September 30, 2011

Danish Institute for Advanced Studies Launched

The Rektor of SDU, Jens Oddershede, at the opening ceremony for DIAS

After the American Century       

On Friday September 30, 2011 the Danish Institute for Advanced Studies was officially launched at the University of Southern Denmark (SDU). This ambitious project builds on the international recognition already gained by three Institutes at the University of Southern Denmark, in physics, management, and American Studies. DIAS will foster and reward  excellence. Its three divisions already have forged links with leading universities in the US, UK, and EU. The mission of DIAS is to stimulate intellectual creativity by crossing boundaries between disciplines within:
  • natural sciences
  • social sciences
  • humanities
At the end of 2012 DIAS will move into mew offices occupying one floor of a new building on the main campus of SDU

DIAS consists of:

Origins and evolution of the universe at the Centre for Particle Physics Phenomenology – CP³-Origins which has been established by the Danish National Research Foundation (DNRF) and opened on the 1st of September 2009 at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense. CP3-Origins is the leading centre of excellence for theoretical particle physics phenomenology in Denmark. CP3-Origins aims to exploit experimental results, supercomputers and our theoretical expertise to make the next big leap in particle physics: Uncovering the origin of bright and dark matter in the universe. It will also contribute in other equally relevant quests: understanding the phase diagram of strongly interacting theories and their potential impact on understanding the dynamics behind the rapid expansion of the universe soon after the Big-Bang, known as inflation.

Origins and evolution of the social organization, is identified with the Strategic Organization Design Unit (SOD), which builds on a long research tradition associated with the evolutionary and behavioral program in economics and organizational science. In 2008 SOD was established as the first FSE research unit by The Danish Council for Independent Research in the Social Sciences (FSE), and in 2011 received the status of an elite unit at the Faculty of Social Sciences, SDU. This group of scholars examines how the organization of individual actions jointly generates organizational performance. Progress in this area is essential in order to develop a robust normative theory of organization design - and to understand how decisions regarding organization design shape performance in private and public organizations.

Origins and evolution of culture, is identified with the Center for American Studies (CAS). It was established as an SDU research unit in 1992, with additional support during its first decade from the Danish-American Fulbright Commission. CAS is the largest center of its kind in the Nordic countries, and the only one in Denmark to offer both the BA and MA degrees in American Studies. The field has always been concerned with the origins and development of culture, both in the sense of a shared (often contested) national culture and in the more specific sense of new racial, ethnic, and regional identity formations. These have come about through immigration, cultural exchange, and innovation, in a dynamic relation with historical events. Fundamental to American Studies is the realization that cultures are in constant ferment and evolution. 

DIAS is inspired by similar institutions at world’s leading universities such as Princeton, Harvard and Stanford and by advanced research centers in the Netherlands and Germany. It shares the recognition that mankind's greatest achievements have come from inner curiosity, giving rise to new ways of thinking and changes in perception. The directors already collaborate with faculty at IAS, Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Cambridge, Oxford, CERN and MIT.

DIAS is a center for theoretical research. Initially, it unites outstanding research groups that will foster synergy between the sciences and humanities allowing new ideas to emerge. The union and rapid communication of ideas among research groups allows for the construction of a novel fellowship among the DIAS faculty and increases the competitiveness and global recognition of Danish research.

September 27, 2011

Romney vs Perry: Republicans Display Their Divisions

After the American Century

The Republican presidential hopefuls have been stumping and debating for months, but I have not been commenting on them. Until now.  Two figures have emerged as front runners, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry have now emerged as the early front runners, and while this could easily change, an analysis is in order.

Romney is an old face.  Former governor of Massachusetts, where in passed a health care bill not so different from President Obama's, he came to politics from business, where he became financially independent. His family has long been identified with the Northern, more moderate wing of the Republican Party, and his father succeeded in being elected governor of Michigan, which is usually regarded as a more Democratic state. His father also ran for president several times. In short, Romney would be a strategically smart choice for the Republicans, because he would appeal to centrist and Northern voters, who will be essential to win the election. There is, however, the problem of Romeny's personality, or rather lack thereof. Romney is not a warm person. He can even come across as rather heartless at times. He is not a particularly stirring speaker. Add to this that the Southern Democrats (many of them former Republicans) do not like his "soft" stands on abortion and gay marriage. They are even less excited by the fact he is a Mormon. No one of htat faith has ever been elected president, and polls show Mormons are less electable than Catholics. In short, he may be the sensible centrist candidate for the Republicans, but he does not inspire them. There is no passion for Romney.

Texas governor Perry is a new face on the national scene, and in many ways is the mirror opposite of Romney. He generates more passion and many love him down in his native South, where he claims to be the small government candidate who creates jobs. He constantly attacks Washington, which has been a successful formula for candidates since the nineteenth century. (Obama also ran against Washington in 2008.) 

Perry would have had an excellent chance of winning the presidency of the Confederacy, if they had only won the Civil War. Indeed, Perry has hinted that succession from the union is still a viable option for Texas. On the other hand, he has a "soft" stand on immigration. For example, he allows children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at Texas universities. If the children were born in the US, they are automatically citizens, so this is hardly a radical idea, though it upsets many Republicans. Michelle Bachmann typifies the hand-line stance on this issue, as she would put an fence “on every mile, on every yard, on every foot” of the border with Mexico. This is easy for her to say, because there are few Hispanic voters in Minnesota, where she gets elected. Perry faces the electoral reality that Hispanics are a force in Texas politics.

But on many hot-button issues Perry is closer to the Republican Southern base, notably abortion and gay marriage. Perry has also organized and led a prayer meeting where many of the other speakers sounded just plain crazy. One speaker at this giant meeting, held in a Houston stadium, declared that the Japanese economic downturn of the 1990s was the direct result of the Emperor of Japan having sex with a demon goddess. Another declared, in all seriousness, that Oprah Winfrey is the harbinger of the Anti-Christ! You will also learn that the Statue of Liberty is a "demonic idol" foisted on the US by French Freemasons. As a sensible reader, you surely think I am making this up, so here is the link, where you can see and hear for yourself. There you will hear so many odd, crackpot opinions, that it may seem that the entire deranged right-wing of America gathered to support Rick Perry in Houston. 

It is a measure of how far US politics have moved to the right that Perry can even be considered for the office of President. And it is also a measure of how much the political landscape has changed, that cold and colorless Romney begins to look rather good by comparison. They represent the two rather incompatible sides of the Republican Party,  On the one side the North, old money, reasonable language, and centrism; on the other side the South, revivalism, apocalyptic language, the Tea Party, and anti-state, anti-science, and anti-compromise rage.

However, just as Hillary Clinton led the field in the fall of 2007 but ultimately lost in the spring of 2008, these front runners could knock each other out, while a third candidate snatches the prize of nomination. Such a third candidate will not necessarily be better than Perry or Romney. 

It is not over yet. Indeed, it has hardly begun.

September 21, 2011

Obama's Tax Plan Less Demanding than Reagonomics

After the American Century

The Republican position on taxes is essentially that their hero Ronald Reagan was wrong. President Obama wants to go back to a tax code much like that which became law under President Reagan. It reduced taxes but it also closed some loopholes and it made American corporations pay more than they had been.   

Look at the maximum tax rate for today and for 1986, when Reagan had been president for six years.
In 1986 the Federal tax rate for a husband and wife, filing together, was 50% on income over $358,782. 
In 2011 the Federal tax rate for a husband and wife, filing together, was 35% on income over $379,150.

Of course the US tax code is complex, and many deductions can come into play, but let us focus on the basic fact. The highest rate in 1986 was 50%, but a quarter century later it is only 35%. Under President Clinton the highest rate was 39.6%.  The rich have seldom had it so good, and the economy has seldom been so bad.

A tax plan that is far less demanding than that passed by President Reagan is now being attacked by the Republicans as "class warfare" - which shows how ridiculous public debate in the US has become, Warren Buffet and other billionaires are willing to pay more taxes, because they see that it is not just or fair or economically sustainable for them to pay as little as they now do.

The Bush tax cuts during his first term were not responsible fiscal policy. They encouraged a housing bubble and they made it impossible for the US government to pay its bills. They created the current financial mess, and the tax laws they passed need to be revised.

Obama should promoting his plan as a return to Reagonomics.

September 16, 2011

First Female Prime Minister in Danish History

After the American Century

Denmark has elected its first female prime minister Helle Thorning Schmidt. Gender was not an issue in the election, which focused on domestic issues. Foreign affairs were scrarcely discussed in the  debates, which dealt with the economy, health care, and the like.

The new prime minister was educated in political science, graduating from Copenhagen University in 1994. She also studied at the University of Bruges, as an exchange student in 1993. Before being elected to the European Parliament in 1999, she worked for three years as leader of the Secretariat for the Danish Socialist Party in Brussels.  Compared to most Danish politicians, therefore, she has had an unusual career, since it began in Europe and only later brought her back to the Danish Folketing (Parliament), where she was first elected as recently as 2005.

Thorning Schmidt is married to the son of Neil Kinnock, once the leader of the British Labour Party and later an EU Commissioner. Her husband lives much of the time in Switzerland, where he works.  This fact, combined with her extensive EU experience, suggests rather strongly that the new government will not be as xenophobic as that which has been toppled by the voters.

The new coalition government does not have a large majority, and the four parties involved disagree on many issues, so it may not be easy to hold them together.

September 13, 2011

Denmark on the Brink: The 2011 Election

After the American Century

I do not have a vote in the Danish election, coming up in 36 hours, and as it happens I will not even be in the country when the result is clear late Thursday night. Danes who read this column will already know a great deal about the election, and Americans and other non-Danes will know very little, if anything. So what follows is written to the non-Danes.

Imagine a country which is self-sufficient when it comes to energy, with its own oil fields, and a world leader in wind power as well. So energy is not a drain on the economy, but a profit center. Imagine a country that has a small military whose budget is an extremely small part of the total budget. So this is not a drain on the economy either. Imagine further that the country seldom suffers any massive disasters, such as tornadoes, hurricanes, or tidal waves, so it does not have to spend large sums on rebuilding after natural disasters. Imagine, too, that this country is a net food exporter. It gets even better. Imagine that this country, Denmark, has a positive balance of trade, year after year.

Denmark has all this going for it, yet it still has the world's highest taxes to pay for one of the most extensive and comprehensive welfare states. In many ways. it is a model for the world to emulate. But the bureaucracy just keeps growing and the top down control becomes more and more pronounced. 

All the parties seem to go in for some kind of tight controls. Some want to control the borders and keep the bloody foreigners out. Others want to control the work force and make everyone work longer or retire later. Other parties want to force anyone who is not working to go to university, which is tuition free. There are politicians calling for high taxes on foods that have sugar and or fat, to force people to eat healthier foods. Whatever the problem, at least one party has a compulsory solution. 

The focus of the election is the economy. Even though it is one of the wealthiest per capita countries in the world, with a diversified economy and its own energy supplies, the Danes are telling each other that they are on the brink of disaster. The politicians are warning them that they could soon be like Greece, a miserable bankrupt land, unless certain reforms are immediately adopted. Some parties are saying the taxes must go up, others that they must come down. All say at one time or another that education is a good idea, as we all live in a knowledge economy now. But in fact the schools and universities have been cut back for the most part. 

Does any of this make sense? If you live here and get closer to the debates, it seems to. But the problems here are strictly from Lilliput compared to what Spain or Italy is facing. Likewise, the United States should be so lucky as to have the problems the Danes have.  There are no crazies running around Denmark denying the reality of global warming or Bible thumping idiots who seem to swarm through the Republican Party these days. Abortion is not a campaign issue. No one demands that "creationism" be taught in the schools.

I am caught up in the elections here and have begun to feel my fate hangs in the balance. I am convinced that unless the present government is voted out of office, Denmark's very existence as a functioning economy may be threatened. Let me go further: keep the present government much longer and this place will become a theme park, with locals playing parts for tourists, while all the real jobs are off-shore. 

I exaggerate. But the election does matter. If the current government stays in power, it will continue the reverse Robin Hood policies that take money from unemployed and poor people and give it to the wealthiest third of society. If they stay in power, the country will become more xenophobic, which means guys like me won't want to come any more. If the present government stays in power, there will be no new ideas. They have been in power for ten years now, and haven't had a new thought since about 2005.

The polls say that Denmark is on the brink of change. So I hope.
UPDATE for non-Danish readers. The parties on the left did win, and will need more than a week to work out how to share power among the four party coalition that together has a small majority. 

September 10, 2011

The World Before (and After) 9/11

After the American Century

I now teach students who were as young as nine or ten years old in 2001. For them, 9/11 is not only a defining moment, and one of their earliest historical memories, but also the horizon of their personal historical knowledge. Few events before then registered, because they were just too young. Their world essentially is the world since that September morning, or afternoon, as it was here in Europe. 

So much has been said and written about that time, including several MA theses that I directed, that I am not going to try to say something profound in addition. But I want to recall the decade before the attacks, not to idealize it, but nevertheless to emphasize the qualities of the 1990s that were snuffed out. The decade between the fall of the Soviet Union and 9/11 was a period of ebullience and considerable hope. There was plenty of hype, too, notably the breathless enthusiasm for the "new economy." But even so, it was a time of prosperity in the US and Western Europe and of rapid growth in many other economies. It also saw the widespread adoption of email, the advent of the World Wide Web, and the globalization of business, information, and shared experiences.

There were bad things happening in the 1990s, too, but the fundamental feel of the time was completely different than the decade that followed, the "flat decade" as I have called it elsewhere in this column. As we pass this milestone, I sense the tides of pessimism, fundamentally about economics, but contributing in turn to an undertow of right-wing or even anti-democratic politics. I hope I am wrong about that. 

In talking to my students, I realize that the 1990s are their childhood, and not much of a repository of political or historical experience. How ingrained in their fundamental sense of the world are today's often harsh political rhetoric, the fear of terrorist attack, and the continued economic uncertainty? 

How strange to think that half a century ago it seemed obvious to most people that future prosperity was assured, that most people would not work more than 25 or 30 hours a week, that they would retire early, and that the great problem of the future would be how to use all the leisure time. Now almost all economists and politicians seem to agree on just the opposite: that future prosperity is by no means assured, that people need to work 38 or more hours a week, that they should not be allowed to retire early but keep on until they are 67 or more, and that the great problem of the future will be the shortage of workers.

Quite possibly the future we read about in the newspapers will be just as inaccurate as the one imagined in 1961. Quite possibly, fifty years after 9/11, it will seem less a defining moment than an interruption in some larger arc of history. So remember it we must, but we should not let it cut us off from the hopes and dreams it has displaced.

September 06, 2011

Historical Document: A "White" Slave in 1862

After the American Century

Occasionally I find an interesting document while doing my research. Often it has nothing to do with what I am looking for. But rather than let these documents go entirely, I will now reproduce selected items from time to time. The first one is from the Davenport Daily Gazette, Iowa, during the American Civil War.  It concerns slavery, and as one can see from the accompanying map, the slave concerned was living in the cotton growing area of Arkansas.

Slave crops, 1860

Monday Morning
September 1, 1862

White Slavery.
A Correspondent writing from Helena, Arkansas, says:

I was greatly surprised the other day by the declaration of a person with whom I had been conversing in the post office of this place, when, in reply to a suggestion of mine about his loyalty, he answered, “Why, my dear Sir, I am a slave. I belong to Dr.____,” I looked in his face, unable to believe my own eyes. His complexion was whiter than my own; his eyes a blue gray; his hair and features Caucasian; his language free from Negro dialect. I asked him again, “Is it possible that you are a slave? Why don’t you go North and claim the privileges of a free man?” He answered, I have a wife and children, and I don’t want to go till I can take them with me. I have been allowed by my master to enjoy a measure of freedom, and to possess a little property of my own. As soon as I can realize something of this property I intend, while the opportunity exists, to secure the freedom of myself and family.”

Our conversation had commenced upon a written document which he had been showing me, and which he could read as well a myself. When he left me I wondered greatly that such a man, at least 40 years of age, evidently a gentleman and a Christian, could be held a slave, and another white man be allowed to take his wages for naught in a Christian community. And then I remembered that the modern doctrine of the South, as taught by the Richmond Enquirer and other expounders of the system, is that slavery is not based upon complexion or race, but that capital should own labor, and the best condition of society is that in which the entire laboring population are slaves. This is the doctrine on which the leaders of this rebellion are striving to establish a Southern Confederacy, and thousands of laboring men in the South are blindly led to give it their aid by fighting against the Government of their fathers from mere sectional hatred and prejudice.

            When the rebellion shall be crushed and the South opened to free institutions and a higher civilization, the people who will be most benefited by the change are those who are now, by conscription and ignorance, arrayed in battle against us. May God speed the day when their eyes shall be opened, and they shall be able to discern between light and darkness!

September 05, 2011

Finding James Dudley Gray in History

After the American Century

We live life forward, enjoying what moments we can, but history gets written backward, and a major event tends to be read into the years before it occurred.

I was forcibly reminded of this when beginning to read a collection of letters I have in my possession, written in the nineteenth century. They are American letters, composed by one James Dudley Gray, born in eastern Ohio. He began to write to his favorite cousin in 1842 and sent her at least one letter each year until the Civil War began. In 1850 he moved to Iowa, which was then the frontier, and settled half way between the towns of Washington and Sigourney

It is hard to read these letters today in the same spirit that they were written. The author did not know that he would go into the Civil War as an assistant surgeon and treat casualties of the fighting in Vicksburg and other battles up and down the Mississippi. Even more frustrating for me, the modern reader, the letters cease in 1861 and I have nothing more from his pen about the war or anything else, even though he lived for another thirty years.

Yet James D. Gray was a highly literate man, who quoted Thomas Carlyle and occasional poems in his letters. He spent some years working for newspapers in Ohio, and possessed an uncommonly high level of literacy and more than the usual political engagement. One of his sons, Charles Gray, was so accomplished a painter that two of his portraits hang in the halls of Congress in Washington, DC.

Charles Gray, portrait of Joseph Warren Keifer
As far as I can tell from preliminary research, James D. Gray has been completely forgotten by posterity, one of the millions of men and women who settled in the American west during the nineteenth century. Yet it seems to me inconceivable that someone who wrote over 100 pages to just one correspondent left no other records anywhere. With luck, I hope to recreate his life right up to his passing, apparently in 1894.

Students Should Worry Less about their Careers

After the American Century

The academic year is beginning again, with more students than ever seeking university education. The immediate lack of jobs and worries about careers have become a constant refrain in the media, which at the same time tell us that there are not enough young people to do all the jobs that will be vacated by retirement.

Logically, the new students should not worry, because the demographics say that there have to be jobs for every one of them. Logically, they should just study what they love, and trust that a good position will be there for them later.

But we do not live in logical times, we live in panicky times, when politicians and economists say many contradictory things. Logically, the young will be desperately needed in the European and American job markets as the baby-boomers retire. But the megaphones, loud speakers and teleprompters belong not to the young but to the middle-aged, supervised by the generation about to retire. These people are worried about both the high rate of unemployment right now and the coming shortage of workers at all levels.

The students are all in a rush to find a practical career and a safe job, as though high unemployment were a permanent situation, as though job security will be difficult to attain in the future. But logically, this should not be the case. Logically, the young should not worry so much, and instead make sure they find a career that they really will enjoy.

When I look back at my own experience, it was just the opposite. I went to college at a time of prosperity and no one worried very much about what our education would be used for. We probably should have been more worried, because we were the baby-boomers, i.e. we were too many. Even so, for the most part it worked out.

Statistically, well over 90% of people with a university education do have jobs, and on average they make good money.  The problem is not getting a job, it is getting one you like.