June 30, 2008

Obama Takes the Center, Perhaps Florida

After the American Century

In the last few weeks Senator Obama has performed the classic manouevre required of successful presidential candidates. He has moved toward the center. During the primaries the voters are all in the same party, but to win the general election, a candidate usually shifts policy positions a bit. In 2000 George Bush managed to convince some Democrats and many Indepndents that he was a "compassionate conservative." In 1992 Bill Clinton likewise danced a bit toward the middle.

When candidates do this, ideologues become upset, because the candidate no longer seems a person of principles, but an opportunist. However, I have become somewhat more tolerant of these policy position changes, which also suggest pragmatism and flexibility. Candidates thereby suggest to the public that they listen to the popular will. Obama has recently endorsed private gun ownership, for example. Personally, I wish he had not taken that position, but if he wants to win in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, and many western states, this is a good idea. In any case, the president will not likely be able to change the liberal laws on gun ownership., which have just been supported by the Supreme Court. It overturned a Washington DC law to control carrying handguns. There was little point in Obama attacking the Court, and he will focus on the battles he can win.

Obama likewise made clear his support for Israel, which is important to carry certain key states, notably Florida. This support should be balanced, however, by his repeated declaration that he would seek an open dialogue with many groups and governments that the Bush Administration has refused to talk to, including many in the Arab world.

Less predictably, and far more interestingly, Obama has made a sharp break with the hard-liners on Cuba. For fifty years the US has enforced an economic embargo against Castro's regime. Support for that policy is weakening, however, due to several factors. First, Fidel Castro is now too ill to run that country, and his more pragmatic and reform-minded brother has made many small steps in the direction Americans would like to see, giving a modicum of democracy to the country. Second, the hard-liners themselves are dying off, and the second and third generation Cuban-Americans can see the potential economic and personal benefits in re-engaging with Cuba. Third, the EU does not have an embargo against Cuba, and the US is cutting itself out of a market. When Obama spoke to Cuban-Americans in Florida last week, they applauded his call for dialogue and economic engagement. Since the Bush White House apparently has little historical memory, it is worth emphasizing that the Cold War was "won" without a shot being fired, because of constructive engagement.

In short, while Obama is moving to the center, he is not simply repeating old policy positions. His approach to Cuba seems far more sensible than McCain's, who has embraced the old hard-line view. Obama is going after the younger Cuban voters, making himself the candidate of the future and of change. Coupled with his more moderate views on immigration, this should play well with the Hispanic voters generally, who are less prone to be hard-liners on Cuba in any case.

If Obama can successfully hold Jewish voters and pull some of the Cubans away from the Republicans, he will have a much better chance to win Florida, and with it, the White House. He is being adventuresome where it can pay off, but not on gun control, an issue where the Supreme Court has spoken, and one that will drive the white working class into the arms of McCain.

Will it work? During April and May every poll on Florida put McCain ahead, often by as much as 15%. But in the middle of June, even before Obama announced his new Cuban policy and support for Israel, two polls put him ahead of McCain. Even if Obama ultimately loses the state, if he can force McCain to use time and money to defend it, he will have fewer resources to put elsewhere.

June 26, 2008

Shakespeare, Hemingway, Dylan, and the 2008 Election

After the American Century

Thanks to Rolling Stone, we now know that Barack Obama's literary taste runs to Shakespeare and Hemingway. The big news, of course, is that he admits to reading books, perhaps a dangerous admission in these media-saturated days.

These are pretty safe choices. Shakespeare was the most popular author in the United States during the entire 19th century. People from all walks of life really knew the Bard's works, and could quote large portions from memory. As Lawrence Levine revealed in a classic article, small traveling troupes of actors never had a problem filling the small parts with local thespians. Shakespeare was so well-known that Mark Twain knew his readers of Huckleberry Finn would laugh at the garbled lines delivered by "the King" and "the Duke." Obama's choice is more than mainstream; he's traditional in naming Shakespeare. But compared to the public of Twain's day, the average American almost certainly has a less detailed knowledge of the plays. File away this literary connection for future reference. We may one day have to decide which play most closely resembles Obama's first term as president. Presumably not King Lear or Macbeth, both of which seem more suited to McCain. Perhaps All's Well that Ends Well?

Hemingway gives Obama a bit of a modernist edge, though it depends on which works (and passages) he finds speak most powerfully to him. Given his views on Iraq, one assumes that he likes A Farewell to Arms. In contrast, John McCain is on record as very much liking For Whom the Bell Tolls. Does McCain see Iraq in terms of the Spanish Civil War? Does either candidate like the most uncompromising Hemingway short stories, such as "A Clean Well-Lighted Place"? Or the more experimental work that only came out after he died? I suspect we have pretty mainstream Hemingway, in either case.

Rolling Stone further reports that Obama has an ipod, and that he has a lot of Stevie Wonder and also Bob Dylan songs on it, including most of "Blood on the Tracks." The "Oldies" for him are from the 1970s. In contrast, Senator McCain admitted to a Politco reporter that he loves the movie American Graffiti and that his musical tastes are rooted in the 1950s and 1960s, up to the moment when he was shot down in Vietnam. Despite the generational difference, there is some overlap. I doubt that Senator McCain can listen to Dylan with the same enthusiasm as Obama can, particularly the early songs like "World War III Blues," and "It's a Hard Rain Gonna Fall." And how many Republicans can enjoy the searing irony of "With God on Our Side"?

If I could give the same oral examination to both candidates, we might know what they really think about Hemingway. This being unlikely, at least we know that they are representative of their musical generations.

June 24, 2008

Will Americans Get an Accidental President?

After the American Century

In 2000 Americans did not elect the president, the Supreme Court did, by a vote of 5-4. For democracy to retain legitimacy, it was crucial that the 2004 election ended with a clear result, which it barely did. However, there were charges that Republicans played games with the balloting in Ohio, and the contest was close. This time around, Americans rather desperately need a clear choice that will give a mandate to the winner.

If the candidates have their way, the election will be decided by clever advertising campaigns and speeches. But accidents and unforeseen events may play a decisive role. For example, if John McCain has health problems between now and November, it would devastate the Republicans. If either of the presidential candidates collapsed from exhaustion on the campaign trail, such a small health failure could undermine them. But let us hope and assume health will not be an issue. In that case, there are four categories of disaster that are beyond the candidate’s control: economic collapse, natural disaster, a terrorist attack, and bizarre events. Let us look at all four, to see who might have an advantage in each case.

The worst disaster for the Republicans would be massive economic failure. The American economy is teetering between recession and recovery, the most dangerous possibility is a stock market collapse, perhaps caused by the persistent housing crisis. Historically, the American market has not been strong in October, and twice it has crashed in that month. In late October, 1929, the market collapsed, devastating the economy for years, and dooming Herbert Hoover to be a one-term president. Likewise, in October 19, 1987 the New York Stock Market lost 23 percent of its value in two days. Nothing quite like that has ever happened in an election year, but McCain would almost certainly lose if it did. Al Gore’s campaign was hurt by the rapid fall in computer technology stocks in March 2000. When the dot.com bubble broke, many realized that the “new economy” was over. Had the market kept surging until after November, Gore presumably would have won more popular votes. If stocks fall in the month before the election, expect Obama to win, assuming he has not made a major mistake.

Natural disasters can also play a role in the campaign. September and October are huricaine season, and anything remotely resembling the Katrina (mismangement) disaster would also hurt the Republicans. However, in general, natural disasters tend to help the party in power, assuming it makes the most of the opportunity to show compassion and leadership. Just as importantly, a disaster can release huge sums of money to help an afflicted region, while the party in power can tour the area to inspect the damage, sweeping opponents off the front pages of the newspapers. The current floods in the Midwest thus favor the Republicans if they respond credibly to the disaster. As fate would have it, at least two swing states are affected by the surging waters, Missouri and Iowa.

The most unpredictable event would be a terrorist attack. Potential terrorists might try shape the outcome of the election, as they did in Spain with the Madrid train bombings. Depending on the target, the timing, and the administration’s response, would an attack strengthen McCain or hurt him? To put this another way, would an attack be more like an earthquake, giving the Republicans a chance to look heroic and sympathetic in the face of adversity, or would it be more like a stock market crash, a sign that the party in power is incompetent and unable to preserve the nation from harm? These are not easy questions to answer, and each party would try to put political spin on any attack. However, assuming that an attack did not reveal an egregious, gaping hole in Homeland Security (in which case Republicans get the blame), any terrorist activity would make national security, not the economy, the main issue. This presumably would favor McCain, because of his military background.

Finally, in America one cannot rule out the bizarre event. Any number of things might take everyone's mind off the election. A major sex scandal; a police case resembling the O.J. Simpson murder, chase, and trial; a major riot in an American city; a high-profile disaster in the space program; some new Brittney Spears antics; the authentic return of Elvis to a major shopping mall; a surreal hostage drama involving Osama bin Laden himself in Pakistan - who knows? A bizarre event that distracts the voters could have unpredictable consequences. One should even include the weather. Generally speaking, bad weather means a lower turnout, which is good for the Republicans, who as a group are wealthier and more able to get to the polls. An early blizzard sweeping through the "blue" states would not be good for the Democrats.

In a close election extra-political factors could be decisive, and the result might be an accidental president. You think this is impossible? Before the 2000 election, who thought the hanging chads in Florida was possible? This time around, what if the new computerized voting machines are erratic? We must hope for a decisive victory, not a roll of the dice. After Bush, Americans need a new president with unquestionable legitimacy.

June 23, 2008

Financing Obama and McCain

After the American Century

From abroad, the cost of American elections is unbelievable, appalling. In 2008 more than $1 billion will be spent just on the presidential primaries and general election. But I will spare readers a sermon on this matter. The media world has been actively discussing Senator Obama's decision not to accept public financing, established back in the 1970s to eliminate fund-raising and create a level playing-field. It has never worked well, but it seemed a step in the right direction. All along Obama has refused to accept any money from lobbyists (in contrast to McCain), but he apparently accepted the idea that campaigns should be financed by the government. Taking public money means accepting a cap on spending, however, and Obama has found that he can raise vast sums from private donors. He does not need public financing, which would cap his spending.

Obama is the first candidate who has understood how to use the Internet to reach potential donors, and to involve them in his campaign as partners. Anyone who gives begins to receive a regular stream of emails with information about campaign events, opportunities to join others in raising money, and chances to meet fellow supporters (both on-line or in person). So while Obama himself seldom needs to eat a rubber chicken and make a speech in person, the virtual Obama has been prodigiously successful at eliciting donations. By comparison, McCain is computer illiterate. For more on how Obama raises money, see Joshua Green, "The Amazing Money Machine" The Atlantic.com Alternately, give Obama $10 or more and you can experience it first-hand.

Obama presented his campaign funding decision not as a change of heart about campaign reform, nor as a proof of his on-line wizardry, but as a recognition that the public financing of campaigns has not worked. It has not worked because it is too easy for an "independent" group to raise money and spend it lavishly to help a candidate, who thereby can get both the public financing and the benefits of private funds. Anyone who looks at how John Kerry was "swift-boated" in 2004 knows that this is true, yet a surprising number of commentators, such as John Brooks in the New York Times, are taking Obama to task. They want him to play by the Washington rule book. But he has decided not to work with an ill-conceived, broken system.

Fortunately for Obama, most voters seem to agree with him. Indeed, his fellow Democrats are most likely to be upset that he has abandoned public support, while Republicans have never supported it much. So the decision might even help him with swing voters. In any case, subsequent polls have not detected any loss of support since he decided not to take public money. In fact, most voters are not that interested in the issue. Americans generally do not mind if a candidate says he is independent, can stand on his own, needs no assistance, or is individualistic.

The irony is that for decades the Republicans have always been better at fund-raising that the Democrats. McCain is the first GOP presidential candidate I can remember that has had trouble getting contributors. That is what derailed him last year, when it looked like his campaign was over, due to near bankruptcy. Even now that he has been the nominee for months, he has raised less money than either Obama or Clinton. As of May 31, McCain had raised $121 million, only a little more than Mitt Romney, who dropped out of the race long ago. By comparison, Hillary Clinton barnstormed for $221 million by the same date, and yet had run out of funds even as she lost the nomination to Obama.

By the end of May the Senator from Illinois had put together contributions of $295 million, all of it from small donors. He has also shown good financial management, keeping costs under control. He has a rather tidy surplus, too, with $43 million in cash at the end of the primary cycle. McCain was almost as well off, however, because he sewed up his nomination much sooner and could use far less of his money against fellow Republicans. At the end of May he therefore had $31 million - less than Obama, but not so much less.

So no one should be surprised that Obama has decided not to subject himself to the restrictions of public financing, when he does not need it. That leaves the Internet-challenged John McCain to take the government handout, like a charity recipient, because he has not been able to motivate his base.

June 19, 2008

The Curious Un-Democratic Secrecy of Vice-Presidential Selection.

After the American Century

One of the most curious practices in world politics is the selection of American vice-presidents. While literally millions of people choose the presidential candidates in the bright glare of constant scrutiny, a tiny handful of advisers and a candidate chooses each of the running mates. In a parliamentary system like that in Britain, Denmark or Germany, the "crown princes" in each party are observed for years in key cabinet positions, and constantly evaluated by the press. But in the American system the vice-president is chosen in secret from an unknown list of candidates, and may not be terribly well-known until after the announcement is made.

This procedure and the selection of possibly unknown candidates means that there can be unpleasant surprises after the formal announcement has been made. In 1972 George McGovern selected a well-educated and promising younger Senator - Eagleton was his name - to run with him. But his staff had not vetted their choice thoroughly enough, and it came out that Eagleton had undergone electric shock treatment some years before. You can decide for yourself whether or not this disqualifies someone to be next in line for the presidency, but Nixon's reelection campaign had a field day with it. McGovern was also the victim of Watergate, which is another story, but after he had to "un-choose" Eagleton his campaign never really recovered. Walter Mondale also sank his chances against Reagan in 1984, when he chose Ms. Ferrarro, without noticing that her husband had some dubious business connections in New York. The idea of choosing a woman was perhaps a good one, but that uproar was pretty much the undoing of his campaign.

McCain and Obama are now making the most crucial decision they have yet had to deal with, and it is one which they make alone, in secret. Voters regard this as a test of their judgement, and a clue to their core values. Has the person chosen really got the qualities needed to be president, if need be? Or has the person been selected mostly to "balance" the ticket? Or, occasionally, is the selection proof that the candidate just lacks judgement? Dan Quayle comes to mind. Was that mentally challenged, vapid, individual really just a heartbeat away from the presidency? The spectacle of seeing him blunder around from 1988 to 1992 certainly did not improve George Bush Sr.'s credibility. Quayle once apologized during a Latin America n trip because he did not speak Latin.

If the president remains healthy, the vice-president remains a minor figure. But the four (or eight) years waiting in the wings make these secret selections into leading contenders for the presidency in later elections. Since World War II, the following vice-presidents, all initially singled out by a handful of people, eventually became president: Truman, Nixon, Johnson, Ford, and Bush Sr. That is one half of the total. The others who emerged chiefly through the electoral process were Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush Jr. Admittedly, Bush Jr. is a disaster, but he did not win the popular vote, either. So leave him out, and what anyone can see is that the former vice-presidents were clearly less popular than those who were first vetted by the press and public. In short, I trust an open democratic process to choose leaders more than a few experts meeting in secret.

It is, in theory, easy to change the selection system, for nothing in the Constitution dictates the present arrangements. Only custom says that Hillary Clinton cannot run an active campaign for the second spot. Indeed, why should not anyone interested in the job be required to declare themselves a candidate, so the public can at least discuss them? The current system is mere bad habit. Some might argue that it is prudent to defer to the nominees and their need to find someone they feel is compatible. But it seems like a curious - and serious - failure of democratic principles. If the US ever decides to write a Constitutional amendment that gets rid of the strange Electoral College system - which led to the unfair selection of George W. Bush instead of Al Gore - at the same time it would be a good idea to require that the selection of vice-presidents be more open. In the meantime, there is nothing that says that either of the two parties will abandon this vestige of pre-democratic times.

June 18, 2008

Bush Dusts off Reagan's Energy Script, for McCain

After the American Century

In my last Blog I recalled the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan on energy in the 1980 campaign. No sooner had I published it than the Republicans began to talk just like Reagan did at that time. Back then the oil crisis apparently made it necessary to drill for Alaskan oil. The hue and cry was that the whole energy crisis was caused by over-zealous bureaucrats cheered on by environmentalists. It worked for the Republicans then. The public preferred to hear not that the shortages were real but that the US had lots of its own oil.

So the Republicans will try to blame the Democrats for the oil shortage! Not Detroit automakers who made inefficient cars and fought every attempt to raise the mandated minimum mpg (miles per gallon) for their fleets. Not campaign donors who run the oil corporations, who are reporting obscenely large profits. Not the Saudis and OPEC! Not rising demand in Asia. NO! Blame the Democrats.

Ronald Reagan, 1980: "The truth is America has an abundance of energy. But the policies of this administration [President Carter] consistently discouraged its discovery and production."

Until yesterday, McCain opposed off-shore drilling on environmental grounds. Now he is singing from the oil corporation song book. He said yesterday: "We must take control over our own energy future and become once again the master of our fate." Where? In Houston, Texas, the oil capital of the United States. He was talking to oil executives at Bush Family Central. This is the same McCain who last week wanted everyone to believe that he cares about global warming and is much different from G W Bush.

Meanwhile, Obama - correctly - told the press that off shore oil, even if found, drilled for and extracted, would not be available for more than ten years. "Much like his gas tax gimmick that would leave consumers with pennies in savings, opening our coastlines to offshore drilling would take at least a decade to produce any oil at all, and the effect on gasoline prices would be negligible at best, since America only has 3% of the world's oil. . . .It's another example of short-term political posturing from Washington, not the long-term leadership we need to solve our dependence on oil."

Drilling for off-shore oil will not solve the current problem of higher gas prices, but it will continue the US fixation on oil, and it will make corporate Republicans billions of dollars. Interestingly, a few Republicans from tidewater states, notably California's Arnold Schwartznegger, openly rejected the joint McCain-Bush call for off-shore drilling. Oil spills are bad for tourism, destroy wildlife, and threaten fishing. Oh, and burning oil creates greenhouse gases. But please don't tell Mr. McBush, as he thinks drilling for oil that will not be available for a decade is better than using less oil immediately or leading a determined drive to find alternatives.

June 14, 2008

Obama and McCain on Energy

After the American Century

John McCain and Barack Obama have both announced energy programs. McCain says that he is more "green" than Bush on the issue of global warming, but is this proclaimed difference really visible? To the casual observer, McCain and Obama might look similar on this issue. Both want to reduce US emissions of methane and CO2. By 2050 McCain says he will bring them down to just 40% of the 1990 level; Obama expects to reduce them ever further, to a mere 20%. These promises deal with the situation 42 years from now. Conceivably Obama might still be alive at that time, but such projections are not too meaningful by themselves.

A bit more concretely, both candidates like the idea of trading CO2 credits. This is not a new idea, and has been pushed by American representatives at climate meetings for years. The idea of turning pollution into a market, where the "right" to pollute is bought and sold appeals to US politicians because it makes the environment a part of business. Rather than set limits and then fine people for exceeding them, the notion is that corporations and cities will cut back on pollution if they get paid to do it. However, McCain wants to give away the initial quotas, at least the first time. Obama wants to sell pollution quotas and used the 150 billion dollars generated that way to support research into alternative energies and the like.

In line with this, Obama's goal is, by 2025, to produce 25% of all US electricity from wind, solar, biomass, and other sustainable sources. McCain has not set any definite goal, but claims that he supports alternative energies. In fact, he has a poor voting record in this regard.

With regard to ethanol, it is much the same story. Obama has a definite goal, while McCain "supports" the idea, but has no quota and in fact wants to stop subsidizing ethanol production. In other words, he says one thing but will do another.

Both candidates are realists, and can see that it is impossible to do away with coal-burning plants any time soon, but each wants to see "clean coal technology." Both also accept that atomic power can be an important source of electricity, but Obama is distinctly less enthusiastic about it. McCain sees atomic power as a good way to halt global warming, and admires the French for setting up such a comprehensive atomic power system, which supplies more than 75% of the nation needs.

The greatest differences between them lie in the area of curbing demand and conservation. Obama wants to convert all federal buildings to zero emission facilities and to give homeowners incentives for better insulation. McCain has no plans in this area at all. Likewise, Obama would give credits to utilities that managed to reduce customer demand, so they could profit not form growing the market but from shrinking it. McCain has no such plans.

Overall, Obama has made a greater commitment to alternative energy and to reducing demand. McCain sees nuclear plants as alternative energy, and seems not to understand that the most effective way to reduce oil dependency and CO2 emissions is to reduce energy use itself.

Overall, Obama has the more ambitious plan. McCain apparently thinks the market will solve the problem of global warming with the right incentives and leadership. Obama wants the government to invest directly in alternative energy R&D and set definite goals for conversion from the old system to a new, less polluting one. Where the Bush Administration at first questioned the reality of global warming and never made many efforts to change US energy use, McCain would at least rhetorically change the party line.

The basic McCain program looks quite a bit like that of Gerald Ford in 1975 . He claimed that if the US only would build a lot more nuclear plants and burn more coal, the nation could achieve energy independence by 1986. Obama's plan is more like that of Jimmy Carter, who also stressed alternative energies and greater conservation. Note that the public did not like Carter's plans, as they called for self-sacrifice and "the moral equivalent of war."

In 1980 Ronald Reagan proved far more popular with his energy plans, which basically denied that there was any real shortage. As he put it then: "Those who preside over the worst energy shortage in our history tell us to use less, so that we will run out of oil, gasoline, and natural gas a little more slowly. . . .But conservation is not the sole answer to our energy needs. America must get to work producing more energy. The Republican program for solving economic problems is based on growth and productivity. Large amounts of oil, coal, and natural gas lie beneath our land and off our shores, untouched because the present Administration seems to believe the American people would rather see more regulation, more taxes, and more controls, than more energy." This was irresponsible nonsense, and yet the public embraced this message. Under Reagan the country denied that there ever had been an energy crisis or that it could ever come again. As he declared during a speech in Cleveland, "The truth is America has an abundance of energy. But the policies of this administration consistently discouraged its discovery and production." He promised to "get America producing again" and concluded, "Every available resource we have must be used to free us from OPEC's domination." 28 years later, the Reagan promises of energy abundance ring rather hollow. But don't be too surprised if McCain's rhetoric begins to shift toward the winning Reagan formula. [In fact, McCain and Bush both began to do this two days after this Blog was published. See my posting for 18 June.]

June 13, 2008

A World's Fair in Copenhagen?

After the American Century

To the uninitiated, it sounds like such a good idea. There has never been a world's fair in Copenhagen, so why not really put the city on the map? For that is what such fairs do. There was a time when the largest and most powerful cities held fairs, notably London(the first one in 1851, 1862), Paris (1855, 1867, 1878, 1889, 1900, 1937) Vienna (1873), and New York (1853, 1939, 1964). But beginning a century ago the more famous cities were less likely to host expositions, and the impulse to hold fairs became the hallmark of "wannabe" world cities. Typically, these were places that had grown rapidly and wanted attention, which in retrospect was appropriate for Sydney (1879) Chicago (1894) or San Francisco (1915). However, the aspirations for recognition now seem a bit laughable for such largely forgotten fairs as those held in Nizhny Novgorod (1896), Omaha (1898), Buffalo (1901), Liege (1905), or Knoxville (1982).

So as Danes begin to think about this proposal, they should ask themselves the following questions. What recent world's fairs are they aware of? Did they attend or take any interest in those held in Daejeon (1993), Lisbon (1998), Hanover (2000), or Aichi (2005)? Prior to this proposal, had they even heard that there is a world exposition taking place this summer in Zaragoza? I suspect that few Danes know much about these events, for the very good reason that such fairs simply do not attract as much attention, or financial investment, as the fabulous fairs of the nineteenth century.

As a historian, I love world's fairs, for they are rich cultural texts. But I would not recommend staging a fair just so future historians will have great material to work with. The economics of world expositions is daunting. They almost always lose money, and they always cost more than the original projections. Today's newspapers casually throw out the price tag of 20 billion kroner for a Copenhagen Exposition in 2020, which is the next open date. But just like the Olympics, in order to get the chance to hold a world's fair, cities and nations must spend large sums in competition for the honor. Denmark would need to spend several hundred million kroner to outshine potential rivals such as Brisbane, Houston, New York, and Manila, all of whom apparently may apply. The chances of success might be 25%, assuming the that a detailed plan, a theme, and lots of financial guarantees are in place by 2011, when the competition begins.

Fortunately for Denmark, the nation is so rich and has so few social problems left to solve that it can easily afford to dedicate 20 billion kroner (well, probably a lot more) to this project. Nor is there any reason to worry that growing fuel shortages may make it far more expensive to reach such a fair than today, reducing attendance. Nor should anyone worry about the practical abilities of the Mayor of Copenhagen to carry out the project, even though she has conspicuously failed to build the 5000 inexpensive housing units she promised the city, when running for office. It is obviously far more difficult to build practical apartment units than it is to organize and build a world's fair that can later be transformed into a new urban region.

This project is also a great idea because Danish life, politics, and culture are so decentralized, that the nation needs to make further major investments in Copenhagen. An exposition would also put some automobiles and trucks on the half-empty highways. By comparison, it would be a waste of money to develop anything on Fyn or Jutland, much less those little islands.sprinkled around the edges of the country. Finally, this project would almost certainly drive up real estate prices in Copenhagen again, which is just what the nurses, police, teachers, social workers, and other ordinary people are clamoring for.

Yes, it is a marvelous idea to burden the next generation with a white elephant project like this, and it would be an appropriate crowning achievement for the Mayor. It is just possible, of course, that she might not still be in office in 2021, when the final bill comes due.

June 11, 2008

The Nurse's Strike and The Hypocritical Danish State

After the American Century
[The murses strike ended shortly after I wrote this column. I doubt there was any cause and effect! The nurses scracely got any more than the original offer.]

The nurses in Denmark have now been on strike for 8 weeks. That is a long time for a nation's health care to be cut to the bone. During this time a skeleton crew of nurses have always been on duty to deal with acute cases, but more than 325,000 treatments and operations have not taken place. The waiting list grows every day.

Why has no agreement been possible? The difference between the two parties is not so large: 2.2%, spread over three years. The Danish regions, who fund hospitals, have just saved one sixth of a year's wages, because they have not been paying the nurses all this time. Saving 16% of the wages already this year ought to make it possible, with ease, to give the nurses an 0.75% addition during each of the following three years. In fact, the regional governments would seem to be coming out so far ahead after not paying wages for two months, that the millions saved could be put into an account at 5% interest that would perpetually generate more than 0.75%. In other words, the strike itself has created a fund that can pay for one third of the funds required to meet the nurses demands. The real difference left, then, is only 1.5%. If the nurses stay on strike for four more months, then they will have saved the state so much money that their salary increase would cost nothing at all. Ah, but the patients would suffer.

There is one other demand that the nurses have, which seems obviously fair and reasonable. This is that a commission be set up by the state to investigate whether nurses (most of them women) are being discriminated against in their salaries. Do men with the same level of education, who have jobs with the same level of responsibility, receive the same pay? The state's refusal to grant this demand is tantamount to an admission that such a commission will "discover" what most people already know: women are being discriminated against. Of course, the state certainly would not want to find that out, officially, because then they would have to do something about it.

Watching this strike is like seeing a car crash in slow motion. It is painful, it will end badly for most of the citizens, and it is an accident that is not inevitable but due to bad driving. The economic road conditions are excellent, as Denmark has a budget surplus, low unemployment, and a strongly positive balance of payments. There is an acute shortage of nurses in Denmark, however, because the largely female nursing staff leave for other jobs, notably in private hospitals, but also in completely different sectors of employment. They leave because the level of stress is high and the wages are not competitive. They leave because of the pressure to do extra work, to cover for the unfilled positions. And at least some leave because they do not like the way hospitals are run.

The Danish government is hypocritical in this matter, and responsible for putting the health system in peril in at least four ways.

First, the Danish government is rhetorically committed to giving women equal pay for equal work. They are also legally obligated to end discrimination. Refusing to set up a commission to study the matter is at the least immoral. Economic justice delayed is justice denied.

Second, they are strongly in favor of limiting immigration into Denmark, but nevertheless actively recruit foreign doctors and nurses to move to Denmark. Entire groups of people have been flown in from India to work in hospitals in Jutland, and last week the Danish Embassy held a special event to recruit German health professionals. There is money for expensive recruitment campaigns abroad, but not for trying to hold on to the nurses at home.

Third. One of chief claims of the current government (once) was that that they were actively reducing the waiting lists for operations. In fact, even before the strike these lists were not all being reduced enough to reach the government's proclaimed goals. This was not surprising, since there were thousands of unfilled jobs. There are not enough doctors and nurses. Now, however, the failure to get a grip on the waiting list problem can be blamed on the nurses, because they have been on strike. But the root of the problem is that there are not enough health care professionals. And that is the government's own fault.

Fourth. This is a liberal/conservative government that trumpets free markets. It is hypocritical to pretend that free markets do not affect wage levels. There are not enough nurses because the wages are too low. An honest and ideologically consistent liberal government would recognize that hospital workers exist in a labor market. Instead, they are pretending that the market can be ignored, and they have now angered what nurses they do have. In the next few years they can expect more of them to leave for other employment. Denying that free markets govern the health sector will lead to more severe problems in the future. The population is aging and the demand for care will increase, even as nurses flee the hospitals.

In short, the current Danish government, both at the regional and the national level, has shown itself to be discriminatory against women, unwilling to create a commission to deal with that problem, hypocritical about immigration, dishonest about its intentions to reduce waiting lists, and disloyal to its own liberal principles. Until they recognize that health care is not a budget line they can play with but rather a service that must be paid for in the marketplace, just so long will the Danish people suffer.

It seems that gender discrimination is so deeply ingrained in this government that its representatives are willing to violate their free market principles and literally let the citizenry die, rather than pay nurses what the market demonstrates they deserve.

The only thing more painful than the government's behavior is the spineless inactivity of the opposition. The Danish parliament is about to go on vacation, without solving this problem. effectively leaving the population unprotected. The vaunted safety net is all but gone, and they waste time and try the nation's patience with idiotic discussions of whether Muslim women can wear head scarves. Some of these women wearing scarves are nurses, but apparently they should be fired to make the hypocritical pseudo-liberal government happy.

The nurses will also soon go on vacation. But patients cannot send their endangered hearts, weak lungs, and weakened bones on vacation. They will continue to suffer and increasingly to die because the hypocritical Danish government is deeply sexist and without moral principles.

June 03, 2008

Obama's Victory Train is Leaving the Station; Will Hillary Get on Board?

After the American Century

Its finally over. The person with the most pledged and "super" delegates is Senator Obama, with 2154. Senator Clinton has 1919. He gave a powerful speech in Minneapolis to a packed hall., not incidentally the same hall that the Republicans will be using to nominate McCain at the end of the summer. She spoke to a smaller crowd of supporters, close to her adopted home, in New York, and refused to concede. Can she swallow her pride and do what is best for the Party? Or will she become one of the bitter, defeated figures of history? She has lost, but will she choose to make losing part of her identity? Will she, in effect, help John McCain?

The New York Times
estimated several hours before the polls closed that Obama only needed 12 votes to clinch his victory. Thus, on paper at least, the primaries in Montana and South Dakota put him over the top. The turnout was reported to be heavy. However, there were only 31 delegates at stake in these two physically large but sparsely populated states, and in fact that was not enough to make much of a difference. If Hillary had won them all, she would still be more than 200 behind. In any case, it was not possible to win them all, given the proportional system in use. While final delegate results are not yet in, apparently Obama won by a slight majority in these two states (taken together) on the last day of the primaries.

Obama needed so few of the last primary votes because he successfully won over the super delegates. Clinton once had the advantage with that constituency, but in the last month almost none of these political professionals have opted for her candidacy, and Obama now has about 107 more of them than she does. Indeed, a parade of new supporters appeared in the last few days, pushing him to the brink of success. Furthermore, as soon as the polls closed, a number of super delegates announced for him, most notably former president, Jimmy Carter, and the majority whip in the House of Representatives, James Clayburn. If the superdelegates put him over the top, in other words, they were careful to wait until the end of the voting, so that it coincided with it.

Clinton not only lost among both delegates and super delegates. She also lost financially- Hillary Clinton has lent millions of dollars to her own campaign, joining Mitt Romney as a rich candidate who failed, despite having deep pockets. It seems that a rich person cannot (yet?) buy the office of president. On the other side, Obama who has no personal fortune, out-fundraised Clinton. This is the real measure of popular support, as millions of Americans gave him relatively small amounts. In contrast, Clinton long relied on large donors and did accept money from lobbyists, which Obama did not.

Yet even with all the warning signs flashing, Hillary Clinton refused to admit that defeat was coming, as she kept on campaigning vigorously in South Dakota, where polls suggested that the race was close. and where she indeed won. She virtually conceded Montana to Obama. Afterwards, she refused to make a concession speech, denying the party closure and cementing her image as a defiant fighter. But now she is not fighting against the odds, because it is statistically over. Hillary can either help unite the Democratic Party or she can increase the divisions in it. She has to decide how much she wants to get the Republicans out of the White House.

The longer she waits, the more unrealistic and petty she looks. Obama has been gracious, he has praised her a good deal of late, and he has offered to sit down privately with her to talk. But he will not give her the power to decide anything for him. Clinton needs to realize that she has a small window in time before the campaign train leaves the station. History will move on, and she can either board the train as a passenger or stay on the platform. She must abandon the fantasy that she will be the engineer driving the train. If she cannot concede defeat and begin to support the party's choice, then she may quickly become a minor figure shrinking in the distance.

Danish Embassy Bombed

After the American Century

Last week, I heard a seminar lecture given by Harvard Professor and foreign policy expert Mark Kramer on the Cold War. During the question and discussion period, he also discussed the current world situation. He said that the greatest danger to world security was to be found not in North Korea, Iran, Iraq, or Palestine, but most definitely in Pakistan. The nation has whole provinces dominated by terrorists. It also has an arsenal of nuclear weapons. Yesterday, the Danish Embassy in Pakistan was car-bombed by an as yet unknown group. The attack killed at least six persons and wounded 23. None of the victims were Danish citizens working at the Embassy. As is so often the case, people who just are in the wrong place at the time of an explosion, and who have nothing whatsoever to do with the matter, are the victims.

Press speculation, probably correct, is that the bombings are related at least in part to cartoons published by one of the Danish newspapers, a right-of-center rag that takes an intemperate view of most things Muslim called Jyllands Posten. For those who have not seen these cartoons, one can say that they depict Moslems and their prophet in an unflattering light. They were not published as commentary on current events, but rather were intended as a provocation and as a declaration of freedom of the press. I should say that I have no respect for that newspaper, because it attacked me inaccurately by name on a quite another matter. I refuse to give interviews to its journalists, and I must hold my nose as I declare that of course they have the right to free speech. I also have the right to say that I no longer respect and certainly will never purchase that newspaper, which deserves to go out of business because other readers also stop buying it. Yet while I have been insulted, I have no desire for bloody revenge, and I think it madness to declare a fatwa on its cartoonists, some of whom now must hide in "safe houses."

For many Danes, Jyllands-Posten and its cartoons are all about freedom of speech and not giving in to intimidation. For many Moslems, they are about being gratuitously insulted, about respect for their religion and about defending the prophet Mohammed. It is one of those confrontations that may last a long time, because neither side has any intention of backing down. And so, a small country of 5.2 million people, the size of Massachusetts, has become the focus of international terror. A country that has only a small military and that has instead used its money to contribute a great deal to foreign aid programs, a country that has defined itself as a mediator, a listener and a champion of human rights, finds itself an object of hatred. A Danish expert on the Middle East whom I have spoken with worries that a terrorist attack on a target inside Denmark is only a matter of time. I hope he is wrong, though fear he is right.

Has the Danish government understood the dangers and the consequences? Perhaps not. The embassy in Pakistan was not particularly well-located. Yesterday, the Danish radio news repeatedly emphasized how secure the building was, with video cameras and only one entrance. Located on a dead-end street, it was reportedly hard to approach. But the BBC stated that "the Danish embassy was an easy target because it is located in a residential area outside of the high-security diplomatic enclave." Danes were mislead by their own news media into thinking their embassy was particularly safe. Perhaps it is, when compared to other Dansh embassies around the world. [Update: the Danish newspaper Politiken reports today (4.6.08) that many Danish embassies in the Moslem world are potentially easy targets, notably that in Egypt. The right-wing Danish government simply has not understood that having such a high profile in the war on terror entails far more security and has real economic costs.]

The security problem, and the perception of high-security, is inseparable from the major shift in Danish foreign policy that occurred when the current right-wing government came into power in late 2001. During the last century, although a member of NATO, Denmark had generally not been a belligerent. Rather, it often was part of UN peacekeeping forces. The nation was known for its willingness to take on the difficult job of patrolling boundaries and dampening regional tensions. It did such a good job of it that the Danish national flag at times was confused with the Red Cross flag. Until 2001.

Once the foreign policy changed, however, the government clearly should have moved its embassy in Pakistan to a highly secured area inside the diplomatic enclave. Now that a car bomb has exploded, it is time to move into the safest area. The time when Denmark could put its embassy in any nice residential area is over.

Denmark is no longer seen as a peacekeeper, but as part of the American-led effort to drive the Talliban out of Afghanistan. Danish troops are fighting every day there. They were also part of the occupation of Iraq until last year. The happy days when a Danish passport was one of the best ones to have if taken hostage also are well and truly over.

June 01, 2008

Hillary's Hubris

After the American Century

One of the ancient Greek playrights might have worked up the events of the Democratic Party primaries into a dramatic production: "Hillary's Hubris" - a brilliant politician's unsuccessful drive for power threatens to tear her world apart . . . . a new work by the author of Oedipus Rex.

Shakespere might have rolled out "Hillary Hamlet," - being the tale of a princess who expected to inherit the throne and became convinced that only a foul conspiracy against her person could explain the sudden rise of a handsome young prince.

But seriously, there is a curious idea, or proto-narrative, floating around that goes something like this: Hillary Clinton is losing to Barack Obama because discrimination against women is stronger and more pernicious than discrimination against African-Americans. Such talk is deeply unfair to both candidates. It assumes that race and gender are more important than anything else. It overlooks the rather obvious fact that an attractive, experienced, and well-spoken white man, John Edwards, lost to both Clinton and Obama. In fact, so did every other white man in the race. So, the idea that voters are deeply preoccupied with gender and race, and that they are particularly prejudiced against women, is not a convincing position to begin with. But when the argument is raised by the Clinton camp, it is self-serving nonsense. Trying to make Hillary look like a victim just doesn't fly. She was the front-runner until early February, and when you are in front, the journalists go after you. The same thing happened to Obama when he took the lead.

For Hillary's supportrs to claim she is a victim of sexism does not fly for other reasons that are also obvious. Recall that she was leading in the polls for months during 2007. Recall that the press annointed her as the virtual candidate. Recall that she had the enormous advantage of drawing on Bill Clinton's political network. During all this time one did not hear many complaints from her camp about her treatment in the press, because she was getting good press.

Why did she fall behind Obama? Because she ran a lousy campaign in January and especially in February, when she had prepared almost nothing for the primaries after "Super Tuesday." Instead, she had to fire her campaign manager and reorganize. Despite her huge early advantage, Hillary lost in the trenches. She did it too herself. Obama won because he managed his campaign more effectively in those crucial first two months. She has been trying, and failing, to catch up ever since.

When a politician falls behind, or an athelete or anyone else for that matter, one possibility is to gain some respect for the opponent, admit mistakes, exhibit some grace under pressure, and try to win back the lost ground. To some extent, Clinton has done that. But she has also whined, complained of discrimination, played the race card and most unpleasantly of all, hinted that she remains available just in case her opponent gets shot. It was a disgrace when she said that she was the candidate of white people, of "hard-working white people." As a white person, I am angry that she spoke that way. It is especially offensive if you happen not to be white.

Is she a victim, as some of her supporters claim? She beat every white male opponent, and every male opponent but one. She is a powerful US Senator. She has accumulated a large personal fortune. For such a person to complain about gender discrimination is deeply dishonest. The Clinton camp should have learned from Obama that most voters are not looking to elect a victim as president. They do not want that sort of self-dramatization combined with a sense of entitlement. What voters want is a positive message. Bill Clinton knew that in 1992, but she seems to have forgotten.

Worst of all, she and Bill Clinton have to some extent succeeded in making the primary race into a contest where race and gender are central, rather than the very serious issues. The African-American voters in New York are angry at her pattern of behavior. History may not forgive the Clintons, but in the meantime get ready for an exciting fall production, "Who's Afraid of Hillary's Hubris?"