Sunday, April 27, 2008

Hillary Gets It!

I won't claim an ounce credit -- certainly not for an idea stolen without a blush from Newt Gingrich -- but I was pleased to read in this morning's Washington Post an item by Perry Bacon Jr. Under the headline "Clinton Wants Debate Without Moderators," he reported that Hillary had challenged Barack at a rally on April 26 to a mano-a-mano, honest debate: "Just the two of us going for 90 minutes asking and answering questions. We'll set whatever rules seem fair."

That's what I had proposed for the fall campaign in one of my earlier posts ("How 2008 is Different from 1932," April 3 ). A one-on-one debate would be a splendid way to test the candidates' ability to sustain a train of thought, to persuade the audience of their substantive depth beyond a command of one-liners, and to convince Americans that they have the toughness and the smarts to defend our country's interests in dealing with foreign leaders. As Newt has argued, after a few such conversations, Americans would know who should get their vote.

Just as important, it would get the media off camera.

Americans would get what they need, and the media what they deserve. Come on, Barack, let's do it!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Yesterday in Ohio, John McCain corrected a questioner who termed NAFTA a “bad four letters.” That earned a laugh for the senator, but no one challenged him when he said: “The answer to our problems is not the siren song of protectionism.” If you want to smear a proposal or an opponent these days, all you have to do is deploy that nine letter version of a four letter word. No need to discuss much after that.

Well, wait a minute. I don’t for a minute subscribe to anything that I consider to be “protectionist.” But I’m not running for president, so I think it’s McCain who needs to be pressed to explain what he means. Why doesn’t the traveling press corps ask the senator what he means? Is it “protectionist” to:

  • Enforce the nation’s trade laws as each president swears he will?
  • Seek redress whenever US rights under WTO and other international agreements are violated?
  • Resist mercantilist practices such as persistent currency undervaluation?
  • Seek an end to all trade-distorting subsidy practices, perhaps by tabling a proposal for end game of the Doha negotiations?
  • Rejecting further special interest provisions that hide under the mantle of “free trade”?

I’m sure voters everywhere would be interested in some “straight talk” on this subject. Instead of just telling us that lost jobs are not coming back, why not spend a little time and effort to inform the citizenry as to the steps that you would take to ensure that their “second chance” at the American Dream will be more promising than their first one?

I’m with Sen. Sherrod Brown who wrote in an op ed in today’s Wall Street Journal: “Let’s stop accusing one another of being protectionist. And let us agree that U.S. trade policy – writing the rules of globalization to protect our national interests and our communities – is worthy of vigorous national debate.”

Charles Blum

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

“We Can’t Live Like This”:

Earth Day Wisdom of a 13-Year Old

One unbearably muggy, smoggy summer day several years ago, I met a young Chinese girl and her father on then brand-new magnetic levitation train that runs to the Shanghai airport, covering 20 miles or so in just eight minutes. “Annie” as she called herself sat down opposite me, so that we shared a large window. She had just finished a summer of English camp and wanted to practice before returning home. So we chatted about her age (13), hometown (Hangzhou), and eventually her life plans. At first she protested my question about what she would do with her adult life, citing her age. When I persisted, she said: “I want to work on the environment,” using a 50 cent word for a newcomer to our language. I asked her why, and she responded gesturing at the filthy air outside the maglev window: “Because we can’t live like this.”

Annie and her dad, a monolingual environmental engineer, drove home several lessons that are quite apt for today, Earth Day. First, it’s just plain wrong, as some like to assert, that the Chinese have no ecological conscience. China is heroically reforesting, cleaning up rivers and streams, and replacing old factories with much less polluting ones.

Second, these efforts by themselves are patently inadequate. The evidence of that is everywhere. From air and water unfit for human consumption to dry river beds across Northern China, even as China plants crops for export. From the Gobi desert advancing on Beijing to airborne mercury spewed from coal-fired power plants falling in the Rockies. We sometimes overlook that the scarcity of safe resources is not a new, but an age-old, problem in Chinese society. What is new is the impact of developments in China on the rest of the world.

Third, there is hope. There’s no lack of money in China. Indeed, it suffers from excess liquidity and credit-creation. Why not devote some of those government financial resources – currently 1.4 trillion dollars and rising daily with China’s current account surplus – to addressing these problems? Scrubbers on every coal-fired power plant. Bag houses on steel-making furnaces. Modern waste water facilities – not just in place but also operating – in China’s top 200 cities. Why not?

But this problem is not only Chinese. All the big polluters – including the US and Europe – need to start taking more urgent and more concerted action. Instead of each one waiting for the other to move first, why can’t we have some big joint effort to clean up scarce water, improve air quality, and reduce carbon emissions. If the 13-year olds understand the need to act and are willing to commit their lives to improving the world they were born into, what’s wrong with the government officials and business leaders?

Charles Blum

Monday, April 21, 2008

"It's Your Money"

For an old government hand, nothing is more infuriating than the anti-government slogan: “It’s your money. You know better how to spend it than the Feds do.”

Well, looking at the record of this administration, they may actually have a point. Certainly, ordinary American citizens would know better than to run up a deficit in excess of $1.6 trillion as the Bushites and four irresponsible Congresses have since FY 2002, right? We’ve borrowed enough to cover that shortfall, increasingly from foreign creditors. Sorry, kids and grandkids, but you’re expected to pay that back.

But wait, maybe the citizenry is not so smart after all. Over the same time span, according to the Federal Reserve, collective household debt has doubled from over $7 trillion in 2001 to over $14 trillion today. Sorry, kids and grandkids, but you’ll be expected to repay that debt, too.

Let’s say that the youngest 200 million of you will share that responsibility equally. Eight point six trillion divided by 200 million is “only” $43,000 per capita. Think of it as a year of that Ivy League education that you never had.

Of course, not all of you will suffer equally. The IRS says that it fails to collect $345 billion a year from tax scofflaws. Those folks -- and they know who they are – will ride at a reduced fare. There’s just one more burden that the honest ones among our kids and grandkids will have to bear. Sorry.

There may be a ray of hope -- career change. If you play with other people’s money, you can make a fortune – even when you foul up. Consider that the top10 – yes, ten – hedge fund managers “earned” a collective $16.1 billion last year, according to Alpha Magazine. Based on a 2,000 hour work year, their hourly rate would exceed $800,000. And we complain about lawyers, movie stars and A-Rod? Better, yet, J. P. Morgan paid top executives at Bear Stearns a cool $500,000 each to stay on after the latter was rescued at a government-backed fire sale. Wait a minute, aren’t these “indispensable” executives the same ones who destroyed 98 percent of Bear Stearns’ market value? See, kids, it’s a matter of what line of work you choose and whether you think that honesty pays.

This is no “rough patch,” as the President still insists. No, our economic system has stopped working for many of those who cling to American values, and our political system is so beholden to the special interests that it can’t begin to address the real issues of the economy. Those who say that American political campaigns are “too long” may have a point; apparently no amount of time is adequate for an honest debate of real solutions to real problems. Sorry, kids and grandkids.

Charles Blum

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The (W)Right Stuff

Three wishes after last night’s wretched “debate.”

First, let the candidates talk to each other and see who can sustain a train of thought. Enough of sound bites and counter-punches.

Second, get the conversation onto the economic crisis that we’re in. Where did it come from? Why is the dollar so weak? Why don’t Americans save and invest? How can we resolve our debt problems without massive inflation? Can the American Dream be successfully pursued by future generations even if the US is no longer that largest economy in the world? Let’s have some straight talk on those issues, issues on which our future does depend.

Third, let Barack Obama, with a justified note of irritation, reject further discussion of Rev. Wright and the flag lapel. These are not issues, but only distractions. He should say: “The freedom to express oneself is the bedrock of our democracy. You have a right to say what you feel, even if sometimes you use inappropriate words or offensive words. Sometimes, people go to rhetorical excess out of bitterness, frustration and anger. We should try to understand why they say what they do and not stop listening if they cause offense. I don’t want to surround myself with people who agree with me; that’s how the Bush administration bumbled its way into a war that should never have happened.”

“And don’t tell me that it is unpatriotic to criticize your country. If you truly love it, if you want it to be the best that it can be, you have a patriotic duty to criticize and to challenge, even at the risk of offending some. That’s the kind of country I want to lead and that’s how I intend to lead it.”

Charles Blum

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Challenging Special Interests

Barack Obama can stir powerful sentiments with his words. One formulation that he has used in the campaign pits the common interest against special interests. As he said in East Rutherford, New Jersey on the eve of Super Tuesday:

“Change happens from the bottom up. So I believed that if we could get the voices of the American people to join together, people from all walks of life: black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, North, South, East, West, rich, poor, young and old, we could gather our voices to challenge the special interests that have come to dominate Washington.”

How right Obama is about the stranglehold of special interests! But is it really just a matter of “joining our voices”? The super-exorbitant political process we’ve created for this year’s election seems destined to strengthen, not weaken, the domination of special interests. Depressing new evidence of this comes from an interesting report by Brody Mullins in the April 2 Wall Street Journal. He notes that seven major traditionally solidly Republican industries have this year showered more of their largesse on Clinton and/or Obama than on McCain. At the top of this list are executives in finance/insurance/real estate and health care. They’re investing in the status quo, not in change.

So, how can we hope that “voices of the American people” could ever “challenge the special interests”? If our elections are becoming longer and our nation’s attention span shorter, how can we hope for a fundamental change in the direction of this country?

In a previous comment, I suggested that one way was for candidates to seek a mandate for fundamental policy reforms in the course of an election campaign and not to try to define it once the election is won. That idea hasn’t exactly sparked a prairie fire of support.

The more I see of this campaign, however, the more I’m certain that my analysis is right on. John McCain’s economic strategy is essentially to trust the invisible hand of market forces to correct what ails the American economy. Oh, and throw in a little tax relief aimed at the middle class and a specious gasoline tax suspension. This is supposed to bring fundamental change to our economic system?

Hillary’s answer is a mosaic of policy proposals, a mountain of specific measures she will support or – watch her words carefully – “consider.” What is she actually committing to do? And how would her pile of proposals add up to fundamental economic change in this country?

Obama spins beautiful, poetic assurances such as making workers his top priority. What does that mean? What kind of tax policy puts workers first? Or infrastructure policy? Or energy policy?

So, let me go back to the demand side of the political equation. Perhaps candidates don’t offer meaty ideas in campaigns because American voters simply don’t demand it. Eighty-one percent in a recent poll agreed that the country is headed in the wrong direction. What to do about it? Oh, that’s another question, and there has been surprisingly little interest in discussing what to do about it beyond – and this much is guaranteed – electing a president not named George W. Bush.

Perhaps it’s time that we put the demos back in our democracy. One ray of hope was the extraordinary candidate forum sponsored by the Alliance for American Manufacturing in Pittsburgh on April 14, where more than 1,000 participants listened carefully and respectfully challenged two of the candidates – McCain had “other priorities” – to be more specific and more credible. Another hopeful development is the emergence of the Coalition for a Prosperous America (full disclosure: I sit on its board) that is ambitiously trying to create a national grass-roots action coalition of farmers, ranchers, organized labor and manufacturers. By its bootstraps, the CPA is simultaneously studying issues, holding town hall meetings, seeking access to candidates – all with the aim of getting agreement on a comprehensive national strategy to enable American producers in all sectors to have a fair chance of succeeding in global markets. If such a diverse group could agree on a few big changes to serve the national interest, perhaps the candidates will finally take notice and join in with their voices.

Charles Blum

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

'Producing' Energy Security

Geopolitical turbulence, soaring trade imbalances, and global warming are among those seemingly intractable problems that our current model of globalization has wrought. These are also the issues that will dominate the next U.S. presidency. So why isn’t any candidate offering us a big idea that would turn these challenges into opportunity?

Energy security could be the linchpin of a national competitiveness strategy that would help free us from the vagaries of unfriendly oil-propped regimes while supporting a green re-industrialization of America. What we have been lacking thus far to capitalize on homegrown energy resources is good public policy.

Consider solar for example, the world’s fastest-growing energy technology, with production doubling every 2 years:
- The U.S. has more solar resources than any other developed country, yet Germany – a country with solar resources equivalent to those of Alaska – has the fastest growing photovoltaic (PV) market
- The U.S. pioneered a number of solar power technologies in the 1980s. Yet since 1995, our share in the photovoltaic market has dropped from 45% to 9% (about equal to China’s share) and of the top ten solar companies in the world, none are from the U.S.
- Japan – a country the size of Montana – has installed more PV power than the whole of the United States. Japan is not only the number one PV producer, but is also exporting half of its PV production

Whether it is in the wind power market, biofuels, or hybrid technology, the United States is not number 1. As a result, we are forgoing investment and job opportunities, let alone leadership in the industries of the future.

Market forces alone don’t create energy security – good government policies do. This is why we need for the next President to commit to a ‘green’ Apollo project for the United States wherein we would price carbon via cap and trade or a carbon tax, reinvest the revenue into renewable technology research and commercialization, and support the development of a domestic supply chain. We can only achieve energy security if we produce more clean forms of energy here. In doing so we will reduce our deficits, open new investment opportunities, and create thousands of good jobs. Any takers?

Carolyn Avery

Thursday, April 3, 2008


Some Democrat strategists pine for 1932. They see their candidate being swept to victory with a mandate for “change,” transforming the polluted partisan atmosphere to fresh air, and then dispatching the job that he or she was elected to do.

Sorry, folks, but 2008 is not 1932 redux. Here are just a few reasons why not:

• The incumbent is not on the ballot. In 1932, the country rejected Herbert Hoover as much as it chose FDR. The choice this time will not be so stark, unless John McCain is so foolish as to insist on it.
• The issues are infinitely more complex. We are in the midst of a growing worldwide financial and economic disruption – a genuine paradigm shift in the making – despite the array of institutional and policy changes that most of us were taught would preclude another Great Depression. So, the task is not just to set new directions, it is also to dismantle things that don’t work for the country but may have powerful vested interests behind them.
• When FDR rode into town in 1933, he did not face an army of K Street lobbyists ready to derail anything he tried to do and armed with ample cash – the mother’s milk of American politics -- to back up their policy positions.
• FDR could attract the best and the brightest of his generation to Washington without today’s protracted security checks and financial vetting. The next president will be stuck with vacancies reaching high up in many key agencies for many months. Given the conventional wisdom that the window for real reform is limited to the first year or 18 months of a new president’s term, our new leader may have to do a lot of the policy formulation singlehandedly. That’s a job for Superman or Superwoman, not the mere mortals in this race.

If the next president wants a mandate to make big changes in public policy, that mandate must be fashioned in the campaign, not after it. But how to get 300 million Americans away from their 21st Century bread and circuses – American Idol, Survivor, the NCAA Big Dance, fantasy football, and so much more? Why not take up one of Newt Gingrich’s ideas? He has proposed that the two major candidates agree to a fall campaign limited to nine weekly televised conversations. Just the two of them in easy chairs with no moderators or questioners. They would talk together, testing, challenging, explaining. As Gingrich said, after 13 and a half hours of such discussions, every viewer would know whom to vote for. Then, as a nation, we could vote the loser off the island.

If the next president wants a mandate in “change you can believe in,” then he or she will have to do some heavy lifting in explaining in plain language, not just sound bites and slogans, what they propose to do to rebuild America.

Charles Blum