Sunday, April 22, 2012

America Beyond the 2012 Elections: What the candidates should be discussing

Groucho Marx declared that any club that would have him as a member he would not want to join. His sentiment perhaps captures my attitude toward presidential candidates–anyone who wants to be president I would not want to support! The reason is that with America’s problems so pressing, anyone who wants the job or thinks they have easy solutions to the difficult problems is probably a fool and should not be president.

The same is true this year. While the presidential primary and now general election seem again mired in social issues, the tough issues facing America are left untouched or inadequately discussed.  Yes, there are concerns about the solvency of Social Security and other entitlement programs, and the economy and gas prices loom large, yet there is little serious debate about how to solve these issues, whether the president even has the power to do anything, and also little discussion about a range of other pressing concerns that need to be addressed. Regardless of who wins in November, consider some of the pressing issues that need to be confronted but which are being ignored.

Obama faces an economy where the best projection is of high unemployment and low economic growth. But there is more. Home values remain about 25% or more below what they were in 2008, consumer and now student debt is high, and many people have already blown through their unemployment benefits and face an uncertain future. Consumer confidence remains near historic lows, suggesting little chance that retail sales and spending for the coming holidays and into next year will revive the economy. The public just does not believe the country is headed in the right direction (61% say in the wrong direction) and few think we are better off now than four years ago.

However, in recent months the American economy appears to be recovering. The unemployment rate is steadily decreasing, the stock market is at pre-2008 levels, and the housing market appears to be stabilizing This has brought a shift to three other domestic issues—gas prices, debt, and social issues. In 1980 rising energy prices due to two embargoes by oil producing countries had an impact on President Jimmy Carter’s election loss to Ronald Reagan. In 2012 projections are that gas prices may increase from approximately $3.00 per gallon to perhaps $5 by July. These rising prices are already causing a potential worry in terms of their impact on the US economy, and they are the subject of political criticism by Republican presidential candidates who are blaming Barack Obama for the increases.

American Decline?
A second domestic issue is the American budget deficit. The current budget deficit for fiscal year 2013 is projected to be nearly $980 billion with overall nation debt estimated at $15.6 trillion. This debt is a concern for many reasons, some of which is over worry that the United States cannot continue to finance it budget deficits by borrowing. Continued long term US debt affects its credit rating and ability to borrow money from sources, some of which are international. Efforts to reduce the debt and budget deficit potentially have an impact on defense spending and there are some discussions regarding how this might affect US military might. Paul Kennedy describes how one threat to the United States may be that its declining economic strength may compromise its ability to maintain its international military supremacy or standing in the world as it loses it capacity to maintain both hard (military) and soft (economic) hegemony.

Former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski writes in his new book America and the Crisis of Global Power that the budget deficit, an unstable financial system, decaying infrastructure, growing economic equalities, and partisan politics threaten America’s national security and international standing. In many ways his arguments echo what Paul Kennedy had asserted 25 years ago in his influential 1987 "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers" that the declining economic stature of the United States could have a significant impact upon its geo-global standing. Both books powerfully connect domestic politics to national security and assert that the country must confront certain realities. Yet unlike when Kennedy wrote it appeared America had bipartisan capacity to act, Brzezinski sees the very polarization of our political system as a strategic liability, standing as impediment to solving the other problems that exist.

This polarization affects the capacity to govern. Samuel Huntington and others were roundly criticized over a generation ago for asserting that America faced a governability crisis. Yet now he seems prescient. The list of problems confronting the American political system is endless. There is the growing polarization of the political parties that makes compromise near impossible. Add to that the personalization of political attacks that render compromise after election difficult. But there is also the growing disaffection of the public from the two major parties, the inability of the Democrats and Republicans to escape capture by special interests, the impossibility of the an opportunity for minor parties to emerge. Polls increasingly point to large majorities of the American public expressing dissatisfaction or distrust with Congress and the government overall, and while money in politics has always been a problem, the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens’ United v Federal Election Commission has exacerbated the impact that wealthy donors and corporations have on the political process. Political scientist E.E. Schattschneider wrote more than 50 years ago that America was in danger of becoming the largest aristocracy in world where political power was stratified by wealth, race, and gender, and that has largely come to be.

But the political divisions are a consequence of another real problem America must confront—the growing gap between the have and have-nots. Mounting evidence demonstrates that the United States has the largest gap between the rich and poor this country has experienced since the 1920s. Since the 1970s repeated studies document declining social mobility for the poor and middle class and a nation where the rich have done will and the rest have not. The United States fares poorly in comparative statistics on equality and mobility compared to other developed countries. The reality is that there is a significant class divide in this country, affecting political engagement, life prospects, health, and a host of other issues.

Domestic Policy: Infrastructure, Health Care, and Gas Prices
Another issue is America’s crumbling infrastructure. It now seems a distant memory that in 2007 a bridge collapsed in Minneapolis. For a few days infrastructure was the word of the day. “Infrastructure” is not a sexy word. Nor is it the type of word that most of us use in everyday conversation, until the Minnesota bridge collapsed. Yet infrastructure—a short hand way of referring to America’s bridges, roads, highways and sewer and water pipes—is important to our everyday lives. Without the basic infrastructure of roads we would never get to work, to school, or go shopping. Without it we could not cross rivers, drink water, or flush our toilets. In 2007 the American Civil Engineering Society estimated a need of at least $2.2 trillion to revitalize America’s aging infrastructure. While no additional bridges have fallen, the aging American infrastructure costs the economy billions in lost competitiveness.

The American health care system is a mess. The United States currently spends nearly 18% of its GDP on health care, far greater than the 10-12% spent by other developed countries. Spending will only grow as the Baby Boomers age. The United States does not have universal coverage and 44 million plus lack basic coverage. Health indices such as infant mortality, life expectancy, and obesity rates compare unfavorably to other nations. Obama’s health care act may not have been an ideal solution, but it tried to do something.  Republican Party repeal or Supreme Court invalidation of the health care act and return to a free market solution will fail to address the problem.

Short term rising gas prices are a problem but the longer term issue is that this country remains wedded to a low cost hydrocarbon economy that is not sustainable. Demands to frack or drill more will do little to depress long term energy prices as worldwide demand increases. In fact, statistical evidence demonstrates that America’s increased production over the years has had little impact on decreasing energy prices. Unlike Germany which is moving rapidly into alternative energy sources, or Europe in general which has adjusted to higher prices, the American economy is not prepared for a new energy future.

Finally, there are significant educational and demographic changes that America needs to face. Educationally, America’s students underperform compared to those in most other developed countries. It is not that teachers are not teaching but that our school system represents a horse and buggy era far too slack on math, science, and other standards. Americans still think that second languages are unnecessary, and ignore the ways that poverty and racism affect learning and outcomes. Demographically, we face a more diverse yet aging society. Future workers will have to support an aging population and these new employees confront a high-tech world where they may not have the skills to compete on a global scale.

All of the above described problems are dire and require money to fix them. This list does not even include the environment and global warming, but the last problem America faces—its budget deficit, as noted—may make that impossible. Continued long term US debt affects its credit rating and ability to borrow money from sources, some of which are international. Efforts to reduce the debt and budget deficit potentially have an impact on defense spending and there are some discussions regarding how this might affect US military might. Both Paul Kennedy and Brzezinski, as noted, describe how one threat to the United States may be that its declining economic strength may compromise its ability to maintain its international military supremacy or standing in the world as it loses it capacity to maintain both hard (military) and soft (economic) hegemony. Together they and others see a need to address the long term fiscal health of the country but alas, the growing political polarization of the United States places a solution beyond immediate grasp.

Foreign Policy
So far in 2012 foreign policy issues have been secondary concerns this year. The United States formally withdrew from Iraq in 2011, leaving this issue as a minor concern for most. However, the United States still has troops in Afghanistan and there are some who criticize President Obama’s intention to phase out the military commitment there.

The Middle East in general is perhaps the primary foreign policy concern for the United States. There is concern over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, defense of Israel, and the latter’s potential bombing of Iran to prevent its access to nuclear weapons. The Obama administration does not presently support military action against Iran but some of the Republican presidential candidates do. The notable exception is Ron Paul who does not see Iran as a security threat to the United States. The United States supports the opposition in Syria but so far official US policy has not endorsement arming them or taking more aggressive military action. Again, some of the Republicans endorse this action.

In addition to the Middle East, North Korea’s stability and nuclear ambitions are of concern. Recently the United States secured some agreements regarding the North Korean nuclear program. Regardless of who is elected president, steps will continue to be taken to address this issue. It is unlikely that the US will return to the rhetoric of George Bush who labeled North Korea one of the “axes of evil.”

Finally, Europe does not seem to factor large in terms of issues dominating the 2012 American elections. This is perplexing given the historical close alliances with Europe and how financial instability across the continent could impact the American economy. Furthermore, Russia does not factor very high in the 2012 presidential debates, although Mitt Romney, the likely Republican Party presidential nominee, has described that country as one of the main competitors and security threats to the United States. China is perceived as more of a rival or threat to US interests than is Russia. Barack Obama shortly after assuming the presidency canceled the missile shield proposal in Europe that his predecessor George Bush was advocating. Were a Republican elected as president it is possible that the missile defense shield proposal might again be resurrected.

Overall, these are the difficult issues confronting America’s future and it does not look like either any of the candidates or political parties are confronting them in a realistic fashion. Nor does it appear that either the media or the public is either.

The Last Word
There is an interesting article in the New York Times discussing how Obama is having a difficulty attracting big donors this election. It notes how over 58% are small donors this time. Big money is going to the GOP.  It seems that after wealthy America threw a party and had to pay the bill, they turned in 2008 to Obama to bail them out. Now that they are bailed out and partying again they have turned their bake on him. There is a message here for Obama and corporate Democrats. The silver lining here is that if Obama gets reelected it will be with small donors and perhaps they will mean a change in politics. But the worry for Obama and the Democrats is that big money is again voting ideological and that is usually a good sign for Republicans.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Etch-A-Sketch Time: The End of the Republican Primary and the Start of the General Election

It no longer appears if but when. Specifically, two questions now dominate the presidential race. First, when will Rick Santorum drop out. Second, when does the campaign shake the Etch-A-Sketch and switch into general election mode?

The End of the Road for Santorum

Math and the primary terrain are clearly against Santorum after he lost a hat trick last week in Wisconsin, Maryland, and the District of Columbia.  Romney has more than 57% (658) of the 1,144 delegates he needs to clinch the Republican Party presidential nomination. At this pace he merely needs to win about 45% of the remaining delegates–he can underperform slightly and still win. Conversely Santorum has won only 281 or 25% of the delegates and he would need to win 863 of the approximately 1,125 remaining delegates or 77% to clinch the nomination. Given that the primaries now turn to states such as California and New York, this will be tough. Both states are Romney ones in the sense of being more moderate and favoring candidates and SuperPacs with deep pockets.

The only two states that Santorum can hope for are Texas and Pennsylvania. Texas is a big southern state with evangelicals, thus it looks a little like Alabama and Mississippi. Maybe Santorum can hope for a repeat here, especially if he can convince Gingrich to leave the race although that looks unlikely even though Newt has conceded that he is broke and has little chance. Yet Texas is not the rest of the south. It is big and expense to campaign in and its politics is not that of Alabama and Mississippi. Santorum has no guarantees here.

Pennsylvania should be Santorum’s last stand. It is his home state yet he lost the Senate race here by 15 points. He is trailing Romney now. If Santorum does win it is discounted as a state he should have won and he gets no bump from it. If he loses pressure intensifies for him to leave the race. After PA his campaign should end.

But he might have a more graceful way to exist early or even after losing in Pennsylvania. Santorum’s daughter is very ill and on at least a couple of occasions he has had to suspend his campaign to attend to her. No one will fault Santorum and he will earn high praise from all were he to leave the campaign now or after PA by saying he needs to be with his daughter and family. Not only is this the right answer but it allows him to bow out of the race and no one will be able to criticize him. Do it now before losing in PA and this saves the embarrassment of a loss.

 Shake the Etch-A-Sketch–Romney and the General Election

After Romney’s three victories last week the rhetoric suggested that he and Obama had moved to the general election phase already. Romney faces significant challenges moving ahead.

Despite some polling to the contrary he still is not embraced by the religious conservatives. Look at the county-by-county returns in the Wisconsin primary last week. He continued to win in the areas where Democrats win and he failed to when rural areas with more evangelicals and working class. He is still a passionless candidate for his supporters and conservatives still do not trust him. To win the presidency he needs to win both the evangelical base and win over swing voters. Move to the center as he has to do to win swings and he confirms the worst fears of conservatives that he really is a moderate. If he does that they may not mobilize for him. Stay on the right and risk losing swings. Already the primary has damaged him–his negatives are as high as Obama’s and double since January–and the birth control debate has alienated him from women, producing an increasingly large gender gap that the Democrats are exploiting. A month ago Romney looked great in the swing states, he is now trailing there. Romney appears to have little room to maneuver, less he alienates groups he needs to win.

Yet the best thing going for Romney is the economy and gas prices. We all see the gas prices going up.  Consumers are angry. Second, the economy is fragile, affected by energy costs of course. But the jobs report last week was weak, consumer spending is again slowing, and housing prices are not rebounding.  Are you better off now than four years ago? This will be Romney’s question and Obama needs to deflect it.  Sure president’s have little control over gas prices and the economy, at least in the short run. As stated before, what will bring Obama down are the two things he cannot control.

It’s the money, stupid!

One other issue to look at here. Obama will not have the overwhelming cash advantage he had over McCain four years ago. Citizens United changed part of that. But something else is important to note. Four years ago Wall Street gave strategically and contributed heavily to Obama. That is not happening this year. Four years ago Obama persuaded donors not to give in a partisan fashion but this year he has been unsuccessful in that talk. Democrats generally do not do well when political contributions and expenditures are done in a partisan fashion.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Shameless Self-Promotion: SuperProfessor and my New Book--The Encyclopedia of American Law and Criminal Justice

I am pleased to make two cool announcements.

First,  Faculty Row has named me one of 145 SuperProfessors for 2012.  The press release is below and notice to my selection is here.

Second, I am pleased to announce publication of my Encyclopedia of American Law and Criminal Justice, a two volume nearly 1,000 page endeavor.

BREAKING NEWS Via PRWEB: 2012 List of SuperProfessors Published on

New York, NY (PRWEB) April 04, 2012

“SuperProfessors” - Launched in 2011 by the leading social network site for academics,, is gaining recognition throughout traditional academic institutions.

FacultyRow has grown consistently since its inception, and currently has over 91,000 members in 103 countries (Source: Google Analytics.) With SuperProfessors being supported by the FacultyRow social network, it is becoming the ultimate platform highlighting achievements of leading academics and their respective areas of expertise.

SuperProfessors are a peer reviewed group of academics that consistently demonstrate excellence, passion, and clarity, throughout their academic careers. Often, these individuals are considered academic experts. “Technology is beginning to stratify academia” according to FacultyRow expert Steven Lewis. “We are convinced that leading educators, or SuperProfessors, will become increasingly valuable going forward. Student classrooms and expert knowledge will continue to become global on a massive scale.”

Currently there are 4,000 professors with pending applications for the official 2013 list of SuperProfessors. The premier 2012 list of SuperProfessors has been published to the web and sent to several major learning institutions in the public and private sectors.

SuperProfessors provides its members digital recognition via press releases, access to media outlets, and the ability to share their knowledge through strategic partnerships via FacultyRow.

“When I had a academic career question the first place I thought of asking it was Faculty Row. When I asked my question I got a number of well thought-out responses that really helped me make a decision. This is an excellent network for anyone in academia." Said Michael Reynolds, a Professor of Engineering at the University of Arkansas.

SuperProfessors is not only recognized by traditional academic institutions, but several web-based academic platforms, like and These academic platforms are now using SuperProfessors as a resource to identify prominent faculty and discover up-and-coming research.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Presidential Politics: It's the Swing States Stupid!

The presidential race is over in 36 states and it will be decided by swing voters in 14 swing states. Look to see how I analyze the race and discuss Obama's chances.

Go to my web page  and on the right side click on  my Politics in Minnesota article entitled Presidential Politics: It's the Swing States Stupid!

Also today: Strip searches for any arrest. Courtesy of Supreme Court that gave us unlimited corporate political spending and which will undo the Obamacare and affirmative action. Conservative judicial activism here we go!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Supreme Court and Health Care: What's Next?

Barring a miracle, the individual mandate in the Obama health care act is dead. But even another possibility exists that the entire law may be voided by the Supreme Court. This should have never gotten to this point.  But what if the act is struck, what then?

The Patient Protection and Affordability Health Care Act (Obamacare or the Obama health care act “OHCA”) was always a flawed act to start. Yes it ensured an additional 36 million individuals and that was great. Yet it excluded universal coverage still leaving several million without health insurance.  Yes the law also requires insurers to issue policies to those with preexisting illnesses and to allow parents to keep their children until age 25 on their policies, but there was little in the law to deal with the cost issues. The government would still be barred from negotiating with drug companies for better prices, private insurance companies would face little market competition, and the vast administrative costs that the current system produces would not be addressed. All of these problems rendered OHCA a flawed piece of legislation.

Yet flaws like these make it bad legislation but not unconstitutional. The reason the law is before the Court is because it is a Republican idea.  The individual mandate is originally a Republican idea offered in place of the single-payer option.  Obama embraced it and the Democrats pushed it through Congress with barely a Republican vote.  The latter turned on the individual mandate after trumpeting  it, and now they are calling their idea unconstitutional. How ironic. Even more ironic is the fact when the Supreme Court heard the case last week one of the Justices even suggested that the way to get around the possible constitutional problems was to adopt a single-payer system.

Following the hearings last week was amazing. The OHCA is a lesson in sloppiness. The Solicitor General who argued the case before the Supreme Court was weak. Going into orals anyone who knew anything knew that the central issue and most important question to answer for the Court was to indicate what are the limits of the Commerce clause. Specifically, since the authority for the individual mandate rested on whether health care came within the realm of interstate commerce that Congress could regulate, the government needed to show that it had the power to act. But in demonstrating that, one knew Justice Kennedy–the swing vote–for example, would want to know if there are any limits to the Commerce clause if the individual mandate were upheld.

Solicitor General Verrilli failed to answer this question. He had an easy answer. He could have pointed to a 1992 decision United States v. Lopez where the Court struck down a provision of the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 as exceeding federal commerce powers, and to a 2000 Court decision in United States v. Morrison where it struck down a  provision of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 as exceeding federal commerce powers. He could have said these two cases established the outer boundaries of the Commerce clause, articulated the reasoning in them, and he would have done his job. Instead, he gave an opening to Justice Scalia to ask stupid questions about the federal government mandating people to buy broccoli under the Commerce clause. We should have never gotten there.

Additionally, the hearing on severability should have never taken place. The severability issue is over whether if the individual mandate is struck the entire law is dead.  A general piece of boilerplate attached to bills is a severability clause stating that if the courts declare any part of the law unconstitutional the section voided would be severed from the rest of the law, preserving it.  One would have thought in a 2,000 page law this boiler plate would have been in it, but it was not.  Sloppy.  Thus the real possibility of a Court voiding the entire law.

But the Court itself has also been sloppy here. Clarence Thomas should have recused himself from the case because of his wife’s political activities in opposition to the law. Similarly, a case can be made that Justice Kagan too should have recused herself because of possible involvement with the law at the Justice Department. But this is also a Roberts Court that is perhaps the most conservative Supreme Court since the 1930s, and its excesses in this and other recent ones such as Citizens United strip away any veneer that conservatives do not engage in judicial activism.

But what is the law is voided, where are we? At present the United States spends 18% of its GDP on health care and with Baby Boomers aging, it is projected to increase to perhaps 20%. With the United States current GDP at $15 trillion in 2011, total health care spending is $2.25 trillion. America has the most costly health care system in the world, both in real dollars and in GDP percentage. The Netherlands is second in terms of percentage of the GDP spent on health at 12%. The US spends an average of $8,000 per person on health care, other developed countries about $2,000. They also achieve what we do not–universal coverage–and often have higher life expectancies, lower infant mortality rates, and generally better health care outcomes than we do. Out system is expensive and it does not deliver the goods, unless you are well insured.

But defenders of the American health care system love to point to freedom. They say our current system maximizes choice. They love to point to stories about people in Canada flocking to the US for coverage or for long waits in line for elective surgeries such as nose or boob jobs. Yes this may be true and perhaps other problems exist, but how much choice do we really have in the US? For those without healthcare, how much choice is there? For those in HMOs how much choice is there? The reality is there is little health care choice for millions in the USA.

Reforming health care is critical to the future of the US economy. Image if the US spent only 12% and not 18% of its GDP on health care. That would save the country $750 billion per year? What could we do with that money? Pay down the debt, cut taxes, invest in roads and schools, or more. Solving the health care crisis is still going to be with us after the Supreme Court rules, Republicans take over, or Obama remains in office.