December 7, 2011
A pile of stools for $575,000. A cabinet full of surgical instruments for a cool $2.5 million. The global economy’s in a tailspin, but among the world’s elite collectors, works are selling for record prices.
Walking around Miami Beach last weekend, taking in the 10th edition of its extravagant Art Basel art fair, you sensed something strange in the air. Patou’s “Joy” drifting off the pashmina? Polished walnut wafting out of the Bentleys? More basic than either: the ineffable aroma of money itself, rising from the art out for sale. By the end of the first day, a customer at Mary Boone’s booth had spent $575,000 for a pile of battered stools turned into a nest—by Ai Weiwei. A blue lozenge on a white rectangle—by Ellsworth Kelly, on view at Matthew Marks—had gone for $1.5 million. A glass cabinet full of surgical instruments, by Damien Hirst, had sold for nearly $2.5 million at White Cube’s stand. Despite the big names attached to these objects—and whatever their artistic worth—any normal observer would immediately wonder: Stools, for half a million dollars? Three times that for some plain paint on canvas? Why is art so damned expensive?There is a pile of simple, and basically unsatisfying, explanations. There’s scamming: The veteran New York dealer Arne Glimcher speaks of the “scuzzy” people who keep the Warhol market hot by manipulating his auctions. Simon de Pury, chairman of Phillips de Pury auction house, has counted a dozen other price boosters. He says a bigger picture is always worth more than a small one. He notes that you pay a premium for a piece once owned by someone famous. And he points out that something that has been shown in a museum is worth extra. But such explanations only tell us why one object might sell for more than another. They don’t tell us why so many buyers in Miami spend more on a picture than the rest of us spend on a house.
Despite the flatlined economy, the art market has been roaring. In the first half of this year, total worldwide art sales hit a record of €4.3 billion ($5.8 billion), up 34 percent from 2010, according to the French Web site Artprice.com. The same site reports that 663 works jumped past the million-euro mark during that period, 200 more than in the first six months of 2008, which once held the record.
The top art prices may have little to do with classic economics. Noah Horowitz, whose Art of the Deal is a crucial text on the subject, says in the long run your investment in art may only do about as well as your holdings in bonds—and comes with greater risk. (But, as one major New York collector put it, that’s not so bad, if you have nowhere else to store your income. And anyway, “bonds aren’t that good to look at.”) At this moment, when the 1 percent has the cash to burn, buying art is less about finance than about the cultural value of money, and of art. “A dollar is not a dollar is not a dollar,” says Viviana Zelizer, the great Princeton sociologist who wrote The Social Meaning of Money. The dollars spent in Miami are “cultural dollars,” Zelizer says, and that makes them obey their own rules. Below, five reasons why art defies economics:
THE PRESTIGE FACTOR
“If I can’t sell something, I just double the price.” That’s what Ernst Beyeler, the great Swiss dealer who helped found Art Basel, reportedly said. Some people actually prefer to pay more than makes sense. Zelizer explains that, in all walks of life, we treat the biggest sums -differently, with special respect or even awe, than more-everyday money. “I think very often the price paid for a work is the trophy itself,” says Glimcher, the dealer.
In 2006, the crowds lining up to see a portrait by Gustav Klimt in the private Neue Galerie in New York weren’t there out of any fondness for the artist. They were there because they’d heard that the museum’s founder, cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder, had paid a record $135 million for it.
The sociologist Mitch Abolafia, who has made a study of Wall Street financiers, says that sometimes money speaks for itself. “A trader said to me one day, with glee in his eyes, ‘You can’t see it, but money is everywhere in this room. Money is flying around—millions and millions of dollars.’ It was a generalized excitement about money. Even I felt it.” That’s the excitement we all get from expensive art. One collector, who believes deeply that art should be bought for art’s sake, acknowledges basking in the “robust glow of prosperity” that his purchases give off once their value has soared….
Eyes on Spies: The 9/11 attacks were the clearest possible call for effective national intelligence. Why are we still waiting?
December 7, 2011
Ten years after 9/11, the least reformed part of America’s intelligence system is not the CIA or the FBI, but Congress. The September 11 terrorist attacks sparked major efforts to transform executive branch intelligence agencies such as the CIA and the FBI. These include the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the most sweeping intelligence restructuring since the establishment of the CIA in 1947; the formation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which combined twenty-two agencies and two hundred thousand employees to provide “one face at the border”; dramatic initiatives to transform the FBI from a law enforcement to a domestic intelligence agency; and the proliferation of more than seventy regional, state, and local terrorist fusion centers to integrate terrorist-threat reporting across the country.
Although reforms have generated some major successes—including the killing of Osama bin Laden this year—not all intelligence improvement efforts have actually produced improvements. Some reforms have failed. Many have not gone far enough or fast enough. Others have proven counterproductive, creating more red tape and fatigue than results. Recent terrorist plots, including the 2009 Fort Hood shootings, the 2009 Christmas Day underwear bomber, and the May 2010 Times Square car bomb plot, remind us all too well that serious weaknesses remain in the American intelligence system.
Despite this record, it is clear that the seventeen agencies that comprise the United States intelligence community are expending considerable energy attempting to adapt to ever-changing terrorist threats. As one senior FBI official put it, “This is all I do, OK? Twenty-four/seven, 365 days a year. I don’t have a wife. I don’t have kids. It’s all I think about.” The same is true in the field. “The burnout rate in my Al-Qaeda squad is terrible,” noted one FBI agent in May 2010. “And these are agents who have done other CT [counterterrorism] work, where the pace is already tough. They’re just getting crushed by the load.” Just above the doorway that leads to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center hangs a sign that reads, “Today’s date is September 12, 2001.” Spend any time there, or in a military unit in Afghanistan, the New York Police Department, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, or any of the other federal intelligence agencies charged with collecting and analyzing intelligence, and you will quickly realize just how many people are working feverishly to adapt to what they call, simply, “the mission.”“This is all I do, OK?” one senior FBI official said of the antiterror effort. “Twenty-four/seven, 365 days a year . . . it’s all I think about.”
Congress is another story. While Congress has been instrumental in many post-9/11 executive branch reforms, Congress has been largely unable to reform itself. In 2004, the 9/11 Commission called congressional oversight “dysfunctional,” and warned that fixing oversight weaknesses would be both essential to American national security and exceedingly difficult to achieve. One year later, the commission’s report card gave efforts to improve intelligence oversight a D. That same year, a second blue-ribbon commission (chaired by Judge Laurence Silberman and former senator Chuck Robb), which was tasked with examining what went wrong with estimates of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, joined the call for oversight reform. That commission’s final report concluded that “many sound past proposals for intelligence reform have withered on the vine. Either the intelligence community is inherently resistant to outside recommendations or it lacks the institutional capacity to implement them. In either case, sustained external oversight is necessary” (emphasis mine). Although many of the Silberman-Robb Commission’s executive branch reforms were adopted, its congressional reforms were not embraced.In the twenty-first-century threat environment, intelligence eclipses military firepower as the most important line of defense.
By fall 2007, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence had grown so deeply concerned that it held a hearing on itself. I testified at that hearing, along with Lee Hamilton, who served as the 9/11 Commission’s vice chairman and earlier as chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Pointing at all the senators around the room, Hamilton delivered an ominous warning:To me, the strong point simply is that the Senate of the United States and the House of the United States is [sic] not doing its job. And because you’re not doing the job, the country is not as safe as it ought to be. . . . You’re dealing here with the national security of the United States, and the Senate and the House ought to have the deep down feeling that we’ve got to get this thing right.
Hamilton’s words prompted vigorous nods of agreement across the aisle, but never made headlines or produced major changes. Instead, the committee’s own oversight-reform centerpiece—consolidating appropriations and authorization powers—quickly and quietly died. In May 2009, then–House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared in a press conference that oversight had become so feckless that the only way to change Bush administration intelligence policies was to oust Republicans at the polls. And in January 2010, eight years after 9/11, a third blue-ribbon commission, the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, concluded that congressional intelligence and homeland security reform efforts were still failing. Notably, nearly all of the proposed oversight changes required simply modifying internal congressional rules and committee jurisdictions, not passing new laws.By fall 2007, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence had grown so deeply concerned that it held a hearing on itself.
It’s well worth examining the roots of weak intelligence oversight to discern why deficiencies have persisted for so long, despite the clarion call for change after 9/11 and the unprecedented importance of intelligence in today’s threat environment. As many have noted, during the Cold War the Soviet adversary was easy to find but hard to kill, making military firepower the key to success. Today, the situation is reversed; our terrorist enemies are hard to find but easy to kill. It is now the weak who threaten the strong. Driven by fanaticism, hidden from view, and armed with Internet connections and deadly weapons that can fit into a suitcase or vial, small bands of transnational terrorists can wreak catastrophic damage as never before. In the twenty-first-century threat environment, intelligence has eclipsed military firepower as the nation’s most important line of defense.
Nowhere was the importance of intelligence more on display than in the May 1 operation to kill Osama bin Laden at his Pakistani hideout. Success required no tanks, aerial bombardment, or invasion. The “boots on the ground” did not number in the hundreds of thousands, or even the hundreds. Instead, the operation to nab the world’s most dangerous terrorist came down to just two critical elements: a small, elite Navy SEAL team and actionable intelligence that had been painstakingly collected and analyzed over a period of years…
The United States has been screwing up the Middle East for 60 years. Obama has a brief window to get it right.
December 7, 2011
Egyptians went to the polls en masse on Nov. 28 and Nov. 29 to vote in the closest thing that any of them has ever seen to real elections. Although the final word is not in — either regarding the results or the integrity of the elections — early reports suggest that the vote was mostly fair and free.
But Egypt is still a long way from stable, functional democracy. As Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon have demonstrated again and again, elections do not equal democracy. Egypt’s Islamists — who appear to have garnered as much as 65 percent of the vote — will dominate the new parliament regardless of the role they play in the new Egyptian government, and we do not yet know whether they will wield that power responsibly. Egypt’s armed forces remain the most powerful force in the country by far, and they have shown a Hamlet-like ambivalence — demonstrating an ardent desire to surrender power to a new civilian government and a similar determination to preserve their own prerogatives from the era of Egyptian autocracy.
The strong showing of Salafi movements, which appear to have captured approximately a quarter of votes, was the surprise of this round of elections. These Sunni extremists are growing in number and, if the system begins to break down, might try to seize control of the government like modern-day Bolsheviks. Some of Egypt’s most popular leaders are dangerous demagogues who could plunge the country into all manner of problems. Democracy is a long road, with many perilous intersections, and Egypt has barely started on its way. What’s more, Egypt will likely require considerable political, military, and even economic support from the United States and the rest of the world if it is to make that critical, dangerous, transition successfully.
What is true for Egypt today is even truer for the wider Middle East. The events that began in Tunisia in December 2010 — and spread to Egypt and then Libya, Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain, Syria, and beyond — shook the political, social, and intellectual foundations of the Middle East. The tremors can still be felt, and no one is quite certain when the aftershocks will end, or when another wave of popular unrest might occur. In some countries, like Egypt and Tunisia, and perhaps Morocco, Libya and Jordan, a move toward real democracy has started. That is difficult enough, but the situation is even more dire in countries such as Syria and Bahrain, where old elites are fighting the popular forces of change with all of their might.
Between these countries lies a dozen other Arab states, where both the unrest and the government responses have been more limited. However, there is no reason to believe that they will remain untouched by the forces of the great Arab Awakening forever, or even for very long. Change is coming to the Middle East, but the ultimate result of that change is impossible to discern.
Unfortunately, the United States does not have the luxury of waiting around to see how things play out and then make sense of what has occurred. Although the shock of the initial events of the Arab Spring has ebbed, many of the miseries that gave rise to it persist and remain compelling motives for many people across the region. For that reason, the storm of unrest that spread from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf may have subsided, at least in some parts of the region, but its story has just begun.
Whether we like it or not, the changes sweeping the Middle East will affect America’s vital national interests as well. We hate to admit it, but we must face the fact that our economy — and the economy of the wider world, with which we are inextricably intertwined — is addicted to oil. And the price of oil, and thus the welfare of our economy and that of the rest of the world, is deeply affected by what happens in the Middle East.
We may want to turn inward and concentrate on setting our own house aright — to focus on nation-building at home, as President Barack Obama put it — but we cannot afford to ignore the events of the Middle East. The Middle East is not Las Vegas: what happens there, does not stay there.Elements of a New American Middle East Strategy
In the wake of the earth-shaking events of the past year, and to secure U.S. interests in that part of the world, what U.S. policymakers must do is easily said, but hard to do. Indeed, Americans have determinedly resisted doing it for decades. But now that the events of 2011 have revealed the world as it truly is, and not as Americans have tried to insist that it was, perhaps the United States can finally commit itself to doing them.
To this end, the United States must embrace a long-term commitment to help the countries of the Middle East pursue a process of political, economic, and social transformation. This process should grow from within, rather than be imposed from without. It should reflect the values, traditions, history, and aspirations of the people of the region themselves, not a Western best guess at them. And it should also recognize that change and stability are not mutually exclusive, but mutually reinforcing — and ultimately mutually essential. This will be a difficult course to pursue, but it is ultimately the only good path to follow.
Defining a New Narrative
While it is unquestionably true that the people of the Middle East want to secure their own futures, it is also true that they want to know that the United States supports them and will help them when they ask for assistance. Many suspect that the United States still backs the region’s moribund and repressive regimes. For all of them, the United States must articulate and consistently hew to a new strategy that supports transformation in the Middle East.
But the message is equally important for the extant rulers themselves. Some hope simply to withstand the popular furor and, when passions have cooled, go back to the way things were. If they are going to be brought around to making more meaningful change, they need to understand that this is unacceptable to Washington and will place them squarely at odds with what will become a new, long-term American strategy toward the region.
Other Arab leaders fear that the United States will define its interest in change in such a way that will set the old political elite at odds with Washington. For them, the United States needs to articulate a vision of change that is compatible with their own interests (broadly defined), and that lays out a path forward that they could be persuaded to tread, even if grudgingly at first…