In 1696 Peter the Great decided he was going to turn Russia into a modern power, capable of competing with Europe's best. To do so he determined that he would need access to Europe's greatest minds and to its ports. Because feudal custom and traditions prevailed at the time turning Russia into a modern power required calling on outsiders to bring new ideas. It also meant challenging entrenched conservatives (who hated foreigners) and confronting financial elites, who not only hated the idea of paying taxes but believed they deserved special privileges in Russia.
While Peter the Greats commercial goal was to gain access to European ports and it's trade routes through the Sea of Azov ...
(... which accesses the Black Sea, the entrance point to the the Mediterranean Sea ...)
... the real goal was to modernize Russia's military, solidify Russia's southern flank (raided regularly by the Tatars), and to build it's first navy.
Building a navy and waging war meant Peter the Great would have to secure the funds that would eventually help make Russia a modern nation-state. And this is where it gets interesting.
Every group that could afford to help - the church, rich landowners, and merchants - would be forced to help Peter the Great bring the nation into the modern era. For example, while the government would provide the timber, and brought in expert shipbuilders from abroad, every great landowner, church officials/monasteries, and the merchant class were forced to pay for building and supplying sea going vessels.
Compliance was demanded by the state.
Those who failed to go along had their property confiscated. When the merchants of Moscow and other major cities balked at building 12 ships, and then petitioned the Czar to lighten their burden, Peter the Great ordered them to build two more than scheduled. National greatness would not tolerate petitions from would be lobbyists.
I bring all of this up because - like Peter the Great - our country is confronted with serious problems that threaten to drown our nation in petty provincialism (racism and xenophobia) and financial irresponsibility. Like Peter the Great we're confronted with an entrenched elite who believe their station in life grants them special privileges that absolves them from contributing their fair share to the nation.
Challenges of Modernity in America
In 2009 the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) issued it's annual report on America's infrastructure. In 15 categories that range from airports and bridges to schools and solid waste facilities the highest grade received was a "C+" (Solid Waste), with 5 categories receiving a "D-". Overall our nation's infrastructure received a "D" from the ASCE. This is what it looks like when we don't do the maintenance ...
The ASCE estimates that it will take $2.2 trillion over a five year period to repair what we haven't been paying to maintain in the past. This is only the beginning.
Like in the period before Peter the Great, we've also been indulging the wishes of our wealthiest class. For reasons that can be explained by looking at people who embrace a conservative but failed ideology (trickle down), we've been steadily reducing the percentage that the rich pay ...
... and what corporate America contributes to our nation's tax base.
In the process they've become richer than they ever were, but our nation's finances have suffered. We now owe $11 trillion more (and counting) than we did in 1980. Worse, we're engaged in wars that we believe we don't have to pay for in the present. Like Peter the Great we face a dilemma.
We can continue to indulge a conservative, pampered, and increasingly clueless elite who believe custom, tradition, and xenophobia are the path to our nation's future. Or we can force them to pay their fair share as we try to pay our debts, pursue war, and rebuild our infrastructures for the 21st century.
The choice, in my view, isn't difficult.