The other things Mondale and Carlson said


I know better, having worked many years as a reporter, than to complain about the news media’s decisions on what’s newsworthy. Especially at an event that offers a full hour of meaty material and distinguished, independent-minded speakers.

Good that the reporters come, and spell the names right, which isn’t too hard when we feature household names like former vice-president Walter Mondale and former Gov. Arne Carlson.

Growth & Justice is a progressive economic think tank committed to making Minnesota’s economy simultaneously more prosperous, fair, and environmentally sustainable.

And so I wasn’t too concerned about how, at our event last week, the media glommed all over Carlson, a moderate Republican, when he sharply advised Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty to come home from presidential politicking and get a grip on a gargantuan long-term budget problem. (Turns out most Minnesotans in a recent poll also would prefer that the governor not seek the White House.)

But the essence of the event, “Recapturing Minnesota’s Edge,” was built around constructive and optimistic advice about whatMinnesota needs to do to get back on track.

Two of the two main things, according to one or the other or both, were: rebuilding through smart investments in the public things that are good for business and prosperity in the long run, and focusing once again on how to make our already good governments work better.

“Keep education up front,” Mondale counseled, with trademark brevity, emphasizing that Minnesota became an overachiever among the states in economic performance and quality of life because “we looked upon wise public investment as the ideal.”

A generation of anti-government, anti-tax conservatism that was designed to “starve the beast,” along with deregulation and less oversight, has delivered an economic crisis, causing even former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan to admit he was wrong about the ability of the market to police itself, Mondale said.

“The economic fundamentalism is over, because of the [near] collapse of the economy,” Mondale said, and he called for both spending cuts and revenue increases to be on the table as Minnesota struggles with its budget. He repeatedly made the point that investments in education, transportation, the arts and health were critical components of Minnesota’s success.

Recalling the 1973 Time magazine cover that celebrated Minnesota as “The State that Works,” Carlson advised that we get serious again about “good government” and harnessing our talent in business and government around making it work more effectively. That famous Time article cited innovations like the Minnesota Miracle and the Metropolitan Council, both of which involved planning and public investment and reasonable but significant tax increases. Carlson, however, was a fiscally conservative governor who fought hard against most tax increases.

“I remember,” Carlson said, “when Republicans and Democrats stumbled over each other to carry what they felt were good-government bills.” Suggesting that business leadership in particular needs to make a comeback in community leadership, Carlson saidMinnesota succeeded because of the “willingness of ALL its leadership, not just one leader or two leaders or five leaders … to anticipate problems in the future and then to tackle them.”

Carlson and other Republicans and business leaders in the early 1990s provided a classic model, crafting with liberal DFLers the MinnesotaCare program for health coverage of low-income working families. Star Tribune columnist Lori Sturdevant this week accurately described the success of MinnesotaCare as a “public option” that worked very well, and she refuted the Pawlenty administration’s criticism of Carlson and dismissal of MinnesotaCare as “unsustainable” government-run health care.

Each also offered various specific ideas for improvements. Mondale called for reforms already on the table that would take partisan politics out of the judicial selection process and remove them as well from redrawing the political boundaries.

Carlson offered an intriguing idea for dividing the state budget into an “investment piece” and a “maintenance piece,” with education and transportation in the former realm and care for the aged and economic security programs in the other.

These two men arguably have had more impact and been the dominant leaders of their respective parties in Minnesota over the last half-century. One might expect them to lament the passing of the good old days and to be pessimistic about the future.

But each exuded a vigorous optimism, despite all our troubles and the signs we’ve encountered that we’re losing our place, both in general prosperity and quality-of-life. And Mondale drew laughs with his story about how he often told Japanese audiences, in trying to describe his home state, that Minnesota was a special place because all the smartest and nicest people ended up there.

That’s one way of describing a place that has always valued fairness and communitarian problem-solving and innovation, rather than hidebound individualism, or capitalist and religious fundamentalism.

And few people embody that spirit more clearly than Mondale and Carlson. We are blessed that they still are involved, and that they “don’t know when to leave the stage” as a Pawlenty spokesperson huffed last week.