For the New Emperors

by Kevin D. Williamson
Monocle, the bible of cosmopolitan elites, turns seven.

There’s an old joke about what the newspaper you read — remember reading newspapers? — said about you: The Wall Street Journal is read by the people who run the country, the New York Times is read by the people who think they run the country, the Washington Post is read by people who think they should run the country, the Boston Globe is read by people whose grandparents used to do a damned fine job of running the country, the San Francisco Chronicle is read by people who aren’t sure whether there is a country or if anybody’s running it, and the Miami Herald is read by people who are running another country. But running the country is a modest ambition — what do you read if you want to be one of the people who run the world?

The answer, for many years, was The Economist. It was what you read, and where you read it was the airport. Nobody has ever read a copy of The Economist cover-to-cover anywhere but an airport. There are people who subscribe to The Economist, and about once a year one of them will take to the pages of the New York Times or the Financial Times or some such with an essay about the guilt he feels as unread back issues of The Economist stack up on his Noguchi coffee table. Samuel Huntington coined the term “Davos Man” to describe the class composed of the sort of people who attend the World Economic Forum, regardless of whether they are the people who attend the forum in fact. The main attraction of the phrase “Davos Man” is that it is much more economical than “Man with an MBA who reads The Economist at the British Airways lounge while awaiting the business-class flight that will take him from Washington or New York to a financial-regulation conference in London or a trade show in Dubai.”

But The Economist, a venerable publication founded in 1843 for the purpose of advocating repeal of the Corn Laws, has some competition, in the form of its considerably hipper seven-year-old cousin, Monocle, founded and edited by the Canadian journalist and entrepreneur Tyler Brûlé. It is a magazine that is in general focused on a particular brand of well-heeled global urbanism, the go-to source for articles on the soft power of native Finnish people (“On top of the world: Why the Sámi people are in pole position”), how not to be a bad tourist (“Indonesia’s significant attractions seem to have been overlooked by tourists who flock to Southeast Asia. And that’s a great shame, says Monocle’s Aisha Speirs”), such new-urbanist obsessions as bicycling (“Kenji Hall goes for a little bike ride — in the middle of traffic-clogged Jakarta with the city’s governor, a Spanish MotoGP world champion and the ambassador of Denmark”), second-tier global cities (“Evolution theory: There’s more to Darwin than cyclones and crocodiles”), etc. It can be a little precious at times — Monocle doesn’t have bureaus, it has bureaux — but Mr. Brûlé and his colleagues have something that is notably lacking in many publishing concerns, that being a sense of how to make money and what to do with it, and an admirable entrepreneurial spirit. Rather than simply selling advertisements for high-end goods, it sells goods itself, funding the opening of its Hong Kong bureau from sales at its London retail shops. It operates a radio station and cafés, and partners with like-minded designers to market goods directly to its readers. It commissions short films and shows them on its website. The result of this large-minded entrepreneurship was a 2013 operating profit of 48 percent and $3 million worth of traditional advertising in its December-January 2013 issue.

No modern publication is complete without a branded list, and for Monocle that takes the form of city rankings. American cities, lacking as they do such traditional European comforts as walkability and effective mass transit, generally do fairly poorly, not one of them cracking the top ten on the 2013 list (Copenhagen, Melbourne, Helsinki, Tokyo, Vienna, Zurich, Stockholm, Munich, Sydney, Auckland) and only three making the top 25: Honolulu at No. 17, Portland at No. 23, and San Francisco at No. 24, barely edging out Düsseldorf.

And who am I to contest the charms of Düsseldorf? But reading the features in Monocle, I have the same feeling that I have reading the famous classified advertisements in The Economist: Who, exactly, is the target audience? In the case of The Economist, it seems to be somebody with an advanced degree in economics specializing in agricultural-credit policy looking for a two-year appointment in Lagos at £83,000. The ideal Monocle reader, so far as I can tell, is a city-planning executive who shares a Variér-furnished apartment in Helsinki with his successful gallerist wife, retreating occasionally to the seaside villa outside Burgas they inherited from a beloved uncle, the 18th Viscount Hurdy-Gurdy. It is a magazine whose concerns often are literally pedestrian, but the first dozen advertisements in the most recent issue come from: Cartier, Louis Vuitton, BMW, Prada, Bottega Veneta, Dior Homme, Hermès, Ermenegildo Zegna, Valentino, Tod’s, B&B Italia, and Kiton. Because when you land in Stuttgart wearing your $11,000 Kiton suit, you’re looking to carry your $5,000 Bottega Veneta weekender to the metro, rather than to a taxi. Monocle is perhaps best described the same way that DeWitt describes the watches it advertises therein: “For the new emperors.”

It may be that Monocle is in some part a “wishbook,” like the old Sears catalog, or like The Robb Report, a magazine about yachts and Ferraris that seems to be most popular with people not especially well equipped to purchase yachts or Ferraris. (Maybe there are more yacht owners shopping at the Walmart in Alva, Okla., than I imagine.) But I do not think that that is probably what Monocle is all about. Monocle Man walks the Earth, in the real world. Earlier in the week, I was talking with a friend about a very clever apartment for sale in Soho (that’s New York’s Soho, Monocle Man, not London’s Soho), a tiny, 420-square-foot studio with an assortment of elegantly engineered built-in furniture and fixtures, e.g. a dining table for twelve that recedes into the floor when not in use. My friend, illustrating the Himalayan gap between the native New Yorker and the native Texan, wondered: “Is it crazy that I’m surprised it’s only $1 million?”

Short answer: Yes.

But what Monocle and its advertisers clearly understand, even if the point is seldom made explicit, is that living in a first-tier city is a luxury good, like a Prada bag or a pair of Hermès boots. Well-off people who live in New York City, suffering the occasional bout of liberal guilt about their incomes, often remark that one has to take into account the sobering cost of living in Manhattan or Brooklyn Heights, as though that were not a choice — as though there were no Yonkers. And that is no knock on Monocle’s implicit worldview, as easy as it is to caricature it: There are worse models for understanding cities than as consumer goods.

In fact, the consumer-good analysis is an excellent starting point for a discussion of the merits and shortcomings of different cities, and it is here that reading Monocle, or traveling overseas outside of the usual tourist destinations, can be really very instructive. A free-market advocate such as myself might have an interesting discussion with Monocle Man about the first-order question of whether it is sensible or desirable to entrust political institutions with the design and operation of mass-transit systems, but, given the near-universality of that situation, we might also have an interesting discussion of the second-order question of why it is that American cities and regional institutions do such a poor job of it relative to their European and Asian counterparts. It isn’t a matter of money: There are cities and regions that spend far less on mass transit than do New York or Washington, with better results, just as there are countries that spend far less on government schools than do most U.S. cities, also with better results. Part of the answer to that question is history and geography — it is with regret that I inform my Monocle-minded friends in Houston that a region with Harris County’s practically Martian population density is never going to support the services of a London-style metro — but part of it is institutional failure with its roots in cultural defects. The conditions and expense of the Long Island Railroad would be a national scandal in most Western European countries, but we accept them the way we accept Medicaid fraud and three-hour waits at the driver’s-license office.

But the consumer-good model of understanding cities and regions has some important limitations, too, as one can see from the economically unsustainable gulf between California housing prices and California incomes, or from a ride on a characteristically clean and efficient Dutch train through the depressing suburbs of Amsterdam. Manhattan and San Francisco are expensive because of demand — a great many high-income people want to live there — and because of restrictions on the supply of housing. They are great places to be rich. But New York City is not a rich city — it is a poor city, its median income below that of New York State and below the national average, its poverty rate higher. Poor people in New York, like those in many Western European cities, enjoy some advantages of living in proximity to wealthy people — New York cleaned up its streets and turned around its finances in no small part because rich people demanded it — and if the readership of Monocle prefers the European urban model to the American urban model, the most compelling reason for its doing so is that European institutions, for all their defects, do a better job of cultivating those proximity advantages than American institutions do.

Monocle is fundamentally a magazine about wealth, rather than a magazine about poverty, but the most basic challenges to our cities and institutions are of course on the poverty side of the ledger. New York could stand to radically improve its transit infrastructure, but would still be a tough place to live for the 50 percent of the families in the Bronx earning less than $34,300 a year. A magazine about poverty would be a tough sell to investors, true, but the comfort-the-comfortable Monocle worldview is occasionally blinkered when it comes to the sort of urbanism that is not dressed in Prada. Its coverage of the Stockholm riots, for example, was queasy at best and positively glib at its worst, praising Sweden as a country that “shames its European neighbours when it comes to asylum” without ever quite getting from A to B, the rigorous examination of whether the strengths of Sweden’s model can endure as the country becomes less Swedish. It observed that Sweden remains excellent at “the boring stuff” such as education and honest governance, but the boring stuff is not the problem just at the moment for Sweden — or for Europe, or for the United States, for that matter.

The New Emperors might learn a few lessons from the old emperors, the most important one being that empires fall.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.