December 30, 2011

The Year People Doubted their Leaders: 2011 in Review

After the American Century

2011 was the year when people all over the world declared they doubted the legitimacy or the capacities of their leaders. This common theme emerged almost everywhere.

In Japan, after the Tsunami and accompanying nuclear plant disaster, the public rightly distrusted their government and its regulation of the utilities.

In Tunisia, in Egypt, and in Libya, the "Arab Spring" erupted, as dictators were thrown out of power.

In Syria, protests began and still continue calling for the end of a corrupt and nasty regime.

In the late summer and fall, Britain and the United States, protesters occupied public spaces protesting the banking system's irresponsible behavior, enormous unearned bonuses, and subsequent special treatment from their governments.

In the Russian winter,  thousands of people took to the streets to protest a corrupt regime and  a rigged election.

In Europe the EURO wobbled through to 2012, but the angry crowds in Greece, Italy and other parts of Southern Europe were also expressing their anger at incompetent leadership.

The cultures and political systems involved are quite different, and the problems are unique, but common to all of these events is an extensive use of smart phones, blogging, Youtube, and other aspects of the new media environment. We apparently are seeing a new disposition of information and communication, with accompanying disruptions of ill-founded legitimacy. 

At least one theory has been developed to explain these things, Howard Reingold's Smart Mobs (Basic Books, 2002), which has also spawned a webpage. Reingold focuses on what it can mean for millions of people to have access to smart phones. There are also people out there writing about "self organizing groups.) Whatever label we put on it, it seems the power of any centralized state to control the media is breaking down. 

I say "seems" because it is too soon to know the ultimate result. I am sympathetic to the idea that access to the new media increases the flow of information and thereby enhances democracy. But the new media also enhances the flow of dis-information, prejudice, anger, and half-truth. Amplifying people's voices may just create more confusion. (For discussion of this problem, see chapter eight on my Technology Matters,)

But these doubts should not distract us too much. For in 2011, it seems, the "smart mobs" were correct to overthrow Arab dictators, protest sweet deals for bankers who created the financial crisis, demand new elections in Russia, and shame the incompetent in Japan who had built a poorly protected nuclear plant in an exposed location.

The question becomes, what will follow these eruptions of popular protest in 2012? Will the Japanese create a more energy efficient, post-nuclear power system? Will Arab nations create a public sphere where different points of view are tolerated and democracy can flourish, or will they create ideologically conservative, closed societies? Will the occupation movement open up American democracy and help break the gridlock between Republicans and Democrats, or will it further polarize the United States? Will Syrians prove strong enough to overthrow their dictator? Will the Russian protesters be able to make their government more democratic or will its autocracy increase as a response? Will Europeans use the new media to help solve or to worsen the ongoing crisis of the Euro?  The opportunities are many but the dangers are rife.

December 20, 2011

Denmark Expells Educated, Danish-Speaking Immigrant, 28 Years Old

After the American Century

Denmark had an election recently, and one of the issues was the poor treatment of immigrants. But nothing seems to have changed.  They are still treated badly, regardless of their education, ability to speak Danish, or integration into society. And the authorities continue to take many months longer to decide cases than they are supposed to, according to their own rules.

The latest case concerns the son of the former Albanian ambassador to Denmark. He came when 18 years old, studied in gymnasium, learned Danish, graduated, was admitted to Copenhagen University, and has all but completed his MA in Economics. He has been in Denmark for ten years. As these facts would suggest, his Danish is reportedly excellent, He has also been working part time, gaining experience he will need after completing his MA thesis, to be turned in shortly.  For those readers who can follow this story in Danish, see the story in Politiken.

This young man would seem to be a model of integration based on hard work and education. He has received his university training free from the Danish state. Now, just as he is ready to work and contribute to society, he has been told to leave the country. The government authorities took 10 months to handle his case, instead of the three months that they are supposed to abide by. This case is obviously is enormously complex! Should a talented, multilingual immigrant who speaks Danish be allowed to stay or should the investment made in his education be thrown away, by expelling him?

Such cases are warning to all who think of coming to work or study in Denmark. The new government has not yet been any better than the xenophobic government it replaced. Even those who learn the language and obviously have skills can be expelled based on complex rules that the bureaucracy seems unable to interpret in a timely fashion. And so, a young man has been told to leave with less than 30 days notice. Instead of writing the last pages of his MA thesis, due in 22 days, he has been sent packing. By tomorrow, the shortest day of the year, he must be out of the country. 

I suppose the only "good" thing one can say is that the poor treatment of immigrants is absolutely even-handed, with the same slow decision-making and expulsions for all, regardless of class or social standing. In this case, being the son of an ambassador and working part-time at the Albanian Embassy was no help to him.

The new government continues to disgrace itself. The rhetoric is that the country wants to attract highly qualified immigrants. The reality is that the slow-moving bureaucracy remains as xenophobic as ever. What is Denmark doing to itself?

Knowing of such cases, what am I to say to the foreign students currently enrolled in the MA program I helped to establish in 2002?  What about the prospects for foreign students who may enroll in the new BA program that begins in the fall of 2012? What am I to say to those who write asking for information, with plans to apply for next year?  Will they be given a chance to stay, when they complete their degrees, or will they be summarily expelled?

December 14, 2011

Santa's Calling

After the American Century

Santa's Calling

It's the week before Christmas but Santa's depressed.
His sack is still empty, he's terribly stressed.
And with global warming now melting the Poles
His house and his workshop now float in a shoal.
Poor Mrs. Claus has light deprivation
And winters in Spain, a six month vacation.
His disgruntled workers are no longer "Elves",
"Vertically Challenged" they now style themselves.
His second-hand pipe smoke has them quite frightened.
And his fur-trimmed red suit is at best "Unenlightened."
Four reindeer have gone, without much propriety,
Released to the wilds by the Humane Society.
And affirmative action had made it quite clear
That Santa could no longer have just reindeer.
So instead of Donner and Dancer, Comet and Cupid,
He has three pigs and a moose, and that sure looks stupid!
And the steel runners were removed from his sleigh
Because they cut up the tundra. It was a bad day.
On Christmas Eve some parents call up the cops
When Santa clatters across their solar roof-tops.
Worse yet, he'd lost famous Rudolf, who suddenly chose
To sell Hollywood all the rights to his nose.
That reindeer told Oprah and the entire nation,
He wanted millions in over-due compensation.

And as for gifts, why, he'd not had a notion
That giving presents could cause such a commotion.
Nothing of leather, and nothing of fur,
Nothing gendered for him, nor sexy for her.
No arrows to aim, and no guns to shoot.
No motors, no sprays, for they do pollute.
No pink for the girls, or blue for the boys.
No dangerous fireworks that make lots of noise.
No candy, no sweets...they are bad for the tooth.
No campaign books, for they embellish the truth.
And fairy tales, while not yet forbidden,
Are, like Barbie and Ken, better off hidden.
No baseball, no football (the kids might get hurt);
Besides, such sports exposed them to dirt.
Dolls are so sexist, and now are passe;
And online games rot a young brain away.
So Santa just stood there, fed up and perplexed;
He no longer knew what he could do next.
His sack, quite empty, hung limp to the ground;
It seemed no acceptable gifts could be found.

Something special was needed, a gift that one might
Give to all on the Left, or to all on the Right.
A gift for the Red States, a gift for the Blue,
A gift for the entire political zoo.
A gift that none would feel was taboo
For Christian, Jew, Moslem, Buddhist, Hindu
Every ethnicity, all possible hues,
Everyone, everywhere, and that means you, too.

What is that gift? A smart phone of great worth,
Distracting us all, it brings peace to the earth.
Who has time for discord, once that screen's lit?
Why go into the street, if you can just sit?
Santa saw in a flash that his freedom had come.
He shouted, he danced, he forgot he'd been glum.
Never again would he race the world round,
Nor respond to kids' letters from each little town,
No more presents to haul, nor chimneys to down.
No more stockings to stuff, no more cookies to eat,
No red suit to wear or black boots on his feet,
No freezing up North, nor working all year,
He'd no longer feed those ungrateful reindeer.

Santa turned on his Ipad. He'd sell that old sleigh,
And Fed-Ex us phones, to come Christmas Day. 

© 2007 David E. Nye [revised 13-12-11]

December 10, 2011

Can the EURO be Saved by Top Down Budget Controls that Start Next October? And Is Brussels Really Up to this Job?

The New EU Agreement May Not Work in Practice

After the American Century 

I confess that the Euro Crisis seems to me only temporarily "solved." Except for Britain, all the other countries seem ready to let the EU have a veto over their budgets.  Is this idea feasible or practical? I think it will prove unworkable, at the latest by November, 2013. I very much hope events prove me wrong, but I fear this was an ill-advised treaty based on panic diplomacy.

Assume this new agreement goes into force and try to imagine how it will work. Each autumn all 17 nations using the Euro (and some 8 or 9 nations who might someday use it)  will send their national budget to Brussels and then sit back and wait for weeks or more likely months to hear whether their budget is acceptable.

Brussels will need to have deep knowledge of each nation's domestic politics and economy, so deep that each budget can be evaluated fairly, and quickly. If a single committee of experts examines each of the 25 national budgets and gives just one day to each, it will require five weeks to review them all. That is too superficial a look and yet would take to long, so there would need to be teams of Eurocrats devoted to different clusters of nations. And what chance is there that different committees will all apply the rules in the same ways?

These 25 or 26 national budgets will be complex documents built upon political compromises and assumptions about how each national economy will do in the following year.  This year it took the Danes well over a month to come up with their budget, which began with horse-trading behind closed doors between members of the newly elected coalition. What if the technocrats in Brussels declare such a budget invalid? Who then decides where the cuts should be made? How long will decision making take? How will coalitions respond if Brussels imposes cuts that hurt one party in the coalition far more than others? Might not Brussels cause governing coalitions to collapse, forcing new elections, and leaving nations without budgets in the meantime?

Which economic theory will be used to provide the standard model?  And what system of national accounting will be used? All nations will need to use the same or very similar systems, one would think, otherwise it will be hard to apply the same rules in an evenhanded manner. Most nations will have to "translate" their customary budget into an EU-friendly form.

What will be the allowable margin of error - i.e. the allowable difference between annual projection and actual performance in the previous year? Will a nation that suffered a natural disaster, such as a flood or earthquake be fined for failing to meet expected performance targets?  What if the cuts favor banks rather than homeowners, or they hurt schools rather than hospitals? Workers rather than pensioners? Suppose an EU budget decision is controversial? Can it be appealed? Meanwhile, is a nation making an appeal unable to tax and spend until a decision is final? These are only some of the questions that come to mind. I cannot imagine such a scheme working in the real world. 

If we assume that the new arrangement is approved this spring, expect a bureaucratic circus in October and November, 2012.

I think the new treaty is a bad idea because
(1) it is a top-down control mechanism that will be unworkable.

(2) It is based on the idea of cutbacks everywhere as the solution, and does nothing to create jobs or foster growth, except growth in the Brussels bureaucracy.

(3) It does not focus on the international banks as a major part of the currency problem. The banks irresponsibly loaned billions of Euros to nations that could not repay their debts, and the new idea is to let the European Central Bank make those loans instead. I would rather see much tighter controls on the banks themselves, learning from the effective regulation of the Canadian banks who rode out the 2008 crisis quite well.

The Scandinavian countries, none of whom now have the Euro. should put a few people to work on Plan B: a common currency for Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. This would quickly be recognized as solid and secure. Compared to working with Brussels, it would be easy to administer. This particular Plan B has been discussed before and rejected. Would any Danish political party have the courage to explore this idea? Probably not now.

Wait until about 2013, when people see the complexities, inequities, and delays that come with a centralized Euro and top-down control of national budgets. By then, Britain may look like the smart one who opted out early.

December 09, 2011

My Mark Twain (A tenuous, triple relationship)

I have always suffered from the pleasant illusion that I have a personal relationship to Mark Twain. This is a family matter.  Those who have read Roughing It will recall that Mark Twain describes going to Nevada, where his brother was to serve as the secretary to the Governor. That governor was named James Nye. In fact, an entire county is named after him today, Nye County, in Southern Nevada.  Go look at any map, and it is there, perhaps the largest county in the state, and some of it highly radioactive.  On the map below, it is the largest green spot, the green being a case of false advertising, for this is a sun-baked desert of little value to most people, unless you like rattlesnakes and tumble weed.

No doubt it was this part of Nevada that Twain had in mind when he remarked, "Some people are malicious enough to think that if the devil were set at liberty and told to confine himself to Nevada Territory, he would...get homesick and go back to hell again." Nye County has one of the most impressive suicide rates of any county in America. It is almost exactly the same size as Denmark, and I am proud of its sun-baked potential. It will surely one day prove to be a solar energy bonanza. If any of you want to  know more about Governor (and later US Senator) James Nye, I have a book in the office that gives a short biography of him. My uncle, George Nye, the family antiquarian and genealogist until he passed away in 2000, wrote that book.

But this is not my chief reason for thinking I have a personal relationship to Twain. No, it gets worse. Twain spent much of his time as a platform speaker and humorist. One of the other  speakers of the day was Edgar Wilson "Bill" Nye. Like Twain, he was a Midwesterner who had gone out West. Bill Nye was the editor of a newspaper in Laramie, Wyoming for a while in the 1880s, with the wonderful name The Boomerang, and while writing for that paper he became a funny man. In 1894, considerably after escaping from Wyoming, he wrote a comic history of the United States that sold almost as well as some of Twain's books. Both of these men began as newspaper reporters. They started stretching the truth to fill their pages, and ended up telling tall tales and making fun of the world, as a way of making a living. This line of work has always appealed to me. It explains why I became a historian. Twain once said of Bill Nye, "Edgar W. Nye's humor I enjoy for it is the frosting on the cake. There is something shining out through it all."

Bill Nye and Mark Twain were friendly, and they even appeared on the stage together a few times. The difference between them, however, is, that Mark Twain is still funny today, while much of Bill Nye's humor seems a bit faded. Some of his remarks are still fresh, however, such as: "I have been told that Wagner's music is much better than it sounds." Bill Nye was in tune with his times, and he made Victorians laugh, but Twain was more in tune with the ages. He not only made his contemporaries laugh but all those who came after him as well.

Still, I like to think that with these blood relatives who knew Twain, one at the start of his career and another one later on, I have some deeper connection to him than most people. I also have visited his house, which is now a museum, in Hartford Connecticut, not far from where my parents once lived. I could give the tour guide's talk myself, if I had to. So, if after a few drinks I begin to make mystical claims about Twain, you will have to consider the fact that my family and his have been connected for about 150 years. Of course, Twain died decades before I was born, but I have spoken to people whose lives overlapped with his. My great aunt, Grace Nye, lived to be 101. She was born in 1892, so it may well be true, as she said, that she once saw Twain when she was a little girl.

Mark Twain
None of this really means a great deal. In the world of criticism it counts for nothing at all.  But I want to claim a genuine and ineffable superiority to anyone who does not have a giant desert wasteland county named after their family in Nevada, a now forgotten ancestor who was a platform humorist who knew the great Mark, and a deceased aunt who (she said) once met him. 

December 02, 2011

Socialists Break Another Promise: Public Transportation

After the American Century

Socialists and the Socialist People's Party campaigned on the green platform of improving mass transit, reducing fares, and taxing the heavy traffic that floods into Copenhagen every day. Now that they have won, however, the plan is to do nothing of the kind. Instead, they will make no improvements in mass transit, raise the fares, and yet still impose the road pricing on those who drive into town. So taxes will go up, prices will go up,  quality will go down, and the roads will remain just as crowded. This is not what one expects from a socialist government. One expects them to be able to deliver social services.

The photograph shows a Copenhagen bus advertisement promising that if they come to power the Socialist People's Party will lower bus and commuter train fares by 40%.  Instead, they will rise 3.1%

The Socialists have broken many campaign promises, notably to the universities and the hospitals. They have decided not to return to the tax code in use when the country was prosperous and could afford its social services in the 1990s. Rather, they will keep the lower tax rates developed by the previous conservative coalition. The new government seems to have been captured by the same incompetent planners and economists who advised the conservatives. It appears that there is almost no difference between Right and Left in reality, with the notably exception of how they say they will treat immigrants.