President Clinton at the Aspen Ideas Festival

In an unscheduled appearance, former US President Bill Clinton appeared at the Aspen Ideas Festival yesterday afternoon and talked about jobs, the debt ceiling, and Medicare.

On jobs, he pointed out that 3 million jobs are posted for hire, but are being filled at about half the rate of previous recessions.  It’s important to bring back construction and manufacturing, not just service jobs.  Banks need to lend and companies need to borrow to accelerate this.  IT was the job growth engine of the 1990s, but not now.  In the 2000s, jobs could have come from the energy sector but there was a lack of investment in alternative energy, and this was a lost opportunity.

In the 2010s, President Clinton seemed to feel that the US is even less well-placed.  Many people have swallowed the GOP message that government is the problem, while corporations feel no responsibility towards the state, only their shareholders.  Business schools have certainly followed Friedman in teaching this view, stressing the claims of fiduciary responsibility, while in the US and much of the Western World, corporations are increasingly treated as persons under the law.

The debt ceiling debate was clearly a source of ire.  Congress has already voted to incur debt by spending money, so how can it now refuse to raise the ceiling?  Clinton claimed that no other country has these kinds of debates. The GOP wants to be seen as anti-tax, anti-regulation, and anti-spending, and is unprepared to compromise.  Meanwhile, any kind of default will hurt the recovery by hurting our credit rating and raising interest rates.  The Bowles-Simpson plan would have provided a basis for budget planning, even if people don’t agree about all the details.

There was then a confusing discussion of healthcare inflation, which Clinton said is running at 3x of inflation as a whole.  But my understanding is that these cost increases are not really inflationary, in the sense that the same services in the same volume cost more.  Rather, more care and more expensive care is being demanded and supplied.  It certainly appears to be true that we are spending 2x more per capita on healthcare than other countries, such as Canada.  Meanwhile, insurance companies are enjoying very healthy profit margins, while millions of people lose their coverage.

At question time, former representative Jane Harman asked if the ‘toxic bipartisanship’ of Washington was worse than during the Clinton administration.  The answer was ‘on a personal level, no’ but yes on an institutional level.  Due to the inaction caused by lack of agreement, we are underinvesting in our 21st Century infrastructure.

Asked to handicap the GOP candidates for 2012, he said that he liked the governors, Romney and Huntsman.  He also gave Michele Bachmann her due for being ‘compelling.’  Needless to say, he thinks that President Obama will be re-elected.

Asked to list the current president’s achievements, he said that Obama had saved the auto industry, avoided a financial meltdown, and taken out terrorists, as well as some enacting some lesser reforms, such as reducing the burden of student loan repayments.

President Clinton was certainly generous with his time, and one got the sense that he would have taken many more questions, given the opportunity.  He spoke extremely fluently and exhibited a very broad range of interests and concerns.  Meanwhile, Clinton Foundation projects, such as the Clinton Global Initiative, continue to address pressing problems such as health, climate change and education.

Peter Jackson is chief scientist and vice president of Thomson Reuters, where he’s been since 1995. He has built a group of 40 research staff with expertise in the areas of document search, text and data mining, and machine learning. Jackson is also responsible for university collaboration with respect to joint research projects. His most recent book, Natural Language Processing for Online Applications, came out in a second edition in 2007. From 1992 to 1995, Jackson taught post-graduate classes in artificial intelligence and parallel computing at Clarkson University in New York and was a visiting professor at Singapore Polytechnic. In 1988, he moved to the US and became a principal scientist at McDonnell Douglas Research Laboratories. Before coming to the US, he taught in the Department of Artificial Intelligence at Edinburgh University from 1983 to 1988 and wrote the textbook Introduction to Expert Systems.