Saturday 5 November 2016

Princeton establishes a Center for Scholars in Athens

Princeton University's tradition of deep commitment to the humanities has long been connected to Greece and Hellenic culture, from antiquity to the present. On Tuesday, Nov. 1, the University added a formal home base for Princeton scholars in Greece with the opening of the Princeton University Athens Center for Research and Hellenic Studies. Three years in the planning, the Center is led by the University's Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies.

"An academic home in Greece embodies some of the key goals of the Stanley J. Seeger Hellenic Fund, established in 1979," said Dimitri Gondicas, founding director of the Seeger Center and a 1978 alumnus. "Creating the Princeton Athens Center was consistent with the vision of our benefactor, Stanley J. Seeger '52, whose legendary generosity made it possible for Princeton to be a world leader in Hellenic studies." Every year, the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies supports more than 100 Princetonians for study and research in Greece, said Gondicas.

At an evening reception at the new Center, Gondicas opened his remarks in Greek: "Kalos orisate! Welcome! … Princeton has enjoyed strong, enduring links with the Hellenic world, and it has been an international leader in the study of Greek culture. As scholars, educators, philanthropists, public servants, business people, art collectors and writers, Princetonians have contributed immensely to the cultural and international relations between Greece and the United States."

Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber participated in the ribbon-cutting ceremony and greeted the 55 guests including faculty, students, friends, and more than 30 undergraduate and graduate alumni spanning more than 50 years.

"This is the first time Princeton University has opened a research and scholarship center anywhere outside of the United States," said Eisgruber, Class of 1983. Acknowledging the "extraordinary generosity and vision" of Seeger's gifts and the gifts of many alumni attending the reception, Eisgruber said that one of the reasons the University chose to establish the center in Athens "as we become a more international university" is Princeton's "extraordinary humanistic tradition that finds its home here in Athens and in Greece."

He said these alumni gifts ask the University "to build upon the study of ancient and modern Greece and to do so in a way that understands the broad influence of Greece in the world. As we seek to make this enterprise succeed ... we will depend on our connections here in Greece to make this a thriving hub of activity."

Read the full article at the Princeton Club of Greece website. 


Tuesday 18 October 2016

Princeton University recruiting an Assistant Professor in Modern Greek Language, Literature, and Culture

Assistant Professor in Modern Greek Language, Literature, and Culture

Princeton University's Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies and the Department of Classics invite applications for a tenure-track position (assistant professor) in Modern Greek Language, Literature, and Culture, to begin September 1, 2017. The successful candidate will be appointed full-time in the Department of Classics, with "associated faculty" status in Hellenic Studies. 

We seek a dynamic and productive scholar of the literature and culture of modern Greece (15th century to the present) who is capable of innovative instruction at all levels, from introductory language courses to graduate seminars. The successful candidate will be able to communicate the importance of modern Greek literature to students and colleagues with interests across the humanities. 

PhD must be completed by start date. 

Applications must include cover letter, curriculum vitae (including language proficiencies), teaching statement, and a sample of research (article or chapter of about 20 pages length). 

Applicants should ask their referees to write by December 15, 2016, when the review of dossiers will begin. The position is open until filled. 

Princeton University is an equal opportunity employer and all qualified applicants will receive consideration for employment without regard to age, race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, disability status, protected veteran status, or any other characteristic protected by law. This position is subject to the University's background check policy. 

Position information and Application: 

Sunday 16 October 2016

On Message and on the Money

Should anyone still be wondering as to the importance of political fundraising and marketing using an established party network and an established political brand, a recent article in Politico by Shane Goldmacher should put their doubts to rest.

Excerpts follow: not in linear order.

The rush of money has provided Clinton a tremendous advantage as she vastly outspends Trump in nearly every facet of the 2016 campaign: on TV, on radio, on mail, on staff, on field operations. Clinton raised roughly $297 million for her campaign and joint committees with the Democratic Party in August and September. That is more in the last two months than the $262.3 million the Republican National Committee touted on Friday that it had raised during the entire cycle.

This club has expanded to the point where Clinton would now struggle to fit all of these bundlers into a single ballroom. As of the end of June, she counted 496 such individuals and couples. By the end of July, it was 871. On August 31, it was 1,133.

It includes billionaires George Soros, Warren Buffett and Tom Steyer, super lobbyists like Steve Elmendorf and bold-faced names like Calvin Klein and J.J. Abrams. There is also a sprinkling of longtime Clinton family advisers, such as Vernon Jordan.

The assemblage is already more than double the size of President George W. Bush’s vaunted 2004 Pioneer and Ranger program for those who raised at least $100,000; Bush had 548 Rangers and Pioneers. It also dwarfs Obama’s reelection fundraising operation four years ago that had 602 individuals or couples in its $100,000 club, and a total of 770 bundlers who raised at least $50,000.

Remarkably, when Clinton releases a revised list in the coming week, her team of bundlers could be larger than the Bush 2004 and Obama 2012 lists combined.

Another story on my radar screen this week was an article by David Dayen in The New Republic, which references the Podesta email dump on Wikileaks:

Michael Froman, who is now U.S. trade representative but at the time was an executive at Citigroup, wrote an email to Podesta on October 6, 2008, with the subject “Lists.” Froman used a Citigroup email address. He attached three documents: a list of women for top administration jobs, a list of non-white candidates, and a sample outline of 31 cabinet-level positions and who would fill them.

The cabinet list ended up being almost entirely on the money. It correctly identified Eric Holder for the Justice Department, Janet Napolitano for Homeland Security, Robert Gates for Defense, Rahm Emanuel for chief of staff, Peter Orszag for the Office of Management and Budget, Arne Duncan for Education, Eric Shinseki for Veterans Affairs, Kathleen Sebelius for Health and Human Services, Melody Barnes for the Domestic Policy Council, and more. For the Treasury, three possibilities were on the list: Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, and Timothy Geithner.

This was October 6. The election was November 4. And yet Froman, an executive at Citigroup, which would ultimately become the recipient of the largest bailout from the federal government during the financial crisis, had mapped out virtually the entire Obama cabinet, a month before votes were counted. And according to the Froman/Podesta emails, lists were floating around even before that.

Reading these two articles reveals exactly how the political system works in the United States.

1.     Elections cost money. Serious money.
2.     Governance requires qualified people, and more importantly, trustworthy* people.

Put the two together and you can understand exactly how the sausage is made today.

I have four further observations to make: 

1. After everything that has been published about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, no one can claim they did not know who they were voting for. 

2. It is perhaps the ultimate irony that the effect of Donald's boorish campaign and character has been to cast Hillary Clinton as a sympathetic person. 

3. It remains a tragedy that in a country as talented and open as the United States, we see that the political system has left voters with this choice. It is perhaps as bad as it gets, and there is absolutely no indication that the system will improve in the future

4. In this respect, the United States is perhaps an early outlier, but it is not unique in any way. Political systems no longer appear ready to handle the brutal challenges of today or tomorrow

© Philip Ammerman, 2016

Shane Goldmacher. Politico. 15 October 2016

David Dayen. The New Republic. 14 October 2016

*I use the term “trustworthy” deliberately. I did not say patriotic.

Monday 10 October 2016

Politics and the Desert of the Real

I’m watching the aftermath of the second Trump – Clinton debate. It is useless to focus on details this morning. Merely focusing on work is already difficult.

Coming on the news of the first round of the Lithuanian election, where the “Peasants and Greens” party won the leading share of votes, or on the heels of the UK Conservative Party conference last week, in which Home Secretary Amber Rudd stated that all UK companies will have to draw up lists of foreign employees, there is only one conclusion we can draw:

The greatest danger we face today is the abysmal quality and ability of individual politicians, and of entire political parties and political systems.

The greatest threat we face—whether “we” are a small business in London or a university professor in Vilnius or a pensioner in Sacramento—is bad governance.

That bad governance is, in itself, the product of a number of factors, but at the root of it is bad political actors. As we have seen in Greece, no political system can withstand the impact of corrupt political actors.  

There is no longer a dominant national narrative, as there was in World War II (Allies vs Axis) or in the Cold War (West vs East). Bereft of an existentialist struggle, societies in the west have been free to collapse into what I can only describe as national narcissism.

As societies, we no longer know what we stand for, or what we stand against.

We cannot agree on what to pay for. Or how to pay for it.

We cannot agree on what standards to use to hold our elected politicians to account.

Perhaps the only thing we can agree on is that everyone has their own opinion. And on Facebook, everyone can say anything, even if it has nothing to do with the truth.

As a result, Bill Clinton’s “triangulation” today isn’t really a triangle: it is a multidimensional equation pandering to political micro-segments in the hopes of getting out the vote on election day.

It is based on distorted and divisive identity politics rather than any factual basis or systems analysis.

Technologically, using this “multidimensional triangulation” is possible. But in terms of governance? How do you govern on this basis, when it is impossible to get a majority to agree, let alone a quorum to agree?

If your entire system is based on divisive identity politics that is based on the absurd, how do 1 + 1 = 2? They don’t. They can’t.

So let’s take this reasoning to the next step:

a.    We live in an “always on” world where traditional broadcasters are declining and where most citizens interact far more on Facebook than on traditional media. There are few facts on Facebook. Only opinions.

b.    Political “selling” has, in the second Donald Trump – Hillary Clinton debate, reached new lows and established a new form of social acceptability. (Whether it has established these or simply mirrors a society where this is acceptable is open to debate).

c.     Any political campaign in any part of the world today requires money to run. Lots of money.

d.    Rather than a simple binary framework of choosing parties and platforms, every country is witnessing a total fragmentation into political slivers and niche parties, which have already been mentioned under the difficulty of triangulation.

So what happens next?

What I believe will happen next is a process of national decline, similar to the decline of the Roman Republic, and later the Roman Empire.

Consider the evidence:

·      The Senate in Rome (Republic) became a vehicle for hereditary politics and special interests. Congress in the United States, or the Greek Parliament, are becoming the same thing. How many members of Congress in the United States (or in Greece) have we elected because of a family name or a family dynasty in politics?

·      How many of us consider our elected representatives are able to actually make decisions, as opposed to (a) convey the decisions of special interests, or (b) “block reform”?

·      How much does it cost to get elected today? How much did it cost to get elected in Rome in 55 BC? How were campaigns financed, then and now?

·      Rome grew by leading its men out to war each spring. When the Italian peninsula was conquered, Rome expanded to Sicily, Carthage, Iberia, Gaul, Greece, Egypt … the entire civilized world. The process of military expansion became a dynamic engine. Successful generals (tribunes, consuls) came from the same patrician families that were already in the Senate or the equites class. Look at the United States today. Does anyone doubt the militarisation of foreign policy or large segments of the economy, when the largest element of the federal budget is military expenditure? Does anyone believe that in 2016, an American politician can choose not to “support” the military?

·      We are still looking for our man on a white horse. The Roman Republic fell to Julius Caesar because Caesar was a patrician, a successful general, and someone who “got things done”. We yearn for such militaristic, masculine figures in the west. How much of Donald Trump’s image is one of strength and competence, despite his many moral and business failures in the past? His bankruptcies? His absurd sideline businesses, like “Trump Steaks”? His three marriages?

·      One major reason Rome fell was because of debt. This debt was focused on farmers and tradesmen, who literally became slaves or, one step up, indentured serfs, tied to an economic and political master. It also had high public debt: the costs of raising and operating an army was prohibitive. It was politically impossible to tax the oligarchs (who were also members of Senate). So the tax base kept shrinking. This high debt enabled the patrician class to become even more dominant. Successive emperors then started debasing the currency, removing trust in the fundamental means of exchange in the empire’s economy. Together with the slave economy which was swelled by Roman military conquest, a society formed in which a few oligarchs owned most of the wealth and actual humans in Rome.

·      Now look at national debt and wealth inequality in the United States. Does anyone doubt that there is a problem when the top 20% of households in the United States own 84% of national wealth? Does anyone doubt that having total public debt well north of 140% of GDP is a problem? Does anyone doubt that working at minimum wage is a form of wage slavery?

What can we predict will happen?

Unless some form of miracle occurs (and I can’t see many cases on the horizon), we can expect that:

a.    Our societies are switching from an inclusive to an exclusive basis. We now target foreigners or the “different” as a source of blame. Expect demagoguery and xenophobia to increase.

b.    Our citizens appear less able and less inclined to analyse and to separate root cause from effect; cause from symptom. We are also less willing to pay. Ideals are good for everyone. Ideals backed by tax payments are bad.

c.     Our politicians appear to have no sense of prioritization or means-tested planning. Nearly every OECD country I know of needs an urgent, economic turn-around plan to deal with declining competitiveness, demographic change and national debt. I see almost no such serious initiatives in place, or even the awareness that these are needed.

d.    A savings culture has been replaced by a consumption culture. Consume now … for whatever reason.

e.     We seek authoritative competence, but we are unwilling to pay for it even if we did elect it. The west is full of politicians peddling the illusion of competence, all evidence to the contrary: Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin.

f.      Others seek nostalgic competence. The election of the “Party of Law and Justice” in Poland is a case in point. Appealing to elder, conservative religious voters was at the heart of its electoral strategy. The question remains whether critical legal and policy decisions can be made in 2016 on the basis of such implied values.

g.    One unit of debt is rendering less and less value. Conversely, the interest paid on debt will soon become the leading budget line. And, absurdly, debt has never been more available. And creditworthy companies and households are probably at their least available (at least in standard credit rating terms).

I’m going to close this post with two observations. The first is that:

The greatest danger we face today is the abysmal quality and ability of individual politicians or entire political parties and political systems.

The second is that

There are very few ethical response options open to individuals or companies within this system.

If you choose ethics, you knowingly put incompetent liars (politicians) who are increasingly desperate for cash in charge of your existence.

Remember: there are no penalties for electoral demagoguery in modern politics.

And I will close with two questions that I have been addressing since late 2009, which the Greek election took place that sparked my interest in government, debt, competitiveness and politics that is the focus of this blog.

1. Has universal suffrage become a form of collective social and economic suicide?

2. What must an ethical actor do to ensure financial and operational survival in the world we are becoming?

Harsh questions, and I almost apologise for asking them.

But I find myself asking these questions nearly every day. I wonder if anyone has an answer.

© Philip Ammerman, 2016

Donald Trump photo courtesy of Reddit

Saturday 1 October 2016

Ben Hunt on Virtue Signalling, or why Hillary Clinton is in Trouble

Ben Hunt has another typically brilliant assessment of psychology, sociology and the US presidential campaign on Salient's Epsilon Theory blog.

I can't recommend his writing enough. Every post is a revelation, often including some often unwelcome truths.

To avoid any doubt: I am 95% voting for Hillary on November 8th. Unless something dramatically changes, I can't see myself voting for Trump. But I do this with all the hesitation and awareness I have already posted on in this blog (some of it going back to 2007).

Hunt's "Clinton TM" paragraph (below) is just about exactly how I feel.

What I DO see for Clinton is virtue signaling galore among her supporters, including her own campaign staff. It’s the fact checking fetish. It’s the TV ad spend in safe states. It’s the damned-with-faint-praise and passive-aggressive endorsements. It’s the passion reserved exclusively for “outrage” over Trump’s intentionally outrageous statements and utterly absent for anything Clinton says. It’s all designed to signal to your tribe that you’re a good person because you’re against Trump. It’s not completely uncorrelated with getting Clinton elected … it’s not counter-productive, per se … but it’s not very productive, either. 
Why not? Because this is a turn-out election. The winner of this election will be whoever can get more of their tribe to the polls in swing states: Colorado, North Carolina … maybe Nevada … maybe one or two others. Period. This is not an election that will be decided by influencing undecided or “lightly decided” voters one way or another, because all of these voters are staying home on November 8th anyway. It’s an election that will be decided by motivating your base. 
Can fear of Trump motivate? Sure it can. But if Brexit taught us anything, it’s the limitations of a fear-based campaign, at least when the fear-mongers are the same smarter-than-thou elites who tsk-tsk their deep and abiding concern for the benighted masses from Davos or Jackson Hole. Status quo candidates don’t win on fear alone. They’re not the anti-party. There has to be a reason … a why … an anthem for rallying the troops. And that’s what’s missing from the Clinton campaign, in exactly the same way it was missing for Teddy Kennedy in 1980 and Michael Dukakis in 1988.
Look, I get it. The Democratic candidate isn’t Clinton, it’s Clinton™. Having chosen (or more accurately, anointed) a profoundly hypocritical and opportunistic pragmatic candidate, Democratic mouthpieces are now in the uncomfortable position of manufacturing enthusiasm rather than channeling enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is something you can easily fake when you’re winning big. But when the game gets tight … when it looks like (gulp!) the game might go the other way … well, that’s when thoughts of self-preservation and virtue signaling start to creep into the most adamant Democratic partisan. In fact, particularly the most adamant Democratic partisans. They WANT to believe. But Clinton™ is just so hard to sell out FOR.
More importantly than what happens in any of these international games, however, is what happens in our domestic games. Blowing up our international trade and security games with Europe, Japan, and China for the sheer hell of it, turning them into full-blown Competition Games … that’s really stupid. But we have a nasty recession and maybe a nasty war. Maybe it would have happened anyway. We get over it. Blowing up our American political game with citizens, institutions, and identities for the sheer hell of it, turning it into a full-blown Competition Game … that’s a historic tragedy. We don’t get over that.
But that’s exactly what’s happening. I look at Charlotte. I look at Dallas. I look at Milwaukee. And I no longer recognize us.
I don’t think people realize the underlying fragility of the Constitution — the written rules to our American political game. It’s just a piece of paper. Its only strength in theory is our communal determination to infuse it with meaning through our embrace of not only its explicit rules, but also and more crucially its unwritten rules of small-l liberal values like tolerance, liberty, and equality under the law. Its only strength in practice is that whoever runs our Executive branch, whoever is our Commander-in-Chief, whoever is in charge of “law and order”, whoever runs our massive spy bureaucracy national intelligence service, whoever controls the legitimate use of deadly force and incarceration … that he or she believes in those unwritten rules of small-l liberal values like tolerance, liberty, and equality under the law
When you hear Trump talk about “loosening the law” on torture, or “loosening the law” on libel prosecutions of anyone who criticizes HIM, or the impossibility of a federal judge being able to rule fairly because his parents were born in Mexico … well, there’s no way he believes in those small-l liberal virtues. No way.

Hillary Clinton Photo courtesy of CNN
Citation: Ben Hunt. Virtue Signaling, or … Why Clinton is in Trouble. Salient Partners. September 29, 2016.

(c) Philip Ammerman, 2016 

Reflections on Cyprus Independence Day

I watched a little bit of the military parade in Nicosia today. I can't help wishing this day could be commemorated with something more than shrill journalists from state-owned channels eulogising young men in uniform, while old politicians in sharp suits and Rambo-style shades applaud from the stage.

Of course we need military preparedness. But independence today, no matter in what country we live in, is so much more than this.

So much more than the hollow slogans and fixations with military equipment that is itself 2 generations old.

Where is the parade dedicated to economic competitiveness or innovation? Where is the parade dedicated to cyberwarfare and digital capabilities? To effective diplomacy and alliances? To an efficient public sector?

To honest and uncorrupted politicians, capable of strategic governance? That would be an empty parade indeed.

I reflect that Cyprus has made tremendous efforts in re-organising its civil defence and conscription system and is now in the process of professionalising its military. This is laudable, although no doubt more can be done. There are also few alternatives for this, given Cyprus' geographic position, history, and neighbourhood, and the fact that 38% of Cyprus is occupied by Turkey.

Yet, Cyprus has gone through 5 major economic crashes in 15 years. All of these are attributable to a lack of effective regulation, to political capture of regulatory institutions and banks, to abysmal managerial decisions, and to a society prepared to believe the impossible.

None of these economic crashes is attributed to military preparedness. Yet all of them have reduced Cyprus' independence significantly.

Independence today will be something secured by:

·       Effective and accountable politicians.

·       An independent and effective public service, adapted to the digital age and the globalised world we are living in, where a condition of ignorant stasis is fatal. This includes a modern justice system.

·       A consensus between political parties and society on what is considered mandatory, and what can be open to ideological interpretation. Ideally, issues like the national educational system, justice, and military should be non-political and non-ideological.

·       A society that invests to compete, rather than investing in flashy consumption. Particularly when the latter is financed by expensive bank loans.

·       A society capable of historical memory, real analysis and the ability to resist demagoguery, rather than one hypnotised by "proinathika", trashy serials, self-indulgence and narcissism.

·       A society capable of forging a balanced and coherent social compact between the young, the employed, the old and the disadvantaged.

·       Effective and innovative public and private sector management. Probably the greatest weakness we confront today.

·       A military force capable of very rapid and mobile, independent reaction, using asymmetric technological threats against a numerically-superior force with overwhelming conventional superiority in the air and on the ground.

·       Infrastructure capabilities shielded from digital and electro-magnetic warfare and unrestricted warfare.

·       A very effective public service, diplomatic corps, and media capabilities necessary to shift international public opinion and decision-making.

·       The ability to properly leverage and benefit from international alliances, avoiding the paroxysms and oxymoronic behaviour of all too many politicians today and yesterday.

·       An equally effective intelligence service.

·       A culture of investing in excellence, innovation and performance, at all levels. This is the only avenue a small country has today to survive and compete in a brutally rational economic age.

·       The ability to attract productive and innovative investment (domestic or foreign) and maintain a positive current account balance, as well as a balanced GDP and public sector budget.

I find myself today thinking of that iconic poster from the X-Files.

I want to believe.

Image of Fox Mulder courtesy of The TV Addict.

(c) Philip Ammerman, 2016