previously explored some concepts for experimental new nations. But would it be possible for us all to create an open world on top of what we already have? To that question that we just asked ourselves, we can answer back with a definitive "maybe."
First, a note to those of you reading this while gritting their teeth and preparing angry, profanity-laden, ALL CAPS commentary about the necessity of an authority to keep order. And indeed, there may be elements of our species that need to be kept under some form of control. But perhaps — just perhaps — we are actually better than we give ourselves credit for.
We've previously noted Harvard Professor Stephen Pinker's findings that despite what you may hear in the news, we are living in the safest time in the history of history. In developed parts of the world, street crimes of all kind have generally fallen over the past century. There is a clear correlation between modernism and low levels of violence. Moreover, when it comes to violence between nations, we are living through an historic lull. There is a parallel relationship between lowered international borders and fewer wars: it's better (and cheaper) to engage in trade with your neighbors rather than to risk fighting them.
But order is more than about dampening violence. What recourse do we have should someone screw us over in business if there's no authoritative and government-run legal system? Maybe we can just continue to do what we do now: Complain about it on the Internet. The Web allows anyone to broadcast their opinion to the entire world. In so much, consumer review-driven merchant boards like Yelp yield a lot of power over businesses. The same could be said for eBay seller feedback, Amazon user reviews, Glassdoor comments from former employees, or even your credit rating. Sometimes public shaming is enough of a deterrent to cause people to act ethically.
This new nation-less world is, admittedly, pretty far out there. But I would also contend that it is not an unfathomable outcome. Were we all to decide to drop this whole "nation" thing tomorrow and embrace an open world, the worst instincts of mankind may indeed make themselves known. However, as we continue to develop as a species, it may foster the opportunity for us to finally live up to the true promise of ourselves.
Or, maybe I'm completely wrong and all the pundits are right and — despite what they've said about every previous election cycle — this one is truly "the most important election of our times."
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