December 19, 2012

Clinton Level of Taxes a Good thing - The "Fiscal Cliff" is Nonsense as a Metaphor

After the American Century                                                                                                                                                         

We hear every day about the "fiscal cliff" but this metaphor is all wrong. US government finances will not suddenly decline if Congress does nothing. Rather, they will increase, as the tax rate returns to what it was before Bush pushed through tax cuts that undermined the budget. People seem to have forgotten that in the Clinton years, when taxes were a bit higher, the economy did extremely well. The US at that tax level still had lower taxes than almost anywhere else in the industrialized world.

In short, it is a good thing to go back to the tax system before Bush. The government needs to pay off its debts. The wealthy need to pay their share, again, as they did before. Americans have lost touch with fiscal reality, if they think that taxes can stay as low as they have been.

I realize many people fear that rising taxes will hurt the economy, but one has to remember the harm done by taxes so low that the government just keeps borrowing money. The interest rates are low  now, so the dangers are not as obvious as they will be when interest rates rise, as they always do.

The Bush tax cuts were not good for the American economy, and there is no reason to keep them. Short term, this may cause a slight dip in the economy, but long term, living within your means is always a good idea. The Clinton tax rates were much more realistic, and the economy then was far more sound. 

November 23, 2012

Who Reads This Blog?

After the American Century                                                                                                                                                        

On this Thanksgiving weekend, I want to say "Thank You" to all the readers who come here regularly, and to welcome those who may be here for the first time. This is a non-commercial site, with no advertising, and all the content is prepared entirely by myself

Who reads After the American Century?  This is an appropriate moment to ask this question, as in October, for the first time, more than 21,000 readers clicked there way here. That is about twice the average monthly rate, no doubt spurred by the American presidential election. About 67% of all readers come from the United States.

Google supplies some basic information about you, but quite properly does not tell me precisely what cities you live in, what books you have been buying, or other personal information, Most of you come from ten nations, listed here in rank order.

United States
United Kingdom






Three of the ten most popular blog postings for the last year were about the election, but I am pleased that the majority of what you read deals with on other topics. After all, elections only come once every four years, and I would like to have you come by in other years, too. Here were the top ten.

Dec 8, 2010

On any given day, most of the traffic on this site explores the backlist. That fact encourages me to  continue writing as much as I can on topics of lasting interest rather than focus overmuch on news ephemera.  

Thank you again!

November 15, 2012

"Obamaka'er" - Traditional Danish Cake for Obama

After the American Century                                                                                                                   

To celebrate Obama's victory, I had the local Danish bakery bake this cake. It is a specialty on the island of Funen where I live, and tastes best with coffee. It is stickey sweet, because that brown layer on top is not frosting but melted brown sugar.

The bakery assistant asked if I wanted any text on it, and I said "Obama," and gave no more details. Possibly they thought it was boy's birthday cake, which might account for the charming drawing they did in white icing.

This cake was about six square feet (3 x 2) and demanded a hungry crowd. I started with a choir of 30 adults, who ate half of it last night. This morning my class nearly finished the job. There is a little left, but I am on a diet. An "Obamaka'er" is not a low calorie option. If I eat it to excess I will need Obamacare.

November 07, 2012

Why Romney Lost: 8 Reasons

After the American Century                                                                                                                           

President Obama has been re-elected, winning the popular vote, the electoral vote, and a majority of the states. Obama ran a strong campaign, but he also benefited from his opponent's mistakes. Here are eight reasons why Mitt Romney lost.

(1) Romney's VP choice. Romney mistakenly selected Paul Ryan as his running mate. Ryan did not help Romney win a single swing state, not even his home state of Wisconsin. Ryan also lost Romney votes among seniors, because he wants to downsize or privatize social security, medicare, and other social programs. Finally, Ryan hurt Romney with women voters, where the Republicans were already weak. Ryan has a harsh and uncompromising position on abortion, which he is on record as saying never can be justified. He tried to soften this position a little during the campaign, but women's groups reminded voters that he had stated, often, that abortion was not justified even in cases of incest and rape. Romney would have been far better off with a more moderate running mate like Ohio Senator Portman. He probably could have delivered the crucial 18 electoral votes of Ohio, which Obama won by a small margin.

(2) Bad luck? Hurricane Sandy pushed Romney off the front page a week before the election, and also reminded voters that he and Ryan both want to cut funding to FEMA and to disassemble the agency as much as possible, asking the States instead to assume responsibility. This idea is just silly. Disasters seldom strike within a single state jurisdiction. Central planning and coordination are essential, as well as access to the vast resources of the federal government. Moreover, the sheer size and power of Sandy was a powerful reminder that global warming is real. Yet Romney, like Bush before him, makes no policy adjustments that admit this. Even so, Storm Sandy could have been a bit of good luck for Romney if Obama had handled it poorly. Instead, he did a good job, forcefully reminding the public of his managerial qualities. In the aftermath, the President got an endorsement from the leading moderate Republican, Mayor Bloomberg of New York, and a glowing commendation from Republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey.

(3) Over-reliance on rich donors. Romney needed to battle the perception that he was the rich man's candidate, but instead he relied heavily on extremely wealthy donors, many of whom donated $1 million or more, in contrast to Obama's ability to attract literally millions of small donors. In the end, Romney did out raise the President, but there is only so much leverage you can buy in an election.

(4) Weak connection to the Bush dynasty. Romney never found a way to link up with the powerful Bush clan. As a result the only two living Presidents on the Republican side never campaigned for him. The Bushes disappeared completely from the Convention, as though they had never existed. In contrast, Obama had the excellent services of Bill Clinton who talked himself hoarse day after day, to large crowds. Romney had no such surrogate. He was one challenger boxing with two champions.

(5) Romney made unfortunate remarks. Who can forget his offer to bet Rick Perry $10,000? Almost everyone has forgotten what that bet might have been about, but not the amount. Likewise, Romney declared that he "liked to fire people." In London, he managed to insult the British. There are other examples, but three is enough to make the point. By comparison, I cannot recall any obvious mistake of this kind from Obama. As a final example, remember the little speech Romney made to donors, complaining about the 47% of Americans whom he viewed as parasites?  People such as veterans and retired people. A terrible mistake.

(6) Romney never released most of his tax returns.  When a candidate's worth is reportedly over $250 million, and he has funds in the Cayman Islands and in Swiss Banks, he needs to make an extra effort to make his financial affairs transparent. George Romney, the candidate's father, clearly agreed, for he was the candidate who began the practice of publishing his tax returns. That was in the 1960s, and the practice spread to virtually all other candidates since that time. For Mitt Romney to ignore his father's good example strongly suggests that he has something to hide. President Obama and all of Romney's challengers in the Republican primary released many years of tax information.  Romney stood out on this issue in the worst possible way. The young and the poor voted against him. They felt no kinship with a secretive, wealthy person.

(7) Immigration. Romney adopted an immigration program that alienated Hispanic voters. More than 70% of them voted for Obama. This position alone probably cost him Colorado and Florida, where the Cubans are no longer quite as unified or as dominant a pro-Republican force as they were during the height of the Cold War.

(8) Opposing the Automobile Industry Bailout.  Romney foolishly went on record four years ago, in a published newspaper article, where he said the Federal government should not bail out GM and Chrysler. As anyone can see in retrospect, this blunder was unpopular and just plain wrong, because the bailout worked, and both companies returned to profitability. In the closing days of the campaign, Romney made this mistake worse in an advertisement that spread false rumors about plant closings and sending US jobs to China.  This ad made the original mistake worse. The whole fiasco was avoidable. Romney did not need to write that article, and he certainly did not benefit from that stupid (the only word for it, "stupid") advertisement.  This mistake alone probably cost him Michigan and hurt him in Ohio, which has almost 1 million jobs related to the auto industry.

The election was close, and there were other factors to consider, such as Michelle Obama's great popularity or Joe Biden's ability to connect with blue-collar white men. But these eight things each made a difference, and Romney could have changed all of them except the hurricane. Even there he would have been far better off if he had not (earlier) advocated downsizing FEMA and refused to deal with global warming.

On the Democratic side, President Obama also made mistakes, but they were not as numerous or as memorable, except for the worst one: he should have prepared for that first presidential debate. Obama also prevailed in the end because Romney had flip-flopped so much on the issues over his seven years of running for the Presidency. He had advocated so many contradictory positions that he seemed to have no choice but to be vague about his program. In contrast, the President could point to solid achievements and an economy that clearly was improving due to the stimulus plans that he pushed through, despite Republican foot-dragging and opposition.

Yet whatever happened to the soaring rhetoric that Obama commanded in his first run for the White House? In 2008 he was charismatic and inspired. In 2012 he proved more pedestrian, apparently tethered to the earth by the practical demands of his office and the need to defend his record. In his victory speech some of that old magic returned, echoing the 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that first propelled him into the limelight. Now that he never will run for office again, perhaps he will unleash his rhetorical powers.

November 03, 2012

Technology: Blackout Behavior and Hurricane Sandy

New York, 1965 Blackout

After the American Century 

The blackouts that came in the wake of tropical storm Sandy left millions of people without electricity. These blackouts reminded Americans once again about how dependent they are on the current that runs silently into their homes, offices, and factories. As recently as 1965, when a major blackout shrouded the entire Northeastern United States in darkness, it was easier to cope with the crisis. Many typewriters were still manual, and the New York Times still had enough of them to write up the news and get it out the next day in a special edition that was printed in New Jersey, where the power remained on.  Back in 1965 important information was not stored on hard disks, and computers still had magnetic tapes. Then, the effects were most dire for travelers caught in airports, in subway tunnels, or on the high floors of buildings.

In 2012 computers are embedded in billions of devices, all of which require electricity. Even those that run on batteries need to be recharged after a short time. Some New Yorkers who have electricity proved willing to share it with complete strangers, letting them charge their cell phones, computers, and other devices, often for free. This generosity was not an isolated phenomenon, but is characteristic of what happens in a blackout. Generosity and helpfulness seem to break out on all sides. Unfortunately, journalists often miss htis side of blackouts, because they are looking for danger, death and destruction.

Widespread power failures only became possible after the development of regional grids of electrical service in the late 1930s and 1940s. As society increased its dependence on electricity, blackouts presented ever-greater problems, especially in hospitals, like that at NYU in 2012, when backup generators failed, and all the patients had to be moved elsewhere through the flooded streets of New York. Doctors and nurses gave selflessly to help their patients, for example by operating equipment manually, when this was possible, until it could be plugged in again. In the streets themselves many restaurants grilled neat and gave it away to passersby, most of whom could not cook in their dark apartments, rather than let the meat rot in rapidly thawing freezers.

As in 1965 and almost every other blackout, people talked to neighbors they hardly knew and helped total strangers. Blackout are a break in time, a semi-magical moment when the clocks literally stop and ordinary life cannot go on, when people discover a common humanity too often obscured by the demanding pace of contemporary life. When the Lights Went Out (MIT, 2010) explores the experience of blackouts, beginning with their World War II military necessity, including a wide range of reactions, ranging from exuberance and playfulness to riot, arson, and looting.

Yet most commonly, Americans have responded to blackouts by reaching out and helping one another. When thrust outside their cocoon of electrical conveniences and communications, they discover how much they share. In 1965, a woman returned home to her apartment near Union Square and found all the neighbors gathering in the only flat with a gas stove. Neighbors who had seldom spoken brought to one another out choice items from their suddenly dead refrigerators for an impromptu party and established friendships that persisted for decades. 

To its surprise, the Office of Civil Defense found that fear was not a widespread reaction to the 1965 blackout and that when fear was the first response it did not prove contagious. The investigators were surprised, because "projection of one's own fear on others is a fairly well-known phenomenon which has been experimentally induced." Instead, it found a "contagion of joy."

October 31, 2012

What has Obama Done? Achievements Since Taking Office

After the American Century

President Obama has achieved more than some people realize. Here is a list of some of this major accomplishments. It is an impressive list, considering the economic shambles and expensive foreign wars he inherited from George W. Bush. (The Republicans never mention Bush now. In 2001 he inherited a healthy economy and ruined it. He inherited a shrinking deficit, and expanded it. He inherited a nation at peace, and started two expensive wars that were still going on when he left office.)

The accomplishments of the Obama administration can be divided into four categories: Economy and Tax Reform, Equality and Welfare, Energy and Environment, and Foreign Policy. In addition, I note below some of the cases where Republicans opposed or did not support these achievements.

Economy and Tax Reform

He rescued the auto industry, and now GM and Chrysler are prospering again. The American auto industry has added nearly a quarter of a million jobs since June 2009.  
In contrast, Romney published an op-ed piece saying that the Federal government should not help GM and Chrysler, and that bankruptcy was the best option.

His Recovery Act helped to stave off a second Great Depression.  
Many of the Republicans in Congress opposed this Act.

He pushed through middle-class tax cuts that saved the typical family $3,600 over the last four years.

He has signed 18 tax cuts for small businesses in his first term.

There were 5.2 million new private-sector jobs during his first term, and the unemployment level has continued to fall, despite the fact that many corporations are replacing workers with robots.

He ordered the overhaul of federal regulations to make them more practical and  efficient. In the next five years this will save businesses $10 billion.

He created a landmark Wall Street reform that reins in abuses that led to the financial crisis and ends the era of taxpayer bailouts and "too big to fail."  
Republicans de-regulated the financial industry and during the GW Bush years they neglected their duty to keep an eye on it.

Wall Street reform created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the nation's first federal agency focused solely on consumer financial protection. The Bureau protects families from unfair and abusive financial practices from Wall Street and the financial industry.  
Republicans fought the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and when it was passed into law, they delayed the appointment of administrators to run it. 

Equality and Welfare

The first bill President Obama signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to help women get equal pay for equal work.  
A majority of Republicans voted against this bill.

He doubled funding for Pell Grants, to make college affordable for 10 million families.
His student loan reform ended billions in bank subsidies cutting them out as middlemen and reinvesting those savings directly in students.  
A majority of Republicans voted against this bill.

He established the American Opportunity Tax Credit, worth up to $10,000 over four years of college.

Health care reform provides affordable  coverage to every American and will lower premiums by an average of $2,000 per family by 2019. Obamacare also expanded access to lifesaving preventive care such as cancer screenings and immunizations with no out-of-pocket costs for 54 million Americans. Obamacare ends insurance discrimination against 129 million Americans with pre-existing conditions. Because of Obamacare 3 million more young adults have health insurance.  
Almost all Republicans voted against Obamacare. Romney championed similar legislation in Massachusetts but later opposed it.

Obama repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell, allowing gay and lesbian members of the military to serve openly for the first time. He directed the Justice Department to stop defending DOMA in federal courts, and took the practical and compassionate step of extending hospital visitation rights to same-sex partners.
A majority of Republicans voted against this bill.

When Congress failed to reform the immigration system, he streamlined the legal immigration process and adopted a policy that lifts the shadow of deportation from immigrants brought to the US as children.
Romney, Ryan, and the Republicans have called for immigrant "self-deportation" and take a harsh line against these children. 70% pf Latinos voted for Obama.

Energy and Environment

His investments in clean energy have helped more than double the electricity obtained from wind and solar sources and helped increase biofuel production to its highest level in American history.  
Republicans opposed these bills.

He has doubled automobile fuel efficiency standards, which will save drivers thousands of dollars at the gas pump, reduce dependence on foreign oil, and reduce the impact of automobiles on the environment. He has helped cut US dependence on foreign oil to its lowest level in 20 years, and the US appears to be headed toward near self-sufficiency in oil and gas production. From an environmental perspective, however, this increase is based in good part on fracking, which pumps water and chemicals underground at high pressure, which can vitiate the local water supply.
Republicans opposed raining mileage stanards, but they legalized fracking during the last years of the Bush presidency.

He signed one of the largest expansions of protected wilderness in a generation and established standards to reduce toxic air pollution.  
Romney would have "relaxed" air pollution standards for coal-fired utilities.

Foreign Policy

President Obama ended the war in Iraq.

He sent the largest security assistance package to Israel in history and funded the Iron Dome system, protecting Israeli homes and schools from rocket attacks.

He expanded and improved health care and job training for returning veterans.

He negotiated the New START Treaty with Russia to reduce nuclear weapons in both countries.

He eliminated Osama Bin Laden and decimated al-Qaeda's leadership.

Obama has accomplished a great deal. The American people deserve a more constructive Congress to help solve their problems.

October 26, 2012

With state's rights come state responsibilities. But Red States live on Federal Welfare and drive up the deficit

After the American Century

It is time for states to be treated equally, and it is time to stop wasteful federal spending. I therefore propose that no state be permitted to receive more than it pays in Federal taxes. If a state has been living on federal welfare in the past, it will have to stand on its own two feet and stop living off others. Individualism and self-reliance are virtues for states as well as individuals.

For example, for the last two decades the State of Alaska has received more than it has paid in. In fact, it has received $1.84 for every dollar it sent to Washington. This is obscene. Alaska has no state income tax, due to all its oil revenue. Indeed, residents of Alaska get a check every year, because the oil revenues are so large that there is always a surplus. Why should people in New York or California cut services in order to pay for Alaska, when it is rolling in money?

Now it happens that, as in this example, the states receiving the most federal funds are also those with strong Tea Party movements and vocal opponents of welfare, Obamacare, and most other forms of federal funding. We should keep faith with these voters and make sure that they get what they are demanding: less from Washington.

Here are  the ten states whose welfare payments are way out of line. The figure after it indicates how much each of them received for every dollar it paid in. States in (the) Red consistently have voted for the Republicans and embraced the rhetoric of a smaller federal presence in their lives. It is time for them to live up to their self-reliant ideals.

New Mexico  $2.03 (a swing state)
Mississippi $2.02
Alaska  $1.84
Louisiana $1.78
West Virginia  $1.76
North Dakota $1.68
Alabama $1.66
South Dakota $1.53
Virginia $1.51  (a swing state)
Kentucky $1.51

I can see why the voters of Mississippi and Louisiana and Alabama are angry at Washington. How dare the Federal Government pump billions of dollars into their states, weakening their self-reliance and turning them into welfare queens?

Meanwhile, other states ought to getting money back. They have been over-paying for decades. Here are the ten states that have been supporting those hypocritical "individualistic" Tea Party types. California and New York have cut their world leading universities and school systems to support welfare in states that say they do not want the money. New Jersey has been losing 39 cents on every dollar it invested in the Federal government.

New Jersey $.61
Nevada   $.65  (swing state)
Connecticut $.69
New Hampshire $.71  (swing state)
Minnesota $.72
Illinois $.75
Delaware $.77
California $.78
New York  $.79
Colorado $.81  (swing state)

What should we conclude? Clearly the Federal deficit has been created largely by Red states, and they not only should be cut off from this kind of welfare, but also they should pay back what they have borrowed, with interest. Why should New York or California, which have been cheated all these years, also pay back on that part of the deficit created by the RED states?

With state's rights come state's responsibilities. Time for the Red States to begin paying for the deficit they have created.

For more information, click here.

October 22, 2012

What parts of the American state are Socialist?

After the American Century         

One often hears American commentators, especially on the Right, complain about socialism in the same hysterical tone that people once denounced communism.

So let us look at this question of socialism in a common-sense way. There are some well-functioning parts of American society like the public library system and the fire departments that are actually socialistic. In each case a service is provided to everyone in the community, using tax dollars to pay the costs. Garbage removal is another example of something that is often organized by the state and provided to all citizens. The reasons for this are not hard to understand. All benefit if fires are put out and garbage does not rot in the streets. All citizens benefit when libraries provide books and information to everyone.

There are other obvious examples. The public schools are socialistic, providing and requiring education for all citizens. This is good for society as a whole, because educated people are able to contribute more skills and ideas, and highly educated societies tend to be more prosperous than less educated ones, all other things (such as natural resources) being equal. Indeed, a well educated country with few natural resources such as Singapore, is often more prosperous and has a lower crime rate than a poorly educated nation awash in resources, such as Nigeria.

When one begins to think along these lines, it is obvious that the Founding Fathers of the United States wanted all citizens to be literate and numerate, and that they believed an educated citizenry would be better able to choose leaders and to propose good ideas to their legislatures. Benjamin Franklin helped to found a great public library in Philadelphia. Thomas Jefferson's enormous personal library became the basis for the US Library of Congress, which may be used by all citizens. During the nineteenth century cities and towns all over the nation created public libraries that today are bastions of education, freedom of thought, and competitiveness.

The question becomes that of where to draw the line. How many services have such a beneficial effect on society that they really should be provided to citizens out of national self-interest?  Here are some examples that seem to be obviously a good investment:

A national weather service. Why? Citizens will not be caught by surprise by a tornado or ice storm, agriculture will be better conducted, and the country will have more lead time for national disasters.

A national park system. Why? Preserves for all citizens sublime and beautiful landscapes and historically important sites, such as battlefields, Native American ruins, and buildings, such as the homes of former Presidents. Americans invented the idea of having national parks, and preserved such places as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon for future generations.

A good road system. In theory, major roads might be privately owned, with tolls imposed for using them. But the US rejected that practice, with most roads open to all with no fee. Interestingly, Adam Smith argued in The Wealth of Nations that infrastructure such as roads were best left in the hands of the state. So even the patron saint of Capitalism accepted a bit of socialism, in this restricted sense.

It is fair to say that most Americans agree that these and some other government institutions are worthwhile, even if, in many respects, they might be understood to be socialistic. It is just that few Americans think of them in this way, because they have been around for a century or more. They are part of a Normal Rockwell vision of America.

The question is not whether the US state, local, and federal governments should supply any services, but rather how many. Health care remains in private hands, for example, even under Obamacare. Private insurance companies and private health providers remain at the heart of it. The government's role is to regulate, not to provide, services. The care-givers remain the same as before Obamacare was passed. This system is by no stretch of the imagination a socialistic one. Rather, the state requires that people be covered, just as it requires drivers to have a car that has been inspected and insured. Neither of these things is socialistic. To see what a socialized medical system looks like, go to Scandinavia, Germany, or France.

The US medical system produces terrific doctors who continue to make important advances in diagnosis, treatment and cure.  But while the individual care providers are excellent, the system is not. Per person, the US medical system costs almost double what Northern Europeans (Germans, Dutch, Swedes, etc.)  pay for medical care. Yet on average Europeans are living longer - years longer - than Americans. It is simply silly to say that the US has nothing to learn from other countries in this area.

Rather than pretend that "socialism" is foreign to the United States, it would be useful to have a dialogue about where the limits of socialism ought to be. Should university tuition be paid for by the state (perhaps to be paid back later by graduates, once they have a job?)  Norwegians, Danes, and Germans pay no tuition, which helps to level the playing field and gives all talent a chance to develop. The Scandinavians and the Germans may have a better chance than Americans to move up in the world. US economic mobility is not what is used to be, and that is because the nation is less, not more, socialistic than it was when the great land grant colleges like the Universities of Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Iowa, Texas, and the like were set up during the nineteenth century.

Too often American politicians talk about socialism as if it were some terrible foreign disease. It is not. Socialism is as American as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Whether it is a good idea has to be evaluated on a case by case basis. It is a good idea to have a national center for disease control, for example, but it might not be a good idea pay for cosmetic surgery with tax dollars. It is a good socialistic idea to make knowledge widely and freely available on the Internet, for example from the Library of Congress. But it is almost surely not a good idea to give every citizen their own automobile. National Public Radio seems to me a good idea, but here there is room for debate about whether its rather modest costs ought to be paid for through taxes or individual contributions. Case by case, the United States needs to consider how best to remain healthy, educated, and competitive. In some cases, socialism is a good idea. In others, not. Think about that the next time you see the firemen rushing by to put out a blaze.

October 19, 2012

Bill Clinton, Bruce Springsteen, and Hollywood stars may give Obama the edge over Romney

After the American Century

In the final days of the campaign, President Obama has some high profile surrogate campaigners. The most effective is surely former President Bill Clinton, who has the gift of gab - making sense of complex issues for ordinary people. He is immensely popular, and filled a fieldhouse with 3000+ students in Ohio yesterday. Clinton was not the only draw for that crowd, who also came to see Bruce Springsteen. The singer has been on the sidelines for 2012, until now, after being a vocal presence for Obama in 2008. You can see/hear Clinton and Springsteen here. Springsteen will also be playing in Virginia, another hotly contested swing state.

Obama can count on support from many other stars, notably Beyonce, Jay-Z, Jon Bon Jovi, Jennifer Lopez, James Taylor,, Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey, and many more, including some sports stars such as Magic Johnson and LeBron James. They can help motivate the public, especially the younger voters, who are strongly in favor of Obama.

When there are only 20 days left, having so many extra headliners to help out may make quite a difference. Compare Romney's situation. He has not asked the vastly unpopular George W. Bush to appear anywhere. He was not at the Republican National Convention, and his name was scarcely even mentioned. Nor has the senior Bush been out on the hustings for Romney. All the previous Republican presidents are dead.

Romney does have some famous musical performers to help him. There is country music star Lee Greenwood, but he is only famous to a niche audience, who mostly support Romney already. Otherwise, his supporters include Ted Nugent, Donny and Marie Osmond, Charlie Daniels, Lee Greenwood, John Rich, John Ondrasik, Joe Perry, Hank Williams Jr., Gretchen Wilson, and Randy Owen from Alabama.

Hollywood actors are also getting into the act, as it were. Romney has the backing of Clint Eastwood (talking to a chair), Robert Duval, Chuck Norris, Andy Garcia, Jon Voight, Patricia Heaton, James Caan, Sylvester Stallone, Tom Selleck, and, to my surprise, Kelsey Grammer.

From Hollywood, Obama's supporters include: Al Pacino, Gwyneth Paltrow, Robert De Nero, Demi Moore, Sean Penn, Sharon Stone, Samuel Jackson,  Sarah Jessica Parker, Matt Damon, Scarlet Johansson, George Clooney, and Meryl Streep, to name but a fraction of a very large total.

If I had to listen to musicians and to watch  films coming only from those who supported one candidate, Obama would certainly get my vote. I would, however, miss the Frasier re-runs.

October 17, 2012

Election 2012: Romney's flip-flops at the Second Presidential Debate

After the American Century     

In the second debate President Obama was far more focused and sharp. He continually called on Governor Romney to explain his policies in detail, and he several times drew attention to how he had flip-flopped on important issues, such as abortion, immigration, and assault weapons. Romney once was willing to accept abortion, now not. He once had a milder view of giving illegal immigrants a chance to become legal, but now he argues for draconian policies that will force illegal immigrants to voluntarily "self-deport." He once thought there ought to be limits on how powerful weapons might be before they no longer are protected by the Bill of Rights, but to get the support of the National Rife Association, he now thinks assault weapons capable of firing many bullets with extreme rapidity are just fine. Romney at the debate was suddenly claiming that he was supportive of solar and wind power, although his energy policy statement only mentions them briefly in order to attack them. Obama did not point that one out, unfortunately. The Romney energy policy statement says he would allow utilities to release more CO2 and that he would abolish the higher mpg standards for cars. Voters ought to know that.

Romney was caught in his contradictions, but not all of them. I find it incredible that his extensive investments in the Cayman Islands did not come up when discussing tax policy. I find it amazing that his secrecy about his own taxes did not come up. He has refused to release more than two years of his returns in contrast to all other candidates, including his own father, who began the practice a generation ago. All other candidates for the presidency since them have revealed their their tax payments.  It would be rather easy for Obama to ask him what he is trying to hide.

CNN polled immediately afterwards and found that Obama did win, though not as big a win as Romney had the first time. Having seen both debates, I doubt that the third one will change the dynamic much, unless one of the candidates makes a major mistake. One of the problems is that the voters seem ill informed. The actual positions (and contradictions) of the candidates can be discerned through their previous statements and actions. But the questions and discussion do not build on what is already known.

Rather, the debates are a bit like a passionate discussion in a seminar where most of the people present have not done the reading. So Romney or Obama can say most anything that sounds plausible and the average voter falls for it, especially, it seems, those undecided ones visible on television. I saw one group of ten interviewed, eight of whom still did not know which candidate they supported after the second debate was over. With such obvious and strong contrasts between them, I find this quite incredible.

The campaigns now will focus on particular voting groups.

Will Hispanics realize that Romney has embraced hostile immigration plans, and that the man who drafted the draconian Arizona law is Romney's advisor?

Will women, who have been shifting toward Romney after the first debate, become more concerned about Romney's (and Ryan's) very strong anti-abortion position, his desire to slash funding to Planned Parenthood, and his desire to abolish Obamacare?

Will young people understand that Romney's claims that he knows how to create jobs are based on nothing at all. He lost jobs in Massachusetts when the economy was far better than now. At Bain Capital he presided over a policy of slashing jobs to maximize returns on investments. Nothing in his record suggests that he cares about workers or the middle class, except when he needs their votes. 

If these three groups -- Hispanics, women, and younger voters -- understand what Romney's plans would mean for them, then they should turn out in large numbers and vote for Obama. But there is so much negative advertising in the swing states that the Romney flip-flopping may not be apparent and his vagueness on details may not be detected.

October 16, 2012

Technology: America as Second Creation

After the American Century

Some years ago an American magazine interviewed me about America as Second Creation (MIT Press, 2003), but in the end decided not to publish the interview. Here it is with only slight revisions to hide the identity of the magazine.

Tell me about your background, and what led you to write about technology.
I had a good education, first at Amherst and then Minnesota for my Ph.D.  I was lucky that my father is an engineer, who never tired of explaining to me how things worked. Because of him, even as a kid I knew that there’s nothing inevitable about any technology. Most history books suggest that certain machines are inevitable. Readers get the impression that the canal system, the electric light or the airplane just had to come when they did. But these technologies, or the railroad or the automobile, could have been made earlier or later, or in many different ways, shapes, and sizes, and they might never have become as central to American life as they did. Someone makes each one, designers try to improve it, and someone tries to market it. Technologies are all contingent on the human element, and there is nothing inevitable about the architecture or the timing of a Microsoft program or the Internet. 

Does living abroad make you more aware of this?
Absolutely. Because I ended up teaching US history in Denmark, lots of things that seemed natural to me as an American suddenly seemed artificial. The Danes made different choices, for example using bicycles a lot more, rejecting skyscraper architecture, heating their homes and offices centrally rather than putting a furnace in each one, and so on. All the talk about globalization can mislead. Technological systems are not the same everywhere, because cultures shape them.

The idea of America rewriting its history and eliminating the devastation brought upon those before them has been explored before, (Howard Zinn, for example) And the idea of technology not being inherently positive, of course, has also been a theme before. Describe the new angle, argument, or message that is at the center of your America as Second Creation.
Good questions. Every generation rewrites history, emphasizing the stories that seem most important to it. For the last generation, most American history writing has not been about technology. It has focused on race, gender, ethnicity, and class. This is a good thing, in the sense that it is no longer a story dominated by generals and politicians who mostly were white males. Meanwhile, a sub-field, the history of technology has grown up on the margins, but most historians still pretty much ignore it. My book seeks to wake people up to the centrality of technology in American history, not by pointing once again at a list of great machines, the cotton gin, the steam engine, and so on. Instead, I argue that technologies are a central part of the stories long used to explain America’s growth and development. Not only that, but there have always been competing stories about even something as apparently simple as the American axe.

But two chapters on the American axe?
Certainly, one devoted to the heroic stories of the pioneers wielding the axe to clear the forests and build log cabins, and one chapter about environmental destruction. One about the axe as an individualistic symbol, and one about fears that overuse of the axe would destroy watershed areas, eliminate wildlife habitat, and undermine Native American culture. And please note, there is some truth to both of these stories. You cannot understand American history through just one of them. So the whole book is built up in alternating chapters, exploring both the heroic stories about railroads, factories, irrigation systems and other things, and the counter-narratives that speak for what was lost or damaged or compromised.  I see my work as a way to link the history of machines to the history of ordinary people.

Can you tell me how this work expands on, or is different from your previous works?
I see the new book as the end of a trilogy on technology in the US. American Technological Sublime (1994) looked at the excitement surrounding new machines, without examining the longer-term consequences. Consuming Power (1998), in contrast, was about the long-term, as it looked at how and why the US became far and away the world’s largest energy consumer. And the new book is about how Americans weave machines into their sense of the nation, through telling stories. So, for example, the first book looked at how the railroad, the first skyscrapers or Apollo XI seemed just utterly amazing when they were new, and shows that Americans saw technologies to be as sublime as the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls. The second book also included a section on the railroad, but it focused on how Americans used the steam engine to reorganize social and economic life.  The third book barely touches on either of these topics, because it is about the foundation stories that Americans told – literally stories about how the country came into being. The pioneer with the axe or the new railroad built into the wilderness were conceived as remaking the world. People believed they were transforming America into a second creation.

Which contemporary technologies strike you as most likely to be at the center of American historical narratives of our era?
The Internet. So many different stories and ideas were floating around in the 1990s about what it meant. The whole concept of cyberspace exemplifies the idea of second creation, of building a new community or new economy in a new realm. Just look at John Perry Barlow’s "Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace" or at any number of things that were predicted about it. It was a  utopian moment. And, of course, there were dystopian fears, too, that cyberspace would bring not liberation or community or a redefinition of gender but government surveillance or corporate tyranny or massive invasion of privacy. And please note that anyone who wants to understand the Internet’s potential and meaning has to take account of both kinds of stories. The cultural moment of the last decade contains both, and they continue to shape the technology, which, remember, is not inevitable but can be made to develop in several possible directions. 
The only other narrative with a similar scope and importance now, it seems to me, is not that of space exploration, which briefly seemed central during the space race of the Cold War. Rather, it is genetic engineering, where again a host of competing stories are trying to convince us about what it means. Americans have bought genetically modified foods, but Europeans mostly have not – because they embed genetic engineering in quite different stories than Americans do.
These stories are not something added on later by historians. They are lived. People have to believe in something to pull up stakes and pioneer or to plunge all their assets into an Internet stock. People act in this life according to narratives. They believe a story before they act, or react.
Early in your book you explain that this American narrative is distinct from Europe’s because of America’s need to create history from scratch, to construct stories that emphasized self-conscious movement into new space. Why is America different in this regard?
Europeans have lived in their nations so long that the land seems to belong to them as a birthright. But white Americans in 1776 could not feel like that. They did not want to define themselves as Europeans after the Revolution, but by what right did these recent immigrants, as a people, take and hold their country? They had not just to imagine themselves to be in a “virgin land” – as though Native Americans had no real claims – they also had to create and believe in stories of expanding into this land and recreating it. These stories are foundation narratives, and they are about technology. They had to believe that the new world, however beautiful, was incomplete and empty, waiting to be transformed. They would earn the right to the land by improving it, making it into a second creation.  Europeans don’t think like that. They embrace their land and their past, including their ruins. Europeans do not see the land as a blank slate to be carved up into squares according to the national grid. But as you can see when flying over the US in a plane, Americans imposed just such a grid, starting in the 1780s. The grid in effect erased the past and said the land was a commodity, ready for sale and development. It became almost like virtual space, waiting for the settler to make it real.

October 13, 2012

Election 2012: Obama's Energy Program

After the American Century

The United States has lacked a coherent energy policy since 1971, when Richard Nixon acknowledged in a special message to Congress that supplies of cheap energy were running out. Nixon, Ford, and Reagan, primarily pursued the supply side, believing that more production was the answer. Carter, who had been trained in engineering as part of his preparation to command a nuclear submarine, knew more about energy than any of those Republicans. He knew that the demand side was just as important, but for the most part failed to convince Americans to become more efficient, or to move the nation toward alternative energies. He put solar panels on the White House, but Reagan took them down.

In 2008, Obama presented himself as an environmentally aware candidate, but energy was a secondary matter in that election. With his focus on health care reform, energy was not the focus of his first two years in office. Nevertheless, in 2009 total US CO2 emissions fell by 7%, and in more recent years the policies of the Obama Administration have sustained this healthy  downward trend. It has subsidized development of solar and wind power, and it has imposed new gas mileage standards, so that by 2016 new American cars should average 35 mpg, or almost 50% more than they averaged in 2008. This change alone will save 2.2 million barrels of oil every day by 2025. This will not mean that US cars are as efficient as those in Europe or Japan in 2025, but at least the nation is moving in the right direction.

President Obama has also invested in energy R & D, particularly in electric cars and new forms of ethanol production that produce fuel from agricultural waste and wood rather than from corn. The Obama Administration has also subsidized energy saving through retrofitting of Federal buildings, training programs for builders, rebates for purchase of more efficient appliances, and subsidies to homeowners to install better insulation. Through such programs the country has toward more efficient energy use and lower carbon intensity. The Obama Administration's goal is “that 80 percent of electricity will come from clean energy sources by 2035.” (Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future, 6) 

Yet at the same time, the Democrats are issuing permits that permit more shale natural gas production and open new oil fields. This includes the controversial use of high pressure water and chemicals underground to force more gas and oil to the surface, which may endanger water purity. But that policy has the short run advantage of lowering US oil and natural gas dependence on unstable governments abroad. The policy is somewhat incoherent, but pragmatic, as Obama pursues the “technological fixes” available that can prolong the old energy regime even as they work to create a greener, more sustainable future. 

On the issue of energy, Obama is not my ideal candidate, but he is far better on this issue than that former oilman George W. Bush, and infinitely better than Romney promises to be. Romney would lower CO2 emission standards, scrap support for green energy, abolish the higher MPG standards, and generally try to pretend that energy is not a problem at all, but an opportunity for the free market to make a killing. Romney's plan would not lower the world's oil prices. It would keep the US dependent on oil and gas, letting other nations get further ahead in the development of wind and solar power. Worst of all, Romney would continue the Bush go-it-alone attitude on global warming. On that topic, like so much else, he is vague, with no clear program.

October 11, 2012

Election 2012: Can Romney Win? Four Swing States Hold the Key

After the American Century

With just weeks remaining, Romney seems to have a bit more momentum than Obama, largely due to the first Presidential debate. The challenger now has a chance to win, and it all comes down to just four states.

Study of the polls in swing states suggests that Romney will win Missouri and North Carolina. In addition to the states he already has nailed down, he requires just four more swing states:

Ohio        18 electoral votes  (less than 1% difference) UPDATE Oct 19: Obama up by 2.4%
Florida    29                           (less than 1% difference) UPDATE Oct 19: Romney up by 2.5%
Virginia  13                            (less than 1% difference) UPDATE Oct 19: still less than 1% gap
Colorado  9                            (less than 1% difference) UPDATE Oct 19: still less than 1% gap

If Romney takes all four of these, his electoral total will be 275 (270 needed to win.) There are other combinations and permutations possible, but these four states are those where he has the best prospects.

To put this another way, even if Obama holds on to New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which is not entirely certain, as they have become swing states in recent polls, as well as winning Nevada and Iowa, which have been swing states all along, the president will lose. He must win all of them plus at least  one of the four states listed above, if he wants to stay in the White House. As of Oct 11, the distance between Obama and Romney in each of these four states is less than 1% - and that is well inside the margin of error. In short, the polls say it is too close to call. 

We can expect that enormous sums will be spent campaigning in these four states, and that on election day there will be enormous get-out-the-vote efforts.  On election night this also means that the outcome will likely be decided in the Eastern Time Zone.  Only if the race is really close will we need to wait two more hours for Colorado's polls to close. 

In a worst case scenario, we might be headed into another election like that in 2000, where the winner is unclear. But as things stand on October 19, Obama would appear to have a clear victory within his grasp.

The New York Times reached pretty much the same conclusions as expressed in this blog, only later, on October 25.