The World Today for March 20, 2017


Home, Bubbling, Home

After much debate in Berlin in recent years, concerns about the skyrocketing cost of housing in the German capital erupted into full-blown demonstrations this past weekend.

“Massive crowding is happening to the extent that a lot of people can’t pay their rent, or they are having their leases canceled for the slightest triviality,” protester Sara Walther told the New York Times. “People are finally starting to defend themselves.”

Americans aren’t the only ones who might see parallels between Walther’s lament and their experiences in their countries.

An affordable housing crisis is gripping the globe.

The International Monetary Fund’s Global House Price Index recently found that prices worldwide have rebounded from the Wall Street meltdown and have crept up to pre-crisis prices that have shot up almost 60 percent compared to the turn of the century.

The dynamic is not the same everywhere, but a few trends seem universal.

As the Australian noted, a narrowing collection of wonderful cities like Sydney and Melbourne are generating well-paying jobs, drawing the young and well-educated who then compete for a limited stock of housing while most everyone else wonders where and how they might pay for a place to call home.

At the same time, as the Economist pointed out, foreign money is destabilizing other markets. Think Peter Thiel’s $10 million lakeside estate in New Zealand, where overseas money accounted for 3 percent of property sales but raised prices by 13 percent last year.

The wealthy are not always to blame. In Turkey, the IMF said, Syrian refugees fleeing their country’s bloody civil war have gobbled up housing in cities and towns on the border, hiking demand and shrinking supply.

Meanwhile, prices in some markets – like Brazil, China and Russia – are falling.

But those appear more like corrections from insane price inflation from years past rather than anything to celebrate too enthusiastically.

In China, even as the once-booming economy stagnates, “property prices continue to remain far beyond the reach of ordinary people,” wrote the New York Review of Books.

Rural folk who head to Chinese cities to pursue their dreams but can’t find adequate housing risk becoming a discontented class that should frighten authoritarians in Beijing, the Review warned.

In Moscow, rent prices are crashing, Bloomberg reported. An exodus of foreign cash is the biggest culprit in the shift.

But Bloomberg’s example of a write-down in prices is hardly encouraging.

A landlord in Moscow’s tony Arbat district previously rented a 2,400-square-foot apartment for $14,000 a month to an international oil company. Now the same place rents for $4,500. That’s a big change. But Russians on average earn just $26,100 a year.

War, pestilence, poverty – these are real horrors. But those lucky enough not to have to endure them still face challenges that risk ballooning into civil unrest and worse problems in the future.


Awkward, ‘Meaningful’ Timing

North Korea chose an awkward time for a rocket-engine test that South Korea said shows “meaningful” progress in the North’s quest to develop missiles capable of hitting the US.

North Korea’s KCNA news agency announced the success of the engine test amid US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Beijing as part of an Asia tour that has been dominated by concern about the Hermit Kingdom’s nuclear and missile programs, Reuters reported.

The test came hours before Tillerson met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the highest-level meeting between a US official and China since US President Donald Trump took power in January, CNN noted.

Tillerson said after a meeting with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Saturday that the two nations had “renewed determination” to “work together to convince the North Korean government to choose a better path and a different future for its people.” But China appears reluctant to turn Pyongyang into an enemy by taking a tough stance, with Wang urging the US to “come back to the right track of a negotiated settlement.”

Election Shock

Projected by some as paving the way for economic reforms, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s thumping victory in India’s most populous state appears to be boosting his party’s Hindu nationalist agenda.

After declining to field a single Muslim candidate, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on Saturday selected a firebrand Hindu cleric as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the New York Times reported. Tempering that decision, Modi also appointed a Muslim party member who was not granted a spot on the ballot to a position as a cabinet minister in the state government.

With the Muslim minority making up around 20 percent of its population, the state is a bellwether for Hindu-Muslim relations across India. In the early 1990s, Hindu radicals tore down the 16th century Babri Mosque, claiming that it was built over a more ancient temple commemorating the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram – and resulting in nationwide riots.

Modi’s choice as chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, has been repeatedly accused of baiting Muslims, has openly called for now secular India to be redefined as a Hindu state, and advocates building a new Ram temple on the site of the destroyed mosque.

Unity, Votes

Asia’s youngest democracy, East Timor, went to the polls Monday in a largely symbolic presidential election – with both major parties backing former freedom fighters in the fledgling country’s war for independence from Indonesia.

It’s the fourth such election since the formation of the country in 2002 but the first since UN peacekeepers departed in 2012, Reuters reported. Voters are mostly preoccupied with the government’s failures to spread the wealth from the country’s oil and gas revenues. Unemployment in East Timor – where the energy sector accounts for around two-thirds of GDP – stands at 60 percent.

Many consider Francisco “Lu Olo” Guterres, backed by the party that led the independence struggle, Fretilin, the frontrunner. But Democratic Party politician Antonio da Conceicao has the backing of incumbent president Jose Maria de Vasconcelos – who is expected to run for the more powerful post of prime minister in July.

While the president’s role in the government is largely ceremonial, the election is important in establishing unity, the agency said.


Top Marx

Gifting a statue is one way countries score points with one another – especially when the statue depicts a famous native of the country in question.

But the ancient German city of Trier – known for its Roman ruins and picturesque town center – was recently put in an awkward position when Beijing offered to donate a statue of Trier’s most famous son – Karl Marx.

Some welcome the gift as an acknowledgement of Chinese-German relations and Marx’s contributions to philosophy and economics.

But critics say a statue of the author of “The Communist Manifesto” is a provocation given East Germany’s tumultuous history with Communism and Beijing’s still questionable human rights record, reported the Washington Post.

Reservations aside, the city council of Trier last week voted in favor of accepting the bronze statue – whose exact height is yet to be determined.

The bronze replica of Marx is set to be unveiled next year in honor of the thinker’s 200th birthday.

But residents of Trier can already catch a glimpse of him. The city installed a wooden model of the proposed statue as a trial run weeks ago. Check it out here.

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