Preposterous Universe

Saturday, August 28, 2004
From Europe to America

I'm back from the European Forum in Alpbach (where I was referred to as "herzig," which I think is good). Many thanks to Lindsay for keeping things active while I was away. Only after getting there did I understand what the Forum is about, partly because it is such a sprawling multi-dimensional thing that a focus can be hard to pinpoint. There are many events involving all sorts of discussions on politics, culture, and anything else (science is represented, but only as an amusing distraction). The seminar week, which is what I was there for, is almost a summer school; twelve seminars go on for a week of lectures, and about three hundred students (largely graduate and professional students) from throughout Europe come to listen and participate in the discussions. But the definition of "student" is pretty loose, and a good number were well past their student days.

What became clear only gradually was that, since most of the students are interested in public policy questions, many of the attendees are there largely to network amongst their fellow students, rather than to actually attend the seminars. And the seminars they did attend were those that related in some way to their careers; i.e. questions of European politics. So everyone was interested in our little cosmology discussion, but very few people actually came to it.

That's okay, since you can still learn interesting things by talking to the other attendees. Issues of the European Union were especially popular, for understandable reasons. Someone gave me an article to read by Stephen Breyer, my favorite Supreme Court Justice (although if Kathleen Sullivan is ever appointed, she will be granted this coveted honor), musing about the new European Constitution. It was fascinating reading, especially because Breyer was trying very hard to be polite but clearly has substantial worries about the new document.

One of his worries is obvious: the new constitution is far too long (about eighty percent of it should be cut, in Breyer's estimation). In an effort to keep everybody happy, the framers have stuck all sorts of things into the constitution that should be ordinary law. One of the crucial features of a constitution is that it should be possible, but very hard and extremely rare, to amend it; so it should stick to enshrining absolutely bedrock principles rather than including every policy we might agree upon at the moment. (He also points out that the European court will have over twenty justices, speaking multiple languages, and can't resist mentioning the difficulty that he and his eight very capable colleagues sometimes have in reaching consensus, even in a common language.)

The more subtle of Breyer's points is the ease with which the constitution will allow centralization of power. From personal experience, he knows how ambiguous language in a constitution can be interpreted to funnel more authority to the federal government. He mentions the example of education, where the constitution innocently gives the European Commission power to pass rules to facilitate cooperation and compatibility between the educational systems of the member states. Who could object? Well, cooperation takes a lot of forms -- Breyer imagines that before too long the EC will be passing whatever regulations it likes on school systems throughout Europe, all in the name of increased cooperation. It will be interesting to see how the constitution actually fares in action (although they did manage to keep Christianity out of the preamble, despite heavy Papal lobbying).

So, while we're at it, do Europeans hate Americans? Well, the participants at Alpbach are traditionally conservative, establishment-oriented types, who generally are more pro-American than their lefty counterparts. But one over-simplified way to describe the current situation is that both left-wing and right-wing Europeans are horrified by our current administration. They don't hate Americans, but the disgust with the Bush regime is palpable. Of course, these are people who will willingly sit through hours of discussion and dialogue relating intricate philosophical questions to concrete issues of policy; something tells me Bush wouldn't like them, either.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

Preposterous Home
Atom Site Feed (xml)
RSS Feed
Technorati Profile
Bloglines Citations
Blogroll Me

About Last Night
Alas, a Blog
The American Sector
Asymmetrical Information
Big Brass Blog
Bitch, Ph.D.
Body and Soul
Brad DeLong
Chris C Mooney
Collision Detection
Creek Running North
Crescat Sententia
Crooked Timber
Daily Kos
Daniel Drezner
Deepen the Mystery
Dispatches from the Culture Wars
Dynamics of Cats
Electron Blue
Ezra Klein
The Fulcrum
Girls Are Pretty
Jacques Distler
James Wolcott
John and Belle
Julie Saltman
Lawyers, Guns and Money
Leiter Reports
The Loom
Matt McIrvin
Matthew Yglesias
Michael Bérubé
Michael Nielsen
Mixing Memory
Mr. Sun
Not Even Wrong
Obsidian Wings
Orange Quark
Paige's Page
Panda's Thumb
Playing School, Irreverently
Political Animal
The Poor Man
Quantum Diaries
Quark Soup
Real Climate
Roger Ailes
Rox Populi
Shakespeare's Sister
Simple Stories
Sisyphus Shrugged
Smijer & Buck
TPM Cafe
Uncertain Principles
Volokh Conspiracy

Powered by Blogger
Comments by Haloscan
RSS Feed by 2RSS.com

February 2004
March 2004
April 2004
May 2004
June 2004
July 2004
August 2004
September 2004
October 2004
November 2004
December 2004
January 2005
February 2005
March 2005
April 2005
May 2005
June 2005
July 2005