Last autumn I was up in the mountains in a near a place called Niederurnen in Switzerland, when the tranquility was suddenly disturbed by a jarring small engine noise. It sounded like a microlight aircraft, and I left the woodland to look for it. After a few minutes of scanning the valley I realised what it was: a man with a leaf-blower far on the very far side of the valley (this one, between the pink lines), walking through the fields and tidying up the whole valley, which was covered in fallen leaves. I kid you not.
With this in mind, I’m tickled but hardly surprised to see that Science Insider magazine is running an article with the headline Swiss Want to Build a Satellite That Removes Space Litter. Yes, really. Well, good for them.
“Switzerland is a country that likes to keep things clean,” [Swiss Space Center Director
Volker] Gass says. “So we decided to first get our own satellite down.”
This bit of fun hasn’t got much to do with tax havens, but for one thing. While I was writing Treasure Islands, I made sure that when I was interviewing people in Switzerland, I nearly always started with a question along the lines of: “how do you reconcile the fact that Swiss people have a reputation for being among the world’s politest, tidiest, quietest, best-groomed, best-behaved and most apparently upstanding citizens – while at the same time their country has for decades had the reputation of being the gigantic sink for the world’s dirtiest loot?
It turned out to be a very fruitful question: pretty much every time I asked it, i got a completely different answer, and it was usually a long, thoughtful and insightful one. A senior Indian official asked a very similar question recently: Is Switzerland more corrupt than India?
In the last couple of years, Switzerland has been cleaning up its banking system – but only a bit. This has amounted to a series of incremental, defensive moves, cleaning up one thing at a time, usually with respect to just one other country (e.g. its banks are coming under sustained fire from the U.S. and Switzerland is making particular concessions on secrecy, but only to the United States.)
This space thing is interesting. Switzerland’s decision to clean up space debris is an almost entirely altruistic gesture: since Switzerland has nothing else up there except a tiny little thing called Swisscube. And yet on the banking side, the approach for decades has represented the polar opposite of altruism: ‘we will take the money and make the profits, and screw everyone else around the world who is harmed by our financial secrecy.’
I guess the Swiss are quite used to dealing with all this cognitive dissonance. In fact, they have found highly effective ways to deal with it. Switzerland is so stable (and hence also a financial haven) precisely because their society was always so potentially divided (Italian, German, French, Romansh, to name just the linguistic divisions) that they came up with the constitutional machinery – direct democracy, heavy devolution of decision-making powers, concordance, and more) to deal with all the potential tensions. It all works very well.
Perhaps cognitive dissonance is just the Swiss way.
Oh, and for those who like this kind of thing, there’s another strange tax haven space story here.