Opinion

The Edgy Optimist

A mayor is only as good as his city

Zachary Karabell
Oct 25, 2013 15:54 UTC

The New York City mayoral race is entering its final days, and it seems all but certain that Bill de Blasio will be the new master of City Hall. That’s prompted anxiety among some in New York, best encapsulated by an ad run by Republican challenger Joseph Lhota warning that the city would revert to a 1970s crime-ridden cesspit if de Blasio is elected.

Not only is this fear misplaced, but it represents a deep misunderstanding of what has transpired in New York, the United States, and much of the developed world in the past two decades. The transformation of New York and a plethora of American cities into thriving and relatively affluent hubs in the past 20 years is not, as is widely believed, the product of astute mayors and innovative policing. Rather, cities have been transformed because their residents and industries have transformed them.

That is not the common story. In New York, the legend goes that Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg the city turned to the innovative policing of two-time commissioner Ray Kelly to end the deleterious waves of crime, reduce the red-tape, repair crumbling infrastructure and make the city hospitable to business and commerce.*

Undoubtedly, New York became a vastly safer place over the past 20 years, with violent crime falling 75 percent since 1990. It also became a far more affluent place as the rise of Wall Street and high finance enriched the city’s coffers (though not as much as many believe, given how many of the winners of the finance sweepstakes do not live in New York City itself). The burgeoning of new media and startups during the Bloomberg years and the attraction of the city as a hub for entrepreneurs in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan only cemented that process.

Yet how do we explain the fact that these trends occurred throughout the United States in city after city, when those cities had their own mayors, their own police chiefs, and none of which did the bidding of New York?

The benefits of a ‘de-Americanized world’

Zachary Karabell
Oct 16, 2013 12:02 UTC

This current bout of Washington inanity is approaching its denouement, but however it ends, it has accelerated a trend that has been gathering steam for at least the last five years: the move away from a Washington-centric world and towards a new, undefined, but decidedly less American global system.

The latest broadside was the widely disseminated editorial in China’s state-run news agency Xinhua, which called for a “de-Americanized world” that no longer depends on the dollar and is thus no longer at the whim of “intensifying domestic political turmoil in the United States.” That follows on the heels of a Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in the New York Times in which he called out the American tendency to see itself as an exceptional, indispensable nation. “It is extremely dangerous,” Putin concluded, “to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”

The fact that these two powerful critiques of America’s place in the world were written by the United States’ historical adversaries should not be an excuse to dismiss their substance. Yes, these broadsides were politically motivated, and they play to domestic and international audiences that celebrate anyone who stands up to the big, bad Americans. But even a hypocritical adversary can have keen observations, and in both cases, the message was the same: the United States may be a powerful country that controls the world’s reserve currency and has the world’s predominant military, but that does not mean it is the global leader, the world’s policeman or anything other than a first among equals at best.

Canceling the debt ceiling apocalypse

Zachary Karabell
Oct 4, 2013 14:52 UTC

Before we begin, let it be said that the looming possibility of the U.S.’s default on its own debt is a not-insignificant issue. Let it also be said that the U.S. government may be unwilling to pay interest on its multi-trillion dollar publicly-held debt as of mid-October, and that this carries substantial risks. And, finally, let it be said that this is something we should most definitely avoid.

The potential for a default — however self-inflicted — raises the specter of just about every bad thing economically that you can imagine. And there have been no dearth of voices drawing attention to a variety of doomsday scenarios. The U.S. Treasury Department, which is not normally known for its hyperbole, just issued a report warning of a global economic depression should the U.S. default: interest rates will skyrocket, financial markets will panic, and the global financial system will lose one of its only bastions of predictability and stability.

Five years ago, Lehman Brothers was allowed to fail because of a complacent and erroneous view that its effect would be limited to little more than a market disruption. Today, the prospect of a U.S. default is met with the opposite of complacency. The only voices expressing skepticism that a default would be catastrophic are the very Tea Party ultras whose burn, baby, burn mantra appears to welcome the possibility of an implosion. How else to purify and rebuild a corrupt system?

Alibaba looks West

Zachary Karabell
Sep 27, 2013 19:08 UTC

Washington may once again be careening toward an abyss of its own making, but it is not the only story worth attending to. It makes good theater, but for now we don’t know how or if it will fundamentally shape our lives.

So what will? Half a world away, a Chinese company is considering a public offering. That would seem of even less import, but this is no ordinary company. It is Alibaba, which is to China what eBay and Amazon are to the United States. It is the leading e-commerce company in the Middle Kingdom, and it is led by a visionary entrepreneur named Jack Ma who has transformed that space in China as surely as Jeff Bezos has in the United States. And now, Alibaba wants to go public. The IPO could value Alibaba at as much as $75 billion. 

That would be noteworthy in and of itself, for sheer size and scope. More intriguing is that, according to reports, it is increasingly likely that the company will sell its shares not in Hong Kong, which is part of China, but instead in New York City, which is decidedly not. Only two years ago, Alibaba made a serious play to buy Yahoo, which was an early investor and is still a substantial shareholder. Now, Alibaba may soon join Yahoo and a host of other competitors as a publicly-traded company listed on a U.S. exchange.

Fed tells markets: There is no certainty

Zachary Karabell
Sep 20, 2013 16:00 UTC

So the Federal Reserve did not taper after all, as we know from its mini-bombshell of an announcement on September 18th. Having signaled in May and June that the central bank was likely to pare back its monthly purchases of $85 billion in mortgage and treasury bonds, the bank and its chairman Ben Bernanke essentially said “Never mind,” and decided that now was not the time after all.

The reaction was swift, vociferous and excoriating. The financial community reacted as if it had been stabbed in the back. One longtime trader and respected commentator announced that he was “absolutely disgusted” by the decision or lack thereof. The best line came from a strategist at a leading investment house who said, “I am perplexed and baffled. I do this for a living. I shouldn’t be so confused and confounded.”

Actually he should be. We all should be. The Fed’s decision is a much-needed slap in the face to the financial world. The Fed’s statement was laden with typically stolid prose, but if you could have distilled it and the subsequent press conference by Bernanke, the message would have been simply this: “There is no certainty. Get over it.”

A recovery without a home

Zachary Karabell
Sep 13, 2013 15:07 UTC

Five years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the onset of the 2008-2009 financial crisis, the U.S. housing market is at last starting to thrive. It has, in fact, been steadily improving over the past years, and that trend has only accelerated of late. Housing is widely perceived as a key ingredient to a healthy economy, and so the revival in the housing market has been heralded as a positive step for an American system that has been sluggish at best. Similar trends in the United Kingdom and parts of the EU are greeted as positives as well.

But is it? Housing is a key aspect of economic activity in most countries, but that doesn’t mean that we should welcome a return to housing as a perceived pillar of national strength. And we should be very wary of any return to an ethos that sees either home ownership or housing prices as a barometer of individual and collective success. Those attitudes very nearly imploded the modern financial system, and they could imperil it again.

Homes are places where you live. They are not — and should never have been — investment vehicles. Yes, homes may gain in value and augment one’s net worth, but the reason to own a home is that it can be a cost-effective way to obtain a place to live. The minute they are seen as investments, that reality gets perverted, with dangerous consequences.

Obama, Syria, and the decline of the imperial presidency

Zachary Karabell
Sep 5, 2013 21:18 UTC

In 1973, Arthur Schlesinger wrote about the tendency in American history for the president to assume sweeping powers in times of war and crisis. The balance of power established by the Constitution gets upended; Congress and the courts take a back seat; and the executive makes decisions about life and death largely unchecked. He called this “the imperial presidency.” Today, with President Obama turning to Congress to endorse a military strike on Syria, the imperial presidency is beginning to wane.

It’s about time. The 1990s seemed to presage a return to a more balanced government, with Cold War defense spending slashed and “the peace dividend” contributing to a more balanced budget. But then 9/11 happened; America launched a war on terror; and the rest, as they say, is history.

The imperial presidency has some justification in times of acute peril. The immediate aftermath of 9/11 certainly justified some degree of unilateral executive action, as did in its way the financial crisis in the fall of 2008. And few would argue that at times of all-out war, with the country fully mobilized to fight a genuine threat such as Germany and Japan during World War Two, ceding powers to the executive branch is imperative.

Our imperial disdain for the emerging world

Zachary Karabell
Aug 23, 2013 12:14 UTC

August this year has been exceptionally unkind to the emerging world. We know that Egypt has been plunged into political and economic turmoil, yet that is only the most extreme case. Elsewhere, stories proliferate about economic slowdowns in Peru and China, and protests in Brazil and Turkey (among others).

Yet rather than viewing these events in the larger context of the past decade, the most common response is to write the obituary of emerging world development. As a lead article in the New York Times said this week: “with expectations mounting that the Federal Reserve, led by its departing chairman Ben S. Bernanke, may soon begin to tighten its monetary spigot, Istanbul’s skyline could well be a harbinger of an emerging-market bust brought on by unpaid loans, weakening currencies and, eventually, the possible failure of developers and banks.” The Wall Street Journal even got a tad cheeky, saying about the investing landscape, “Buying Dips? Stick To Hummus, Not Emerging Markets.”

These obituaries are likely to be premature. Our imperialist mindset — a hangover from the 20th century — suggests that developing countries are always helpless without the West. That says more about our limited analytical abilities than about how the emerging world will fare.

Fannie, Freddie and our flawed ‘Ownership Society’

Zachary Karabell
Aug 9, 2013 19:09 UTC

More than four years ago, President Obama assumed office promising dramatic reform to the housing market. After all, it was the housing market that triggered the financial crisis, and the vast proliferation of low-quality loans that had fueled the housing bubble. But politics delayed those reforms, and now the president is reopening the issue with a call to wind down the two main federal mortgage agencies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. “For too long, these companies were allowed to make big profits buying mortgages, knowing that if their bets went bad, taxpayers would be left holding the bag,” the president said this week. “It was ‘heads we win, tails you lose.’”

Well, not entirely. The U.S. government and taxpayers did rescue these agencies in 2009 (to the tune of nearly $200 billion), and, after injecting them with capital and essentially nationalizing them, these companies started to turn a profit as the housing market slowly recovered. This month, they contributed more than $15 billion to the U.S. Treasury, and have been one factor in sharply reducing government deficits.

Even more, Obama’s targeting of Fannie and Freddie is part of a larger narrative — on both the left and the right — that banks and government colluded to produce the financial crisis and the continuing drag on the United States. To be fair, Obama in the same speech this week acknowledged that much of the housing crisis was the product of “banks and the government…[making] everyone feel like they had to own a home, even if they weren’t ready and didn’t have the payment.” But that chord is a decidedly minor one in a general atmosphere of blame.

What difference does it make who runs the Fed?

Zachary Karabell
Aug 2, 2013 17:43 UTC

As this week’s release of government numbers on unemployment and jobs highlight, the American economy is puttering along in the slow lane. And while few things in life are more frustrating than being stuck in the passenger seat of that car, it certainly beats crashing.

The second gear syndrome of our current economic life doesn’t sit well in a culture that demands more. Our macroeconomic numbers may be stable, but they obscure vast differences in affluence and opportunity, depending on where you live, what you do, what ethnicity you identify with, and how educated you are. The official unemployment rate, now at 7.4 percent, has been ticking down, but it is simply a statistic. It says nothing about the quality of those jobs, hours worked, wages paid, and needs met. Those are the questions we need to attend to.

Instead, in Washington at least, the economic discussion is currently dominated by the debate over who will be the next chair of the Federal Reserve. The story has the perfect makings of a Washington horse race. The lead contender, Larry Summers, engenders passions both for and against, while the main challenger, longtime Fed governor Janet Yellen, has captured the anti-Summers vote. Meanwhile, former Fed governor and current head of TIAA-CREF Roger Ferguson, has emerged as a compromise candidate, though no one is quite clear how his name first surfaced, and the New York Times is reporting Obama is interviewing only three people — Summers, Yellen and Donald Kohn, a former Fed vice chairman.

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