Jacob Christensen

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The Things You Find on the Internet

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It’s not that there isn’t anything to write about Danish politics – the bizarre angles to the story about Troels Lund Poulsen’s attempts to undermine Helle Thorning Schmidt prove my friend Carsten Fogh Nielsen’s claim that it can ALWAYS get more absurd and the government’s attempts to save face in the unemployment insurance mess both merit blog posts, but for the moment I am very busy preparing this autumn’s teaching.

Still, when the dead-serious Monkey Cage blog linked to this (original here), I simply had to share it with those of you who do not follow me on Twitter or Facebook.1

And now my question is: How would you rank the chances of the Danish prime ministers since 1848 in a similar fight?

  1. I would definitively go for Nixon as a likely candidate, followed by Lyndon B. Johnson []

Written by Jacob Christensen

September 4th, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Posted in Political science etc.,Politics

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Impending Doom of 2012 III: A Republican Victory

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Even if you don’t agree with some of the fundamental political values at the heart of the Euro, the prospect of the single currency going south is pretty scary on a European scale. But can we think of developments that would be an even bigger disaster on a global scale?

There are a number of candidates for Catastrophe of the Year 2012 out there: Iran getting nuclear weapons and using them against Saudi Arabia or Israel would be very high on the list. Similarly, the prospect of a hard landing of the Chinese building boom in particular and the Chinese economy in general has economists worried – although they wouldn’t be surprised if it happened. Still, as long as everybody consider the perspectives, Iran would be a basically regional problem (so long as we forget about the Saudi oil) and the Chinese economy slowing down would probably first and foremost be a problem for the Chinese.

So, what about the world’s remaining superpower being taken over by a political movement decoupled from anything remotely like the reality? As in the Republican Party winning the 2012 Congress and Presidential elections in the US.

The US Republicans are interesting and scary because they – and their associated think tanks, media outlets, etc. – from the 1980s on increasingly have developed into a post-modern party. What I mean by this is that one defining characteristic of post-modernism (at least in my interpretation) is that reality is seen as constructed. So what in an earlier age or among more traditional politicians were seen and treated as facts, are seen and treated as the results of a rhetorical power struggle. Win the people’s minds, and you create the reality.

The approach has been in force in economic policy since the 1980s as the “starve the beast”-strategy – cut taxes at all costs even if it makes absolutely no sense and makes grown economists cry – and also came to prominence in foreign policy during the Bush43 years. Actually, the “if we say it’s real, it’s real”-approach has now spread to just about every conceivable policy area among US Republicans.

During the past thirty years – and during the Bush43 years in particular – the Republicans have done unspeakable damage to the US federal budget, something that now makes it very hard for the present administration to manage the worst recession in more than 70 years in an economically sustainable way. Fuelled by the anger of Tea Party militants, a new Republican administration would be Bush43 squared and blow a massive hole in what is left of the economy’s resilience. The Bush43 years were an epic of crazy foreign policy adventures. A new Republican administration would concentrate on building an imaginary Third Temple. Anything even resembling environmental policy would go down the sewer. And so on. And so forth. Politics will be creating the facts.

Until something – the international economic system, the Middle East or the global climate – blows up in a very big way, that is. (Not that the Republicans would ever admit it: After all, they haven’t talked about any disaster).

And remember: If this happened in, say, Denmark, it would be a problem for the Danes (well, actually not: Part of the Euro crisis is due to the fact that Greece and Italy were run by governments subscribing to the economics of imagination). The US is a slightly bigger deal.

Enjoy your campaign.

And with this, I wish you a happy 2012.

Written by Jacob Christensen

December 20th, 2011 at 10:53 pm

Posted in Politics

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bin Laden

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Sign o’ the times? I first learnt about the killing of Osama bin Laden via Twitter.

Also (for Scandinavian readers): Ich bin Laden proudly brought to you by Egoland.

Written by Jacob Christensen

May 3rd, 2011 at 12:14 am

Posted in General,Politics

Tagged with ,

Public Expenditure Growth

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Just a short reply to my colleague Peter Kurrild-Klitgaard who with reference to an article in The Economist argues that the public sector is a leviathan whose growth cannot be limited or stopped.

First, we should note that the tendency to rapid growth in public sector expenditure measured as a share of the economy stopped sometime during the mid- to late-1970s. From then on, we have seen stagnation even if economic growth obviously means that expenditure has increased since the early 1980s.

Second, the growth in relative expenditure in the last years must be seen in the context of the global financial crisis which a) saw GDP fall in many countries and b) saw increases in unemployment which again meant that a share of the workforce had to rely on some kind of public support. This is what the Keynesians call automatic stabilisers.

Third, the economic policies of Republican administrations and congressional majorities in the US are a cause for concern. The idea that tax cuts are the solution to any problem is by now intellectually – but not politically – discredited and the massive deficits created by Republican policies are a major problem for the US and world economy. In fact, US economic policy is a major theoretical and practical headache.

Kurrild-Klitgaard is right that special interest groups (farmers, anyone?) create a lot of blocking points in the policy process and that it is easy to find cases where resources are being spent in a way which is inefficient in the short or long run due to government programmes (my own example would be the Danish Early Retirement Benefit but in the US defence spending could be used as a warning case). It is also correct that the demand for services and transfers is in principle inexhaustible.

But this does not necessarily mean that the public sector is dysfunctional or uncontrollable as a whole.

Written by Jacob Christensen

March 30th, 2011 at 4:54 pm

Lead Balloons of 2010 IV: Barack Obama

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Remember 2008?

Back then we had something called Obamania, named after none other than the coolest guy on earth that year: Barack Obama.

Obama was so cool that rumour had it he could turn water into Bud Light (okay, so maybe that is not that much of a miracle) and single-handedly stop global warming. In fact, Obama was so cool in the eyes of the Norwegian Nobel Committee that they awarded him the 2009 Peace Prize for … euh … not being George W. Bush. Or something.

Myth aside, reality was more complex and just as fascinating.

Obama in many ways embodies some central elements of today’s global society and in becoming first US senator and then US president undoubtedly broke a lot of barriers. In a country where race does play a massive role, he was the first African-American president and despite all talk of the white working class turning against the Democrats because of Obama’s race, he did in fact manage to mobilise the traditional Democratic constituency of white collar workers and minorities. And quite a few other voters.

Obviously, by being African-American in the direct sense (Kenyan father, American mother) rather than the descendent of slaves, Obama was not troubled by the prejudices directed at “ordinary” African-Americans. But his election still came as the culmination of a trend where (white) Americans were becoming used to seeing African-Americans and Hispanics acting in high-profile political positions.

Besides his parental background, Obama also grew up in a multicultural setting as he spent some of his childhood in Indonesia. Much has been said about the rise of Asia (most of it nonsense), but Obama still unlike any earlier US president has a first-hand experience of one of the major Asian cultures.

When he entered office in January 2009, Obama was in many ways untested. Unlike most other US presidents in the past century he had not held executive office at either state or federal level and he had only been a US senator for little less than four years. Some of the hype around Obama was also exaggerated: His performance at the 2008 presidential election was convincing but given the state of the US economy not outstanding. In fact, the outcome of the 2008 election pretty much matched the predictions based on historical evidence about the correlation between the state of the economy and vote shares for incumbent and opposition candidates.1

Still, Obama started off on a high note enjoying good approval ratings during the first half of 2009. Then the mood changed and for much of 2010 his approval ratings have looked like those of George W. Bush in the early part of his second term. Bush, of course, would plunge to even worse values and following the disaster of the 2010 mid-term elections, avoiding the fate of George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter or, for that matter, Herbert Hoover and becoming a single-term president is Obama’s main political problem.

But, we may ask, didn’t Obama deliver?

Yes and no.

Despite the attempts by the Republican party to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, there can be no doubt that Obama succeeded where previous Democratic presidents failed: He did promise to introduce a general health care reform and even if the programme included in the Affordable Care Act is in many ways complicated and opaque, he delivered on his promise. Sure, he had the benefit of working with a comfortable majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives which meant that Republican attempts at sabotaging the legislative process eventually failed. Should Obama lose at the 2012 election, health care reform will be his legacy and given the quirks and dysfunctionalites of the US political system, this has in face been an impressive performance.

The undoing of Obama and the Democratic party has been the economy. The 2008-2009 recession was the longest and deepest in the US since the Great Depression of the 1930s and the continuing poor employment figures indicates that the Obama administration so far hasn’t succeeded in finding the proper response to the fundamental problems in the US economy.

There may be many reasons for this. In the past two decades the US has increasingly turned into a plutocracy where the 1 percent (or perhaps even 0.1 percent) at the top of the income distribution have reaped the gains while the traditional middle classes in particular have witnessed a stagnation in economic development. Wall Street has managed to avoid taking the responsibility for its role in the process leading up to the 2008 collapse. Economic policy both before and after 2008 has been designed to benefit the super-rich and the middle classes have responded with frustration and anger.

The Democrats never really managed to tap into this frustration and engineer an electoral realignment. Instead, the Club for Growth and later the Tea Party have managed to channel frustrations into anti-government sentiment. To outside observers it is as if the Democratic leaders have never really understood the nature of their opponent: These days an incoherent Democratic coalition is facing a slick, tightly organised and politically radical Republican Party. The Democrats rely on luck, the Republicans on organisation.

Curiously, just as Obama may be the most American of presidents, the Republican Party of 2010 is in many ways the most European party the US has ever seen in terms of organisational and ideological cohesion.

The Obama balloon still has little under two years to take off again. The question is if the Obama administration, which is now facing a hostile House of Representatives and the tiniest of majorities in the Senate, will be able to design and implement a sustainable economic policy which will benefit working and middle class Americans.

  1. On the other hand it may be argued that Al Gore in 2000 and George W. Bush in 2004 both underperformed. Gore due to a lacklustre campaign and Bush due to the controversies surrounding the Iraq war. []

Written by Jacob Christensen

December 22nd, 2010 at 1:54 am

Posted in Politics

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The Best Piece of Satire You Will Read in 2010

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Because surely surely surely BP under the present circumstances wouldn’t publish something like this in earnest, would they?

From the relative comfort of a large square deck with a cold bottle of water always in hand, and an air-conditioned TV room with comfy sofas a level below, I witnessed beauty preparing to face the beast.

Nah, surely they wouldn’t.

HT: Helene Vadsten.

Written by Jacob Christensen

June 3rd, 2010 at 11:42 pm

Posted in Politics

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Tea Partiers

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First of all: Cudos to the New York Times for releasing the tables behind the “tea partier” story. As Laura McKenna has pointed out, there is a problem with the way the article compares all voters and tea party-activists – political activists should have been included in the comparison.

Still, we are dealing with something which looks like a middle-class rebellion: Angry, middle-class, middle-aged white men, to be more specific. My hunch was that linking the tea partiers to the stagnation (if not decline) in median incomes might give some insight into the nature of the tea party-movement – the thing is, that we may have seen similar dynamics on this side of the Atlantic. (What? The Americans react like Europeans? Scary, no?).

Things, however, seem to be a bit more complicated.

Let me steal the words of Heather Boushey of Slate:

The data instead show that Tea Party supporters are in the group of Americans adversely affected by the hollowing out of the middle class in the last few decades.

Given that their labor market experience, education, race, and gender should give Tea Party supporters an economic advantage—as well as an internal sense that they should be moving up the ladder—their actual middle-class status may make them feel as if they haven’t lived up to their expectations. Certainly, economic security has eroded, especially in the last few years, for this demographic. White men in particular are one of the few groups to have hit all-time-record-high unemployment rates and record-low employment rates during the Great Recession, alongside teens and older workers.

The picture that emerges, then, is more like what you’d expect. The Tea Party is made up of more-traditional middle-class families who had a certain expectation of upward progress. Over the last decade or so, they’ve gotten stuck. Even before the recession, the 2000s were the first economic recovery in the post World War II era during which median family income was lower at the end than it had been at the prior economic peak, in this case, 2000. That’s a stunning lack of gains for the typical American family.

Now, we are not dealing with losers in the traditional sense here – no low-skilled industrial workers losing their jobs to the Chinese – but rather the disappointed middle class. (There still is a clear majority of men among partiers, though.) In a warped way, they are closer to the strata which were behind the left-wing mobilisations of the 1960s and 1970s in Western Europe – except that these groups tended to be public employees. But still, the realisation that the affluence engine of the 1950s and 1960s has finally stopped working like it used to puts the political system under some kind of pressure. The massive lack of confidence in not only the present US administration but also US political institutions is notable. (Just as it is notable that the partiers find it harder to blame the financial sector).

When you go through the tables, it is obvious (at least to me) that the tea party equations do not add up on a number of points – specifically, the tea partiers cannot, or will not, understand the effects of Bush 43′s (and the Republican Party’s) fiscal and tax policies on the US economy and federal budget. Somehow, ideology must play a role here. As a whole, the tea partiers (conveniently?) seem to forget that the Republican Party controlled the US congress between 1995 and 2007. Perhaps the dream of 1994 lingers on?

On the other hand, we are not dealing with gun-toting fundamentalist rednecks. Yes, the partiers are generally more conservative/authoritarian on social issues (in the US meaning of the term) but they are hardly extremist. Yes, they adore Sarah Palin, but they do not think she would make an effective president of the US (which means that the partiers can make the distinction between expression and policy craft).

But somehow this looks like we are dealing with the fallout from the New Economy and the Great Moderation of the later decades. Just to exaggerate a bit: Obama is more of a traditional Democrat – industrial workers, trade unions, Mid-West, etc. – so it is perhaps not so surprising that he doesn’t click with the partiers. And similarly, the partiers’ priority of jobs as the main problem fits badly with the Obama administrations (public) focus on health care.

Written by Jacob Christensen

April 29th, 2010 at 1:33 am

Posted in Political science etc.,Politics

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Who Did Kissinger (Not) Want to Call?

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Via Julien Frisch I was made aware of a discussion of the famous quip by Henry Kissinger: “Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?”. It turns out that Mr. K really didn’t want to call Europe because, after all, why bother with one Europe if you can divide and rule – and let’s face it: When do the French, the Germans and the Brits ever agree on anything related to foreign policy?

But the debunking of that story led me to consider another problem. In his blog post, Gideon Rachman writes this (or rather wrote, the post is several months old):

According to the late Peter Rodman, who knew him well, the saying is apocryphal, and in fact Kissinger’s concern was the precise opposite – he was fed up with having to deal with a Dane whom he regarded as incompetent and ineffective, who was trying to represent the whole of the EU as President of the Council.

But who could the incompetent and ineffective Dane be? Well, first of all, Kissinger was US National Security Advisor from January 1969 to November 1975 and US Secretary of State from September 1973 to January 1977 and Denmark joined the European Community, as it was then, in January 1973. Between 1973 and 1977, Denmark held the Presidency of the Council of Ministers in the second half of 1973, so in all likelihood we must be looking at one of the members of Anker Jørgensens first government which was in office from October 1972 to December 1973.

Here things begin to get complicated. K.B. Andersen was Foreign Minister, Ivar Nørgaard Minister for European Affairs and Anker Jørgensen (well, duh) Prime Minister. Now, you could call K.B. Andersen a lot of things but “incompetent and ineffective” would not be the first things to come to my mind. I suspect that the foreign affairs portfolio was split so that Nørgaard was chairing the meetings in the EC Council of Ministers but I don’t ever recall his name being mentioned in relation to high politics.

This could leave Anker Jørgensen as the unfortunate candidate. Although he (head of government) and Kissinger (foreign minister) probably weren’t on an equal footing in terms of diplomatic protocol, Jørgensen would have been chairing the (inofficial) EC Summit which I actually dimly recall being held in Copenhagen in late 1973 and to be perfectly honest, international politics and diplomacy was not exactly Jørgensen’s best discipline. (Economic policy was one of his other main weak points). Earlier in 1973 he had managed a big-time goof in a domestic speech where he happened to touch on the question of the causes of the Yom Kippur War. As a result the Arab OPEC countries were not happy and Denmark one of the countries singled out in the oil embargo.

Oh, and as you can see, the Kissinger remark in all likelihood was linked with the fall-out of the Yom Kippur War and the first Oil Crisis.

Update: Guan Yang pointed me to another possiblity – the former Danish Prime Minister Jens Otto Krag who was EC representative in Washington during 1974-1975 and who, frankly, did not make the best impression in that position. But maybe “incapacitated” would have been a more correct description of Krag during his time in Washington than “incompetent”. (Also, Krag was never president of the Council or anything like that).

But maybe there is a simpler explanation to the story: Kissinger would be looking for some random EC member country he could insult without any risk of provoking a large scale impassé. Any small country would do nicely and who, after all, would take Denmark seriously in international relations anyway?

Written by Jacob Christensen

February 13th, 2010 at 6:42 pm

Posted in Politics

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Predicting 2010

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Weekendavisen wants to challenge its readers about what happens in 2010. Instead of waiting until December 2010, I’ll forgo the bottles of red wine already now and give you my more or less badly founded predictions:

1. Will the Danish national team reach the semi-finals at the Football World Cup in South Africa?

No. It would be fun, but I think the 1/8 or possibly the 1/4 finals will be what we have to hope for.

2. Will the author Jens Christian Grøndahl change publishers again?

Who cares? Okay: Yes.

3. Will Caroline Wozniacki win a Grand Slam tournament?

If she can keep free of injuries, yes.

4. Will Lars Løkke Rasmussen reshuffle his government.

Yes. But the reshuffle may be less extensive than many imagine or hope for.

5. Will the Iranian regime and president Ahmadinedjad be overthrown?

No. But there will be continued unrest.

6. Will the world’s countries reach a binding agreement at COP16?

No. Not with China and the US Republicans obstructing.

7. Will the Danish government set up a commission to examine the separation of state and church in Denmark?

No. Not even if we imagine the Social Democrats and the Socialists taking over government after an election.

8. Will a Danish rider win a stage in the 2010 Tour de France?

Yes. Well, it’s possible.

9. Will health warnings be introduced on wine bottles in Denmark?

No.

10. Will the Litterature Prize of the Nordic Council be awarded to Ida Jessen or Peter Laugesen?

Hmmm… No.

11. Will the US Government go bankrupt?

No.

12. Will the Sweden Democrats win more than 4% of the vote in the Swedish general election?

Yes. If the Social Democrats do not get their act together.

13. Will MECOM sell parts or all of Berlingske Media?

Sneaky question. MECOM may very well want to sell but the money are tight, so I wonder if there will be buyers. No.

14. Will Sophie Marceau be cast in a leading role in a Lars von Trier film?

No.

15. Will the Maldives disappear under the sea level?

No.

16. Will Helge Sander still be Minister of Research after 1 December 2010?

No. (Well, here’s to hoping, but I really don’t think a new minister will make that much of a difference)

17. Will Bob Dylan attend the opening of the exhibition of his paintings and drawings at the Danish National Art Gallery?

No.

18. Will Keith Richards and Jack White record a cd?

Fascinating thought, but: No.

19. Will Nikolaj Znaider be awarded the Sonning Music Prize?

No. (Tricky one, though)

20. Will Peter Ramsdal still be the vicar at the Brorson Church in Copenhagen on 1 December 2010?

Yes.

And with this: Godt nytår.

Written by Jacob Christensen

December 31st, 2009 at 5:57 pm

Posted in General,Politics

Tagged with , , ,

Could This Be a New Word in Danish?

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Via Twitter the – rhetorical – question “how do you say this in Danish?” reached me. “This” was astroturfing, which is the not uncommon practice where companies or other established interests try to create popular legitimacy by setting up or funding organisations that look like ordinary grassroots organisations.

I doubt if the term astroturf with reference to artificial grass is generally well-known in Denmark, if only because top-level football (that’s soccer to you yanks) is played on real grass in this country, but we do talk about kunstgræs. So maybe astroturfing could be kunstgræsrødder in Danish? After all, the practice of astroturfing is not that uncommon: As politicians have learnt, the activities of one or the other organisation of patients or people suffering from some kind of disorder have over the years turned out to be heavily subsidised by medical companies, even if completely artificial organisations are very rare.

Oh, and kunstgræsrødderne are coming this way.

Written by Jacob Christensen

December 3rd, 2009 at 7:13 pm

Posted in Politics,Spare time

Tagged with , ,

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