Somewhere To Run, Somewhere To Hide

“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me,” Fitzgerald wrote in a story. Hemingway sneered in one of his own that “Yes, they have more money.” And went on to mock Fitzgerld’s romantic awe of them, saying it had helped wreck him. It was the kind of personal, macho one-upmanship that deformed Hemingway’s life and later work. Fitzgerald was right, however, for the obvious reason. Possessing riches allows a far wider range of options and experiences. And they change a person.

Often rich-watching is a dispiriting business. The feckless, entitled young with their wastrel lives, addictions and get-out-of-jail-free cards — Fitzgerald’s careless Buchannans. The costive oldsters on CNBC with their reactionary views and suspicion of the new. But sometimes rich-watching can be as illuminating as the canary in the coal mine flopping dead at your feet.

In a recent column (May 26) by the New Yorker’s James Surowiecki, he took note of an emerging phenomenon, the globalization of parts of the real estate market. The luxury part. And not just so the well-to-do can flock together, but so they can hedge against trouble.

When unrest increases in the Middle East, luxury real estate sales rise in London. The buyers are clad in desert robes and awash in petrodollars and part of London’s appeal is its status as a financial capital. Russian oligarchs are snapping up properties there and elsewhere in the Europe for the same reason.

Miami has long been the capital of Latin America, a safe haven for those who have gotten rich by fair means and foul in the notoriously unstable countries to the south. So, for example, the cratering of Venezuela as a going concern has created a new mini-boom in Miami.

The biggest surprise may be the latest contender as the most expensive city for real estate in North America. No, not NYC or SF or LA but Vancouver, BC. Luxury homes and condos are in the stratosphere due to Chinese buyers who are also inflating prices elsewhere around the Pacific rim, notably Australia.

What’s this all about? Same story. Those who accumulate wealth in places with shaky or authoritarian governments, where the rule of law is a joke, are prudent to find a place to flee when the music stops or the knock comes at the door. Most have already parked their dough in foreign havens, but the flesh and blood needs somewhere to go, too.

So these are not so much homes as they are panic rooms. Or in this case, panic mansions. And like panic rooms, many aren’t occupied most of the time. In one posh Vancouver neighborhood that is popular with expats it was discovered that about 25 percent of the homes were not actually inhabited. They were just sitting empty, like the axe behind glass, to be used in case of emergency.

Perhaps most interesting of all is a factoid dropped into one sentence in Surowiecki’s piece. He quotes a Vancouver urban planner knowledgable on this trend. He calls such places “hedge cities” and notes that they provide “social and political stability, and, in the case of Vancouver, it also offers long-term protection against climate change.”

We all know that some wealthy men support pet politicians who can be relied on to single-mindedly oppose any taxes or regulations that would discommode their well-heeled backers. These lackeys are also quick to proclaim climate change a hoax since taking it seriously might be bad for the boss’s business. But apparently their hardheaded, tough-minded patrons are hedging that bet too. There has already been a huge boom in Canadian farm land which figures to appreciate as the climate changes.

Now we learn the wealthy are preparing places to alight when the sea waters rise and the drinking water grows scarce. Places thought likely to remain attractive as huge swaths of the globe succumb to drought and famine are those with temperate climates, abundant rainfall and stable governments — Ireland, New Zealand, parts of Scandinavia perhaps, and the Pacific Northwest. If you want to follow the smart money, that’s where it’s heading. Vancouver: Capital of the Post-Apocalyptic World.

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