Monday, August 30, 2010

The Clocks Of Public Pension Funds

Since the 1970s, I have been writing about my concern about the impact of public pension funds on the local, state and national economies. My original interest was provoked after I read Peter Drucker’s brilliant and prescient book “The Unseen Revolution: How Pension Fund Socialism Came to America” published in 1976, and later doing some math on the incremental growth of the public pension funds, and their impact on public spending and taxation.

Now, almost 40 years later, what some very visionary and smarter folks than I am saw coming, is now at out doorstep. Unfunded liabilities of public pension funds are now so large that the numbers are staggering and grim.

In many American cities, for example, the bulk of local taxation goes to pay for the costs of pension funds for public employees. Increasingly, the same is becoming true of costs and taxes at state and federal levels. The bottom line is that if some “drastic” reform is not effected, and soon, public employees simply will not receive their pension benefits. For some reason, there is amazingly little discussion of this explosive matter in the media, and by political figures of both parties.

I am not talking here about social security or private (corporate) pension funds which have, or soon will have, huge unfunded liabilities of their own.

This is not some small problem that can be easily fixed or wished away. It is also no longer a problem which lies in the distant future, and can be procrastinated to some future group of officials.

At some point, the stock market, other markets, and the corporate governance community will have to react and act. There is no solution to this whole issue that will be without considerable pain and difficulty. And now, the longer it is put off, the more painful and expensive it will become. The clocks of this issue are now all running out.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Many More Surprises Coming

After Tuesday's primary results came in from several states, several media analysts and commentators repeated their opinion that voters were surprising conventional wisdom.


There is, in fact, no conventional wisdom worth talking about this political cycle.

I am suggesting that the surprises have only begun. No incumbent this year, particularly no Democratic incumbent, is safe this cycle. It has been said many times already that voters are upset. I am suggesting that voters are more than upset. They are in a rapacious mood to clean house, something often mentioned rhetorically, but which very rarely happens.

Lisa Murkowski, Barbara Boxer, Russ Feingold, Patty Murray, Richard Blumenthal, Harry Reid were not on any list I saw of vulnerable senators at the beginning of the year. Blanche Lincoln was on a few lists. Now they’re all in trouble. At least 2-3 of them are going to lose, and perhaps all of them will go down. Although the anti-incumbent mood is not directed solely at Democrats, most of the vulnerable members of the House and Senate are those who have voted for the Obama administration’s legislation and supported its policies. (In fact, most of those Republican incumbents in trouble are those who voted for liberal legislation.)

Chris Dodd, Arlen Specter, Roland Burris, George Voinovich and Byron Dorgan are already gone, either defeated in primaries or voluntarily retired rather than face defeat.

We are almost at the end of the primary season. The surprises now will come in the general election. Lacking any political experience to speak of, and evidently no serious student of history, President Obama makes matters worse for his own party almost every day. The Republican leadership in Congress, to be candid, has not been particularly aggressive or imaginative so far, but this is beginning to change. Notwithstanding that Michael Steele is technically the head of the Republican National Committee, the true leadership of the GOP is in the hands of Governor Haley Barbour, former RNC chair and now the head of the Republican Governors Association. Mr. Barbour is a very savvy political operator. Congressman John Boehner, heretofore only a perfunctory critic of the Obama administration, is at last becoming more outspoken. The politically unattractive Democratic congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid sound more and more out of touch.

Most importantly, and the primary cause for voter anxiety, is that events and conditions are not going well. Some of these, of course, are beyond the control of presidents and other politicians. But many are not. Voters have observed a steady long list of mistakes made with the economy, pressing domestic issues and foreign policy by the Democrats (and some Republicans), not only at the national and international level.

We are only two months from election day. Undecided voters are already beginning to make up their minds, and their decisions now appear to be going one way. This can change, of course, but August will very soon be September, and by World Series time in October, voter rage may be out of control.

Perhaps, by so-called objective standards, voters may over-react on Election Day. Perhaps. But there is no clarity in government today, no sense of matters getting better, no sense of most elected officials doing much more than take care of themselves.

If this is where we are the first week of November, all bets are off.

The Tempest, 2011

This is the 400th anniversary of one of William Shakespeare’s most celebrated and influential plays “The Tempest.” It was first performed in November, 1611, and is the only play by the Bard (arguably the world’s greatest playwright) which has connections to the New World. It has provoked more adaptions, music, poetry and other artistic and critical inspirations than perhaps any of Shakespeare’s other works, which is no small matter when it is considered that Shakespeare also wrote “Hamlet,” “MacBeth,” “Othello,” A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream,” “All’s Well That Ends Well,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Julius Caesar,” “King Lear,” “The Merchant of Venice,” “Twelfth Night,” “Taming of the Shrew,” “Antony and Cleopatra,” “Coriolanus,” “As You Like It,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” and twenty-one other plays known the world over.

With Hurricane Irene now raging through the U.S. East Coast from its Caribbean origins (supposedly “The Tempest” was set in the Caribbean), I could not help but think of Shakespeare’s play with its iconic storm created magically by the play’s main character Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan. Although it remains to be seen how “historic” and great a storm Irene will be, it has certainly gripped in advance of its path the justifiable concern of millions of Americans who are likely to be affected by it, and the entire rest of nation watching from “a safe distance.”

One of the most famous visual images of this play was the painting “The Shipwreck” by the most celebrated 18th century portraitist George Romney. Yes, current frontrunner for the Republican nomination Mitt Romney is a descendant/kinsman of George Romney the painter, and that got me to thinking about a second tempest now going through the United States, a fellow named Rick Perry who is also the current governor of Texas. In only a few weeks, Mr. Perry has announced his late entry into the presidential contest, and has already emerged as Mr. Romney’s main challenger. Liberal Democrats seem not to regard Mr. Perry as a storm, but rather as Caliban, the disfigured and scary character who is another principal figure in the play. (Mr. Romney’s supporters, no doubt, hope that Mr. Perry is only a “tempest in a teapot.”)

The reader might think I am depending too much on coincidences here in drawing Mitt Romney and Rick Perry into this (how about Michele Bachmann as Ariel?), but of course, Shakesepeare’s 17th century plays are is so full of coincidences and references to other sources that I feel no compunction to hold back my devious way to bring up the current state of the 2012 presidential election and the contest for the GOP nomination.

While everyone hopes that the damage from Hurricane Irene will be minimal, there are many who wish that Tempest Perry will cause maximum damage. Some conservatives, unhappy with the bona fides of Mitt Romney as a true out-and-out man of the right are hoping that Mr. Perry will derail the Romney candidacy. Some liberals, fearful of a terrible defeat in November, 2012, hope that a man perceived as too far to the right, i.e., Mr. Perry, will be nominated, thus giving President Obama a better chance to win re-election.

Just as we do not know Hurricane Irene’s full course (as I write this), the impact of Tempest Perry is also unclear. He will now be subject to extraordinary scrutiny, and as he has already discovered, every word he utters will be examined under a political electron microscope. (Some of Mr. Perry’s recent utterances would indicate he is perhaps more like Caliban than his supporters would wish.) Mr. Perry will now have to stand on the stage with his rivals, and answer questions from the media and debate moderators that will contrast him to Mr. Romney, Mrs. Bachmann, and that most formidable GOP debater of all, Newt Gingrich.

I don’t know if it will be a tragedy, a comedy or a history, but it almost certainly will be quite a play to listen to and watch.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Corn Is High This Year

I’m only a city boy, but even I knew, driving through rural Wisconsin recently, near the St. Croix Valley, that the corn stalks are unusually high this year. The weather has been remarkable for some time, i.e. colder than normal in some places during the winter and summer, warmer than normal in some places in the summer and winter. Partisans for global warming have warmed up to the latter; skeptics feel cool about the former. But not being a meteorologist. I think it only proves what scientists have known about the weather for a long time, i.e. that climate is subject to many cycles, including subcycles, which often mask or imitate true long-term trends.

My point, however, is that it would appear that corn, wheat, soybeans and many if not most of the agricultural products grown in the U.S. are heading for bumper crops this year in many (but not all) regions. If it does turn out this way, and the droughts and weather-damaged crops of Europe, including especially Russia (which faces a serious wheat shortage), result in food shortages around the world, then our nation’s role as a great agricultural supplier in the world is once again spotlighted.

In the first one hundred years of our history, most Americans worked in farms and agricultural-related industries. By the end of the 19th century, however, we became known increasingly as an industrial and technological center. We continued to produce prodigious amounts of food products for ourselves and other nations, but our farm population shrunk as many farmers moved to our urban centers.

There is a romantic notion even today about the so-called family farm and its disappearance, and leftist criticism of so-called corporate farming. The latter is often attacked for its agricultural techniques of using pesticides, antibiotics and other tools that produce larger and larger yields. A charming cult of organic farming and chemical-free food, in reaction, has arisen, a well-meaning but atavistic attempt to revive conditions of the past. (Full disclosure: as a food writer, I do recognize that “organic” and “locally-produced” usually tastes better. I often praise chefs and restaurants who purchase, prepare and serve this kind of food and cuisine. However, these strategies of growing, preparing and dining on this kind of food is very expensive, too expensive to feed a nation of 300 million, and even to provide food in addition to billions more around the planet.)

Recently, it was disclosed that the “scientific” conviction that DDT caused cancer, held for decades, was inaccurate. The problem was that the UN and other world organizations banned DDT and related pesticides also for decades, and this resulted in worldwide food shortages (especially in Africa) that killed many millions from starvation. Organic and artisan food-growing has an authentic place in our culture, but we have to be honest about the fact that it is an elite phenomenon, and does not solve the larger challenge to feed everyone and reduce starvation.

This brings me to the irony of this year’s prospective U.S. harvest. Threatened by commercial and technological rivals around the world, including China, India, Korea, Japan, Russia and Brazil, it turns out that many of our rivals will not need from us electronics, airplanes and automobiles, but they will need our basic food products! (It should be noted that many of our farming methods still produce higher yields than those from other parts of the world.)

Of course, next year could be different. Harvests could be weak in the U.S. and strong in the rest of the world. But wherever it comes from, our basic food products will be as important as they were in 1776, and 1876.

I write this as a note to other city boys and girls, especially those who take food and hunger for granted. There is a true “romantic” history of the American farm, and the heroic farmers who have fed us, and billions of others, for more than two centuries. By all means, let us dine on “organic” produce, “wild-caught seafood, “grass-fed” meats, and exotic plants and fungae. But let us also acknowledge our dependence on the vagaries of the winds and clouds and the
weather fronts which move across our land, often forgotten by those of us dwelling and working in urban condos, apartments, townhouses and suburban homes in the “modern” America.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Why Obama Is Doing It His Way

Barack Obama has a huge ego. This is not a unique condition for someone who has been elected president of the United States. Even men and women who have not been elected president have huge egos. He also has concluded, I believe, that he is a political genius. I remember that midway in the 2008 primary/caucus season, when his campaign was faltering, Obama personally rallied his staff. This in itself was commendable; presidential hopefuls like Rudy Giuliani and (now-disgraced) John Edwards also faltered, but were so above the battle, they failed to try to intervene when their political fortunes went south. Obama had a great deal of outside help, much of it from the savvy folks who make up the Chicago Democratic machine, but like so many who reach high office, I think Mr. Obama has come to believe he is the true source of his own (and for now, unquestionable) electoral success.

He came into the office of president, however, with very little political and executive experience, probably less than anyone in the Oval Office for the past century. He gathered around him friends and foes, but his innermost circle includes mostly friends (a totally understandable and common phenomenon). It was thought that some of those friends would give the new president good advice. If they did, he has not seemed to be listening. He seems to be listening to himself.

To his critics, of which I am one, he has made numerous mistakes in domestic and foreign policy, and has constantly exhibited his inexperience. Most of these critics find his rhetoric pedestrian, and his political instincts inept. These critics also find his dealings with foreign leaders and nations to be dangerously naive at best.

His supporters see Mr. Obama quite differently. They consider the legislation passed by the Democratic-controlled Congress and signed into law by Mr. Obama to be significant and positive “change.” They hear his speeches as “eloquent.” They agree with and applaud much of his point of view, including his foreign policies.

But many of these supporters are now not so sure about his political instincts. They note that most of the Obama-Pelosi-Reid legislation is unpopular, causing the president’s popularity to nosedive, and endangering Democratic control of both houses of Congress. They observe his “tin ear” as he espouses provocative views about building a mosque at Ground Zero in New York and opposing the clear views of Arizonians on immigration. As the midterm elections approach (now less than 3 months away) more and more senators and members of Congress are distancing themselves from Mr. Obama and his administration.

Mr. Obama himself seems unmoved by his sudden unpopular trend in his ownvparty, the loss of support of many independents who voted for him in 2008, and of course the criticism of him coming from Republicans and conservatives.

Some glib analysts have suggested Mr. Obama and his coterie want to lose the 2010 elections so that they can run against Republicans in 2012. But most observers have concluded that he is simply naive and self-deluded, and is a true believer in his own world-view (whatever that is), and is willing to lose in 2012 to promote that world view.

While I do think Barack Obama is misinformed by his own lack of political and executive experience, I am beginning to conclude that he is not as politically clumsy and clueless as his actions so far would indicate.

Right or wrong, I suspect that President Obama thinks his agenda and political strategy, now faltering in opinion polls, will be redeemed by events. I suspect
that he believes his treatment of the leaders of Iran, Russia, North Korea and Venezuela (most of whom now scorn him in private) will produce diplomatic triumph. I suspect that he believes his understanding of the economy will produce a notable if not dramatic turnaround before 2012. I suspect he believes he can satisfy the far left of his political base while at the same time appearing to be a “mainstream liberal” to the rest of the Democratic Party base as well as most independent voters.

As readers know, I do not share his beliefs above, but I think we have to understand his actions, not as intentionally politically suicidal, but as behavior which anticipates results that will be dramatically different than his critics predict.

So Mr. Obama is a kind of radical “contrarian.” The Prairie Editor, as readers know, is also a contrarian, but he anticipates contrarian results and outcomes of a very different kind.

My conclusion is that Barack Obama is the first political “sleepwalker” American president. He lives and acts in his dreams, dreams formed here and in his childhood outside the mainland U.S.. There is always the chance that he is more right than wrong, but all of us will know whether he is or not, as economic, political and international events continue to unfold.

This, almost certainly, will wake us all up.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Is Rick Perry Over-Hyped?

Texas Governor Rick Perry is allegedly now a serious threat to the nomination of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney for president. In fact, if you believe the polls (which are routinely and notoriously inaccurate at this stage of a presidential campaign), he is actually ahead of Romney and everyone else. (It may be remembered that Ross Perot lead both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton in polls in 1992…..) But if the public statements of just-announced candidate Perry are any indication of his prospects, he just might be a fast national fade.

As a southern governor, Mr. Perry was originally thought of as a threat to Mr. Romney, especially in the South, but a closer look reveals his candidacy actually HELPS Mr. Romney at this point because both Mr. Perry and Michele Bachmann compete for the same kind of conservative voter. If you split the conservative base of the GOP, Mr. Romney easily comes out ahead.

George W. Bush was a true Texan and the state’s governor, but has little resemblance to his successor in Austin. Mr. Perry may be a charming “redneck” and votegetter in Texas, but I would speculate at this point that his national poll numbers are greatly exaggerated, and that they may go down soon enough.

Republican voters are unsettled at this point, primarily because their presidential frontrunner, Mr. Romney has not really begun to campaign, and there is some uncertainly about his ostensible political vulnerabilities, e.g. his Mormonism and his support for mandates healthcare in Massachusetts when he was governor of that state. My sense of the Romney campaign so far, however, is that it is strategically right on the mark, avoiding the Iowa Straw Poll, eschewing criticism of his GOP rivals, sidestepping controversy, and concentrating on fundraising, organizing in all states, and a withering and relentless critique of President Obama. Mr. Romney does not have the Republican nomination locked up, but he seems to be getting stronger as time goes by, and now with Tim Pawlenty’s withdrawal, is the only major Republican candidate with broad appeal for the critical November segment of the 2012 election. (Unless one considers Newt Gingrich’s stubborn remaining in the campaign has the potential for a comeback.)

If Mr. Perry and his political entourage think his redneck schtick will have appeal outside the South, especially with Mrs. Bachmann so prominently in the race, I think he and they will be disappointed soon enough

Saturday, August 14, 2010

What If Obama Is Not Re-Nominated?

As I have been suggesting for some months, President Obama may be the first incumbent in the past century not renominated by his own party. His popularity has fallen steadily, spurred on by his radical political agenda and the lavish style of his incumbency in the White House, i.e., his frequent and expensive vacations and travel, including the seemingly wasteful travel of his wife while the nation undergoes economic downturn, and most Americans have to tighten their belts. His policies and those of his party (which controls both houses of Congress by large margins) are often opposed by most voters, and his conduct of foreign policy has been replete with failures, misunderstandings of international politics, and outright fawning to world leaders who are self-declared as our enemies. Most egregious perhaps, is his unwillingness to adapt or change.

Of course, it is a relatively long time until the primary season in early 2012, but the possibility is now credible enough that we might ask: If not Obama, who?

The most conventional answers are not very helpful. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are so bound to Obama as top members of his inner circle that it is hard to imagine either of them, especially Biden, turning on their leader to run against him.

So who is qualified to be president in the Democratic Party, and not so tied to the administration, that they could lead an insurrection, capture the party nomination, and then be a serious opponent to the Republican nominee in 2012?

My first suggestion is someone who was my dark horse candidate in 2008, then governor and now U.S. senator Mark Warner (Virginia). Mr. Warner is a class act, who would have made voters notice him in 2008, and if he had the political courage in 2011-12, could make some political history. Mr. Warner comes out of the moderate-yet-liberal Bill Clinton school of Democratic politics, not the leftist Jimmy Carter-Al Gore-Barack Obama school. He has an impressive record in elective office, as an executive and a legislator, and a career as a successful businessman, behind him. (Could you imagine a Warner-Romney race?)

Senator Evan Bayh (Indiana) remains a major figure in his party. (He was reportedly Hillary Clinton’s first choice for vice president in 2008). He has a national constituency of his own, and a record as a serious, independent and moderately liberal senator. He recently chose to retire from the senate, but is only 55 years old.

Other possibilities include U.S. senator Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota), a witty and hard-working moderate in her first term, and who has already established herself as one of the leading young figures in the senate. Her previous background was as a prosecutor running a large county attorney’s office. Governor Brian Schweitzer (Montana) has made alternative energy his issue, has lots of personality, and has populist appeal. Governor Bill Richardson (New Mexico) has been a congressman, ambassador and cabinet officer, and has already run for president. Senator Mark Udall (Colorado) was six-term congressman before going to the senate, and comes from one of the most distinguished American political families of recent years (his father and uncle were serious candidates for president; his brother is current U.S. senator from New Mexico).

While the Democratic bench is not as currently as heavy as the Republican bench (Gingrich, Romney, Daniels, Barbour, Pawlenty, Huckabee, Palin, Thune, Jindal, et al), this is also a factor of the Democratic leadership currently being dominated by Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. But there are potentially serious candidates, nor can Secretary of State Hillary Clinton be entirely ruled out in 2012 because of her large constituency from her 2008 presidential run, and from her name recognition as first lady (1993-2001).

I agree that my speculation is based on what now seems unlikely. After the mid-term elections, President Obama is almost certain to reverse field and change his agenda. The economy could recover by 2011-12, and international events and trade could turn our way.

On the other hand, for more than 30 years I have had a nose for unexpected turns and twists in presidential politics. Sometimes I have been plain wrong. Other times I was ahead of everyone else. But it is not playing on a ouija board or reading tea leaves. There are always real signals in the air, and I must say the political broadband these days is as full of traffic as I can remember.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Deja Vu, Again? [Primary Analysis]

The Democratic-Farmer-Labor-Party (DFL) in Minnesota today is perhaps the most self-destructive state political party I have observed in more than three decades of professional political observations.

Insisting on an undemocratic and arcane political endorsement system that has for decades produced one political defeat after another for the party establishments and elites (but not always for party candidates in November), yesterday’s DFL primary has one more time produced a humiliating defeat for the left-of-center party regulars and its endorsed candidate for governor, retiring DFL speaker of the state house Margaret Kelliher. Her defeat, by the end of the primary campaign, was expected, and although the state party made a massive effort at the end (including taking increasingly frail former Vice President Walter Mondale across the state to try to rescue Mrs. Kelliher), former U.S. Senator Mark Dayton, who refused to participate in the endorsement process, won by about 2%, erasing Mrs. Kelliher’s early evening lead mostly coming from the Twin Cities. A third candidate, a former DFL legislative leader who had family millions to spend and did so, garnered about one-sixth of the total DFL vote. He will no doubt be blamed for Mrs. Kelliher’s defeat, but that would probably be misplaced. The true reason for last night’s outcome was the intrangience, arrogance and inability of the party to adapt to the times.

To make her defeat even more disappointing to party regulars, Mrs. Kelliher was not even the farthest left of the three major candidates, Winner Dayton qualifies for that, having made the centerpiece of his campaign a call for “taxing the rich” of Minnesota. Mrs. Kelliher explicitly rebuked this stance. Mr. Matt Entenza, the third candidate, was the most moderate on this issue, stating that higher taxes would not solve the state’s economic problems. (If there had been no endorsement process, and Mrs. Kelliher had won the primary, she would have been a shoo-in for election November.)

Mr. Dayton, who first ran for office in 1982 (for a U.S. senate seat), lost that year and a run for governor in 1998, but he did win a statewide race for state auditor, and later was elected to the U.S. Senate for one term. His inherited wealth (from the department store chain, later bought by Macy’s, whose name he bears), his past medical problems, and his self-admitted failure as a senator have all become familiar to DFL voters across the state who apparently have decided to give him another chance at high office. He did spend millions for this race, but was significantly outspent by Mr. Entenza (who was unable to give voters a compelling reason to vote for him). Mrs. Kelliher also spent more than a million dollars on the primary, and had the advantage of party organization and its volunteers, as well as the support of the AFL-CIO and other unions.

What now?

Republican legislator Tom Emmer easily won his primary last night, as did Independence Party-endorsee Tom Horner. So for the fourth consecutive election cycle, it will be a three-person race. The IP has been decisive in the previous three elections, electing its own Jesse Ventura the first time, and having its nominee cause the DFL to lost the next two.

The question now is: Will it be four in a row? Ironically, Dayton goes into the final part of the election cycle as the favorite, based on earlier polls, to win in November. But so were the previous three DFL nominees. As the most liberal candidate in the race, and seemingly wedded to his mantra of “Tax the Rich!”, Dayton faces losing some support from moderate DFLers and independents. As has happened since 1998, the beneficiary of this would be the IP nominee, Mr. Horner, a savvy liberal GOP political consultant-turned-candidate. So-called “liberal Republicans” have, however, long left the party, and few of them were likely to vote for any GOP nominee this year. Most of them, in fact, were prepared to vote for the DFL candidate, but now will almost certainly vote for Mr. Horner. Instead of receiving 5-10% of the vote in November, Mr. Horner will now have a good chance to receive 15-20% (or more if he turns out to be an attractive candidate and personality on the stump).

Mr. Emmer has the most raw charisma of the three, but also has the least demonstrated ability to be a statewide candidate. He has made a number of unnecessary gaffes in the primary season, and his campaign was in such disarray that a new manager and staff were recently brought in. Mr. Emmer is a good example of the fatal error some candidates make thinking they know more about running a campaign than their professional campaign staff. If he has now realized this, still early in the autumn campaign, he could still win in November, but it won’t happen if he continues to rely solely on right wing bluster. On the other hand, his conservative economic message is closer to where most Minnesota voters are in 2010, and if he can effectively communicate this, as well as make Mr. Dayton a stand-in for (increasingly unpopular here) President Obama, it will be a genuine horse race.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Minnesota’s Quirky Primary This Tuesday

For many years, Minnesota has employed a quirky procedure for nominating its state elected officials. It began innocently enough, with the two major political parties trying to increase their control of the nominating process by giving increased value to the endorsement by party activists at party conventions throughout the state. The official nomination, of course, came from a formal primary election held in September, but party endorsing conventions at the district level were routinely held in the spring, and soon after that, the state party convention was convened to endorse statewide candidates including governor and U.S. senator.

With the new rules put forward by the liberal McGovern-Fraser commission in 1972 (Fraser was at that time a Minnesota congressman), the party caucus system was made more complex on the Democratic side, and small (usually more radical) groups which had no real chance to prevail with their ideas and candidates were enabled through an arcane system of sub-caucuses to impose policy ideas and candidates that would not win if put before the all the voters of the party. This radicalized the Democratic Party (called the DFL in Minnesota), and over time sent pro-life and more conservative DFLers to switch their allegiance. Occasionally, DFL voters would reject the party-endorsed candidate in a primary, but with radical DFL activists making common cause with organized labor, it was difficult to do. This explains why, with its post-W.W. II reputation as a liberal state (Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, et al), Minnesota has not elected a DFL governor since 1986. (That governor, incidentally, was Rudy Perpich, a pro-life and pro-business DFLer.) In fact, Minnesota has not elected a conventionally liberal DFLer as governor since 1974!

Having been chased out of the DFL, pro-lifers either joined the GOP or became independent voters. By 1998, it seemed that it was the DFL’s turn to reclaim the governorship (with its immense powers of appointing judges and state government officials). Previous DFLers, many of them blue collar workers with socially more conservative views than DFL activist elites, now formed a significant unofficial voting bloc, and many of them voted for a last-minute Independence Party (IP) candidate Jesse Ventura who won a surprise upset victory. Since that time, IP nominees for governor, while not winning, have clearly prevented the DFL nominee from becoming governor. It appears that the same could happen again in 2010.

To be fair, although they did not adopt the extreme sub-caucus rules of the DFL, Republican activists on the right also mobilized in the caucuses in the 1980’s and 1990’s, pushing out pro-choice and other moderate Republicans. This might have deteriorated their party as much as in the DFL, but moderate Republican Arne Carlson twice won the governorship over right wing candidates from his own party, and lacking the extremist sub-caucus endorsing system of the DFL, the GOP was able to win the governorship with pluralities in 2002 and 2006, elevating their governor, Tim Pawlenty, to becoming a national figure, and soon-to-be candidate for president in 2012.

This set the stage for a DFL comeback in 2010, as remaining moderate Republicans left the GOP. But the claustrophobic endorsing system provoked long-time DFL party leader and office holder Mark Dayton (former state auditor and former U.S. senator) to eschew the state party endorsing convention and announce he was running in the primary. Former state legislator Matt Entenza, with a family fortune even larger than Dayton’s, then also announced he would go directly to the primary also. DFL speaker of the Minnesota house Margaret Kelliher won a hard-fought DFL endorsement at the state convention, but the problem remained that the delegates to the convention were chosen at precinct caucuses in which only about 1% of those who consider themselves DFLers attended. This has been the chronic and and devastating problem for the DFL (the sole exception was the 2008 caucuses where a greater percentage showed because of that year’s spirited presidential campaign) for more than two decades. (For some mysterious reason, party leaders fail to get or heed the message from voters.)

Once more, the Independence Party has fielded a serious and credible candidate. Like Tim Penny (2002) and Peter Hutchinson (2006), Tom Horner (if he wins, as is likely, his primary) will surely garner a significant percentage of votes in November, especially if voters perceive the DFL nominee as too liberal and the GOP nominee as too conservative. (If the DFL and GOP nominees really tank, Horner might even win.) Horner himself has been a moderate pro-choice Republican political consultant, and shows clear grasp of the economic issues of the state. The irony is that he is likely to draw many more votes from DFL voters than GOP voters, and once again the IP candidate is a threat to an otherwise easy win for the DFL.

Meanwhile, The GOP has nominated an energetic conservative non-urban legislator who has some personality, but has so far demonstrated few political skills as the putative nominee of his party. His recent gaffes, in fact, have stalled his campaign. He will likely be the beneficiary of the new Tea Party movement in the state (that includes thousands of voters who usually don’t vote in state elections). But he needs IP candidate Horner to draw DFL votes so that, like Pawlenty before him, he can win the governorship with a plurality.

Meanwhile, the GOP stands to pick up significant numbers in the two houses of the state legislature (which the DFL now controls be clear margins). This trend fits into the national trend away from the liberal policies of the Obama administration (Mr. Obama won the state by 10 points in 2008, but his popularity has dropped drastically in recent polls). The high tax and spend policies of the past DFL legislature were skillfully parried by outgoing Governor Pawlenty in the most recent session, and it remains to be seen if voters want to return to increased taxes and more public spending advocated by most DFLers.

The whole picture of this gubernatorial election is thus very murky and unpredictable going into Tuesday’s primary. Mr. Dayton, according to polls, is the clear favorite, owing to his high name recognition and his legislative record on behalf of seniors (perhaps the largest bloc of voters in an otherwise low-turnout primary). But this is the first time a primary will be held in mid-August (when many voters will be on vacation), with thunderstorms forecast for the Twin Cities, and when, as perhaps not ever before, well-funded and sophisticated campaigns are targeting specific groups of voters, something which may not show up in conventional polling.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Greater Minnewisowa

In 2004, I invented the word “Minnewisowa” to define the political entity that makes up the northern midwestern states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa — three contiguous states with similar demographics and geopolitical DNA. Together they have more electoral votes than most large states. There is no presidential election in 2010, of course, but by expanding Minnewisowa to more contiguous states, we have the heart of what might be an historic transformative midterm election.

I call it “Greater Minnewisowa.” There is no need to add more syllables to my little neologism. I add the midwestern states of Illinois, North and South Dakota, Michigan and Missouri to comprise Greater Minnewisowa. In the total of eight states (which have almost 100 electoral votes), we have the potential of dramatic shifts in the U.S. senate and house, state legislatures and governorships. To wit, the GOP could pick up a net gain of up to four senate seats, 5-10 house seats, and five governorships in these eight states alone. (I’m not predicting they will do so, but there is a very reasonable possibility they can do so.)

Looking ahead to 2012, President Obama won most of the states of Greater Minnewisowa in 2008. He almost certainly cannot be re-elected if he loses most of them two years from now.

(If I may be allowed a shameless plug for Minneapolis being the site of the Democratic national convention in 2012, let me do so here. This is a region the Democrats cannot take for granted, as will become more evident after the results in 2010 are counted. The GOP convention in St. Paul in 2008 did not change the results toward the Republicans in this region that year, but it was a year when virtually nothing the GOP and its candidates could do after the bank/mortgage meltdown would have given them victory. Unlike the river that goes through Cleveland, incidentally, the Mississippi is not going catch on fire……)

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Congress Is The Problem

Congress has not ever been so low in public opinion, and this evaluation is fully deserved.

The recent “indictment” by the House Ethics Committee of two long-time and always previously outspoken Democratic members, Charles Rangel (NY) and Maxine Waters (CA), only underscores the chronic decline of public regard for the legislative branch of the federal government (and of regard by some elected officials for the public and its interests).

I have not previously supported the notion of term limits for members of Congress, but I am rapidly changing my mind. Most of the worst ethics offenders seem to be members who keep getting re-elected time after time in “safe” districts, and who seem to think that rules of good behavior do not apply to them. Right now, most of the “bad apples” are Democrats, but in the past, Republicans have had their share of unethical behavior. The lesson, it would appear, is not to give either party too much of a majority for too long a time.

I have been critical recently of President Obama and his policies, but there is little harm he can do, other than in foreign policy, without the support and encouragement of his large majorities in the House and Senate.

The cliche “Throw The Bums Out!” is usually a simplistic slogan for a national mid-term election, but perhaps this year is the exception that proves the rule. Congress exists to enact the laws of the land, to levy taxes and to set appropriations for foreign and domestic policies. In some cases, it provides advice and consent to executive appointments and actions. In all cases, it should set an example for the highest standards and the best impulses of a self-governing society.

The “sins” of the current Congress are not only ethical lapses. Not in memory have I observed a Congress less respectful of its own rules, and more importantly, less respectful of the those it works for, i.e., the public at large.

As the example of the recently deceased Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) illustrated one more time, there is little to be gained for society by allowing legislators to serve well into their 80’s and 90’s. It does not matter if the elected official is a Republican or a Democrat.

But we don’t currently have term limits. As the saying goes, each election serves this purpose, too, but only if voters use their power wisely and alertly.

In my adult lifetime, I have not seen an election which cries out more for the retirement of incumbents in Congress, especially of incumbents of the party which now has too much power and too little regard for the true interests and ethics of our Republic.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Two Ships Cross The Atlantic

Traveling by airplane, for almost half a century the most efficient way to get from one distant place to another, is no longer cost effective, nor even minimally pleasurable. Rail travel in the United States, while notably improved from Amtrak’s first days in the 1970’s, is not yet up to acceptable standards, especially on long distance routes. (Only the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle; the Coast Starlight from Seattle to Los Angeles; and the premium Acela high-speed train from Boston to Washington, DC, are truly memorable experiences with enough special features, decent food and onboard services, to justify the extra time it takes to go by rail from city to city.)

What has become available to most traveling and vacationing Americans, seeking luxury accommodations, exceptional food and great service, is travel by ship. In the old days, there were a small number of transatlantic liners and a larger number of cruise ships that transported, fed and entertained the nation’s elites in grand stye. Today, thanks to perhaps overbuilding of large new cruise ships, a holiday at sea is now the most affordable value in travel, the highest quality experience, and the by far most fun.

Since my first voyage on the Queen Elizabeth I in 1964, I have made 29 international sailings to near the tip of South America; to the Caribbean; to, from and throughout Europe; through the Panama Canal, and in the Pacific Ocean. Already by the 1960’s, great travel by sea was becoming affordable to middle class travelers. Before that, ships were strictly separated by class, and the luxury experience limited to first class passengers only.

Millions of new Americans, of course, came to the U.S. in steerage across the Atlantic in ships large and small, fleeing persecution, famine, poverty and prejudice in Europe. In the highest decks, first class passengers lived in spacious staterooms, drank champagne like water, dined in Edwardian splendor and were constantly taken care of by servants and stewards. At the same time, numerous emigrants below, with literally no more than the clothing they wore, lived in crowded dormitories in the decks below, decently fed but with simple food, no entertainment but the music and pastimes they provided for themselves.

Today there is only one transatlantic liner left making the crossing on a regular basis. The Queen Mary 2, only a few year old, is the culmination of a grand tradition of non-military naval history, and is almost certainly the greatest passenger ship that has crossed the Atlantic. Its sister ships, Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth II, now rest in moorings in Long Beach, CA and the Persian Gulf where they are hotel destinations. Queen Elizabeth I now rests at the bottom of the sea off Hong Kong. Cunard has also built two new cruise ships (cruising and crossing are two different maritime experiences), Queen Elizabeth (in effect, QE3) and Queen Victoria. These latter now routinely tour the Caribbean, the Pacific and Mediterranean Seas, stopping at ports, and providing luxury cruise itineraries.

But Cunard is only one of many cruise ship companies serving the seas and waterways of the world to a rapdily growing cruise vacation clientele.

Norwegian Cruise Lines has just launched a gigantic new cruise ship, Norwegian Epic, a ship so large that it could contain several Titanics.

On my recent trip to and from Europe, I sailed from New York to Southampton on the Queen Mary 2 (QM2), and back from Southampton to New York on the maiden voyage of Norwegian Epic.

The route was essentially the same each way, but the experience was quite different. Most of the passengers on the QM2 were American and British retired couples (60-90 years old). The ship retained much of the formality and program of the traditional transtlantic crossing, including formal attire (although dark suits were allowed), fixed dinner seating, high teas, bridge tournaments, professional theater and classical music concerts and (!) self-service laundromats.

The Norwegian Epic experience was quite different. The passengers were overall much younger. Young couples with children, and slightly older couples with teenagers were much in evidence. There were numerous facilities for the young to play and socialize. Adult entertainment included the famed Cirque de Soleil, Blue Man Group (first time at sea) and Second City (improvisational comedy from Chicago). There was also a blues and jazz orchestra, country music duo and numerous orchestras for Las Vegas and Broadway-styled shows, magicians, dancers, singers and many other entertainers to keep the 4000-passenger capacity occupied during the 7-day crossing. An elegant spa and gymnasium provided everything from private trainers to manicures to tread mills, and an NCAA-regulation basketball court was open for athletic passengers who wished something more than the shuffleboard, table tennis, virtual golf and badminton (also available). While the QM2 had bridge games and a planetarium, none of that was available on the Epic. There was a very large (10,000 volumes) library with plush chairs on the QM2. No library was available on the Epic, although a small one will be open for its Caribbean cruises. Both ships had an enclosed smoking room where cigarettes, cigars and pipes could be smoked. Fine Cuban and other cigars were available for sale. The Norwegian Epic, however, also permitted smoking in some public spaces, most notably the large casino in the middle of the most travelled pubic deck, and passengers going to breakfast, lunch and dinner had to go through this area. (I heard the most complaints from fellow passengers on this smoking policy. I bet it will be changed soon.)

A special feature of the Epic is that it has rooms for single passengers. On most liners and cruise ships, rates are PER PERSON (and that almost always means two persons per room. The net result is that sailing for single passengers is often financially prohibitive (although some cruise lines will make price accommodations if their ships are not full) or they seek the single passenger market.

Your ticket on the QM3 covered almost all expenses, including all meals, room service, port taxes, entertainment, most public facilities, and of course your
stateroom. The only extras were for liquor, tips, use of the spa and masseurs, the casino, and internet time. There was also one haute cuisine specialty restaurant ($20 extra for lunch, $30 extra for dinner.)

There were more extras on the Norwegian Epic. There were eight specialty restaurants for which you paid $10-$25 extra per person. There were no free self-service laundromats. Laundry and dry cleaning service was provided at high cost. Most entertainment was free, but there was an extra charge for Cirque du Soleil. Espresso drinks in the dining room were free on the QM2; on the Epic there was a charge for these drinks (although they were better). Fruit juices, except at breakfast, were extra on the Epic; always free on the QM2.

The British ship took their extra charges, but alway discreetly. The Norwegian Line made no bones about seeking extra revenue from passengers, including a
huge casino in the middle of the ship that no passenger could avoid passing through, and omnipresent photographers offering to take photos at high prices.
Both ships offered internet services also at steep prices.

The quality of the food was high on both ships. The QM2 was much more formal in their dining rooms, but also offered informal and excellent food, buffet-style, on its upper decks. The Epic was informal everywhere, something that fits better for cruising, and for passengers with children. Fabulous food is available on these large ships 24/7. Breakfast, morning tea, lunch, high tea, dinner, midnight buffets were only the official occasions. Room service, special order pizzas delivered to your stateroom and always-open pubs (chicken pot pie, omelets and steaks) filled in the rest of the intervals.

For the first class (Grill) passenger on the QM2, there was much pampering and special services, although having sailed on Cunard in all classes, I found “steerage” on the QM2 was about all most passengers would want, including lobster, fliet mignon or other steaks, rack of lamb, fresh ocean fish, etc., on all the menus. Caviar (sevruga), however, was $90 extra per serving (but free for Grill passengers). Grill passengers could also special order anything they wanted at at no extra charge. Their staterooms were of course larger and more luxurious, but the less expensive tickets offered comfortable if smallish rooms. (If the ship is not full, Cunard will also routinely upgrade passengers with inside rooms to larger outside rooms with balconies at no extra charge.)

Both Cunard and Norwegian Cruise Lines offer special incentives to frequent clients. As a “Platinum” World Club member on Cunard, I received four hours of free internet ($90 to other passenger), fast-facilitated embarkation and disembarkation (sometimes saving two frustrating hours of waiting time), a free wine tasting, and two exclusive cocktaii parties with the captain and other ship officers. There were similar, but less generous rewards for frequent NCL passengers. As a first-time NCL passenger, however, I asked for and received an almost one-hour tour of the bridge and interview with the captain. Both ships’ staffs went out of their way to satisfy passenger special requests, including special dietary needs.

In short, there was so much to do and experience on both these ships, and extras available just by asking for them, that it seemed to me unnecessary to spend the considerable difference in price for the first class ticket. (But if you have money to burn, and are accustomed to special treatment when you travel, you can indeed receive it at sea.)

Something I noticed on both ships were the numerous passengers in wheel chairs. In the past, ships were not designed for the handicapped, but the newest ships are designed to make almost any handicapped traveller comfortable and able to move easily anywhere on the ship. On the Norwegian Epic, it was explained to me that the crew is prepared to find quickly all disabled passengers during an emergency, and if it is necessary to evacuate the ship, make sure they are promptly and safely taken to their lifeboat. This is a boon to many travelers who otherwise could not vacation or make a transatlantic crossing. Safety features and procedures are many on these huge new ships, and I doubt that even an iceberg could do the kind of damage it has in the past. (As we passed over the the area where the Titanic lay in the Atlantic near Nova Scotia, the QM2 captain went on the public address system to inform us respectfully where we were.)

The most frequent objection to sailing or cruising I hear from friends and others I meet is an anxiety about seasickness. If you sail in the high season (June or July), you will likely not even know you are on a ship. The size and stabilizers of the QM2 and the Epic make even average sea waves almost undetectable. The seven days on the QM2 were ultrasmooth, and the sun was always shining. Occasional whales and schools of porpoises were sighted. But even in the off-season, or in the case of an unexpected storm at any time of the year, new and easy-to-take medications will minimalize discomfort on these large ships. (Smaller cruise ships might be another story.)

Once, when crossing the Atlantic in October, I experienced a Gale Force 10 sea on the Queen Elizabeth II. Even its size and formidable Denny Stabilizers could not alter some very rocky few days. I remember being one of only a handful of passengers in the vast QE2 dining room for several lunches and dinners (I have reasonably good sea legs, but even I felt some queasiness). Today also, captains routinely go around storms if they can, and since most ships go slower than they are able to go (to conserve expensive fuel), they can easily make up lost time from such maneuvers. The Norwegian Epic, for example, took a southern detour to avoid a storm on our June return to New York, and still arrived into New York harbor a few hours earlier than planned.

One of the most splendid aspects of traveling by sea is the variety of fascinating persons you can meet. On the QM2, with so many retired couples, I met former and current CEOs, Knights of the Garter, retired labor union officials, artists, Amish vacationers (they don’t fly), teachers and professors, shopkeepers, a young European couple who had just literally bicycled around the world (not counting the ships they had to take by sea), lawyers, physicians, and individuals with political views that ran the gamut of what I knew (and added a few dimensions I hadn’t thought about).

There is only one reason, then, NOT to travel or vacation by sea. It is easily cheaper, more delicious, more fun and more sociable than any other means of transportation. But you have to have more time, especially if you are making a transatlantic or transpacific journey. It’s the same for train travel. It does take longer, but the quality of the experience is light years apart from plane, bus or automobile travel when you travel by ship or train.

As for cost, the emergence of online travel brokers has made the price of passenger sailing the biggest bargain in travel. I used Vacations To Go ( ), but there are numerous others. Discounts are routinely 30-60%, but sometimes go even higher. Onboard credits, free bottles of champagne at sea, and other amenities are frequently available. My online travel agent at Vacations To Go also provided numerous extra services, particularly solving various travel issues. Frankly, he did much more than any local travel agent on land did for me in the past.

Travel insurance is a must. I would suggest NOT to buy the insurance sold by the cruise lines. It is usually more expensive and not as inclusive as the insurance available from you online travel agent. But insurance is a must. Last-minute cancellations, delays of any kind, accidents, baggage loss, all medical and dental emergencies are all covered (most likely, your own insurance will not cover most problems). I know you don’t seek to be transported from the jungles of New Guinea to the Mayo Clinic with a life-threatening problem by private jet helicopter, but it’s covered (without the insurance, it could be $100,000 or more).

There is a ship larger than the Norwegian Epic. It’s called the Oasis of the Seas. I believe it is twice the size of the Epic. The open area at the center of the ship is four football stadiums long. It holds 6000 passengers It is so large it cannot dock in New York and many other ports in the world. I’m sure it is a unique experience, although I suspect it is similar to the experience of walking through the Mall of America. I am not likely to sail on the Oasis or its twin sister just finished. The Queen Mary 2, Norwegian Epic or many other cruise ships are just fine for me.

In fact, the experience they offer is unlike any other on earth or sea today.

[NOTE: The opinions above are my own. I paid for my ticket on both ships, and received no services from either cruise line that were not available to all paying passengers.]