That’s all folks, at least until September

Saturday, August 1, my family will wing its way, DV, to Boston, MA.  From there we will trek on to Martha’s Vineyard to spend the month of August doing nothing in particular.  The combination of bad airport novels, adequate supplies of white wine (including, tell it not in Gath, vino verde) and the nearness of lots of family I don’t see enough of should enable me to recharge the nigh-depleted batteries.  Safe and sheltered in the company of other effete liberals and pointy-headed intellectuals, I hope to have the time to finally write the bad book (tentatively titled ‘Oi Oikonomiks!’) I have promised my agent. This blog will fall silent (not before time, I can hear you mutter) until September.

The only blight on the landscape of this holiday is that, once again, a US presidential family has decided to vacation on Martha’s Vineyard during the month of August.  From earlier visitations by the Clintons, I know that the arrival of the presidential hordes on the Vineyard represent a massive negative externality for all those who go there in pursuit of the same thing the president and his family seek: peace and quiet.  Whether the local economy gets a temporary or lasting boost, I leave as a project for Econ 101.

The presidential party (or presidential court) that tags along on any presidential journey, let alone a temporary relocation involving the entire presidential nuclear family, looks and behaves like an occupying army.  There are hundreds, if not thousands of persons charged with security, ranging from the secret service to the specially beefed-up state and local police forces.   Communications experts, specialist medical personnel, myriad advisers and countless other presidential hangers-on cause the Vineyard to sink at least a foot deeper into the sea.  The carbon footprint is bigger than that of the yeti.  The press corps and assorted other media camp out all over the island, competing with the presidential staff for first place in the hot air emission stakes.  Roads are blocked.  Traditional rights-of-way are suspended.  Beaches become inaccessible.

The accommodation of the presidential family has been reported to include a private beach.  The property rights associated with a private beach in Martha’s VIneyard, as in the rest of Massachusetts, are restricted. State law grants access to clammers, fishermen, hunters and mariners to the “wet sand” zone between the water’s edge and the mean high water mark. Private property rights end at this zone and as long as you’re engaged in fishing, clamming or getting your fishing boat off the beach, you are entitled to be on the beach.

Many ‘private’ beaches are not accessible by land without trespassing. They are, however, all accessible from the sea. I wonder what would happen if I took my kayak (the Godwit) and my fishing rod to Chilmark, and attempted to land on the presidential ‘private’ beach and start fishing. I assume some derogation of the state law would be invoked as I was blasted out of the water before I got anywhere near the shore.

I have seen the presidential occupying forces in action abroad.  The only time I have been to Davos for the World Economic Forum (the event with the highest ratio of self-importance to importance of any gathering of humans anywhere, ever), president Clinton attended part of the circus.  Let me emphasize that I was there ex-officio only – as briefcase carrier (aka chief economist) to the president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.  US security personnel simply took over the town, established a defensive perimeter and bossed and bullied everyone there, including the Swiss army and police, on the roads and in the meeting halls. The only time I have seen anything like it was when the Israeli prime minister visited the Binnenhof -  the centre of government in the Hague, the Netherlands.  Israeli security personnel took such a complete grip on that part of the Hague, that the Dutch prime minister had to argue with them to be allowed to use his own office.

I recognise that security considerations are important, and that the days when a US president could walk his dog down Main Street on his own are unlikely to return anytime soon.  Even so, the in-your-face arrogance of the modern imperial presidency is breathtaking and, I would argue, dangerous to a democratic, open society.  The gap between the president (or indeed the president-elect) and the average American becomes infinite as soon as the presidential election polls close.  This isolation cannot be twittered or blackberried away.  The president effectively becomes the prisoner of his court.  As a president’s time in office wears on, this isolation leads increasingly to distorted views of reality, at times bordering on paranoia.

Fortunately, we will be staying at just about the opposite end of the Vineyard from where the Obamas and most of the Obamistas will be staying, so we may escape the worst spillovers and fallout from the presidential visitation.  I leave you with another Econ 101 question.  The same estate agent from the Vineyard who deplored the negative externalities created for everyone else by a presidential holiday on the Vineyard also asserted that it would be good for property prices.  Show me a model of property prices that reconciles these two observations.

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website