Miami’s luxury housing market fueled by ill-gotten gains

The latest big Wikileaks event shows what has been fueling Miami’s luxury housing boom:

Mossack Fonseca’s leaked records offer a glimpse into the tightly guarded world of high-end South Florida real estate and the global economic forces reshaping Miami’s skyline.

And MF’s activities bolster an argument analysts and law-enforcement officials have long made: Money from people linked to wrongdoing abroad is helping to power the gleaming condo towers rising on South Florida’s waterfront and pushing home prices far beyond what most locals can afford…

A Miami Herald analysis of the never-before-seen records found 19 foreign nationals creating offshore companies and buying Miami real estate. Of them, eight have been linked to bribery, corruption, embezzlement, tax evasion or other misdeeds in their home countries.

That’s a drop in the ocean of Miami’s luxury market. But Mossack Fonseca is one of many firms that set up offshore companies. And experts say a lack of controls on cash real-estate deals has made Miami a magnet for questionable currency.

Later in the article, one analyst suggests no one really wants to know this information as luxury housing is a big deal. Who benefits? City leaders who get to trumpet the new growth. Local construction firms, people in real estate, and the finance industry who are involved with the new units. Municipalities like the new tax dollars. Possibly, nearby business owners who could see an uptick in activity with more people nearby who have money to burn. And the whole region benefits from the status of some of the world’s wealthiest people plus an attractive (and expensive) housing market.

If this is happening in Miami, it is also likely affecting other important cities. Take New York: as the leading global city, wouldn’t people who have ill-gotten gains want to be there? Or, how about other leading cities in different regions like London, Hong Kong, and Tokyo?


Facebook as “the most appalling spying machine ever invented”

The Drudge Report has a link to a story that details what Wikileak’s Julian Assange thinks about government monitoring of Facebook:

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange called Facebook “the most appalling spying machine ever invented” in an interview with Russia Today, pointing to the popular social networking site as one of the top tools for the U.S. to spy on its citizens.

“Here we have the world’s most comprehensive database about people, their relationships, their names, their addresses, their locations, their communications with each other and their relatives, all sitting within the United States, all accessible to US Intelligence,” he said. “Facebook, Google, Yahoo, all these major U.S. organizations have built-in infaces for US intelligence.

“Everyone should understand that when they add their friends to Facebook they are doing free work for the United States intelligence agencies,” he added.

The comments were a bit strange, coming from the founder of a website best known for pushing spilling secret information.

In an email to the Daily News, a Facebook spokesman denied the company was doing anything that they weren’t legally obligated to do, saying that “the legal standards for compelling a company to turn over data are determined by the laws of the country, and we respect that standard.”

This article suggests Assange’s idea is a bit daft. And while I’m just guessing at the reason for Drudge’s link, this headline could be a sobering thought for many a Facebook user and is also evidence for conspiracy theorists who think the government is out to get them. So what should we make of such comments?

On one hand, I am skeptical that the government has to-the-minute access to everything that these websites offer. On the other hand, why shouldn’t the government be monitoring online activity? If employers routinely check Facebook in order to learn more about applicants or their own workers, why shouldn’t or can’t the government? In fact, in today’s world, wouldn’t the average Internet user expect that the government is looking at websites in order to monitor and investigate certain threats that are harmful to society? Privacy (account numbers, passwords, etc.) is one thing but if people are conducting illegal activity online, don’t we want the government to check it out?

Perhaps these comments should serve as a reminder for all Internet users: what is posted to the Internet can be found by all sorts of people, your friends and your enemies.

WikiLeak cables as historical documents

How should the WikiLeaks cables be viewed as historical documents? One historian suggests caution:

In the short term, this is a potential gold mine for foreign-affairs scholarship. In the long term, however, what WikiLeaks wants to call “Cablegate” will very likely make life far more difficult for my profession.

For now, things certainly look very sweet. Timothy Garton Ash characterized the documents as “the historian’s dream.” Jon Western, a visiting professor of international relations at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, blogged that WikiLeaks may allow scholars to “leapfrog” the traditional process of declassification, which takes decades. While the first wave of news reports focused on the more titillating disclosures (see: Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Ukrainian nurse), the second wave has highlighted substantive and trenchant aspects of world politics and American foreign policy. The published memos reveal provocative Chinese perspectives on the future of the Korean peninsula, as well as American policy makers’ pessimistic perceptions of the Russian state.

Scholars will need to exercise care in putting the WikiLeaks documents in proper perspective. Some researchers suffer from “document fetishism,” the belief that if something appears in an official, classified document, then it must be true. Sophisticated observers are well aware, however, that these cables offer only a partial picture of foreign-policy decision-making. Remember, with Cablegate, WikiLeaks has published cables and memos only from the State Department. Last I checked, other bureaucracies—the National Security Council, the Defense Department—also shape U.S. foreign policy. The WikiLeaks cables are a source—they should not be the sole source for anything.

Seems like a reasonable argument to me. Much research, history included, includes collecting a variety of evidence from a variety of sources. Claiming that these cables represents THE view of the United States is naive. They do reveal something, particularly about how diplomatic cables and reports work, but not everything. How much one can generalize based on these cables is unclear.

As this article points out, how these cables have been portrayed in the media is interesting. Where are the historians and other scholars to put these cables in perspective?

American TV shows help limit extremism in Saudi Arabia

The cables Wikileaks has put out contain all sorts of interesting information. According to the Telegraph, some American cultural products, such as Desperate Housewives, The David Letterman Show, and Friends, are valuable forces in combating jihad in Saudi Arabia:

In a message sent back to Washington DC, officials at the US Embassy in Jeddah said the shows, starring Jennifer Aniston and Eva Longoria, were successfully undermining the spread of jihadist ideas among the country’s youth.

Such programmes, broadcast with Arabic subtitles on several Saudi satellite channels, were part of a push by the kingdom to foster openness and counter extremists, according to the cable…

The diplomatic cable was headed “David Letterman: Agent of Influence,” referring to the US chat show host who is also being broadcast to a Saudi audience.

The May 2009 cable said: “Saudis are now very interested in the outside world and everybody wants to study in the US if they can. They are fascinated by US culture in a way they never were before.” American sitcoms and chat shows were said to be finding a popular audience even in remote, conservative parts of the kingdom.

I’m glad such shows can be put to use – but this probably wasn’t a use that American TV executives expected…

On a more serious note, this highlights how American cultural products can be exported to other countries. Whether these shows reflect “American culture” can be debated but they certainly can introduce new ideas and values. Our military power might be impressive but American TV, movies, music, and more often have their own powerful influence.

From backstage to frontstage, US diplomacy edition

One of Erving Goffman’s insights into human interaction was his analysis of the frontstage and backstage. These insights about what happens when in trusted company (backstage) versus the public presentation of self (frontstage) is very applicable to the latest Wikileaks news story where about 250,000 United States diplomatic cables have been made public. The leaking of this amount of information about the United States’ true views is remarkable:

Never before in history has a superpower lost control of such vast amounts of such sensitive information — data that can help paint a picture of the foundation upon which US foreign policy is built. Never before has the trust America’s partners have in the country been as badly shaken. Now, their own personal views and policy recommendations have been made public — as have America’s true views of them.

All governments put on a very public face and try to control the amount of information released to the public. Particularly when dealing with allies or foes, the public rhetoric is crafted very carefully in order to send the right public messages. But this latest leak reveals what happens behind the scenes and offers insights into the backstage world of the United States government. On one hand, this should be no surprise: we should assume that those in government discuss and debate ideas and stances before putting together a public message. On the other hand, it is rare for the average citizen or even journalists to have an opportunity to hear about what happens behind the scenes.

If we keep using Goffman’s analytical devices, what we can see now is the US government attempting to “save face,” to both condemn the leaking of this backstage information but also to try to patch up relationships that might be troubled by hearing what the US government “really thinks.”