Saturday, September 21, 2013

Dear Mr. President

Two weeks ago, Barak Obama visited Stockholm and spent half an hour or so on the KTH campus. Since Nordita is officially part of KTH, safety regulations went through the employee email list weeks in advance. Luckily I was away the great day. I was told later the Swedes were so successful scaring people off the impending traffic disaster that Stockholm was basically deserted during the President’s visit and elks were seen chewing licorice in front of the royal palace.

I flew back to Stockholm the following day. Lufthansa online check-in suffered an interesting technical glitch and produced a boarding pass for seat 1A business class. Yeah to software bugs. As I was sitting in the business class with leg space I don’t actually need (I’m not socialist, just short), I couldn’t help but wonder what, if I had 15 minutes, would I tell the President. Hell, what would you tell the man?

From the German perspective, the American political system looks strange, which is ironic given the history of Germany’s representative democracy. The strong role of the US President in particular and the focus on individuals rather than programs in general is the most obvious difference. Stranger even is that the political landscape in America is in practice a two party system. This has created a situation where, instead of different parties offering a spectrum of alternatives, the two parties morph to fit their potential clientele, or make it fit. And, needless to say, the wealthy part of the clientele lobbies for their interests, an influence that’s amplified by the almost complete lack of labor unions.

Yes, from a German perspective it seems strange that a country which values democracy so dearly practices it so badly. But then I’m not a political scientist, I just hope I know enough to put my two X in the right places on Sunday.

During the years I spent overseas, Academic America seemed to be overwhelmingly on the side of Obama’s Democratic Party. I recall many seminars in which an US American speaker would make jokes or political statements that clearly showed they were confident the majority of the audience would sympathize with their political views. And they were right of course. (Provided the audience was mostly American. These jokes don’t fly in Europe.) But during the last year I sense this support base faltering as the conditions for scientific research gradually worsen under Obama’s watch.

There are many things the man must shoulder and I’m sure they weigh heavily. Among all these weighty boulders, there’s a tiny little pebble that made me lose my faith the USA will overcome its anti-scientific congestion. It came with this headline:

    “Last month [March 2013], President Obama signed 600 pages of legislation to keep the government from shutting down, while shutting down much of the nation’s [political science] studies. Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) secured Democrats’ approval for an amendment to the bill that eliminates the National Science Foundation’s political science studies, except those the NSF director deems relevant to national security or U.S. economic interests.”
By now, the NSF has cancelled the political-science grant cycle.

Dear Mr. President, how could you have let that happen?

Every major problem that this planet presently faces is primarily about organizing human life and negotiating complex problems with uncertain solutions. The existing political, social, and economic systems are insufficient to deal with these problems, and scientific knowledge is insufficiently integrated into decision making procedures. As societies and economies have become more interconnected, political institutions have not kept pace. The technology is there, the knowledge how to use it isn’t. This realization lies behind initiatives like the FuturITC and attempts to predict political unrest. Yes, that’s political science for you.

Today riots are organized on twitter, wars are led on YouTube, and election results predicted on online futures markets. Nobody knows what this means for the future of democracy. Do Facebook and Twitter help spread Democracy and Human Rights? Are the White House Petitions are good idea or do they just create noise? Yes, that’s political science for you. We all have too much information and not the faintest idea how to intelligently aggregate it and use it within our political systems. We need a scientific approach to institutional design. Trial and error is an archaic procedure that takes time that we don’t have, and errors have become too costly.

Just the situation to scrape funding for the political sciences, I see.

I am trying to imagine Angela Merkel suspends all governmental funding for political science. Germany is the land of the poets and thinker, the land of Kant, Hegel, Marx, Engels and Weber. Besides inventing compound nouns, Germans are also good with solidarity, strikes, and nudity. The Americans made very sure each German receives a solid education about the merits of democracy. I can see the outrage. I see the ‘68 students, now at retirement age, clogging the streets, “academic freedom” scrawled over their flopping breasts. “Censorship!” they shout. “Thoughts are free” they sing. Then the President of the United States calls. “Angie,” he says “Wtf?”

The great advantage of the American political system over the German one is however that the US President can only serve two terms, while the German chancellor can run till he or she drops dead.

Dear Mr President: I hope you tried a handful of the salty licorice that the Swedes chew down by the pound. Because that’d make you as sick as I feel when I read what American scientists must endure these days.


  1. The 22nd amendment is still wide open for the kind of tricks Putin has pulled in Russia. A person cannot be /elected/ President more than twice but he can be elected vice president as often as it is the will of the public -- and then the "president" can retire. Or, purely hypothetically, of course, some twit could be the official President, while the country would be led from the office of the Vice President. Easy as that.

  2. Amen and well-said.

  3. "Germans are also good with solidarity, strikes, and nudity." "8^>) "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" Lucky are those who begin with a Protestant ethic of bourgeois good intentions (and Benjamin Franklins patronizing the Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe).

    Deutsche Frauen, deutsche Treue,
    Deutscher Wein und deutscher Sang
    Sollen in der Welt behalten
    Ihren alten schönen Klang,
    Uns zu edler Tat begeistern
    Unser ganzes Leben lang.
    Deutsche Frauen, deutsche Treue,
    Deutscher Wein und deutscher Sang!

    President Bush the Lesser was half way to being an idiot-savant. Stupid has been trumped in spades by a bolshy Leftist Chicago pol poltroon and his virulent Black Separatist wife. Cf: Rome, 200 AD. A Nobel Peace Prize Laureate wants to $1 million/cruise missile pop a few thousand tons of sarin nerve gas with best intentions circular error probable plus downwind deniability. Obamanomics slaughtering the middle class, Obamacare slaughtering everybody, Secretary of Crap John Kerry fulfilling civilizations’ need for military minimum engagement levels. Strength Through Sacrifice.

    Fascism dresses better. Sweden would do well to rescind and confiscate that Nobel Prize.

  4. Yes, it's all true.

    Yesterday the Republicans cut the funding for Food Stamps (supplementary food vouchers for those in poverty). After reading about that and other political atrocities, I thought, I can't take much more of this. I had better click on Bee's site and read a nice essay on science to calm myself down.

  5. "Dear Mr. President, how could you have let that happen'

    It's called 'balance of powers'. The US was setup to constrain the power of the president -- a reaction to the power of Kings.

    Obama doesn't control the US House, and when it comes to spending the GOP controlled House is very powerful.

  6. Jim,

    Rest assured I have no intention to regularly comment on US politics, back to science next week. This issue bothers me primarily because there has been about zero reaction to this, while I find it a remarkably unashamed demonstration of anit-intellectualism. I mean they could as well have passed a statement saying we're not remotely interested in keeping our democracy functional. Maybe that's what they wanted to say. But in any case, where's the reaction to this? Best,


  7. Hi Plato,

    Yeah, is not looking good in Canada either. And you know what I'm afraid of? That the North Europeans, so far a good place for basic science, will point at North America as an excuse to do the same. Best,


  8. John,

    He signed it, and not a word of complaint was heard. Besides this, I would argue that the German constitution was set up to constrain the power of individuals, and it does so far more effectively than the US constitution. So effectively in fact that many people are surprised to hear we even have a president :p Best,


  9. Dr, Bee,

    We struggle here to track the important things. It is apparently still okay to eat French Fries, but I know there is a sizable supply of “Freedom Fries” in cold storage somewhere.

    I don’t fault the president as much for particular failings. He has been in class-five rapids since he stepped into the Oval Office. With all the bailing out, some cherished things have gone overboard.

    The Right is unashamedly back astride its high horse and talking louder in an effort to promote forgetfulness.

    It is beyond mental illness and I think the Pope understands. Perhaps any new Papal emissary will also be adept at exorcism. In absence of science, we will take whatever works.


  10. "elks were seen chewing licorice in front of the royal palace"

    Swedish älg is German Elch but English moose. English Elk is German Hirsch and Swedish vapiti. (This is not 100% correct to a biologist, but better than calling the Swedish moose an elk in English.)

  11. "From the German perspective, the American political system looks strange, which is ironic given the history of Germany’s representative democracy."

    It's not strange, it just means that things can improve. It's called progress.

    The US system is quite old, and it shows. What might have made sense more than 200 years ago is outdated today. But there has been little change. Why? Lack of comparison, for one thing---most US citizens have never travelled outside of the US. Also, they hear all their life that the USA is the best country in the world, so they don't even consider thinking about how to improve things.

    Yes, the two-party system is only slightly better than a one-party system, but most US citizens don't even know what proportional representation is and/or file it away under "communism".

  12. "The great advantage of the American political system over the German one is however that the US President can only serve two terms, while the German chancellor can run till he or she drops dead."

    Such a limitation is not needed in Germany, since a) the Chancellor is elected by Parliament and b) as you note, things are less about people and more about ideas in Germany. Sweden used to be one of the best countries in the world, thanks in large part to Tage Erlander, who was prime minister from 1946 to 1969. There were national elections every 3 years back then. He was elected 8 times in succession. (Technically, his party had the majority and elected him prime minister, but of course it was clear that he was the candidate.) No problem. Compare Sweden before his time and (just) after his time and look at all the improvement he was responsible for. Sure, if you don't like a politician you don't want him re-elected, but surely it is better if he is not re-elected because the voters realize that he is not good. And if a really good politician is in office, he shouldn't be kicked out as a matter of principle. As long as democracy is functioning, I see no problem with people getting re-elected.

  13. "Dear Mr. President, how could you have let that happen?"

    First, the POTUS does not decide everything. Yes, he does have to sign bills so that they become laws. On the other hand, if he refuses to sign, then this veto can be overruled by a 2/3 majority in Congress.

    Many people have the impression that the POTUS makes all the decisions. Congress makes many. Since the POTUS is elected independently of Congress, it might happen (and does happen) that his party has no majority in Congress. Then, like Jimmy Carter, many people see him as an ineffective president. These checks and balances are intended, but I think a system in which the most powerful politician is elected by parliament is better: it means he has a majority in parliament, but also means that he can be voted out if that majority is lost.

    Of course, you should ask the question if things would have been even worse with a Republican president who denies the reality of AGW and thinks that evolution is "only a theory".

  14. @Uncle Al: Whatever you think of Obama, note that the Nobel Peace Prize has nothing to do with Sweden (except that Alfred Nobel was Swedish, of course).

  15. Phillip,

    Re elk. I've had this discussion previously elsewhere. See what my dictionary says. Best,


  16. Phillip,

    I basically agree with the rest of what you say, except on the issue of re-election. Germans by and large are conservative, not necessarily in the political sense, but in the sense that they prefer what they know and are typically a priori opposed to change. I believe that we need changes for without small variations there'll be no improvements. (Of course sometimes we actually need large changes, not incremental ones, but that's more difficult.) This is why I'd prefer a cut on the terms a chancellor can serve in a row. The candidate in question would still be sitting in the parliament anyway, so no problem referring to them as a source of input from a good politician. But power of that type I think shouldn't be held for too long by one person. Once you start getting used to them it's time to replace them. Best,


  17. Elk/moose: In North America, the animal (very similar to the European version) is definitely called a moose. In Europe, one can call it a moose or a Eurasian elk. The latter term is a bit misleading, since it is quite different than other types of elk (larger, flat antlers etc).

    Certainly readers familiar with North American English and culture will not think of the proper animal when they read "elk" instead of "moose".

    Obligatory physics connection: Bullwinkle's
    friend Rocky
    is a famous cosmologist.

  18. @Phillip Helbig. Granted. "The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded by a committee of five, appointed by the Storting (the Norwegian parliament)." End the Obamanation svenskast and norskest both.

    The United Nations (prescient abbreviation) couples to New York only by location. Remove diplomatic immunity and the UN goes real world. Would the first orbital correction be struck by civilian talent or a NYC cop? I’m thinking kilkenny cats.


  19. Maybe he refers to the simple-minded pugilist, or was he a wrestler?

  20. Just to clarify, I wasn't meaning to criticize your choice of topic, which is one that I think is appropriate and deserves discussion (albeit depressing). Thanks for posting it.

  21. It is indeed ironic to see a comparison between Obama's presidency and the chancellorship of Germany. Under Obama, the US came springing back from a deep recession; it is beginning to look like Europe will never dig its way free from economic stress. Would that Obama had been chancellor of Germany in those early days when depression threatened.


COMMENTS ON THIS BLOG ARE PERMANENTLY CLOSED. You can join the discussion on Patreon.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.