May 27, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor: Superbly Qualified

After the American Century

President Obama has named Sonia Sotomayor as his first nominee to the Supreme Court. It is a good choice. Many are saying it is a good choice because she is a woman, because she is Hispanic, because she is in favor of affirmative action, and because she has risen from humble origins, making her personally aware of the hardships faced by the poor in American society.

This is all well and good, but I applaud her nomination for a different reason: because she has the right credentials. Sonia Sotomayor is very bright. She went to Princeton on a scholarship and graduated summa cum laude. For those less familiar with the American education system, this means that she was at the absolute top of her class, receiving high grades in a wide range of subjects as part of a liberal arts education. Then she went to Yale law school, where she again excelled, becoming an editor of the law journal. Even to make law review at all would have been a great accomplishment, but to be selected as an editor means that she was judged to have the capacity to grasp a wide range of legal issues and to prod some large egos to work together. All of that bodes very well for a future Supreme Court justice.

In short, I am tired of hearing that someone will be good at a job because they are of a particular gender or social background. Relevant? Absolutely. The decisive factor? No. Want proof? Consider Clarence Thomas, an African American who rose from humble origins to become a mediocre justice (at best), appointed by George Bush, Senior. Or that pathetic female nominee, Harriet Miers, the evangelical Christian tort lawyer that George Bush Jr nominated but had to withdraw because even his own party could not stomach her. We need smart, hard-working justices, not party hacks who provide the illusion of diversity. Most of the issues that confront the Supreme Court are not about abortion or race, but about extremely complex legal problems, that have to be understood in terms of the continuing interpretation of the Constitution during the last 220 years. I want to see people who have exception talent and also worked exceptionally hard, and so graduated summa cum laude on the Court. Sonia Sotomayor is one of those rare people.

Just as importantly, Sonia Sotomayor has years of practical experience. She has worked in a district attorney's office, prosecuting cases of theft, murder, robbery, rape, and child pornography. She also has worked as a lawyer in private practice, and she knows a good deal about intellectual property law, which is a burgeoning area where many cases are likely, because digital technologies demand new interpretations of the legal tradition. Most importantly, she has been a Federal Judge, nominated first by that notorious radical George Bush Senior, and later promoted to her present position in at the United States Court of Appeals by Bill Clinton.

The Senate approved her elevation to this new position by a more than 2 to 1 majority, which in 1998 included many Republicans, notably Orrin Hatch, hardly a lefty or a liberal. Conceivably the Republicans will try to mount a challenge to this appointment, but Sonia Sotomayor probably is more intelligent than any of the people who will be questioning her at the confirmation hearings. If the Republicans want to get something out of this, they probably ought to celebrate the fact that Sonia Sotomayor entered the judiciary because a Republican president appointed her. The recent Republican project of self-destruction (by appealing to the rabid base and alienating moderates) may not be quite over yet, however.

However, it also seems likely that, unless some fantastic revelation comes out in the hearings, Sonia Sotomayor will soon be on the Supreme Court. She deserves to be there because of her excellent education and experience, and not merely because she is a woman or a member of a racial minority. And since she is 54, one could hope to see her on the bench for two decades.

Majority Leader Hoyer and Denmark

After the American Century

Yesterday I attended a reception for "Steny" Hoyer who is the Majority Leader in the United States House of Representatives. To look at the distinguished silver-haired gentlement, you might think he was the perfect example of someone connected to old patrician money. He wore a blue blazer with gold buttons, gray pants, and a light blue shirt. He spoke well, stood straight and looked right in your eyes when shaking hands, and managed to do that with everyone in the room. As he represents a district in Maryland, it might seem that he is from an old planter family, that arrived in the seventeenth century.

In fact, Steny Hoyer is the son of a Danish immigrant, and his father's name was Steen Høyer. He was visiting Denmark in part to have dinner with twelve cousins who live here. He is also to meet with various members of the Danish government and no doubt pass by the American Embassy. As he noted in a short talk he gave at the reception, the visit is prompted in part by the coming summit meeting on the world's climate, that will take place at the end of this year in Copenhagen.

Those of us meeting Steny Hoyer yesterday, however, were guests of American Democrats Abroad, an international organization that sends delegates to the national conventions of the Democratic Party every four years, and whose members, of course, vote in elections. Representative Hoyer does not really need our votes, as he generally gets more than 70% of the vote in his district and is the longest serving member of the House in the history of Maryland. But he came by and gave us almost two hours of his time, because, as he noted, the Americans who live abroad are the face of the US - not abstractions, not policies, but people who better than any passing diplomat, and whether they like it or not, are the daily representatives of the United States. I have known this for years, but it was nice to hear it from one of the highest elected officials. Americans abroad also try to tell people in the United States how the country could learn from other nations. Hoyer knew that too, and spoke about what might be learned from the Danish health care system.

So all in all, I have disturbingly little to criticize and much to happy about as I reflect on Hoyer's immigrant background, his ties to Denmark, and his deportment yesterday. He should come more often.

May 17, 2009

Are Danes Overeducated?

After the American Century

A Danish newspaper recently devoted its page one lead story to the idea that people were over-educated, arguing that what the country needed was not more people with advanced degrees but less. The newspaper, whose name would translate as "The Jutland Post", generally champions right wing causes and business interests. It is never read outside Denmark by anyone and has no effect on the rest of the world. Yet it does represent the "thinking" of many of the supporters of the current government.

This "thinking" in recent years has only occasionally focused on universities, and often is quite contradictory. Here are some examples.

(1) Universities should be funded in direct relationship to how many students complete exams, but at the same time students have been allowed to work more hours part-time.

(2) Denmark should be internationally oriented and partner with foreign institutions, but visiting foreign lecturers (who used to come for two year terms) have virtually disappeared. Money for travel to conferences has decreased and the amounts given are never enough to cover expenses. Almost no money is in department budget's to invite scholars from abroad for lectures. The funding available to go on Erasmus Exchanges has been reduced and the expected length of an Erasmus visit shortened. So in practice, the university is becoming less and less international, and indeed the teaching of many foreign languages is being discontinued.

(3) The government periodically says that Denmark's future is tied up in developing expertise and in being a leader in the "knowledge economy," but the actual funding, at the level of university departments, has been either static or falling. Politicians issue press statements about how more money is being plowed into research, but there is little or no sign of this money that the faculty can see. When positions open up due to departure or retirement, they are almost never filled right away, but Deans feel that they must wait a year or more, to save money.

(4) Publications are to be more important than ever, and the highest value will be placed on books and articles that appear on a list of the best publishers and journals. However, no money is available to assist Danish universities to become the host institutions for international journals, and indeed this seems not to be even a category in anyone's mind. Pathetically, international publication means "outside Denmark" rather than raising the level of publications based in Denmark to the level that would draw scholars from other countries to publish here. At the same time, the new emphasis on publication turns out, in the awarding of "points", to reward quantity more quickly and easily than quality.

(5) Publications may be important in theory, but in practice there is less time available for publications than ten or twenty years ago. Indeed, in many institutions the teaching hours have been pushed up, the number of examinations increased, the minimal allowed size of classes increased, and the compensation given for directing doctoral students reduced. Yet while faculty have less time and fewer resources to work with than 20 years ago, nevertheless the faculty are constantly undergoing reviews and accreditation examinations. The time given to petty administration has increased year by year, taking away the time once available for research.

(6) There was a time when education and democracy were thought to be mutually reinforcing. However, the government does not seem to believe this in practice. Faculty have been gradually stripped of most power and responsibility, and power is centralized in office-holders who are no longer elected by faculty but serve other appointed officials. The faculty scarcely ever vote on anything anymore.

In short, the problem in Denmark is not that students are getting too much education, but that the universities are poorly funded, undemocratic institutions which are becoming less international and rewarding faculty for doing mediocre research, whose quality is no longer evaluated by professors but by administrators, many of whom could not write a scholarly article if their lives depended on it.

The only exceptions to this rather bleak picture are particular areas that politicians and foundations have decided to shower with money, in the mistaken belief that high quality research can be planned and controlled by outsiders. The best research, however, leads to the unexpected. A breakthrough cannot be planned. Not one of my books looked anything like its initial outline, as each developed in unexpected ways that made them better. The world's finest pure research institutions know this, and they do not try to force research in pre-determined directions.

However, none of this really matters, because "The Jutland Post" has discovered that Danes are already over-educated. If we could just reduce the number of students, then the next step surely ought to be reductions in the size of universities. Then they would teach even fewer languages, have even larger classes, reward provincial publications even more, become even less international, and focus all "research" on problems defined by non-specialists. If things go really well, the less educated population , with less personal experience with democracy, could then turn for enlightenment and guidance to "The Jutland Post."


Myopia Inside the Beltway

After the American Century

There is a myopia inside the Beltway around Washington, which leads people to misjudge the importance of issues. The most recent example is the controversy about whether the CIA properly briefed Nancy Pelosi or not back in 2002, about their use of torture. In the twisted logic of Washington and its journalists, the BIG QUESTION now is whether or not Pelosi knew about the torture. This is about as absurd as US politics gets, since the Democrats were not in control of Congress at the time, and since anyone who has attended meetings knows, it is possible to slip all kinds of things into a meeting in such a way that their true import is lost in the shuffle.

The real issues, of course, is not how much the CIA told opposition leaders in 2002. Rather, it is that the CIA, at the urging of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush, pursued a policy of torture that contravenes the American Constitution. For those who have forgotten, the Bill of Rights prohibts "cruel and unusual punishments." Thomas Jefferson would not have approved of waterboarding.

Also note that Amendment 5 declares that no person "shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." This is not a point of debate, it is the law. Bush, Cheney, and the CIA broke that law, repeatedly. Quite literally the whole world knows about the torture and it has severely damaged the reputation of the United States. The election of Barack Obama was in part a repudiation of the policy of torture and a demand for a return to the rule of law.

Of course it would be convenient for the Republicans to just move on and try to forget these illegalities. This being difficult, if not impossible, they are now trying to implicate Nancy Pelosi in their own crimes. The Republicans would like to spread the guilt around and divide the Democrats. To some extent this seems to be working, and now Obama's appointment as head of the CIA is disputing with Pelosi about what she knew and when. This is all beside the point. Pelosi did not initiate the torture policy, nor did she have the power to stop it, nor could she have revealed CIA secret briefings to the press, especially in the nervous year after the 9/11 attacks.

The Bush Administration remains responsible for the introduction and the use of torture, a barbaric practice that not only is illegal, but that produces "confessions" of dubious value. Recall that during the Counter Reformation the Inquisition also used torture, in a holy cause of course, and dragged amazing revelations out of its victims: they were in league with the devil, practiced witchcraft, communed with evil spirits, and committed all manner of foul deeds. Torture a man enough and he may confess to almost anything.

The whole Pelosi affair would just be silly, if the Obama Administration had no important legislation to pass.

May 02, 2009

Obama After 100 Days

After the American Century

The idea that one should evaluate a president after the first hundred days in office is not particularly old. It began with the Franklin Roosevelt Administration, in 1933, when the United States had been in an economic depression for almost four years. The Democrats had won a landslide victory, with majorities so large in both House and Senate that the Republicans were unable to be an effective opposition. In this situation, Roosevelt was able to push through a wide array of legislation in his first 100 days. This precedent is virtually impossible for any subsequent president to live up to, because no otter president since that time has both entered office when the nation was gripped by such a severe sense of crisis and also had the large majorities in the legislative branch that FDR had.

No one until now, one might say, but that would be inaccurate. Imagine that the meltdown in the Bush economy had begun in 2005 instead of 2008, and further imagine that the Republicans had been unable to do anything to overcome the Depression in those three years. Then the situation would be more similar. Even more to the point, President Obama has not had the 60 senators he needs to push through any legislation he desires, at least not yet. However, with the seating of Minnesota's Senator Franken imminent and with the defection of Senator Specter from Pennsylvania, it appears that during Obama's second hundred days he may have the unassailable majority that FDR had in 1933. In the second hundred days, not the first, major legislation, for example on health care, will first be possible.

As for the first 100 days, a great deal has been accomplished. President Obama has dramatically improved relations with Latin America by showing more openness to Cuba and by promising to close the Guantanamo prison. Recall that a bipartisan group of former Secretaries of State called for that closure last year. This is good policy, and puts the United States back where in should be, as an opponent of torture and a champion of legal due process and human rights. These actions and his successful trip to Europe have cemented in world opinion the understanding that the United States has taken a fundamentally new direction.

Domestically, the Obama Administration has shown that it can address many crises at once, as it has coped with the meltdown of the banks, the private mortgage crisis, the collapse of General Motors and Chrysler, and now the flu epidemic, while still pursuing its primary goals, notably that of achieving energy independence. In dealing with these and many other problems, President Obama has evinced excellent qualities in a leader. (1) The ability to reach decisions quickly. (2) The ability to explain his policies in clear language to the public. (3) The grace to admit when he has made a mistake and move to rectify it quickly. (4) Calmness in the face of multiple adversities. (5) An emphasis on dialogue. The character he has shown bodes well for his ability to guide the US through what still looks to be a difficult future.