Reflections from Cal – John Peterson

After being encouraged to do so by our Web Editor, Dominic Johnson, I’m blogging for the 1st time in my 51+ years of existence.  I’m spending the summer as a Visiting Scholar at the University of Californa, Berkeley – specifically at the Institute of Governmental Studies (see  Here are some (slightly random) reflections on my time here:

  • The power of the US courts has been on display repeatedly.  Here in California, a single judge – Vaughn Walker – struck down Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage, earlier this month.  Interestingly, Walker is thought to be gay himself & was appointed by George Bush Sr.  His opinion in the case made a strong statement for the view that there is no evidence to suggest full civil marital rights for gays threatens the institution of marriage, kids, or anyone else.  Another single judge struck down most of Arizona’s notorious immigration law, which critics claim (plausibly) would lead to racial profiling.  Both of these cases are headed for the Supreme Court.  America is, of course, an enormously litigious society – but in institutional terms, courts end up making decisions that would be made by legislatures in other democracies. 
  • These are VERY bad economic times in California, especially compared to when I last lived here in 2007.  UC Berkeley is enduring VERY dark days, with all staff taking a 10% pay cut & many being forced to take ‘furlough days’ (when they don’t work & aren’t paid).  Tuition is up by a whopping 32%.  There is a lot of hand-wringing generally about the decline of American higher education, which has long been the ‘reserve currency’ of the global educational system (see  Is it good for places like Edinburgh?  Possibly – but my own (highly controversial) view is that all Universities in Scotland face decline in the medium to long-term because we lack the revenue base that comes from student fees.  English Universities who do charge fees will (ie) start to lure away our best staff. 
  • Relatedly, people are driving MUCH smaller cars here compared to 2007.  What is unchanged is that many people drive as if they had a death wish.  Traffic is less bad than 3 years ago, thanks to the recession.  But it is still awful.
  • Am enjoying listening to National Public Radio, the very underfunded US  equivalent of the BBC.  Inspired by the syndicated programme ‘Car Talk’, I’ve nicknamed my sister – who leaves me at BART (local train with station in Berkeley) in the AM on her way to work + collects me in PM – Pikup Andropov (my Russian chauffeur). 😉
  • Sad to see that Tony Judt, British-born but a very influential academic & commentator in the US, died on 6 August of ALS, of the (awful) progressive neurodegenerative disease.  He was writing (mostly in the New York Review of Books) right up until he died.  Judt was publicly nasty to me once at a conference (my claim to fame!) & had what I found to be silly Eurosceptic views.  But his death = Major Loss.
  • It is very good to see Robert Gates, the  Secretary of Defence, finally doing something about America’s runaway defence spending.  The Pentagon basically got anything it asked for during 8 years of the Bush administration.  A Congressional task force recently estimated that the defence budget could be cut by $960 billion without harming essential national security.  Defence spending is 20% of all federal spending and half of discretionary spending.  Cutting it is the easiest and most logical way to reduce the federal budget deficit.
  • People who know me will know that I’m a little bit obsessed with the Boston Red Sox (that’s baseball).  They’ve had an incredible number of injuries this year & are lagging behind in the standings.  It would take a minor miracle for them to qualify for the play-offs.  But they’ve shown a lot of grit & it is fun to watch them in California late in the afternoon (ie when they start games @ 7pm east coast time, 4pm here) over a glass of wine as the sun starts to set.
  • As you’d guess, the Cal student body is very sporty & I feel a bit self-conscious working out at the student gym.  Noted yesterday:  nickname for the women’s ultimate frisbie team?  The Pie Queens!
  • Cal also attracts very, very bright students.  A lot of them end up having to choose between going to Cal and (say) Stanford or Yale.  The rivalry between Cal and Stanford is obsessive in all ways (‘beating Stanford’ is actually mentioned in the Cal ‘Fight Song’ sung at sporting events).  The Director of my Institute, Jack Citrin (, tells prospective students with tough choices to make about where to go to Uni that there’s one thing none of the other elite schools can match about Berkeley:  there is great food here, including inexpensive & healthy food that students can afford.  There are, of course, downsides to Berkeley.  One I noticed yesterday, during the hottest part of the day:  the area just next to campus reeked of urine (Berkeley has a LOT of homeless people…).
  • New music I’m enjoying:  Arcade Fire (no.1 on charts thanks to a iTunes finagle that got them past Eminem – yay for Montreal!), John Mellancamp (see & GREAT South African band Freshly Ground.
  • The Jet Blue steward, Steven Slater, who cursed out passengers on the intercom, grabbed 2 beers & jumped down the emergency evacuation slide has become an instant folk hero.  Some folk singer had a song (you could find it on YouTube) out within days called ‘Take 2 Beers & Jump’!
  • Finally, it is GREAT to be on sabbatical this year after 3 long, tough years as Head of Politics/IR.  I heard today that PIR did a little better, but not a lot, in the National Student Satisfaction Survey.  That’s disappointing given all the new stuff we did last year (such as monthly PIR cafes) to try to create a sense of Community with our students.  I’ve a strong sense that we give more time, attention, etc to our students than they do ie here at Berkeley.  But, anyway, it is blissful finally have time to do my own work (I’ve got contracts to do 5 books!) as well as to watch baseball, work on my tan, and….blog!

Here’s hoping everyone in the PIR Community has a good year.