Is America Broken? A Conversation on the 2012 Elections and Beyond - Part 2

Panelists: Amy Gutmann, Charles Blow, John Lapinski, Peggy Noonan, Ed Rendell, Alan Simpson

Nathon Emmons: My name is-

Amy Gutmann: Stand up and introduce yourself.

Nathon Emmons: My name is Nathan Emmons. I'm a student here and I'm studying these sorts of issues. I'm a PPE major: philosophy, politics and economics. It seems like all of you guys are sort of talking about all these different problems and when I'm thinking about it sort of from a perspective of why is the politician choosing to make these decisions?

It seems to have to do with their incentives, that they are being incentivized to pander to their base. You know, that's where the money comes from, that's where the people coming out to support them, that's where all of that's coming from so how could that, it seems like that has to be changed in order for politicians to be doing that. So, how do you change those incentives to make those sorts of changes?

Amy Gutmann: How do you change the incentives so politicians don't pander to the base? Who would like to take that? Ed.

Ed Rendell: First of all, you do need some significant form of campaign reform. If you don't have it, there's going to be pandering to the base, pandering to the special interests. But, secondly, forget about money. I mean, we all rightly emphasize money, but money doesn't win elections. If money was the sole determinant of winning elections, Romney would have wrapped this up and Meg Whitman would be the governor of California. Money doesn't decide elections in and of itself. There's one thing more important than money and it's votes and in high-profile elections, even if you don't have money and Rick Santorum's proved it, if your message is one that people want to hear, you can win and I think if I were running for president today and as I say often I have no intention of spending two and a half years of my remaining life in New Hampshire and Iowa, but if I were running for president today, I would run just like I said. I would tell people the truth. You're gonna hate my answer to our nation's problems, but when you reflect upon it, you're gonna realize it's the only way out. That's the way you disincentivize the things that are driving the problems.

Amy Gutmann: And by the way, that is precisely what Edmund Burke said about how he would stand up to ... he would tell his constituents when he disagreed with them and he said all government is a form of compromise and barter, but he also said I'm gonna stand up for what I believe in front on my constituents.

Peggy Noonan: He said he owed his constituents his judgment.

Amy Gutmann: Exactly.

Ed Rendell: Right.

Amy Gutmann: Exactly.

Peggy Noonan: And he absolutely… that's…

Ed Rendell: Great quote.

Peggy Noonan: That's something that is forgotten.

Alan Simpson: That's right.

Amy Gutmann: And he whetted that with believing that government was compromise. You give your judgment and then you make policy. That's the only way you can move forward. Okay. I see a question there.

Ed Rendell: Amy, just one quick thing. You're right. You do exactly that, but you have to know there's a chapter in my book, $26.99, a chapter in my book, which is called, "Know When to Hold 'Em, Know When to Fold 'Em."

Amy Gutmann: Fold 'em.

Ed Rendell: There are some things you have to draw a line in the sand about, but there are others that you have to…

Amy Gutmann: Know when to walk away, know when to run.

Ed Rendell: That's right.

Amy Gutmann: And Olympia Snowe is just running now. So, no. Go ahead. Is that Bonnie?

Peggy Noonan: No, it's Terry Gillam.

Amy Gutmann: Okay.

Terry: Hi. I haven't heard anybody talk about redistricting and I wonder if people think that polarized congressional districts have contributed to the problem.

Amy Gutmann: Charles?

Charles Blow: I knew I was going to get this question.

Amy Gutmann: Oh, poor Charles. We talked about this.

Charles Blow: We talked about this. Well, what you are seeing is that there are fewer and fewer contested districts out there. So basically, as the governor mentioned before, a lot of people now the primary becomes the election and that makes it much more polarized. So, if you are in a Republican district, you have to go way to the right to beat the other guy because that is how you actually win the race. To that degree, I think it does contribute to part of the polarization and I don't know how you get out of that because that only happens, the redrawing only happens every ten years. So, you have it now, you don't have it again for ten more years. So, we're stuck with it.

Amy Gutmann: Over here. John.

John: Hi. My name is John Monfort. I'm a junior in the college, a frustrated political science major. I think there are a lot of us in here. I guess my question is, it's impossible to study politics and not be absolutely infuriated by it. We look at congress and when we think about our future and how, with no offense to Senator Simpson, the old farts in congress are…

Amy Gutmann: Oh, Alan…

Alan Simpson: I didn't hear anything. 

Peggy Noonan: You didn't miss anything. Forget about it. 

Ed Rendell: Alan didn't hear it. Let's leave it…

Amy Gutmann: Ask your question, John…

John: What can we do to…

Amy Gutmann: I would say quit while you are ahead, but you're not ahead so ask your question.

John: How does my generation, what can we do to secure our future. We have a congress that is not concerned about the environment, run by special interests, what can we do short of marching on Washington?

Amy Gutmann: So, Alan. That's…

Alan Simpson: Well, I heard that he called me an old fart. I was a young one, I got out 20 years ago, let me tell ya. There hadn't been a single word said in here about Social Security and you and your generation better perk up because you really are suckers because I can tell you one thing the AARP is an absolutely irresponsible group of people bound together by a love of airline discounts and insurance discounts and everything else and let me tell ya, they're out around the country now, today.

They realize the heat is on 'em. If anybody's gonna solve Social Security, it oughta be the AARP because the blood stream of Social Security is the payroll tax and they've taken the damn thing from 6.2 to 4.2, which knocks a 140 billion a year out of it. What did they say about that? Nothing. I asked their group are there any patriots in here are just marketers? I'm like Ed, I get in a lot of trouble, but I tell ya I never lost an election cause I didn't do bullshit.

Amy Gutmann: Yup.

Alan Simpson: And, that's what people are waiting for. Now, by doing nothing, in 2036 Social Security will pay out 23% less and no one, no one will challenge that figure. It was never retirement, hadn't had a thing to do with retirement. It was an income supplement and it was set at 63 life expectancy that's why they put the retirement at 65 and now it's 78.1.

Charles Blow: Going up.

Alan Simpson: And if we can't even raise the retirement age to 68, by the year 2050 and the AARP said, "How will people be able to prepare for that?" Well, I think they'll figure it out. I mean for the God's sake.

Ed Rendell: Real quick. Actually, that's a great answer, but real quick. Think about running for office, and you may laugh, "I can't win." There was a young man at Penn who I got to know because he sat in the Penn cheering section at basketball games dressed as a hot dog, dressed as a hot dog. He did. He had his head and body were encased in a hot dog with mustard down the middle.

He goes to Iraq. I think he was in ROTC. He goes to Iraq and he fights in Iraqi Freedom, and the next thing I know, I got to know him during the basketball season, next thing I know he calls me and he says, "I'm here in Harrisburg and I'd like to come see ya." I said, "Sure." He's a member of the legislature. He wins the Republican primary in Delaware County, gets elected because he was an Iraqi Freedom vet, and he had good ideas. Gets elected, becomes a member of the legislature, was one of only three Republicans to vote for our education budget and help to get it passed and made a big difference in the lives of children in Pennsylvania. People will tell you you can't win. Baloney. Baloney.

Amy Gutmann: Yeah, really important and John, I know John really well and you all should know he is, John if you do as much to get out the vote of young people as you've done to get our students to the Palestra to basketball games, that will make a huge difference…

Ed Rendell: No question.

Amy Gutmann: Young people have to vote.

Ed Rendell: No question.

Amy Gutmann: The numbers count and that's a worthy cause as well. Great question. Other…

Charles Blow: There's one over there.

Amy Gutmann: One over here?

Charles Blow: Somewhere over there.

Amy Gutmann: Somewhere over there. It's hard to see. It's dark from this perspective. Yes. Introduce yourself.

Haywood Perry: Yes, is the mic on? Hi. My name is Haywood Perry. I'm an undergraduate here at Penn urban studies major.

Amy Gutmann: Hi, Haywood.

Haywood Perry: How are you doing, President Gutmann? And so, quick question for Mr. Blow. Your article this weekend on, "The Curious Case of Trayvon Martin," was a searing reminder of the role the justice system plays within the question of, "Is America Broken?" You said, "As the father of two black teenage boys, this case hits close to home. This is the fear that seizes me whenever my boys are out in the world: that a man with a gun and an itchy finger will find them "suspicious." That passions may run hot and blood run cold. That it might all end with a hole in their chest and a hole in my heart. That the law might prove insufficient to salve my loss." Could you please speak on the role that our justice system has in the question of, "Is America broken?"

Charles Blow: Now, this is… you touched a button. So, I'm gonna be fast, but yes, in terms of the justice system it's absolutely broken. We incarcerate… let's put aside the shooting because that was a neighborhood watch guy, wasn't police. It was a neighborhood watch guy shot an unarmed boy of 17 years old who had some Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea. That was his only offense was walking in the rain with a sweatshirt on, but the criminal justice system is absolutely broken in America.

We incarcerate people at twice the rate of the nearest other developed country. We have a ridiculous war on drugs in this country, which has devolved into a war on black and brown people and the possession of marijuana. It's no longer about big drugs, it's no longer about kingpins, it's about whether or not some 16-year-old kid has a joint in his pocket and whether or not we can ruin his life for the rest of his life and what that means is that everybody has a role to play in that. That is both Democrats and Republicans have contributed to this mess that we are in.

We have had this war on crime, which you know, I guess we all think of as a Republican issue, but when you look at who has financed the perpetuation of the drug war, it has largely been Democrats who have wanted to buy a badge of, "I am also tough on crimes" and appease the police unions and be able to stand up when they go to that next city or that next state with the police chief and say, "I'm on this guy's side." So that when President Obama was running for office in 2008, there's a program called the Byrne Grants. Byrne Grants basically plays for everybody to go out and get out frisked all the time, so in New York City we have 600,000 people got frisked, stopped and frisked this year. Most of them are black and brown. Most of them are young men. There are only 200,000+ young, black men in New York. That means that some of those guys are getting stopped four, five times and then they're getting put into this system because they had a joint in their pocket and that means they come out not being able to get housing, not be able to get work, not being able to participate in the political system that we're talking about up here, not being able to run for that local congressional seat that will help him out. That is the problem. Michelle Alexander has written this amazing book, I'm sorry, I'm running long,

Amy Gutmann: Alright. I was going to stop you, but I

Charles Blow: There ... I want to put this fact out there-

Amy Gutmann: One more fact.

Charles Blow: There are now more black people in prison than there were in slavery when the year it was over. That is a problem and a broken system and we're giving away young people when we do not have young people to give away. China, if you take the top 20% of China's population say they're there, those are their honor students, then they have more honor students than we have students. We don't have people to store behind bars and say these people are disposable. Everybody we need them to work and we need them in colleges like you guys to get degrees. That's what we need. It's broken.

Amy Gutmann: Thank you. I'm gonna take one more question. Right up front here.

Gibran: Is this on? Hi. My name is Gibran Khan. I'm a senior studying business in the Wharton School in philosophy. So, taking a step back and looking at the political system we have today, you see the immense partisanship going on in Congress leading to this gridlock. You see more Americans than ever before standing independent and completely unaffiliated with political parties. Where do you see the future of politics outside of the Republican and Democrat political pigeonholes, so to speak?

Alan Simpson: There is a thing going on in America called Americans Elect and watch out for it. I'm not involved with it, but I know Ed knows and I'm sure that Mr. Blow knows and you've heard of it John. Let me tell ya, they are already qualified in 38 states. Every time they need to go to the secretary of state of any state in the union they say, "How many signatures do we need to get on the ballot?", and they'll give 'em the figure and they go get double that. People are fed up.

This thing, I don't know where it's going, but it will send shock waves through the Democrat and Republican party and they will pick, they will have a convention, an internet convention in June or July and they will pick a Republican or a Democrat for president and the opposite party for vice president and agree that their cabinet will be half Democrat and half Republican so they're not out to destroy parties, but boy, son you want to get aboard and I can't be part of it because I've irritated more Democrats and Republicans in the house and we need their vote on this.

We have 47 Republicans ready to go on this Simpson-Boles. We don't call it BS, it's Simpson-Boles, not Boles-Simpson and we have about 160 house members, both parties equally divided. This thing is being put in legislative language. I know that sounds like inside baseball, but it's not because when the guys say, "What is this thing you're doing?", you're going to look at it, book, page, and hymn number, and we'll see where it goes, but very interesting as to what's happening with this organization.

Amy Gutmann: John, Alan, Peggy, Ed, Charles, we owe you a great debt of gratitude. Thank you. Thank you.

Ed Rendell: Alan-

Peggy Noonan: They come to you, to run. They should you know, they should come to you in Erston.

Amy Gutmann: Thank you all for being here. You were a wonderful audience. Thank you.