Posted tagged ‘United States’

Choosing a president

September 19, 2011

Readers outside Ireland may not be particularly aware that an Irish presidential election campaign is under way; on the other hand, hardly anyone in the world will be unaware of the US presidential election to be held next year.

Let’s stick with Ireland for a moment. The country’s formerly dominant (but now devastated) party Fianna Fail is currently affected by internal convulsions, caused by the desire of one Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú to be a candidate for the post. I hope it will not sound disrespectful to him if I say that, outside the traditional music community, he is not a household name.

A growing consensus is that none of the candidates who are in the ring, with the exception of Senator David Norris (whose nomination is not secure), would excite the general population. This is causing people to wonder whether the post is actually a necessary one for the country at all; which is a shame, given the equally widespread consensus that the present incumbent, Mary McAleese, has performed her tasks with great distinction. One reason for the disaffection may be related to the nomination process, designed to give the political parties a gatekeeper role.

The gatekeeper function belongs even more emphatically to the two major political parties in the United States, but in a much more complex process. Each party’s committed voters determine the choice of the candidate, and because this is so the candidates have to appeal to the core supporters, which in the case of the Republicans in particular means that an ambitious candidate needs to place him or herself on the right wing; before shifting rapidly to the centre when it comes to the actual election.

It seems to me that the credibility and acceptability of a presidency depends on the credibility and acceptability of the electoral process. A key element in this is how candidates emerge and are chosen. Right now this is not ideal in either Ireland or the United States. This is an aspect of democracy that needs urgent attention. The paradox is that a good process must ensure that candidates who stimulate thenpublic interest are able to secure a nomination, while those whose credentials are less obvious, like the good Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú, are not necessarily hurried into the ring. It’s not an easy process.

Not having a party

July 31, 2011

It’s nearly three years since Barack Obama won the US presidential election. To many people outside America, this marked what people assumed would be the return of ‘normal’ politics to America. For non-Americans it had been almost impossible to understand George W. Bush and his retinue; they seemed to be driven by various impulses that, for them, signified US influence and leadership, but which to the rest of the world appeared to be somewhere between zany and dangerous. The Bush administration took on almost unimaginable costs, ranging from the various wars to massive (and unfunded) tax cuts.

Oddly enough, right now US politics are convulsed by two outputs from the Bush era: the amazing deficit that his policies bequeathed the American people, and the ‘Tea Party‘ movement that is a spin-off of sorts from his ideological positions. This dual legacy is so odd in part because the Tea Party are treating the deficit as an Obama creation, which it actually is not. As the graph in this article shows, overwhelmingly the over-spending is a creature of the Bush government, whereas Obama has been relatively frugal; indeed Obama’s main expenditure relates to issues (or wars) that were put in play by Bush.

If you visit America, as I have been doing these past few days, you get a very direct sense of how US politics are now anything but normal. The debate here about raising the debt ceiling is so totally irrational as to have mind-bending attributes. A solution to the by now somewhat real threat that America could default on its financial obligations (though probably not its loans) is held in abeyance by driven ideologues who, when you listen to them being interviewed, clearly do not have an even basic understanding of the economic issues involved. They share the Republican Party with an established leadership that is increasingly aghast at their antics. On the other side is a president who may not be acting as decisively as the situation requires. As the outcome of this drama will affect us all, it has rather chilling properties.

The United States is, and notwithstanding occasional exaggerated predictions about the growth of the BRIC countries will continue to be, the leader and trend-setter of the global economy. This makes it rather important that its economic policies are the subject of rational debate and decision-making, guided by informed analysis. The current battles being fought on Capitol Hill won’t do. It is time to stop humouring the Tea Party ideologues, and to stop pretending that their arguments merit real debate. There are perfectly legitimate differing positions on the economic crisis, but they need to be based on an understanding of the issues. It is time for America to end the ‘tea party’ and to let the adults take over.

The future of academic tenure

September 6, 2010

It is generally reckoned that the concept of academic tenure was developed to its most pure state in America. Under United States custom and practice, once an academic employee in a university has been awarded tenure, they cannot be dismissed from their university employment except on certain grounds related to conduct or performance. The concept is closely tied to academic freedom, and this means that the expression of opinions or views or the pursuit of research as determined by the academic in question cannot be a good ground for dismissal.

Although tenure has, as noted above, been a particularly important ingredient in American higher education practice, it is in the United States that it has most recently come under the heaviest fire. A number of books and comments in influential newspapers have called into question the value of academic tenure, and have raised the question as to whether it actually inhibits innovation and facilitates or promotes unfair working practices and exploitation.

Last week the New York Times ran a book review in which some of these issues were raised. The author, Christopher Shea, summarised the view of academic tenure from outside the academy as follows:

‘At a time when nearly one in 10 American workers is unemployed, here’s a crew (the complaint goes) who are guaranteed jobs for life, teach only a few hours a week, routinely get entire years off, dump grading duties onto graduate students and produce “research” on subjects like “Rednecks, Queers and Country Music” or “The Whatness of Books.” Or maybe they stop doing research altogether (who’s going to stop them?), dropping their workweek to a manageable dozen hours or so, all while making $100,000 or more a year. Ready to grab that pitchfork yet?’

There are resonances here with public comments that have been made in Ireland: that academics (or tenured academics) are a privileged group, over-paid and outside any reasonable system of performance review, who neglect their real work in the sense that their teaching duties are excessively modest, and who work according to restrictive practices that have long been abolished everywhere else. The notion that they constitute an elite or privileged group is reinforced by complaints that non-tenured academics, such as probationers, fixed terms lecturers and part-timers, are exploited and under-paid, while often performing the key teaching functions that tenured academics neglect.

It seems to me that academic tenure remains, and must remain, an important element of higher education. Without it, it would be hard to secure the freedom of intellectual thought and the development of new knowledge. But it has got a bad name outside the academy, and this needs to be recognised and addressed. As the proportion of those who have tenure declines and as universities rely more and more on casual and short-term staff (a development that has been accelerated by the ’employment control framework’ in Ireland), tenure may begin to look like an enclave for a small and ageing elite who claim special privileges, including the right to resist all change. Of course this is not how universities see it, but the wider public has not been persuaded that this is not a true picture. In the meantime, some of the growing hostility to higher education derives from this view.

Perhaps the key issue is that, to outsiders, academic tenure together with academic freedom look like an insistence on self-regulation, which is a concept that has now been dismissed fairly comprehensively for all other professional groups and bodies. If we are to succeed in retaining it for higher education, we need to be able to demonstrate that it will not be abused. And that is a case that, so far, we have not made very well. We need to get on with it.

Looking to the right

August 30, 2010

Conservative, or centre-right, parties are not a rare phenomenon in Europe. In fact, in a majority of European countries they have led governments for the greater part of the period since the Second World War. Right now some of the most influential European countries – such as Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Italy – are led by conservatives. Given the importance of relations between Europe and America, it could perhaps be supposed that there would be a ready understanding this side of the Atlantic of the policies and strategies of the conservative movement in the United States.

The fact that is is not particularly so probably owes something to the very different nature of American conservatives. On the whole, European (including British) conservatives base their political aspirations on employer-friendly policies balanced by some statutory protection of employees, on balanced trade and budgets, on reasonably well resourced defence policies, and on a degree of social conservatism in matters such as abortion or the protection of families. American conservatives are often rather more whole-hearted carnivores, who use certain issues such as gun ownership, fiscal rectitude, the outlawing of abortion, opposition to non-traditional family arrangements and opposition to immigration as iconic principles that define them and which are non-negotiable in any context. European conservatives on the whole prefer their leaders to be pragmatic (except perhaps the British), while Americans are constantly on the look-out for some charismatic preacher who will lead them to glory. As a result, Europeans of all shades (but including conservatives) on the whole do not understand, and find it hard to relate to, the American right wing. American politics overall are not nuanced and compromise-driven as is the experience in Europe.

For all those reasons, it is hard for people on this side of the Atlantic to understand and come to grips with new conservative movements in America. The Tea Party Movement for example (which I previously discussed here) seems somewhere between alien and just bizarre to most Europeans. And in that frame of mind the whole theatrical stuff over the past few days of the ‘Restoring Honor’ event in Washington, and the flirting between organiser Glenn Beck and former Republic Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, will seem just too mad to most observers here to allow it to be taken seriously.

And that is a mistake. American conservative politics may seem a bit weird to us, or even very weird, but it would be a mistake to dismiss it all or to laugh at it. Glenn Beck may be a peddler of strange conspiracy theories and gratuitous insults, and Sarah Palin may be a less than intellectual and often inarticulate representative of the American right, but in the event of a perfect political storm they could end up in powerful positions, possibly even in a partnership. Their America would be something we have not experienced before, a good deal more rightwing than that of George W. Bush, and a lot less interested still in what the rest of the world may do or think. The presidency of Bush was, as we might see it, so disastrous in part because of how it was run, but in part also because the rest of the world could not work out how to engage with it.

Europeans by a majority are unlikely to become converts to a Beck-Palin world view, but they would be wise to understand what this view represents; while perhaps hoping that the present management in Washington will stay in place for some time.

Higher education in a recession: cut it or grow it?

February 2, 2010

Two news items yesterday indicate how it is possible for governments to take very different views as to how higher education should be handled in a recession. In Washington US President Barack Obama unveiled his administration’s $3.8 trillion budget proposals, and amongst these was a7.8 per cent increase for education. The thinking behind that was explained by Education Secretary Arne Duncan:

‘We have to educate our way to a better economy. This is one area where the president is significantly increasing resources because he is convinced this is a long-term answer to the economic challenges that face our country.’

Part of the purpose of the budget increase is, according to the Obama administration, to make the United States ‘the world leader in college graduations by 2020’. In addition, there is a significant increase (to the tune of $3.7 billion) in research funding.

Meanwhile on the same day, England’s universities received the first official information from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) about next year’s allocations to higher education, and here there is a very different story. Funding for teaching is being reduced by 1.5 per cent, and the capital building programme by 15 per cent.  Research funding is being maintained at current levels.

Of course different countries have varying levels of capacity to fund budget items, no matter how important. The United States has the ability to carry and to increase deficits (though not without consequences) in a way that, say, Ireland does not. But all countries are able to set priorities and to discriminate on policy grounds between different aspects of government expenditure. In America a strong focus has been placed on education and it is recognised as a key driver of economic recovery. Appropriate use of money allocated and close monitoring of the effectiveness of expenditure are of course important accompaniments to budget increases But having the capacity to educate the brightest minds and to attract the greatest talent to the country are invaluable supports during a time of economic crisis.

The audacity of governing

November 5, 2009

One year after the election that gave Barack Obama the US presidency on a wave of hope and enthusiasm, the signs of normal business being resumed are there: the disillusioned liberals are voicing their disappointment, the more rightwing Republicans are doing what they do, the Taliban are busy helping them in Afghanistan, the coalition of voters who elected him aren’t coming out to ensure his guys get in where there are regional elections.

Maybe reality has caught up with the Obama concept, and so the old and new doubters have come out to play. Government is in part about principle, but in part also about tactics and compromise. What keeps it all together is the articulation of a vision, and this us what Obama must not lose. But it’s early days still, and if he gets health reform through, successfully exits from Iraq and contains Afghanistan, the audacity of hope can survive and prosper. We all depend on it.