Mr. Nocera is off today, probably busy writing a puff piece about fracking. In “The Draw of the New City-States” Mr. Cohen says the superrich who trash the West trust the West with their money. In “Northern Exposure” Ms. Collins says in Alaska’s Senate primaries, the candidates are answering some extremely important questions. Guess who ate salmon this week? Here’s Mr. Cohen:
London is in the midst of a boom so giddy it has parted company with the rest of Britain. Construction is everywhere, from the new towers of the City of London (a global financial center larger than Wall Street) to the mansions of Kensington (where the world’s superwealthy burrow below ground to accommodate staff quarters and the de rigueur swimming pool) to ever-hipper eastern districts like Hoxton (sought after by the ordinary mortals driven from the center).
Money does not precisely gush from every home, business and storefront in central London, as it did before the meltdown of 2008, but it oozes again in sticky abundance. House prices in London have jumped about 19 percent in a year. The London economy is set to grow by over 4 percent this year in a nation that, elsewhere, struggles to shake off stagnation. The capital has become a glittering enclave in a country often resentful of its dominance. It presides with spiffy superiority, like squeaky-clean Singapore looking down on dusty Southeast Asia.
There is talk of a bubble. Nobody cares. Foreign money pours in, to the City of course, where the Shard skyscraper now rises over 1,000 feet, but also into houses and apartments often used only a few weeks a year. In Belgravia, Mayfair and Marylebone the oligarchs of Kazakhstan, the oil-rich of the Gulf and the newly affluent of Asia bivouac with their staffs. They shop, oblivious to the displaced masses with day jobs. The average masters of the universe in London, unlike those in the United States, can enjoy residency without being taxed on global income.
Large numbers of luxury properties sit empty most of the time, palatial slivers of big portfolios. If Vladimir V. Putin is serious about defending Russian speakers wherever they are, he may have to annex the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where Russian is a lingua franca on the King’s Road.
None of this will be unfamiliar to New Yorkers. The other great global city — like London a magnet to strivers of every kind and home to every kind of bad English — has its own bubble. It sucks in money from across the globe, even without those tax advantages. Real estate prices soar. Ordinary people are pushed out. As in London, far-flung districts rise. Bushwick has arrived; East New York looms. New York is a world apart, even if its relative weight in the national economy is much smaller than that of the British capital.
What draws the world to London and New York is opportunity. That’s fine, of course. But they are also magnets to people looking for a safe place for their money. Having made it big in autocratic countries with parlous legal systems (if that), a cowed press and rampant corruption — say, Russia and China — oligarchs and crony capitalists wake up one day and find that, gosh, they like nothing as much as democratic systems under the rule of law held accountable by an independent press. Having trashed the West, they trust the West with their money.
This then is the way the world works: Autocratic hypercapitalism without Western checks and balances produces new elites whose dream is an American or British lifestyle and education for their children, and whose other goal, knowing how their own capricious systems really function, is to buy into the rule of law by acquiring real estate, driving up prices in prime markets to the point where the middle classes of those countries, with incomes often stagnant or falling, are pushed aside.
This process is mirrored at the national level, where the bargain is that American debt is bought by Asian governments, notably the Chinese, and Asians make money through access to credit-fueled American markets and consumers. Asians lend America money to police the world: Their new wealth depends on American-underwritten stability. They know it. Surface conflict often masks inextricable connectedness.
London and New York, with roughly the same populations, have become booming city-states that reflect 21st-century openness and fluidity, but also the skewed economics and growing inequalities of a world where finance has outflanked the law and the global rich find ways to game a system that holds the majority in its grip.
In London during these boom times, the disparities can feel obscene. Still, London does the public sphere, like bike schemes, road surfaces and the subway, much better than New York. It is a European city, after all. But it sits in a middling nation well past its zenith. New York does power, directness and steak a lot better than London. It races and churns. London carries on.
Take your pick. In the end it’s personal. Waiting for a table the other day in a New York restaurant, I was asked for my name. As I spelled it out, the maître d’hôtel interrupted me: “Of course, of the priestly class,” he said, referring to the name Cohen given to the high priests of ancient Israel.
That would not happen in London.
Now here’s Ms. Collins:
“Are you afraid of heights?” a questioner asked Alaskan Senate candidates in a debate this week.
The three men onstage, all running for the Republican nomination in next week’s primary, vigorously denied they suffered from acrophobia.
“Have you eaten salmon this week?” Yes! Yes! Yes!
We definitely need more of this kind of query in our political debates. First of all, it perks up an audience. And you learn stuff. As the yes-or-no segment went on, we discovered that all the candidates had gotten speeding tickets and that the Tea Party guy was once charged with carrying a gun in an airport.
Alaska is one of the states that will decide which party controls the Senate next term. The incumbent, Democrat Mark Begich, is running hard as a moderate who works hand-in-hand with Alaska’s Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski. (Murkowski recently served Begich with a cease-and-desist letter, demanding that he stop running ads showing them smiling at each other.)
One of the Republican contenders, Joe Miller, is so far to the right that he’s practically in Canada. Miller, who’s obsessed with immigration and “amnesty,” recently sent out a mailer covered with pictures of scary-looking, tattooed Hispanic men. “Begich wants them to vote. And if 20 million illegals vote, you can kiss the 2nd amendment goodbye,” it read.
Besides being racist and incredibly offensive, the flier appeared to be arguing that criminals are sneaking across our southern border bent on making firearms illegal. “Now who would be more against gun control than Salvadoran gangsters?” wondered Michael Carey, a columnist for the Alaska Dispatch.
Four years ago, Miller actually won the Republican Senate nomination, knocking out Murkowski after claiming she had changed her positions “more often than a moose sheds its antlers.” The moose ad was the high point of his campaign, as opposed to, say, the time his security guards handcuffed a reporter.
Cooler heads prevailed in November, and Murkowski got re-elected as a write-in candidate. In the Senate, she votes with the Republicans most of the time, but she works well with Democrats. Except Mark Begich who, really, was just there in the room when she was smiling at an amusing joke she happened to remember.
The two normal Republicans in the race — Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and former Attorney General Dan Sullivan — are pretty much sticking to running against federal spending. “I’m not going to Washington with a gunny sack to bring home federal money,” Treadwell announced during the debate. “I’m going with a crowbar to pry loose our liberties.”
Yet — you’ve already guessed this, right? — Alaska gets more federal money per person than any other state. And there’s virtually no discussion of eliminating anything its residents — who pay no state income tax or sales tax — get now. During the debate, all three Republicans supported more spending on the military and a continuation of Alaska’s super-subsidized mail service.
We have been through this before in Mississippi. First, the candidate decries Washington spendthrifts. Then, when pressed for ideas on ways to cut back, he comes up with Obamacare and something totally unrelated to his home state. In Mississippi, it was Alaska’s Bridge to Nowhere. However, many Alaskans still believe that $398 million span between Ketchikan and Gravina Island was a perfectly reasonable idea.
During the debate, Sullivan referred to any federal program he liked as “infrastructure.” Treadwell said his fiscal restraint did not cover stuff his state actually needs. (“If we need an icebreaker with 44,000 miles of coastline, I’m going to fight for it. If we need sanitation, I’m going to fight for it.”)
If the Senate nomination was the only thing on the ballot Tuesday, we could anticipate a turnout of about somewhere from 6 to 16 people, depending on how many of Joe Miller’s eight children are old enough to vote. But there’s more! Including a big referendum on taxing oil companies, with Sarah Palin urging her fans to tax the rich.
Palin has been a wing nut for so long that we’ve forgotten that she made her name in Alaska as an actual reformer. Her great achievement as governor was a law that taxed oil companies at rates between 25 percent and 75 percent, depending on their profits. After she abandoned the state midterm for the glories of reality television and Fox News commentary, the Legislature backtracked and eventually replaced the sliding scale with a flat tax of 35 percent.
Grass-roots opponents collected enough signatures to get a vote on restoring the old system. Unfortunately, the roots are being outspent about 100 to 1 by the oil companies. And Palin’s 18-minute monologue in support of her signature reform — broadcast on her SarahPalin channel — has the overall effect of being trapped in an airplane with a seatmate who has inhaled helium.
“Look them in the eye and say: ‘You’d better look Big Oil in the eye!’ ” Palin said. As only she can.