No Monsters Here: Romanian Witches at the Edge of a Flat World
Traci Sinclair on 1/18/2011 12:00:00 AM
Earlier this month, MSNBC ran an apparently inconsequential human-interest piece on changes to the Romanian tax code. The story’s lead-in emphasizes that while the story is interesting, it is far from significant. “Everyone curses the tax man,” writes Alison Mutler, “but Romanian witches angry about having to pay up for the first time are planning to use cat excrement and dead dogs to cast spells on the president and government.” The intro telegraphs the article to follow: a traditionally untaxed segment of the population will soon find itself taxed. And, predictably, those who are about to be taxed are not happy. Of course, there appears to be nothing new or noteworthy here, except that the segment of the population about to be taxed is witches. Yet this superficially thin story provides some significant insight into a consequence of the global market: it reveals not only how we do business but what we value.
Setting aside the abstract considerations for the moment, the pragmatic motivations underlying the tax are commonplace. The global recession has hurt Romania’s economy. According to the CIA Fact book, Romania’s GDP fell by 7% and its unemployment rate came close to doubling in 2009. Facing a significant revenue shortfall, the government looked for new revenue streams and decided to satisfy part of its needs by taxing individuals who had not been required to pay a federal income tax. Romania’s government created a new job classification in its income tax policy and closed a loophole that had allowed witches and others to avoid paying income tax. The loophole was simple. The Romanian labor code had failed to list “witch” as one of the officially recognized self-employed jobs.
Opponents to the tax increase point out that the amount witches charge for a consultation, approximately $7 to $10 dollars, would make the reliable collection of taxes difficult. Others fall back to the simple expediency of threat and intimidation. Queen witch Bartara Buzea defended her plan to cast a spell, presumably on those advocating the tax reform. “We do harm to those who harm us,” Buzea stated. “They want to take the country out of this crisis using us? They should get us out of the crisis because they brought us into it.” Ironically, the counter arguments concede the government’s fundamental claim: witches produce something of monetary value. The only question seems to be if these officials have the right to tax others to solve Romania’s current budget shortfall.
Romania’s decision to change its labor laws indicates a more fundamental shift in the country’s ideology. In his influential analysis of globalization, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Freidman argues that the world is becoming an increasingly even playing field. Competing on this field will require a fundamental shift from the convention of understanding economics primarily. Though Freidman is particularly interested in how the global market requires setting aside the tendency to view the marketplace in terms of national and regional allegiances, he tacitly admits to the more subtle changes that the global market enacts.
As evocative and useful as Freidman’s metaphor is, it misses a crucial feature of the global economy: its boundaries change in Romania. The change is the recognition that the one-time divide between the spiritual and the secular is blurred. This distinction, just like those of geography and politics, is rendered inconsequential. Ancient mapmakers frequently postulated that monsters lived at the furthest reaches of the known world with the phrase “here there be monsters.” In all likelihood, ancients, as well as not-so-ancient explorers took the warning literally. But the warning also contained an ideological warning: beyond this point our way of understanding the world may no longer serve and you may find things you cannot understand. Friedman’s cartography, however, requires no such warnings about what lies beyond its current boundaries.
To return to Friedman’s metaphor, the appropriate map of the economic landscape may be flat, though a relatively energetic debate has sprung up around the aptness of Friedman’s image. But whatever its dimensions and characteristics, we are finding that the region mapped is far larger than we imagined. Successfully navigating the expanding space requires the discipline of holding to established, reliable principals; the imagination to seize the opportunities that the ever-expanding field of economics brings; and the willingness to recognize that the new isn’t necessarily unfamiliar. After all, one of Queen Buzea’s fellow witches voices a perfectly capitalist view of the impending changes to Romania’s tax code. Instead of seeing the tax as an imposition, she recognizes that government recognition will allow her to fully enter the market instead of existing only on its periphery. “This law is very good. It means that our magic gifts are recognized and I can open my own practice.”
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