Angst in America, Part 3: Retiring Broke

“The trouble with retirement is you never get a day off.”
             – Abe Lemons

“Retirement at sixty-five is ridiculous. When I was sixty-five I still had pimples.”

– George Burns

“To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them.”

– Shakespeare, Hamlet

Today we continue looking at angst in America, the financial worries that so afflict us here in the world’s largest economy and by extension in much of the developed world. We may be the envy of the world in some ways, but we also have no shortage of stress. Today we’ll look at some data on retirement savings – or lack thereof.

Let’s start by backing up a little bit. I’m not the only one talking about financial anxiety. Last week I ran across a survey from NerdWallet on this very issue. They engaged the Harris Poll to ask 2,000 Americans of all ages about their biggest financial concerns. Here’s a chart showing the top worries.

The biggest worries are healthcare expenses, lack of emergency savings, and lack of retirement savings. Yet only 28% worry they lack retirement savings? Compare this with what we know about people’s actual savings, and that number is far too low.

We can see in another recent survey by that more people should be worried about their retirement.

Here we see that 33% of Americans have no retirement savings at all; another 23% have less than $10,000; and a further 10% have less than $50,000. So that’s 66%, a full two-thirds of Americans, with either no savings at all or not enough to generate significant income. (If you have $50,000 and can pull out 4% a year without drawing down principal – which is hard to do – you’ll get something like $160 a month.)

The NerdWallet survey also shows that 13% have accumulated $300,000 or more in retirement savings. I am skeptical of that number, too, unless it includes the cash value of defined-benefit plans held by government employees. And for them that value is mostly an illusion; for many of them, their plans can’t possibly deliver anything near what the workers were promised. But that’s another subject.

How much do we Americans really have saved? A Motley Fool article last year, citing data from the Employee Benefit Research Institute, looked at actual Individual Retirement Account balances. As of year-end 2013, 20.6 million individuals held a total $2.46 trillion in IRA accounts. Some of those unique individuals are each other’s spouses, so the number of family units would be lower.

Do the math and we find that the average IRA holder’s balance was around $120,000 as of three years ago. But remember, the average IRA holder is not the average American. If only 20.6 million of us have IRAs, then over 300 million of us don’t have them. Some no doubt have other retirement vehicles, like 401(k)s. But this still suggests that a large plurality of Americans, and maybe a majority, have little or nothing saved for retirement. This shortfall is a problem, and not just for them.

Social Insecurity

It’s easy for those of us in the Protected Class to think the masses will be fine. They at least get Social Security and Medicare, enough to keep them out of poverty, right?

No, not right. We know this straight from the horse’s mouth, too. The Social Security Administration publishes a very handy annual “Fact Sheet.” As is the case with most bureaucracies, the SSA’s goal is partly to demonstrate how indispensable they are, but in the process they tell us a few things that should make us uncomfortable.

In 2017, the average monthly retiree benefit is $1,360. Multiply that by 12 months and divide by 52 40-hour weeks, and living off Social Security is equivalent to being a full-time worker who earns $7.85 an hour (and remember, this is the average; many people receive less). Social Security benefits are worth a little more than the same amount in wages, net of taxes, but they still aren’t much. Guesstimating the tax differential suggests an equivalent hourly wage of about $8.50 an hour.

Social Security’s fact sheet also says benefits represent about 34% of the elderly population’s income – but that number is heavily skewed in favor of the wealthy. Among retirees, 21% of married couples and 43% of unmarried persons rely on Social Security for 90% or more of their income.

Currently, 41.2 million retired workers and 3 million dependents receive Social Security benefits. So that means 15 million or more retirees must be living on an income that’s meager by any definition.

But at least they don’t have to worry about medical bills, you say; Medicare covers them all. Well, yes, it does cover them, but that’s not the same as covering their expenses. Copays and deductibles add up quickly unless you have supplemental insurance, which itself is expensive. Medicare recipients are responsible for 20% of hospital bills, and for these people even a short stay can wipe out months of income.

Forty-one percent of Americans have no savings at all. An article in Forbes cites data that shows that just 37% of Americans have savings to cover an emergency that costs over $500. And understand, that is not just medical emergencies. What happens when your car breaks down? You have to get it fixed because you have to get to work. Having extensive experience with my seven children (and now seven grandchildren!), I can tell you that emergency expenditures seem to be the norm, not the exception (at least in the Mauldin household). Now the kids are adults and trying to make it on their own, but there are still times when The Bank of Dad has to help out in emergencies.

The Social Security fact sheet has some other chilling numbers. It says 51% of the private workforce has no private pension coverage. Those are presumably people who work in small businesses or are self-employed or “gig” workers. Confirming NerdWallet’s figure, Social Security says 31% of workers report they and/or their spouses have no savings set aside specifically for retirement. Depending on the survey, another 10% have less than $10,000. It wouldn’t take very long to run through someone’s entire savings, given a significant hospital stay or illness.

Is Social Security sustainable? To listen to politicians, Social Security obligations will always be met. Then again, looking at the mathematics, at least for those just now approaching retirement age or younger cohorts, the reality may be different. By 2035, the number of Americans 65 and older will climb from about 48 million today to over 79 million. That’s the Baby Boomer impact. Currently there are 2.8 active workers for each Social Security beneficiary. It will be only 2.2 workers per beneficiary by 2035.

And just to throw a little more fuel onto your worry fire, that figure of 2.2 workers per beneficiary assumes that labor force participation rates between now and 2035 will be stable or improved from where we are today. But the chart from Larry Summers last week showed that there are now 10 million men in America between 24 and 54 who are not in the labor force. That nmber could rise to as high as 20% of the labor force by 2035. Take out another 10% of the labor force, and now there are fewer than 2 workers per Social Security beneficiary. That means each and every worker, from the lowest paid to the highest, must pick up the tab for roughly $7,000 per year of Social Security expenses through their contributions and taxes – before they start to pay for any other government services like healthcare or defense (not to mention interest on the national debt). John Lennon’s song lyric comes to mind: “You say you want a revolution?”

A few more uncomfortable statistics from the SSA:

Only 39% of Boomers have tried to figure out how much they need to have saved for retirement. Of those that have, a third did not include healthcare costs in their calculations. On average, Boomers estimate that healthcare will consume 23% of their income in retirement, compared to the 33% of income that those over 60 actually spend today. Fifty-nine percent of retirees expect Social Security be their major source of income, up from 42% five years ago. Divorce is becoming a major factor in retirement: 24% of divorced Boomers expect to be worse off in retirement than if they had not divorced. Roughly 16% of Americans are taking premature withdrawals from their retirement accounts, while 30% of Boomers have stopped contributing to their accounts.

A 2016 report from the Insured Retirement Institute is likewise sobering:

The real surprise is in Boomers’ expectations for the lifestyles they will lead in retirement. Despite being under-saved and largely lacking sources of lifetime income beyond Social Security, six in 10 Boomers believe their retirement income will cover basic expenses and a limited (38 percent) or extensive (22 percent) budget for leisure activities. Only 11 percent essentially expect a subsistence lifestyle, paying for basic needs and little else, while 19 percent worry they will not have enough money to meet even basic expenses for food, housing, and health care. For these Boomers, a long-term care event would be devastating and almost certainly require state care. (IRI: “Boomer Expectations for Retirement 2016”)

Simply put, most Baby Boomers will be down to subsistence living by the time they are 80, living on Social Security and other government benefits, with help from any capable children.

The following graph puts the stark reality of Boomer retirement in perspective. There is a massive gap between what people expect to have during retirement and what they will actually have and be able to spend.

The surprising thing, at least to me, is that there isn’t more angst in America than what we currently see.

Why We Can’t Save

The basic facts that we just reviewed aren’t complicated, or even much disputed. Up until age 30 or so, it’s easy to think you will be young forever. Then reality sets in, and you know it’s time to grow up. Or at least that’s how it was for me – the line seems to be creeping higher.

Why, then, do so few people save anything for retirement? Can people really be that oblivious? Depressingly to some of us, the answer is yes. We all have many different needs competing for our attention. We have to prioritize, and long-term needs often get lower priority than whatever need is pressing in the here and now.

I recall a very depressing conversation I had with my fishing guide last year in Maine. He had had a job in one of the paper mills, but it had closed down. He had about $150,000 in his 401(k). He was taking out about $10,000 a year (and paying the penalty) just to survive. There were no other jobs in the area, other than what he could make from his work as a guide and from other part-time gigs, jobs all of his friends were competing for. I pointed out to him that by the time he was physically going to need to retire (as the work he was doing was pretty strenuous), if he kept hitting his 401(k), there would be nothing left. It was a very sobering conversation. Basically, he didn’t know what to do. Reality was that the expenses he faced simply to maintain his home and minimal lifestyle forced him to go to his savings.

Paraphrasing Spock, the needs of the present outweigh the needs of the future.

It’s also the case that stifling the temptation to indulge in short-term pleasures is an acquired skill. It doesn’t happen automatically. I think that skill comes mostly from seeing your own parents exercise fiscal discipline while you’re a child. Boomers who grew up in times of relative prosperity may not have felt the need to be frugal and may find it hard to do so.

Still, I think most adults know on some level that retirement won’t take care of itself. They know they should be saving; they know what will happen if they don’t; and yet many still don’t do it – or can’t. That’s why, to varying degrees, surveys show that people are worried about retirement. You don’t worry about something unless you know it is both important and problematic.

Is our national behavior really a surprise? Look at our diet and health indicators. As a nation, we eat too much and indulge in all kinds of unhealthy habits. If we can’t even take care of our bodies, then it figures that we’re not very good at financial planning, either. You’re probably an exception to that rule if you are reading this article, but the data shows that people like you are not the norm.

Having said all this, it is not necessarily true that financially unprepared people don’t want to prepare. As I said above, we all have priorities. Median household income in the US is less than $60,000. That’s not much for a young parent faced with expensive housing, food, medical expenses, childcare, transportation, and all the rest, not to mention taxes. The average family making $60,000 pays about $7000 in taxes to the federal government and more, perhaps a lot more, depending on the state they live in. And it’s not just taxes; there are fees for everything – drivers licenses, car tags, deposits for utilities, and so on. Not to mention the occasional ticket from the police for some infraction. To the extent that people save at all, it will be for their children’s college fund rather than their own retirement.

There’s a stereotype, not entirely imaginary, that some Americans have plenty of money but just choose to spend it frivolously. Such people do exist, and of course they’re responsible for their own decisions. But let’s not forget that we live in a consumerist culture filled with seductive marketers telling us to buy unnecessary things. Often, they succeed. You have every intention of saving some money at the end of the month, but something comes along that grabs your attention, and you absolutely must have it. Oh well, you can save a little more next month.

Note also: The fact that a person has little or no retirement savings now doesn’t mean the person never had any. People lose jobs. Bear markets happen. In both cases, whatever retirement savings you have will either lose value or go toward your here-and-now living expenses. Faced with foreclosure or other hardships, people will swallow hard and pay the tax penalty to get the cash. (See the story of my fishing guide above.)

Speaking at conferences and reading your feedback, I’ve noticed a little subculture emerging in the last decade. It’s composed of people who, ahead of the 2008 crisis, saved their money, invested properly, and generally made all the right moves. I mean intelligent, educated, well-paid people. Then the financial crisis hit, and their retirement savings went up in flames. Having lost half of their assets, many sold to preserve what they could – just in time to miss the recovery.

Did they make a mistake? Yes, obviously. Was it because they were dumb, selfish, or short-sighted? No, it was because they were human. The moves they made might have been right in other circumstances. Yet they ended up back at square one, having lost decades of hard work and financial progress, while the clock kept ticking. On paper, their situations look much like those of people of the same age who never saved anything, but they aren’t the same at all. I try to remember this before I assume things about people.

Sidebar: My five-part series on tax reform and then this series on Angst in America have provoked an enormous number of comments from people telling me their personal stories. Some of them are truly heartbreaking. Good people, people with kids and families and responsibilities, simply caught up in tough circumstances and now faced with no good choices. I had a conversation this week with a close business associate who had to help his parents buy a home. Growing up in California, his family was quite comfortably middle-class. And then his father’s industry hit a devastating downturn; the father was laid off, and it was four years before he could get another job, by which time he had lost pretty much everything, and the family was now renting a home, which has become an expensive proposition in California. The only option was for my friend to help his parents move into a home near him at a much lower cost. His parents were lucky they had a son with the fina ncial wherewithal to do that; most Americans aren’t so fortunate. And we wonder why there is angst in America?

Hitting the Wall

Whatever the circumstances, millions of Americans are growing older and headed straight toward an unforgiving brick wall. They will reach their mid-sixties and find there is no pot of gold under the retirement rainbow. Social Security plus their own savings, if they have any, won’t be enough to finance the kind of leisurely golden years they saw their parents and grandparents enjoy.

In historical context, this reality shouldn’t surprise any of us. The idea of capping off your life with a decade or two of carefree living didn’t exist before the 20th century, unless you were of royal lineage. Everyone else worked as long as they were physically able and died soon after they weren’t. That’s what was normal for most of human history, and it still is in places we rarely see on TV.

If you aren’t worried about financing your retirement, you’re either very wealthy or very oblivious. You’re not oblivious if you’re one of my readers. So to the wealthy ones, congratulations. To everyone else… join the club. I know it may feel like you’re the only one worried about retiring, since you don’t get to look at your neighbor’s balance sheet, but you’re hardly alone.

Can you do anything about your situation? Maybe. Find ways to save a little money here and there, and it will add up. Having a small nest egg is better than having none at all. At some point, you will be glad you have it.

I’ve written before about the growing number of retirees who keep working right past 65 and even into their 70s. Twenty-five percent of Baby Boomers expect to work to at least 70 and beyond. If you ask them why, the answer is often that they enjoy their work and don’t want to stop. I’m sure that’s true for many. But I’d also bet many keep working out of necessity, no matter what they tell pollsters and friends.

I don’t see anything wrong with this. I will be 68 later this year, and I’m still working as hard as I ever did, maybe more so if you count the total hours. Then again, I’m fortunate to have work that I enjoy and that is not too physically strenuous (except for the travel, which is starting to be more of a challenge). I tend to spend my “leisure time” reading and researching rather than watching TV. Those factors, along with a pretty good diet and exercise program, augmented by some medical anti-aging breakthroughs that I think are coming quite soon, should hopefully enable me to stay productive for many more years. That’s a good thing (true confession here), because the lifestyle I currently enjoy would not be possible in a traditional retirement situation. I would certainly not be destitute, and no one would feel sorry for me, but I am about as happy as I’ve ever been with my current situation.

Action over Angst

Let’s be more specific. Say you’re 60 now and woefully unprepared to retire in five years. You lost your savings or never had any. What do you do? “Give up” is not the answer. It is entirely possible, even likely, that you’ll be physically able to work for another 20 years. That’s an entire career in and of itself. It doesn’t have to be decades of drudgery, if – here’s the key – you plan ahead.

Financial planning works best when you have a lot of lead time. Compound interest takes years to do its magic. Career planning is different. It works best when you can act immediately. Take a deliberate approach and you won’t have to settle for a low-paid service job. So, if you’re behind the retirement curve, here’s what to do.

• Figure out what kind of work fits your aptitudes and circumstances. It may be different from your previous career. That’s OK.

• Acquire any necessary education or credentials.

• Build experience and contacts in your chosen field before you actually enter it.

• Push the start button.

The people I know who have taken this approach all describe the same experience. Step 1 is a kind of attitude adjustment, at first painful but then exhilarating. Something clicks, and they suddenly have more “life” ahead of them. They stop thinking about the leisurely rounds of golf and vacations they will miss and instead look forward to their new “encore” career.

Of course, sooner or later you will still reach a point where your health makes work too difficult. But then again, maybe the medical miracles I see coming down the path in the near future will extend your work span along with your lifespan and health span. Work, if it’s something you enjoy, is not a burden; it’s a blessing.

Whatever you’ve done all your life, you have valuable experience and knowledge. You can apply it to a new career, build savings, and avoid boredom all at the same time. Action is the answer to angst.

A Few Final Thoughts

The reality is, my simple solution won’t work for most people. Given the data we have looked at, is it any wonder that more and more Americans are increasingly anxious? Especially Baby Boomers? They want change because they feel (correctly) that the country is headed in the wrong direction; and when someone says here’s an easy solution and blames all the problems on some other group or factor (whether it’s the rich or illegal immigrants or trade or bureaucracy or – pick a scapegoat), they are speaking directly to the anxieties people feel, and that message drives polls and elections.

Some see Trump as the culmination of this expression of anxiety. I think that’s a simplistic and wrong explanation. Trump is not the culmination; he is the harbinger of a coming age of increasing anxiety in response to an even more volatile economic, social, and political climate. We are one global recession away from being in the situation that Greece found itself five years ago: They were left with nothing but bad choices. If you think the stress level in America is high, visit Greece. Or any country in Southern Europe, for that matter.

When the average American or European or even Chinese thinks about retirement, there is angst, and the level of angst is increasing. Even though I can cite reams of data showing how the world is a better place to live than it was 100 or 50 or 20 or even 10 years ago, it’s your own personal situation that you are faced with. You don’t get to live the “average,” it’s-getting-better-for-everyone experience. And growing angst is driving political polarization in countries all around the world.

Republicans fantasize that we can go back to the ’80s and President Reagan and implement the same policies he did and get the same results. Democrats fantasize that if we could just tax the rich more, things would all work out. And I use the word fantasize because unrealistic fantasies riddle thinking on both sides. Reagan had a massive demographic wind at his back; and yes, the policies he chose to put in place were the right ones at the right time, but we are no longer living with those demographics or that debt situation. And taxing the “rich” in order to spend even more will only slow down growth and opportunity for ordinary people on the street.

The real solutions are going to require massive compromise on the part of both major parties in this country – which doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Which means we are going to keep bumbling down the same path until we find ourselves up to our eyeballs in a crisis, with no good choices.

Gentle reader, if you have been reading me over the years, you may have come to believe in the correctness of the statements I made in the previous paragraph. What I’m telling you is that it’s not the end of the world for you if you take control of your own future. You cannot let yourself be subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Your own personal future can be one of relative comfort with the ability to help others. Which in the future is about as good as it’s going to get for the vast majority of us.

Washington DC, Atlanta, Augusta (at the Masters), Tampa Bay, and somewhere in Sonoma

Tuesday I start an 8-day “road trip.” I fly to Washington DC and get in early enough to have dinner with Andrew (Andy) Marshall. Andy is 95 and was the longest-serving government employee in our history, appointed by Nixon in 1974 to run the Office of Net Assessment for the Secretary of Defense and reappointed by every president until he retired in 2015. His job was to think about the future and plan for what the world might look like 10 to 20 years out. He is probably the greatest inferential futurist on the planet. And by that, I mean that he can take random sources of data that don’t make much sense to you and me and discern patterns. When the State Department and the CIA were telling us that Russia was an economic powerhouse and was going to become as big as the US, he looked at all sorts of odd data and said, “They are going to fall apart.&rdquo ; He correctly identified Russia as a paper tiger, spending 30% or more of its budget on defense as its income fell. He and James Schlesinger figured that out way back in the ’70s. The State Department and the CIA were clueless until it all came down around Moscow’s head. Ditto developments in China. Ditto every major Defense Department realignment that happened for 40 years.
Andy had a retirement party last year, and I was surprised to be invited. It was attended by a lot of famous former secretaries of state and even vice presidents, as well as some of the most fascinating individuals I’ve run into. Andy tends to pick up eclectic friends and colleagues. (I think that’s the polite word for them.) If you are seeing what everybody else is seeing, you’re probably not seeing the right things.
For whatever reason, Andy has let me come into his world, has invited me to weeklong think tanks of the Naval War College, and sits and answers my questions patiently. I treasure our times together. He never willingly sought the limelight, purposely staying in the background, but the number of famous people who benefitted from his tutelage and went through his office is staggering. His biography is called The Last Warrior: Andrew Marshall and the Shaping of Modern American Defense Strategy.
Then, with that preparation, I go the next day to George Friedman’s first annual Geopolitical Futures Conference, at the Army and Navy Club. I will be an attendee, sitting in the back of the room absorbing information and trying to figure out who I’m going to drag to dinner to glean more insights. The following morning I fly down to Atlanta, where I’ll meet Shane and spend the evening having dinner with our old friends Martin and Margie Truax before heading off the next day to drive to Augusta.

I have always wanted to go to the Masters and was lucky to be invited to attend this year. Evidently there are rules about what you can write in public about who you shared the Masters with and what your experiences were. The rule seems to be that you can’t say anything much. So I’ll just say that I expect to have a great deal of fun and hope to see some wonderful golf.
Then Monday Shane and I drive back to Atlanta; she heads back to Dallas; and I fly to Tampa Bay to have dinner with Patrick Cox and some friends. The following day is full of intense meetings with some of the most cutting-edge biotechnology researchers anywhere, along with a few major investors. Patrick and I are trying to encourage the birthing of technologies that will physically turn our genes younger. It is our belief that much of the antiaging research that is coming out of Silicon Valley is missing the point. They are trying to start from scratch with a few new ideas here and there, and maybe they’ll be successful. But what Patrick and I are seeing is already out of the lab, past the point of “discovery,” and simply needs to have the funding to turn these discoveries into practical applications available to us all. It’s not a cheap endeavor, but at the end of the day, what’s the Fountain of Youth worth? I have no doubt that w e will drink from that fountain in the coming years. I just hope it’s within my lifetime. Yes, I’d like to live to be several hundred years old. I want to explore not only our own world but to go into space and explore other worlds.
I find it somewhat amusing to talk to people about living a greatly extended lifetime. I constantly get the retort, “I don’t want to live that long.” My quick rejoinder is always, “Are you actually that bored with life?” The answer is almost always no. And then I ask, “And what makes you think you will be bored 100 years from now? Think you will have figured it all out and been everywhere, done everything?” Give me a younger body who various parts work as they did in my early 20s, along with what I know now, and I can readily imagine an exciting and fulfilling future.
Of course, we have to get through the rather massive problems facing our society and our economy and gods only know what our government is going to do to us. So we Muddle Through until we can break out.
It’s time to hit the send button. Have a great week!
Your worried about how his fellow Baby Boomers can retire with dignity analyst,

John Mauldin

'Beyond a Red Line'

The World at a Crossroads in Syria

The deployment of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime this week triggered a significant retaliation by the United States. Does this open the door for a Western intervention in the murderous conflict? By SPIEGEL Staff

Photo Gallery: A Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria

On the day after 50 children, women and men died in Syria, likely from the nerve agent sarin, U.S. President Donald Trump sounded a bit like he had realized for the first time what it means to be president.

"I have to say that the world is a mess. I inherited a mess," Trump said on Wednesday during a joint press conference with King Abdullah II of Jordan. "I inherited a mess. We are going to fix it." It was almost as if he hadn't anticipated being forced to deal with problems as complicated as Syria. And perhaps he really hadn't.

Trump had just seen the most recent images of horror coming out of Syria -- in his office and on television. They showed children and adults in the small town of Khan Sheikhoun following an attack by Syrian dictator Bashar Assad's air force. The victims lay twitching on the ground, some of them already dead with eyes gazing into the void.

Piles of corpses could be seen, tiny bodies piled one on top of the other, all life extinguished.

They were horrific, haunting images that immediately spread around the world and many Western governments have no doubt that they are the product of a chemical weapons attack on the residents of Khan Sheikhoun by Assad.

The images apparently deeply shook the U.S. president. "When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal," Trump said, "that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line." It sounded as though he were already considering strikes in Syria.

Then, on Thursday night, they came. Fifty-nine Tomahawk missiles, launched from two U.S. destroyers in the Mediterranean, pounded the Shayrat airfield near Homs, a base used by both Syrian and Russian aircraft and the site from which the planes involved in the chemical attack took off. "It is in the vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons," Trump said in a statement from his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.

An Antagonistic Response in Moscow

While the move has received widespread support from Western leaders and Turkey, the response from Moscow has been predictably antagonistic. Though the Trump administration reportedly warned the Kremlin that the attack was imminent and no Russian planes or personnel came to harm in the strike, Moscow on Friday morning suspended a key deal aimed at minimizing the risks of in-flight incidents between U.S. and Russian aircraft flying sorties in Syrian airspace.
"President Putin considers the American strikes against Syria and aggression against a sovereign government in violation of the norms of international law and under a far-fetched pretext," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday. "This step by Washington is causing significant damage to Russian-American relations, which are already in a deplorable state."

It is an irony of history that Trump, of all people, has ordered a military strike against the Assad regime. Trump, the man who said during last year's election campaign that he intended to fight against Islamic State together with Russia and Assad and was opposed to "regime change." Trump, the man who warned his predecessor Barack Obama on Twitter at least 14 times to refrain from getting involved in Syria.

But after seeing images of the dead children of Khan Sheikhoun, Trump said: "My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much." His UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, who last week was still saying that getting rid of Assad was no longer a priority for the U.S., held up pictures of chemical attack victims during Wednesday's emergency meeting of the Security Council. "When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action," she said.

Is that the power of images? Are they so influential that they can, in the blink of a camera shutter, so dramatically change the course of a U.S. president's administration?

What happened in Khan Sheikhoun, after all, isn't totally surprising. After all, Assad's regime hasn't only murdered hundreds of thousands of civilians by way of barrel bombs, gunfire and torture. It has also repeatedly deployed chemical weapons, although it has been quite some time since such attacks were as horrific as the one that struck on Tuesday morning at 6:40 a.m. local time.

Deadly Minutes

Dawn hadn't yet fully given way to day when two Su-22 jets belonging to the Syrian air force appeared in the skies above Khan Sheikhoun. Most people in town were still sleeping when four explosions -- three large ones and one smaller one -- rocked the town. One video shows two huge gray columns of dust and smoke over the city with a smaller white cloud a short distance away. It was this smaller cloud that quickly killed all the people in its surroundings.

It took valuable, deadly minutes until the residents understood that they had been attacked with chemical weapons. The first responders who showed up to the impact crater wearing gas masks were presented with an appalling sight: Some of the victims had tried to get away, having run into the street in their pajamas and suffocating there. Others lay lifeless at the doors to their homes. Some died in the few bomb shelters in the area.

The survivors struggled to breathe, their pupils narrowed and they were hardly able to see.

They were the same symptoms seen following a chemical attack on several towns near Damascus in August 2013. Ground samples following those strikes showed that the nerve agent sarin had been deployed.

"Dozens upon dozens of unconscious, gasping patients arrived here, they were foaming at the mouth. Children, men, women, elderly. They died in front of our eyes, without visible injuries and we initially didn't know what to do," says Fadi Othman, one of the medics. "We handled the first 50 patients with our bare hands."

Five nurses and a doctor soon began experiencing the same symptoms as the victims. "It was only then that we put on disposable gloves," Othman continues. "Then we washed the patients with water and ordered them to undress and leave their contaminated clothing outside."

Soon, he said in a telephone interview, the entire courtyard in front of the entrance was full of the injured and the dying. "There were 400 or 500 people. We then asked the ambulances to take patients somewhere else. Inside, we have room for 50 patients at most and our underground hospital quickly filled with poisonous fumes from the clothes and skin of the patients."

The symptoms of a sarin attack can be treated with atropine, which blocks the poison's deadly effects on the nervous system. But atropine is difficult to find in the rebel-held areas of Syria, not least because in the days prior to the chemical attack, all important hospitals in Khan Sheikhoun and neighboring cities in the Idlib and Hama provinces were heavily damaged or destroyed by air strikes.

'Dying in Our Hands'

"The victims are simply dying in our hands," said a desperate medic in Khan Sheikhoun on the day of the attack. "We don't have enough atropine and the only way to save them is to transport them to Turkey. But many can't make it that far." At least 86 people had died by Thursday evening.

As if the chemical weapons attack wasn't bad enough, the clinic in Khan Sheikhoun was bombed as well, starting at midday on Tuesday. Because the hospital is underground, it was safe from most of the bombs and rockets, but not from the heavy bunker-buster bombs that have been repeatedly deployed by the Russian air force in recent months, most of them dropped by Su-34 bombers, which Assad's military does not possess.

According to eyewitnesses, two such Su-34s flew an attack at midday on Tuesday against the hospital in Khan Sheikhoun and on the neighboring civil defense headquarters. "We were in the operating room. I have never experienced such a massive attack," says Mohammed Diab, one of the doctors who was on duty at the time. Many pieces of equipment were destroyed, he says, and the medical staff had to dig their way out of the hospital.

Diab is concerned that the destruction of the clinic is just the first step in a larger plan. "First, all treatment facilities in the provinces of Idlib and Hama are going to be destroyed. Then, civilians will be attacked in their villages so that the fighters, who are from here, will have to focus on saving their families and will pull out.

That could be the strategy the regime is pursuing to take control of the two provinces, both of which are rebel strongholds. The fact that Assad has again used chemical weapons is likely intended as a chilling message to his people -- with the goal, perhaps, of getting as many people to flee as possible.
A Helping Hand in Moscow

As usual, though, the primary suspect has denied any responsibility. Back in 2013, after the first large sarin attack, Assad said in an interview with DER SPIEGEL: "We did not use chemical weapons. This is a misstatement." Using almost the same words, the Syrian leadership this week likewise rejected claims that Damascus was to blame, with assistance from the Russian Defense Ministry.

Russian military spokesman Igor Konashenkov claimed that the Syrian pilots had destroyed a large rebel weapons depot on the outskirts of Khan Sheikhoun at midday on Tuesday. He went on to say that there was also a factory at the site of the depot for the production of chemical projectiles, which are then delivered to Islamic State in Syria.

He didn't, however, explain why dozens of victims had reportedly already died in the morning, several hours prior to the alleged strike on the weapons depot. Nor did he offer any explanation for why fighters in the northwestern province of Idlib would produce chemical weapons for their opponents in faraway Iraq and why the massive symptoms of poisoning were reported hours earlier that morning. Plus, the anti-Assad rebels, in contrast to IS, are not thought to have used chemical weapons thus far. A reporter from the Guardian, who traveled to the site of the air strikes mentioned by Konashenkov, said there were no signs of a weapons depot there, just two empty, half-destroyed grain silos.

The type of chemical used in the Tuesday attacks has not yet been definitively determined. But the World Health Organization (WHO) is among those that have described the symptoms of some patients as being consistent with nerve agents, of which sarin is one.

Should it ultimately be concluded that it was sarin, the Russian-Syrian narrative would become even more difficult to believe: The weaponized chemical is much more difficult to produce than chlorine gas and is extremely unstable. Usually, is it mixed shortly before deployment by combining two components. One of them is highly explosive and would have produced an enormous ball of fire had it been struck by a bomb. There was no such fireball to be seen on Tuesday morning. As such, the Russian claims seem to be nothing more than cover for Moscow's Syrian protectorate.

War Crimes Become the Norm

Following the sarin attack in 2013, there was no longer any doubt that Assad was prepared to use chemical weapons on his own people. It has been just as clear since then that the international community was prepared to accept it.

On Aug. 20, 2012, Obama said: "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized." Almost exactly one year later, around a thousand people in several towns on the outskirts of Damascus died from the effects of sarin. But instead of taking action, Obama wavered. First, he announced unilateral action and then he decided to request Congressional approval. Ultimately, the U.S. and Russia offered Assad a deal: There would be no attacks on the Assad regime as long as the country turned in all of its chemical weapons. Under the auspices of the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), 1,300 tons of weaponized chemicals were destroyed.

Since then, war crimes have become normal in Syria, and they no longer generate much of an outcry. Attacks on schools, bombs dropped on hospitals, the starving of entire cities, systematic expulsions: The regime is able to do all that without the fear of repercussion.

Even before Khan Sheikhoun, there were doubts about whether Assad had really turned over his entire arsenal. In classified reports, OPCW officials have complained numerous times in the past that during their few inspections in Syria they had often detected unreported chemical weapons agents. In a television interview in May, a colonel who had deserted the army claimed that chemical weapons were being hidden at the Sayqal military air base.

OPCW together with medical organizations count, based on the evidence available, exactly 161 chemical weapons attacks between 2011 and 2016. Beginning with the spring of 2014, the regime began frequently dropping chlorine gas from helicopters. DER SPIEGEL provided evidence for the use of the gas in April 2014 and OPCW also confirmed the same in a later investigative report. It is impossible, of course, to simply ban chlorine, due to its ubiquity and myriad applications, but it is prohibited to use chlorine gas as a weapon.

"It's not as if we're just looking on without doing anything," says one leading expert at OPCW.

"Behind closed doors, there is a serious dispute between the Russians and Syrians on one side and the Europeans and the Americans on the other. But in the end, all efforts fail when it comes down to the question: Who is going to curb this regime militarily? No one."

All efforts to hold Syria accountable in the UN Security Council are systematically vetoed by Russia.

The draft resolution that France, Britain and the United States introduced on Wednesday in response to the Khan Sheikhoun attack was kept intentionally tepid as a result. It didn't demand any sanctions, and it didn't address the question of responsibility. It merely demanded that OPCW teams be provided with access to the flight plans and bases of the Syrian air force. But the effort ultimately failed as a result of Russian objections.

Russia's deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Vladimir Safronkov, gave an angry speech full of assertions and finger-pointing with the aim of sowing doubts about Assad's guilt. It isn't particular surprising that Russia would deny the evidence. A chemical weapons attack by the regime doesn't just cast a bad light on Russia's Syrian involvement -- it could also imperil Vladimir Putin's diplomatic successes. That may explain the equivocal statement made by Putin's spokesman on Thursday, when he said that Russia's support for Assad is "not unconditional."

It took years before the United States and Turkey closed ranks with Russia in agreeing that Assad's ouster should not be a precondition for a peace agreement in Syria. When Russian soldiers helped Assad recapture eastern Aleppo, it demonstrated that Moscow could effectively deploy both its military and diplomatic weapons as Washington and the West simply looked on.

Until this week, it appeared Putin would prevail in his risky game.

Overwhelming Evidence

Now it appears to be Assad, of all people, who has thwarted these plans. The evidence that the regime is behind the chemical weapons attack is overwhelming. In addition to the videos and photos of the victims, there has also been consistent testimony from survivors as well as the pending analysis of soil samples. But there's also another piece of evidence: a recording of radio communications between the Syrian pilots and the control tower.

For self-defense purposes, rebels in numerous places have been eavesdropping on the radio communications between Syrian regime pilots and their bases since 2013. By doing so, they can determine which airplanes are taking off when and from which airport, what is being said to the pilots and the flightpaths they will be following. The rebels are then able to warn hospitals and other preferred regime targets. On Tuesday morning, a rebel post was listening in on the radio communications between operation command and the pilots as the two Sukhoi jets took off from the Shayrat air base near Homs. "At 6:26 a.m., the tower contacted the commanding pilot," the surveillance officer on duty at the time told DER SPIEGEL, "with the identification of Quds 1.

Normally, the commander briefly asks the pilot if he is ready and then delivers the deployment order.

But this time, the tower asked a second time if all conditions had truly been met and requested the pilot to double-check."

"I've been eavesdropping for four years," the man monitoring the radio communications said.

"I know the routine procedures. But this was not routine." He was able to record part of the radio communications and they have been obtained by DER SPIEGEL. He also issued an alarm, but unfortunately the wrong one. He alerted rebels at the front lines, where Assad's troops have been under pressure for weeks, but the deadly cargo was ultimately dropped over Khan Sheikhoun.

The attack wasn't a complete surprise. On March 30, another unusual incident had taken place in the town of Latamne. It wasn't chlorine gas that got dropped this time -- it was another toxic substance.

There were no deaths, but people did get injured, and they had symptoms characteristic of those shown by individuals who have been exposed to the nerve agent sarin. Interestingly, though, the pilot in that attack -- and the rebels reported this on March 30 -- had also been identified as "Quds 1."

A Test for the World

The few experts who took notice of the attack wondered why Assad's military leadership would use sarin, whose traces in the body and in the ground can be detected and proven for a longer period of time than chlorine gas. Five days later they got their answer. It was likely a test to see how the world would react. But there was none.

Eighty-six people had to die first in the attack on Khan Sheikh before the world took note. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said an attack like this "could not go without consequences. No war criminal can be allowed to feel safe." But it is precisely the lack of consequences that has allowed this war to continue for as long as it has.

Now that Trump has conducted missile strikes on Syria, it is unclear what might happen next.

His choice to bomb an Assad air base using Tomahawk missiles is certainly the least risky of the many options he had -- and still has -- at his disposal. But if he were to move forward and implement a no-fly zone or a protection zone for civilians, it's very unlikely this could be achieved from the air alone.

It would almost certainly require a significant number of ground troops and would mean a massive military and logistics operation.
During his election campaign, Trump spoke out clearly against such plans and warned of "World War III." Even with a limited military strike, there is a threat of a confrontation between the U.S. Air Force and Russian jets and anti-aircraft batteries. Four years ago, when Trump warned so emphatically against an intervention, the conditions for doing so were considerably more favorable than they are today. Russia wasn't yet active in Syria and there was still a large number of moderate rebels. For many observers, it is surprising, but also a bit scary how quickly Trump has now changed his mind.

Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag also said: "We now have no doubt that the Assad regime used chemical weapons." Many survivors of the chemical weapons attack are now being treated in Turkish hospitals -- more than 50 patients, according to the Health Ministry. The country's emergency relief agency set up tents at the border where victims are being disinfected and provided with treatment.

'There is Much to Suggest Sarin'

Five-year-old Obai Alsafar is being treated at the university hospital in the city of Antakya in southeast Turkey. An oxygen mask covers his mouth and nose. His eyes are glazed over, but he can talk. Obai says that he was sleeping when the jets attacked. Once the bombs struck, he ran outside with his parents. He says he suddenly grew dizzy. His muscles began cramping, at which point he fell to the ground and passed out. An ambulance drove him to the border.

Doctors in Antakya say Obai was in very bad condition when he arrived at the hospital and that he was foaming at the mouth. "There is much to suggest sarin," says one of the doctors, "but we can't say with absolute certainty." The boy is now recovering and his blood sample is on its way to Ankara -- evidence of the cruelty of the Syrian regime that can be used in court.

Autopsies of the bodies of three people who died in the attack have been carried out by Turkish doctors and representatives of OPCW in the city of Adana in Turkey. Prosecutors have said that traces of chemical weapons were found. The plan is for all samples to be sent later to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The court may one day hold Bashar Assad accountable.

Or not.
By Christian Esch, Maximilian Popp, Jan Puhl, Christoph Reuter, Mathieu von Rohr, Christoph Scheuermann and Christoph Sydow

A Wounded Metropolis

London in the Age of Terror and Brexit

By Christoph Scheuermann

 Big Ben from Westminster Bridge

London is the epicenter of globalization, a glut of money and creativity -- and the antithesis of Brexit parochialism. It is also the best city in the world.

The crap weather, the traffic, the noise, the obscene amounts of money, the horrific rents, the Central Line during rush hour, the greed, the indifference, the Russians in Mayfair, the French in Notting Hill, and the price of a pint has long since risen above six euros: There are, of course, a number of reasons to hate London.

But then the sun peaks through the clouds for a second, the woman sitting across from you in the subway smiles and you are given a ticket for a theater premier -- and all the aggravations are forgotten. In such moments, it becomes clear: There is no better place in the world than this wondrous city. Nowhere is more exciting or more polite, nowhere else gives you more, despite terror, despite Brexit and despite the constant chaos.

London is justifiably proud of its coolness, which is regularly put to the test, most recently on Wednesday. An attacker sped into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and tried to force his way into parliament. Along with the shock and the grief, however, the metropolis exhibited the stubborn equanimity that can only be developed in a city that has become used to crises, attacks and turmoil over the course of decades.

London is good at absorbing shocks. The question is whether it will remain so. Because here, in the heart of the globalized West, the withdrawal from the European Union will be orchestrated and carried out in the coming months and years, a lunatic exercise in isolation. The city is doing what it can to courageously resist English parochialism, but ultimately, a country will emerge that is less open and less interconnected with the world around it -- and that stands in direct contradiction to London's disposition.

Around a dozen English-language newspapers are published here every day, trade routes and capital flows converge in the city, it is home to exiles and oligarchs, oil sheikhs and refugees, business leaders and the carefree. London breathes the world, London is the world. That which is said, written, developed and designed here boggles the mind of anyone attempting to grasp the city.

A Laboratory for the Age of Migration

London is the epicenter of globalization, larger, hungrier and more powerful than any other Western European city. No place in the Western hemisphere has profited to a greater degree from immigration, free markets and the unhindered flow of capital, from openness, internationalism and ideas from elsewhere. Eight-and-a-half million people from all across the world live here together more-or-less peacefully and contentedly, and in general, they profit from it. London is a laboratory for the age of migration, a foreign object hovering over England.

That, though, is why separating from the European Union will be so appalling for this city.

Next Wednesday, the government intends to start the Brexit process by triggering Article 50.

And Prime Minister Theresa May has left no doubt that she is unconcerned about suffocating the capital. The majority of voters in London, 60 percent, voted against Brexit. For them, it is unimaginable to cut off connections with the Continent in the vague hope that, in 10 years perhaps, a trade deal with South Korea might prove beneficial. The result has been a creeping fear in London of becoming smaller, less cosmopolitan and less important -- of becoming poor like Berlin, rigid like Paris or inconsequential like Rome. The fear of no longer being a metropolis, of being just another city in England.

Kings lie buried here, rebels and capitalists, and the city's sense of humor is on full display at the grave of Karl Marx in Islington, where visitors must pay a four-pound entrance fee. The city does nothing in moderation, which makes it so seductive. It has no tolerance for indolence, which makes it so enticing. It is not the city to move to in the search for quietude. "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life," wrote the author Samuel Johnson in 1777.

To become a true Londoner, all it takes is a quintessential tipsy afternoon in a pub with a couple of friends and a television broadcasting the Chelsea-Arsenal match. Then you know all you need to know about the city, life and all the rest. That, at least, is how it was for a long time.

Beset with Anxiety

These days, Brexit even creeps into bar chatter. The tone is one of lament and it is impossible to blame capital-dwellers for that either. The pound has become weaker since the referendum and coffee, mobile phones and Ibiza vacations have all become more expensive. European nurses are quitting and entire companies are planning on leaving the country.

London small talk has become beset with anxiety, no matter who you speak with: architects, bankers, writers and normal citizens. There are many pessimists who see the British capital stuck in a downward spiral. But there are still those who remain confident, people who say that London has always been flexible and that stagnancy is not an option for the city. Stagnancy means boredom and boredom would mean the city's demise.

In his grand biography of the city, historian Peter Ackroyd describes London as a living being, half stone and half flesh. "It is curious … that this labyrinth is in a continual state of change and expansion," he writes. The city will adapt, even to a hard, messy Brexit if it must.

The city is chaotic, and it helps to look at it from a fresh perspective -- through the eyes of a recently arrived newcomer. Alessandra Muin was 22 when she came, a lively young woman from a northern Italian backwater. She wanted to learn English and find adventure, she wanted to leave provinciality behind and become a part of the world. She initially intended to stay for just a few months but had no concrete plan.

She flew in just before Christmas. "Two weeks later, I had a job," she says, folding sweaters and shirts at the Oxford Circus Benetton. It wasn't the most fulfilling job in the world, but it was a start.

She wandered agape through the city streets and partied with new friends and acquaintances in the evenings. And she saw a million opportunities. "I fell in love with this city," she says.

'A Frame of Mind'

That was 14 years ago and London hasn't let her go since. Today, she is no longer folding shirts, rather she cooks tasty treats from back home and sells them to foodies. Muin is one of tens of thousands of people who wash up here every year and somehow never leave. Because of the opportunities that present themselves, because of the freedom, because of the people, who are all looking for something: money, happiness, excitement -- for life and meaning.

Those who move to London want to prove to themselves that they can survive here. Every newcomer immediately senses that this maze of streets and empire monuments, palaces and council housing, is more than just bricks and cement. "London is a state of mind," says Mayor Sadiq Khan, and he sounds like he means it. The referendum is like a thorn in the city's side and Khan knows that he needs to find a way to meliorate the anger of its residents. But how?

A career like Khan's would be unthinkable elsewhere and his life essentially tells the story of this city as a magnet to those looking for a chance. Nowhere else would such a climb raise fewer eyebrows.

The son of a Pakistani bus driver becoming a lawyer and then mayor, the first Muslim leader of a European metropolis: What's the big deal?

"For over a thousand years, this city has been open to trade, people and ideas," Khan says. "We must not allow that to change."

Like the majority of his constituents, Khan voted against Brexit on June 23, 2016, and, like all politicians who did the same, he finds himself in a dilemma. He is among the referendum's losers, but he must do all he can to protect citizens, companies and banks from the negative consequences of leaving the EU. He wants to link London closely with Europe, using special work visas if it comes to that. He can't stop Brexit, but he can slow it down. And it's not just about London. "When London flourishes, the country flourishes," Khan says. "If London is doing poorly, the country suffers."
Turning Money into More Money

The problem is the city's arrogance. Khan knows that open doors are advantageous, at least for his city. London pulls in people, money, jobs, art and ideas. Fully 23 percent of the country's economic output comes from the capital. And London residents are more than happy to remind their provincial brethren of their city's superiority. The food is better, as are the theaters, the museums, the pubs, the discussions, the nightlife and perhaps even the sex. As such, the Brexit referendum was also a form of rural revenge, a "fuck you" from globalization's losers to those who have profited the most. It's no wonder that many are now looking to London with barely concealed schadenfreude.

"The man in the country looks at the capital and doesn't recognize himself," says John Lanchester, a scholar, writer and Londoner. For years, Lanchester's books have been an examination of an increasingly depraved metropolis, a scrutiny of the spiritual vacuity of a city that has transformed greed into a form of art, far beyond the borders of the banking district. A city that views money as a value in and of itself. Welcome to capitalistic hell.

Lanchester is sitting in Soho House in the heart of London, the perfect venue for a discussion about the city's development. Soho House isn't just a kind of private club for the global elite of young squares and pseudo-entrepreneurs, it is also a foreign object hovering over the foreign object. An artist setting out to paint portraits of globalization's winners could do worse than setting up her easel here. The rock oysters are delicious.

Lanchester says that the criticism that London has become too large and influential is old, but is still accurate. The deregulation of the financial industry in the 1980s, the so-called Big Bang, increased the chasm between London and the rest of the country. Furthermore, the country's mines closed down at almost exactly the same time, along with its steel mills and shipyards. Workers on the coasts and in the industrial centers didn't just lose their jobs, they also lost their identities -- even as London, this English Gotham, grew and grew.

"The city was obsessed with turning money into even more money," Lanchester says. It was as if London had discovered the magic potion to becoming rich without getting one's hands dirty.

Who needs coal and steel when you can make money from money? Lanchester guffaws sarcastically. "When it comes to bank regulations, we ripped up the rulebook in the '80s. Five minutes later, London was the center of global capitalism."

Not Going Anywhere

Will the City of London now move to Paris or Dublin -- or, just as a joke, to Frankfurt? There are banks that want to leave, to some extent at least. Estimates as to how many jobs London might lose range from a couple tens of thousands up to 100,000. Nobody knows how deep the impact will be.

Alison Rose has been working in the financial industry since the 1990s. Cheerful, candid and energetic, Rose is a member of the Royal Bank of Scotland's executive committee and one of the most influential women in the City. She says she has noticed that clients have become more insecure and anxious. She, of course, doesn't know either how the Brexit negotiations will ultimately turn out and whether London-based banks will continue to have full access to European markets, but she isn't pessimistic. On the contrary, she seems quite sanguine.

In the course of her banking career, she says, she has experienced all manner of turbulence, including the crash nine years ago, which triggered the deepest recession Great Britain had seen in decades. But every crisis presents opportunities, Rose says. "The financial industry is extremely agile and good in taking up challenges as they arise." The city will survive, she says, adding that Brexit isn't comparable to 2008.

Most bankers weren't in favor of Brexit, but they will cope with it, she says. "I think the City will cope with Brexit whatever it will look like in the end," Rose says. In other words: We aren't going anywhere. The banking quarter has survived fire, global economic crises and significant financial tremors. It could be that London will lose a portion of its business, but nobody thinks that fired bankers will be wandering through the streets clutching cardboard boxes on the day of Brexit. A bit of risk is part of the game, and it's even better if you can make money from it.

Like Crispin Odey, for example, a hedge fund manager who became a quarter-billion euros richer because he bet against the pound. Among the EU opponents in London are also extremely rich men like Michael Hintze, who also manages a hedge fund, and the head of the sugar producer Tate & Lyle, which hopes to earn higher profits outside of the EU.

Cool, Sexy and Vainglorious

Ironically, despite the vulgarities of its wealthy inhabitants, criticism of globalization never really gained much traction in London. The Occupy movement found few adherents and despite greedy investors and landlords, protests against gentrification and the displacement of the middle class from certain areas of the city are rare. Living in London is a zero-sum game: Either you scratch and claw your way upwards or you fail. Protest is futile.

And if more jobs disappear than feared, would that be so bad? It wouldn't be good for the bankers, of course, nor for the country's coffers, since London produces billions in tax revenue.

But isn't it about time that Britain returns to producing more than just financial services and expensive real estate?

The City has had to reinvent itself too often to reject change and a huge number of people profited from the financial industry's Big Bang, including artists. Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas and all the other Young British Artists were children of Thatcher and fit extremely well into the approaching age of money and mega-egos. They made London cool, sexy and vainglorious. They were rebels who stirred up the city, but more than anything, they had a nose for business.

These days, young artists tend to settle on the city's periphery, in Walthamstow in the north or in Margate, located on the coast a good hour's train ride to the east. There are no statistics indicating how many painters and sculptors still live here, but there is much to indicate that the city is losing its wild progeny. Artists can only afford an apartment in the city once they have already become well known.

A comparison of 30-year-old photos of the city with pictures from today reveals two completely different characters. In 1987, London seemed rough, coarse and cocky. Now, in 2017, it is glossier, with more glass and high-rises. Since the beginning of the 21st century, skyscrapers have been multiplying almost uncontrolled. Western Europe's tallest building, the Shard, sticks up next to the London Bridge like a splinter of the Death Star. Dozens more buildings jut up into the skyline or are being planned, many of them financed from abroad.

On the Path to Cultural Isolation

The face of London is changing, again. The middle class is moving away, including nurses, police officers and teachers, because life in the capital has become unaffordable. "Hardly anyone with a normal job can afford to live in the city center," says architect David Chipperfield. The extremely rich and extremely poor remain behind.

Real estate sites in the internet are full of garages that cost half a million euros and upwards. In the Battersea Power Station on the Thames, which has been transformed into luxury apartments, a 50-square-meter (540-square-foot) apartment costs almost 700,000 euros. It wouldn't be terribly surprising if Chipperfield was pleased by the lunacy -- he profits from it after all. But ultimately, he says, it is damaging to the city if normal people are pushed out. "Quality of life suffers when the city center turns into a global shopping mall."

Brexit, Chipperfield says, is a disaster for London, purely from a psychological perspective, and the city is on the path to cultural isolation, the architect believes. It will be more difficult for those looking for work to come to Britain in the future, he says, adding that, if talented youth can no longer settle on the Thames, then they will simply develop their ideas elsewhere, which is dangerous for a city that is hungry for talent. Almost two-thirds of those who work at Chipperfield's office at Waterloo Station are from elsewhere in Europe. "Following Brexit, it will become more complicated to hire such people," he says.

Chipperfield is less afraid of a sudden crash than he is of a creeping loss of stature. Thus far, the United Kingdom has brilliantly navigated the tightrope walk between pragmatism and creativity. The country still has a considerable influence in the worlds of fashion, music and design. The emphasis is on still. Prior to the referendum, Chipperfield supported the remain camp. It makes him nervous, he says, that those parts of British society that might feel strengthened by Brexit are so unpredictable: the rowdies, drawing-room fascists and the mafia.

An Attack on the City's Liberal Soul

Like the entire city, the architect stands for a creative, liberal Britain. In the future, of course, he will hardly have trouble attracting clients, he's too famous for that. But like many in the capital, he's uncomfortable with the new country that is slowly emerging, represented by Theresa May. Chipperfield was shocked when she mocked those who saw themselves as "citizens of the world," claiming that they were actually "citizens of nowhere."

That wasn't just an attack on the liberal soul of the city, on its global ambitions, optimism and fairness. It was also an assault on the London dream which holds that everyone in the city can become what they want if they are willing to work for it and have a bit of talent. The entire city is made up of these "citizens of nowhere."

Everyone on the Thames knows that London is doubly vulnerable. First, because the flow of money in the city could slow to a trickle. And second, because in recent years, a huge number of these "citizens of the world" have settled here, with their extremely mobile offices that could quickly move to Singapore or Dublin tomorrow. The real danger is that London could ultimately succumb to its own magic potion.

But would that be all bad? The gulf between rich and poor has become unbridgeable and London can't withstand the discrepancy much longer. A capital has to outshine the surrounding hinterlands, it must be avant-garde. It could be, however, that this capital has become too estranged from the country in which it is located. The excesses, the wealth, the arrogance have all become too great.

Perhaps it might even be healthy if Brexit were to act as an impediment. Normalcy is boring, but London could certainly do with a pinch of it.