by James Hynes
Your opponent, Glenn Thompson has a million dollar war chest and lots of powerful friends in DC. What made you decide to run against him?
No one else was doing it. I would have gladly not jumped into the ring if someone with more experience an gumption had decided to run. I looked around—a lot of people were considering running back in January, but then no one was willing to step to the plate. And I was concerned that Congressman Thompson was going to get away with no one asking him about putting his allegience to his party and his friends above his constituents.
So this isn't an act of protest. You are serious about this run?
I don't know what else I can do to prove that I'm serious. I've been working hard in the district. Centre Country is about 15% of the district vote. We expect a good turnout in Elk, Clearfield, and Centre where Democrats will likely vote straight across the ticket. My job is to get out into the other areas and to get Democrats enlivened and mobilized. Look, Obama won Pennsylvania in 2008. In 2010, there was a 30-40% drop in Democratic Party turnout. The Republicans didn't win; we lost. So, it's not my seriousness that matters. What matters is whether or not people see that there is a contrasting vision for our country. Do we give our resources to the rich and hope for trickle down or do we have a vision of a nation where people help each other?
Are you confident that you can win?
The House of Representatives has a 10% approval rating. They've been dysfunctional for two years. They've been too concerned about obstructing the president. We've got to get our shoulders to the wheel and fight about values. Half of the voters will vote ticket, but I believe that the independents will wake up. Frankly, it's not probable. I know this. But it's not impossible.
What do you think is the most pressing issue our country faces today?
Poverty. Growing poverty. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and the middle class is drifting toward poverty. Did you know that the United States has now passed Brazil in wealth disparity? Brazil. Public education is being attacked. Unemployment remains high, and wages are stagnant. Worse, there is a poverty of the spirit. I've talked to people who are so despondant—they don't have a lot of hope that life is better for them than it was for their parents and grandparents, and that life will be better for their children.
Economic growth is slow, unemployment hovers over 8% (higher if we count those who've given up trying to find work), the national debt is over $16 trillion and growing rapidly, the financial markets are still precarious—how do we get ourselves out of this mess?
Things are bad, but I'm not as pessimistic as the pundits. First, let's raise our vision and look around the world. We're doing damned well compared to a lot of other places, including the EU. It's an issue of what the longterm philosophy will be for 21st century folks. Has capitalism as we've known it been working? I'm by no means a communist. Soviet communism was a complete failure. But the idea of capitalism is not the same as the reality. The idea is that you get paid for creating, conducting and controlling a business. The way it works on the books is that you succeed and then profit off that success. But now someone starts with a target profit and everything else—including labor standards and environment--follows from that. So, 12-20% profit is the starting line bottom line. And I'm not sure that as it manifests itself right now that this model of capitalism is working. Look at history. The runaway capitalism of the '20s gave us the Great Depression. To get out of it, government taxed the rich at rates of 50-70% to develop infrastructure and safety nets for working people—to give them a moral sense of having a stake in it all. Today, we argue about a 4.5% increase in taxes for the top 2%. Is that too much?
So you're campaigning on raising taxes?
Yes, to be frank. I say raise taxes on the top to at least 40%--perhaps 50% to close the debt and create jobs. I'm not saying take away capitalism. I'm saying raise taxes on the top 2%. Where else is the money going to come from? We've got to fix our problems without hurting the most vulnerable.
What about the argument that raising taxes so high for the top 2% would cause them to move their businesses overseas?
They're already doing that. How much is enough to keep them here? They're already going to places like China because labor is so cheap. As it is, we can't compete against Chinese labor on the terms under which they work. I think that the burden is on organized labor. Unions are very disconnected. Why have we never built the one International Union? Why have we not helped Chinese labor to organize? Rather than being afraid of illegal immigrants, why have we not organized them as Cesar Chavez did? Besides, if businesses all move out, who's going to buy their stuff? You pay a living wage, and I'm going to buy your stuff. That's how it's always worked.
Do you support the Afforable Healthcare Act? What, if anything, you change about it?
Yes, I support it. I would have gone for single-payer, but this is one of the most progressive acts in my lifetime. FDR with his New Deal couldn't do it. Johnson with his Great Society couldn't do it. And it's constitutional. The court that decided that is was constitutional wasn't a friendly court, either. That's a major progressive move. Again, I would have gone to the mat for single-payer. But it's nice to know that people will have coverage. It's nice to know that people like me who had pre-existing conditions—I had cancer—would not be denied coverage.
What is the US role on the world stage today?
Our role is to provide leadership in the development of democracy around the world in a non-military fashion. I've taught in South Africa. As a Fulbright Scholar, I've traveled around the world. There is nowhere else in the world that has done what we have done. Look at our Olympics team. No other team looked like that. We had black, white, brown, people from every national background and every genetic makeup on that team. We've got to put that on our flagpole. The United States is a model for how people can live together. Let's be real. It's taken a lot of ugliness. A bloody civil war. Race riots. We don't necessarily always love each other, but we've figured out how to respect each other's personhood and dignity, and I'm so proud of that.
Is China's rise as a superpower a good thing?
Yes, insofar as it provides a way for formally starving people to no longer starve. The system, for all its faults, got it done. The incentive for us is not to be China but to do what we do better. And we've always been good at having the competitive edge. One negative impact of China's rise is that—I'm concerned about how she treats her people. I'm not sure how to go about dealing with that, but it's a problem for us. There is also a tendency for China to support industrial piracy, and this couldn't be done without the state's hand in it. I'm concerned with the lack of environmental regulations in China. But the Chinese are not going to bury us. The Chinese model is not going to be so effective that it will destroy our way of life. My biggest concern is that, educationally, they are far above us--certainly with regard to math and science. The Chinese see education as infrastructure; it's the development of their future. And China is using our educational resources to train their future leaders. We have the best higher education system in the world, and universities across the country are educating China's future leaders. One good thing about that is that those leaders get exposure to humanities, to arts. We all need well-rounded individuals who understand and sustain their own culture, but to question things, and we do that well. I sense that Chinese students who go to our universities will bring that back with them and put pressure on the system there.
Are we heading to war with Iran?
No. Even if Romney and Ryan win, I don't see war with Iran. I don't think they want another war. I don't want Iran to develop nuclear weapon either, but there's a question about what one does about that. I believe that there are solutions that don't involve war—that don't involve drones and SEAL teams. You know, it's hard for us to understand the world from different perspectives. The challenge is to make sure that American interests are protected while recognizing that not everyone believes that we're right all the time. As for war, the founders of this republic put the power to declare it in the hands of Congress. From the beginning, there was supposed to be discussion and argument. Going to war is serious. The founders meant it to be serious, and they put the responsibility of declaring war in a deliberative institution that is supposed to take it seriously.
President Obama, like your opponent Glenn Thompson, supports expanding natural gas exploration in North America. Residing in Marcellus Shale country, where do you stand on natural gas exploration and unconventional hydro-fracturing specifically?
What I've come to is this: The role of the federal government, through the EPA, is to make sure we project the 10-15-25-50 year impacts. We need to study that. What chemicals are being used? What are the water issues? All sides need to talk about problems and risks and discuss options. If it works let's do it, but let's do that study first. And since the industry wants to do the drilling, they should pay for it.
So you support a moratorium?
Yes, at least until we know what the longterm impacts will be. On a state level, New York's done it. The EPA has the power to do it nationally.
Some say that investment in renewable and other clean energy is a failure. The EIA (?) for example, points to recent data that show a disproportionate investment in “green” energy research with little to show for it. Do you agree?
No. National investment in clean energy is a win-win. It can provide jobs in the US. It's reasonable. We're not talking about “if” but “when.” Fossil fuels are unsustainable in the long run. We need to change direction. Let's start doing it now. Solar is an untapped resource. Wind is largely an untapped resource. They say it's not competitive now, but we need to look at five years after a full commitment. Oil supplies are diminishing. The cost to generate a wind-turbine will be lower than the transportation costs for oil, coal, and gas. And it's right here in America. Resistence to it is on part of those who hold reigns. If you own the only horses in the race, then you'll win the race.
You mentioned that education is infrastructure. You're an educator. Where does our nation stand with regard to education?
I applaud the president for his support for education, especially in the development of Pel grants and interest rate reductions for student debt. We need more support on a primary and secondary level. There has been an attempt in the last few years to vilify teachers when they ought to be among our most respected and honored citizens. This is a serious economic issue. It's not just about doing good by the kids but doing good by our nation's future.
We as country, we as a culture, we as a people need to support our artists. FDR made sure that public funds went to artists who told the american story. There was a theatre in every town. It is through public support for the arts that the slave narrative could be told, and it helped change us. Artists enrich our lives.
But we're broke. How do you respond to someone who says that we simply can't afford to do everything and that the arts are not a priority?
Life is not entirely about nickels and dimes, getting and spending. The Netherlands invests 2% of its public funds on arts. We don't spend 002%. We have this idea that if you're an artist, you can make enough through ticket sales or by rich people buying your stuff. But it's not all about nickels and dimes. Compare two cultures, Greece and Rome. Name something from Greece. Chances are, a number of beautiful and innovative contributions come to mind. Name something from Rome. Everything in Rome came from Greece. Now, we remember Greece for its humanity. All we know about Rome is that they conquered much of the world and now they don't own it anymore. Art contributes to our understanding of the world and the universe—both seen and unseen. It changes lives and makes life better. Art translates into humanity.
What experiences would you bring with you into office? How will those experiences guide you as a Representative?
I find it impossible to compartmentalize myself. I think of myself as who I am. Being professor at Penn State at this time through our most difficult period is an exercise in crisis management. How do you help people to come out on other side? That's what I bring. To listen, not just to hear. I was in Yale law school, and I was also president of Legal Services where I used my understanding of the law to help those in need. I was a community organizer and, although some may ridicule the role, it's shown me how to get real people together to solve real problems--to empower people on the ground. As a Fulbright scholar, I represented my country in many ways. I bring my humanity to my work. From Martin Luther King, Jr and John F. Kennedy, I was inspired to commit to public service. Because people have helped me. I was the child of single mother, a high school dropout. I joined the Civil Rights movement. People helped along the way. I feel an obligation to public service.
What do you want the people of this district to walk away with?
I've been encouraged by the best of my country that I've seen throughout my sixty-five years, and I want to share that. My candidacy is about reigniting a sense of possibilities for our community and our nations. Once, when people said, “We're not where we want to be” it meant “Let's work together to get to where we want to be.” Now, too many people—even young people—throw their hands up. We need to get back to that spirit. We need to work together. Don't quit trying to get us to a better place. This is still our country.