Not for the feint of heart, or shallow pocket
The unstoppable rise in house prices over the past decade or two has been, along with stagnant real incomes, the most important contributor to the decline in prosperity and well-being among the middle classes in Western countries. The sheer level of absurdity of house prices in cities like London and New York simply beggars belief, and has forced residents to either dish out a larger share of their incomes on rents and mortgage payments, or accept compromises such as shared accommodation, distance, or simply bad quality housing. Worse still is that the housing markets in some of these global cities appear to defy economic logic, rising even when their national economies stagnate. And it’s not just the big “alpha cities” that are feeling the pinch: cities in Canada, Australia and Brazil among many other cities in both the developed and the emerging world have also seen meteoric rises in prices over the last two decades.
Understanding London’s urban crisis
London is perhaps the most representative city of the modern housing bubble for various reasons. It is one of the few unquestionable alpha cities, as well as being the economic and political center of the nation. This alone has created tremendous demand for housing that in recent years has been most strongly felt from abroad (particularly for more high-end real estate). Despite this, the city is constrained in its capacity to build high and afar: in the former case, due to height-restrictions in many central parts of the city and in the latter case, by the Green Belt which sets an outer limit for the extent of urban sprawl. Lastly, the city is unique among those of its size in the sheer amount of single-family housing available in its central area. In contrast to cities like New York or Paris, where most living space in the central area is composed of multi-family apartment blocks or high-rises, entire neighborhoods in Central London are formed of neat terraced houses that give the city its unique Victorian and Georgian flair. Continue reading
The monster and the coward
It is a testament’s to the West’s declining role as masters of the globe that it is no nearer to helping bring an end to the Syrian conflict despite having all the means to do so. Let me be upfront about it: Bashir Assad needs to get the shit bombed out of him. Plain and simple. This is not Iraq, when a war was constructed from spurious evidence (the case of the invisible WMDs), dubious motives (oil), and hegemonic intentions (nation-building). The Syrian case involves a country with no strategic value to the West but whose regime has embarked on a war of indiscriminate annihilation against its own people with whatever weapons at its disposal, including what even the most deluded Assad-apologist moron knows is the case: chemical ones. If there was ever a case for an intervention, this is it, a case far stronger than even the intervention in Libya. Although time has yet to tell whether the campaign against Qaddafi was a resounding success, it did provide a framework for a type of intervention that could please hawks and doves alike: limited in scope and duration, no boots on the ground, a clear objective, and no permanent occupation plans so that the country could decide it’s own fate. No, nobody likes military interventions, but under the assumption that every so often one could be justified, this type of scenario seemed to fit the bill nicely.
Who needs global policemen?
Instead we have the West cowering under the fear of its own electorate, and later humbled diplomatically by the world’s true grand master of realpolitik. The first issue I can partly sympathize with: military interventions are costly, and with Western economies strained to the limit by their own self-created fiscal crisis it is understandable that electorates of both sides of the political spectrum might by be wary of yet another military campaign. But this argument was even stronger back in 2011 and yet they went for it anyway. What’s even less fathomable is how these very same electorates – particularly conservatives – insist on keeping military spending ring-fenced from budget cuts when there’s no will on their part to ever engage. In the port of Rosyth in the Firth of Forth (once the nerve center of British naval might), two 70,000 ton aircraft carriers are being built with a price tag of £6 billion. Why an island nation with delusions of middle-power grandeur in the post-Cold War era still thinks it needs this advanced weaponry is beyond me if it seemingly doesn’t plan on ever using it. Perhaps to defend the sprinkle of sheep farmers in that desolate rocky wasteland known as the Falklands halfway around the world while millions of Syrians get killed, maimed or are forced to flee their homes. Or perhaps it simply needs to prop up BAE Systems’ bottom line if the Saudis ever start refusing the company’s billon-dollar bribes. Continue reading
Except for Canadians as well as a sprinkle of fringe lunatics still hoping to reinstall the defunct throne in Brazil, it is safe to say that most Western Hemispherians are staunchly republican. We did after all, fight bloody wars all across the American continent back in the 18th and 19th centuries to rid ourselves of the yoke of European kings. For us, monarchies are an anachronism: at best a silly spectacle of that uniquely European fetish for pompousness and tradition; at worst, another form of authoritarian brutality as is more often seen in the monarchies of the Middle East. I, of course, share that view, although after living six years in the United Kingdom one would think I have a new found appreciation of at least some virtues of the constitutional monarchical system. After all, what better symbol of the nation than the House which has ruled over this sceptered isle for centuries and that is beloved by over two-thirds of the population? Is this not a harmless and superior alternative to bringing the nation together than the nationalist jingoism of right-wing regimes, or the fiscally destructive populism of the radical left?
If you love democracy, you should find this appalling
My answer is a categorical NO. Monarchy, through its perpetration through hereditary privilege, is by its very definition incompatible with the ideas of liberal democracy. While I’m not surprised that it generally shares the consent of the conservative elites, that it can also count on the support of many supposedly enlightened “liberals” is truly beyond me. After all, the monarchy apparently enjoys the support of 69% of Britons and 53% of Spaniards (notwithstanding the king’s elephant-hunting trips to Africa while the country is mired in recession and unemployment), and surely a similar amount of Dutch, Danish, etc. That’s a much larger number than the main right-wing party in these countries would typically get in your average election, proving there’s a lot of lefties who love their king or queen. Continue reading
I hate to sound like a libertarian, but there seems to be a problem with democracy and the problem is government. Unfortunately, the debt crisis afflicting much of the industrialized world has focused the debate on whether government is too big or two small. I am a firm believer that there is no such thing as big or small government: a government can be too big in all the wrong places, but also too small in areas where society would benefit hugely from its presence. Indeed it seems to me that Western democracy (particularly its Anglo-Saxon variety) has swayed too far into this inefficient equilibrium, one which – to use a domestic example – appears scarily like the father who leaves their kids out on the street all day, and then abuses them when they are at home. It doesn’t take a genius to see what kind of children/citizens this noxious type of paternity creates in the long run.
Big brother is blinding you
Leviathan is alive and kicking
The US and Britain are undoubtedly the poster boys for this new kind of two-headed government: one which is a true leviathan in the ways that its all-powerful security apparatus puts a stranglehold on society, but at the same time retreats from its socio-economic responsibilities. It justifies the former attitude by the claim that they are at war with “terror”, however laughably ambiguous this concept is. To be fair, that these countries are in the cross-hairs of terrorist groups is unquestionable; according to the NSA, the data captured through its PRISM program managed to thwart 50 terrorist attacks. Perhaps this is true, perhaps it’s an exaggeration. But this has left some serious questions on the legal and constitutional mandates that such espionage programs rest upon, and most importantly, whether a democratically elected government has effectively been given a blank check to spy on its own citizens. The West, including the US and UK, has criticized Turkey’s prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan, for his wild claim that “winning three elections” gives him the mandate to rule as he wishes. But how is justifying domestic and global espionage in the name of the war on terror any different? How to justify even more blatant abuses such as spying on diplomatic missions, even from military allies? Considering the filth that just two whistle-blowers (Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden), have uncovered about these programs, one can only wonder what appalling and outright criminal acts these two self-described standard-bearers for democracy and freedom have done or are capable of doing. Continue reading
The world’s foremost *economic* terrorist?
Now that the euphoria over Osama Bin Laden’s demise is over, it is perhaps a more appropriate intellectual exercise to assess his legacy rather than dwell over the ultimately pointless debates on the legality of the operation which finally nailed him. It seems, after all, that even in death Bin Laden appears destined to polarize opinions: be it by the ridiculous and downright false claims by conservatives that the intelligence gathering which led to his hideout justified torture (
As a result, from a peak of 6.5% in 2000, the US federal funds rate fell to 2% by late-2001. This was not enough and by mid-2003 the rate stood at just 1%. Of course, we all know what followed: low interest rates led to a flood of cheap credit. With stock markets still reeling from the dot-com crash (one decade later, Nasdaq has yet to recover from its 2000 high), investors poured their cash into the increasingly lucrative housing market which had already began exhibiting bubble-like characteristics years before 9/11. And with the availability of new and exotic credit derivatives such as MBSs and CDOs, banks were able to recycle their highly leveraged debt throughout the entirety of the financial system. It’s hard to believe that all this happened over the course of barely 4-5 years, such was the speed in which global finance became intoxicated with the bountiful profits of history’s most massive asset bubble. And all it took was Greenspan reversing his put to make it burst. The rest is history: the subprime crisis, the credit crunch, and the ultimate collapse of Lehman Brothers which has been the closest humanity has gotten to a complete global economic meltdown. Continue reading