U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet came to the Springs on Monday for what was, by his count, the 42nd time since taking office in early 2009. Before ending his day at a Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce gathering, he stopped by the Indy. And while he fielded questions ranging from Occupy Wall Street to No Child Left Behind, it was clear what was most on the senator's mind.
"The number of people in poverty has increased by 46 percent since the year 2000; 22 percent of the kids in this country are living in poverty," he said shortly after we sat down to talk. "The bottom 90 percent of earners, 90 percent of the people, the share of the national outcome that they are earning hasn't been this low since 1928.
"What you are seeing," he says, "is the shattering of the middle class in this country."
Indy: We're close to the [debt-reduction] supercommittee making news one way or another, and obviously there is potential for it having an impact on this area with regard to the military. What have you heard?
MB: So far what I have heard is that they're locked up. And the capacity for people in that town to bury their head in the sand when there are solutions that are on the table that are actually pretty reasonable, I think — and certainly, based on my town halls would be acceptable by the vast majority of the people in this state — it seems amazing that you can't even get them to the conversation. ...
There are shades of differences in these plans, but they're broadly the same, which is they're about $4 trillion over a 10-year period. Roughly 3-to-1 cuts in savings to revenue. And a mix of discretionary spending and entitlements. ... Revenue raised by lowering rates but broadening the base, and getting rid of a bunch of loopholes that don't seem to be driving job creation....
So we've got huge structural problems that we've got to deal with. And one of the issues on the debt/deficit is that, if we don't create some certainty about the fiscal health of the country, over a 10-year period ... we're going to have a hard time getting the folks who have $2.3 trillion of cash sitting on their balance sheets investing that money in the United States, because they have no idea what the interest-rate environment is.
And the Congress' complete dysfunction over the debt ceiling debate, I think, destroyed confidence in the economy. So what I worry about with the supercommittee is that if they can't get it together, then we're going to face not only a confidence-buster again, but cuts that are not thoughtful cuts to the military or discretionary spending.
Indy: When you look over the past eight or 10 years at the growing income-disparity, what lessons should we learn?
MB: One thing you learn is that you don't fight two wars and cut taxes at the same time ... because if you take those two components plus the recession itself, that's the lion's share of the deficit and the debt problem that we're in. Obviously the stimulus was not paid for, either.
We need a theory of economic growth that relies not on imagining that the legacy businesses of the 20th century are going to produce jobs in the 21st century, because we've had huge job loss....
What one thinks of as a hyper-partisan battle between political parties is actually a bunch of special interests masquerading as political parties that are trying to hold onto incumbent economic benefits that they acquired in the 20th century, that is useful to their bottom line but is not driving job growth in the 21st century.
Indy: Where do things stand with corporate personhood?
MB: I'm not sure that strictly speaking corporate personhood, as a constitutional matter, is going to be addressed in the Congress. But I think that the campaign finance stuff, this is another place where public will is being completely stymied by what's going on in Congress.
Every poll shows you that over 80 percent of the people, and it may even be over 90 percent of the people, support disclosure of campaign contributions in these races.
And in the Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, if you look at the nine justices — I forget how many opinions were written, [but] there was only one justice who said disclosure was unconstitutional. And that was Justice [Clarence] Thomas. Every other justice either wrote or joined in an opinion that said that disclosure was permissible under the Constitution.
Well, that would be a big step forward from what we just endured in the Senate race here, for example, where we still don't know who spent the money.
Indy: Occupy Wall Street has taken on a life of its own, but the protesters don't have specific plans. What needs to happen to create a movement that can create change?
MB: Much more important to me than Occupy Wall Street, that's what I am seeing in my town hall meetings. People coming and saying, "We can't make ends meet." People coming and saying that they never believed that they would be affected by an economic downturn, and they sent their first kid to the best college that they got in to, but they can't send their second kid there. ... And when you put on top of that, that only 9 out of 100 poor kids in this country can expect to graduate with a college degree, those are big problems.
I know one of the things that you have to do is overcome the cartoon of political argument coming from people that don't want to do anything differently, that want to preserve the status quo.
Indy: No Child Left Behind was so unpopular, what is worth saving in the law?
MB: In my opinion, the major positive from No Child Left Behind — and I mean major, in my opinion — was that it shed the light for the very first time on the huge gaps that exist among children living in poverty and the more affluent kids.
Huge gaps between Anglo kids and African-American kids and Latino kids. The unbelievable gap between special-needs kids and everybody else. All of that was invisible before No Child Left Behind. So that's the positive thing that I would say about it; I don't have much else positive to say about it, and I was on the receiving end of it when I was a superintendent.
We're in the process of replacing No Child Left Behind, so I don't even think of it as saving it. I think of it as changing it. Creating incentives for people at the local level who want to do things differently, to do things differently. Because, I don't believe that with the existing set of incentives and disincentives in K-12 education that we're ever going to see the outcomes that we want to see for our kids.
Indy: Do you have a stance on state ballot issue Prop 103 [a short-term tax increase for education]?
MB: I haven't. The people in Colorado will make their decision on it. I think that [state Senator] Rollie Heath deserves a lot of credit for trying. I think that the timing is not optimal, and whatever it is we end up doing here, needs to be comprehensive on K-12 and higher ed.