A Liberal Realignment?

Super Tracker

I'm supposed to give a couple of speeches on the Presidential elections in the coming weeks, so you'll have to tolerate a few more posts about U.S. politics. As of mid-November, I plan to start pretty much ignoring politics again.

Until then, though, there will be posts like this one, in which I quote U.S. center-right commentator Ross Douthat on one possible long-term implication of the yesterday's vote in the U.S. House of Representatives: 

The stock market continues to drop. Some version of the bailout passes in the next week. The American economy staggers into a recession, but passes through the storm without 1930s-style suffering; the Republican Party is not so fortunate. Even though most Americans claim to oppose the bailout … the House GOP's obstructionism is widely viewed as having worsened the economic situation; the fact that these are contradictory positions does not faze an electorate that wraps all of the country's current troubles up, ties them with a bow, and lays them at the feet of the Bush-led GOP. John McCain loses by a landslide in November. The Democratic Party regains years or even decades worth of ground among the white working class, consolidates the Hispanic vote, and locks up a large chunk of highly-educated voters who might otherwise lean conservative. The much-discussed liberal realignment happens. And a politician running on a Ron Paul-style [laissez-faire] economic platform does very, very well in the GOP primaries of 2012.

From your lips to God's ears, Ross!

[llustration: National Super Tracker poll aggregator from fivethirtyeight.com]

A Quick Prediction

A quick prediction: we will soon see the idea of one form or another of a Tobin Tax (a tax on financial transactions, originally proposed by American economist James Tobin) transform itself from a hobbyhorse (g) of the left-wing group attac into a serious proposal advanced by mainstream European political parties.

Whether the same thing will happen in the USA remains to be seen, but I’m not holding my breath.

Send Them Back As Missionaries

The atheistical fool!

At a wedding this weekend, I met yet another German who spent a high-school year abroad in the U.S., and came back a bit nonplussed, to put it mildly. She was placed with a family in a small town in a rural part of Indiana. There, she learned excellent English, and was introduced to baseball games, barbecue, apple pie, and…Jesus. 

She was placed with a Lutheran family, which seemed like a good fit, since she herself was a "Lutheran" (that is, Protestant) German. But, as she soon found out, there are followers of Luther's teachings and there are American Lutherans. Her student-exchange host family spent all day Sunday at the church (Bible study, potluck dinners, etc.) and sometimes attended services during the week. They always invited her to come along, and clearly expected her to say yes. They asked about her views on issues such as abortion, sex education, etc. Eventually, all the God talk made her uncomfortable, and she begged off more and more religion-related activities. This caused friction, and the relationship broke down entirely. She requested a transfer to another family before Christmas.

You might chalk this up to bad luck. But I've now heard versions of this story from dozens of Germans. Usually, they add that their student-exchange host family was friendly and accommodating, and that they learned a lot. But the omnipresence of religion is intimidating. The host families often declare the German exchange students' views to be shockingly lax, and invite the student to impromptu Bible studies to help the poor German understand "Jesus' plan for their lives" better. 

The exchange students can't escape or parry this proselytizing. They depend on their host family for everything, and are often placed in towns or suburban developments which don't resemble European neighborhoods (i.e., you need a car to get anywhere). Since their English is far from perfect, they find it difficult to disagree with their host families (or make excuses) without seeming rude. By the time the student year abroad is at an end, they're convinced — to put it bluntly — that the U.S. is a nation of religious zealots. For the rest of their lives, they describe their experience to many people who've never visited the USA.

Now, a little religious proselytizing is hardly the worst thing that could happen to a German exchange student in the U.S. But shouldn't student-exchange programs take this factor into account? The programs seems to run mostly by private volunteers and non-profits. I'd be interested to know if there's a code of conduct that requires host families to sign a contract respecting exchange students' religious autonomy. A short search reveals at least one group that explicitly advertises for American host families to "Be a Host Family for an Exchange student and send them back as a missionary for Jesus." (!)

Are the foreign exchange students being told about their host families' religious views when they sign up? Are Germans unwittingly getting drawn into explicitly proselytizing programs? Is that because they don't catch the signals that would tip 0ff Americans that this is a religious group, or because the organizations hide their mission? I'd be interested to know if readers have had similar experiences.

[Picture: "The atheist, the fool, who grinningly cares not at all," from the "Mystery of Life" sculpture group in the Forest Lawn Cemetery, Glendale, California.]

Zardari and the Bruni Effect

Sarah Palin did impress one world leader [h/t SD]:

‘Gorgeous,’ this is how Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari described Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin when she met him in New York. "You look so gorgeous. Now, I know why the whole of America is crazy about you," Zardari said, while receiving Palin, also the Governor of Alaska, at the Millenium Hotel.

Can we hope for a Bruni effect?

Urgent Helping Required for 100%-Safe Transactin

[h/t JTG]


From: "Hank Paulson" <henrympaulson.treasury.gov@gmail.com>

Date: September 23, 2008 10:07:54 PM PDT

To: johnQpublic@aol.com

Subject: From Henry M. Paulson – Urgent

From: Henry Paulson

Date: 9/23/2008

Subject: Urgent transaction – need your help

Bright Greetings Dear American:


I need to ask you to support an urgent and important business relationship with a transfer of funds of great magnitude.


I am Ministry of Treasury of the Republic of America. My country has had a crisis that has caused the need for a large transfer of funds of 700 billion dollars US. If you would assist me in this transfer, it would be most profitable to you.


I am working with renowned Mr. Phil Gram, lobbyist for UBS, who will be my replacement as Ministry of Treasury in January. As a Senator, you may know him as the leader of the American banking deregulation movement in the 1990s. This transactin is 100% safe.


This is a matter of great urgency. We need a blank check. We need the funds as quickly as possible. We cannot directly transfer these funds in the names of our close friends because we are constantly under surveillance. My family lawyer advised me that I should look for reliable and trustworthy person who will act as a next of kin so the funds can be transferred.


Please reply with all of your bank account, IRA and college fund account numbers and those of your children and grandchildren to wallstreetbailout@treasury.gov so that we transfer your commission for this transaction. After I receive you're information, I will respond with detailed information about safeguards that will be used to protect the funds.


Wonderful salutations to you cherish friend from Republic of America.


Yours Faithfully,

Minister of Treasury Paulson

A Nation on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

First, many thanks to everyone who responded to my bleg about Tatort. I really appreciate all the helpful links and insights.

There'll be light blogging for the next few days, since I'll be visiting one of my favorite countries,  Belgium, to see a wedding. This will be a welcome relief from the news, which I've been following with morbid fascination. The U.S. seems to be matching Belgium crisis for crisis these days.

I'd prefer to draw a veil of discretion before the unseemly events taking place across the Atlantic, but civic duty and manly, nettle-grasping forthrightness compel me to provide you with the following links:

1.  Apparently, the Secretary of the Treasury actually went on bended knee inside the White House yesterday:

In the Roosevelt Room…the Treasury secretary, Henry M. Paulson Jr., literally bent down on one knee as he pleaded with Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, not to “blow it up” by withdrawing her party’s support for [a bipartisan legislative] package [to address the fiscal crisis] over what Ms. Pelosi derided as a Republican betrayal.

“I didn’t know you were Catholic,” Ms. Pelosi said, a wry reference to Mr. Paulson’s kneeling, according to someone who observed the exchange.

2. Meanwhile, the stupefying Sarah Palin, who really is the Vice-Presidential nominee of the Republican Party, seems none the wiser after weeks of careful coaching (including from Germany's favorite Realpolitiker, Henry Kissinger).

Here's Palin responding to a question about her experience dealing with The Foreign Countries:

3. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen lays into the kind of American exceptionalism that Palin stands for: 

But exceptionalism has taken an ugly twist of late. It’s become the angry refuge of the America that wants to deny the real state of the world.

From an inspirational notion, however flawed in execution, that has buttressed the global spread of liberty, American exceptionalism has morphed into the fortress of those who see themselves threatened by “one-worlders” (read Barack Obama) and who believe it’s more important to know how to dress moose than find Mumbai.

That’s Palinism, a philosophy delivered without a passport and with a view (on a clear day) of Russia. Behind Palinism lies anger. It’s been growing as America’s relative decline has become more manifest in falling incomes, imploding markets, massive debt and rising new centers of wealth and power from Shanghai to Dubai.

4. And finally, Sam Harris on the American brand of anti-elitism that made Palin possible: 

Ask yourself: how has "elitism" become a bad word in American politics? There is simply no other walk of life in which extraordinary talent and rigorous training are denigrated. We want elite pilots to fly our planes, elite troops to undertake our most critical missions, elite athletes to represent us in competition and elite scientists to devote the most productive years of their lives to curing our diseases. And yet, when it comes time to vest people with even greater responsibilities, we consider it a virtue to shun any and all standards of excellence. When it comes to choosing the people whose thoughts and actions will decide the fates of millions, then we suddenly want someone just like us, someone fit to have a beer with, someone down-to-earth—in fact, almost anyone, provided that he or she doesn't seem too intelligent or well educated.

I believe that with the nomination of Sarah Palin for the vice presidency, the silliness of our politics has finally put our nation at risk. The world is growing more complex—and dangerous—with each passing hour, and our position within it growing more precarious. Should she become president, Palin seems capable of enacting policies so detached from the common interests of humanity, and from empirical reality, as to unite the entire world against us.

Tatort = Volkspaedagogik?

I was talking with an Austrian sociologist the other day, and he told me something interesting: that the German detective series Tatort is guided by a set of principles that determine how it portrays violent crime in Germany. The idea is to present millions of TV viewers with an image of the root causes of crime that will dampen their desire for retribution and harsher penalties. Therefore, criminals on Tatort almost always commit their evil deeds because of outside forces, such as mountains of debt, cultural expectations, social deprivation, mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc. Thus, one of the goals of Tatort is to counteract the idea that criminals are intentional evildoers. This colleague said that this is a well-known fact about Tatort, but wasn't able to point me to a source right off-hand.

Given my previous posts on West German and East German detective series (plus academic interests), I'd really be interested in a written source that would bolster the argument that Tatort scripts have a "popular education" purpose. Thanks in advance for any help.

The Sacred Weekend Strikes

Building Behind Changing Trees Grueneberg Park

In so many ways, living in Germany's like going back to the 1950s (at least, as I imagine them): you get to know your mailman, there are (still) little neighborhood shops everywhere, lots of people think the "internet" is a Russian satellite, the bakery makes special pastries you can only buy at Christmas or Easter, men wear hats — and sometimes even scarves. It's all quite soothing!

And the weekend is straight out of the 1950s: stores still close early on Saturday, and nothing at all happens on Sunday. That can be a bit of a problem when you're dealing with the United States, in which everyone who's anyone has computers and internet access at home, and definitely use them, also during the weekend. There, Saturday and Sunday are pretty much like any other day.

Three managers at Germany's state-owned KfW Bank found this out the hard way a few weeks ago. They were scheduled to transfer about 350 million Euros to the U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers on the morning of Monday, Sept. 15th. At a meeting on Friday, September 12th, they realized that Lehman was teetering on the brink of collapse. 

But, as KfW's boss Ulrich Schröder describes (g) in a bracingly candid interview, they "did not monitor the situation over the weekend." On Sunday, the International Swaps and Derivatives Association announced a special trading session — on that very Sunday, September 14th – to "reduce risk associated with a potential Lehman Brothers Holding Inc. bankruptcy filing." Shortly afterward, news outlets announced Lehman would file for bankruptcy on Sunday night. Which they did.

During all this, the bankers were presumably taking long walks in the park, or visiting relatives in Dibbersen (g), or watching Die Zauberfloete (g) at the Frankfurt Opera, or doing some of the other relaxing things employees of state-owned businesses in Germany do on the weekends. By the time they returned to work on Monday, the cash transfer had already gone through, at 8:37 AM. And they became, in the words of one Australian newspaper, "Germany's Stupidest Bankers."

Roubini: Europe’s In for a Rough Ride

Stern Business School professor Nouriel Roubini, who’s been predicting many of the events in the current financial crisis accurately years in advance, has this to say about the knock-on effects Europe:

The real economic side of this financial crisis will be a severe US recession. Financial contagion, the strong euro, falling US imports, the bursting of European housing bubbles, high oil prices and a hawkish European Central Bank will lead to a recession in the eurozone, the UK and most advanced economies.

European financial institutions are at risk of sharp losses because of the toxic US securitised products sold to them; the massive increase in leverage following aggressive risk-taking and domestic securitisation; a severe liquidity crunch exacerbated by a dollar shortage and a credit crunch; the bursting of domestic housing bubbles; household and corporate defaults in the recession; losses hidden by regulatory forbearance; the exposure of Swedish, Austrian and Italian banks to the Baltic states, Iceland and southern Europe where housing and credit bubbles financed in foreign currency are leading to hard landings.

Thus the financial crisis of the century will also envelop European financial institutions.

Commenter Deni, from a few weeks ago, was slightly less pessimistic than Roubini, but still noted that “the business model of lending long and borrowing short, which indeed came from and prevailed in the USA but was quite heartily embraced by many European bankers.”

Denglisch Circa 1919

From a pamphlet distributed in New York City in 1918 by the 5 defendants (Yiddish-speaking Russian Jewish Communists) in the case of Abrams v. U.S.:

‘America and her Allies have betrayed [the Workers]. Their robberish aims are clear to all men. The destruction of the Russian Revolution, that is the politics of the march to Russia.

‘Workers, our reply to the barbaric intervention has to be a general strike! An open challenge only will let the government know that not only the Russian Worker fights for freedom, but also here in America lives the spirit of Revolution.’