Monthly Archives: June 2008

From the heart of Umbria

My family and I are luxuriating in the Umbrian countryside, with extraordinary views across to the hill town of Orvieto. The one thing we are lacking — which doesn’t matter very much, to tell the truth — is Internet access. My BlackBerry browser keeps me in touch with the essentials (TalkingPointsMemo is my daily lodestone, although I am using NewsJunk as well). But bigger endeavors, like keeping up with my feeds or even updating Davos Newbies will have to wait.

We found what seems to be the one WiFi hotspot in Orvieto this morning, but I won’t be a regular: Euro 3.10 for 30 minutes! Fortunately there are other aspects to life in Italy.

Quality of life

I’m regularly agog at surveys that purport to judge where expatriates have the best quality of life. Swissmiss proudly points to the latest Mercer survey which has a Swiss-tinged top ten:

1. Zurich
= 2. Vienna
= 2. Geneva
4. Vancouver
5. Auckland
6. Dusseldorf
= 7. Munich
= 7. Frankfurt
9. Bern
10. Sydney

Felix Salmon does a great job of dissecting research like this. I’m not going to pay $390 to analyze Mercer’s report in detail. But quality of life? As the great Inigo Montoya would say, “I don’t think that means what you think it means.”

Mercer’s ranking puts a premium on safety, medical care and environment. Those are all well and good, but they aren’t what attracts a vibrant creative class, in Richard Florida‘s terms. Only a handful of the top ten cities on Mercer’s list, to my judgment, have the quality of life that would attract the kind of people I’m interested in (Vancouver, Munich and Sydney).

But I fear the problem isn’t Mercer’s methodology, so much as the tastes of the classical expatriate. These are people who are middle-of-the-road in everything. There was an annual tussle, when I was involved in Davos, with the voices of safe mediocrity. “Let’s invite Phil Collins” was the worst of it. One of the reasons why I think Richard Florida’s work strikes a chord for so many forward-thinking policymakers is that he has identified the characteristics of the new world that is aborning. The old world, reflected by Mercer’s “quality of life” rankings, persists. But I know where I’m placing my bets for the years to come, and it’s not in Zurich, Vienna and Geneva.

The difference between a liberal and a libertarian

David Warsh:

You thought it was a big deal when the first Chicago economist took a seat on the Council of Economic Advisers (William Niskanen in 1981)? The chances are that the United States is about to get a president from Chicago’s Hyde Park – and learn something in the process about the difference between a liberal and a libertarian.

Well worth reading the whole thing if you want a sophisticated view of the economic issues and philosophies at play in the election.

Another optimist

Kevin Drum:

And as long as I’m making grand pronouncements that quite possibly might make me look like an idiot in the near future, here’s another one: among the states Bush won in 2004, I think Obama will win Ohio, Iowa, Virginia, Colorado, New Mexico, and maybe even Arkansas. That’s even accounting for the fact that he’ll lose a few points in some of those states for purely racial reasons. This might officially make me the most optimistic Obama supporter in the world, but there you have it.

I’m not sure about Arkansas, but I feel pretty good about Missouri and I wouldn’t rule out Florida.

The center of gravity

If you want to get a sense of what Obama might mean for the rest of the world, rather than read offensive nonsense from Anne Applebaum in The Washington Post, read Dominique Moisi in the Financial Times. After noting that if the election were held in France, Obama would win in a landslide (here, too, Dominique), he writes:

Whatever the result of this November’s US presidential election – and it is impossible to predict today – one thing is certain: America, thanks to Mr Obama, has returned to be the emotional centre of gravity of the world, and this time not only in tragic terms as it was after September 11 2001, or in negative terms as during most of the George W. Bush years.

We are the ones

Over the weekend I went to an Obama nomination celebration in the Berkeley hills. A decent crowd showed up to revel in completing the first giant step in a historic, transformative campaign. During the toasts to Obama’s coming victory, I was very moved to hear a series of stories about people met during the campaign so far, who have been seized with the conviction that, as Obama frequently says in his speeches, “we are the ones we have been waiting for”.

My only regret on the day is that my parents aren’t around to see it. My mother and father were long-standing fighters for social justice and progressive politics on many levels: against fascism in the ’30s and ’40s, for workers’ rights, for civil rights, against the war in Vietnam from the earliest moments (standing vigil in front of the Winnetka post office – the local “symbol” of the federal government – every Saturday morning for years and years), against apartheid, and on and on.

It’s almost impossible to imagine how galvanized and emotional they would have been this week. November 4 is going to be even better, I’m confident.

Hoisted from the comments

Thanks to Scott Hanson for pointing me to the German coverage of Die Tageszeitung’s astoundingly ill-judged headline. Here’s some of the Der Spiegel reporting (Die Tageszeitung is apparently known as Taz):

The headline refers to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which has become controversial due to its perceived stereotyping of African-Americans. The novel led to the expression “Uncle Tom” being used to pejoratively refer to an African-American who is subservient to whites.

Gary Smith, executive director of the American Academy in Berlin, a private center which promotes trans-Atlantic relations, told SPIEGEL ONLINE Thursday that the cover left him “speechless.” “‘Uncle Tom’ is a racial slur, and the Taz editors clearly sacrificed substance and principle for an unreflected laugh,” he said. “A journalism that prides itself on treating stereotypes with irreverence needs to think harder about its own deployment of stereotypes and racial allusions. There are countless ways to address the issue of race in this year’s election more intelligently.”

Editors at Taz defended their decision to run the headline on Thursday. “The headline is intended to be satirical,” deputy editor-in-chief Reiner Metzger told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ is a book that all Germans know and which they associate with issues of racism. The headline is supposed to make people think about these stereotypes. It works on many levels.”

He said that the issue of race surrounds Obama in the presidential election campaign. “The fact that he is African-American plays a constant role in the campaign, but no one talks about it explicitly. One can play with that fact.”

Metzger said that the Taz is famous for not being politically correct and is well-known for its ironic and cheeky cover headlines. “I’m sure 99 percent of our readers would understand it correctly. As for the rest, well, tough luck. You can’t please everybody.”

But many were clearly displeased by the Taz’s cover choice — including representatives of Germany’s black community, who reacted with indignation. “I find the Taz cover very problematic,” said Yonis Ayeh, a board member at the Initiative of Black People in Germany (ISD). The ISD represents the interests of black Germans, who are estimated to number up to 500,000 within Germany’s population of 82 million.

“The newspaper is comparing Obama with Uncle Tom, a subservient slave,” Ayeh said. “I’m sure Obama doesn’t see himself like that. It transmits an image of black people as submissive, uneducated people, which is simply not true.”

Ayeh was not surprised that an insensitive headline could come from a left-leaning newspaper. “There is also acute racism within the left-wing scene in Germany,” he said. “They are no angels, and the Taz contributes to that when it commits such gaffes.”