Sunday, September 21, 2008

The City's Greatest Lie

In May this year a score of private yachts anchored off Cap d'Antibes for a party during the Cannes Film Festival. Ranging in cost from $150m to $350m, the yachts were spread out in a pecking order, with entertainment mogul Barry Diller's huge and graceful sailing ship taking the position nearest the Eden Roc hotel, while those belonging to such people as Philip Green and George Lucas lay a little out to sea.

Watching these boats, their guests being ferried to and fro on high-powered tenders and the paparazzi assembled on a rocky shoreline like a colony of hungry cormorants, I considered an incredible figure that I had been told that evening. If you buy a $150m yacht, you can expect to spend roughly the same amount again in the first two years of operation, which when you know how little the yachts are actually used makes the whole business of owning one doubly incomprehensible.

I was not the only one to stare into that rainy evening and think: this cannot last; this must not last. The owners of these yachts are so rich that they may not even be touched by the banking crisis and ensuing slump, but this display of wealth, the pressure on the Earth's resources, the gross inequality that these craft represent in a world where 1.2 billion people live on less than a dollar a day is unsustainable economically and morally.

What has happened in the capital markets over the last few weeks is about more than the machinery going haywire and governments and institutions failing to regulate properly. We now understand - or soon will - that this particular era of capitalism penalised all but the super-rich and the super-greedy. It is a story about one tiny group of people amassing fortunes at the expense of a very large group of people, who stretch from the American Midwest to the eight million people said to be near starvation in the Ogadan region of Ethiopia.
Hypertigerish commentary in this morning's Observer.