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.


9 thoughts on “Reflections from Cal – John Peterson

  1. Jeff Peterson says:

    For the record, I love hearing your thoughts as well…

    But on the topic of paring back the defense budget, I would respectfully suggest that Pentagon spending over the past decade had less to do with Bush administration (policy aims notwithstanding) and primarily reflects the unwillingness of Congress to cut funding for programs and weapons systems that deliver jobs to their home districts. Even here in ultra-liberal Massachusetts, the impulse to preserve pork-barrel military spending overrides any and all principled considerations. Just last month our congressional delegation succeeded in preserving $485 million (this fiscal year) to develop a backup jet engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – a program both the Obama administration and the Pentagon consider a waste of taxpayer money. (Of course, this engine will be built in a GE factory in Lynn.) If Massachusetts Democrats indulge in this sort of behavior, it’s hard to imagine that Secretary Gates will make much headway.

    As regards the Red Sox, I hope you have been enjoying this week’s outcomes vs. the Angels – until last night, that is. (Could Beckett be done?!) Ah well, here in Foxboro we can only hope for a stout season from the Patriots.

  2. Hi Prof Peterson! I was you student at the College of Europe in 2001. Simon Stevin Promotion. I was quite impressed with your lectures back then in Bruges, but after reading your Bio on the University of Edimburgh website I cant believe you wrote so many books since then!! So many that only one actually dates back to before my time as your student. Good luck! Im living in Pittsburgh now, the US is not that bad! 🙂

  3. Hi John, former (2007-2008) advisee Peter Harris here.

    My experience as someone who has now studied at three universities other than Edinburgh (and who was involved with student representation whilst at Edinburgh) is that the politics department does an awful lot to cater for its students, often going beyond what is expected or required. (In fact the reason I stumbled across this blog is because I was returning to pillage the PIR website for the very helpful dissertation handbook document that Sara Rich Dorman produces for fourth years, which I think a friend at a different university could benefit from.)

    The difficulty is getting students to engage with what’s on offer. Perhaps the (higher) tuition fees that you suggest might be necessary to keep Scottish universities well-resourced could also help remedy this problem: by tapping into that good old British trait of getting your money’s worth!

    And, it also stinks of urine in some parts of Austin.

  4. Katy Osborn says:

    Hi Dr Peterson,
    It think it’s so great to have a blog to engage with students (myself a third year Edinburgh politics student. I think it will really be effective with bringing those students who want to participate in the politics community to do so. I have just read an email inviting first years to a social to walk up Arthur’s hill! (I’m quite jealous really!)Which I think is a great way to introduce students to the department. So the efforts of the PIR Department maybe not all underappreciated!

    It thought it very interesting to read your blog, especially about defence cuts and the effects of the recession on the states. I visit Washington DC regularly and spent the summer doing an internship over there as a research intern looking at the anti-immigration laws of Arizona and the effect on Latinos. It’s surprising how far the states have to go on immigration issues. The decline in the countries economy is stark and visibly obvious. Even in the wealthy centre and NW area of DC! I’ve heard California state schools have stopped school on Fridays due to under funding, and it has been suggested that the push to legalise cannabis in this state is a mechanism by which to gather more taxes! Please correct me if I’m wrong on this- or tell me if I’m correct!

    I understand the financial issues of low restrictions of immigration; however you would think that a country created by immigrants would place greater value on the population that creates the backbone of society. Immigrants can be very hard working as they can value future prospects. I understand the reason being strict immigration laws; however I feel the policy that denies babies born by illegal immigrant’s American citizenship is a step too far. This may create more social problems than solve them, splitting families. What do you think?

    This summer the tea party attended a conference in the Mall which was attended by Sarah Palin. I’ve learnt about their limited government views but also their racist views (still a huge issue in the states). After many discussions with my American black boyfriend, his family and friends; it is thought that racism will be on the rise after these mid term elections and especially if Obama doesn’t get a second term. This argument follows the line of thought is that the US population may adopt the view that ‘ now we have voted in the black president, we can afford to be racist’. What do you think about this? Do you think this is a reasonable prediction? God forbid it is.

  5. Colin Atkinson says:


    Great to hear how you are getting on. Can’t believe you never mentioned anything about Fox News or Glenn Beck (was he about in 2007, surely America couldn’t put up with three years of that clown?).

    Keep blogging!


  6. Becky Steffenson says:

    JP-Love the blog. I just taught a graduate seminar on comparative higher education policy and would love to debate your ‘controversial’ views on reform. I would like to say how very grateful I am for my Scottish education. Let me know if you will be passing through the Windy City on your North American travels.

  7. John Peterson says:

    Dear all,

    Well, didn’t know that my blog elicited such a response until I checked today – 6 years later! I’ve done another, more recent blog on my time in DC (mostly) this spring during an epic, 6 week stay in the US in April/May (available on PIR blog). Hope it will end up with as many responses as I’ve had to this one.


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