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 And the security that came from working for the same employer for an entire career has been replaced by an almost permanent sense of uncertainty.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.