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.