July 24, 2008

Obama on the World Stage

After the American Century

Obama stood on the world stage for the first time in Berlin, and judging by the crowd's reaction, he was a great success. The talking heads on screen afterward tried to find critical things to say, which is their job. But rather than trying to summarize their remarks, let us review the main points.

1. Obama came out with no one to introduce him. There was no build up or fan-fare, no drum rolls. He simply came out. This is a humble way to present yourself, without any of the trappings of a head of state.

2. Obama connected his remarks at many points with German history and experiece, giving a speech that obviously was created for this specific time and place. I may have missed something, but I believe that we are still waiting for John McCain to give a major speech anywhere on any subject.

3. Obama was not merely throwing pretty remarks at the Germans. He reminded them that some of the terrorists who struck on 9/11 had been students in Hamburg, but he did this in such a skillful way that it did not rouse commentary afterwards, nor apparently cause offense. Obama's point was that the globalized world demands unified action, that borders - walls - are now dysfunctional. He also called on Germany to contribute to the military effort in Afghanistan. This is not such a popular position in that country.

4. Obama did not make specific policy proposals, as I hoped he might (see the last blog). But in retrospect, I can see that getting specific is perhaps inappropriate at this stage, when he is still a candidate. So he called for an end to torture, but did not mention Guantanamo. He called for unified actions against global warming, and praised the German efforts in this regard, but he did not get into details. He asked for a united effort against drugs, terrorism, and racism. Again, I can see that the commentators would have jumped on him for acting like the head of state had he been too detailed about any of these matters. This speech was about vision, not the details of implementation.

5. There were some fine rhetorical passages in the speech, but it does not appear that there is one line that is destined for quotation in years to come. But the general level of the speech was high, far higher than anything either of the Bush presidents ever attained, and better than what John McCain can muster.

When he was finished, Obama left the podium as simply as he arrived there. There was no music or follow-up speaker. He went down to shake hands with people in the front of the crowd. Overall, he showed that he has the stature and the charisma needed to recover the American image abroad. When was the last time 200,000 people turned out anywhere abroad to hear an American leader speak? Actually, the largest crowd to hear any candidate speak during the primaries was 75,000, for Obama in Oregon. I do not recall anything like it for many years. One has to go back to Reagan to find an equivalent moment.

The full text of Obama's speech can be found on CNN

What Obama Should Say in Berlin

After the American Century

Tonight Obama will address a large outdoor crowd in Berlin. No one seems to know how many will come to hear him, but estimates range as high as one million. If the weather is good, that is distinctly possible. So far on this journey Obama has done exceedingly well, apparently making a particularly positive impression in Iraq and Jordan, yet solidifying his support for Israel at the same time. The most difficult part of his trip might seem to be over, since Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, and Israel are all troubled nations that present severe foreign policy problems.

By comparison, Germany, France, and Great Britain might look easy. But they are not necessary a doddle. Some of the Germans are prickly about becoming a backdrop to the American campaign, including Angela Merkel. It is thus essential that Obama not appear to be campaigning, that he address his German audience first, and deliver only a good sound bite for the Americans. Who remembers what else John F. Kennedy said in Berlin besides "Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is Ich bin ein Berliner"? (An uncharitable and perhaps slightly inaccurate translation of this remark into Danish would read ... the proudest boast is that "I am a donut.") So for the Americans, all he needs is a pithy one-liner, preferably followed by a roar of cheering and applause. For the Europeans, in contrast, there needs to be some substance.

What might Obama say? He has 300 foreign policy advisors and a clever staff, so they have assuredly thought of more things than I can this morning, but here is a short list of possibilities, other than the obvious need to say thank you for the opportunity to come and a few words about the strong ties between the two nations, etc etc. In any case, this is what I think Obama ought to say. It is a bit tricky for him, because he must seem to speak as a powerful Senator, representing the Democratic Party, and not as a presidential candidate.

(1) The EU has been a tremendous economic success. It is a tribute to earlier American foreign policy, of the sort that needs to be recovered. That foreign policy promoted dialogue, peaceful economic development, and the dismantaling of militaristic nationalism. A region plagued by major wars for hundreds of years until 1945 has now been at peace for more than 60 years. in another generation, no one will be alive that personally remembers World War II. The EU is therefore a model for the rest of the world, and the proudest boast of a Berliner today is that he or she is a citizen of the EU. [He did say much of this, in fact.]

(2) The US needs to listen more to its allies. It should have listened to Germany on Iraq. It needs to be a partner, not an overbearing leader. [Of these three sentences, he said one and three, more or less, but did not specifically mention German opposition to the Iraq invasion.]

(3) The base in Guantanamo should be closed. Five previous secretaries of state, Republicans and Democrats, have called for it to be shut down, and John McCain, as a former prisoner of war, is no fan of the Cuban base either. This would also be popular with the German audience. [He did call for an end to torture, but did not specifcally mention Gauntanamo.]

(4) The US needs to work with the EU to deal with global warming, where the Bush Administration has obstructed progress. Germany is an inspiring example of what can be done with alternative energy, as it has some of the world's largest wind farms and solar arrays. If a northern nation with often cloudy weather can do so much, clearly the US can do even more in the arid but sunny West and the windy Great Plains. (He might mention Al Gore's 10 year plan, but probably he will not do so explicitly.) [He did say much of this.]

(5) The educational exchanges between Europe and America are important and need to be strengthened. Under the Bush Administration the landmark Fulbright Program has been cut back. It should be given far more funding and added scope. Educational exchanges not only strengthen the cultural bonds between our continents, they lead to the synergies of innovation. [He said nothing about this.]

(6) The EU and the US must stand firmly together in confronting global terrorism. At the same time, they must use economic assistance and cultural programs to create a better context for dialogue. The common goal must be to allow a multicultural world to live in peace. [These ideas were central to his speech.]

I am not predicting he will say any of these things, but he ought to. We will see. [Many of the themes mentioned here were in the speech, but of course I did not attempt to imagine the metaphors he might use. The dominant image was that of breaking down walls, which made German historical experience a symbol of hope. This is not always the lesson drawn from German history, and it made the crowd feel good.]

If the Election Were Tomorrow...

After the American Century

It has been about eight weeks since Obama clinched his nomination and the American public could focus on just two candidates. Fears that his battle with Hillary Clinton would sap his appeal have so far not been justified. If the election were held tomorrow, Obama would win easily. Nationally, a combination of all recent polls tells us that Obama is leading by 4.8%. But candidates are not elected nationally, but state by state. If one looks at all the opinion polls for individual states and puts them together, however, the picture is even more positive. Obama would get far more than the 270 electoral votes necessary to enter the White House: 322 to be exact. Tomorrow, John McCain would get 216.

The key to this and every American election remains the swing states. Right now Obama is leading in most of these, including (from east to west) New Hampshire, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Iowa, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada. McCain is leading in only North Carolina, Florida, and Missouri, and all of these are narrow leads - indeed, they fall within the margin of error for polls.

Another way to look at these polls is to divide the electoral votes into three categories: likely to go to Obama (255), likely to go to McCain (163), and close races (120). The close contests are, at the moment, New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada. Obama only needs to win 15 votes in these undecided races. In contrast, McCain needs 107. If they split the 120, Obama wins with c. 315 electoral votes to 223.

Obama is probably doing even better than these figures suggest. Since these polls were conducted, he has been receiving overwhelming and positive media attention during his trip to the Middle East and Europe. That ought to translate into even better numbers for him, especially if the outdoor speech in Berlin this evening is a success.

Were the election held tomorrow, Obama would win in a walk. But being the front runner means the press has little mercy, and it means John McCain may resort to negative campaigning, to try to bring Obama down. He has hired new people (call them Rovians) who know how to do this. When the campaign really heats up in the fall, don't be surprised if McCain has found an attack dog as a Vice-Presidential candidate - a new Dick Cheney who is well suited to win more of those swing states.

July 21, 2008

Al Gore's Energy Challenge

After the American Century

"I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean, carbon-free sources within 10 years."
Al Gore, July 17, 2008

Al Gore has injected some needed seriousness into the political campaign, helping us to move beyond the silly New Yorker cover. He has called on Americans to produce 100% of their electrical energy using alternative energy, in just ten years. Comparing the project to the successful program to land a man on the moon, Gore presents energy not as a problem but an opportunity. If American farmers grow crops for American biofuel plants, and if American factories produce wind mills, solar panels, and other components of an alternative power system, the US economy will prosper, and the nation will cease to be dependent on foreign oil suppliers. Gore has declared that it is technologically feasible, ecologically useful, and politically necessary to move decisively away from fossil fuels.

Gore's proposal is a logical development in his thinking. After presenting the public with the inconvenient truth of global warming and its dire effects, his plan offers a way out of the crisis. By presenting it months before the American presidential election, he puts it on the table as one of the major issues of the campaign, along with Iraq and the economy. Initial reactions from the two candidates suggest that Obama is far more receptive than McCain, even though his sun-rich home state of Arizona would profit from more emphasis on solar power. Obama declared, "I strongly agree with Vice President Gore that we cannot drill our way to energy independence but must fast-track investments in renewable sources of energy like solar power, wind power, and advanced biofuels." McCain did not reject Gore's plan, but was less supportive, as one might expect. McCain has championed off-shore oil drilling - i.e. increasing the American supply of oil - while Obama has rejected that idea. So, while Gore wants to lift energy policy making out of the morass of partisanship, this is not likely. But fortunately, both McCain and Obama are far more supportive of developing alternative energies than Bush has been.

Realism suggests that ten years will be too short a time horizon for a full conversion. to alternative energies. The shifts from an economy based predominantly on wood to coal, and from coal to natural gas and oil, each took considerably longer than a decade. But the point is not whether Gore's idea is strictly feasible in ten years. Considerable numbers of people are still burning wood, after all. Rather, the point is that a shift to a predominantly new energy regime is highly desirable, the quicker the better. Clearly it cannot be limited to revamping the approach to electricity production, but should extend to motorized transport as well. Hybrid cars have now proved themselves, and there is no reason to permit new cars that get less than 35 miles per gallon, and even those cars should be taxed heavily enough to make automobiles that get more than 40 mpg attractive. Strictly speaking, the US has oil supplies of its own, that it might continue to consume at 30% of the present level without imports. But the environmental impact of more CO2 is so undesirable that Gore is right about making a fundamental shift. The world, and the US in particular, desperately needs a new energy system.

But even the realistic hope that two-thirds of the fossil fuel energy regime could be replaced may be too optimistic. Unfortunately, all energy systems have considerable "technological momentum," the term that Thomas P. Hughes developed to analyze the ways that energy systems perpetuate themselves. Hughes is absolutely not a conspiracy theorist, who thinks that oil companies and lobbyists connive to keep the present system going. Rather, the enormous infrastructure and the ingrained habits of those who use it, has a powerful momentum that finds expression in the physical layout of cities and homes, the location of resources, the training offered by the educational system, the trillions of dollars invested in the present infrastructure, and on and on. There are millions of people whose jobs are largely shaped by the old energy system, and it will be difficult to move swiftly to a new energy regime, even if Gore makes this a major campaign issue, and even if the right legislation is speedily passed in Congress.

All the more reason for Al Gore to push as hard as he can on this vital issue, and all the more reason why the rest of us should be joining him.

Interested in the historical background to this discussion? Consult David E. Nye,
Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies
(MIT Press, in paperback), or
Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology (MIT Press, in paperback).

July 16, 2008

Racism's Masquerade: Black Men Must Be Funny?

After the American Century

The New Yorker prides itself on being a bastion of the fine arts and good taste, and its covers are often a delight. So it comes as a surprise that the usually artful, often subtle, and almost never crude cover of that magazine now displays Barack Obama and his wife Michelle as Arab Revolutionaries in the Oval Office. Those who question the magazine's intent are told that this is a satire. Correction, it is racism masquerading as satire. I do not recall anything similar directed at any other presidential candidate. [Since posting this, I checked all the New Yorker covers from 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004, and there is nothing even remotely like it for any of those presidential campaigns.]

Yes, I know, my comment makes it obvious that I am a humorless person who cannot appreciate a joke. But this is not a joke. For those who may have forgotten, during most of American history Black men have been told that they are humorous figures of fun. No caricature was too grotesque. Even after 1900 it was common to draw black men as awkward, thick-lipped cretins slobbering over watermelon. The New Yorker is too smart to revert to such well-known racist stereotypes. Instead, why not depict a Christian, Harvard-educated lawyer as an Arab revolutionary who admires Osama bin Laden? It is sooo funny -- too them apparently.

Well, how would The New Yorker like it if someone drew a picture of their editorial room and plastered it all over the world - a picture that drew on every negative association one could think of with regard to Jewish intellectuals, New York snobs, etc. etc. It would all be in good fun, of course, satire, get it?

Please. The next thing we will see New York's intellectuals demand that Obama show he can dance, because that is supposed to be part of being Black. Be funny and dance and act stupid, right out of the Minstrel Show tradition.

If this is what The New Yorker is up (or down) to, one can only imagine how foul this campaign may become and how low it may sink before it is over. In the meantime, the nation is facing a financial crisis in the housing sector, it is doing little to change its high-oil consumption habits, the budget is way out of balance, the dollar has sunk to new lows, and there is rampant corruption in the awarding of contracts to oil companies and other American firms in Iraq. Why, then, must this magazine foul the air with this stereotype of the leading contender for the presidency instead of some pointed criticism of the nation's real problems? That is where satire is needed. This is not humor but a fart in the face of the public.

July 15, 2008

The Summer Campaign

After the American Century

The political campaign is in low gear as far as the public is concerned, but the candidates are hardly relaxing. Not only do McCain and Obama need to select their vice presidents, but they have a huge agenda to deal with. I can see at least these five major items:

(1) Organize a National Convention. This is far more that just providing hotels and meeting spaces for thousands of delegates and thousands more reporters, though that would be task enough. The whole multi-day event ideally should present a coherent message. An exciting line-up of speakers and inspirational short films need to be orchestrated, and the whole event should build up to a climactic speech by the candidate. That speech also has to be written, of course, and it needs to be new, not the primary stump speech on steroids.

(2) Prepare political commercials that are in harmony with that major speech - requires a decision about what should be the major themes of the campaign. Obama surely will choose to focus on the faltering economy and Iraq, a one-two punch that will be hard for McCain to beat. But McCain presumably will seek to make Iraq and national security his first issue. To a considerable degree, however, candidates need to feel the public pulse, to catch the mood of the electorate, and move from there toward the policy positions. Candidates usually cannot dictate to the electorate what the central issues ought to be, and while it may be easy to see what the central issues are, particular groups have other main concerns. Each side is surely polling frantically and trying out various ideas on focus groups. How much, and to whom, should each talk about Guantanamo? Abortion? Faith-based initiatives? Off-shore oil drilling? Gun control? Terrorism and National Security? NAFTA? Affirmative Action? The Supreme Court? Crime? Drugs?

(3) Each candidate must decide on an overall strategy, notably by choosing which states to focus on and which ones will be given up in advance. McCain is running more than 15 points behind in California polls, for example, so he will probably spend little time or money there. Obama is not as far behind in Texas, but he might decide to cede it McCain and focus on Florida, where the two are only a few points apart. Arguably, the choice of where to put the campaign time and money is the most important decision each has to make. Obviously, both will focus on Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Missouri, and Nevada. But in additional to such clear battleground states, should Obama make a major effort in North Carolina? Should McCain try to win New Jersey or Washington?

(4) Each campaign must also "brand" itself in a variety of ways, which include how the candidate dresses, what its buttons look like, how the home page is designed, what slogan is adopted, and even what the campaign song ought to be. FDR used "Happy Days Are Here Again" in the depths of the Depression. Bill Clinton selected the rock n roll song, "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow." By themselves, each of these matters might seem trivial, but in a well-organized campaign all the parts cohere to provide a penumbra of images and associations with a candidate. As an advertising or public relations executive knows, defining and implementing such a campaign takes talent and more time than either candidate really has to spend on it. Based on how they have done so far, one suspects rather strongly that Obama's team will do better at this than McCain's newly reorganized group.

(5) In the midst of all these things, both candidates need to keep appearing in the public eye, and continue to raise money for the fall campaign. Either of these, alone, could be a full-time job.

With all these things to do in only a few months, McCain and Obama must be grateful that they will fall completely out of the public limelight during the Olympic Games. No doubt each will pretend to go on vacation, but real time off is unlikely with all these tasks to complete. How well they prepare this work now will become clear immediately after the conventions. With little more than two months for the fall campaign, there will be little time to correct any miscalculations.

July 13, 2008

Obama, The Cold War, Brandenburg Gate

After the American Century

At the end of this month Senator Obama will make a brief trip to Europe. No doubt the purpose of the journey is to bolster his international credentials, by standing in historic places and making historic looking handshakes. During the fall he can casually refer to his "good friends" Gorden and Angela. All outsider candidates do something similar, and apparently it does have some political value to the candidates.

The Germans have become a bit prickly about Obama's giving a speech at the Brandenburg Gate on July 24. Some rather prominent politicians there have said that the young Senator from Illinois did not do anything in particular for Germany during the Cold War. This will likely be true for all future US presidential candidates, however, because time is moving on. A candidate who is 50 in the next election (2012), for example, was born in 1962, and so was under 30 when the Berlin Wall came down. Candidates who were in power during the Cold War are going to disappear. Put another way, the Cold War is fading away, and the Germans might consider how to keep the memory of that confrontation alive. By asking to speak at the Brandenburg Gate, Obama is not only positioning himself in the current campaign, he is also proclaiming a valued historical relationship.

It may be that Angela Merkel's origins in former East Germany are inseparable from her reluctance to see Obama stand where Kennedy and Reagan stood before him. But for Obama, who wants Americans to find ways to reunite, to stop being Red States and Blue States, it is hard to think of a better symbol for transcending differences and for the power of dialogue instead of bullets. Merket might find it "odd", to use her word, that Obama speaks there, but what would be a more appropriate place?

The Cold War ended without a shot being fired as the Wall came down. Quite a contrast with the Bush strategy in Iraq. Senator Obama wants to emphasize that he has a different approach to foreign affairs. The German Government refused to support Bush's invasion of Iraq, as did Senator Obama.

Obama appears to be popular among the German people, moreover, and if this event comes off, it might not just look historic, it might become so.

July 11, 2008

Republicans Mortgaged the Future

After the American Century

The US housing market continues to falter. When houses are worth less than people paid for them, some owners will conclude that declaring bankruptcy is their best, perhaps their only option. In June, 2008, one out of every 501 homes in the US was foreclosed - a total of 252,000 properties. That was 50% more than June the previous year. If that monthly rate continues for a year, then 3 million homes will have been given up for auction or sale at reduced rates by the repossessing banks. That represents housing for about 10 million people.

December 12 last year I wrote in this space that "Bush Administration policies encouraged housing prices to soar while undermining the strength of the economy as a whole. A correction is unavoidable. One hopes it will not be too severe." In the ensuring 7 months the correction has continued, and now seems to be nearing a crisis. The news today is that many analysts are worried about the financial health of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac - names which make them sound like two people. But these are billion dollar institutions that back up the mortgage lending of banks. Both are traded on the stock exchange, and in good times they are stable, safe investments. But their stocks have been falling steady for months, and yesterday each dropped by more than 15%. That's one sixth of their value lost in a single day. Government spokesmen are all "walking on eggs" - treading with the utmost caution, trying to put the best face on how the continuing foreclosures are affecting these institutional cornerstones of the economy. On the bright side, the rate of foreclosure in June was lower than the month before, so the worst may have passed. On the dark side, interest rates already are quite low, so there is not much the Federal Reserve can do to stimulate the economy or make home-buying more attractive.

Everyone assumes that the Federal Government will pour additional money into these institutions if they need it. But the US government is already running a large deficit, borrowing money from abroad to pay some of its bills. In 2007 the deficit grew by $162 billion, an impressive figure, but nothing compared to 2008, which may be the worst year of overspending in US history at more than $410 billion. The worst so far was 2004, when Bush spend $413 billion he did not have. Much of that was for the wonderful war in Iraq. It is easy to forget now that this was the war which we would win quickly and that would pay for itself, because all that oil would be sold to pay for redevelopment. Well, this was not what happened, but the oil has certainly increased in value. All oil producers are benefiting, but not US home and car owners.

Probably the economic storm will pass, housing prices will stabilize and prices will climb again. In that case, the dip in the market has been good for people who wanted to get into the market like my niece who just bought her first house. But if the market continues to fall, at some point the dead weight of unpaid mortgages will put tremendous strain on the economy as a whole. How does anyone sell a house, in order to relocate for a new job, for example, if there are several million foreclosed properties on the market? What happens to the older couple who expected to sell their large house to downsize into an apartment, now that the kids have grown up and moved away?

The crisis is hardly over, in other words. The worse it gets, the more Republicans running for re-election will take the blame in November. Because they mortgaged the future.

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July 08, 2008

The Dollar and Danish-American tourism

After the American Century

The summer sun draws people away from their computers, out into their yards, on to bicycles or off on vacations. This year a record number of Danes will visit the United States, about 300,000 I read in the local press. Given that Denmark only has 5.2 million people, that means almost 6% of the nation's population is flying over the Atlantic and back. At that rate by 2026 every single Dane could make a visit. More personally, many people I know are going to the US, and my students over there are stretching their stay as long as they can. Everyone says what a bargain the US is, with the dollar so weak, and all take an extra, empty suitcase to fill with inexpensive clothes, books, designer goods, and whatnot. To be more precise, back in September, 2000, you needed 8.82 kroner to buy one dollar. Yesterday you only needed 4.76.

Because of that drop in the dollar, fewer Americans are going to Europe this year. Furthermore, airline prices are up due to high oil prices and they have on average less dollars to spend. While July is still the middle of the season, it appears that US tourism is down by about 5%. One suspects that those who come may seek slightly cheaper hotels and restaurants and/or stay for a shorter period. Likewise, the tourists who do come may buy less. Again, more personally, I saw more old friends coming trough in May and June, before the highest airline prices set in, and I sense that there are fewer coming all-in-all.

A report on tourism prepared by Deloitte suggests that Americans are also changing their vacation habits. Time was people took a two week vacation - which sounds short by Danish, French or German standards, where three to five weeks is common. Indeed, all Danes have the legal right to three continuous weeks of vacation once a year, plus 14 more days. But Americans have just two weeks, and it is getting harder to take them all at once. Instead, there are mini-vacations. These short breaks are best enjoyed without too much flying or too much jetlag after arrival, so perhaps given such time constaints, going to Europe is a little less attractive than it used to be. There is much else of interest in this report, which is based on interviews with 2027 people last October, and supposedly has a margin or error of only 2%. For example, the Internet is changing buying habits, reducing loyalty to providers, and increasing the levels of information available to tourists. It is also changing the ways we can all be ripped off! The report is available at http://www.deloitte.com/dtt/article/0,1002,cid%253D184903,00.html

As for me, an American in Europe, I will defy the transatlantic trend and vacation within the EU. I prefer the US during spring and autumn, when airline tickets are cheaper and temperatures lower. And, I would like to be there close to the election. As for the dollar, my sense is that it probably will not rise before November, unless economies elsewhere begin to falter.

July 06, 2008

Both McCain and Obama Move to the Right

After the American Century

Both Obama and McCain have been shifting their public stands on many issues, staking out the positions they will take during the fall campaign. They are doing so with quite different goals. McCain is moving to the right, Obama toward the center.

McCain's move toward the conservative Republican base is being orchestrated and supervised by a cadre of Karl Rove's apprentices. Their well-known philosophy is that elections are won by energizing core supporters, not by trying to appeal to the center. This strategy has not really been proven a success, in my view, as George Bush did not win a majority of the votes cast in 2000 and only barely was reelected in 2004. In each case, one could argue that he won as much due to the poor campaigns of his opponent as he did because galvanizing the base is a sure winner. Note, too, that the "Rove philosophy" is to attack one's opponent where they appear strongest. The "swift-boating" of John Kerry is the prime example.

Obama's move toward more mainstream positions means that he has embraced more traditional political philosophy, seeking to be the unifying candidate who can appeal to moderates and independents, and reach across party lines. The danger of this approach is that the core supporters become somewhat disillusioned, taking some of the energy out of the campaign, as they realize that Obama is (surprise?) a shrewd politician more than he is ideologically driven. As noted several blogs ago, his stands on Israel, gun control, and other issues have shifted, to appeal to moderates.

The result of these two contrasting campaign models is that both candidates are moving to the right - with Obama seeking the center, while the supposedly "straight-talking" McCain is making himself over to suit the evangelicals. The man who once opposed Guantanamo torture now seems to accept it. The man who once publically worried about global warming is saying little about it. The man who once wanted to give illegal immigrants a "path to citizenship" is now a hard-liner on securing the borders. The man who once called Jerry Falwell an "agent of intolerance" now meets privately with his ilk, seeking support.

Will the selection of vice-presidential candidates reinforce these campaign strategies, or will they be drive by other imperatives, such as geographical appeal? One suspects that Obama will find a VP who is moderate, who holds his new positions, almost certainly a white person (but possibly Hispanic), and one with solid military experience to shore up his candidacy at its weakest point.

The Republican ticket is harder to anticipate. Will McCain choose a "born again" evangelical from the right-wing of the Republican Party, like Mike Huckabee? Might we expect a moderate non-military person under 60 who comes from the Middle West and who can appeal to the swing states? A church-going woman? A clone of Dick Cheney? Or most horrifying of all, the actual Dick Cheney? McCain's choice will signal how thoroughly he is willing to revamp his campaign to resemble Bush's 2004 campaign. Whatever the new Rove-inspired McCain team decides could be a surprise, because he continues to run behind Obama in the polls, and he needs to find a way to regain the initiative.

July 04, 2008

Baby Boomers in American Academia

After the American Century

Yesterday the New York Times ran a long story about the coming change in American academia, as a large cohort of teachers begins to retire. (See it at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/03/arts/03camp.html.) There recently have been similar stories about Norway and Denmark, and indeed for much of the Western world, as the huge number of teachers hired in the 1960s and early 1970s starts to move out of their offices. As one who saw this transformation up-close-and-personal, I want to add a few observations.

It is not exactly the "baby boomers" who are retiring, at least not yet, for they are mostly too young to afford it. The baby boom began in 1946, when one million more children were born than during 1945. This means that all of the boomers are 62 and under. Anyone in this group who is retiring now got a BA, MA, and Ph.D. as quickly as possible, working steadily from kindergarden on up, with no breaks. The first boomers graduated from college in 1968, and the first to get Ph.D.s emerged perhaps as early as 1972 or 1973, but many more starting in 1974. For those who served in Vietnam, were conscientious objectors or worked after college, add several more years. The people who are retiring this year at 62 would be from the very start of that generation, which includes all those between 50 and 62. Any American retiring who is over the age of 62 is not a "boomer" but comes from the smaller cohort of babies conceived during World War II. They were over-represented on faculties, while the huge cohorts born from 1946-1957 ran into the terrible job market of the recession that lasted from c. 1973 until the early 1980s.

Any academic who lived through the 1970s can tell you that this generation had a hard time. Those just before them - who got PhDs between 1965 and 1970, still experienced a booming job market for their services, and they got tenure relatively easily. By the time the boomers were emerging from graduate school, however, the job market was shrinking. I know, because I was one of the job seekers. More than half the PhDs from my particular year never got academic appointments at all, and even those who did get jobs often saw them disappear due to the slumping economy. They were excellent scholars and teachers who deserved better, and the selection process was by no means an illustration of "the survival of the fittest." When reading about all the baby boomers who are retiring, remember, then, that a huge number of PhDs from that generation never got into academia in the first place. This does not mean they did poorly elsewhere. In general, these clever people made more money than those of us lucky enough to get tenure and the low salaries of the university.

So what? Given the actual hiring that went on, the idea that thousands of student radicals moved from protest to paper grading is a bit suspect. Indeed, I knew many who became disillusioned with academia during the turbulent anti-Vietnam years, and never finished at all. Those who stayed in the libraries and kept writing were not the most radical, and even the most radical PhDs were not always hired. Colleges and universities were not seeking to employ fire-breathing Marxist intellectuals calling for revolution. In short, only a few people shifted from the barracades to the faculty club.

However, after a generation passed, faculty who had been around during the turbulent decade were hardly averse to claiming a radical past. I know several people who seldom marched or sat in or attended anti-war rallies back then, who now talk nostalgically about those days of political engagement. When a reporter turns up looking for the last hippies and revolutionaries packing up their offices, many are only too happy to oblige with stories.

Don't be taken in. I "saw the best minds of my generation destroyed" by the contradictions of that time. They were drafted and sent off to Vietnam, went to Canada to avoid the draft, got drawn into fringe movements that took them forever away from the universities, or threw themselves full-time into the anti-war movement. The boomers who will retire from academic during the next 15 years were not the most radical. Rather, they had the perseverance to write their PhDs during that distracting time. They did so even though the job market was terrible, and they often spent years in short-term or part-time positions before landing in a tenured position. The few who succeeded, did so against great odds, through hard work and a bit of luck. Their story is not the one in the New York Times, which wants to paint a picture of retiring fire-breathing radicals being replaced by young moderates.

The new academics emerging now are not moderate compared to those actually hired in 1974. In fact, in many areas they probably have views that are at least as radical. The Times is right that they have not been embroiled in political struggles in the same way, but their dislike of George W. Bush is just as intense as ours was for Richard Nixon c. 1972.

July 03, 2008

Costly Oil: The Return of Stagflation?

After the American Century

Today the European Bank is widely expected to raise interest rates. The mantra of economists remains that inflation must be controlled through higher rates. In "normal times" this seems to be the case. Raising interest rates makes money a bit more expensive, curbing consumer spending, slowly down the economy. The usual metaphor is that the economy is "overheated," like an engine pushed too hard. But "normal times" are those when the cost of raw materials remain reasonably stable, especially the cost of oil, coal, and other fuels.

Back in the 1970s the American Federal Reserve kept raising interest rates, because of inflation. But the remedy did not cure, because the cause of inflation was higher energy prices. What resulted was absurd. The interest rates went up to almost 20% to combat inflation while the economy stagnated. The pundits called this "stagflation" and we may be about to see the same thing happen again.

As of this morning, the price of oil has reached $145 a barrel. In the United States and in Europe consumers have been protesting, to no effect, because they are complaining to their national governments. But in a globalized economy, no prime minister can control the price, except by lowering gasoline taxes. This would stimulate consumption, however, and be bad for the balance of trade in an oil-importing country. Nor will raising interest rates lower the cost of oil, except marginally, by reducing economic activity.

Wise leaders - unlike George W. Bush - might respond to this new situation in the following way.

(1) Tax vehicles not by weight but according to how much oil they use, i.e. very low taxes for the most efficient vehicles and punitive taxes for those that are not.

(2) Halt road-building and invest the same money in public transit.

(3) Permit some rezoning of cities, so that population density can be increased. Deconcentration of American cities, which began in the 1920s and 1930s, has created a sprawling energy-inefficient economy, making it harder for mass transit. Rezoning might be modeled on the fine exampleof the Dutch.

(4) Give tax-incentives to energy conservation of all types, including building insulation, heat-pumps, and better architectural design.

(5) Restructure utility prices so that there is a financial reward to the companies that reduce consumer demand.

(6) Invest in alternative energy R & D and in its installation.

These are not new ideas. They are the ideas which most governments have ignored, in practice, for the last two decades.

The current high prices signal the need for a new energy regime. This is not just another economic storm that can be survived by raising interest rates.

If you want to know a bit more about the history of US energy consumption, see
David E. Nye, Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies (MIT Press).