Archive for April, 2011

The Great Divide

An Uber Gilded Age

A friend of mine has always said he never feels more patriotic than on the day he files his tax return and most years ships off a check to Uncle Sam.

Most Americans, I suspect, consider the tax obligation a necessary duty of citizenship. They may not like it much, but financing our government – yours and mine – is a fundamental obligation of citizens in a democracy. We band together to do for ourselves the things we can’t do alone – national defense, highways, airports, education and care for the poor and lame. That’s government and taking care to maintain it is patriotic no matter what the tax protests say.

Where the social compact starts to fray, however, is at the point where you and I pay and someone else doesn’t. The Washington-based Tax Policy Center says nearly 50% of Americans pay no income tax at all. They either have too little income to qualify or they qualify in our ridiculously complicated tax system for enough exemptions, credits and deductions to avoid any liability.

Little wonder that taxes and sending spark such political outrage. Half of the country, understandably including the poorest Americans, paying no federal tax with increasingly a tiny handful of the richest citizens controlling an ever expanding share of the wealth and also paying little or no taxes.

As Catherine Rampell pointed out recently in a New York Times piece, “the top 1 percent of earners receive about a fifth of all American income; on the other hand, the top 1 percent of Americans by net worth hold about a third of American wealth.” During the so called Gilded Age of the 1890′s, wealth distribution in the United States was not as out of whack as it is today.

Writing in the May issue of Vanity Fair, Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz says: “In terms of income inequality, America lags behind any country in old Europe.  Among our closest counterparts are Russia with its oligarchs and Iran. While many of the old centers of inequality in Latin America, such as Brazil, have been striving in recent years, rather successfully, to improve the plight of the poor and reduce gaps in income, America has allowed inequality to grow.”

Couple those statistics with the almost daily news that top corporate CEO’s, even in firms still struggling with the recession, are raking in big bonuses and pulling down big pay raises.

The only thing that seems to impact behavior at this rarified level is sunlight. After the outcry over the news that GE, with U.S. profits of $5.1 billion in 2010, paid no taxes, but rather received a $3.2 billion refund, the company has been forced to place further restrictions on the compensation of CEO Jeffrey Immelt.

In the now classic Hollywood portrayal of the ruthless characters on Wall Street, Michael Douglas, playing that Godfather of Greed Gordon Gekko is asked, “how much is enough?”

His answer: “It’s not a question of enough, pal. It’s a zero sum game, somebody wins, somebody loses. Money itself isn’t lost or made, it’s simply transferred from one perception to another.”

I really didn’t mind sending in the tax return (and the check). I just hope Gordon Gekko sent one, too.

But, then again, greed knows no shame, or it seems, any limits.

Trumped

A “Businessman” for President

The last time one of the two major parties nominated a real businessman for president was more than 70 years ago. It was 1940, the world was on the verge of another war and the Great Depression still lingered. The GOP turned to Wall Street for a candidate who lost in an Electoral College landslide. No business candidate, who hasn’t been elected to something, has won a major party nomination since.

If Donald Trump is really serious about winning the GOP nomination next year, he’ll need to overcome a lot of history. Business people don’t get nominated for president.

Politico reports today that Trump is serious. He’s been interviewing campaign staff and media consultants. (He needs a media consultant? This guy is living proof that the most dangerous place in America is the area between Donald Trump and a television camera.)

Even as Karl Rove, the last GOP operative to actually win a tough national election, disses Trump, the polls show that his wacky attention on the so called “birther” issue has gotten him attention if not serious credibility.

Trump also has to overcome, well, the sense that he’s just playing all this for the PR involved. And there are the jokes. On the NPR quiz show Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me that aired last weekend, one of the panelists made a crack about Trump’s famous hair style suggesting it was some kind of animal. David Letterman said, “The White House is saying Donald Trump has ‘zero percent chance’ of being elected. Isn’t that a little high?”

In politics, the old saying goes, it’s OK if they’re laughing with you, not so good if they’re laughing at you.

But back to Trump’s one potential strength as a serious candidate – his business credentials. If he really starts to gain traction we’ll hear a good deal more about whether he has really been a success, but let’s grant that he can make a plausible case for his leadership and business acumen. Does it help him? I’d argue no.

In 1940, Republicans were desperate to find a credible candidate to stop Franklin Roosevelt’s quest for an unprecedented third term in the White House. The leading GOP candidates in 1940 were two venerable U.S. Senators, Arthur Vandenberg and Robert Taft, and the 37-year old New York District Attorney, Thomas E. Dewey. None of these capable men really excited the party, which surprisingly turned instead to a Wall Street energy executive named Wendell Willkie.

Willkie was a first-time candidate having never run for anything. In his delightful book about Willkie’s dark horse nomination and campaign – Five Days in Philadelphia - Charles Peters quotes one of Willkie’s friends as saying: “He was a big, shambling, rumpled, overweight, carelessly dressed man, and he radiated a stunning combination of intellect and homely warmth.” In other words, not Donald Trump.

What Willkie lacked in political experience he made up for in personality and a personal style that was genuine. Up from humble beginnings in Indiana, Willkie became a lawyer and by 1940 had risen through the ranks to become the top guy at Commonwealth and Southern, one of the nation’s major utility holding companies. Democrats derisively dismissed Willkie’s personal story by characterizing him as “the barefoot boy from Wall Street.”

Willkie ran a more than credible campaign against Roosevelt, but with war underway in Europe the country was not ready to turn the White House over to an inexperienced utility executive, even a charming one. Willkie’s respected running mate was the great Oregon Sen. Charles McNary, but even McNary couldn’t help the ticket carry Oregon.

Considering the times, and even granting Willkie’s attractiveness, it’s hard to believe that in 1940 – or 2012 – that voters would elect a energy company CEO to run the country. Perhaps about as likely as electing a real estate developer turned reality television show host.

Trump’s best option would seem to be a third-party bid, ala Ross Perot. Perot parlayed his quirky straight talk into nearly 19% of the popular vote in 1992. Arguably, he made Bill Clinton president. Trump could also be a spoiler, but not a contender.

Generally speaking successful business people over estimate the value voters place on business success and they undervalue the soft skills – personality, humor, a genuine liking for people – that are essential to a successful candidate. Politics isn’t business and the skills for success in one field don’t always translate to the other.

Donald Trump can command a lot of attention, as he is currently doing, but he can’t, I suspect, stand the intense scrutiny he will get if he really becomes a candidate. The hair and wife jokes will continue and when next year rolls around, Republicans will do as they have since 1944. They’ll nominate a candidate with public sector skills and experience.

Wendell Willkie was the last serious “business candidate” to run for president. Donald Trump isn’t Wendell Willkie.

The real danger for Republicans may be that the Trump sideshow, currently fascinating the media, drains oxygen from the real GOP candidates who are trying to get organized. On the other hand, the candidates who could win the nomination may benefit from the contrast to Trump. None of them is a much divorced, windy, publicity addicted, weird haired, Manhattan real estate developer given to wearing pink neckties. No one has ever had that profile and been elected either.

 

Wolves

Is There a Lesson Here?

For the first time ever the United States Congress is acting to legislatively remove a species from the protection of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). That action, contained in the big budget bill negotiated last week by the president and congressional leaders, has bipartisan support. Idaho’s Mike Simpson, a Republican, joined with Montana’s Jon Tester, a Democrat, to attach the wolf delisting provision to the budget bill.

The entire debate about wolves, dating all the way back to then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt’s speeches during the Clinton Administration, may be an object lesson in what happens when common sense packs up and leaves the room.

This has been about the most polarized policy/political issue in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming as we’ve seen in a long, long time. Few involved haven’t been tainted by the emotions, legal and political posturing and insistence on an “I win therefore you must lose” approach. What has been missing is one word – balance. Or maybe two words – common sense.

Ironically perhaps one of the more sensible voices in the overheated wolf debate has been that of now-retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wolf expert Carter Niemeier, an unapologetic wolf advocate, who has written a book about his experiences dealing with what he has called the polarizers at both ends of the debate.

Niemeier takes the sensible approach that wolves are here to stay, but they also need to be managed.

“A hunting season will take some of the pressure off wolves,” he told the Missoulian recently. “Sportsmen will be able to do what they think they can do about controlling numbers. The uniqueness will eventually wear off.”

“How many wolf pelts does anyone need to hang on their wall?” he asked.

Niemeier adds, “There are so many wolves now that poaching would never harm them. They are here to stay.”

Idaho Statesman environmental reporter Rocky Barker neatly summed up how national environmental groups mishandled, misread and ultimately misfired in their handling of the wolf issue.

“If you came up with a scenario to undercut the machinations of national environmental groups you couldn’t have done better than the real events. First, they won a lawsuit that they could not defend politically. Then they tried to get a do-over with a settlement that handed power to the very states they had been saying could not be trusted to manage wolves,” Barker wrote this week.

“Needless to say many of the people who gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to these groups because they love wolves are unhappy and some feel betrayed.”

With the Simpson-Tester rider sure to pass in the “must pass” budget bill, environmental leaders were left to complain that the legislative delisting undermines the scientific integrity of the ESA. But wolves have always been more about politics than science and the wolf advocates got beat playing both politics and public relations. In the end, if this mess opens the door to more congressional meddling with endangered species, the no compromise wolf advocates may have themselves to blame.

With Sen. Tester facing an extremely tough re-election next year and Rep. Simpson, as he frequently does, playing the common sense card at the very time Idaho legislators were passing a bill declaring a wolf emergency, it’s not surprising that these two wily politicians did what legislators do. They fixed a political and policy problem. Both had substantial motivation, especially Tester. His likely opponent in next year’s Montana senate race is Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg who has championed legislation to delist wolves everywhere in the lower 48.

Reasonable voices that might have long ago settled all this with compromise and common sense, as Carter Niemeier suggests, left this debate a long, long time ago. Not surprisingly the courts proved to be a singularly inappropriate place to hash out what had become a red hot, emotional and political issue.

I find myself hopelessly in the middle when it comes to wolves. I like the idea that wolves roam the Idaho backcountry as they once did. I also think their numbers should have been rigorously controlled at the state level much earlier. I also think no one really calculated whether the food supply a growing population would need could be readily available. As a result, I think the too large populations have caused significant damage to livestock and wildlife populations. I think ranchers need to be compensated for loses and hunters deserve thriving elk populations. I don’t think wolves, properly managed, present much threat to people.

As I said, I’m a squishy moderate. I see all the arguments.

It’s probably hopeless naive of me, but I wish a few folks early on could have found a sensible way to reintroduce, manage the populations, stay out of court, defuse the polarization and move on.

One way or another, I guess we now have.

A footnote:

While the legislative delisting of wolves is a first, it’s not the first, nor will it be the last, congressional intervention on ESA issues. In 1979, Congress acted to exempt the Tellico Dam project in Tennessee from provisions of the ESA. Much of the debate involved the cost-benefit of Tellico versus the survival of a tiny fish, the snail darter. For a time, the fish became a useful tool to stop the questionable dam and promoted amendments to the ESA, including the creation of a seven-member Cabinet level committee, dubbed the God Squad, with authority to exempt a federal agency from provisions of the Act.

Then-Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus chaired the first God Squad to assess whether the dam should be exempt from ESA requirements. The committee was unanimous in denying the exemption on economic rather than environmental grounds. Andrus said at the time, “I hate to see the snail darter get the credit for stopping a project that was ill-conceived and uneconomic in the first place.”

But, with snail darters and wolves, Congress had the last word when legislation was approved not to delist the snail darter, but to exempt Tellico from the Act.

Ironically, then-Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker invoked wolves in his floor debate arguing for the exemption.

“Now seriously Mr. President,” Baker said, “the snail darter has become an unfortunate example of environmental extremism, and this kind of extremism, if rewarded and allowed to persist, will spell the doom to the environmental protection movement in this country more surely and more quickly than anything else.

“We who voted for the Endangered Species Act with the honest intentions of protecting such glories of nature as the wolf, the eagle, and other treasures have found that extremists with wholly different motives are using this noble act for meanly obstructive ends.”

Some debates just never end.

Baseball in 1921

 Yankees, Giants and New York Baseball

The late, great Baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti once said one of the important things he learned by working on the inside of baseball was “the enormous grip this game has on people…it goes way down deep.”

I learned that lesson all over again reading a wonderful new baseball book telling the story of how the game came to be defined in 1921 as a New York game – the Yankees and Giants faced off in the 1921 World Series – and how that spectacular rivalry helped the great game bounce back from the Black Sox Scandal of 1919.

As the Los Angeles Times said in a recent review of 1921 – The Yankees, the Giants and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York, ”1921 was a transitional one. The nation had only recently emerged from the horrors of World War I. Prohibition was in place, although that didn’t stop Ruth and company from indulging. And why not? Ruth was widely regarded as baseball’s savior for restoring the credibility and allure of the national pastime in the aftermath of the 1919 Black Sox gambling scandal, in which members of the Chicago White Sox took money to throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. By 1921, he was the game’s pre-eminent superstar, acquiring an agent — the ubiquitous Christy Walsh — and igniting the first home-run boom.”

For a baseball junkie – and someone who loves history – 1921 is a great retreat into the formative days of the game so many of us enjoy today. And that is the value of a fine book like this – it connects my history (and yours, perhaps) to the game our fathers also loved.

My dad, a knowledgeable baseball fan, used to talk about the great Yankee teams of the 1920′s and 1930′s. No Yankee fan he, his admiration was for the franchise’s success and for the supporting cast around Ruth and Gehrig and later DiMaggio. He admired a Yankee outfielder by name of Bob Meusel, a guy with a lifetime .309 batting average, 156 career home runs and more than a thousand RBI’s. Meusel played only 11 seasons, all but one for the Yankees and often hit fifth in the line-up behind Ruth and Gehrig.

In 1921, Meusel hit .321, had 24 homers (Ruth hit a remarkable 59) and drove in 135 runs. Meusel and his brother Emil (nicknamed Irish), played against each other in the World Series that year. In 1921, these guys – and their substantial accomplishments – come alive and I can almost hear my dad, the baseball fan, weaving a story about the “old days” in baseball. A wonderful aspect of the game is that the history of baseball really allows us to appreciate an entirely different era.

Baseball in New York in 1921, with writers like Damon Runyon and Heywood Broun doing the daily reporting, was something special. (Runyon once wrote, “The race may not always be to the swift nor the victory to the strong, but that’s how you bet.”) Ruth appropriately received a lot of newspaper ink, but so too did the managers of the Yankees – Miller Huggins – and the Giants – John McGraw.

After the Yankees came on late in the session to win the American League pennant, Runyon wrote of Huggins, who rarely received the credit he was due for the success of this heavy hitters and slick pitchers, “the little manager of the New York club, tramped across the yard in the wake of his men, his head bowed in characteristic attitude. In happiness or sorrow Huggins is ever something a picture of dejection. The crowd cheered him as his familiar Charley Chapin feet lugged his small body along, and Huggins had to keep doffing his cap.”

Good book about great characters and the American game in a very interesting time.

Recall

Throwing Them Out Isn’t Easy

The guy in the photo is Lynn J. Frazier. He was the first public official in the country removed from office by recall. It happened in 1921 in North Dakota.

Frazier had been elected governor three different times on the Non-Partisan League ticket, but his radical brand of progressive politics eventually got him crosswise with the state’s voters. Ironically, he advocated that the recall provision be added to the state constitution and almost immediately it was used against him.

The recall of a governor has happened only one other time. Gray Davis suffered Lynn Frazier’s fate in California in 2003. All this by way of saying, recalling an elected official, as has now been proposed in Idaho (and in Wisconsin), isn’t easy.

The Idahoans who say they want to recall State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna have a big hill to climb. First, they need to collect just north of 158,000 valid signatures (meaning they probably need to gather thousands more) and have only two and a half months to get the job done. That is a lot of standing around in Walmart parking lots and PTA meetings and it will require hundreds if not thousands of volunteers. Such efforts normally dictate paid signature gathering, but if this effort is, as it seems to be, truly grassroots, then the money won’t be readily available to finance the signature production.

Still, the group has a Facebook page up with (as of late yesterday) more than 4,000 friends and they has generated a good deal of media attention. Meanwhile, the Idaho State Journal reports that an American Falls high school senior has launched a “Stand with Luna” website to support the state superintendent.

Other than a handful of local election officials, Idahoans have been reluctant to resort to the recall. Two Idaho Falls state legislators were recalled in 1971. Efforts to recall two Boise legislators are also underway, resembling in some respects the widespread legislative recall efforts underway in Wisconsin.

A fellow often referred to at the time as “a St. Maries dog catcher” mounted a recall effort against Sen. Frank Church in 1967 until it dawned on everyone that there is no provision in the U.S. Constitution to recall federal officials. The dog catcher – he had some links to the John Birch Society – and his recall quickly faded away.

Nationally only 13 legislators, including the two in Idaho, have been recalled since 1913. Seven of the 13 recalls took place in Oregon and California.

The most obvious thing about these numbers, as Milwaukee Journal Sentinel political writer Craig Gilbert points out, “is how seldom the recall has been used successfully. Only 18 states give their citizens the power to remove their state legislators by recall, and in only five has it actually happened.  No one knows how many recalls have been attempted, but only 20 have succeeded in gathering enough valid signatures to force a recall election, and only 13 have succeeded in removing a legislator from office.”

Like I said, it’s a big hill to climb and it should be. As a general rule we have elections to get rid of politicians who fall out of favor. Still, as Gilbert notes, recalls tend to form around a not particularly partisan issue and tend to draw energy from the right of the political spectrum. Of the 13 recalled state legislators, 9 have been Republicans and some of them were recalled because they fell out of favor with their own party.

Essentially that’s what happened to Davis in California in 2003. Davis became enormously unpopular due to the state’s terrible fiscal condition and an energy crisis. The long-time Democrat, governor of an  overwhelmingly blue state, saw his approval numbers go deeply in the ditch with constituents across the board, including Democrats. Enter the Governator.

Successful recalls seem to require a cause and passion, or perhaps anger. Interestingly the very conservative Americans for Limited Government is touting expansion of the recall as a way to get at politicians who aren’t tough enough on spending, an issue that increasingly cuts across all political demographics.

Considering that Luna won re-election last November with just over 60% of the vote – more than 268,000 total votes – the cause he represents – his package of education reform bills – will have to be extremely unpopular for the recall to get real legs. To date, I know of no public polling on how Luna’s education policies are playing with Idaho voters, but  public comments in the media, on newspaper websites and in legislative hearings seem to trend pretty strongly against. Across the state local school boards are scrambling to implement changes, consider more layoffs and four day school weeks and deal with another year of declining budgets.

But it’s an open question as to whether this all adds up to the type of cause that typically drives a recall and whether the passion is deep enough to propel a grassroots signature campaign that results in an election. Having said that, education has often been a mobilizing issue in Idaho. Many voters may not care much about the big policy debates in Boise during a long legislative session, but they do care about the local schoolhouse and they have opinions about whether the students they most care about are getting the right kind of education.

Bottom line: the Luna recall will have to catch fire very fast and burn very hot to have a chance to succeed.

As a curious footnote to recall history, North Dakota’s booted Gov. Lynn Frazier wasn’t out of office for long. About a year after being recalled, Frazier ran for the U.S. Senate and won. He served in the Senate for 18 years until losing a Republican primary in 1940. Further proof, perhaps, that recalls are fueled by the passions of the moment and passion can cool quickly.

Pass/Fail

Tough Session Draws Tough Reviews

Idaho Democrats have called the just completed legislative session “the worst in memory.” Republicans, who overwhelmingly dominate in Idaho, say just a minute, it wasn’t all that bad.

Idaho’s editorial pages are weighing in with generally very tough judgements about a session that stripped collective bargaining rights for teachers, “reformed” education to move policy strongly in the direction of more on-line learning, fewer classroom teachers, “pay for performance” and less money.

The Idaho Press-Tribune in Nampa gave letter grades ranging from three A’s to two F’s and one D. Grading on the curve, the IPT comes down with an overall “B,” while praising lawmakers for meeting their Constitutional obligation to balance the budget and for cutting education spending by only $50 million.

The Twin Falls Times-News compares this year’s session to Gov. Len Jordan’s first session in 1951 when the newly elected Jordan called for, among other things, the closure of state colleges in Lewiston and Albion. The paper says that ’51 session has long been viewed as one of the worst with long-standing consequences, but then suggests the just ended session may have been worse.

“The first session of the 61st Legislature adjourned Thursday with a state bitterly divided over Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna’s education reform proposal,” the paper’s Sunday editorial said. “Lawmakers slashed state support for Medicaid by $35 million, public school funding by $47 million and higher education dollars by $8 million.

“Legislators passed a bill restricting abortion that’s probably unconstitutional, changed the Republican primary so that only party faithful may be able to vote, authorized the governor to declare a “wolf emergency,” made dairies’ nutrient management plans trade secrets, and rewrote Idaho’s Right to Farm law so broadly that it might limit counties’ ability to regulate the expansion of slaughterhouses, potato-processing operations and cheese factories.”

The Idaho Statesman’s Sunday edit was headlined “Difficult and Damaging” and concludes that history may not judge the 88 day session very kindly.

“A session to be proud of? Not even close,” the Statesman said.

Marty Trillhaase, writing on the Lewiston Tribune’s editorial page Sunday, said: “The men and women who sat out the winter under the Capitol dome have delivered a government that is radically different: Lawmakers become lawgivers — Time was, if lawmakers wanted to pass a sales tax or shift schools from local to state support, they asked you. They coaxed you. They won your support. And they took their time.

“Today’s lawgivers descend from Mount Heyburn and inform the rest of us how life is going to be.”

Meanwhile, a referendum effort has been launched to take State School Superintendent Tom Luna’s reforms to the voters and backers of a recall Luna campaign say they are ready to gather signatures.

A couple of weeks, as astute political observers say, is a life-time in politics. The heartburn over this session my fade fast, as fast as these newspaper editorials hit the recycle bin or line the bird cage. But, then again, if those who felt they got the short end of a long stick from this year’s legislature can keep the image alive that has been almost universally depicted by the editorial writers then this session may have lasting political, as well as policy implications.

Stay tuned.