Friday, June 24, 2016

Where's the economic recovery?

Many people believe the economy is not what it used to be. No economic recovery for them.

Politicians promise, “jobs, jobs, jobs.” They claim they want to help the struggling middle class, worried about not getting ahead. Vague promises of more and better jobs lead people to believe they will get one of those jobs and enjoy a new prosperity.

The truth is different. If elected, officials won't be able to return the economy to the prosperity of the past or ensure that the frustrated middle class will gain.

For one thing, the economy is better than it seems. Economic analysts point out that people are living longer and have access to constantly improving technology. Taking a long view, they note that average personal income, after taking inflation into account, is much higher than it was.

So why are so many people unhappy or uneasy? Those with relatively little education or previously employed in manufacturing are less well off. Incomes have stagnated. And the security that came from working for the same employer for an entire career has been replaced by an almost permanent sense of uncertainty.

Add to that a widespread sense of injustice about the accumulation of great wealth by the few benefiting from special tax breaks while the middle class struggles.

Politicians simply cannot turn the situation around. While it is easy for them to blame lost jobs on countries lacking environmental standards and where workers are badly paid, countries with higher standards can compete effectively with the U.S. A global economy has helped create worldwide sources of production.

Many lost jobs will never be recovered. But there are steps that can be taken to reduce manufacturing costs and prevent that sector from disappearing in the U.S.

Energy costs have declined, and they need to keep being reduced. There's little question that jobs have been lost in Maine because of its cost of electricity is much higher than in much of the rest of the country and the world. Maine dismantles hydropower, while China builds dams.

Workers need to be better trained. Will government put more money into community colleges or will voters starve them by insisting that government is too big and spending should be cut?

Responsible politicians need to have the courage to explain that restoring prosperity requires government help. This not a question of more government jobs, but public spending to work with private sector employers to develop growth plans that will promote more job opportunities.

But roads, bridges and public facilities are not being well maintained, and the country urgently needs to spend public funds on the jobs that will repair them.

To induce recovery, the U.S. cannot rely on the Federal Reserve alone to promote growth by keeping interest rates low. Whatever people think of government spending, the American economy competes with countries making more public investment in jobs.

There are only two ways to raise public money: tax increases or more debt. Debt is easier for politicians, so we may hear less about its “crushing burden.” But more tax revenues would be better.

Dealing with immigration is also part of the solution. It adds consumers, who are also new taxpayers, to help stimulate the economy and pay for government programs.

Workers themselves need to understand the country cannot return to an economy that no longer suits the times. Because they will change employers and even change the type of work they do over their careers, people will have to accept that the comfort and certainty of long-term employment is probably gone for good.

That means going back to school in mid-life to become equipped for new jobs that continually require increased skills. More importantly, it means regaining confidence that the economy will provide good paying jobs, though without the same certainty that came from working for the same employer for one's entire career.

Fortunately, Maine has suffered less than other states, but its lower unemployment is partly a function of young people simply moving away. That's not an economic policy. The state needs more workers and more jobs.

The economy has changed, and we cannot go back. People should understand that political promises alone will not restore their faith in the American economy. Manufacturing will never be the same, and new jobs require new and better skills. Tax reform is needed to provide a greater sense of economic justice plus more revenues.

To move ahead, the country needs cash and confidence. That means increased government support and better understanding of how to deal with the new economy.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The campaign: historic, bitter, negative

A Washington Post column headlined last week, “Now, Election Day is the only thing that matters.” Nice thought, but not true.

The campaign runs until November 8, and much will matter in the next five months. Here are some things to watch for.

This is an “historic” election. Since Lincoln, all U.S. presidents either previously held high political office or served as a top Army commander. Donald Trump did neither. Until Hillary Clinton, the U.S. has never had a woman heading the ticket of a major party or as president.

It may also be historic if an effort is mounted to dump or bump Trump. Could the Republicans find a way to deny him their presidential nomination? If they could not dump him, might he be bumped aside by a separate presidential campaign, providing a political home to Republicans who cannot support him?

With the unfavorable ratings of both major party candidates, alternatives may be pushed. One possibility is the Libertarian Party, but the positions of many of its activists against the Civil Rights Act and state-issued driver’s licenses may rule it out as more than a protest.

Expect torrents of opinion polls, and they will probably be wrong. The election is really 51 separate elections, so the national polls mean little. And some people lie to pollsters and many people refuse to participate, throwing off the statistical value of surveys.

Better than polls, look at analyses like “538” and the Princeton Election Consortium, which have been excellent in picking presidential winners.

Beware of the pundits, who will comment vigorously every day between now and Election Day, often relying on weak polls. They have their audience, but they know little more than the conventional wisdom of the moment.

Breathlessly awaited are the vice presidential picks. They should tell voters much about how Clinton and Trump view the race.

The speculation is that Clinton may have to pick a liberal running mate with appeal for Bernie Sanders’ supporters. But she might reason those voters have nowhere else to go and pick a somewhat more moderate veep candidate, hoping to attract some unhappy GOP voters.

Trump supposedly needs a solid Republican to appeal to skeptical party voters. His problem is finding a viable candidate who will support his controversial positions.

Then, there are the two national conventions. Such gatherings, filled with thousands of docile delegates and armies of bloggers, have ceased having any real function. The primary-caucus system has neutered them.

Conventions are like reality programs, but the event is pointless, often boring, and the viewer already knows the winner. The media will hype them, but television coverage will be far less than years ago. If you don’t watch, you won’t miss much, except possibly somebody’s good speech.

Money matters. A major element of the campaign is the dominant role of money. A close look at the campaign commercials will reveal that many are not coming from the candidates but from free-spending super-PACs.

Trump, who used a lot of his money and his own staff in the primaries, is now looking for financial support. The Republican National Committee may be a major source of help, but will Trump have a super-PAC? Clinton has the backing of a major super-PAC.

Mostly negative campaigns are likely. Both candidates offer targets, though Trump’s are coming almost daily. Voters will be urged, possibly more than ever, to vote against, rather than for, candidates. That makes issues of relatively little importance.

The two most positive selling points are not issues. Clinton should get massive support as the first potential woman president. And Trump supporters may overlook his daily controversies, because they like his anti-establishment tone.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the upcoming campaign will not be the presidential race itself but its impact on congressional elections. Often, voters who turn out for a presidential candidate also vote for congressional candidates of the same party.

The GOP has many apparently vulnerable U.S. Senate seats up for election this year. The Republicans cannot achieve a filibuster-proof Senate majority; in fact, they may lose even a simple majority.

In the House of Representatives, where gerrymandering by state legislatures has led to more safe GOP seats, the likely result is continued Republican control. Will fading GOP moderates regain some strength, forcing their party to compromise with the Senate and president?

In Maine, the Second District race between Democrat Emily Cain and Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin, who has had difficulty resisting the GOP conservative pull, could be a key election influenced by the presidential race.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Ranked choice voting: less than meets the eye

Next Tuesday, Primary Day, Maine voters go to the polls. That might make you think of the nature of elections, and that question will be on the ballot in November, when Mainers next vote.
Voters will then be asked if they want to replace the traditional Maine voting system, under which the person with the most votes is the winner, by a more complicated “ranked choice” system, under which second, third and even later choice votes count.
Right now, 39 states use the same system as Maine. Even if the person with the most votes does not gain more than half the votes, that person is elected. The remaining 11 states use a run-off in which the top two candidates in the first round run again.
No state uses ranked choice voting. As much as Maine, proud of its Dirigo motto, would like to lead, perhaps this time the wisdom of others should be heeded.
The ranked choice proposal appears to have arisen because of the 2010 and 2014 races for governor. Republican Paul LePage won both elections with less than half the votes, because his Democratic and independent opponents split the remaining votes.
While this has occurred many times in previous Maine elections without causing much concern, LePage’s highly controversial performance has caused some voters to regret their failure to unite, blocking his election. Supposedly, ranked choice voting might have automatically created anti-LePage unity.
The proposal’s backers may have the 2018 U.S. Senate race in mind. Sen. Angus King, running as an independent, could face LePage and a Democrat. A split vote might again open the way for LePage.
The driving idea behind the ranked choice voting proposal is that public officials should be chosen by a majority of the voters. The key weakness of the proposal is that the winner could still not be chosen by a majority of the voters.
The winner could be everybody’s second choice and nobody’s first choice.
In fact, ranked choice voting could result in a winner who had no first place votes beating a candidate who just missed having an outright majority.
The system would allow a collection of first, second and third place votes for one candidate to edge out a candidate that had won the most first place votes. That might work in picking your favorite color but not a government leader, who must have more than a single characteristic.
If Mainers felt it was so important to have a person elected by an absolute majority, the state could adopt a run-off system, used in other states. The top two candidates in the first round would face each other in the second round with the person elected having a clear majority.
In that way, the run-off election would give the voters a clear choice not muddled by the counting of second, third and lower preferences. The run-off campaign would real and live with candidates forced to confront one another, not one carried out remotely on a computer.
The arguments against a run-off are that it would cost more or have a smaller turnout. The relatively small cost of the second round seems worth it, and the recent Lewiston mayoral run-off did not lose voter turnout.
Or the California system could be used. Party primaries have been replaced there by a single all-party primary with the two top vote getters meeting in the general election. That involves no added cost.
Ranked choice voting in Maine has three serious drawbacks. First, it is confusing and the voters’ choices can be unclear and manipulated in a multi-candidate election.
Second, it is questionable if ranked choice voting, even if approved by the voters, would be constitutional. Maine Attorney General Janet Mills has responded to an official legislative request that it raises “significant constitutional concerns.”
If it passed, it almost certainly would not be applied until after the Maine Supreme Court considered if it were constitutional. If it weren’t, then the Constitution would have to be amended, requiring a two-thirds vote of the Legislature and a referendum.
Finally, it’s like using a cannon to swat a fly – changing the voting system because you don’t like LePage.
Other less confusing and complicated ways can be used to ensure that the likelihood of minority governors is reduced. Some require little or no legislative change.
The campaign on ranked choice voting has already begun. The election next week is a good time to start thinking about the November vote. The proposal may sound good, but there’s less there than meets the eye.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Presidential candidate selection under attack

The process for selecting presidential candidates is under attack. Politicians ranging from liberal Democrats to Trump Republicans don’t like it.
Some candidates, unfamiliar with party rules, have felt the process put them at a disadvantage.
The Republican and Democratic parties are not government organizations, and, under national party guidelines, each state party is free to set its own candidate selection rules. Traditionally, they have only allowed the party’s registered voters to participate.
Some “open” state primaries allow participation by voters not previously registered as party members. While state caucuses are open only to registered members, increasingly registration may take place shortly before the caucus or primary.
Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, candidates running as “outsiders,” can find these rules make their races more difficult. Sanders, who had previously run for Congress as an independent, likes states allowing “open” selection of the Democratic candidate by non-Democrats.
Sanders’ supporters dislike the Democrats’ “superdelegates,” who don’t go through the election process and have a vote of their own at the national convention. They are awarded this right as government officials or party leaders.
The Democrats distribute convention delegates proportionately to the actual vote in a state. That lengthens the selection process, but it allows an important role for later voting states and, possibly, a more thoughtful course to the nomination.
Maine Democrats are leading the charge nationally to require a state’s superdelegates to vote in the same proportion as the primary or caucus participants voted. In other words, they still would get a seat at the convention thanks to their office, but lose their right to independent judgment.
If that rule were in effect this year, by last weekend, Sanders would have had 46 percent of the delegates instead of 40 percent, likely not enough to make a difference in the ultimate outcome.
Why do Democrats use superdelegates? Because voters in primaries or caucuses may not be representative of the party as a whole. Party officeholders, whose reelection may depend on who’s at the top of the ticket, are given special status.
Otherwise, something like the current problem in Britain may occur. There, newly registered Labor Party voters recently picked the party’s leader in Parliament, but he has only a handful of supporters among the members he is supposed to lead.
Superdelegates are a brake on the possibility of a takeover by an ideological minority or voters with little interest in the party. In that way, the superdelegates are meant to play, to a limited extent, a role reminiscent of the now extinct party bosses.
Clinton lined up broad superdelegate support early. Only an insurgent Sanders dared challenge her, gaining surprising success, which has encouraged him to step up his attacks on Clinton, even if that helps Trump.
Contrast this process with the Republicans. They have almost no superdelegates, allowing more power to enthusiastic newcomers, like the Trump supporters. Under GOP rules, states may distribute delegates on a winner-take-all basis, somewhat proportionately or some of each.
Trump has claimed at times that the GOP process is “rigged” or “crooked.” He believed that winner-take-all rules and the use of caucuses rather than primaries were designed to harm his candidacy. Not only were those charges untrue, in the end they didn’t matter.
If the GOP had superdelegates who lined up early behind a single candidate, as Democrats did for Hillary Clinton, they might have blocked Trump. Instead, 17 candidates split the party’s vote in the early going. Democrats might take heed of the GOP experience without superdelegates.
If, say, Jeb Bush had proved to be an attractive candidate with broad support from the outset, the result might have been different. In early contests, Trump managed to look like a big winner while capturing only slightly more than 20 percent of the vote in the huge field.
The problem now is probably less the process than the candidates. The parties seem to be having buyer’s remorse about their likely picks, and some voters probably believe that a different process would have produced a different result.
The Republican attitude toward Trump, at least at the moment, is mostly unenthusiastic or bewildered. Trump won as the clear alternative to a crowd of candidates, not because the GOP strongly favored him.
The beneficiary of broad backing, Clinton probably could recover party support more easily than the highly controversial Trump if she reveals a more honest and even contrite side. If she cannot deal better with her delay in turning over official emails from her home computer, she could remain vulnerable, losing her edge on Trump.

Friday, May 27, 2016

New 'political correctness' law misses the point

Last week, President Obama signed a bill that seems a perfect exercise in “political correctness.”  Amazingly, in a time of legislative deadlock, the bill had passed the Senate unanimously.

The new law removes from federal statutes what are considered derogatory racial terms.  For example, “Oriental” is replaced by “Asian American.”

This move gets right at the heart of political correctness.  It means that people should not be addressed or labeled by terms they consider offensive.  It’s politically correct, because it is bad politics to call people by a name they dislike or associate with discriminatory treatment.

These terms change over time, so that a term considered at one time to be acceptable may be rejected later.  “Negro” was used to dislodge the racist “n-word,” but it is now to be officially abandoned.

People, who used the older terms innocently without any conscious discriminatory intent, may want to keep using those names.  The change seems to imply they are racists, when they are not.  Of course, some, clinging to old labels, are racists. 

For whatever reason, innocent or malicious, these people may be ripe targets for candidates who attack political correctness.

Nothing shows the problems with trying to find the correct name for a group than the use of the words “Native Americans,” now required to replace “Indians.”  It reflects the impossible task for government or any agency to dictate language.

In a couple of national surveys, tribal members said they preferred to be called “American Indians” or simply “Indians” rather than “Native Americans.”  They did not create the new official term, and the law simply ignores their sentiments.

Some Indians say they prefer to be called by the name of their tribe, say, Navajo or Sioux (even though that’s not entirely accurate either), rather than a general name.  It’s a bit like a person being known as an “Italian American,” not a “European American.”  

How about the word “Indian” itself?  One writer says that Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull called themselves by that name, so the tradition should not be abandoned.

People from India might be called “East Indians” as contrasted with “American Indians.”  Anyway, the context gives the meaning away.

The surveys and common usage of Indian names suggest that Washington cannot effectively authorize official names that will be used.  Will the law have to be amended in a few years when what’s acceptable changes?

In Oklahoma, the former Indian Territory was whittled down by Sooners and other white settlers, and the Indians were denied the state of their own they had sought.  Does calling them Native Americans fix that?  

Where this often seems to matter is the names of sports mascots.  There’s a move to change the name of the Washington Redskins.  A recent national survey of Indians shows that 90 percent don’t care if the team has that name.  For many, there are more important issues affecting Indians, but they get far less attention.

In North Dakota, the ice hockey team has been known as the “Fighting Sioux,” though, apparently, there had been no Indians on the team.  The NCAA ruled the name must go unless all Sioux tribes approved its use. 

In violation of a formal treaty with the U.S., Congress had stripped the Standing Rock Sioux of most of their land.  The Supreme Court later said, "A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history." 

The tribe did not give its approval to keeping the name, and the team became the “Fighting Hawks.”  But fans keep on wearing Fighting Sioux jerseys.  The label “Native Americans” probably matters little. 

Even Maine has been touched by the naming issue.  Whether the Skowhegan Indians ought to change their name has been debated.

Two tribal representatives left the Maine Legislature in 2015, saying state government ignored their interests on hunting and fishing.  They were disheartened after Gov. LePage ended a formal consultation arrangement with them.

The effort to avoid giving offense to Indians or African Americans and other racial groups reveals defects in government thinking about minorities.

Nobody is going to dictate language usage in American English.  It’s a living language.  Congress has better things to do with its time.  How about unanimous Senate support for voting rights?
Many see the new terms as an effort to improve relations between white Americans and groups subject to discrimination in the past.  It looks like an easy way to make amends.  Still, even if the new law shows a long-missing sensitivity, changing names alone only avoids dealing with real issues.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Maine governor model for Trump presidency

When asked if he would like to be Donald Trump’s Republican running mate, Maine Gov. Paul LePage said it would not happen.  “We’re too much alike,” he said.

What he says is often highly controversial, but this time LePage may have provided a helpful view about what a Trump presidency would be like.

There are already striking similarities.  Trump slashes his opponents with degrading insults, sometimes with racist overtones.

LePage promised to tell President Obama to “go to hell.”  He called the IRS “the new Gestapo” for its role under the Affordable Care Act.  And he quipped that one of his Democratic opponents wanted to “give it to the people without providing Vaseline.”

Refusing to follow the precedent of attending the NAACP’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day breakfast, LePage said, “tell them to kiss my butt.”

Both resent the need for restraint, to be “politically correct.”  When either Trump or LePage listens for the voice of the people, he seems to hear his own voice.  Winning elections appears to equate with an almost divine right to lead.

Their shared sense of being above the limits of normal political speech may result from their having been business chiefs.  With a compliant board, you may have a free hand in business, but government is different.

Trump would be likely to struggle with Congress, which sees itself as more than a board of directors, just as LePage has fought with the Maine Legislature, even with the state senate under the control of the GOP.

The result has been his record-setting number of vetoes.  Just this year, LePage issued 32 vetoes, most of which were overridden by the Legislature.  In rejecting one bill providing medication for drug addicts, he seemed to favor letting them die over giving them a chance to recover.

Last year, he issued one block of 65 vetoes, claiming the Legislature had adjourned so it could not override them.  The Maine Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature, not the Governor, decides when it finishes its work and nullified all the vetoes.

Like LePage, Trump would find that he simply could not keep his campaign promises without gaining legislative support.  For the Maine governor, the result has been massive, public outbursts of frustration with a process he seems never to have understood.

He has at times threatened to move out of his office, not make any nominations to executive or regulatory positions, and not swear in a legislator.  In the end, he was forced to relent.

Trump could push the limits of executive power, like LePage.  When the Democratic House speaker got a job running a charter school dependent on state funding, he warned the school’s board that he would cut off its funding unless they told the speaker, “You’re fired.”  They complied.

Trump claims to be a tough negotiator, and LePage tries to be one.  LePage refused to issue voter-approved bonds without first getting legislative concessions.  But his gambit failed and after the Legislature did not meet his demands, LePage simply let the bonds lapse, overruling the voters.

Trump’s candidacy so far suggests his presidency could look a lot like this, including attempts at unilateral action, deadlock with Congress and ignoring the public will.
But it could go beyond a struggle between the executive and legislative branches.  If Maine offers any hints, some matters will go to court.

The judicial branch does not like becoming involved in disputes between the other branches of government.  It prefers to say that the voters are the court of last resort on such matters.

Without a way to reconcile differences between the executive and legislators, not much happens.  Government fails to meet basic public needs.  Voters experience deadlock and disappointment.

The LePage or Trump promise of change gives way to frustration.  Frustration leads to desperation.

For what may be the first time in Maine history, the Legislature began considering the possibility of impeaching the governor.  The move went nowhere out of deference to public opinion that probably would have been unhappy with the resulting chaos.

But impeachment at the federal level is less unusual.  If a President Trump treated Congress the way LePage has treated the Maine Legislature, an effort to impeach him could be conceivable.

An executive, reckless in his public utterances and treatment of others and who believes his electoral victory should yield a compliant legislature and unchecked power, looks like Maine’s LePage today and could be tomorrow’s America with Trump.

Trump could bring back to life that old political saying, “As Maine Goes, so goes the Nation.”

Friday, May 13, 2016

Election 2016 to reflect real political unhappiness

Gone is the talk of “open” presidential nominating conventions or arguments about “open” primaries, which allow independents to vote in partisan elections.

The parties seem to have made their choices, closing a lot of open mouths.

What remain “open” are the November election and the temper of American voters.  Because, aside from the forecasts by overrated and underperforming pundits, the outcome is truly an “open” question.

Uncertainty results from the surprising takeover of the Republican nomination process by Donald Trump, one of the most unconventional candidates in recent America history.  He has exploited public unhappiness with the current political system.

Questions remain to be settled before the election.  Will the GOP and Trump make peace or at least a truce?  Will there be a third party, conservative or moderate, to provide shelter to traditional Republicans?  Will the Libertarian Party offer an alternative?  Will some Republicans support Hillary Clinton?

The Republican Party has problems.  Traditional pro-business, anti-government, strong military Republicans have been losing ground to doctrinaire conservatives with different interests: no gun control, no same-sex marriage, few or no abortions and certainly no Affordable Care Act.

Trump seems to represent people who believe the entire system is failing and even corrupt.  To them, what makes Trump attractive is his never having held elective office.  He doesn’t talk like a politician.  His appeal is based more on his style than on where he stands on issues dividing the GOP.

When analysts say that Trump has no chance of winning, they really are saying there is not a large enough constituency in the general electorate willing to support an inflammatory and apparently racist candidate.  But could his anti-establishment aura override concern about his excesses?

The Republican Party, in business since 1856, is part of the American political establishment.  Already divided, the traditional party runs the risk of disappearing.  Given its divisions, Trump’s supporters may represent a constituency using its mechanisms not to make it either traditional or conservative, but revolutionary.

The GOP may have made matters worse by trying to be an exclusive club.  It has worked hard to reduce voting access for minorities.  That party attitude legitimizes Trump’s views on immigrants.

Before going too far with Trump’s effect, it’s worth remembering he has won about 11 million votes until now.  In 2012, Mitt Romney, the GOP candidate, got 60.9 million votes and the total of the two major parties was 126.8 million.

Whatever his ultimate strength, Trump does reflect the political unhappiness of a block of voters.  They believe candidates lie to them and that the answers are less complicated than the politicians say.  They are ready to reject candidates who cannot give them simple answers to what they see as simple problems.

Voters want to be lied to.  They want candidates who make big promises.  No matter the candidate will have to deal with Congress or that issues are complicated.  But when a candidate becomes president, he or she must be more realistic than when campaigning.  That’s when it looks like they have been lying.

If the promises are simple and sweeping enough, yet cannot be kept for practical reasons, voters can finally lose trust not only in politicians but in government itself.  The Trump candidacy, if he holds onto the nomination, implies there is now a large body of voters who have lost trust in government.

The book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” marveled at the way average voters oppose their own self-interest by supporting GOP policies favoring the wealthy.  Perhaps Trump has now caught the attention of these voters.

Look at the difference in the electorate between 2000 and 2016.  Then, the popular vote for president was displaced by a court that made the decision by one vote, and the voters accepted the result without violent protest.  Now, the Trump rejectionists are truly angry, and they are willing to rough up their opponents.

In effect, the country now has four political groups.  Liberals and conservatives have long been with us.  Moderates exist, but their numbers seem to dwindle.  Add to that the rejectionists, Trump supporters who call into question the effectiveness of the traditional governmental system itself.  If these groups cannot compromise, then what?

This year’s election may force Americans to take stock of their support for a system of government many have come to believe yields them nothing while the wealthy and the politicians prosper.  That’s what vocal Trump supporters say.

The November election will tell us the identity of the next president.  Perhaps more importantly, it may tell us who we are.