As the United States struggles to emerge from a deep recession, politicians from both parties appear unwilling to compromise to solve long-term economic and social problems that threaten the country’s future, a noted federal judge and author said in a speech at Elmhurst College on September 6.
Speaking to an audience of nearly 400 in Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel, Judge Richard A. Posner of the Seventh Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago said that growing problems continue to fester in education, health care, the tax structure, criminal justice, the infrastructure, climate change and other areas as the political parties drift further apart ideologically and stagnate in Congress.
For example, education costs too much at the college level, putting thousands of students deeply in debt, Posner said, and it appears to be failing at the primary and secondary level, particularly in math and science.
“All these systemic failures are soluble, but all the methods of solving them are very controversial,” he said, and Democrats and Republicans have become more polarized and unwilling to compromise. The parties weren’t so far apart on most issues through the Clinton and both Bush administrations, he said, but now, “They are really at each other’s throats, and that makes it extremely difficult to deal with these problems.”
In the past, the two parties found enough common ground to tackle major issues, but Posner said that began to change with the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and accelerated with the economic meltdown four years ago, two events that increased anxiety across the U.S.
“When people are anxious, they tend to be drawn to political extremes,” Posner said during an interview before his speech, resulting in a sharp divergence between the two parties on key issues ranging from abortion to taxation and the government’s role in the economy.
Posner faulted both parties, but during the interview he said, “Republicans have become more conservative. It’s not that Democrats have become particularly more liberal than they were in the Clinton Administration, but the Republicans have become much more conservative.”
During a question-and-answer session following his speech, Posner noted that in the past, “Each party tended to be a coalition and have quite a range of liberals and conservatives, and that made for an overlap that facilitated compromise.” Recently, though, the two parties have become “more polarized and more disciplined in toeing the party line, making it more difficult to compromise. It’s not at all apparent to me what you can do about it.”
Posner’s talk, “The Crisis in Capitalist Democracy,” was the annual Rudolph G. Schade Lecture at Elmhurst. His lecture was introduced by fellow Appeals Court judge and Elmhurst College Trustee and alumnus William J. Bauer ’49, who described Posner as “the most cited judge in America” in legal proceedings.
Posner is the author of more than 40 books, on subjects that include economics, terrorism, and sex and the law. At Elmhurst he delivered a wide-ranging discussion in which he advocated the decriminalization of marijuana, criticized the Supreme Court’s Citizen United Ruling that allows unlimited spending by political action committees, and faulted colleges for not adequately warning students about the risks of borrowing large sums to finance their education.
He described the 2008 recession as a depression, “because of the length [of time] that it has troubled us and because of the political consequences. It is the most serious economic crisis since the 1930s.”
The $787 billion federal stimulus package launched in 2009 failed to fire up the economy because it was too little and poorly implemented, he said.
“Unfortunately, it wasn’t a very well-designed plan, it wasn’t well administered or well executed,” he said, and it was implemented too slowly, largely because of excessive red tape at the federal and local levels. Many projects took several months to get off the ground, while others took years, he said—a sharp contrast to 1933, when President Roosevelt launched New Deal programs that put millions of Americans back to work within a few months of taking office.
The bailout of General Motors and Chrysler, which were on the verge of liquidation, was an exception. The two auto manufacturers were quickly ushered through government-managed bankruptcies and restructured, saving about 1 million direct and ancillary jobs, he said.
Debate over health care reform probably impeded economic recovery because of the uncertainty it created among businesses, particularly small businesses that were unsure about the consequences of reform, Posner said. Republican opposition to all things Obama also contributed to economic stagnation, as did concerns over the ongoing European economic crisis.
Posner said he worries that some current economic problems may not be temporary. Many middle class jobs, particularly in manufacturing, have disappeared, while opportunities grow in technology, pharmaceuticals, specialized medicine and other areas for “higher IQ, very well-educated people or people with wealthy families” who can afford higher education.
“We see this in the spreading economic inequality in the United States,” he said, as the rich get wealthier and those on the bottom tier have trouble finding even low-paying jobs. “This kind of spread in equality can be very bad for a country in the long term. It can create social tensions, but it can also create a huge underclass of people who are discouraged and eventually become envious and resentful of the top-tier, small group of people who are immensely wealthy.”