This evocative article on the cultural and economic history of the Levant caught my interest, but left me a little dissatisfied. Firstly, it reads like the first half of a better, longer article. After supplying a lot of background for his contention—that we are all Levantines now—Mensel states it quite abruptly, and addresses its implications and ramifications not at all.
That’s a shame, because I find it quite plausible, and in fact I think Jane Jacobs might have agreed. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she argues that cities and their respective hinterlands are natural economic units, and that countries with multiple urban centres are not. The main reason is currency valuation—when exchange rates can vary, investment in different economic units can reflect their relative efficiency in different kinds of production. When you have many economic units (in her view, cities) using the same currency, their differing efficiencies can produce no shift in exchange rate, and hence no shift in investment.
(Mark Rosenfelder offers a nice summary of Jacobs’ argument on Zompist)
Having elaborated in this point quite a bit, Jacobs leaves it aside with a quiet comment that she can see no solution to the problem. In fact I think she had a solution, but hesitated to propose it: return to city-states. You might still have nation-states, certainly, but currencies would be tied to particular cities and their hinterlands. At present this sounds radical and unworkable, and in fact I have no idea how to go about implementing it. There are local currencies, certainly, and I’m impressed by the quality of those who advocate them. How you’d expand those local currencies to replace the national currency locally, for large-scale investment as well as personal exchange, I have no idea.
Mansel’s evocation of Levantine life—the busy ferment of multicultural cities, the creativity of traders and business-people exchanging ideas and skills—sounds very much like the complex, messy, productive city life Jacobs praised in Death and Life. She’d have agreed with his view that open cities on the coast are inherently more likely to prosper than monolithic cities inland. I don’t know how we move on from the nation-state—there are lots of forces acting to weaken central governments, but many barriers to devolving their powers to cities. Still, to me the idea of economics focused on cities makes a lot of sense, and the cultural richness of cosmopolitan cities is undeniable. We may or may not be Levantines just yet, but from the point of view of this Vancouverite, we could do worse.