I'm in Barcelona today, where I had a three hour lunch at the city's famous Evo restaurant with a crowd of Spanish marketing mavens and Gary Kasparov, the Russian chess prodigy who is now amongst the most outspoken critics of the increasingly autocratic Putin/Medvedev regime. The food was amazing: tapas, followed by pea cream soup, then baby cuttlefish with vegetable pearls, then codfish fried with sea snails and saffron cream, then shank end of leg with mashed potatoes and sauteed mushrooms, then various Spanish cheeses, finished off with vanilla tahiti cream with chocolate ice cream. No wonder the Spanish need a long siesta after lunch.
Equally rich was my conversation with Kasparov. Talking to him about Russia gave me some perspective on the current state of America. Ironically, the anti Marxist Kasparov is a fount of fascinating statistical information about the distribution of wealth and power. Did you know, for example, that the 20 richest Russian combined represent 35% more wealth than the annual Russian budget, whereas the 100 richest Americans "only" represent 25% of the U.S. national budget? Or that the 10 leading companies in Russia make up 68% of trading on the Russian stock exchange, whereas the top 10 American companies only represent 7.8% of trading?
I had two reactions to all Kasparov's statistics about the new Russian oligarchy. On the one hand, America actually appears refreshingly egalitarian in comparison with Russia. On the other hand, however, compared with Spain, Japan or Germany, America remains a deeply oligarchic economic power that has more in common with Russia than the rest of the industrialized world. The symbiotic Cold War might be finished, but America and Russia are still peculiarly joined at the hip by their dramatic economic inequalities and dense political contradictions. The 21st century great power system remains inchoate. But maybe the future will pit an oligarchic Russia and America against the economic democracies of Europe and China. Maybe that's why Bush was able to look so sympathetically into Putin's soul. Perhaps what he glimpsed was himself and a contemporary America dramatically divided between the power of wealth and the poverty of democracy.