Wednesday Briefs – 21 April 2021

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THIS WEEK: The Billionaires’ Skyline; Troop Movements in Ukraine and Afghanistan; Immunity and Secrecy.

The Billionaires’ Skyline

New York’s most visible tributes to the global wealthy are nearing completion just now, as the City struggles to shake off the pandemic and its damaging sequels. Five years ago, we wrote in Manhattan Ultra-Luxury “Battling the Serpent of Chaos” that the City’s developers were probably overbuilding in the ultra-luxury high-rise category. This view was supported at the time by leading research firm Miller Samuel who worried that the inventory of new units was being built up to excessive levels. That was all before the Trump presidency, before the trade war with China, before the crackdown on immigration, and before the pandemic.

The Same View of Midtown in October 2014 and April 2021. Five of today’s tallest buildings were added after 2014.

Once these new projects were launched years ago, they were carried to fruition on their own momentum irrespective of intervening political or economic events. The result is seen in a transformed midtown skyline. The eight tallest buildings in the lower picture did not exist a decade ago. They are from left to right: 520 Park Avenue, 432 Park Avenue, One Vanderbilt, 53W53, 111 W 57th, One 57, Central Park Tower and 220 Central Park South. Of the eight, all except One Vanderbilt are residential. One 57 also houses the Park Hyatt Hotel in its lower floors.

So far in 2021, real estate sales have picked up again in New York City, bouncing rapidly from the long pandemic lull. The City’s ability to reduce the inventory of high-end units would be more evidence of its fabled resilience. In the past, these towers were marketed to wealthy foreign investors, who were often buying anonymously under the cover of shell companies. The next year will tell whether these investors are coming back to Manhattan as they have many times after other crises, or whether the inventory overhang will be absorbed in different ways.

Troop Movements in Ukraine, Afghanistan

The massing of Russian troops on Ukraine’s border now exceeds its level of 2014. That year, Russia annexed Crimea and invaded Donbas in the east of the country. Could a similar scenario unfold now? It is possible. Russia is feeling pressure from United States sanctions, from uproar over the detention of Alexei Navalny, from the pandemic and from energy prices that are still too low. In addition, its armed forces may feel renewed confidence after their effective campaign of shoring up the regime in Syria. Most observers do not see an imminent renewal of fighting. But a new incursion into Ukraine cannot be ruled out.

President Biden announced the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, twenty years after the terror attacks of 9/11. America’s hopes of planting the seeds of democracy in that long-suffering country have been dashed for a variety of reasons: economic, cultural, social, ethnic. Afghanistan is a complex country with a complex ethnic composition and social structures. But does a withdrawal increase the risks of another 9/11? Not necessarily. There are many more mitigating technologies today that were not available in 2001, for example drones and high-tech surveillance. Further, terrorists have established bases in many other countries. There seems to be little about Afghanistan today that would make it a likelier staging ground for a massive attack.

Immunity and Secrecy

Agents of the state, in this case the police, are immune to civil suits from citizens due to the principle of qualified immunity. Qualified immunity per Pierson v. Ray (1967) provides the police with sufficient protections to enable them to carry out their duties without fear of lawsuits against individual officers. This was later amended through 42 USC 1983 and in Bivens (1971) to allow suits for violations of constitutional or civil rights.

After several incidents of police abuse including the murder of George Floyd, talk of reforming the police, or even of defunding it, is all the rage. Some police departments have started reforming. Some have recognized that complaints against individual police officers should be made public or be made available to watchdog groups. Last year, New York state repealed a law that had kept police disciplinary records secret. This is a step in the right direction. The combination of immunity and secrecy has been detrimental because it has diluted accountability and led to abuses. The removal of secrecy adds some safeguards while keeping in place the immunity needed for the police to do their job.

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The Boom in Certainty

Sinclair Lewis called it “the sedate pomposity of the commercialist”. Now it has spread to many parts of society, not always in its sedate form.

Back in our final days as architecture students in Austin, our class had a farewell gathering with a professor who had been a valued mentor to several of us. As was habitual on such occasions, the professor was discussing with us the work of various architects when the subject of a newly-constructed building came up.

“I hate that building”, one classmate said flatly.

After an awkward silence, the professor mocked: “you mean, strongly dislike?” Off guard, the offending party protested that his use of the word was innocuous then and there. The professor conceded as much but explained that it was a visceral word, the kind of word that forestalls further discussion and that hardens the speaker’s and listener’s opinions. It is difficult to walk back or to change your mind from “hate”, and easier to do so from “dislike” or even from “strongly dislike”, he argued. His advice was to leave in one’s words an open path for retreat, in essence to never burn one’s rhetorical bridges.

This led to another discussion about certainty and about people who speak with certainty. The professor said that he had a reflexive dislike for certainty and that he felt a profound distrust towards people who speak with certainty. There is very little that is certain in life, he said, even among things of which we are convinced at a given point in time. Opinions change, science changes, research advances. New discoveries change our beliefs. Knowledge doesn’t just flow or evolve gradually like a river; it shifts laterally and sometimes suddenly like an earthquake.

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The Cure for Inequality is More Laissez-Faire

That means less cronyism and more competition.

“Inequality is not necessarily bad in itself: the key question is to decide whether it is justified.”____ Thomas Piketty in Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

Piketty’s words read like a premise that is only half right, followed by a problematic corollary. Reasonable people will agree that some inequality is not only “not necessarily bad” but also very desirable and very necessary in order to stimulate the economy’s entrepreneurial and innovative spirits. Further, if some inequality is desirable, how much is enough and how much is too much? And who gets to decide?

Clearly, there will never be a consensus on this. And it is not a satisfactory solution that the majority party would decide for the next four or eight or twelve years. The back and forth dominance of one party over the other would mean that any measures enacted to combat extreme inequality would at best amount to a feeble and erratic effort instead of a long-term cure, while the underlying problem gets larger with every electoral cycle.

To make things worse, both of the major parties in the United States are mistaken to ascribe inequality to an excess of capitalism. Democrats claim that growing inequality is the result of unbridled ‘wild west’ capitalism. And Republicans argue that it is a mostly acceptable byproduct of capitalism. But extreme inequality is in fact caused by insufficient competition. Given  that competition is the lifeblood of capitalism, it follows that inequality is the result, not of capitalism, but of a lack of capitalism.

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