Jacob Christensen

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Project 52 – Weeks 10, 11 and 12 (in which you actually get to see me)

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Week 10 saw Karen Mardahl and myself subverting a theme based on a quote from Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake. Instead of the expected gimlets, we went for similar cups of coffee in a trendy coffee shop (no, not one of those coffee shops) in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district.

First, my photo of Karen:

(Her drink was the same as mine)

And then – tadaa – Karen’s photo of me:

The same drink

Week 11 took its cue from an Emily Dickinson poem:

Vindegade in the afternoon

Finally, week 12 – a week much to busy to seek photo opportunities – left me looking at the pavements searching for cracks. They weren’t that hard to find:

Pavement

Written by Jacob Christensen

March 23rd, 2014 at 5:29 pm

Project 52 – 2014: Week 8 and 9

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Broken, broken, broken

Broken: Occasionally, it feels like breaking things is one of my core (in)competencies. Still, the first mug broke due to a weakness in the cast. I managed to drop the second, but decided to keep the rubber covers as spares for my remaining four mugs. And then there was the handle on the butter tray… Sigh…

Sunday. After the party

A reflection on “On living”. Taken on a Sunday afternoon.

Written by Jacob Christensen

March 3rd, 2014 at 7:30 pm

The Secret Social Democrat

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Last week’s big media story was the publication of “Den hemmelige Socialdemokrat”, an anonymous account of the everyday life in the parliamentary group in the Danish Social Democrats. Insider accounts of the wheeling and dealing behind the thick walls of Christiansborg (that’s Borgen, if you are a foreign visitor to this page) have always fascinated the media and some parts of the public – accounts that describe an ailing party with internal power struggles are even more fascinating. It is a bit like watching a feeding frenzy in the lions’ den at the zoo. Which, incidentally, you could also do this week.

If we want to read the book as an account of the state of the Social Democrats or life in a parliamentary group, the book has some shortcomings, though. The author is anonymous and, all things considered, there are some good reasons for this: Parliamentary work contains a good deal of considerations and negotiations, and these are best done outside of the direct public eye. This also means that the author has had to leave out a large part of everyday political work – any detailed references to policy debates and committee work would reveal the identity of the author and end his or her political career pretty fast. Still, if you read the book without any further knowledge of parliamentary work, you would be excused for believing that the parliamentary group of the Social Democrats was some kind of Paradise Hotel cast with MPs rather than dysfunctional youths. So, first, we should remember that the book almost completely omits questions of policy and concentrates on politics and struggles over central posts in the parliamentary group and ministerial portfolios.

Second, the author – or the editor – decided to enhance the descriptions with fictional accounts. While the book would always have been one person’s image of the parliamentary group and in many ways biased – even if we couldn’t pinpoint the exact nature of the bias -, we have absolutely no ways of telling which parts are fiction and which fact. Again, the elements of fiction could also be a way of putting up an extra smokescreen around the author.

But all things considered, the book is a lively account confirming most of what we believe to know about the parliamentary Social Democrats: It is a frustrated organisation with a distant leadership and lack of political direction. It is perhaps not surprising that there will be a distance between backbenchers and leadership but still Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Bjarne Corydon (the real villain of the story) only manifest themselves as shadowlike characters whom the author never really manages to grasp. Which political vision guides Thorning-Schmidt and Corydon? The distance between the pre-election manifestos and post-election policies leave just about everybody confused – and convinced that the Social Liberals are somehow calling the tune.

As it is, the situation appears to be even more frustrating as the pre-election alliance with SF also meant that an opaque faction of “workerites” took over control of SF with the Social Democratic leadership following suit. The political and organisational breakdown in SF after the 2011 election which eventually led to the exit of the party from the three-party government also saw the “workerite” faction leaving more or less en bloc to the Social Democrats much to the dismay of Soc Dem backbenchers – and in my view not just because of the increased competition for positions of power in the group but also because of fundamental conflicts over policy and strategy. If the “workerites” have failed in SF and brought the party to its knees, what are the prospects for the Social Democrats (even if there are some major differences in organisational culture between the two parties)?

The portraits of leaders one step down on the ladder (Henrik Sass-Larsen, Carsten Hansen) are livelier but not really surprising: They come across af typical hard men who run the day-to-day business in parliamentary group. Any parliamentary group.

Then there are the mythical “coffee clubs” which have attracted the attention of political journalists since that expert of personal branding, Ritt Bjerregaard, introduced the concept in the early 1970s. The creation of personal networks and recruitment of newcomers to “coffee clubs” is the object of much attention both inside and outside the group but as a reader I was left with the impression that the existence and relative strength of the respective “clubs” – or factions, if you will – are almost irrelevant when we look at the Social Democrats’ general policy and strategy.

Is the description lacking something here or do media put too much emphasis on these groupings? In the case of SF we can see that a faction has played a major role in determining the course of the party – even if the party leader’s decisions of strategy may have been the most important factor driving the strategic and organisational changes in SF between 2005 and 2012. The situation in the Social Democratic Party looks less obvious. Cynics would argue that the Social Democrats have been controlled by the SF between 2007 and 2011 and by the Social Liberals since 2011 and that the party leadership in any event needs a considerable range in its freedom of action in order to function in the complicated environment which the Folketing is.

To conclude: The book is fun to read for political junkies but while the author (helped by the editor?) has a talent for individual portraits, it lacks the more principled outlook which could have sparked a much-needed debate over the political direction and organisation of an troubled governing party.

Written by Jacob Christensen

February 16th, 2014 at 7:01 pm

Project 52 – 2014: Week 7

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Two collections

“Collections” became two collections. I never intended to create a collection of CDs but if you buy something like two or three CDs every month over a decade and a half, beginning in 1991 when I finally bought a CD-player, it does add up eventually and puts your bookshelves under severe pressure.

And then I bought my first iPod in 2003 and when iTunes Music Store (as it was back then) opened in 2005, the fate of the CDs that I have bought since then has been to be ripped to the computer and played on any of my devices – including the media centre attached to my TV-set. And so Mini the Polar Bear are sitting with my 2010 64 GB iPod Touch holding about half of my digital music collection but which may also be about to go the way of the Dodo as streaming services and wireless networks are becoming omnipresent.

Written by Jacob Christensen

February 16th, 2014 at 3:56 pm

Project 52 – 2014: Week 5 and 6

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Some gloomy photos for the last two weeks.

Odense: Vestergade

First, locally flavoured. Hans Christian Andersen would be obvious but too easy and in any event he left the place as soon as possible.

A brunsviger cake? Could do, but I’m not that much of a baker.

Then there is the gloomy side of Odense – it is after Copenhagen and Århus the third largest city in Denmark but the city centre has had problems in all the six years I have lived here.

This shop is right across the town hall on the main shopping street – and it has been empty for over a year now. So the local flavour is a mixed one – big projects and a weak economy (even if this is definitively not Detroit)

By the way: The reflections in the windows are from the tourist office!

And it gets worse:

Odense: Vesterport

The theme this week is “accident”

In 1999, the German cinema chain CinemaXx decided to build a second multiplex in central Odense (CinemaXx already had a multiplex in Rosengårdcentret, a shopping mall some 5 kilometres from the city centre – the city centre had and has a multiplex run by Nordisk Film as well as an art cinema). The idea was to combine the multiplex with a fitness centre and shops and the proud structure opened its doors in late 2000.

Only to close eight months later as a complete economic disaster.

And so the building – in the middle of a major city – has been standing empty since 2001. As the structure has become more and more derelict, the issue has been what to replace it with. Ideas have come and gone but finally it has been sold and is to be demolished and replaced by a supermarket.

The demolition is planned to be finished by the autumn of 2013.

Oh, wait…

Written by Jacob Christensen

February 9th, 2014 at 10:55 pm

Is That a New Government (II)?

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Just a quick note on the wording of the Royal Resolution which mentions that Helle Thorning-Schmidt continues as prime minister (as well as a number of ministers from the three-party coalition). After discussing the matter, my best guess is that the Royal Court and the Prime Minister’s Office want to emphasise that the parliamentary basis of the two-party coalition of Social Democrats and Social Liberals has been considered.

Does this make the coalition a new government in the legal sense? Probably not, but this is a case for specialists in constitutional law and it points to the finer complications when you have a) minority governments and b) no investiture. Still, in political science and practical terms, the two-party coalition will count as a new government.

Written by Jacob Christensen

February 4th, 2014 at 1:06 pm

Is That a New Government?

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Monday has hardly begun and I am being dragged into a discussion about the status and name of the (new) Danish government. So, a) do we have a new government and b) what should we name it?

The answer to a) is: It depends. From a legal point of view, the prime minister has not resigned and there is no appointment or reappointment of a prime minister. So we a dealing with the same government being reshuffled. The all of the resigning ministers happen to be from the same party and that said party does not present any new ones makes no difference.

From a political science (and a practical) point of view, the composition of the government has changed with the departure of SF. In the research litterature, the reshuffle of February 2014 will count as a new Danish government where a three-party minority coalition is replaced by a two-party minority coalition. That the parliamentary basis of the government hasn’t changed – Helle Thorning-Schmidt still relies on the support of the Social Democrats, the Social Liberals, SF and the Red-Greens to survive a vote of confidence – isn’t relevant here.

We may note that Denmark has rather lax rules when it comes to votes of confidence. In Germany, the term of office of the Federal Chancellor ends with the election term so every new Bundestag has to pass a vote of confidence in the chancellor. So, Helmut Kohl was elected in 1982 and reelected in 1983, 1987, 1990 and 1994 even if the composition of his government didn’t change.1 Sweden, which applies negative parliamentarism, has a vote every time a new prime minister is appointed and will be introducing a vote after each general election. But technically, there will be no provision for a vote if a party leaves a sitting government during a term.

The opposition is of course free to call a debate and test the parliamentary basis of the Social Democratic-Social Liberal coalition in a vote in the Folketing but all the huffing and puffing would only tell us what we already know: SF and the Red-Greens will prefer the present situation to an election.

Finally, the naming. Denmark has an informal tradition of numbering governments but the exact rules for numbering are unclear. If anyone decides to continue the work of Svend Thorsen and Tage Kaarsted and write volumes V and VI of “De danske ministerier”, there is no doubt that 2011-2014 will be Helle Thorning-Schmidt I and 2014-20xx Helle Thorning-Schmidt II. The rest of us needn’t be bothered, though.

PS: Here is the Royal Resolution of February 3 which curiously states that Helle Thorning-Schmidt continues as prime minister

  1. We’ll leave aside the issue about the integration of East German ministers between the unification and the 1990 election []

Written by Jacob Christensen

February 3rd, 2014 at 12:00 pm

DONG, Goldman Sachs and Politics

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I am by no means an expert on this and I would maintain that the conflict over the sale of some 19% of the shares in DONG to Goldman Sachs remains a sideshow in the developments which eventually led to the breakdown of the SD-SL-SF coalition. Still, I have a feeling that lots of different issues have been bundled in the public debate so I wanted to try and sort the different threads of discussion out.

1. DONG was originally created to give the state control over the distribution of natural gas in Denmark – this applied to the infrastructure while regional public companies were in charge of delivering gas to users. The basic infrastructure and delivery has since been merged but the original policy choice was one of creating public control with what was seen as an essential part of the energy infrastructure.

2. DONG has since branched out fra distributing natural gas to developing renewable energies (in particular wind energy solutions), and from being a utility company acting on the Danish market to an entrepreneur acting on a global market.

3. This also changes the original logic behind DONG which these days is much more of a commercial corporation than when it was originally established. This also raises the question if the Danish state is appropriate an an owner of a commercial global corporation. At the same time, this also raises the question who should own and control Danish energy infrastructure: The Danish state or private actors.

4. The choice of Goldman Sachs as the partner of the Danish government is controversial for a number of reasons. First, we should note that the Danish government have two different motives for bringing Goldman Sachs (or rather: An investment bank) on board: a. To attract capital in the short run and b. to prepare an IPO for DONG in the medium run.

5. I suspect that b. is the real issue here: First, we have the underlying conflict over the privatisation of DONG. Second, in preparing the IPO the investment bank should act as the agent of the Danish government which is the principal in the relationship.

6. Given the track record of Goldman Sachs, outside observers question if Goldman Sachs is a reliable agent. Remember that we are talking about an organisation which refers to its customers as “muppets”.

7. Also, the use of tax havens raises the issue of Goldman Sachs’ fidelity towards public principals.

8. Finally, there is the symbolic role of Goldman Sachs in the developments leading to the 2008 financial crisis. By striking a deal with Goldman Sachs, the Danish government is (again symbolically – but symbols are important in politics) seen as accepting dubious financial practices which have inflicted heavy losses ordinary voters in the form of a complete absence of economic growth since 2008 and substantial cuts in social protection.

PS: Guan has discussed the specifics in the deal between the Danish government and Goldman Sachs and is sceptical of the result.

Written by Jacob Christensen

February 2nd, 2014 at 6:23 pm

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SF: Beyond FUBAR

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SF has been involved in the Danish government more or less formally three times. All have ended in splits and disasters. The first time was 1966-1968 when the “red cabinet” – an informal agreement between the Social Democrats and SF – ended in a split where the left-wing left SF to form a new radical socialist party. The split also signalled the end of the Social Democratic government.

Following the 1971 election, Jens Otto Krag managed to create a parliamentary basis for a Social Democratic government through agreements with SF and two MPs elected in Greenland. This time both SF and the Social Democrats were affected by internal struggles: Right-wing Social Democrat left his party and brought down the government in spectacular fashion in November 1973, triggering the “earthquake election”. At that time SF was reduced to a side-show engaged in bitter internal disputes and almost overshadowed by the resurgent Communists and the Left Socialists.

The 1990 election actually yielded a majority of Social Democrats, Social Liberals and SF but the Social Liberals – who had just left an unhappy alliance with the Conservatives and the Liberals did not want to pave the way for a government supported by SF. So, the party was stuck on the sidelines even if it played a role in the post-Maastricht negotiations.

Finally, there was the SD-SF pact which resulted in electoral defeat for both parties in 2011 but which due to the wins for the Red-Green Alliance and Social Liberals made a three-party coalition of Social Democrats, Social Liberals and SF possible. And from that day on, everything which could possibly go wrong for the party went wrong. The Thorning-Schmidt government was a disaster waiting to happen – even if I, like most people, expected the disaster to happen at the 2015 general election.

But the centrifugal forces were too strong and SF has come apart before our very eyes in a way seldom seen in an established democracy. It may seem symbolic that a controversial deal with US investment bank Goldman Sachs triggered the collapse of the party leadership and the coalition – but we should remember that the Goldman Sachs deal was the trigger: Deep and strong forces were at play.

If we look at the research conducted by Tim Bale and Richard Dunphy, SF in 2011 actually failed on all conditions for a successful left-wing participation in government: 1. The party had lost votes in the 2011 election, 2. While the government declaration was quite detailed, it offered few concessions to traditional SF policies and standpoints, 3. The foundation in the party organisation turned out to be much weaker than expected (actually, the organisational reforms designed to streamline SF for government hadn’t led to a change in party culture), 4. Support from aligned organisations was weak and 5. The party’s leadership soon revealed massive weaknesses. Whether Villy Søvndal had been buried in ministerial duties or he was marked by the early signs of the illness which ended his political career in 2013 is a matter of discussion but SF was definitively drifting already from the autumn of 2011. The election of Annette Vilhelmsen as party leader in 2012 only made things worse: She may have reflected the party organisation’s unease with the government’s policies but lacked the powers to unite and mobilise party activists.

All in all, a dismal picture, and by now the party’s existence is called into question. One problem will be to find a competent leader who can mobilise what is left of the organisation and parliamentary group, another to create a platform between a seriously weakened Social Democracy and a strengthened Red-Green Alliance (we may note that MPs defect to the Social Democrats while voters leave in both directions).

Written by Jacob Christensen

January 30th, 2014 at 6:25 pm

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Project 52 – 2014: Week 4

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Tea. Brandy. Clementines

How did we get from the Bronx (a cocktail) to Tea, Brandy, Clementines? A complicated story – and, yes: The mug is too close to the right edge of the photo.

Written by Jacob Christensen

January 26th, 2014 at 10:21 pm

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