Yachts & WarMarch 4, 2022
Capitalism gets a bad rap. It’s subject to weaponization by elites (cronyism), and the inequality it creates gives rise to caricatures of wealth as immoral and the wealthy as bad people. But this system has brought about more prosperity in the past century than any other force in the entirety of prior human experience. Capitalism encourages positive social behaviors, triggering self-preservation instincts that inspire cooperation.
As Yuval Noah Harari has written, what led to the human species commanding life on Earth was our proclivity to communicate and cooperate in large groups. Capitalism taps this: The tools we use to increase wealth — entrepreneurship, entering new markets, achieving scale — don’t work without collaboration. No war has ever been won, no company built, and no significant amount of wealth amassed without the help of allies. A businessperson who doesn’t build connective tissue within a company, throughout an industry, and across borders is much less likely to succeed.
This connective tissue creates leverage and exponential growth. The lifestyle wealth affords someone in 2022 is an order of magnitude more stunning and diverse than it was a generation ago. Wealth doesn’t get you a bigger TV to watch science fiction; it puts you in space. Wealthy people now don’t just live longer, they enjoy eight or nine more “disability-free” years than the poor. How society allocates the spoils of success is a worthwhile debate, but that’s another post. The reality, like it or not, is that being rich in the modern world is something people will (correctly) devote extraordinary effort and creativity to achieve and keep.
We’re obsessed with wealth not only because it’s scarce — more than half of the world’s adults have a net worth below $10,000 — but also because it can be taken away. Free markets are a form of democracy, and we vote with our dollars. Wealth creates a shield, but the material is penetrable. If your business is producing enemies, at some point they will come for you and your money. Dial it up to the national level, and your currency will collapse.
Dead Czar Walking
Fifty years ago, Czechoslovakia attempted to turn away from the USSR and gaze west. It liberalized restraints on the press and the arts and began to open its economy. The Soviets sent in 250,000 troops and 5,000 tanks, deposed the government, and imposed their own. Western nations protested but, unwilling to go to war with a nuclear power, they did nothing of substance, and the USSR incurred no penalty.
Vladimir Putin was 15 when those tanks rolled into Prague. One lesson he likely drew confirmed the upshot of every previous military confrontation: The side with the most armaments wins. However, things may be changing. The most powerful carrier squadron in the world today is the dollar, and it appears that the delta in traditional firepower may not be the sole determinant of the outcome.
What’s not on that chart? Eight days into the war, Russia’s currency has shed nearly 30% of its value. Within hours of tanks crossing Ukraine’s border, the U.S. pulled the plug on all financing to Russia. Soon after, the Western allies threatened to block Russia from the global Swift payment system and froze its central bank assets. And then … the unthinkable: Apple stopped selling iPhones in Russia. The supermajor oil companies are pulling up stakes, and Big Tech is banning Russian media outlets. Even soccer and kids’ movies have cut ties with Russia.
Everybody has a boss — even Putin. Two decades ago, he won over the public by promising to eliminate the oligarchy while covertly ensuring the protection of a select few. That meant the “decline of some oligarchs and the elevation of others,” and his job today is no different from when he took over: handling disputes and allocating resources among billionaires, GoT-style.
Similar to a medieval hamlet, the resources in question are almost always finite minerals. Roman Abramovich, who recommended Putin for office to his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, paid billions for political favors and protection fees for shares of Russia’s oil and aluminum. Oleg Deripaska, Putin’s “favorite industrialist” (who recently helped him launder money), was famously berated by the president on live television for not producing enough cement. More than half the nation’s billionaires sit on stockpiles of oil, gas, coal, or metal, and the 500 richest Russians own … 40% of the nation’s wealth. In no other country do billionaires control so large a share of the national economy.
Being a Russian elite 50 years ago was different. When Brezhnev sent tanks into Prague, his buddies weren’t worried about docking their yachts in the south of France. At most, wealth meant purchasing an abandoned castle off the coast of Leningrad. In 2022 it means flying to your 200-acre Aspen ranch in a Gulfstream 650ER. Also: having mansions in St. Tropez, St. Barts, Tel Aviv, Monte Carlo, and Kensington, three Central Park penthouses, a majority stake in a European football club, a Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner, and two 500-foot yachts. BTW, a fleet of the 20 largest Russian-owned luxury yachts is worth more than Ukraine’s defense budget.
“You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”
The oligarchs will live and die by the Kremlin until they stop getting tables at Club 55. But the true crisis of allegiance begins when the Port de Saint-Tropez starts denying their boats from docking. Europe knows this: France is hunting oligarch-owned yachts for seizure, and the EU Commission has banned Russian aircraft (private jets included) from flying over the continent.
Forty-four of the 200 richest Russians do not live in Russia. The second-most popular place of residence for this cohort is London, where the 11th-richest Russian just relinquished his decades-long management of a Premier League football club and is looking for a buyer.
Putin shares common features with Amin, Gaddafi, and Hussein. Men in their sixties who became so insulated they could no longer read the label from inside the bottle. The connective tissue of capitalism is likely a feature Putin has underestimated.
The price of warfare is enormous. In addition to death and destruction in Ukraine, the price of fuel and grain will rise everywhere, putting additional pressure on poor nations. And then there’s the anxiety of knowing we’re only a few bad decisions by old men away from true horror.
The costs to Russia will be especially large. Its economy relies heavily on trade with other nations: Exports and imports account for 46% of GDP. That number is comparable to those of EU nations (which take pride in diplomacy with their trade partners), but dramatically larger than in other world powers (i.e., the U.S. and China). Two-thirds of Russia’s exports are oil and gas. The EU (which Ukraine is in the process of joining) is Russia’s largest trading partner. Almost all of Russia’s assets are held in foreign central banks. Put the pieces together, and you get an unstable economy unfit to make enemies.
Even if Russia attempted to operate independently, it wouldn’t get far. Despite controlling the world’s largest landmass and having one of the largest populations, Russia’s economic output is small. On a per-capita basis, Russia’s GDP is below the world average. Its total GDP is similarly unimpressive, a quarter of Japan’s.
Weapons of Mass Obstruction
Capitalism isn’t a cure-all for bad actors. And even in the case of sins on the scale of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there’s no guarantee of sustained cooperation by the majority of market participants. Saudi oligarchs find parking for their yachts despite MBS’s penchant for bone saws and wars of attrition. That said, if taking away soccer teams and Disney movies changes the course of history in Ukraine, the U.S. and the EU might reconsider their relationship with the sheikhs.
Maybe the best example of the power of capitalism’s connective tissue is the dog that hasn’t barked: I believe a key deterrent against China’s ambition to absorb Taiwan is the iPhone. An invasion by China may or may not risk a military response. (If we refuse to make Ukraine a no-fly zone, are we really going to land marines on beachheads along Taiwan’s southwestern plain?) But it warrants a capitalist response. The net effect of a Chinese invasion would be to sever ties with its partners, and Xi Jinping’s people would be angry if a quarter of their mobile phones switched off overnight. Even angrier if their economic miracle became sclerotic as supply chains rerouted.
If tanks are less effective in the face of capitalist’s connective tissue, what might be the kryptonite to the dollar’s superpowers? That was a clue. It’s crypto. Democratic rule (i.e., government control) over global systems of trade and commerce enables us to put sanctions in place. Crypto wants to evade them, and there will be new wind in the sails of Bitcoin as nations realize the problem with dependence on dollars held in Western banks: They’re yours until they’re not. Fortunately, crypto companies will abandon the decentralized mission when it matters. In response to Putin’s war, Binance, the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange, is about to do the very thing it said it never would: block transactions. Viva la centralizatión.
All of this means life is shaping up to be lonely for Mr. Putin. He’s reportedly been in self-isolation since the pandemic began, and we’ve seen numerous photos of him sitting far away from other humans, appearing alone and disturbed. He can silo himself personally, but neither his wealth, his yacht, nor his nation will survive in isolation. Money is an addictive substance. The U.S. and Europe are the biggest dealers, and Russia has been using for several decades now.
Life is so rich,