Howard Dean talks politics prior to giving Naropa graduation speech

David Accomazzo | Boulder Weekly

In an interview the morning he is to give the commencement address for Naropa University’s graduation, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean remarked on some policy issues and encouraged new graduates to keep their heads up and not to be afraid to start their own ventures.

“The longest journey begins with a single step,” Dean said, quoting Lao Tzu. “Don’t be afraid to start stuff on your own. I was in Portugal on Tuesday … and the difference between Europe and us is that … most people who graduate college want a big corporate job or a big government job. Here, there are tons of people starting their own businesses.”

Dean gave his opinions on higher education, the economy, social security, health care and other topics. America still has the best higher-education system in the world he said, but rising costs could derail that. “Mid-level universities,” which Dean defined as neither being Ivy-level nor community colleges, could face financial problems, since tuition rates often rival that of the better-respected Ivy universities. Those schools are going to have to adapt or face losing students to community colleges, Dean said.

Dean said he thinks the economy is improving, pointing out that Wall Street is doing great, and that the general consensus is that the economy is slowly improving.

“The problem is the average person in America is always the first to feel the pain and the last to get out of the pain, and that has been exacerbated by this notion that all the tax programs ought to be all for the wealthy and cut things for the average people first, which is nuts. … The balance sheets for corporations have improved dramatically in the past few years, which is reflected in the Dow Jones; the average situation of the ordinary American … hasn’t improved in 20 years.”

Dean said the solution is not to return to 70 percent tax rates for the rich, but to ensure millionaires “pay their fair share” and restructure government spending.

Dean said he appreciated Obama’s compromise on tax cuts at the end of 2010, when the president extended the Bush-era tax cuts for all income levels in exchange for extending unemployment benefits. The president wanted to extend the tax cuts only for the top income bracket.

“I think it makes no sense to give tax breaks to millionaires and to cut social security or whatever, but I thought it was a good thing politically, because what the public wants is to get something done,” Dean said, noting that when there is a political compromise in American politics, the president almost always gets credit for it.

When asked about the debt ceiling, Dean said it’s fine “to attach stuff” to it. Not raising the debt ceiling would be disastrous, and the economy would collapse in a few days, Dean said.

“We need a path out of where we are in terms of the deficit, which is a serious problem,” Dean said. “The problem is that our negotiating partners are people with an ideological agenda. Cutting NPR and Planned Parenthood does nothing to fix the deficit.”

He continued, “I think we [Democrats] have the upper hand. The Paul Ryan plan is just a disaster. It basically gets rid of Medicare. It turns Medicare into a voucher program. Seventy percent of Americans think it’s a bad idea, including a plurality of Republicans. So as they did in 1994 when they took over, they’ve overreached their bounds. Americans want spending control, but they want fairness, too, in society. There’s nothing fair about the right-wing plan.

“When you have to cut … you have to cut where the big money is. In the federal system, the big money is in social security, Medicade and Medicare, defense and taxes. You can’t pick and choose. The Republicans would like to cut and have no tax increases. The Democrats would not like to cut and do it all in tax increases. … Both parties are going to have to take a big hit.”

Dean pointed out that thanks to certain accounting practices used by the federal government, like how the Republicans under President George W. Bush kept the Iraq war off the books by labeling it as an “emergency expenditure,” the deficit is actually much larger than it appears.

“The biggest problem with social security is actually something no one ever talks about, because both parties have conspired to do bad things for half a century, which is that the budget deficit is actually much, much larger than you think it is if you read the paper, because for all those years we’ve been funding social security, they take the money and [put the excess] into treasury bonds and they spend the money, so basically all you have is a bunch of IOUs in the Social Security Trust Fund. And then they don’t count that in the budget. So it’s this terrible sham. … It’s outrageous. These people would go to jail if they were running a corporation.”

The government has collected surplus social securities dollars ever since the Greenspan Commission recommended raising the social security payroll tax in the ’80s, anticipating an increase in benefit payments when baby boomers started retiring. Social Security is legally required to put the excess money in special treasury bonds, essentially loaning the surplus to the government. To date, the government has always repaid the bonds, with interest.

When asked if the SS Trust Fund has benefited from the interest, Dean said on paper, social security is sound. He only wants the government to accurately report the figures using generally accepted accounting practices. He said a means test for social security, in which wealthy individuals would receive fewer or no benefits, was a bad idea.