All posts by Kurt
Working at a research institution in post-factual times
By Beatrice Gohdes
On a day in early November of 2016, Stockholm experienced a rare moment when the public transport system broke down under a mountain of snow, not witnessed so forcefully in early winter during the last 100 years. The chill factor was compounded by the news of the presidential election in the United States. That icy-cold November day exemplified the attitude most European media and mainstream politicians held towards the political reality unfolding in Washington: namely the feeling of a looming catastrophe and the bewilderment at the endless blizzard of tweets coming from the president-elect.
About six months into his divisive presidency (it was the Monday after the US withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement), I arrived in Washington, D.C., where I could only describe the atmosphere in the Capital – with the prevailing weather conditions – as steaming-hot. A mere 4% of Washingtonians had voted for the new president. And yet he now lives in their midst – as do I. Biking to work every morning along a truly picturesque route, I cross the Arlington Memorial Bridge, roll past the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, and on to the Washington Monument. Even along this route, I can feel the tension, as I have been repeated spectator to fellow commuters raising their fists in frustration at the White House when it comes into view just before they turn around the Monument.
Against this backdrop I started my internship, the first leg of the Wallenberg International Fellows Program, at the World Resources Institute (WRI), a think tank focusing on how to tackle environmental issues by leveraging economic opportunities to create human well-being. In the discussions I have had with my colleagues on the new political reality here, I have been surprised once again: the underlying mood is calmly-collected and focused on how to deal with reality – quite a contrast to the incessant media outrage at home. The strategy appears to be a calm focus on a structured approach to achieving long-lasting impact in times of political turbulence.
Admittedly, the mood at WRI is far from jovial. My colleagues are especially frustrated by the new administration’s open ignorance towards science and facts. Yet there is a sense of quiet optimism and the will to focus on the silver lining that this situation has brought with it. For example, the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement galvanized almost all the other signatories to publicly re-declare their intention to fulfill the targets set for themselves. This new-found sense of global unity is quite encouraging when working towards environmentally healthier and more prosperous communities.
Still, I asked myself, how can a think tank create change in such an unfavorable environment? Over the course of my summer internship I believe I have been fortunate enough to find an answer: First, optimism is essential, as it helps to conceive a strategy bold enough to make a difference. Quite naturally, this avoids paralysis. Second, in times when facts seem to become irrelevant, a consistent output of messages that are backed up by solid research and facts is even more important. This builds trust in the long term for the simple reason that it aspires to truth. Moreover, if these messages are strategically placed, they can go a long way towards influencing the right decision makers, now and in the future.
Data Analytics: Bridging the Language of Academic and Business Worlds
By Christian Conroy
“Well, I mean, it can’t really technically be predictive, you know,” I stated plainly to my boss, assuming he would understand given the type and quality of the data we were working with.
“But it has to be. We want to be able to use this as a practical tool,” he said back, his eyebrows raised almost as if to say, “How are you not getting this?”
Coming from a meager data analysis background, it was only natural that one of the main roles I would fill within the Business Market Intelligence & Strategy team at Electrolux during my tenure as a Wallenberg Fellow would be one focused on elevating team capabilities from data management to data analysis. The task was to use historical macroeconomic indicator data for multiple countries across multiple years to make inferences about country market size using future projections of the same macroeconomic data. While I was happy to have the opportunity to apply the statistical analysis skills that I had spent the past few years cultivating through both a Fulbright Research Grant at an experimental economics institution and a first academic year of a public policy program at Georgetown, I knew that trying to even approach something that could be labeled as predictive would be a difficult challenge.
Unlike previous roles I have had in risk analysis and business intelligence, the human capital that comprises modern business intelligence teams is no longer centered on qualitative expertise in the political nuances of specific foreign governments, the unique cultural aspects of consumers abroad, or the drivers of non-market economic policies in protectionist economies. Instead, modern teams consist of experts in IT integration, statistical analytics, data visualization, and project management. Similar to most industries – roughly 47% of jobs in the US are expected to be automated over the next two decades according to a study from the Oxford Martin School – business intelligence as a sector is now focused more on cost and labor saving tools than it is on human labor. Hence, it was my task to further this trend within the Electrolux business intelligence team and pave the way for the company to begin investing in advanced data analytics tools that would automate the predictive model I had been tasked with creating.
Responding to the point made above by my boss and later discussing the issue with colleagues, I defended my doubts about any model’s predictive capabilities by ignorantly spewing off a hodgepodge of esoteric econometrics terms to try and prove that the word predictive was often overused in the business world – autocorrelated errors, multilevel fixed effects, bias and endogeneity, statistical significance and hypothesis testing, multicollinearity. At a company retreat, I proudly showed scatter plots and regression equations and explained how two-way fixed effects regressions on panel data worked, only to be met with relative silence and mild confusion from the audience. Of course none of these words meant anything in the context of business intelligence. The words, perhaps subconsciously spouted off more to make it seem like I knew what I was talking about than to actually demonstrate it, naturally fell on deaf ears.
Discontent to let the business world triumph over the principles the last few years of training had taught me, I reached out to a number of professors at Georgetown to either help me understand the best methods to use in building a predictive model or at least join me in looking down upon a money-hungry business world that cares more about selling a product to an equally uninformed audience than it does in demonstrating real statistical validity. To my chagrin, I received no such support. Instead, the professors I reached out to responded back with a bunch of case-by-case jargon, emphasizing in the end that what methods I used in the analysis ultimately rested on what the end goals were. One professor even advised me to “impose minimal restrictions on the underlying causal relationships,” focusing instead on using a guess and check strategy that attempts to match up predicted values to the actual values to the greatest extent possible.
I was shocked. I was frustrated. If the model is not causal in some way, then what is the point? Even if they weren’t going to directly provide me any code to do the analysis, I had hoped that they would at least provide me with a cookie-cutter solution that I could later google enough about to figure out how to operationalize. Instead of receiving such guidance, the professors were essentially telling me that all of those rules that I had thought were ironclad – errors cannot be correlated with your independent and dependent variables, something must be controlled for when the value of time period 2 is based on the value of time period 1, a model is not predictive when there is no random sampling and the creation of control and treatment groups – were all flexible. What they were telling me was that it was more important to tailor any analysis I do to the end goal of the business, namely to make a practical predictive tool, than it was to demonstrate statistical validity.
In the end, despite all of the self-learning I had to do in order to attempt to develop an even partly workable model, all I had to do was try to create something that predicted market size numbers that were as close as possible to the actual market size numbers of the historical data. Though it was difficult to let myself sleep knowing that the model I was developing was full of statistical faux pas, it was also liberating to move beyond an academic world often defined by rules and textbooks and into one of money-making decisions defined more by the ends than by the means. The entire experience has caused me to rethink exactly what I am learning within my graduate programs and hopefully start a positive dialogue with colleagues and professors at the McCourt School of Public Policy about how coursework can focus not just on empirically evaluating government policy interventions but also on leveraging predictive analytics for business applications.
The takeaway is that new experiences often remind us of how constrained we are by the environment that we have previously been in and developed a comfort for. Just as it is easier for a child to learn a language than for an adult who has already built up rigid sets of rules in his or her mind, it is often easier for someone to learn something when they come in with a blank slate. Putting oneself in an environment where everyone is effectively speaking a different language – that held doubly true for a team here that was comprised largely of Italians and Swedes – can actually be constructive, especially if it forces one to challenge their assumptions or admit that they don’t understand something as well as they thought they did.
Stockholm’s Solitude: A Visit to Artipelag
By Kathleen Burke
Minutes away from the city of Stockholm, Sweden lies a labyrinth of 30,000 islands. Despite the intricacy of the archipelago, the evergreen covered rock formations form a uniform landscape. In doing so, the plethora of islands evoke an undeniable sense of minimalism. Situated amidst the calm, dark Baltic Sea where Viking ships once reigned, the archipelago invites sailors, family vacationers, and tourists (like me). Historically and culturally, the Stockholm archipelago is as central to Swedish identity as the legendary Vasa ship or taking a fika, or coffee break. The seafaring nation relies on the archipelago for business and leisure alike. As home to summer cottages dating back generations, as a destination for ferry tours, and as inspiration for artists and writers, the archipelago is essential to Sweden’s rich maritime tradition. In fact, Sweden manufactures and sells almost 10,000 and 30,000 boats per year, respectively. But the ratio of adults to pleasure boat is a favorable eight to one — almost three times that of the US. Along with its economic and social importance, the archipelago commands an uncanny tranquility – an abstract quality only perceived. It stimulates and calms the eye simultaneously, inviting both still fixation on one islet and movement across the ornate pattern of islands.
How can such a boundless geographical feature be at the same time simple? The non-obvious reason for this paradox of simple profundity is the Swedish concept “lagom”, meaning “just enough.” While lagom usually refers to portions or objects, it can be applied to the landscape itself. No better example illustrates the notion of a lagom landscape than the museum Artipelag. Situated on Varmdö, the understated cedar and glass architecture absorb the archipelago. In a certain sense, Artipelag reconciles the vastness of the land with sleek lines and modern artwork. Interestingly, the museum founder Björn Jakobson is the founder of BabyBjörn, the innovative child carrier company dedicated to simplifying everyday life. The museum boasts a metamorphic rock originating about two billion years ago, which is placed in ironic juxtaposition to a lively café. In synthesizing forms of old and new, the museum and its works embody and maintain a state of lagom.
Along the same vein, UK-based artist and writer Edmund de Waal (b. 1964) recently debuted a collection of 40 minimalist clusters of ceramic vessels at Artipelag. The artist interprets the vessels after they come out of the kiln. Then, in collaboration with museum curator Bo Nilsson, they arranged the works to optimize the space and light flooding in from outdoors. The result is a greenhouse filled with white porcelain. De Waal insists that whiteness and silence are interchangeable. By extension, reflecting on silence catalyzes progress. The peaceful sanctuary uses uniformity to convey this message.
The next corridor of the museum holds a seamless counterpart to de Waal’s vessels. The exhibit by Giorgio Morandi (b. 1890), a world renowned Italian artist, displayed a series of still life paintings in monochrome tones. The oil paintings provide even more legitimacy to the idea of lagom in practice. Despite the difference between the fine and decorative arts, both Morandi and de Waal complement the museum structure and reinforce one another. Morandi’s internationally renowned still life works capture what de Waal considers “small epiphanies”, referring to the cathartic moment when you allow an object to figuratively “slow into fullness”. De Waal explains, “These objects occupy space in our world and in our thinking.”
Whether produced by the same artist (or tectonic shift), these similar objects (or islands) are impactful repetitions of the same motif. As de Waal reflects himself in his works, visitors at Artipelag can broaden their thinking. When acknowledging that still life happens, the abstractness of reality becomes clear. Still life can then be considered a collection of small serendipities that “tell stories and hold memories.” The avant garde museum is a space that fosters reflection — but not to the point of nostalgia. While the objects and islands may appear homogenous and stagnant, eventually a shift occurs to give them new meaning. The exhibit stimulates personal reflection and new perspectives. Chance error makes these related objects and landforms slightly different. They affirm nature but also contribute to their surroundings in a way that is not overbearing, rather “just enough” to have an impact.
The concept that objects tell stories was foreign to me, but I now relate to the idea that still life can be dynamic. The uniformity of objects (and landforms) allows for acknowledging what is universal before moving forward as an individual. They accept nature but cannot change it. In this way, objects and people relate to one another based on their connection to nature. Stockholm’s 30,000 islands and de Waal’s multitude of sculptures evoke the same sentiment: less can be more. Achieving lagom provides a sense of solitude that is both reflective yet optimistic. In the face of the influx of immigrants to Sweden and changing international pressures, it is humbling and motivating to visit places like Artipelag, where creativity is a platform for building new ways of thinking and adapting to change. The experience extends when you walk onto the Artipelag boardwalk, which reinforces the network between art and nature. De Waal’s vessels can be viewed as books, cityscapes, tree trunks, or chimneys. With “just enough” imagination, still life continues to happen, and perspectives can continually enrich culture.
Public or private?
By Piotr Rozwałka
As I have just graduated and I am about to start my first full-time job, it seems like a good time to take a look back and reflect on my experience as a Wallenberg Fellow.
Upon arriving in Washington last summer, I had a tough nut to crack. Specifically, I hoped that my time in the district would help me find an answer to the elusive question of which job would best suit my wide array of diverging interests. As a Wallenberg Fellow, I received the best aid possible: an amazing internship at an environmental think-tank, dozens of events and seminars at top-notch institutions, lunches and meetings with knowledgeable people in leadership positions, and superb classes at the School of Foreign Service. They all helped me to discover my passion and excitement for the energy sector. It brings the economic, political, social, commercial, and environmental together, not to mention its growing relevance as we go forward, offering an incredible combination to be working on.
Finding my focus ensured that I was full of excitement throughout the fall semester and inspired me to continue working hard to understand the energy sector as well as I could. Together with Hannes Tordengren, also a member of the First Wallenberg Cohort, we started a research project on the Ukrainian gas sector and prepared to move to Ukraine in the spring to pull it off. I attended Paul Sullivan’s class on energy and security, began co-operating with the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, and was meeting various experts asking them to share their experience with me. Another crucial question, however, was looming from behind the corner. Upon graduation, should I go into the public or private sector? Some of my friends already had a strong preference from early on—I on the other hand found myself deliberating between the pros and cons of each. Would I go for a higher sense of urgency, a chance to fulfill my civil obligation to give back to society, a better work-life balance, and, most importantly, an ability to take part in the policy-making process—which the public sector seemed to be offering, or opt for a higher career pace, wider responsibilities, a more dynamic work environment, better remuneration, and finally an excellent occasion to get market and industry expertise—all promised by private sector companies.
Stuck with this dilemma, I decided to take the opportunity which the Wallenberg Program offered and reached out to people I respected for their expertise. I made an effort and managed to personally meet with a former US ambassador and an energy expert, a former foreign minister of one of the EU countries, managers from the energy private sector, executives from the EBRD and the World Bank, and think-tank energy experts from the Brookings Institution and the Atlantic Council. While I expected the private sector managers to praise their sector, I must admit that I was taken aback by some of the other experts telling me that although they advise me to go public, I should not do it upon graduation. Their argument was rather simple in its nature: the transition to a public or non-governmental job is always possible once I have acquired the market expertise, but the transition from public to private could prove much harder. As I began to appreciate, a proper exposure to the private sector could only add to a better understanding and more effective execution of policy-making or non-governmental work.
In other words, I realized that my choice was not as dichotomous as I may have initially assumed. After some years in the private sector I may revisit my ambitions and—should I one day decide to switch—my experience on both sides will likely make me a better policy-maker than if I had gone directly to a think-tank or a public institution.
A Room with a View
By Sebastian Röing
Alright, I’m awake.
Alarm turned off. Gaze blearily out the window. The Washington monument appears shrouded in early morning humidity.
I was not awake, after all.
Words pass through my mind – humidity, hot, backpack, humidity. Do I need to buy a new deodorant? Yes. Not quite acclimatized to the transition from Stockholm to Washington D.C.
6:00am. Stumbling out of the bedroom I learn that 8 people retweeted something about Donald Trump and a news anchor. Some habitual buzz gets going. What sort of nonsense is he up to now? Read. Read. Jeez. There will be plenty of chatter around the coffee machine at the office today.
Time to get on with the routine. Banana milkshake, to-do lists, rowing machine at the gym on the third floor, fried egg and peanut butter sandwiches, iron shirt. If there were a Guide to metropolitan, city-jumping life it would probably say something like – ‘A cumbersome yet practical morning routine can do much to make up for the loss of familiarity when moving from one place to the other. That is, of course, if you want to shake the feelings of unfamiliarity in the first place. Since most people spend a considerable amount of time mulling over how they can get away from stuff, it is in fact a little strange that you would. But that is beside the point’.
The walk to the bus is about 500 meters. After 2 meters it is time to adjust the backpack so it does not stay in one place for too long. After 10 meters one usually considers holding the backpack like a briefcase instead. Given the extra exertion it is usually best to abandon this alternative rather quickly. After 20 meters there is a brief and somewhat subdued moment of panic. After 30 meters it is time to put your hands to the straps and give your shoulders a breather. Finally, after 50 meters and a drenched lower back all ambitions are gone and you think quietly to yourself – ‘Whoever showed up dry to work in 100° F (36° C) and 80% humidity anyway?’.
The A/C at the office provides a welcome sense of relief. And the short elevator ride gives just enough time to shake out the worst droplets from what is left of your shirt. But you are inside. You are safe. And a whole day of interesting work awaits. Coffee with the other research analysts, a roundtable discussion about the prospects of banking union in the EU, and plenty of bond prospectuses to read. Another entry in that Guide for metropolitans would have been – ‘There is no such thing as a universal concept of “lunch”. Whoever thought so has clearly never spent too much time outside of France. The normal thing to do in the U.S. is to have a sandwich by your computer, trying to master the art of looking simultaneously at an Excel spreadsheet and the aforementioned sandwich’.
Returning home around dinner time, planes passing overhead through the cinematic sky, I am reminded of how lucky I am to be here. I am one of those young people who have benefitted from globalization significantly, and who Bensam so aptly describes in his thoughtful post below. With the generous support from people at the Stockholm School of Economics, Georgetown University and financial support from the Dr. Tech. Marcus Wallenberg foundation, I will get to spend 6 months of my life in Washington D.C. A global melting pot of politics and business 4097 miles from my hometown of Malmö, Sweden. My work is at the Peterson Institute of International Economics in the fields of financial regulation and international law. Hence, throughout my 6 months in D.C., I get to work with people in the absolute edge of their fields, on pressing policy issues that will shape the world of tomorrow. I will also get to study full time at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Presently in Sweden to renew my visa, I look forward to returning to D.C. to start my new courses in e.g. business and investment negotiation and meet new colleagues and friends. And many more mornings of staring blearily at the Washington monument.
Impressions of a DC summer
By Alexa Straus
During my first (and only) visit to DC in 2013, I immediately fell in love with the city. The artworks in the Hirshhorn Museum, the music at the Kennedy Center and the monumental reminders of history lit up against the night sky – everything mesmerized me. Studying at Georgetown University has been a dream of mine ever since, deferred by the high costs of studying in the US. Therefore, when I heard about the Wallenberg International Fellowship Program, I did not question whether to apply for one second. It somehow manages to combine most of the rather scattered items from my CV and thus also the driving interests behind those. It is exactly what I have been looking for.
Now two months into my summer internship I realize, that three years ago, walking through the nation’s capital as a tourist only gave me a hint of the unrivalled amount of power concentrated in DC and for entirely different reasons, I am again amazed by the city. The Wallenberg Fellowship provides me with the opportunity to embark into this sphere of experts, influence and networking.
As part of my internship I had the privilege of hearing Christine Lagarde speak about the central challenges posed on global development, participating in a meeting where the directors for Mexico, Canada and the US of the Inter-American Development Bank discussed the priorities for the 2016 North American Leaders’ Summit and meeting senior economists from the World Bank and the IMF. Sebastian and I were also part of the lucky small group of J1-interns picked to attend a Q&A with Ben Rhodes, Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting, at the State Department. Listening to these experts, I am time after time impressed by their ability to develop high-level insights on complex issues and back them up with just the right amount of detail. At various embassy events, I have had the opportunity to practice my networking skills – an area in which as a German I can definitely learn a lot from Americans.
Besides getting to attend a bunch of cool meetings, I also really enjoy the actual work of my internship. In June I joined the enterprise wide international relations department at Medtronic, a medical technology company. The small team covers an immense variety of topics from market access issues like trade barriers and price controls to research about the correlation of health and economic growth. With no background in health, it took me a while to get accustomed. At the end of the first weeks I had a list of about 50 acronyms, and those were only the most important ones. Besides soaking in all the information about healthcare related policies and medical technology, I am also fortunate to get incredible insights into the dynamics of public – private sector interactions. The focus of my internship is on Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs). My major project for the summer was to collect internal and external best practices and come up with ideas about how to share these throughout the corporation to empower Medtronic employees around the world to drive PPPs in their countries. To top it all off, the team at Medtronic gave me one of the warmest welcomes I have experienced throughout my studies and previous internships. With a lot of interesting things to be learned and done, I am glad to return to the team in the fall.
Finally I would like to pick up a point Marta, one of the fellows in the first cohort, wrote about in an earlier blog post as it coincides with my main take away from the summer. She wrote that one of the three ways in which the Wallenberg Fellowship broadened her mindset is through the realization that changing the world is possible. Through my internship in the healthcare sector I can observe daily how NGOs, governmental agencies, corporations and individuals keep joining their forces and working towards the improvement of people’s lives. Inspired by numerous passionate people and their achievements, I am re-considering a career path in foreign policy or development work – an option previously shut down by the resignation about bureaucracy and the seemingly Sisyphean nature of the work.
For now I have returned to Germany to apply for my student visa. My two weeks in Germany are filled with joy as I get to see my friends and family and excitement to start my classes at Georgetown, play field hockey and hopefully enjoy some of the nature around DC once the weather has cooled down to Swedish summer temperatures.
Good Fences Make Good Neighbors
By Bensam Solomon
As I write this at my desk, I look down at people strolling down Pennsylvania Avenue in the sweltering DC heat, a stone’s throw away from the White House. I feel lucky to be in the political capital of the world. I am here as a Wallenberg International Fellow, an exchange program between the Stockholm School of Economics and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, which is made possible by a generous grant from the Dr. Tech. Marcus Wallenberg Foundation. The aim of the program is to broaden participants’ horizons, intellectually, culturally and in practical business situations through an interdisciplinary program at the intersection of business and international relations.
During the summer, I am working at Limiar Capital, a newly started hedge fund investing in emerging markets. I believe that private investment, especially social impact investment, can play a pivotal role in the development of emerging economies, something that I am passionate about. At Limiar, I’ve had the opportunity to work with people with diverse backgrounds, who have worked all over the world with finance and development – from the IFC and MIGA (World Bank Group organizations) to development banks, NGOs and hedge funds in Argentina, India, Singapore and the United Kingdom. I’ve learned a lot from them and from the work that we do.
Now, half-way through the summer, half-way through my internship, I have a chance to reflect on my experiences. As I do, my mind keeps being drawn back to the events of June 23 – the day the UK voted to leave the European Union. Brexit, as it is widely known, came as a shock to me, and to my friends, especially the ones from the UK. Even at work, having been a hot topic of discussion, we were taken aback by the unexpected outcome. Incredulity gave way to recriminations (people who voted to leave were “misinformed”), incredulity to anger, and finally reluctant acceptance. Nowhere was this volatility clearer than in the markets – stock markets tumbled, as did currencies from all over the world. Emerging markets took a hit as investors fled to the safe havens of US and Japanese treasuries. It was a moment that reflected the juxtaposition of an interconnected world, and how fraught and fragile it is.
I grew up in Eritrea, a small country in the North-east of Africa, one of the few countries left in the world where citizens need visas to leave the country, and they are rare to come by. For the first 15 years of my life, I had never been outside the boundary delimited by the national border. The first time I was ever on an airplane was when I was 15 on my way to Europe. Sweden would become my new home, and I am always thankful for that. Although not by any means perfect, it’s been an open and welcoming society, and I’ve felt at home there since the first day. In the nine years since, I’ve had the good fortune to travel to many different places around the world, to live and study in Singapore and now in the US. I have come to take for granted the privilege of being able to travel all over the world with ease, often with no need for a visa, as if traveling from Stockholm to Malmö (translation: from Washington, D.C. to New York). I have come to take for granted an unbounded, borderless, connected world.
As the dust settles, I keep thinking about the schism the referendum revealed between the winners and losers of an increasingly globalized world. My friends, British and non-British alike, were in disbelief as the results were announced. I didn’t know anyone who voted for Brexit, nor, apparently, did my friends. In many ways this is a consequence of globalization, the detachment from the physically proximate reality as we are more connected and aware of the realities that lie closer to our interests. In fact, looking at my friends and their friends, it’s striking how much we have come to surround ourselves with people who are like us, in educational background, in career aspirations, in visions for the future. With most physical limitations gone, the pool of friends is not limited to the city or country we live in but to the whole world. My friends and I who have been able to pursue higher education, travel the world and have reaped the benefits that a globalized world has to offer. In doing so, we have come to lose touch with those who are physically closer to us, but very far in the opportunities they have had in life.
The victors of the referendum claimed that June 23 would be marked as Britain’s Independence Day. This assertion was met with ridicule by most, due to the irony of it coming from one of history’s most prolific colonizers, having colonized over two thirds of the earth at its peak. This resonated with me as July 4th came around, celebrating the independence day of one of Great Britain’s former colonies. I was impressed by the lavish celebration of the fourth in the United States. Not only in the fireworks displays or the flags draped over the many high rise buildings, or planted at the base of trees that line Main Street, but in what it meant to people.
Sitting on the West Lawn of the capitol building, a historic site where hundreds of thousands of Americans gather every four years to watch the inaugurations of presidents, I watched a concert celebrating the nation’s independence. In a drizzling, humid and grey DC summer evening, I sat there with my fellow Wallenberg Fellows, packed in between the thousands who had come out despite the rain to celebrate this day. As I looked out at the sea of people, standing to sing the national anthem, hands on their chest, facing the flag, the sense of belonging that national identity brings was palpable. Young families with children running around, retired couples, a group of young urbanites, white, black, Hispanic and wherever they were from, they were American.
But not even America, the great melting pot, the pluralist home of the brave, has been spared from the wave of disenchantment that has swept Europe. My coworkers and all the people I have met this summer worry about the election in the fall. Similar to my friends from the UK, no one knows or seems to know anyone who supports Donald Trump. Brexit was a wakeup call for many, the tendency to lump all supporters and view them as either ignorant or racist is dangerous. It’s hard for people to put themselves in their shoes, to understand what is the source of their dissatisfaction, in other words, to empathize.
Proximity is a prerequisite for empathy. The US is as polarized as it has been in recent times, and those who have gained from globalization are in every way but physically remote from those that have lost out from it. Trump promises to build a Wall, the centerpiece of his campaign, to keep everything that is unwanted out, to protect those who have lost much in the past from losing even more. Seldom remarked upon is what the wall will keep in. Disentangling it from the rest of the world will make “America great again”, the rhetoric harkens back to a time that may or may not have existed. It is appealing in its simplicity. It’s not dissimilar from the rhetoric heard all around the world, from those who offer simple solutions to complex problems.
Lifting the focus from the developed world, recent developments also have implications for developing countries. There is a worry that the era of secular liberalization is over, that recent events herald a return to the protectionist and short-sighted policies of the past. This is a grave threat to developing nations, trade has brought millions of people out of poverty in China and the rest of East and South-east Asia. Though far from perfect, trade and globalization have been the harbingers of growth, development and peace in the world. A return to isolationism and antagonism between nations would have disastrous consequences, erasing the many positive developments that have taken place during my lifetime.
Yet, as I think of the time I have ahead of me here in DC, I am filled with anticipation. As decisions are made that will shape the world we live in for years to come, the feeling that what happens next will be historic is overwhelming. In the face of the palpable pessimism that permeates every newscast, political conversation and prediction of a world divided, I find comfort in these words from Robert Frost’s poem, Mending Walls:
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.”