Jacob Christensen

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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.

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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).

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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

Project 52 – 2014: Weeks 1, 2 and 3

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As I said in an earlier post I was invited to join a continuation of “Project 52 – 2013″. The difference is that this year different members of the group will be providing themes for different weeks after Eszter Hargittai had taken on the massive tasks to come up with 52 themes last year. Well done, Eszter, by the way.

The themes for the first three weeks were “Ends that are also beginnings”, “The path is beneath your feet” and a quote from a poem by the Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti. I chose to interpret it as “”Places that have meanings for us even if it is not immediately visible from the outside or above”.

So, here goes:

Week 1 – In my family, stripping the Christmas Tree on New Year’s Day has always been the end of Christmas and the beginning of the New Year. Here the stripped tree has been placed outside in garden of my mother’s house:

An End and a Beginning

Week 2 – As part of my job, I travel from Odense to Vejle to teach classes at the social work programme at UC Lillebælt. The college is placed some 4 kilometres from the town centre but I like to walk back to the railway station to clear my mind after teaching. It dawned on me that I was crossing the paths of my father who was born and grew up in Vejle. A working-class boy, he lived in the part of the town called Søndermarken, and after school he distributed one of the local newspapers in Mølholm, one of the affluent parts of the town – and on my way I passed through Mølholm. So with a distance in time of some 65 years, the paths of the working-class schoolboy and the middle-class lecturer crossed each other.

Vejle: Mølholm Landevej

Week 3 – I was waiting for a bus in Herlev outside Copenhagen on a cold and windy late Sunday afternoon. The bright building in the back is Herlev Hospital, a skyscraper placed in the middle of a suburb mostly consisting of singe-family houses. I have mixed feelings about the place as my father spent the last months of his life being moved in and out of that hospital before dying there in the spring of 2000. It is a landmark of the Copenhagen area, but obviously you have to talk to people to get to know the very different meanings of the place to different people.

Ring 3 with Herlev Hospital in the background

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January 22nd, 2014 at 7:00 pm

Busy

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Apologies for the lack of updates but these are very busy weeks with teaching and exams all over the place. Even a possible political scandal involving the prime minister has managed to escape my attention.

What I can say is that I have joined a Project 52 – 2014 which is a continuation of the Project 52 on Flickr. I am behind with contributions here as well but there will be updates – including lagged ones – from that project during the year. I will also be following the Danish European Parliament election campaign for the Fondation Robert Schumann so I may be making one or the other post on that subject.

But for now, it is back to the exam preparations.

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January 16th, 2014 at 9:09 pm

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Sherlock: The Case of the Missing Screen-Texts

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That was weird.

I assume we can deduct that somebody at DR never checked the version delivered by the BBC.

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January 6th, 2014 at 12:22 am

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Danish Politics in 2014: Thorning Schmidt as Baunsgaard

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The only things we can be sure of in 2014 is that there will be a European Parliament election and a referendum on the European Patent Court. The result of the former is likely to mirror the trends in national opinion polls with the anti-EU People’s Movement as the joker in the game. Trying to predict the turn-out and result of the referendum is too difficult at the moment. The government also has to appoint a new European commissioner – most likely a Social Democrat.

Then obviously there will be some kind of agreement over the 2015 budget – most likely a messy affair leading to a patchwork of agreements. The big question is if and how the recommendations of the government’s Productivity Commission and the Carsten Koch Committee on labour market policies will be transformed into political decisions.

I think it is safe to guess that there will not be a general election during 2014 – the government’s standing in opinion polls is simply too weak and any attempt to call an early election will be an act of suicide from the Social Democrats and SF, not just in the short term but also in the medium to long term. In fact, we are in a situation where the dynamics of Danish party system has changed fundamentally: Between 1920 and 1980, the Social Democrats were the dominant party and bourgeois governments never survived an election. Between 1980 and 2000, national politics were a more even-handed affair with left and right competing for a majority – and the support of the Social Liberals. The 21st century has so far seen the continuing demise of the Social Democrats and the party is now so weak that the left wing – including the Social Liberals – is in the exact same position the bourgeois parties used to be in: Internally fractured and strategically disadvantaged.

To some extent, the Thorning Schmidt government increasingly looks like contemporary the left wing version of the luckless Baunsgaard government which was in office between 1968 and 1971: Just as the Baunsgaard government promised a break with the expanding welfare state of the 1960s and failed to deliver, so the Thorning government promised a break with the increasing inequalities of the 2000s and failed to deliver.

Contemporary and later-day observers noted the continuites between the Krag and the Baunsgaard governments and viewed from 2014 the same in my opinion goes for the Fogh/Løkke and Thorning Schmidt governments. Here, we should note that it wasn’t because the Baunsgaard government failed to achieve anything (lots of administrative and policy reforms were passed and implemented) but the government was so constrained by electoral, administrative and economic structures with a healthy dose of Zeitgeist thrown in for good measure that it would have taken an extraordinarily strong political leadership to break with the trend. The same goes for the Thorning Schmidt government with the Social Liberal insistence on the implementation of cuts to the early retirement benefit and unemployment benefits as the (symbolic) original sins. If anything, the major break in economic policy came in 2010, not in 2011, and basically the years since 2008 have been lost years with economic growth flatlining. (The 1968-71 parallel would be the continued increase in public expenditures and taxation)

German has the wonderful term “Zweckoptimismus” – forced optimism may be the best English translation – and the government definitively needs a healthy dose of this to make it through 2014 as a reasonably functioning unit. The problem is that the more Zweckoptimistisch the government, the more detached from political and electoral realities it will appear.

Written by Jacob Christensen

January 1st, 2014 at 5:40 pm

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