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."