Baseball, Economy, Judiciary, Law and Justice, Music, Otter, Politics, Vice Presidents

Understanding the Mind of Other Men

alexander-hamilton-og-BEAlexander Hamilton was the nation’s first Treasury Secretary and not, as Groupon recently promoted, one of those old, dead white guys we celebrate on President’s Day. Hamilton, who died in a duel with Aaron Burr, would probably rather be remembered as the chief author of a number of the Federalists Papers, the brilliant essays on the powers of government that continue to serve as footnotes to the Constitution and as PR “white papers” that helped sell the founding document to the nation.

In Federalist 78, Hamilton, writing as Publius, discussed several issues related to the judicial branch of the government that had been created under Constitution, including how judges would be appointed and why it was essential to their impartiality and independence that they be guaranteed “life tenure.”

Hamilton was an elegant writer, if somewhat prone to the run-on sentence. Here’s a key (long) sentence from his famous discourse on judges and the judiciary. “This independence of the judges is equally requisite to guard the Constitution and the rights of individuals from the effects of those ill humors, which the arts of designing men, or the influence of particular conjunctures, sometimes disseminate among the people themselves, and which, though they speedily give place to better information, and more deliberate reflection, have a tendency, in the meantime, to occasion dangerous innovations in the government, and serious oppressions of the minor party in the community.”

It would be understandable if you didn’t get all that in one reading, but Hamilton’s essential point was – I’ll put it in my words – that the judiciary ultimately stands as a guard against popular whims and government actions that run counter to the Constitution and individual liberties. The great Federalist admits – maybe hopes – that over time the people will be smart enough to figure out these “ill humors” and correct them, but in the short term, minus “more deliberate reflection” public men (and women) can and will make mistakes or, heaven forbid, stupid decisions.

The job of a judge – particularly a federal judge – is unique in our system and, as Alexander Hamilton and others argued, it must be unique in order for the delicate balance of competing interests among the three branches of government to work. Judges must have the opportunity to engage in “deliberate reflection” and the freedom to know that as long as they maintain certain ethical standard their jobs are not in jeopardy.

Not One of Us…

Idaho’s governor is a genial fellow. In the old days we might have referred to him, as in the old English phrase, as “a hail fellow well met.” I’ve heard Butch Otter quote Shakespeare and he’s been known to lace his speeches with references to the Founders, especially that champion of limited government Thomas Jefferson. Otter once courageously voted against his party and a Republican president when he argued that The Patriot Act, passed in the wake of the September 11 attacks, might well become a threat to civil liberties.

Ours is, as they say, a free country and sharply worded criticism from the lips of public officials is about as common as Groupon promotions, but the nature of Gov. Otter’s recent criticism of Idaho’s widely respected federal District Judge Lynn Winmill – Otter reported said the judge “isn’t one of us” – is just plain hard to figure. Otter went on to suggest that Winmill  “doesn’t share all of the enthusiasm for the marketplace and freedom that we do in Idaho.”

The governor may be able to quote Jefferson, but he may find it useful to re-read some Hamilton.

Read more here: http://blogs.idahostatesman.com/otters-blast-at-judge-winmill-hes-not-one-of-us/#storylink=cpy

Goodness knows federal judges are not – nor should they be – immune from serious criticism. Franklin Roosevelt once famously said after the U.S. Supreme Court had wiped out much New Deal legislation that the court was stuck “in the horse and buggy” era of judicial analysis. Dwight Eisenhower privately lamented the Brown v. Board of Education decision that struck down the decades of law that held that blacks and whites could gain the same quality of education in segregated schools that were “separate but equal.” Barack Obama dissed the current Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case that opened the floodgates for corporate and labor money to wash into our politics. Criticism of judges is cheap and it is a free country.

What is interesting about the Idaho governor’s criticism is not that he made it, but that he has yet to offer any specifics that might illuminate both his criticism and how he thinks about the role of judges. After all, Otter regularly appoints state court judges. Some enterprising reporter needs to follow-up.

Meanwhile, as the Idaho Statesman’s Dan Popkey has noted, Winmill’s capabilities as a person deserving of life tenure was rather exhaustively vetted when he was nominated by President Bill Clinton 19 years ago. Then-Sen. Larry Craig took pains to explain to the Senate Judiciary Committee how diligent he and then-Sen. Dirk Kempthorne had been in assessing Winmill for a job on the federal bench. Craig said they had consulted widely with bipartisan members of the bar and retired judges and determined that Winmill “was extremely well qualified.” Needless to say, the two Republican senators didn’t rely for their analysis on the opinions of the Bannock County Democratic Central Committee, a group that also would have been high on Winmill.

When Kempthorne had his chance before the committee nearly two decades ago he quoted the Old Testament to the effect that “justice, and only justice” must be the pursuit of a judge and that Winmill “meets this test.”

Judge Winmill, who I have known since his early days in Bannock County politics, hardly needs any defense from me, but if you wonder, as I do, about the governor’s recent comments about the federal judge ask any lawyer you know for his or her take. I predict you’ll get an earful.

The Mind of a Judge

Years ago U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, considered by most historians of the court as one of the greatest justices in the nation’s history, was asked who among his Supreme Court colleagues he considered to be the greatest living American jurist. Cardozo said, “the greatest living American jurist isn’t on the Supreme Court.” The greatest judge, Cardozo maintained, and he may well have been correct, was the hugely respected U.S. Appeals Court Judge Learned Hand of New York. Hand, who died in 1961, served on the federal bench for 52 years and was still deciding cases when he died. He is still regarded as the best judge to never make it to the Supreme Court.

Until 1944 Judge Hand was largely unknown outside of legal circles. Then he made a speech at a huge ceremony where thousands of immigrants became U.S. citizens. The speech both captured public imagination and served to articulate Hand’s own mind as a judge. He titled the speech “The Spirit of Liberty.”

“What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith,” Hand said. “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the mind of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned but never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.”

I was reminded of Judge Hand’s short and remarkable speech a few years back when I was in the audience when Judge Winmill, a man remarkably well-read in history as well as the law, called upon a detailed discussion of the infamous Dreyfus Affair – the scandalous anti-Semitic trial of a French military officer in the 1890’s – to illustrate a talk about the American system of justice. I have also heard the judge talk about the lessons of the now widely acknowledge miscarriage of justice that lead to the unconstitutional internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and to the qualities required of a patriot.

I admit to bias about such things, but I like my life tenured judges to know about, think about and reflect on the kinds of ideas that judges like Learned Hand and Lynn Winmill did and do.

In Federalist 78 Alexander Hamilton made the case for life tenure for federal judges in order to insulate those judges from the pressures and partisanship of daily politics under our system. It’s not a perfect system, of course, politics and partisanship still leak in from time-to-time, but it is a system that has and still serves the nation pretty well. Hamilton recognized something else when he was writing in 1788 – that being a judge requires special skills not always widely available in society.

“Hence it is,” Hamilton said, “that there can be but few men in the society who will have sufficient skill in the laws to qualify them for the stations of judges. And making the proper deductions for the ordinary depravity of human nature, the number must be still smaller of those who unite the requisite integrity with the requisite knowledge.”

Integrity and knowledge then, when everything is said and done, is what we really must demand from a judge. Decisions and rulings, along with ill-defined criticism from politicians will come and go. Integrity and knowledge were the qualifications for the Founders and that should still be good enough for us.

Read more here: http://blogs.idahostatesman.com/otters-blast-at-judge-winmill-hes-not-one-of-us/#storylink=cpy
Economy, Egan, Idaho Politics, Otter, Public Lands

Old Debate, Same Outcome

sagebrush

The Idaho Legislature has devoted considerable time and money over the last few months to an analysis of how the state might take over the public lands in Idaho that have been owned since statehood (and before) by all of us – meaning all American citizens – and managed by the federal government.

Never mind that the effort would likely be declared unconstitutional or that the U.S. Congress would never permit such a wholesale transfer, the movement has once again gained some modest traction in the American West. This latest effort will doubtless fade, as earlier ones have time and again, when the reality of managing the land collides with the fear of having to sell much of it in order for a state to afford ownership.

As the Washington Post has reported Utah has been the most aggressive in pushing a state takeover. Utah’s governor signed legislation in 2012 demanding the federal government transfer title even though the state’s legislative counsel opined that the move had a very “high probability of being declared unconstitutional.”

Just because a federal land transfer is a fool’s errand doesn’t mean this is a new issue. Far from it. Some of us will remember the Nevada roots of the a similar effort in the 1980’s, dubbed “the Sagebrush Rebellion” when local officials in the Silver State worked themselves into high dudgeon over federal management of public lands. The movement rose like a rocket and eventually sank like a stone, but not before it had a full political run at the county and state levels all across the West.

When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 he promised to reflect the “values and goals” of the Sagebrush Rebellion, but the former California governor must have know, even if his inept Interior Secretary James Watt didn’t, there was no public appetite for selling off the public’s land or for allowing it to be exploited by a rape, ruin and run crowd of exploiters. Quite to the contrary, the public wanted in the 1980’s – and still wants today – a conservation and economic development balance that demonstrates respect for policies that both conserve and carefully utilize the public lands.

An internal 1980 Interior Department analysis of the Sagebrush Rebellion – “A Old Issue With A New Name” – pointed out that agitation over control, ownership and management of Western public land is as old as the nation itself. In other words, the political winds have blown back and forth on these issues, but always the policy course has tacked in the direction of maintaining the public’s land for the public’s benefit.

I want to quote from that 33 year old Interior analysis, because it still seems so relevant to the debate today in Idaho, Utah and elsewhere:

• In 1832 the Public Land Committee of the U.S. Senate claimed that state sovereignty was threatened by federal land ownership. The rest of Congress, however, maintained its discretionary authority to manage such land without limitation and rejected the complaint.

• In 1930 the Hoover Administration proposed to cede much of the public domain to the states. The recommendation was opposed by both an eastern Congressional majority and by Western states, who having already acquired the most productive land, wanted no responsibility for, as was said, the “waste lands” remaining.

• In the 1940’s Nevada Senator Pat McCarran conducted a series of “investigations” into the Grazing Service (one of Bureau of Land Management’s predecessors) and the Forest Service, both of whom were trying to bring livestock grazing under greater control on public land. In 1946 Senator Edward Robertson of Wyoming sponsored a bill to convey all unreserved and unappropriated lands to their respective states. The BLM was formed the same year.

• In 1956 Senator Russell Long of Louisiana proposed similar legislation.

None of the legislation went anywhere, but the political heat generated was substantial in every case.

The 1980 Interior document goes on to pin the genesis of the 80’s Sagebrush Rebellion on what it termed “the pinch of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, the final comprehensive articulation of national policy on how the remaining unreserved lands would be managed. FLPMA, years in the making, reflected the public realization of the enormous national values held in trust in the public lands and called for those resources and values to be managed for all Americans under the principles of multiple use and sustained yield and on the basis of sound land planning.

“Stated simply, it became clear that consideration of all possible users made the sphere of influence of certain users, heretofore unchallenged, suddenly shrink.”

It has been argued by various advocates of state control over the West’s vast public lands that the states could manage the land more efficiently. The 1980 Interior analysis asked and answered a more important question.

“Fundamentally, the question isn’t whether the States can afford to manage the public lands. They could. They could increase taxes and sell some of the land, and in the case of the energy States bet against future revenues. That’s not the right question. The question is whether the Nation’s interests are best served by such management, and the answer is no.”

Some useful information has been generated by Idaho’s current effort, including a new Congressional Research Service report that estimates, on the conservative side, that the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service spend upwards of $320 million annually managing your public lands in the state. The Idaho Department of Lands entire budget, including federal funds that the department administers, is something less than $20 million. The math, to say the least, doesn’t compute.

The Tea Party-type groups that have to a significant degree been driving the current debate must believe the transfer of lands issue is a political winner, but they may want to check that assumption. Before he was governor of Idaho, Butch Otter was the congressman who briefly advocated selling some public land in the West to offset Hurricane Katrina expenses. The future governor wisely backed off the idea when the political downside, including a potential loss of prized Idaho hunting ground, became a real liability.

From time-to-time and for far into the future we will hear of “a new Sagebrush Rebellion” sparked by some alleged misdeed by a federal agency or federal policy, yet the overall course of federal-state relations in the West is set and has been for a long, long time. Serving the broad public interest will no doubt remain the essential objective of public lands policy in the American West.

The land legislators talk about as “federal” is really “public” land, and one of the beauties of America unlike most of Europe, for example, is that the land really is owned by all of us. Even better for we westerners, American taxpayers in states with little or no public land – think Nebraska, Kansas or Iowa – subsidize the management of our public land, but we need to remember that those folks also share ownership.

We’ll continue to fight over public land management, that is the western way, but rather than continuing to argue over a land transfer that will never happen we might be better served to more constructively debate the details of land management policy, including fire, grazing, timber and mining policy, so that our kids and grand kids can be certain to benefit from the great legacy – the trust – that is embodied in the singularly American idea that all that precious land belongs to all of us.

 

2014 Election, Andrus, Boise, Bush, Church, Economy, Egan, Idaho Politics, Otter, Tamarack

The Rhyme of Political History

ralph-crane-gov-robert-e-smylieThe last time an Idaho governor received a serious primary challenge he lost.

It was 1966 and three-term incumbent Republican Robert E. Smylie, pictured here dressed like he might have been trying out for The Sons of the Pioneers, seemed to be at the zenith of his political power – chairman of the National Governors Association, the senior governor in the nation and a serious player in national politics.

Time magazine took note of Smylie’s re-election announcement in April of 1966 by reporting, “In Idaho, Republican Governor Robert E. Smylie, 51, dean of the nation’s Governors and a 1968 vice-presidential hopeful, filed for a fourth four-year term, which if completed would make his the longest gubernatorial tenure in U.S. history (current record: 15 years, set by Maryland’s Albert C. Ritchie from 1920 through 1934). Smylie, who led the 1965 fight to dump Goldwaterite Dean Burch as G.O.P. national chairman, will campaign on his ‘New Day’ programs of increased state outlays for health, welfare and education financed by a 3% sales tax.”

Time confidently predicted Smylie was “assured” of winning the GOP nomination. He wasn’t. The future vice-presidential hopeful lost his party’s nomination to a little-known state senator from Bonner County named Don Samuelson. That election had dramatic consequences for Idaho’s political history.

“When the primary returns were tabulated,” University of Idaho political scientists Syd Duncombe and Boyd Martin wrote in a post-election analysis, “Samuelson carried all but seven of Idaho’s forty-four counties to defeat Smylie 52,891 to 33,753. One columnist [the Lewiston Morning Tribune’s Robert Myers] attributed Smylie’s defeat to his long term of office, his support of the sales tax, and opposition from Goldwater Republicans stemming from his role in the replacement of Dean Burch.”

Following Arizona Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater’s disastrous 1964 presidential lost to Lyndon Johnson – NBC’s Chet Huntley called Goldwater supporters “classic Republicans, segregationists, Johnsonphobes, desperate conservatives, and radical nuts…the coalition of the discontent” – the moderate wing of the GOP, shoved aside by Goldwater’s hard right followers, set out to reclaim the national party and Bob Smylie helped lead the moderate charge.

One major target of Smylie and the GOP moderates was Tucson, Arizona lawyer Dean Burch, a friend of Goldwater’s who the candidate had installed as chairman of the national Republican party. Burch helped turn the party hard to the right, as Rick Perlstein documents in his fascinating book on Goldwater called Before the Storm. When Ku Klux Klan leaders in Georgia and Alabama, for example, endorsed Goldwater in 1964 Burch refused to disavow their support and said only “we’re not in the in business of discouraging voters.”

Smylie’s Moderate National Role

In January of 1965, after Goldwater’s landslide loss to Johnson, Smylie made national news when he said, as the Associated Press reported, “the time is past when Dean Burch can do anything to save his job as national chairman of the Republican party.” Conservative commentators took to identifying Smylie as a leader of the “Rockefeller wing” of the national party with one writing that the Idaho governor was utilizing “meat axe” tactics to push Burch out as national chairman. Eventually Burch, who went on to serve as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and a top aide to Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, resigned the GOP chairmanship and was replaced by Ohio pol Ray Bliss, a choice acceptable to party moderates like Smylie.

In the mid-1960’s the national Republican party was badly divided, much as it is today, between an insurgent wing loyal to Goldwater’s brand of unflinching conservatism and a moderate wing where political operators, like Ray Bliss, preached the politics of expansion. Bliss, for example, once said his only concern as party chairman was winning elections.

The Goldwater partisans were, in many ways, an earlier version of today’s Tea Party adherents and in Idaho they effectively took over the state party. Bob Smylie found himself swept along in these roiling waters with a growing national profile as a moderate who at the same time had to appeal to an increasingly conservative Idaho GOP. It was a difficult, maybe impossible task, since Smylie stimulated bitter hostility from much of the party base, including a young woman named Gwen Barnett.

Idaho’s Republican national committeewoman, Barnett was the youngest member of the national committee and she made it her cause to defeat Smylie. As long-time Idaho political observer Marty Peterson wrote a while back, “Barnett had become a close ally of the Goldwater forces. Her friend Dean Burch, a former member of the Goldwater Senate staff, had been elected Republican national chairman. She was also close to such rising conservative stars as John Tower, who had become the first Republican elected to the senate from Texas since Reconstruction.” Barnett recruited Samuelson to run against Smylie, helped round up the money and saw to it that insurgent Idaho Republicans united behind the challenger. The resulting and stunning defeat of the moderate Smylie made 1966 one of the most significant years in Idaho political history.

Looking back on this near ancient political history it is now easy to see that Smylie, a governor who deserves to be well remembered for creating a state park system and establishing a balanced tax system, committed a cardinal political sin – he lost touch with his base. Undoubtedly this supremely self-confident man was overconfident.

Generally speaking there is little payoff in Idaho for being well regarded on the pages of Time or being chummy with the very liberal then-governor of New York Nelson Rockefeller. You can Google Robert E. Smylie today and find a photo of him at the Boise airport in 1959 welcoming his buddy Rockefeller to town and another picture of Smylie in 1961 at a national governors’ gathering wearing shorts, his shirt unbuttoned to the naval and at the helm of what appears to be a very large yacht. Not exactly typical Idaho political images today or in the 1960’s.

The Rhyme of Political History

Fast forward to 2013 and the news last weekend that a relatively unknown state senator, Russ Fulcher of Meridian, will challenge two-term incumbent Butch Otter for the Republican nomination for governor in 2014.

As Mark Twain is famously reported to have said, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

It would be easy to overstate the parallels between 1966 and 2014, but you would also have to have political blinders in place not to recognize some of the striking similarities about the two races separated by nearly 50 years. The first would be Gov. Otter’s “long term of office” – four years in the state legislature, 14 years as Lt. Governor, six years in Congress and going on eight years as governor. It is often true in politics that as the years accumulate so do the enemies.

Another parallel: Otter’s opponent comes to the race from a perch in the state senate where by all accounts he has assembled a very conservative voting record not unlike Samuelson all those years ago. And like the man who beat Bob Smylie, Fulcher is making a straight forward play for support from the insurgent/populist wing of his party.

With Idaho Democrats still mostly an after thought in the state’s politics, the Idaho GOP has in effect become two or maybe more parties divided into various factions. There seems little doubt the anti-establishment, populist oriented Tea Party wing (and its many variations) has been on the rise since at least 2008 when insurgents pushed out a state party chairman who had the support of Otter and many of the party’s traditional movers and shakers. Many of those same insurgents, over the objections of Otter and other leaders of the party, then successfully battled to close the state’s GOP primary, in essence forcing party registration on Idaho, a move which seems certain to ensure that the most motivated and perhaps the most disenchanted Republican voters dominate next May’s primary election.

Ironically, the battle for the heart and soul of the Idaho GOP, tends to pit more traditional business-oriented, Chamber of Commerce Republicans against the same brand of populists who fueled Barry Goldwater’s rise in the early 1960’s. Generally speaking many of these voters are the most skeptical of government, dismissive of “elites” of any type and disdainful of long tenure in office. All of which makes you wonder if Gov. Otter’s forthcoming campaign event in Coeur d’Alene, featuring the great moderate hope of the national GOP New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, will serve to reinforce the image that the insurgents are fighting the establishment. Christie recently won a landslide re-election in New Jersey by appealing to Democrats and independents with the kind of campaign Ray Bliss would have loved, but that many in the Tea Party find off putting.

One final parallel. Don Samuelson had a compelling issue in 1966 against the incumbent. Smylie’s championing of the sales tax – first put in place in the 1930’s then repealed by voters before being resurrected in 1966 – was at the heart of the entire campaign that year. Ironically Idahoans endorsed the tax at the ballot box in November of 1966 even as Samuelson, who had voted against the measure in the legislature, was winning a four-way general election race with barely 41% of the vote. The pro-tax vote in 1966 was 61%. Samuelson simply sliced the electorate just finally enough to grab the votes of the anti-tax crowd, and that block and a few more votes were enough to give him a win.

[It’s worth noting that both Idaho parties originally nominated anti-sales tax candidates for governor in 1966 even as voters were warming to adopting the tax at the ballot box.]

Fulcher’s issue is, of course, Otter’s advocacy of development of a state-managed health care exchange, which he equates to Otter supporting “Obamacare.” Never mind that Otter sued the federal government and lost over the extremely controversial health insurance reform law before concluding that the state would be better off developing its own exchange rather than relying on the federal government.

Obamacare, not unlike rank and file GOP resentment of Smylie’s moderate leadership role in national politics and his support for establishing a sales tax in the 1960’s, could become a powerful cause for many GOP primary voters, and in politics a powerful cause that juices up the base can, as long-time Idaho analyst Randy Staplius recently observed, be even more important than the profile of the candidate.

The politics of Idaho just became a lot more interesting and, while it should be said emphatically that Butch Otter has many, many significant advantages as he goes for a third term as governor – a solid conservative record, a winning personality, a polished retail approach to politics, lots of money, and the advantages of incumbency – once in a while history does rhyme.

The Wonderful Unpredictability of Politics

Political scientists Duncombe and Martin presciently noted in their 1966 election analysis that, while Idaho Republicans had won big at the ballot box that year – electing Len Jordan to a full term in the U.S. Senate, winning both of the state’s congressional seats, picking up seats in the legislature and, of course, retaining the governorship – the party came out of the Smylie-Samuelson experience badly divided. Such “rifts would need to be healed” they pointed out if the party were to consolidate its gains in 1968 and beyond. What actually happened show that the riffs weren’t so well healed.

In 1968 Democrat Frank Church won re-election to the U.S. Senate and just two years later, in 1970, Democrat Cecil D. Andrus, who had cut his political teeth on primary and general election campaigns during the dramatically unpredictable year of 1966, won the governorship over Samuelson who proved to be a better giant killer than a governor.

Andrus has often said when folks joke about Samuelson’s ineptitude as governor, “Don’t say anything bad about Don Samuelson. If there hadn’t been a Don Samuelson there never would have been a Cecil Andrus.”

That 1970 election began 24 straight years of Democratic control of the Idaho governorship, a political phenomenon that seemed unimaginable four decades ago, but that happened in no small part because of the turmoil fostered by the primary defeat of an Idaho governor who seemed unbeatable until he wasn’t.

 

Christie, Economy, Egan, Higher Education, Idaho Politics, Iran

Higher Ed, Lower Expectations

Idaho is about to lose another high value educational asset. The loss is coming, in part I suspect, because the state has engaged in prolonged and systematic disinvestment in education at all levels and higher education has been particularly hard hit.

University of Idaho President Duane Nellis apparently will depart shortly for Texas Tech University in Lubbock; a 30,000 student, major research university that competes athletically in the Big 12. Nellis was named late last week as the “sole” finalist for the desirable Texas Tech job.

Nellis’ departure comes four years after University of Idaho supporters prevailed upon him to take the job at Idaho’s land grant university by sweetening the salary offer with private dollars above and beyond what the State Board of Education was prepared to pay. The Nellis move marks the second departure of a high value U of I president to a place where education is clearly a higher priority than it is in Idaho. Tim White, Nellis’ predecessor, left the Moscow school in 2008 to head the University of California-Riverside and since has since been promoted to head the entire 23-campus California State University system. Talk about a brain drain.

(Full disclosure: my firm has had a long-standing client relationship with the University of Idaho and know and admire both Nellis and White. I have also done volunteer work for years with the Andrus Center at Boise State University.)

It’s clear that Nellis was recruited for the Texas Tech job and White’s rapid rise in the huge Cal State system speaks for itself. Both men are quality leaders with national reputations who, in the whole scheme of things, had barely a cup of coffee as they passed through educational penny-wise and pound-foolish Idaho. One can hardly blame them for leaving for states where admittedly educational budgets have been whacked, but where higher education is still seen as the surest path to economic growth.

At California-Riverside White helped open the first new medical school in the state in four decades, while during his tenure in Idaho Nellis launched a major fundraising campaign and continued to grow the U of I’s research budget. Nellis moves to a Texas Tech system that boasts a law school, a health sciences center, a big graduate school and a national/international foot print in agriculture and trade.

(Political junkies will note that the Texas Tech system’s Chancellor is former U.S. Representative Kent Hance, a conservative Democrat-turned-Republican who holds the distinction of having beaten one George W. Bush in a congressional race in the 1970’s. Hance is a major player in Texas politics who, among other things, as a House Democrat, helped then-President Ronald Reagan pass the Reagan tax cuts in 1981.)

California’s bizarre budget and spending constraints required that Gov. Jerry Brown take a measure to the ballot last November to raise taxes, part of which he sold as a break with the state’s recent history of disinvestment in higher education.

As the New York Times recently noted, “Governor Brown holds a position on the board of trustees for both Cal State and [the University of California]. Since November, he has attended every meeting of both boards, asking about everything from dormitories to private donations and federal student loans. He is twisting arms on issues he has long held dear, like slashing executive pay and increasing teaching requirements for professors — ideas that have long been met with considerable resistance from academia. But Mr. Brown, himself a graduate of University of California, Berkeley, has never been a man to shrink from a debate.”

Like Idaho, spending on colleges and universities is down in California and in Texas, and enrollment is up. What seems different, however, is that some states in the post-recession period are finally starting, however tentatively, to invest again. And of equal importance these states actually demonstrate a genuine commitment to higher education by exploring real reform. For example, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber is pushing forward with a major reworking of the state’s university governance system that will likely lead to more independence and spending flexibility. Other states are linking state support to educational outcomes, hoping to change incentives from merely enrolling students to keeping them in school.

Idaho, on the other hand, seems content not even to discuss new models, while maintaining a top-down command structure enforced by a part-time board that generally sees it’s job as policing the higher education budget rather than growing it. A legislator who might be inclined to dust-off old ideas about a single university system, a chancellor for Idaho higher education or a higher education board devoted to policy would get laughed out of the Statehouse.

As the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) noted in a recent report 20 years ago the United States “topped the world in the percentage of adults age 25 to 34 with college degrees. Our elementary and secondary schools might have been cause for concern but, with students from around the world wanting to enroll, our colleges and universities were above reproach.” No longer.

“Today,” the NCLS report says, “the United States ranks 10th among developed nations in the percentage of young workers holding a post-secondary credential or degree. It’s not that today’s young people are less educated than their elders. Rather, it’s that other nations are doing all they can to boost college participation and attainment and have surpassed the United States.”

Another study, the Times World Higher Education study, concludes that elite United States colleges – Harvard, Stanford, etc. – continue to be among the very best in the world, but the rest of the world is catching up to the rest of American higher education and catching up quickly.

“New forces in higher education are emerging, especially in the East Asian countries that are investing heavily in building world-class universities, so the traditional elite must be very careful,” according to Phil Baty, editor of Times Higher Education. “In the three years that the World Reputation Rankings have been running, we have clear evidence that the U.S. and the U.K. in particular are losing ground.”

So place all this in this global context and recognize that the bean counters in the Idaho legislature have, after a decade of disinvestment, succeeded in downsized state government to a place many of them have long dreamed about. At the same time they seem entirely content to let higher education patch and scratch its way forward. This year there will apparently be no new money to allow the University of Idaho to expand its law school offerings in the business and government center of the state and no new money to work on critical programs to retain kids in school once they have gotten there. The vast majority of the extremely limited new money for higher education – so far the legislature has approved less than the governor requested – will barely allow the state’s colleges and universities to keep up with new enrollment and occupy a few new buildings. This hardly signifies a strategic view of how to apply the essential grease of quality higher education to the sticky gears of a still lagging state economy.

You have to wonder how Idaho will attract the jobs of the 21st Century when the state continues to have one of the most dismal percentages in the country of high school grads going on to college or skills education. Meanwhile, study after study shows the unmistakable connection between the level of educational attainment by Americans and how well they do on measures of economic security and income. It’s not difficult to conclude that while Idaho education policy in recent years has centered on various “reforms” that have often promised improvements without more money, the state’s per capita personal income has fallen from 41st in the country in 2000 to 49th in 2011.

 Most state policy makers seem entirely content with the steadily diminished status quo and they scarcely speak as another proven higher education leader leaves for a greener pasture. You won’t hear many speeches from Idaho political leaders about how the state should aspire to lead the nation (or even the region) in some academic area or find the resources to build a world-class research capability. Quite to the contrary the view seems to be that things in Idaho are just good enough and budgets and aspiration best be held in check. One doubts Duane Nellis or Tim White heard such sentiments in Texas or California when they made decisions to move on.

At the same time, new forces in higher education indeed are emerging. The Chinese, the Koreans and the Indians, just to mention the obvious, understand the links between robust, continually improving higher education and a growing 21st Century economy. Higher education shrinks income disparity, provides one sure path from poverty to a better life and, not insignificantly, creates better, critically thinking citizens. It’s one thing to be ideologically blind to the need for new investment in higher education that might require new resources. It’s quite another thing to be willfully ignorant of the way the world works.

 

Andrus, Baseball, Christie, Economy, FDR, Pete Seeger, Politics, Romney

House of Morgan

Too Big to Fail, Too Big to Manage

A little over one hundred years ago J. Pierpont Morgan ran much of the world’s business from an elegant office at 23 Wall Street in New York. The investment and commercial banking operations that J.P. oversaw financed railroads, mining, energy, steel and insurance companies. Morgan was big, so big that when the U.S. economy was on the verge of tanking in 1907, Morgan put a wad of money on the table and saved the day.

In the days before “too big to fail” became part of the national dialogue, the House of Morgan literally was too big and too powerful to fail. Morgan was the banker to the robber barons of the Gilded Age and as such earned the scorn of many a progressive politician. By the early 1930’s, with the old man, J.Pierpont dead since 1913, the House of Morgan finally got its comeuppance. The Glass-Steagall Act, also known as The Banking Act of 1933, passed the Congress, was signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt and the big banks, particularly The House of Morgan, had to separate investment and commercial banking. Glass-Steagall was a clear cut response to The Great Depression and the widespread belief that reckless speculation by some bankers had played a contributing role in the international economic crisis that began in 1929.

It’s worth noting that the Glass in Glass-Steagall was Sen. Carter Glass of Virginia one of the old-style southern conservative Democrats who dominated Congress during much of the New Deal period. Glass, a newspaper editor by profession, served in the U.S. House of Representatives, helped write the Federal Reserve Act and then served as Treasury Secretary under Woodrow Wilson. Franklin Roosevelt wanted the tough, no nonsense, very conservative Sen. Glass to come back to the Treasury in 1933, but Glass preferred to stay in the Senate and devote his attention to improving banking regulation and modernizing the Fed. In short, Carter Glass was an expert legislator in these areas who applied decades of experience to sorting out how the federal government – and this guy was no big government liberal – ought to regulate banking.

American banking was governed by Glass-Steagall until 1999 when the Clinton Administration led the charge to eliminate the last visage of the New Deal-era regulation that separated traditional banking activity – loans, credit cards, deposits – from the substantially more speculative and riskier investment banking that centers on underwriting securities. Then-Treasury Sec. Lawrence Summers called the elimination of the 1930’s law an “update” of old rules, which would create a banking system for the 21st Century. Just how is that “update” working out so far you’d be smart to ask.

Enter Jamie Dimon the man who now presides over the 21st Century firm that J.P. Morgan invented in the 19th Century. Dimon, whose bank lost at least $2 billion recently by speculating in what are not incorrectly called financial “bets,” will testify before the Senate Banking Committee on June 7th to provide, as chairman Sen. Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota) said, “a better understanding of this massive trading loss so we can take the implications into account as we continue to conduct our robust oversight over the full implementation of Wall Street reform.”

Sounds like Congress is finally set to get to the bottom of all this risk taking by Wall Street banks, but wait, don’t bet the house payment just yet.

So far Dimon’s explanation for the big losses his firm suffered has been what we might call the “we were stupid” defense. This from the guy universally regarded as the smartest operator on The Street. Dimon has called the trading – bets more precisely – on extraordinarily complex corporate-bond derivatives – hope Sen. Johnson knows what those are – a “terrible, egregious mistake” and he’s humbly admitted JPMorgan Chase has “egg on our face.”

Dimon is displaying excellent crisis management skills by admitting the obvious, his bank screwed up, but he is also the guy who has repeatedly condemned the Wall Street reforms contained in the Dodd-Frank legislation. That legislation, passed in the wake of the most recent economic collapse, stopped well short of re-imposing the kind of controls that once existed with Glass-Steagall, but Dodd-Frank nevertheless earns the widespread scorn of most Wall Streeters as well as conservative politicians beginning with Mitt Romney. Romney has condemned the JPMorgan risk taking, but also says he’ll work to repeal Dodd-Frank.

Here’s a guess – call it a policy bet – the Dimon appearance before the Senate committee will involve a great many speeches both chastising big bankers and federal regulators, but nothing much will change. Dimon will gracefully sidestep any real responsibility for the betting errors, in part, because everyone knows that even the smartest guy on Wall Street can’t possibly keep track of all the esoteric trading his minions are engaged in across the globe. Many commentators will again bemoan the reckless greed that drives the kind of speculation JPMorgan and its competitors engage in but, when all is said and done, legislators will not be able to tighten the regulatory screws on the excesses of Dimon’s firm and other banking houses, because they too have placed a bet. The Congress – both parties – are gambling that continuing to woo the campaign financial largess of Wall Street, while not engaging in real regulatory reform won’t continue to imperil the American economy. I hope they win the bet, but I wouldn’t put money on it.

Two things to know from the messy details of this new Gilded Age: vast amounts of money is being made by what can only be called the wildest, most uncontrolled speculation since J.P. Morgan reigned on Wall Street and, through all the months of anguish and pain that followed the financial meltdown in 2008, not a single Wall Street player has had to face the legal, let alone the moral, consequences of the kind of reckless behavior that Jamie Dimon says put egg on his face.

The New York Times reports that the fellow who made a bundle while JPMorgan was losing a bundle is Boaz Weinstein, an aggressive hedge fund manager – he made $90 million last year – who was smart enough and gutsy enough to understand that JPMorgan’s “egregious mistake” was another gambler’s opportunity. The Times says of Weinstein: “In the hedge fund game, a business in which ruthlessness is prized and money is the ultimate measure, Mr. Weinstein is what is known as a “monster” — an aggressive trader with a preternatural appetite for risk and a take-no-prisoners style. He is a chess master, as well as a high-roller on the velvet-topped tables of Las Vegas. He has been banned from the Bellagio for counting cards.”

If you believe modern capitalism is a zero-sum game where someone wins and someone loses, little of value is produced, few jobs are created, and vast amounts of money are at stake for a handful of gamblers, then the capitalism of Dimon-Weinstein is just what the regulator ordered. If, on the other hand, if you believe in what I’ll call old fashion capitalism where money is borrowed and invested in real enterprises that employ people and make things, then you might think that Washington, D.C., with its unwillingness to confront Wall Street gambling, is continuing to whistle past the next economic meltdown graveyard.

How else to explain that no one – not a person – has suffered even mild public rebuke, let alone jail time, for the series of decisions in housing and finance that brought much of the American middle class to its knees in 2008 and since. Not only has no one been held accountable, fundamentally – as the JPMorgan bets confirm – nothing has changed with the big banks. In fact, as David Rohde explained recently in The Atlantic, “The country’s biggest banks are getting bigger.”

“Five U.S. banks – JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs – held $8.5 trillion in assets at the end of 2011,” writes Rohde, “equal to 56 percent of the country’s economy, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. Five years earlier, before the financial crisis, the biggest banks’ holdings amounted to 43 percent of U.S. output. Today, they are roughly twice as large as they were a decade ago relative to the economy.”

Using World Bank numbers, JPMorgan Chase’s market capitalization is greater than the GDP of 130 of the world’s countries, including New Zealand, Iraq and Vietnam. Given such size and scope, it’s little wonder the big banks behave like sovereign nations.

So, the biggest get bigger and ensure their position as “too big to fail” and even alleged smart guys like Jamie Dimon admit that banks too big to fail are, by definition, too big to manage. The big winners in this modern capitalism are guys like Boaz Weinstein who is a good enough gambler to get himself banned from Las Vegas, a place that really knows how to manage risk, but is, as the Times article says, “practically a featured attraction on Wall Street. [Weinstein] attends galas and charity events, and is sought out to speak at big events. Pictures of him clasping a drink at last night’s party appear with regularity on business Web sites.”

By comparison old J.P. seems like a genuine piker.

 

2014 Election, Al Gore, Borah, Bush, Christie, Church, Economy, Nebraska, Theodore Roosevelt, Wall Street

Bigness

An Old Notion Relevant Again

On the downhill side of the Gilded Age in American political and business life – that would have been in the late 1800’s – progressive reformers from Theodore Roosevelt to Woodrow Wilson to Louis Brandeis found fault with the idea and reality of a concentration of economic power.

Brandeis, a great legal advocate before he went on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1916, described the threat of economic concentration by a single, simple word “bigness.” Brandeis entitled one of his greatest works, published in 1913, Other People’s Money and one chapter in that book was called “The Curse of Bigness.”

“Size, we are told, is not a crime,” Brandeis wrote, “But size may, at least, become noxious by reason of the means through which it was attained or the uses to which it is put. And it is size attained by combination, instead of natural growth, which has contributed so largely to our financial concentration.”

Today it is almost an article of faith that “bigger is better,” but the early 20th Century focus on means and uses of economic concentration are just as relevant today as when Woodrow Wilson was in the White House.

Our political and regulatory system seems unable to address the “too big to fail” syndrome and the human abuses that can follow. Much of corporate America seems one big merger followed by another and meanwhile, Walmart, one of the biggest of the bigs, seems to be engulfed by a major foreign bribery scandal in Mexico, Rupert Murdoch’s vast media empire is now defending its political clout in Great Britain as Murdoch execs fend off criminal charges for violating privacy. Criminal charges have been leveled against a BP engineer involved in the Gulf oil spill. You could go on, but the situation is clear – too big to fail can also be too good to be true.

Idaho Sen. Frank Church – he served in the Senate from 1957-1981 – is remembered today primarily for his headline generating investigation of the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1970’s, but Church always considered another of his Senate investigations equally, if not more, important. As chairman of a subcommittee on multinational corporations in 1973, Church delved deeply into the practices, some of them corrupt, of some of the biggest, most powerful companies in the world.

Church’s work cast light on International Telephone & Telegraph’s involvement in the fall and murder of Chilean President Salvador Allende and Lockheed was exposed for its role in a bribery scandal in Japan. Lockheed’s CEO at the time admitted to spending millions on bribes to foreign officials and a Japanese prime minister went to jail in the resulting scandal. The entire chain of events led to passage of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in 1977, the U.S. law that Walmart may find itself on the wrong side of today.

Frank Church discovered in that long ago investigation that human nature, driven by an imperative to constantly expand and concentrate economic power has its dark side. In such a world corners get trimmed, ends justify means and we experience an Enron or we end up bailing out a financial institution that can only justify its continued existence because it’s too big to fail.

A thinking man’s conservative, New York Times columnist David Brooks, had a fascinating column this week in which, in a way, he came at this bigness issue from a novel angle. Brooks’ point was that a blind focus on destroying the competition – Brandeis might have termed it how businesses become always bigger – is the flip side of a lack of innovation. When the focus is on constantly and relentlessly growing, creativity goes begging. The need to be bigger inevitably trumps everything, including finding a better way to make a widget.

Brandeis argued a hundred years ago – his was the age of Standard Oil and the House of Morgan – that eventually bigness, that which “is attendant of excessive size,” is inefficient. Eventually, he wrote, “Decentralization will begin. The liberated smaller units will find no difficulty in financing their needs without bowing the knee to money lords. And a long step will have been taken toward attainment of the New Freedom [a reference to Wilson-era reforms in banking and business.]

It may well be in this age of globalization with a bank in Rhode Island tied to the fate of a housing development in Ireland that there is no going back from bigness, but there may be more than nostalgia in longing for a simpler, smaller time.

Frank Church, a liberal Democrat, helped expose the evils of bigness and concentrated power in the 1970’s, just as his role model in the Senate, William E. Borah, had done in the 1930’s. Borah, a Republican progressive, hated bigness, monopoly and concentration of power. He championed small business and decentralization and once said, “When you have destroyed small business, you have destroyed our towns and our country life, and you have guaranteed and made permanent the concentration of economic power, [which in turn ensures] the concentration of political power.  Monopoly and bureaucracy are twin whelps from the same kennel.”

I don’t know about you, but I long for a political leader willing to call bluff on concentrated power. Bigger isn’t always better, it may just be bigger.

 

2012 Election, Economy, Minnick, Otter, Paul, Pete Seeger, Political Correctness, Romney

Ron Paul

Can He Win Idaho?

Watching the GOP field I have come to believe that only Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian from Texas, is truly comfortable in his own skin. He’s the only candidate in the race who hasn’t had to walk back his comments on one position or the other. The guy knows what he believes and says the same. But can he win something? Today may be his day.

Paul was in Sandpoint, Idaho yesterday rallying a crowd reported to be 1,300. It was one of three events he held in the state yesterday. Paul has an appearance planned today at the Nampa Civic Center. Writing in Politico today James Hohmann noted that Paul drew his big crowd in a community with only 7,365 residents.

The Coeur d’Alene Press had this about the Sandpoint rally yesterday: “The famously libertarian candidate…saw a wide variety of attendees to the rally. Some, like Bonner County Commissioner Cornel Rasor, were longtime members of the established Idaho Republican Party. Others, like Tea Party activist Pam Stout, were fiscal conservatives seeking a frugal candidate. Still others were politically unaffiliated or young individuals attracted to Paul’s message of small government and minimal federal interference.”

The conventional wisdom holds that Paul must win somewhere – and fast – or risk running out of steam as the primary campaign grinds on. He would seem to have a far shot in three states with a GOP caucus today – North Dakota, Alaska and Idaho. The Idaho GOP establishment is aligned with Mitt Romney and the state’s sizeable Mormon population is almost certain to give him an advantage, but – a big but – the insurgent wing of the Idaho GOP, the group that has come to dominate a good deal of the party’s business, is entirely capable of sending Romney and his Idaho supporters a big message. We’ll see if they do. It may be worth noting that while Paul was drawing 1,300 up the road in Sandpoint, Gov. Butch Otter, a Romney surrogate, was speaking to a crowd of 100 in Coeur d’Alene.

Paul won 24% of the GOP vote in the Idaho primary in 2008 and won a straw poll of 400 party activists earlier this year. His rallies have smartly targeted the conservative Idaho panhandle, the University of Idaho campus in Moscow, Idaho Falls and the typically very conservative Canyon County in Idaho’s southwestern corner. Canyon County will likely produce the largest GOP caucus turnout tonight.

The national media has turned virtually all of its attention on the big swing state of Ohio where Romney and Rick Santorum appear to be running neck and neck. If Ron Paul were to pull off a win tonight in Idaho, North Dakota or Alaska, they’ll have to pivot on a dime and try to figure out why. Paul may not win – it will be tough – but if he does once more the GOP contest will be scrambled.

It was just four short years ago that Illinois Sen. Barack Obama filled the Boise State University pavilion and then completely out organized Hillary Clinton to win the Idaho Democratic caucus. Paul’s campaign understands what Obama’s did then – it’s the delegates, stupid. History just might be ready to repeat.

 

 

Christie, Economy

What Does It Mean

Mindless Protest…or Something More

What to make of the “occupy” protests?

Is it the fad of the moment; the “trust fund” demographic playing at protest against the consumer and corporate culture they quietly and passionately embrace? It can be hard to be credible as part of the 99% while sipping a double macchiato from Starbucks and resist the autumn breeze in your Patagonia fleece.

On the other hand, it’s hard to warm to a Treasury Secretary in a Democratic administration who hasn’t always paid his taxes and seems intent on insulating Wall Street from real scrutiny and real reform. Beyond sullying parks from New York to Portland, we must credit the 99% with raising the issue of income disparity to the national conversation.

But what to make of a “movement” with no goals and no leader? Maybe it’s just mindless anger addressed toward a political and business culture that seems more and more remote from the daily existence of many Americans or it may just be – may just be – the vanguard of a new progressive movement; the type of which has always come in our history on the heels of capitalism behaving badly.

Three examples, all in the news in the last two weeks, that should take even the cozy and comfortable down to the occupied zone.

Former New Jersey Senator and Gov. Jon Corzine’s political afterlife found him settling in at a “futures brokerage firm” that recently declared bankruptcy after it was disclosed that $633 million of the firm’s client’s money had gone missing. I can understand accidentally dropping a $20 bill, but $633 million? More than 1,000 employees of MF Global were cut loose on Friday. Corzine, a Democrat who once ran Goldman Sachs, obviously knows both the ways of Wall Street and Capitol Hill. He may soon know the ways of a federal crossbar hotel.

As Robert Mintz reported in The Guardian, the MF Global meltdown is most likely another example of an inadequate regulatory system that failed to assess the risks that greed will run.

“One of the hallmarks of the financial crisis was the degree to which firms became so highly leveraged that a run on the bank became almost inevitable,” Mintz wrote. “The level that MF Global was permitted to leverage itself should have raised red flags, but didn’t.”

Greed has also been batting clean-up in the epic demise of the one-time blue chip franchise that used to be the Los Angeles Dodgers. Like the Corzine caper, Frank McCourt’s looting of the Dodgers has yet to be fully documented, but it seems pretty clear he turned the team’s cash drawer into a personal slush fund. McCourt will eventually lose his team, Dodger fans will undoubtedly lose another season and the sleazy owner will walk. Being greedy is rarely a crime, apparently.

That brings us to Nancy Pelosi. The House minority leader and former Speaker of the House has some explaining to do today after a truly devastating piece last night on the CBS broadcast 60 Minutes. Correspondent Steve Kroft, reminding us of the old Mike Wallace, asked Pelosi how she could justify having what is in effect insider stock information that allowed her and her husband to benefit handsomely on an initial public offering. Kroft’s report also examined the benefits of insider information in the hands of current Speaker John Boehner and House Financial Service Chairman Spencer Bachus.

None of the lawmakers, of course, sat for an interview to explain themselves, but the bumbling answer Pelosi gave when Kroft confronted her during a news conference was a classic of the “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but you must be wrong” variety. The lawmaker’s ultimate defense, again of course, is that the insider information members of Congress have access to, and can trade upon, is not illegal. It’s just wrong.

It can be difficult to see a popular uprising as it unfolds. It took us a while to catch on to the Arab Spring. When the end came, the Soviet Union collapsed much faster than anyone could have predicted. The backlash against the greed and excess of the Gilded Age of the 1890’s unfolded over more than a decade through the administrations of three presidents – Theodore Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson. The raw speculation and lack of regulation in the 1920’s ushered in the regulatory reforms of the New Deal.

We’re still sorting out – and will be for a long time – the real consequences of the financial and housing meltdown of 2008. I’m not sure I completely agree with those, like Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs, who contend we are on the cusp of a new progressive era that will, as Sachs wrote Sunday in the New York Times, will usher in an age of renewal.

I also don’t know if the Occupy crowd watches 60 Minutes or cares a fig about the future of the Dodgers, and I don’t have a clue as to whether they have any substance to offer to the national debate, but they do seem to have identified simple and time-honored truths – greed is not good and a modern representative democracy will not function well when those in positions of real power behave so very badly.

In another context, I’m reminded of the famous words of the lawyer who finally put Sen. Joe McCarthy in his place. Joseph Welch, with guts and eloquence, glared at McCarthy during the famous televised hearings and asked, “Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

A good question for Corzine, McCourt, Pelosi, et al. Indeed, they have no sense of decency.

 

2012 Election, Christie, Economy, Minnick

Lost Generation

The Fall of the American Dream

While Herman Cain talks about his “9-9-9” plan to restore the economy and Mitt Romney touts a 59 point plan to do the same, while President Obama’s most recent plan can’t even command enough respect to get a vote in the Senate, the glass half empty crowd wonders if we’ll capable of solving any problem – economic or political.

Case in point: new research from the Washington Post and Bloomberg News paints the American mindset in gloomy colors. As Chris Cilliza notes in the Post, Forty four percent of the folks surveyed “said that it wouldn’t make much difference for their family’s financial situation if President Obama won a second term or if a Republican was elected. Among independents, nearly six in ten (58 percent) said no matter what happens in the 2012 there would likely be little change in their own financial situation.”

Put another way, many, many Americans say we’re doomed to endless political deadlock and prolonged economic stagnation. Welcome to America in the 21st Century.

In a sober piece in last Sunday’s New York Times, David Leonhardt offered the assessment that the current economic – and I would add political – turmoil may be even worse than it seems. In Leonhardt’s view, even during the Great Depression, Americans were inventing, innovating, building things. Not so much now.

“Even before the financial crisis began, the American economy was not healthy,” Leonhardt wrote. “Job growth was so weak during the economic expansion from 2001 to 2007 that employment failed to keep pace with the growing population, and the share of working adults declined. For the average person with a job, income growth barely exceeded inflation.”

Flat wages, not enough jobs, rapidly growing income disparity, a troubled education system, aging infrastructure, debt and default – the litany of American decline, but does it have to be?

Ask those folks in the Post and Bloomberg poll what the problems are and they know – no one has the answer, its all politics. As Cizilla wrote: “The wild swings in the electorate are directly attributable to a belief that neither party really knows what it’s doing and so once one side is given a chance for two years and nothing changes, voters — especially independents — are more than willing to give the other side a try. And then when that side produces few results, the cycle repeats itself.”

We are slipping into a year of political campaigning that, based upon what we’ve seen so far, is likely to produce a mostly irrelevant and depressing debate about the country’s real problems and what the real solutions might be.

A little over a year from now someone will be elected. Someone always is. But the current level of debate – and the almost total inability of our politics to engage on what is really important – brought to mind a piece I read years ago in the Wall Street Journal. The Journal’s Dorothy Rabinowitz won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary for a column she wrote in 2001 entitled “The Campaign Speech You’ll Never Hear.”

Here’s a key sentence, Rabinowitz quoting a politician who, sadly, doesn’t exist on the presidential campaign trail today.

“I would say they’ve lowered the bar a lot for the highest office in the land, and I’m terrified to think how much, when I let myself think about it at all. My opponent and I — this is the best America can do? One of us is going to stand up and be sworn in as the new president of the United States? I suppose others in my shoes have had the same feeling, so maybe it’ll all work out.”

Maybe. The glass seems half empty.

 

2012 Election, American Presidents, Andrus, Baseball, Biden, Britain, Christie, Economy, FDR, Lincoln, Minnick, Obama, Politics, Reagan

Trying Times

Leadership? Not So Much

At pivotal moments in American history it has often been the case that the right leader somehow emerged from the chaos of the moment and the nation was able to pass through trying times and set course for a better future.

Presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan lacked the vision and courage to head off the steady drift in the direction of sectional strife in the 1850’s and, while there is a good argument to be made that Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 was the tipping point toward civil war, there is hardly any disputing that Lincoln brought to the presidency the powers of leadership that ultimately saved the country.

Likewise Franklin D. Roosevelt proved to be the right leader at the worse time in the 20th Century. FDR restored confidence and, I’m convinced, reformed American capitalism enough to save it. He was a leader made for his times.

There are a handful of other examples in our history. Andrew Jackson, with all his flaws, may qualify for a leadership award. More recently Ronald Reagan, invoked by every current GOP candidate for president as the leadership gold standard, had some of the FDR in him. He was a confidence builder when the nation needed a big dose. Washington stands, of course, in a special class of right leader at a trying time.

It’s hard to escape the reality that the nation is at another such crossroads and our politics and politicians hardly seem up to the task. The litany of problems is almost too big to fathom: stagnant economy, double-dip recession looming, crippling unemployment, increasing poverty and income gap, a national and international debt crisis, declining quality of public education, the need for entitlement reform, the European fiscal crisis, the uncertainty and unpredictability of the Arab Spring, climate change, terrorism, even the Red Sox have melted down.

The thinking man’s conservative, David Brooks, identified the heart of the problem in his New York Times column yesterday: “the ideologues who dominate the political conversation are unable to think in holistic, emergent ways. They pick out the one factor that best conforms to their preformed prejudices and, like blind men grabbing a piece of the elephant, they persuade themselves they understand the whole thing.”

The Democrats are all about tax increases on the most wealthy and increased spending to stimulate consumer demand. The Republicans can’t shake the gospel of tax cuts, controlling the deficit and whacking at regulation. What both sides miss is that we need to do all of that and more.

It may well be recorded at the supreme moment of missed opportunity in the Obama Administration was the president’s failure to grasp and champion the most important political and policy work to come out of Washington in a long, long time – the recommendations of Simpson-Bowles Commission. In the end, the discarding of the work of the former Wyoming Senator, Alan Simpson, and the Clinton-era White House Chief of Staff, Erskine Bowles, will be recorded as a failure of leadership. The bi-partisan commission called for doing it all – tax and entitlement reform, spending cuts, deficit reduction. The Commission prescribed exactly what every thinking American knows in their partisan heart must be done. Obama punted and Congressional Republicans did as well.

And meanwhile the country is hungry – desperate even – for real leadership. Many Republicans salivate over the prospect that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will turn his consistent “no” into an announcement that he’ll enter the GOP battle and it’s easy to see why. Christie delivered an inspirational speech last night at Republican hallowed ground, the Reagan Library in Simi Valley. His indictment of Washington leadership will surely resonate with Democrats and Republicans who long for leadership from someone.

“In Washington,” Christie said, “we have watched as we drift from conflict to conflict, with little or no resolution.

“We watch a president who once talked about the courage of his convictions, but still has yet to find the courage to lead.

“We watch a Congress at war with itself because they are unwilling to leave campaign style politics at the Capitol’s door.  The result is a debt ceiling limitation debate that made our democracy appear as if we could no longer effectively govern ourselves.”

Christie specifically jabbed President Obama for failing to embrace the Simpson-Bowles work noting pointedly that it was “a report the president asked for himself.”

I’m not at all convinced Chris Christie is the Lincoln or FDR we need, but I am convinced that genuinely honest talk about the enormous problems facing the country, with an unstinting focus on big solutions to big problems rather than what David Brooks calls “proposals that are incommensurate with the problem at hand,” would be the beginning of the leadership the country needs and hungers for.

The electorate is deeply unsettled. The evidence floats about everywhere you look. A new CNN survey says only 15% of Americans have confidence in their government; an all-time low. The Coca-Cola chief says China is a better business bet than the USA. There is an unmistakable sense that American power and influence is in decline.

Is anyone up to the task? Can anyone see beyond the next election? I’m betting if someone could look that far ahead – see ahead to real leadership – it would be the best possible strategy to win.