Friday, October 31, 2008

No more midterms, get ready for the real test

I just finished my second and last mid-term (econometrics, wasn't all that hard) and before I will submerge in the craziness of an American Halloween-celebration (everybody's telling me it's going to be incredible) I'm trying to update this blog. Of course it's important for me to get good results on those midterms, but what's much more important is the outcome of the elections that will take place on Tuesday. I can't believe that it will take place in just a few days, and to be honest, I'm more than just slightly worried about the results. Not because of the polls, the campaign-strategy of Obama or the counter-attack of McCain (the best he came up with was recruiting Joe the Plumber as a speaker on his rallies!). The procedures people have to go through before they can cast their ballots, however, does seem to be a serious obstacle in free and fair elections.
First of all, many voter registration are declared not valid because of inconsistencies between the data on the voter-registration form and the records of the local government. As a results, officials have denied hundreds of thousands of people the right to vote, and in some states these decisions are contested in court (see for example the Washington Post). On the other hand, voter-registration campaigns of Acorn have led to fraudulent voter registration. And once a voter is properly registered, it's still quite hard to vote. On election day, people might have to wait for hours standing in the line before they can vote. In the Netherlands, I never had to wait more than five minutes before I could cast my ballot. And I asked my Russian friend, and she said voting was much easier in her country as well. If people do take the effort to go to the polls (which are only open until 7pm on a working day (!), at least, in Virginia) and make it to the voting booth, a complicated ballot or malfunctioning voting machines makes it difficult to cast a valid vote. And those are just the procedural irregularities that might prevent votes from being count (see the financial times for more details). It is possible to vote early, actually, about a third of the electorate has done so, but even at the early-voting polls, waiting times are very long.
But I've heard more unsettling stories. It appears that some voting districts are provided too few ballots or voting machines, making waiting times even longer or voting outright impossible. I even heard people are intimidated to make them vote for a certain candidate.
To make sure as many votes as possible do make it to the ballot box, the democrats are pushing for a final battle throughout the US. In Virginia, volunteers are campaigning every day all day, and on election day in just one small district some 200 volunteers will be mobilized to get people to the polls, in the waiting line and in the voting booth. They even provide umbrella's and hot cocoa in case cold weather or rain will keep people at home.
Apparently, it's what it takes to stand a chance in the elections in the US. That suggests that they aren't as free and fair as they should be. And while everyone recognizes these problems, little is done to change it. Apparently those in power benefit from the present system. Let's hope the American population can turn the tide and make change possible.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Midnight Pumpkin Spice @ Gelman

I hope you find my posts about campaigning, the economic crisis etc. interesting, but what I actually came to the US for is of course studying. And I am doing that a lot here. When the semester started, I didn't consider the level of the courses very high or the material very difficult, but now I have to admit that classes over here are not exactly what I was used to in the Netherlands. And that's good, because otherwise I could just as well have stayed in Europe.
The biggest difference to me is what teachers expect from students. In the Netherlands, that's not very much. There teachers only hope that students will come to class and study hard for the exam. Here teachers expect that students come to class, study for the exam, hand in homework, learn for quizzes, prepare presentations, ask questions during class, come to office hours to ask more questions, send e-mails about the material etc. If you don't do such things, you're not seriously studying. And students do make an effort to do well in class, on tests and on homework assignments. In order to make things easier and more bearable, they meet in groups to study, work on examples of exams or solve questions for homework. The main reason for this great difference in dedication between Dutch and American students is probably the tuition fee: if you pay $24000,- (or get a grant of that amount) to be able to go to university, you better make the most of your time there. So the high price of education at GW certainly has some positive effects, and it shows that 'putting a price' on everything can stimulate people to perform better. And here, people really express everything in money. Some while ago we were talking about human rights in class, and one student argued that it's easier to provide some human rights as compared to others because they don't cost any money (such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly etc. as opposed to the right to healthcare, housing, food etc). To me, putting a price on human rights sounded blasphemous, but I guess it's a reality governments all over the world have to deal with.
Anyway, to give an impression of my academic efforts here: this morning I was working on some pages of econometrics-problems with two other guys, and this weekend we'll meet again to study for the two mid-term exams we have next week. Because I have to hand in homework for my Arabic classes every day and learn for quizzes and tests in that language about twice a week, I decided to spend my evenings at the Gelman library (the biggest library of GW University, open 24/7) and try to figure out what I (should) have learned the last few weeks. Luckily the only Starbucks in DC that's open 24 hours a day is right next to this library, and in the current Halloween spirit they serve great Pumpkin-Spice Frappuccino's there. So my first study-night was quite pleasant and productive. Let's hope I can keep it that way until Friday the 30th, when I have my last mid-term and when I have to get ready for Halloween (better find myself some costume...)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

おはようOhio! (Good Morning Ohio!)

Just today I noticed that, according to Real Clear Politics (see links), Ohio is leaning towards Obama! Regarding the importance of Ohio, a state with 20 votes in the Electoral College, this is great news. To turn Ohio 'blue' takes a lot of effort: it's a big state with many republicans, but I can assure you: the democrats are working day and night to make sure that democrats will actually cast their ballot to elect Obama.
Two weeks ago, on Friday the 3rd, I joined the GW College Democrats to Columbus, Ohio, to campaign there myself. Two busses filled with students from four Universities (GW, Georgetown, American University and Catholic University) drove for 8 hours from the Eastcoast to the American Heartland. My first glimpse of the US outside of DC and Northern Virginia. Just the drive was a great experience to me. Travelling for such a long time, just cruising through forests and small villages was like nothing I had ever seen. In Holland, you can't travel for longer than an hour before you get to some big city, and in 8 hours you can easily traverse three countries. Our accomodation in Columbus was very much in line with the democratic constituency: the union of Plumbers and Pipefitters offered their union hall to us for the weekend (didn't see Joe though). So we took our blankets or sleeping bags from our luggage and created a place to sleep for the next two nights.
On Saturday we went campaigning in the suburbs of Columbus. The transportation wasn't organized very efficiently, so after riding from restaurant to some park to the field office of the Obama campaign we were on the streets talking to people for just an hour. It was nice to see that the field office, one of those important outposts from where voters have to be mobilized, was somewhere on a deserted industrial/warehouse complex in a small, old building. There they composed the lists we used to visit people in the suburbs, there they organized activities, from there they distributed posters and yardsigns and from there they brought us to the suburbs where we knocked on doors and talked to people.
That evening I saw how much American Football means for the inhabitants of Columbus. The college team of the Ohio State University was playing and many, many students went to see the match in the stadium or somewhere on the street or in a bar where many screens were set up to attract customers. We didn't get into the stadium, but we watched it outside between all the supporters, dressed in the white and red of the Bucketeers (the team of Ohio State University). However, at the campaign office of the College Democrats of Ohio State University some dedicated students were still preparing the campaign of the next days and weeks. After the match, the supporters celebrated the victory of their team at student houses, bars, the streets - basically everywere in Columbus people were drinking and having fun. So we joined them until we had to take the bus back to our five-star Plumbers and Pipefitters Union hall.
The next day we went campaigning around the university. The dedication of the College Democrats clearly paid off: everybody had a long list of houses to go to in order to mobilize students (an important group of democrats in Ohio). So I went up and down stairs, around houses, into hallways and to verandas to be sure to reach every house, appartment, room and basement where a student could live on 'my' street. It was great to see that students who just woke up, had their girlfriend on the phone, were watching sports or seemed uninterested in politics still took some time to talk to me. Of course, some refused to waste their time, but others appreciated my efforts. One guy (not a students) told me that he had just lost his job and that his father worked in a plant were tanks were assembled, so he was depending on the war in Irak to make a living. Another eyeopener was the amount of houses that were for rent, houses were people had moved out because they couldn't pay their mortgages. In Ohio the impact of the economic crisis are much more apparent than in DC. So even though Columbus doesn't have a White House, a Capitol, many museums or other attractions, it showed me how most Americans live their life and experience the economic crisis, the elections, sports and politics.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

What's the deal?

It's so strange: all the time we hear how bad the economic crisis is and what a disaster could happen any moment from now, and still life goes on as if nothing changes. At least, for me and my fellow students at George Washington University. In other places in the US, for example in the mid-west, people already felt the economic downturn long ago when they couldn't afford their mortgage anymore. In that respect, it's also strange that rescue is only offered once big corporations ask for it. I'm convinced that the €700 billion bailout is necessary to safeguard the deposits, investments, retirement funds and access to capital of millions of people in the US and worldwide, but it's striking that it's only offered now, and not when people started defaulting on their loans. Now, banks are compensated for the huge, massive-scale mistakes they made, while this whole crisis might have been contained if consumers would have been compensated long ago (when the house-market started to crumble) for their overstretched mortgages. Now we all have to pray the bailout will actually have the desired effect. It seems that traders on Wall Street aren't convinced, regarding the 300-point decrease below the 10.000 points, for the first time in four years. In the meanwhile politicians keep seizing this historic moment to rally support for their (in)action and create adversity against their enemies: senators pound their chests saying how great it is that they actually passed this bill (did they really have a choice?), McCain and Palin keep attacking the democrats on any topic they can come up with - and they don't seem all too creative - and Obama calls McCain 'out of touch' with the present economic situation. He might be, but who actually really understands what is going on? One of my professors at GW said she just doesn't know how all this will work out, and when a correspondent from the Financial Times came to our classroom after spending the whole day on Capitol Hill, not much of our confusion was clarified.
And I'm getting more and more confused. Trying to keep track of the ownership of the Dutch part of ABN AMRO, I couldn't believe what I heard when I found out that the Dutch Minister of Finance Wouter Bos actually bought the Dutch part of both ABN and Fortis! As if nationalizing one of the biggest bank/insurance companies of the country is something you can do in a few days (cause that's how much time it took to close the deal). Even more unsettling was the fact that the Volkskrant (a nationwide newspaper in the Netherlands) called this his Glorious Week. Now let's get some things straight: he was the one who could have stopped Fortis from taking over ABN AMRO, and now they say he's succesfull when he buys 'back' ABN AMRO, completely stripped of its international network by Royal Bank of Scotland and Santander? And while he claims that he acquired the 'healthy' part of ABN AMRO and Fortis, I sincerely doubt is judgement after he considered the takeover of ABN AMRO not harmfull for the Dutch economy and refused to veto it. Now he has to spend some 20 billion dollars on a slice of what used to be Netherland's biggest bank and a part of the Belgian banker/insurance company Fortis, while some departments have already been split off for sale to other parties (Deutsche Bank and BNP Paribas) and others are halfway some seperation/intergration process that is now more and more looking like McCains healthcare plan (according to Biden 'the ultimate bridge to nowhere'). Yeah, I'm sure Bos did a great purchase.
When looking at the data I found out something interesting: the $700 bailout in the US represents about 5% of the American GDP (of 2007). No wonder that both Senate and Congress wanted to have their say and make sure the bailout would be in the best interest of the American people. Since most will be spend on non-performing American loans, the biggest part of the bailout will be directly injected into the US economy.
The takeover of ABN/Fortis cost the Dutch state some 3% of its GDP of 2007, so that's also a considerable amount. I haven't followed the news very closely all the time, but judging by the speed at which the deal was closed, I don't think the Dutch parliament really had a chance to look at the details. And the money didn't even go to Dutch taxpayers: it was paid to the owners of the company, the Belgian Fortis Group, the French BNP Paribas and the Belgian state. Three percent of the Dutch GDP out of the country, just like that. As a comparison: the Netherlands spend about 0.7% of its GDP on development assistance. Bos probably assumes he will be able to sell the bank/insurer with a considerable profit, but as I said, I'm not so sure about his economic insight anymore. What a democracy we live in!