December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas, after all

After the American Century

There is, objectively speaking, not so much to be merry about. The weather here in Denmark has been unrelentingly cold and the snow has blocked roads and even made it hard for me to get out of my own street. The Danish government promises endless cutbacks, and makes ill considered reforms. And my mother in law is here for six days, pretending that she is not smoking cigars in the basement, wearing suffocating perfume, and insisting on hearing elevator music on the radio.

Nevertheless, there are reasons to be happy, even if merry is a bit over the top. The US and Russia are reducing their nuclear arsenals. The German and US economies are reviving, and the Chinese and Indians never really faltered in the first place. The Danish stock market went up a whopping 35% in the last year, wiping out the losses of the previous year. 

And on a professional level, I have enjoyed teaching this fall, been invited to more places to lecture than I could accept, and managed to steer a new BA curriculum through four stages of a six stage process needed to get it approved. I have seldom written much here about my personal life - it isn't that sort of column - but I will say that things are good there, too.

So, on the whole, I can say Merry Christmas, too, and hope that 2011 will be an improvement.

December 08, 2010

PISA test results

After the American Century

The 2009 PISA results can be seen in the table accompanying this article. (For the 2012 results, click here ) Both Europe and the United States must do a better job educating their children if they are to keep up with Asia. On the reading test European countries were not so far apart, and ranged from a low of 483 (Greece and Slovenia) to a high of 508 (Netherlands). That is only a 25 point spread. But the difference between the Netherlands and Shanghai was 48 points, almost twice as much. Well, actually Finland did get 536, far and away the best showing for Europe. The pattern was the same in Science and in Math, where China was by far the best, while the Europeans clustered well behind. The United States was mediocre in all three categories.

Sadly, education budgets are being cut in many European countries, which are not investing in new schools or more teachers. Indeed, Denmark has just decided to let the size of classes in elementary school get larger, a serious mistake. Larger classes tend to be harder to keep focused, and they demand far more of teachers, who can scarcely give individual attention to students who need extra help or those who need extra stimuli.

If you take the three test scores and add them together, this is the result (not all nations surveyed are included in this list).

Shanghai               1731
Hong Kong           1637
Finland                  1631
Singapore              1630
Korea                    1623

Japan                      1588
Canada                   1580
New Zealand         1559
Australia                1556
Netherlands           1556
Switzerland           1552

Estonia                  1541
Germany               1530
Belgium                1528

Poland                   1503
Norway                 1501
Britain                   1500
Denmark               1497
Average Score      1492
France                    1491
United States         1489
Ireland                   1489
Sweden                  1486                

If the future belongs to the best educated, then the future belongs to Asia, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. Judging by this list, being a wealthy country helps, but it is not the determining factor. Norway has no national debt and a huge public surplus, yet achieved only average results, while Finland, which has less money per capita than Denmark or Norway, was at the top. And the United States, which for decades was the wealthiest large nation in the world, scores below the average.

November 30, 2010

The Ignoble Cause of the Confederacy

After the American Century

We are on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and the Confederacy is about to be celebrated, strange as that may seem. The American South often presents itself as the victim in the Civil War. This is patent nonsense. The Southern states succeeded from the United States, and they attacked Fort Sumter. They were the aggressors, and they remain aggressive in promotion of themselves as hapless victims of the North. Pathetic nonsense.

This celebration of defeat would merely be sad and pathetic self-delusion if the same people who are gearing up for the 150th anniversary of the Confederacy did not insist on presenting the commemoration in political terms. They will spend millions of dollars in television advertisements that claim the war was about preserving their own freedom. It was  about slavery.

The rebellion of the Confederates was the worst crime ever committed against the United States. Those who fought against the North were traitors, and they got off all too lightly at the end of the war. More than 300,000 men from the North died in that war, and thousands of them were starved to death in the South's inhuman prisoner of war camps. The South committed war crimes against Northern soldiers, notably at Andersonville, where 13,000 men died of malnutrition, disease, and exposure in the 14 months it was open. There is absolutely nothing to celebrate. The Confederacy was an ignoble cause, a delusion.

The Confederacy represents nothing less than treason, torture, and slavery. It was and remains an abomination. There is no reason to celebrate the Confederacy, as many Southerners are about to do with a grand ball in Charleston. Succession was a crime. It should be remembered with memorial services for the dead. Its symbol should be a shroud.

When the South lost the war, some of its "patriots" conspired to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. Will the people of Charleston celebrate that, too? 

Abandoned plantation house, 1930s

November 27, 2010

Move Danish Universities Abroad (following Danish corporations)

After the American Century

This is a thought experiment, making logical deductions from recent actions of the Danish government. If there seems to be anything objectionable (or worthwhile) in this proposal, think about what that government has been doing.

In a globalized world, there is no reason why Danish universities should remain in Denmark, if they can educate their students just as well at a lower price in another place. Just as Danish slaughter houses are moving to Germany and Eastern Europe, just as Danish companies seeking assembly line workers move that part of their activity to Asia, so, too Danish universities should consider the option of moving off-shore.

The advantages of this proposal are obvious.
1. Student SU (grants in aid) will buy more goods and services abroad.
2. Books, clothing, food, and computers will be cheaper, as the faculty and students will not need to pay the 25% Danish VAT.
3. University services can be outsourced more cheaply in other labor markets. There is no reason to pay high Danish wages to cleaners, cooks, and maintenance people, who would be much less costly to hire elsewhere.
4. Careful site selection would place the new Danish universities in mild climates, saving on the cost of heating.
5. Recruitment of non-Danish faculty would not be hindered by the complex and ever more stringent regulations for work permits.
6. In a digitized world, the library resources would be on-line, with no need to build up a physical collection of books and journals.
7. Travel to the new universities need not cost any more than the Danish railways charge to commute from Odense or Aarhus to Copenhagen. Indeed, with the proliferation of budget airlines, it may be cheaper to get to the new universities than to the old ones.
8. Housing will also be less expensive, and at the same time thousands of apartments will be made available in Denmark, solving the housing problems of its cities.
9. Foreign language acquisition will be faster and better, as students will be learning a local language through immersion in another culture, as well as in class.
10. Since Danish business is moving abroad, the Danish students trained overseas will be right where they are needed, and available to work at the lower salaries in the wage markets of those nations.

Since the funds available for university teaching and reseach have declined in real terms for years, this proposal is a rational response to the Danish government's cost-cutting.

Initially the BA programs could be sited off-shore, with the more specialized MA and Ph.D. courses remaining in Denmark for a few years of transition. Logically, the programs in Danish history and Danish language and literature might be left behind to thrive in their native environments, but the natural sciences, much of the humanities, and most of the social sciences would benefit from going off-shore. Indeed, there would be useful synergies with local universities in the host nations that could not be achieved through exchange programs.

By 2030 it should be possible to move most of Danish university education to such places as Ireland, Poland, Southern Spain, Turkey, and Thailand. Those who earlier immigrated into Denmark from these countries would become valuable as translators and bridge builders between the Danes and the host countries.

Once business and the universities have moved abroad, it will be time to think about what else to locate overseas. Quite possibly some hospitals and primary schools also could be moved to the new Danish foreign enclaves.  The eventual result would be to empty Denmark of most university students and many workers, while the number of pensioners abroad would certainly increase as well. They would leave behind a smaller population to operate Denmark as a center for high-tech industries and as a theme park for tourists.

Denmark would thereby become the most completely globalized of all nations. There is no time to delay, as other nations that Denmark likes to compare itself to may be the first movers. The best locations and the biggest savings will go to those who seize the opportunity now.

November 20, 2010

Danish Law Would Discourage Future Nobel Prize Winners From Seeking Work

After the American Century

The Danish government has proposed rules for admission to the country that would discriminate against the vast majority of the world's PhDs. Notably, the new rules would favor only two of those who received the Nobel Prize in 2010. The restrictive regulations that the right-wing government has proposed would give bonus points to anyone with a degree from one of the world’s top twenty universities, as determined by the London Times annual poll. Restricting the list to just the top 20 schools is a serious mistake. It should include at least the first 200 schools, especially since none of the Danish universities are anywhere near the top twenty. The rather nasty implication is that foreigners  (or the Danes themselves!) with Danish PhDs are not really good enough.

In the London Times, DTU is ranked 122, Aarhus 167, and Copenhagen 177. As a group the Danish universities have fallen in the rankings considerably in recent years.

The danger of excluding Nobel Prize winners is by no means a hypothetical exercise. A few years ago, one of this year's winners, Konstatin Novselov was offered a position at the University Copenhagen, but his admission to the country became so snarled in red tape that he went to get his Ph.D. in Holland, at the University of Nijmegen. Just how many top quality doctoral students and faculty are lost in this way? Some never apply in the first place, because Denmark has become known as a nation whose government creates problems for non-citizens.

The list below includes the universities that the 2010 Nobel Prize winners either attended or now teach in.  I have put in parenthesis each school’s position in the London Times world ranking. Note that seven of the universities associated with this year’s winners are not even in the top 200 universities, much less the top 20.

Carnegie Mellon University (20)
Edinburgh University (40)
Essex University (not in the first 200)
Hokkaido University (not in the first 200)
Jilin University (China) (not in the first 200)
London School of Economics (86)
Madrid University (not in the first 200)
Manchester University (87)
MIT (3)
Nijmegen University (not in the first 200)
Northwestern University (25)
Peking Normal University (not in the first 200)
Purdue University (106)
Russian Academy of Sciences, Chernogolovka  (not in the first 200)
University of Delaware (159)
University of Tokyo (26)
University of Wales (not in the first 200)

The world’s top 20 Universities according to the London Times
1            Harvard University        USA
2            California Institute of Technology           USA
3            Massachusetts Institute of Technology    USA
4            Stanford University            USA
5            Princeton University            USA
6            University of Cambridge       United Kingdom           
6            University of Oxford             United Kingdom           
8            University of California Berkeley   USA           
9            Imperial College London  United Kingdom           
10          Yale University   USA           
11          University of California Los Angeles    USA
12          University of Chicago       USA           
13          Johns Hopkins University    USA
14          Cornell University            USA
15          Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich Switzerland           
15          University of Michigan            USA           
17          University of Toronto            Canada           
18          Columbia University            USA           
19          University of Pennsylvania            USA
20          Carnegie Mellon University, USA

See also World University Rankings, 2011- 2012, elsewhere on this blog (October, 2011)

November 14, 2010

Perils of a Point System for Immigrants to Denmark

After the American Century

Danish politicians, particularly those on the right side of the political spectrum, are toying with the idea of introducing a point system for immigration. The idea is to admit applicants for residence in Denmark based on points that reward such things as advanced education, mastery of Danish before arrival, a strong knowledge of English, and specific skills.  The uneducated, and especially the illiterate, would be pretty much excluded under this system, unless they were excellent football players. The idea clearly is to attract those who can enrich the country and keep out those who would be a drain on its resources.

A related idea being discussed is to make new residents wait for several years before they are eligible for unemployment and some social services. People would earn points toward full membership in the welfare state after  two or even three years. This is a seriously flawed idea. Why should someone who is highly educated and skilled want to come to a country that will treat them as a second-class citizen for years? Danish society will not have paid for their education or training, yet it will immediately benefit from their contribution and from their taxes. It is hard to see any good reason for such a rule, or any way that such a rule can help attract the talented.

Furthermore, the logic of such rules could spread to the Danes themselves. Why should a new university graduate qualify for unemployment before he or she has worked for three years, just like the skilled immigrant? The only difference between them is that the native Dane has already cost society quite a large sum, so, logically, the native Dane should contribute for much longer than just two or three years before eligible for any benefits. I am not advocating this idea, merely pointing out that if the political calculus becomes that of only giving benefits to those who have earned them, then many unlucky Danes would perhaps never qualify for benefits from their own welfare state.

There is one other scenario to consider as well. Suppose a highly trained person, say a physicist or surgeon, comes to Denmark and after two years still is earning points toward full eligibility. Before he or she can "cash in," however, a new job offer comes from a country without such silly rules. The physicist and the surgeon leave, and Denmark loses their services. Worse yet, they decide to sue Denmark for recovery of the value of the "points" they accumulated. Since the government has created such a system, these "points" will have a clear monetary value. Would not the European Court likely rule that at least some of the taxes immigrants paid for welfare services they could never enjoy ought to be refunded? 

This is just an example. Many other lawsuits could be imagined, as lawyers calculate the value of unused "points" lost. The lawyers and the accountants would make money. The government would have to hire more people to deal with the complaints and the lawsuits. And, of course, Denmark's reputation would be damaged by the controversy, regardless of who won the individual cases. A brilliant idea, obviously.

November 04, 2010

CRACPOT: Republican Party Needs a New Name

After the American Century

It is usually best to call things by their right names. There once was a political party in the United States called the Republican Party, which proudly nominated Abraham Lincoln for President. That party would never have considered nominating a bird-brain like Sarah Palin. It was called, affectionately, The Grand Old Party. It made mistakes, of course, but it was the essentially the party of the North, of development, of education, and of fairness, notably in the politics of Teddy Roosevelt. TR was far from perfect, but he did attack corporate monopolies, he often took the side of labor, and he believed passionately in conservation.
The so-called Republican Party of today is not at all the party of Lincoln or of Teddy Roosevelt. It is an angry party, a party of negative campaigning, a party that courts religious fundamentalism, a party that nominates candidates with extremist views. I strongly doubt that Lincoln or Teddy Roosevelt would have voted for their candidates in the 2010 election. They were too modern in their thinking. 

The truth is that the Republican Party has become the Christian Capitalist Conservative Party, or CCCP . However, that abbreviation refers to the Communist Party in Russia. So we cannot use it. This new party has its power base is in the old confederacy. Get out a map showing where the slaves were most numerous, and it coincides perfectly with the states that are most staunchly Republican. I am not saying they are racists or that they are Bible beating yahoos, but they are strong in the areas where such people are to be found.

Indeed, if one looks at a map of the election results for the nation as a whole, broken down by county, it is immediately obvious that the Republicans are strongest in the countryside. The Democrats win Chicago, New York City, LA, Philadelphia, and so on, but they lose all those rural counties where people confuse socialism with any form of public services. 

So let me propose a new name for the Republicans, one that expresses their true nature:
Christian Rural American Conservative Party of Tea:   

The name CRACPOT is accurate and descriptive. It is much needed in order to clarify who we are dealing with.
I therefore propose that CRACPOT be used from now on.

November 03, 2010

Women, Minorities, and Low Income Groups Voted Democratic

After the American Century

The Democrats lost badly in the House, but hung on to the Senate, as predicted here yesterday. (Indeed, while results are still coming in, it appears that I was nearly 100% correct.) Is there any silver lining for the Democrats? Yes. Women favor the Democrats by a sizeable margin, often as much as 15% more than men. Had only women been voting, the Democrats would have won the Senate seats in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Pennsylvania.

Likewise, African Americans voted Democratic by overwhelming margins, with typically 20% or less for Republican candidates. Asian Americans also tended strongly to suport Democrats, as did Hispanic Americans, who typically voter 2-1 against the Republicans. These three minorities are all growing, and will have more potential voters each year, The states where they are most numerous, notably California, will be even more bastions for the Democrats than they are already.

Republicans would have won even more seats if only those who made more than $50,000 year had been allowed to vote, or if only those over 40 had voted. In short, Republicans are in some danger of becoming the party of white, old people. You would think this group might want better and less expensive medical care, so part of this constituency could be won over to the Democrats if the new medical system proves a success.

To put this another way, Democrats did best among young people, and also with highly educated people, i.e. those with an MA or a PhD. As the population gets more education, if would seem, they will likely become Democratic voters. 

So, despite the defeat, there are positive signs. The Democrats will need to discover and promote better candidates that can appeal to these demographics.

October 25, 2010

US Mid-Term Elections: A Typical Result Likely

After the American Century

The media hype about these midterm elections has been devoid of historical memory. One breathless journalist after another has been proclaiming that a vast change is taking place. In fact, this midterm election looks much like those of the past.

Typically, the part occupying the White House loses seats in both the House and the Senate at every midterm election. Between 1842 and 1990. only one sitting president managed to win seats, and that was Roosevelt in 1934 after his spectacular early successes in the New Deal. Otherwise, in that 150 year period, EVERY president lost. Even popular presidents like Eisenhower and LBJ suffered big losses in the midterm elections of 1958 and 1966. Eisenhower lost 48 seats in the House and 13 in the Senate. Johnson lost 47 in the House and 4 in the Senate. So, should Obama lose roughly the same number of House seats, as now projected, he would be in good company.  Note also that Clinton lost 52 seats in the House in 1994, FDR lost 71 House seats in 1938, and Reagan lost 8 Senate seats in 1986.

Perhaps the media have lost track of this pattern in US elections because it did not hold true twice in recent memory. First, in 1998, Clinton did not lose any Senate seats and gained a few in the House. But since he had lost so many seats in 1994 and not gotten so many of them back in 1996, this was less a victory than it might appear. Second, in the aftermath of 9/11, George W. Bush (who received less than half the vote in 2000), was able to terrify the nation into supporting their president. That was a special circumstance, to say the least, and in 2006 the midterms were "normal" again, as he lost 30 House seats and 6 in the Senate.

One other typical pattern of midterm elections is also running true to form: the races are tightening as we near election day. Races that Republicans seemed likely to win have become ties in several states. Few now think the Republicans will be able to regain control of the Senate, though it does seem they have a good chance to retake control of the House. This could lead to grid-lock in Washington (as in 1995-96), but then again, gaining control of the House might force the Republicans to develop detailed policies again, rather than simply working to obstruct.

I do not regard this election to be anything unusual in the history of American politics. I do not even think the Tea Party is all that significant, since its members are almost all people who would vote Republican anyway.  Given huge secret campaign contributions and lots of media attention, they nevertheless do not seem to be changing the overall pattern very much. US elections are mostly decided by the one-third of the voters who are in the middle, and  they waffle from one party to the other on a regular basis. Unhappily, many of this group are not deeply analytical and appear to have historical memories that stretch only back about three or four years, at best. The beconomy, specifically, their own situation, is the main issue for such voters. With unemployment high, growth sluggish, and lots of foreclosures, this economy would be hard on any incumbent president.

In nine days we will know the results, but the statistical pattern suggests that Obama and the Democrats are not about to suffer anything more than the typical rebalancing inflicted by voters on the incumbents. Why should anyone familiar with American politics think that the nation had suddenly become liberal, or that the Democrats could expect to hold on to 59 Senate seats? Expect the Republicans to regain the House by a small margin, while the Democrats hold on, barely, to the Senate. 

October 13, 2010

Who is Energy Efficient? Blue States

After the American Century
All solar demonstration house on the Washington Mall

Once again the individual American states have been evaluated for energy efficiency, and again California is the most efficient, with Massachusetts close behind. Basically, the "blue" states that voted for Obama are the most energy efficient, while the over-consuming states are mostly the "red" states that apparently don't really care about being green. Note the states at the bottom of the list, Alabama, Mississippi, and Wyoming. These are also states that don't want a national health care system. Their motto should be "Pollute often - die young."

Here is the complete list:

#1 California          #18 Arizona           #35 Tennessee
#2 Massachusetts    #19 Colorado        #36 Kentucky
#3 Oregon              #19 District of Col #37 Alaska
#4 New York         #19 Nevada           #37 Georgia
#5 Vermont            #22 New Hampshire  #37 South Carolina
#6 Washington       #22 New Mexico #39 South Dakota
#7 Rhode Island     #24 N. Carolina   #41 Arkansas
#8 Connecticut       #25 Illinois           #42 Louisiana
#8 Minnesota         #26 Idaho             #43 Missouri
#10 Maine              #27 Delaware      #43 Oklahoma
#11 Wisconsin        #27 Michigan       #43 West Virginia
#12 Hawaii             #27 Ohio              #46 Kansas
#12 Iowa                #30 Florida          #47 Nebraska
#12 New Jersey     #31 Indiana          #48 Alabama
#12 Utah                #32 Texas            #48 Wyoming
#16 Maryland        #33 Montana        #50 Mississippi
#16 Pennsylvania  #34 Virginia        #51 North Dakota

Note that the "swing" states in presidential elections fall right in the middle of the list, including Michigan, Ohio, and Florida.

The list has changed somewhat in the last year, as states like Arizona and New Mexico have climbed to higher positions as they have adopted more solar energy.

If you want more information, click here.

October 07, 2010

We Need a Travel Olympics!

After the American Century

The ancient Greeks created their Olympics based on the skills needed back in their day, such as running, throwing a spear, jumping over things, and the like. Today, the world is far different and people need quite different skills. I therefore propose a new Travel Olympics. More disciplines must be added, but here are some vital skills that should be celebrated.

500 Meter Suitcase Race. Participants must run as they carry a standard suitcase, without wheels, that weighs 23 kilos. In the other hand they must hold a carry on bag that weighs 10 kilos. The racecourse must include at least one staircase of 15 or more steps.

2000 Meter Suitcase Relay. As above, with teams of 4. The suitcase handoffs will be crucial.

Security Control. Each participant must be wearing normal street clothing as they enter the Security Control area, carrying with them a 10 kilo bag containing a laptop computer, camera, and other items designated by the directors of the competition. The winner is the competitor who can in the shortest time, remove a a belt, shoes, watch, jacket, spare change, two pens and a memory stick, each in a different pocket, pass through the metal detector, and reassemble and put back in place all their belongings. Points will also be given for the elegance of movement. To be performed with accompanying music, as in figure skating competitions.

Airport Marathon. Contestants are at an airport, blindfolded, and told what gate they must find. The blindfold is then removed as a sketchy map of the airport is given to each.  The winner is that person who first navigates all the obstacles to the proper gate. The obstacles shall include passport control and security control. The signs are to be contradictory, and anyone asking directions incurs a five minute wait in line.

Speed shopping in duty-free, the winner being the person who saves the most compared to high street prices, after spending $1000.

October 05, 2010

Book Buyer's Nil Served: Ipad's absurd marketing arrangements

After the American Century

One of the chief advantages of getting an Ipad, I imagined, was that I would be able to buy American books quickly and easily. Most of the scholarly books and many of the novels I want are simply not available anywhere in Denmark, and often they are hard to find  in the UK as well. However, Apple has chosen to set up its sales in such a way it will not sell most US books to a person whose residence is outside the US. Even when I am physically present in the US,  because my Ipad belongs to a person with a Danish address, I can only access and buy a tiny selection of books selected for the Danish market.

Imagine going to New York on holiday, entering a real bookstore, selecting several volumes, and then being told at checkout that you may not purchase these books unless you have a bank credit card tied to an American address. This is material for a sketch by Monty Python.

The obvious comparison is Amazon's Kindle reader which costs only a quarter as much as the Ipad, has a much longer battery life (measured in weeks not hours), is lighter in weight by far, and apparently (I have not done this) can download an enormous number of books regardless of where you are in the world or where your billing address might be.

While the Ipad can play videos and music, show photographs, surf the internet, and do lots of other things, the  buyer without a US address who wants American books is ill - indeed almost NIL - served. I could understand (though not like it much) if Apple made a selection of American books available in the EU as a whole, but to slice up the European market into tiny national segments is absurd. Why should the Brit, the German, and the Dane be forced to go to different virtual stores? What is Apple thinking? Are they thinking?

In the present "store" I can get quite a few books by the great Danish author of a century ago, Herman Bang, but I cannot get much of anything contemporary in Danish or in English. A new German novel had a nice review in the New York Times yesterday, but using the Apple "service" I cannot buy this book in either German or in English. It is sham, a joke, a hoax, and quite nonsensical. Indeed, it is close to false advertising, for Apple to brag about their book service when it really is only for people with an American billing address.

No doubt there will be some way to work around this silliness, and eventually Apple will discover that it is not selling books abroad because they actually are not for sale. But for now the  eager young IT chaps at the Apple store could offer no help, and it was all they could do to suppress their irritation and keep up a facade of "service."

September 28, 2010

Five Weeks Until the US Election

After the American Century

With the election only five weeks away, the polls have indicated a Republican resurgence. On the one hand, this is typical: the party that loses a presidential election usually makes inroads two years later. The reasons for this seem to be pretty much the same. Disillusionment with the new president sets in after two years, because the world remains stubbornly much the same. Changes take time, and two years is often not enough time for new policies to have much effect. The changes that Obama has brought to medical care in America are only now being implemented, and it will be several more years before the people will know whether they like the new system or not.

On the other hand, this is perhaps not a normal election. The anger on the Right, the selection of several truly incompetent Republican candidates for the Senate (notably in Delaware and Nevada), and the tone of the election, suggests that those who lost in 2008 are not playing by the ordinary political rules. Their rhetoric is often nasty and overheated, and the economic proposals they are making border on impossible nonsense. Instead of moving toward the center, to capture swing voters, Republicans are seeking to win by mobilizing the base of extremists that have emerged in the Tea Party movement. They have also brought back from the shadows of temporary retirement Karl Rove, the architect of Geroge W. Bush's campaigns. 

In short, this is not a chastened and repentant Republican Party eager to show it understands the errors of its ways. This is not a Republican Party that understands it almost destroyed the economy or that its policies have made the United States a weaker business competitor that is behind the curve on developing alternative energy or sustainable housing, This is not a Republican Party that has taken time to think of new policies or innovative approaches to problems. Rather, the Republicans are acting like "true believers" who keep insisting on their beliefs even when prophecy fails. They at times seem to be more a cult than a savvy political party, more concerned with ideological purity than pragmatic solutions or compromises. 

The swing voters will turn against the incumbents as they always do, and the fervent right wingers will be out in force. The danger is that Democrats may not turn out in November, feeling a little disillusioned. The passionate crowds calling for change in 2008 are not very visible, and the President is not as popular as his wife Michelle at the moment.
The Republicans are hungry and well financed, thanks to a Supreme Court decision to let corporations give unlimited amounts to campaigns. Can the Democrats rally?

September 17, 2010

London Times Ranks the Universities: Aarhus tops Copenhagen

After the American Century

The Danish media have not yet taken much notice, but according to the prestigious London Times ranking of world universities, Aarhus University is better than Copenhagen University. This is not surprising to those of us who know both institutions, but few in Copenhagen will want to admit this is true.

However, there is worse news for Copenhagen. For in 2010 it has fallen considerably in the world rankings, and is now at 177. (Aarhus University is ranked at 167, Denmark's Technical University is ranked highest at 122, but the other Danish universities did not make it into the top 200.)

Copenhagen has fallen 126 places in a single year, after the Times methodology changed. In 2009 Copenhagen was ranked number 51 in the world, but many criticized the way the rankings were compiled. Teaching now has a higher priority and there are many other changes as well. But the more nuanced study has certainly knocked Copenhagen down the list.
Looking only at European Institutions, Aarhus is now ranked 62nd, Copenhagen 70th. Both are a long way from where the Danish government says it wants the universities to be. The best ranked Swedish University is Lund, at 22nd, with Stockholm 41rst. The best in Norway is Bergen, 43rd, while Oslo did not make it on to the list at all. In short, in all three Scandinavian countries the highest ranked university is not in the capital city.

As usual, no matter what factors are counted and regardless of who makes the list, the same universities are at the top of the world rankings. The first five are all American - Harvard, California Institute of Technology, MIT, Stanford, and Princeton. Then come Cambridge and Oxford, tied for sixth place. The whole list can be viewed here.

For the 2011 results, see this blog for October, 2011.

September 12, 2010

Before 9/11 Moslems Prayed Inside the World Trade Center Every Day

After the American Century

On the anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center, it is important to remember that people of many faiths worked and died there, including many Muslims. They had their own prayer room on floor 17 of the South Tower. The current anger on the American Right is only possible because they have erased this information from their consciousness. They want to see the World Trade Center in religious terms that are historically incorrect and dangerously misleading. It was not a building for Christians only, and some of those who died were Muslims, some Jews, some Christians, and some not religious as well. If people from a religion died at a certain place, surely they have every right to hold religious services at or near the place.

Before September 11, 2001, the WTC was an ecumenical work place. Those who want to rewrite history pretend that only Christians suffered when the buildings came down and that Muslims have no business anywhere near the site. In fact, the WTC was a place of business for Muslims, and therefore it was a place of prayer for them as well. The American politicians and supposed religious leaders who deny these facts and stir up religious hatred shame themselves. The Muslim families who lost someone on 9/11 deserve the same respect and sympathy as all other families who were robbed of a loved one on that day.

It is estimated that 60 Muslims died in the attacks of 9/11, and in many cases their remains were never recovered. The site is their graveyard, too. Every religion should be welcome to sanctify the WTC site in remembrance of the victims.
For more on the Muslims who worked at the WTC, see the New York Times story on this.

September 08, 2010

If you burn the Koran, you are attacking Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

After the American Century

The question posed in the headline is prompted by the plan of one pastor of a small church in Florida to burn a copy of the Koran on September 11. This is base publicity seeking of the worst sort, stirring up the passions of the religious right and angering anyone who knows that it says in the American Constitution about religious freedom. 

I am not going to name this "leader" or his church, as he already has gotten so much of the publicity  he so clearly wants. In Afghanistan a crowd burned him in effigy. The American military has asked the minister to stop, because burning the Koran angers our allies and drives them into the arms of the enemy.

An ecumenical meeting in Washington of leaders from the Catholic Church, the Jewish faith, and the National Council of Churches joined Muslim leaders in condemning these attempts to fuel religious hatred. 

Thomas Jefferson thought religious freedom was so important that he drafted a law of religious freedom for the State of Virginia in 1777, in the midst of the Revolution. although it was not passed until after the victory over the British.   The law states, in part.

"WE, the General Assembly of Virginia, do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."

My countrymen might contemplate these words of President Jefferson, along with the Bill of Rights, and then ask themselves: Are not Jefferson and the legislators of Virginia dishonored by the proposal to burn the scripture of any religion?

The Founders felt strongly about religious freedom. The same Virginia law concludes "the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right." 

The American Revolution was fought to preserve and protect the natural rights of American citizens. If a misguided clergyman thinks that by burning the Koran he is proclaiming his loyalty to the United States, he is sadly mistaken. He is as good as throwing into the fire Jefferson's law of religious freedom, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence. Religious hatred and bigotry find no justification in American law and they insult the vision of the founders.

September 07, 2010

Higher Education Pays for itself

After the American Century

The OECD has released a report today that concludes, in part, as follows:

On average across the OECD countries, a man with a tertiary level of education will generate  $119 000 more in income taxes and social contributions over his working life than someone with just an upper secondary level of education. Unhappily, women make somewhat less, due to the continuation of wage inequality and the persistence of the glass ceiling. But women graduates nevertheless do generate more income than it costs to graduate them.

This means that  investment in post-second education more than pays for itself, generating a surplus. The report also found that university graduates have a lower unemployment rate than the population as a whole. "Unemployment rates among people with a tertiary level of education have stayed at or below 4% on average across OECD countries during the recession."

Moreover, the OECD report only tells us how much more university graduates pay in taxes than it costs to educate them. It does not calculate the value of their inventions, for example, or how much their labor contributes to better exports, more appealing tourism, more effective public service, and so forth.

Denmark comes out well in the report, which finds it sixth in terms of the percentage of its population getting advanced education. However, it does trail the world's leading country,  Finland, with Iceland number two. Norway, the Netherlands, and Sweden are close behind Denmark at 9, 10, and 11. 

Denmark needs to improve in the vital area of internationalization. Overall, the total number of international students in the world has doubled to 3.3 million from 1995 until 2008. Yet Denmark has a smaller cadre of foreign students than many counties, and it looks particularly weak in the all-important area of advanced degree programs. Fully 84% of Danish advanced degree students are Danes, compared to 54% in the UK, 55% in Switzerland, 60% in France,  61% in Canada or 66% in Austria. (Figures for the US and Germany were not available, but they do have large numbers of foreign students, without question.)

Danish parochialism is most pronounced in the PhD programs in the Humanities, where almost all students are Danes, plus a small number of permanent residents married to Danes. This is not a healthy or competitive situation. Things are better in the sciences and medicine, but not up to the level of nations that the Danes usually compare themselves with.

The United States lags behind in these statistics, with little more than a third of its population receiving tertiary education. Of course, it still has the world's strongest universities that regularly top the league tables, regardless of whether they are complied in Europe, Asia, or the US. Harvard remains number one, with Yale, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Columbia, and all the other great universities that have long been dominant among the top 50. However, if one looks at the population of the US as a whole, its educational level is not rising as rapidly as elsewhere, and the ability of the people as a whole to compete internationally may be expected to suffer accordingly.

September 06, 2010

Linking up with Turkey

After the American Century

I see in the news that Turkey is about to link its electrical system to Europe's, by way of Greece and Bulgaria. Such things are often regarded to be merely technical, but they are more than that. In the past such interconnections have anticipated closer political and economic ties. During the later years of the Cold War electrical links were established across the Iron Curtain years before the collapse of the Soviet system. 

Turkey is initially only joining the grid for a one year trial, but barring technical problems, one assumes it will then become permanent. Access to Turkey's hydroelectric power could provide greater balance in the grid as a whole. It could also make possible more pumped-storage projects, in which wind and solar energy are "stored"by pumping water up to a higher elevation, against the time when demand rises again, or the wind does not blow or sunshine is weak. Then the water is released and turns a turbine to make electricity that is far more valuable than the electricity from off-peak production that was used to store the water.

Norway and Holland have a pumped storage arrangement of this sort, which means that off-peak power production in Holland is stored as hydro power in Norway. They built an undersea cable to make the arrangement a direct connection. Such interconnections build trust between countries and create mutual advantages.

It is particularly significant that the old enemies, Greece and Turkey, are going to trust one another in this way. Ideally, both countries could eventually save huge sums if they stopped investing in military hardware to protect themselves from each other. The new link is also a small step toward resolving the Cyprus question.

It is not just an electrical connection, it is a move toward friendlier relations and an intelligent technical integration. Interestingly, the engineering and electrical work was done in good part by General Electric, so the profits and benefits are not limited to the Balkans and Turkey.

August 17, 2010

Pakistan: Can a Nuclear Power Still be a Victim?

After the American Century

The devastating floods in Pakistan that have affected 20 million people dominate the news. As all too often this is presented as a natural disaster in which people are simply victims who need our help. This is true enough of the peasants trapped on high ground who have lost their homes, their fields, and their livestock. But it is not true of Pakistan as a nation, which has spent billions of dollars developing a nuclear arsenal, which it should have spent instead on dams and flood control. It is hard to see a nuclear power with 170 million people as simply a victim, especially when it seems that Pakistan shared its weapons technology with North Korea.The New York Times reported last year that Pakistan employed tens of thousands of people in its nuclear program, and that it is rapidly increasing the size of its arsenal.

That money would have been much better spent on flood control, on preventing the growing population from settling on flood plains, on building hydroelectric dams, and on vast tree planting projects to help absorb water, hold soil, and slow down flooding. A great deal could have been done, but instead money was spent to build nuclear bombs.

In this moment of need, ordinary people give to flood relief, but governments should tie future aid to real change in Pakistan's priorities. Otherwise, aid donors end up building dams and levees so Pakistan can spend money on weapons of mass destruction. Pakistan is now pursuing a policy of of double devastation: floods now, nuclear war later. 

Pakistan has the resources and the talent, as well as the sheer size, needed to be a great nation. But it has not developed its educational system sufficiently. It has allowed religious fundamentalism to flourish, invested vast sums in its military, assassinated its leaders, and even persecuted its lawyers. It needs to find moderation and compromise in politics and to be better at selecting its priorities. Of course we should aid Pakistan's suffering millions. But even if I am very much a skeptic when it comes to the idea of divine intervention in human affairs, it is tempting, though wrong-headed, to see Pakistan's problems as its punishment.

August 03, 2010

No Safety Net

After the American Century

The American unemployment system does not work well if a recession lasts much more than one year. To be precise, benefits run out after 99 weeks. The first people laid off in 2008 have now reached that point, and they are losing their homes, their cars, and everything familiar in their lives. The Congress is not doing anything for them. In fact, it had trouble getting itself to extend benefits to 99 weeks.

Contrast the New Deal in 1933. President Roosevelt created work programs for the long-term unemployed. They did not pay well, but they gave people enough to live on, a sense of purpose and hope for the future. These programs also helped reforest and replant areas that had been misused, built parks and recreation areas, improved roads, and much else. The money was by no means wasted, and the human capital was not lost either.

Indeed, some important writers were given jobs preparing comprehensive guidebooks to every state in the union, and others worked as actors and directors for an arts program that was supported by the government. Today the United States seems far less able to find creative ways to deal with the crisis.

Unless the economy improves soon, the US Congress might want to learn from the successes of the New Deal.

July 31, 2010

Education: Top-Down State Control

After the American Century

Each year at the end of July roughly the same story appears inmost European countries. Thousands of applicants for higher education have been denied entrance. There are not enough places to fill demand. In part, this is because many more want to be doctors than any state can afford to educate and because certain trendy subjects attract a crowd - notably journalism and media studies.

But there is a deeper problem, which is that state bureaucrats believe they are wiser than the students or the professors, and think that no education should be offered unless there seems to be certain employment available. The bureaucratic mind does not like uncertainty, creative interpretation, or imagination. The ideal education, from the bureaucratic perspective, is one that teaches a certain skill which fills an obvious social need, such as nursing. Subjects that develop abstract thinking, creativity, and interdisciplinary capabilities are viewed with suspicion. Every year the press obediently repeats, with a sneer, that there is a limit to how many philosophers or literary critics a society needs.

Strictly speaking, it is true that the market for full-time literary critics or philosophers is small. But the need for critical thinking and creativity is great, and the vocational approach to education will not cultivate the mind. Likewise, if we train only carpenters and no architects, then building innovations will be few and far between, and the buildings will be as bad as public housing planned by bureaucrats. But this example is still too vocational. I know a successful comic book artist in New York who received his BA in geology - and he swears that every landscape he draws is geologically feasible, though that is not the main reason he has steady work. A woman I knew in graduate school did not become a historian but opened an excellent restaurant.  A fellow I knew as an undergraduate majored in English but became a successful radio announcer.

In short, the bureaucrats and the newspapers are not thinking ahead. They imagine that the skills we can identify today are all that is needed to solve the problems or seize the possibilities of tomorrow. Isn't it more likely that we cannot fully imagine the future, and the best thing we can offer students is teaching them how to learn, how to create, and how to think critically? People's careers are not all going to be predictable, i.e. one studies nursing and becomes a nurse for 40 years. I know a successful computer programmer who studied English, and a brilliant real estate agent who studied art history. Likewise, the first generation of computer programmers by definition was not trained to do that work, and many pioneers of the Internet emerged from the counter-culture.

Moreover, the rationale for education is not merely vocational. Education is also needed to ensure that citizens are competent to vote intelligently, to debate effectively, and to consume wisely. A narrow, vocational education is not going to produce citizens who can do these things well. 

Why try to force students into careers that they do not want, by creating quotas for non-vocational subjects? Why not show a little humility and flexibility in Ministries of Education? Top-down state control of education is undemocratic and counter-productive. The careers people actually have are far more numerous than the courses of study can ever be, and a vocational approach will only be able to prepare students for a fraction of the jobs of tomorrow. 

July 20, 2010

The Lost Catholic Church

After the American Century

Many have rightly derided the Catholic Church in recent days after it called the ordination of women as priests a grave sin - in a statement that was otherwise devoted to child abuse!  I am not going to waste time attacking the church, as many others have pointed out its moral obtuseness, obstructionism, and apparent inability to clean its own house. The clergy's scandalous treatment of many young children and its defense of the perpetrators speak all too well for themselves.

But think of the Catholic Church we do not have. The world desperately needs moral leadership on a host of issues, but the Pope is rapidly losing all credibility. In an age of militant fundamentalism, both in Islam and in Christianity, wouldn't it be wonderful to have an enlightened Catholic Church that had a powerful voice on such issues as global warming and environment, women's rights, or non-violent conflict resolution?

The tragedy of this Pope and of the Catholic Church is that they are rapidly becoming powerless to affect the great issues of our time. When the Church is in the news the story seems always to be about the abuse of children, opposition to equality for women, and conflicts with local authorities that the Church has obstructed in criminal investigations.

The Church is now most talked about for what it is against, not what it is for. Six decades ago, Pope  John XXIII convened Vatican II and moved the Church toward ecumenical understanding. His church was dynamic and people around the world, Catholic or not, listened to him. The current Pope will be remembered as a failure who defended indefensible acts and obstructed change.

July 11, 2010

Obama After 18 Months

After the American Century

It has only been eighteen months since George Bush left the White House, but already the American public seems to be suffering from amnesia. The American economy is not recovering quickly from its near collapse under Bush, and this weakness is nevertheless laid at Obama’s door. His popularity has fallen below 50% for some time now. The great bank bailout has been reasonably successful, with much of the money being paid back, yet many Americans talk about the bailout as though it was not a loan but a permanent part of the national debt. The re-regulation of Wall Street has gone through Congress, yet Republicans proclaim that Obama has now hobbled the capitalist horse. (For a reality check, consider the Canadian banks which did not need a bailout because they were restrained by sensible legislation.)

And then there is the endlessly repeated, and endlessly stupid, claim that the health care bill is socialistic. This would be silly if so many did not believe it. If Obama really had created a socialistic health care system then (1) he would have  given free medical care to all citizens and permanent residents, in exchange for higher taxes, (2) he would have put all doctors and nurses in public hospitals on the government payroll, and (3) prescription medicine would be free or heavily subsidized.  This is pretty much what the health care system looks like in Denmark, England, or Germany. But the Obama plan did not do any of these things. It made health care available to all, in exchange for payment to private insurers. It left hospitals under the same management as before, and so forth. The Obama plan is an improvement, but it is not much like a European plan.

My American readers might recall that they do have socialistic elements in their government, notably the fire departments which are paid for by everyone and put out all fires regardless of where they are or whose property it is. The theory seems to be that minimizing conflagrations is a good thing for the neighborhood. Free public libraries are also rather socialistic, though this did not stop that famous capitalist Andrew Carnegie from building quite a few of them. Then there are those terribly socialistic institutions, the free public schools, and so on.

Today’s column clearly has only that most general of subjects, the instability of American public opinion, which so often is based not on logic but pavlovian  responses to key words and silly phrases. The circus entrepreneur P. T. Barnum  once said that no one ever went broke because he underestimated the American public. By November all too many Americans will be convinced that not Bush but Obama undermined the economy by over-spending the budget, letting the banks get out of control, and imposing a “socialistic health” care system. But it was Bush who cut taxes, especially for the wealthy and then overspent the budget by billions in the unfinanced wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it was the Bush Administration that failed to keep a watchful eye on the banks and Wall Street, until the economy was near collapse before the 2008 election even took place.

In American political culture, eighteen months is a long time, and some seem to have trouble seeing cause and effect, or separating substance form allegation. It is not easy to be President in the best of times, and far harder than in the present. On the whole, Obama has done a good job. But Americans are an impatient people, and in the off year elections the party that lost the last time usually makes at least a partial comeback. We shall see. 

May 29, 2010

Who is to Blame? Making Sense of The Gulf Oil Disaster

After the American Century

I gave an interview to the New Orleans Times Picayune a few days ago. The reporter was rightly interested in the American tendency to believe that all problems have technological solutions. If oil drilling technology created an underground gusher of oil, surely some other technology ought to be able to stop it. And if the solution was not found quickly, then it must be someone's fault. Lately the media has been debating whether it is the President's fault.
Karl Rove - surely the least trustworthy man in American politics - has made the argument that the oil leak is "Obama's Katrina" -  one of the most idiotic arguments ever. But logic has never been the strong point in American politics, and perhaps not in the education of journalists either. So let us do a comparison of Katrina and the oil leak, and see how well they compare.

Katrina was a hurricane, and the last time I checked that makes it a natural phenomena, of the sort known often to hit Louisiana. The federal government had spent years making plans and building defenses to protect New Orleans against a category 4 or 5 hurricane. However, the Bush Administration cut back funds to improve the levees around New Orleans, and George W. Bush specifically appointed a political hack as chief administrator to deal with such crises. The entire world knew that Hurricane Katrina was headed for the Louisiana coast, and the failure of the local, state, and federal authorities were many, both before and during the disaster. People died because of their incompetence, not least in the evacuation of the city.

A deep-water oil drilling disaster is a man-made phenomena. Moreover, no one saw it coming on a radar screen for days beforehand, as was the case with Hurricane Katrina. The explosion, fire, and oil leak resulted from the failure of a new kind of oil drilling, and unlike a hurricane, the specific accident was not foreseeable days in advance. The permit to do this kind of drilling came from the Bush-Cheney government, and it is worth noting that both Bush and Cheney worked as executives in the oil industry before coming to Washington. 

In contrast to a hurricane which is beyond human control, oil drilling is a human activity, in this case run by British Petroleum or BP. They were responsible for building the platform, and drilling from a point that was about one mile down in the ocean. BP was present at the site before, during and after the accident and "leak", so one might think that BP and more generally the oil industry, is to blame. People died because of BP's incompetence, but no one died because of anything Obama has done in this matter. 

Moreover, the oil industry gave the federal government assurances that deep water oil wells would be safe. Perhaps they lied, perhaps they are just incompetent, but one thing is certain: the oil industry was a whole was not ready to deal with the disaster. They failed to make contingency plans. They failed, in effect, to construct the protections, the levees if you will, that were needed. The oil industry was not prepared to defend the shoreline or the fishing industry against a massive oil spill. The oil industry decided, as it usually does, to put profits first.

And speaking of profits, BP had a profit of more than $4 billion in the fourth quarter of 2009, and it made even more in the first quarter of 2010, a rather tidy $6.1. That is more than $10 billion in the last six months. Why is BP making so much money? The price of crude oil has almost doubled in the last year, but the cost of extraction has actually gone down slightly, (see CBS news). BP, which is not even the largest or most profitably oil company, could have afforded to make contingency plans. Exxon made a profit of $45 billion in 2008 and continues to rack up big profits. If such companies cared about more than the bottom line they would have jointly funded a permanent task force  that is always ready to deal with oil leaks and spills. The oil industry could have been prepared. Instead, they just kept drilling and hoped to pass on the bill, and the responsibility, to someone else.

Yet even had they prepared, and this was my point when speaking with the Times Picayune, Americans tend to think that there is a technological fix. Not all problems can be quickly solved, and not all powerful natural phenomena can be stopped. Human beings might be able to provoke a volcanic eruption, but we cannot stop one.  BP opened a hole that let the oil escape into the Gulf of Mexico. Plugging that hole is harder than drilling it in the first place. Tampering with powerful natural forces can get us in over our heads, and Americans need to understand that  smart technology may not always be immediately available to get them out of trouble.

So, blame the oil companies for not being prepared, for not investing very much of their enormous profits in accident prevention or oil leak protection. Blame the Bush-Cheney oil-friendly administration for allowing this kind of drilling in the first place, and for not assuring that the safeguards were adequate. But do not imagine that just because human beings can create a problem, we can always create a solution. As our technologies grow more powerful, the responsibility to use them carefully increases exponentially.

If you want to read more along these lines, most libraries have a copy of my Technology Matters (MIT Press, 2006).

After I wrote this blog, BP admitted that it did not have adequate technical know-how to deal with the problem they had created.

May 18, 2010

The Handy War Handbook

After the American Century

There was a strange moment on the Danish national news yesterday. A journalist was interviewing someone about Danish troops fighting in Afghanistan, and the question under discussion was serious: when was it permitted to kill enermy soldiers and when not. I am not going to address this question here, because I want to focus on the journalist's excitement when hearing that there was a handbook spelling out the rules of slaughter. Immediately the issue became whether these solders were carrying the rules around with them or not. It was quite evident that the journalist believed it essential that these young men have that book at all times. 

Imagine. You are a soldier, in a firefight, a matter of life or death. Then, in the best Monty Python tradition, you realize that there is a question in your mind as to whether it is OK to heave a grenade into yonder ditch. Perhaps one should go look in there first? Could be a little dangerous. Wait, a happy thought. I can consult my trusty handbook, which weighs only a kilo or so. It is a pleasure to haul it around  to consult in just these situations. So, put down the rifle, open the backpack, get out the handbook, consult the index, and find the proper instructions. Meanwhile,  the enemy, including anyone in that ditch, will respectfully maintain a ceasefire until there has been time to read the appropriate passages.

In that journalistic moment, the almost religious Danish belief in bureaucratic rules was blindingly, maddening manifest. For the discussion did turn to whether the soldiers were all issued such a handbook, whether they carried it with them at all times, as clearly they should, etc. etc.  Clearly the rulebook was the crucial point, the nub of the matter.

I am not presuming to judge what the Danish soldiers were doing or not doing. But wasn't the journalist at that moment an idiot?

May 13, 2010

Cameron and Obama

After the American Century

The first foreign leader to call David Cameron to congratulate him on becoming prime minister came not from inside the EU but from the White House. One often hears that the "special relationship" between Britain and the United States is not what it used to be, but I think this is mistaken. The reality has always been that these two nations are a bit like brothers. They may not always get along, but when a crisis comes, they almost always stand on the same side. When people say that the "specialness" is on the wane, they usually have a glorified idea of how close the connection was. But during World War II, the British public felt that the Americans were too slow to come to their aid, and once they did come by the million, they complained that the soldiers were "over sexed, over paid, and over here." At the same time, they fought and died together in North Africa, Italy, and France before the final push into Germany.

Looking further back into the nineteenth century, US/UK relations were a bit rockier, to say the least. But few people today remember these tensions, though most know that they fought a war from 1812-1815. Most Americans mistakenly think they won that war, and it is probably just as well not to explain that the US ally was Napoleon, who obviously lost.

At the moment, the US and the UK again need each other, for several reasons. They have to work together against the threat of terrorism, and they need to cooperate to keep their economies and currencies strong. Now that the Euro is becoming a bit uncertain and losing value, the dollar is getting stronger by comparison. No doubt Cameron hopes that American investors and bankers will continue to locate offices and factories in Britain.  And surely Obama wants to form a good relationship with the new leader of such an important ally, particularly with the war in Afghanistan and the withdrawal from Iraq and the situation in Pakistan all looking difficult, to put it mildly. Moreover, the British have better relations with Iran than the US, and Washington needs London to talk to Tehran.

In that election phone call, Obama invited Cameron to come to Washington. The two men are roughly the same age, and should have a  good chance of forging a personal relationship that builds trust between them.  These are not tranquil times, and these two leaders will need each other.

May 10, 2010

Duane Michals, photographer

After the American Century

I was pleased to make some opening remarks at a retrospective exhibition of Duane Michals' photographs in 2010.  His works are in the permanent collections of the great museums of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, Harvard and Princeton. He has been the subject of exhibits in Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium, and on and on, worldwide. This was the first exhibition of his work in Denmark for 16 years. My remarks follow.

Duane Michals was born in 1932 in McKeesport, a Pennsylvania steel town on the Monongahela River.  His father was a steel worker, and growing up just twelve miles away from Pittsburgh, he was in the midst of American heavy industry. I grew up myself less than 100 miles from there, and heard some of the same radio stations and likely the same commercials for Iron City beer – the sponsor for Pittsburgh Pirate baseball games.  This was a dynamic sometimes turbulent world of coal mining, foundries, unions, strikes, solidarity, and accidents. As Michals writes at the bottom of one of his images, as a child he thought all rivers were yellow and that the night sky ought to look orange. He first saw the black night sky in Indiana, when visiting relatives, and felt sorry for them.

It might seem that the logical, even the inevitable, choice for a photographer who grew up in such an environment, would be to become a realist photographer, and to work in the tradition of Lewis Hine, who made many images in the Pittsburgh area. Alternately, he might have been inspired by the later documentary tradition and the work of the great Depression Era photographers like Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Russell Lee. But Duane Michals is not part of this tradition. He did not choose photography in order to use it as a mirror.

After high school, Michals attended the University of Denver, where he studied the arts. Denver in the 1950s was still something of a cow town, with enormous feedlots and slaughterhouses. And looming right behind the city are the Rocky Mountains. A few hours away were national parks and magnificent scenery.  This environment implied another possible photographic career. Michals might have become a landscape photographer in the tradition of Carleton Watkins and Ansell Adams. Indeed, Adams was one of the most successful photographers of that era. But Duane Michals is definitely not part of that tradition either.

Rather, while in Denver he was studying painting, not photography. He had not picked up a camera yet. His first jobs were in the commercial world of New York magazine publishing, where he worked as a designer for several different employers, including Time Magazine. He still had not become a photographer, but he had already trained his eye. He knew about framing, lighting, and contrast, and he had seen a good deal of fine art, not just in books but also in museums and galleries.

More important that this visual education, Duane Michals had developed a particular sensibility that would inform his photography. While still back in McKeesport, at age 17, he had run across the poetry of Walt Whitman. This he immediately saw, was not at all like the poetry assigned in high school. Whitman broke all the rules for classical poetry, and like Michals in photography, Whitman was self-taught as a writer. Whitman also had a strongly visual imagination, and many of his poems are almost like a series of snapshots – sometimes called catalogues – that juxtapose a series of strongly felt scenes.

Similarly, Michals became famous for creating photographic series, juxtaposing images. Sometimes they are a narrative sequence, other times the connections between the images are more philosophical.

However, I do not see these sequences as the most important connection between Whitman and Michals. Rather, it is thematic. Whitman is a transcendentalist poet, who was himself inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Whitman is a strongly affirmative poet, even when writing about death. He, like Michals, was not content with the surfaces, but pushed to understand people and their situations in full. Whitman was not the poetic equivalent of a documentary photographer or a landscape photographer. Whitman managed to combine a strong social interest in the world around him with an intense interest in dreams, in altered states of consciousness, and in mystical experiences.

Duane Michals has made many photographic tributes to Whitman, incorporating his very texts inside some of his images.  
Whitman is at once one of the most American and most universal of authors. As we open his exhibition here today in Denmark, surely we can say the same of Duane Michals. He is one of the most American and yet also one of the most universal photographers.  We are fortunate that he did not become a documentary photographer focused on the declining steel industry of Pittsburgh, that he did not choose to imitate the landscape photographers of the American West. Both are worthy traditions, but surely it was much better that he instead took inspiration from Whitman and became a major photographic innovator. 

Whitman once wrote of his poems

This is no book
Who touches this, touches a man.
(Is it night? Are you alone?)
It is I you hold, and who holds you.
I spring from the pages into your arms….

Duane Michals wrote something similar: “It is no accident that you are reading this. This moment has been waiting for you. I have been waiting for you.” On another occasion, he said, “When you look at my photographs you are looking into my mind.”   Go see the exhibition, and look into these photographs. To paraphrase Whitman, who sees them, sees a man.

The exhibition was at Odense's Photographic Museum (Brandts) until August 15, 2010.