I was looking at the famous picture of the little excavator pecking away at the base of a city-sized vessel and couldn’t help but wonder how the scene would have looked like if the accident took place in the US.
If the canal blockage took place in the US, there would have been a large fleet of massive SUVs at the scene, alongside a lot more machinery both ashore and afloat. Elon Musk would have made an appearance in a fancy exoskeleton the size of Mount Rushmore. On day one, not day three.
Or what would the scene look like in France or Britain, the countries that originally built the canal before it was nationalized by the Egyptian regime in 1956? There would be more than a single excavator and a few pensive men on the scene no doubt.
“Around 10% of the world’s trade flows through the waterway and it remains one of Egypt’s top foreign currency earners. In 2015, the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi completed a major expansion of the canal, allowing it to accommodate the world’s largest vessels. However, the Ever Given ran aground before that new portion of the canal.”
Nationalization is so last year. Every schoolchild knows it is bad. The word, not the thing. Today’s populist autocrats run under the anti-communist flag to pretend that they are totally different, but don’t trust them to build a canal on their territory just yet. Because instead of nationalization, they do cronification – playing companies, industries and objects of “strategic importance” “into Hungarian hands”. Meaning they don’t bother to nationalize it and then stay in power to rule them. They play them right into their own pockets. With laws, with taxes, with the bottomless pocket of the central bank (and the EU) behind them.
But does that make them good at running those businesses?
Of course not.
The Suez Canal is an autocrat’s wet dream. It is a massive, take-it-or-leave-it extortion opportunity. Big, moneyed entities want to use the canal and you can extort them in exchange. The perfect rent. And that is the only way these animals know how to make money. (Apart from getting it from the state, of course, but that is essentially the same trick pulled on citizens.)
Would such a splendid extortion opportunity be located in Hungary, Orbán’s front men and so-called “businessmen” would have already taken over at Orbán’s explicit order and would be running the canal… down.
Because the rent-seeking little geniuses don’t know how to build and run things. First world minds love to discuss how the private sector cuts corners and saves on building materials at the cost safety – they haven’t seen a statist autocracy in action. For a start, they don’t like paying for maintenance or investing in their businesses. They depend on state funds to stay afloat even if they have a gold mine or an oil field, and they would regularly apply for new funds for maintenance. But when they get the state funds, when they get those juicy, fat euros, they wouldn’t feel like parting with them and spend it back on their business. They take their cue from Orbán himself who is explicitly reluctant to spend any tax money back on the peasants. It is like a tooth extraction for a me-me-me autocrat.
So don’t expect investment into maintenance or innovation under autocratic regimes, they would never make the canal wider or deeper just because vessels keep growing and if they have an excavator that is because the original owners have left it behind when they were bought out.
Why invest in technology either, when you can keep up the extortion just as well using cheap human labor? Just make a rule that a mandatory steward must be let aboard to navigate the vessel through the waterway. You don’t even have to pay the stewards, it is like tax farming. Just let them collect their own rent, extort bribes from the shipping companies. You can even make the stewards pay for the jobs, and you should definitely ask for a kickback, a cut of their revenues for letting them skimming the ships. They will be happy to buy the rights, pardon, the jobs, and they will leave the racket to their sons when they retire. That is the only kind of “business” regime-fattened oligarchs understand.
So there would be no exoskeletons and helicopters if the accident happened in Hungary. But there would be a communication war. After all, they can’t send stadiums to free the vessel, and that is the only thing this country ever invests in.
So there would be an absolute news blackout and only the Orbánist media would be allowed near the site – and the international media would slavishly buy and broadcast their rosy images from the scene, showing Hungarians’ heroism. Meanwhile, the captain of the boat would be put on trial by media as a Sorosist agent working for shady background powers who sabotaged our nation on purpose. The Jewish and migrant thread would be unearthed, maybe even LGBT people would be accused. If you think that the two things can’t be linked to a vessel accident, you know nothing about the world we have been living in for the last ten years.
Every foreign help would be violently refused and if the system collapsed, Orbán would even send engineers abroad to prove that he has plenty. Maybe the engineers would be made to sign new, military contracts to make them subject to commandeering. Any engineer who would share negative opinions would revoke it the next day and then never speak up again.
Somehow, the regime would find a way to fatten themselves off of the accident. Not the regime, but the individuals who are allowed to take cuts from state procurement deals. Shady companies registered on a corn field in Vanuatu would be allowed to act as intermediaries in the breathtakingly overpriced, emergency public procurement of rescue cranes from Russia or China. They would turn out to be Ferris wheels and actual birds, but it would be no problem since they wouldn’t be used at all.