Saturday, December 26, 2015

The 2.5% of American voters who are most important in 2016

Some voters are more important than others. 

For the presidential race, some voters live in a swing or battleground state like Ohio or Florida or Nevada where the results can go either way while most voters live in a clearly red or blue state like Texas or California where, in almost any scenario, everybody knows who is going to win. Getting an additional Democratic vote in a swing state is much more important than in a safe state, so campaigning in a swing state yields better results. 

The presidential swing states in 2016 are: 
Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina and New Hampshire.

I'm basing this analysis from Professor Larry Sabato's site, so feel free to tweak my list any way you'd like.  

For control of the US Senate, only two-thirds of the states have an election in 2016 and of those that do, only some of them are toss-up states where either party can win. 

The three states that, today, are toss-up states where either party can win are:
Nevada, Florida and New Hampshire 
while the states where the likely winner isn't a sure thing (and thus it is more important to campaign in those states than in states like California or Utah where the party is a lock to win are)
Arizona, Colorado, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania

Pretty good overlap in those lists. In other words, if we can get a random person to vote Democratic in 2016, if they live in Nevada, Colorado, Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania or New Hampshire, they will help elect the next Democratic President and help elect the new US Senate Democratic Majority Leader. That's a two-fer! Those are important people. That means we Democrats should be doing everything in our power to get every single person registered and voting in those seven states as it will help us win the White House and the Senate.

To help elect a Democratic Speaker of the House, we need to focus on those relatively few districts where either party can win. According to Larry Sabato, the list of true toss-up districts are:
Arizona's 1st and 2nd, Colorado's 6th, Florida's 18th and 26th, Illinois' 10th, Maine's 2nd,Michigan's 1st, Minnesota's 2nd, New Hampshire's 1st, Nebraska's 2nd, New York's 1st, 19th and 24th, Pennsylvania's 8th and Texas' 23rd.

That means the triple-threat voters that are the most important for control of the White House, the Senate and the House are in Colorado's 6th, Florida's 18th, Pennsylvania's 18th and New Hampshire's 1st. 

If we expand the map in the House to those districts that aren't a pure toss-up but might go to the Democrats if we do everything right, there are some more districts in the important two-fer states that are already crucial to winning the White House and the Senate. They are:

Nevada's 4th, Ohio's 14th, Florida's 7th and 13th, Pennsylvania's 6th and 16th and New Hampshire's 2nd. 

People who live in these 11 House districts out of 435 have the opportunity to make a significant impact on electing a Democratic President, Democratic Senate and Democratic House. In other words, only about 2.5% of American voters have that much power.

Spending our resources in these 11 districts to (a) mobilize more Democratic voters (b) convince Republican leaners to vote Democratic or (c) educate the relatively uninformed about why the Democratic Party represents their views better than the Republicans will yield a better return than in the other 424 districts because every Democratic vote we earn impacts all three big races in 2016 in these 11 districts. 

Again: earning Democratic votes in Nevada's 4th, Colorado's 6th, Ohio's 14th, Florida's 7th, 13th and 18th, Pennsylvania's 6th, 16th and 18th and both of New Hampshire's districts get us the most bang for the buck.

(Cross-posted in

Friday, July 31, 2015

Barack Obama, Bob Dold and the Iran Deal in one night

I don't often get a chance to call in to hear President Obama make a pitch about foreign policy. so I joined a few thousand of my closest friends last night and called in to the White House to hear from Obama why the Iran deal should not be blocked by the United States Congress. It reminded me a bit of campaign conference calls where Obama was rather direct with thousands of supporters telling us what he was up against "I mean, these guys can write a hundred million dollar check!" and asked for help. This time, instead of asking us to donate more money and get more votes, he asked us to raise our voices with Congress. "I need your citizenship."

Before the call, I had thought of this agreement with Iran, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, China, Russia and just about every other major power to be an absolute triumph of diplomacy. Iranians deserve much of the credit, in my view, for electing a moderate President a few years ago, the first time since in 50 years that the Iranian people voted for a leader who would seek to build ties with the West. President Hassan Rouhani (you can and should follow him on Twitter) seems to have met the rest of the world halfway, especially since it was President Dwight Eisenhower who gave the CIA approval (after Truman rejected them) in 1953 to overthrow a democratic socialist leader of Iran who was planning to nationalize their oil fields (kicking out British Petroleum) and install a ruthless despotic leader in his place. That led to decade of resentment (understandably so) against the US and the UK, culminating in the 1979 Iranian Revolution where the first Islamic Republic was established which persists to this day. So the idea that Iran -- which the US had helped turn from a peaceful, prosperous, modern nation into a relatively poor country with a religious fundamentalist in charge -- would elect a moderate leader and then come to an agreement over ending their nuclear program with the rest of the world struck me as amazing.

Charged up by President Obama's pitch, I imagined setting up campaign websites ( or where regular people who didn't want another war in the Middle East could email their Members of Congress and ask them to vote for the Iran Deal. Imagine my surprise a few hours later when I saw Congressman Bob Dold (R-IL) and his family eating outside at a suburban restaurant. Here's my chance! I knew Dold had published an op-ed in the Trib a few weeks ago denouncing the deal, but maybe he was open to changing his mind. He's a thoughtful person and since he is part of the Republican majority representing a swing district full of educated voters, he's a good proxy for the national debate. At least, hearing from someone back home is always a good thing.

(One of the art forms of lobbying is finding the few moments when it is socially acceptable to approach an elected official, particularly outside of work environments. Like a predator, we must lie in wait for the right moment to pounce. Walking away from the table after a meal -- that's the time to pitch the politician for a few moments).

He was very kind to engage with me for a good minute or two on the intricacies of the deal from his perspective. and in the spirit of getting to the right foreign policy decision in a non-partisan, substantive way, I'd like to list his objections to the agreement.

Little did I know his office had released earlier that day a video of him explaining why he vigorously opposed the deal.

The thrust of his argument (read it yourself to make sure I'm getting it correctly) seems to have changed in the last two weeks. In the Trib, Dold argues that the deal itself makes the world more dangerous because we trade permanent sanctions relief (so Iran can grow its economy) for 15 years of inspections. He'd prefer another path towards permanently blocking Iran's path to a nuclear weapon. Something....tougher, somehow? And still something the Iranians would agree to....somehow?

In the video, Dold argues that rejecting the deal isn't the cataclysmic disaster President Obama envisions where the rest of the world, after reluctantly following the US lead for the last 19 months and keeping up their sanctions against Iran in the hopes of finally striking a global deal, then shakes their collective head at the absurd US Congress that destroyed a golden chance at peaceful progress, then cut their own deals with Iran to end their sanctions without US leadership and without Iranian commitments to end production of nuclear weapons.

He doesn't see that.

Instead, Dold sees a better deal with Iran after the Congress blocks this one where the terms of the agreement are somehow stronger. He thinks the US should impose additional sanctions to really cripple the Iranian economy and force the Iranians from a position of weakness to accept whatever terms the US imposes on them (and the rest of the world). He thinks it was a tactical error to lift some sanctions as a gesture of good faith when the Iranians agreed to negotiate, as that made our position weaker.

The good news is that Dold is calling for diplomacy and framing the rejection of a diplomatic agreement as just another step in the diplomatic process.

The bad news is, respectfully, it seems like a fantasy.

Let's just say that the US is the most hard-line of any country with Iran. If it took 19 months of negotiations to finally come to an agreement with all parties, including Iran, does it make any sense to imagine that if the most hard-line participant reneges and calls for starting again, that any other country would go along with that?

Think about that moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. He is proving to the Iranian people -- who, remember, have lots of extremely legitimate reasons to resent the US for ruining their country (they don't hate us because of our freedom; they hate us for imposing a despot) -- that through engagement and diplomacy, not war and terror, genuine progress can be made. And yes, that means progress for the Iranians, not just progress for the rest of the world.

Everyone needs to be better off for an agreement to work. Otherwise, it's not an agreement. It's a surrender. We're not going to surrender to anyone. But we can't reasonably expect the Iranians to surrender to us -- especially given our very unclean hands.

That's what Representative Dold (and other opponents of the Iran Deal) are calling for: diplomatic surrender by Iran to the United States.

It's the same arrogance that caused thoughtful people in DC to overthrow a democratically elected Iranian government 50 years ago. It's the same arrogance that launched an invasion in the Middle East 15 years ago that left everyone worse off. It's arrogance to reject a reasonable settlement because it isn't a crushing victory.

Maybe a reasonable settlement with Iran will backfire and they will use this opportunity to nefariously build a nuclear weapon and expand their power, forcing their way into the global first tier and promote the Islamic State. But that means every country in the world that negotiated this agreement didn't see that possibility and only the US Congress in their wisdom is able to accurately perceive that risk and reject the deal.

That's the final arrogance of opponent of the Iran deal: only they are smart enough to see what the rest of the world that has signed off on this deal does not -- that Iran is lying, that there are secret side deals, that Iran will trick every other country and create nuclear weapons despite pledges, inspections and scientific limitations.

I think the US has been arrogant in the Middle East for too long. I think we should welcome this global agreement for a more peaceful Middle East that includes a more moderate Iran. And I sincerely hope a more moderate US Congress does not stand in the way.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Why I'm voting for Quinn: rewarding responsibility

This is a post for people who are a little worried about Illinois' economy and kind of like the vague idea that we should improve it by shaking things up.

I want to explain why I'm voting for Pat Quinn and the Democratic ticket.

Rewarding Responsibility

There's one big problem with Illinois: underfunded public pensions.

We have a huge economy (about the size of Saudi Arabia). People move here for economic opportunities. We draw in most of the talent from the Midwest. But our public pensions for teachers, professors, bureaucrats and other workers is short what it needs to pay out. Imagine a mortgage on a house where payments have been short for years. Suddenly, to keep the house out of foreclosure, you have to make double or triple monthly payments. It's a big deal problem, but it is solvable.

No one has done more than Pat Quinn (and the Democratic majority) to solve this problem.

Because they have raised more money from a higher income tax and -- here's the important part -- put those billions into those underfunded public pensions every year when it would have been much easier and politically popular not to.

If Illinois has this kind of responsible leadership in the 50s or 60s or 70s or 80s or 90s or 2000s of making full pension payments, there wouldn't be a pension problem today. We can moan about it and try to blame somebody, but the facts are facts, so we're the ones who have to make more payments not to catch up for the sins of decades past.

It would have been easier for Pat Quinn to keep taxes low or to spend more money on education or health care or capital investments. No one gets excited about the state making a huge pension payment. There is no political benefit to making a massive pension payment. None. It's just the responsible thing to do for the long-term benefit of our state.

Pat Quinn and the Democratic majorities in the General Assembly have made that politically difficult and incredible responsible choice to put billions into the pension fund. The percentage of our state budget that we spend on pension payments is the highest in the country -- by a lot. It's about 22%. That's a heavy price to pay. But the point is: we are paying it! Because that's responsible. That's how we fix the problem. And it is Pat Quinn and the Democratic majorities who are the responsible ones that are taking a short-term political hit to do the right thing.

For that reason alone, they deserve re-election.

Facts versus Fables

On top of that, Pat Quinn and a majority of Democratic legislators voted to reduce pension benefits. This was incredibly unpopular. This caused, essentially, a civil war in the Democratic Party since the Democratic Party is all about increasing income for regular people through expanded pensions like Social Security.

But because the pension system have been underfunded for decades (like skipping mortgage payments for years....and now you have to make triple payments), even with the huge increase in pension payments, the benefit increases need to be reduced.

This was a Democratic vote. A majority of Republican legislators voted against that bill.

Bruce Rauner actively campaigned against the bill and said very publicly that legislators should not vote for it. He is still campaigning against it. Check out what he is telling the University of Illinois Alumni Association: Rauner is saying the pension reform bill was a horrible idea and the way to solve the through economic growth! Not through making full pension payments or by reducing pension benefits....just through economic growth! Magic beans!

For that reason alone, Bruce Rauner deserves to be rejected. He was -- and remains -- blazingly irresponsible. On the biggest fiscal problem facing our state, Rauner ducks and dodges and tries to score short-term political points by bashing the only responsible effort to solve the pension underfunding.

Now, I get the appeal. The dude is rich. And he made it himself. He may have made it in some super-shady ways by sucking value out of companies and enriching himself and his associates...but still, there is something impressive about a self-made billionaire.

And when a self-made billionaire salesman says "hey, trust me, I can make the whole state rich too" -- that sounds pretty nice.

But it's a fable.

Fables are fun. They are comforting. They lull us into complacency. Rauner's fable is that he can bring back prosperity because he's a billionaire ... that we can cut taxes and increase spending ... and that if we "shake up Springfield", we can "bring back Illinois." What does that mean? Who cares! It's a fable! Just believe it!

It's a lot easier to blame "corrupt politicians" and "insiders" for underfunded pension funds than it is to make a full pension payment and to reduce pension benefits. It's a lot more popular to tell an average voter that all we have to do is take out the insider politicians and then things will get better than it is to tell the average voter that we're all going to pay an extra 2% or so of our income and retirees are going to get a smaller pension.

A crafty salesman will say anything to close a deal. A responsible person will tell the truth and do the hard thing to solve problems.

Bruce Rauner is selling a fable. Pension reform is bad. Increasing the income tax is bad. Politicians are bad. And I'm good. If you elect me, everything is going to work out.

Pat Quinn and the Democratic majority are solving the problems and explaining how the responsible steps are hard steps. That we're solving the underfunded pension systems by finally making full (and difficult) payments from a higher income tax. And we're reducing benefits. But we're on the path to solving them.

That's the long-range, long-term, responsible stewardship we deserve from our leaders. And that's why I'm rejecting the short-term sales job of the Rauner fable and rewarding the responsibility of Pat Quinn and the Democratic majority by voting for the Democratic ticket.

I really hope you do the same.

Monday, October 13, 2014

A moral test: would you give someone health insurance? Or not?

This is a moral test.

Imagine the last person you saw working a low-wage job: the busboy or the cashier. Imagine you know they don't have health insurance. And imagine you had the power to get them insurance. No cost to you. It wouldn't be great insurance, but it would be something. And all you have to do to get that person health insurance is to look them in the eye and say "here you go."

Would you do that?

Or would you rather them go without insurance?

It's all up to you.

It's a real question.

Would you give someone else health insurance if you could?

Keep in mind, you (dear reader) almost certainly have your own health insurance. You wouldn't think of going without it because you wouldn't want to go broke if something bad were to happen. So if you could give the cashier or busboy the same level of comfort and peace of mind and stability and basic health that you enjoy from having health insurance.....would you?

I would.

I imagine you would too.

How could you not?

But the hard truth is, lots of people would say no.

Lots of people would rather that cashier or telemarketer or secretary go without health insurance. They'd rather have them avoid doctors and hospitals when they get sick. They'd rather make those people live with the constant fear of huge medical bills from a car accident or cancer that they can't afford. Lots of people would say no -- health insurance is vital to them and their family, but for other people? No.

Would you say no?

Governors actually have that decision. They decide whether warehouse workers and janitors and cashiers and cab drivers can get Medicaid...or whether they have to live without it.

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn decided to say yes. And -- think about this -- 650,000 people in Illinois have health insurance this year because he (and the Democratic General Assembly) said yes. That's a lot of people who have some stability and dignity and the chance to get better. 650,000 people.

Bruce Rauner would have said no.

If he were Governor, he would have told the cashier and the busboy and the cab driver no. No health insurance for you -- even though it was free. He still would have said no.

In his defense, he's not alone. Lots of Republican governors and Republican legislators said no. Almost all of them, actually. They would rather people stay uninsured and live in fear of huge medical bills so stay far, far away from expensive hospitals and doctors and nurses, no matter how bad their stomach feels or how high their fever gets or how much their knee hurts. No health insurance for them.

See, one great part of Obamacare is that the federal government decided (back when Democrats ran things) to buy health insurance for people who make very little money. But state governments actually sign people up for the insurance, and only the states with Democratic governors decided to say yes to people and get them insurance. Almost all Republican governors said no. They'd rather people say uninsured. Even though the federal government was paying for the insurance, the state governments refused to let people sign up for it.

This is a true story. It's almost hard to believe.

And Bruce Rauner said if were the Governor last year at the time when Pat Quinn said yes to getting 650,000 people in our state health insurance from Medicaid, he would have said no to them all. No, you can't have this insurance. I can have health insurance. My family can have it. My loved ones can have it? But you? No. You can't. You live in fear. And in pain. And if you have cancer? Or break your leg? Or get a horrible flu? Not my problem. Even though the federal government is paying for the insurance, Bruce Rauner would not have allowed people in Illinois to sign up for that health insurance.

I think that's a failure of a moral test.

If you looked that tired casher in the eyes before saying yes or no, I think you'd say yes. Because you wouldn't want to hurt someone intentionally -- and that's what denying someone health insurance is. Intentionally hurting people who already are in enough pain.

So would you say no to that cashier?

Because if you vote for Bruce Rauner, you are saying no. That's the hard truth.

Just like the people who voted for Republican governors who refused to let people sign up for health insurance, and now those millions of people are living with physical pain and they aren't catching cancer early enough to get it out of their bodies because they don't have insurance. All those people who voted for Republican governors said no.

Maybe they didn't realize it at the time. But now it's clear.

I mean, let's face it. If you're reading this blog, you're almost certainly fairly well off. You are probably not on Medicaid. You probably never will be. So you and I are deciding in this election -- like in every election -- whether we're going to make other people's lives better of worse off. Like that tired cashier who makes 8 dollars an hour. Does she deserve health insurance? Yes or no?

Bruce Rauner says he loves Illinois. But he clearly doesn't love all the people who live here. Because for 650,000 Illinoisians who have health insurance this year, he'd rather hurt them than help them. And that's immoral. That's why I won't vote for him. And I hope you won't either.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Progressive policy roundup - pricing pollution for climate change

I'm trying something new: a weekly roundup of interesting progressive policies, insights and ideas. This inaugural post is about climate change.

Failure to price pollution causing huge costs for everyone else - big opportunity to fix it

There are 100,000 people marching in New York today before the United Nations Climate Summit on Tuesday, urging governments to shift from coal, oil and natural gas to renewable energy like solar and wind.

Pollution is priced too low, since few governments put a fee on pollution to cover the costs of the global warming (like Hurricane Sandy that shut down Manhattan, more droughts that raise food prices, etc). The big battle is pricing pollution correctly so there will be less of it and thus a chance to slow down global warming. A report out today shows emissions increased by 2.3 percent last year when we need emissions to reduce, not increase.

This is a big opportunity for state and local leaders to price pollution in their communities and shift away from coal, oil and gas. There's a good site from The Solutions Project on how each state can transition to 100% renewable power. As an example of the size and scope to do this right, they calculate Illinois can generate 60% of electricity needs from wind power that would take up 7% of the entire state's footprint. Big proposals to avoid paying big climate change costs.

A big way to access the capital to build a renewable economy is from public pensions. In the US, the top 100 public pensions funds own $1.1 trillion in corporate stock. Local and state governments should direct these funds to change corporate policies (almost all pollution comes from publicly-traded companies) to dramatically reduce pollution. Here's a post on that topic with a bit more detail.

What can I do?

Eat less meat. Animal-based diets cause a lot more pollution than plant-based diets. Public policies to encourage plant-based diets would help. So skip the steak.

You can email the Environmental Protection Agency to support their initiatives to reduce pollution (every single email from an American voter helps the Obama Administration justify their actions in the face of hostile opposition).

Culture versus cost

I think lots of people feel threatened by the idea that eating hamburgers, using coal for electricity and oil for their cars has to change. They feel targeted like they are personally doing something wrong. I don't think right and wrong are the terms we want to use to convince people to support climate action.

I think cost rather than values makes more sense to approach the undecided. You break it, you buy it. Every hamburger should have a nickel fee on it that covers the cost of climate change (droughts, floods, hurricanes, etc.). You want to eat a burger? Fine. But pay for it. You want to keep a coal plant? Fine. But pay for it. Every kilowatt hour of electricity from coal should have that same nickel fee that goes to cover the costs of climate change.

Right and wrong and moral and immoral are pretty fixed in most minds. I don't want to convince people they are wrong to do what they do. I'd rather make an argument that fits in with their moral code. Most people think -- and feel -- that they ought to pay for what they use. Most people don't want to be a freeloader. So if we're not attacking a way of life or saying that they are immoral or wrong but rather asking them to support a new fee so they will pay the full price for the damage they cause, I think we're more likely to convince people to go along with a carbon tax.

Pricing pollution is the mega step in solving climate change. I'm convinced we can convince more people to support paying the price of pollution without making them feel attacked.


Well, that's my first experiment. I'm going to get these out weekly for as long as this experiment lasts and if you'd like to get on the email list to receive these directly in your inboxes every Sunday, you can sign up here. Please do!

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Everybody lobbies

Why should you lobby?

Because everyone does. Mayors do. Governors do. Presidents do. The Secretary-General of the United Nations does. They lobby government officials because that's the only way to make the government change.

Everybody in politics or government is constantly asking other people in politics and government for something. A vote. A budget line item. A waiver. An appearance. Something.

So you should do what the President does and ask for things from the people who represent you. All the time. They are used to it. They expect it. It's weird when you don't ask.

When I first started lobbying, I was a little caught off guard when legislators would ask me what I was working on and when I didn't have anything in particular for them, they were a bit put off. Like I didn't think they were important enough to ask them for something. The message was “why are you here?” The whole point of getting elected and helping people get elected is to do something to improve society. If we're not asking for something specific to improve society, then what are we doing?

The President calls on Congress to pass a bill. And then the President goes and lobbies Members of Congress to pass it. He asks the United Nations to authorize something. And then he goes and lobbies other presidents or prime ministers personally to do it. A United States Senator introduces a bill to do something good – and then she talks to the other 99 US Senators, usually one at a time, to ask each of them to support the bill. Mayors and school board members and state legislators and governors go to Washington to ask for more federal money. The biggest and best private companies in the world – Apple, Google, FeEx – they all hire people to lobby, asking for changes in laws or regulations or budgets to make their companies better off. Everybody in politics lobbies.

And you're in politics too! You're a citizen. You've at the base of the whole global pyramid. (About half the word's people don't have the right of citizenship you do, by the way. You're already in the top half of the world's power rankings). So you get to lobby your governments that are set up and designed to listen to what you have to say. So tell them! They expect to hear from you. When you lobby the government, believe me, you are not alone. Everybody does it.

If a group makes it easy for you by setting up a one-click email system, use it! If someone asks you to sign a petition that you agree with, sign it! They are making it easy for you. If you send an email or make a call every week of the year, great! There's no limit. And if you end up annoying some staffers or a few politicians, they will definitely remember you and you will impact their thinking. Better they know who you are and what you want then keep them guessing. It's better to err on the side of nagging than on invisibility.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Lead by believing

The first step – both the easiest and the hardest – is to fully, fundamentally believe that social improvements are not only possible but practical. This will make you a minority opinion. This will set you at odds to the dominant thinking and culture. This will make you feel isolated and a bit ostracized. Few people will think they way you do and fewer still will have the courage to share it.

That's what every artist and entrepreneur faces. If the status quo embraced far-sighted vision, the improvements would have already happened. Those who see something better are always a threat to the establishment.

How easy to change your thoughts! But how difficult to continue to believe in the possibility and practicality of progress in the face of derision from the status quo. The seduction of futility will always beckon, especially when progress is slow or invisible or retreating. Collapse into apathy is contagious.

There is power in conviction. Simply believing in a better society impacts the minds of others. People can sense that conviction. And it changes their beliefs in what is possible. This is the foundation of social change – the people of a society each deciding they want the change. It is hardest to remain steadfast and vocal as one of the first to want the change. That's your job. It's part of leadership.

Every leader begins without followers. You're called upon to lead others to believe in the improvements that you believe in. And your conviction that improvements are ours to claim, ours to make inspires others to follow. Every mind changed is a victory. That changes their votes, which changes the political calculation of politicians hunting for votes, which changes the political calculation of politicians running governments.

The battlefield of social progress is fought in the six thousand million minds of the people, one mind at a time. There is no other path. When enough people decide that things ought to run a certain way, eventually, they do. The more democratic the society, the shorter the lag between the collective decision of the people and the implementation. While it is obvious in a sense that we can't have social progress without the people deciding they want that particular progress, it's also a little weird to think that each of us has the power to change society simply by wanting things to be different. But that's how it works! When enough of us want something to change, it changes. And there won't be any changes without the people wanting that change. Not all of us or even most of us. But a lot of us. That's the fuel for social progress. Regular people deciding they want that change.

That means you can bring change into being. Every person you influence to see the world the way you do and to believe in the possibility and necessity of implementing improvements is another step towards making it happen. We are building an army of believers. This army – like any army – grows one recruit at a time. There is no draft. There is no mass shift. It's  one at a time. There are always opportunities to share your beliefs and recruit another. Simply tell anyone who will listen – friends, family, followers or Facebook friends – what you think.

Everyone has a network of people who will listen. Some people have access to a much larger group of people. Celebrities, either local or global, have a particular opportunity to tell other people what they think and leverage their power of conviction. The more people who hear your beliefs in a just society, the more who will share them. An opportunity to share your view with a thousand or hundred thousand or million people – either on social media or a radio program or a letter to the editor – is an opportunity to recruit more minds to the cause. If you can broaden your network of people who will listen, do it! There is always an appropriate venue to convey your belief, sometimes in passing, sometimes slyly. A quick reference to the idea of progress or justice helps. “Of course, things can always get better.” Like ripples on a pond, a concise powerful belief in an improving society can touch listeners profoundly and unexpectedly.

A longer and serious conversation can have a bigger impact. That's why I'm writing this. My whole goal is to reach you, whoever you are, and inspire you to believe. I hope I end up on talk shows or on college campuses talking about this and reach some more people listening to the show or in the audience to recruit them as believers. If there's a better way to spend an hour talking about the state of the world and a billion souls living in poverty and the opportunity and obligation of the lucky ones like us to accelerate the pace of equality and opportunity and decency for all people, I want to try that too. There isn't a lot of space to have serious conversations about our society. I hope this piece is part of a conversation with you and others.

It's difficult to take a minority opinion. Believing in the social progress to be won next year or next decade is not, and never has been, a majority view. Hearing someone else express that belief emboldens. Inspire them to join us as builders of a better society by your confident unwavering conviction that yes, we can.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Building a City of Justice

We're somewhere between chaos and perfection.

In the future, poverty will be a memory. War and soldiers will be as lost to the distant past as knights and kings in castles are to our time. Polluting the air we breathe and the water we drink will seem as barbaric and pointless as sacrificing children to appease an angry god. 

It's easier to see social progress over the long-term. A millennia ago, almost no one could read. Most successful societies were slave-based (feudal at best). Even the wealthiest lived in worse filth than a middle-class American does today - no running water, no toilets, no electricity and nothing to keep the bacteria, bugs and animals out. The social improvement in the last 1000 years is amazing. 

At every step along the way, some people worked to improve society. Some actively opposed those improvements. And most weren't involved in the effort. They didn't care. Some people decided that god didn't give certain families the right to rule over everyone and instead insisted that the rulers were accountable to the people. Some people insisted that a government of the people. by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth. Some people decided that the government will build and operate thousands of common schools that anyone can send their children to for free. Some people decided that the government would lay pipes underground to every house, delivering fresh water and removing sewage for a reasonable fee. None of this was inevitable. There is no script laying out this progress. Instead, regular people just decided they would take ownership over a particular improvement and pushed it forward into being. 

Think of it like a city. A long time ago, there wasn't anything there -- just nature. Someone started with a hut, or a trading post or a settlement. Someone else joined them with a second structure. When there were enough people building their own structures, they built a street. And then another. More people built their own houses or stores. 

And today, think of a city. There are those people who are actively improving it. Cranes are up and new high-rises are sprouting from the ground. But only a relatively few people are actually working to improve the city. Most people just live in it. And some people spend their energy trying to stop people from building something better. There are only a few real estate developers who bring people and resources together to create something new and shape the city.  

That's like social progress. Most people just live in the society they inherited. They accept the economic and social constraints and opportunities presented to them and don't try to improve them. Only some people are actively building a better society. They are the ones bringing hammer to nail, one at a time, creating something better, that the next generation will simply accept as somewhat inevitable. The builders are the ones who imagine something that doesn't exist and despite criticism and eye-rolling and opposition from those who like things the way they are, forge ahead, drawing up plans, laying foundations and on exciting days, raising steel beams high in the sky, collecting attention to their years of work on a few flashy days. 

The City of Justice is not complete. There are slums of poverty still teeming with people who deserve far better. Much of the City is build on foundations laid decades ago, unsteady now, and in need of a more modern renovation. The work seems overwhelming to those who can see what our City of Justice should be. How many lift a hammer or a broom or a paintbrush to improve their city? Do you?

Every vote swings a hammer. Every call to an elected official swings that hammer. Every conversation about politics swings that hammer. 

We bring hammer to nail, again and again, a thousand million times over, to raise a new City of Justice. And to join, all you need to do is start. 

Friday, June 06, 2014

The progressive agenda: Vote for me

Barack put it well in his kick-off for his U.S. Senate campaign in early 2003 as he talked about politicians and the people who support them - he said (I'm paraphrasing): “we are ultimately judged by whether we make the lives of ordinary people better off.”

That's the bottom line. That's why we are in this permanent campaign of politics and government -- because we have the opportunity and responsibility to make ordinary people better off. (And it's fun.) 

The progressive agenda is to make life better for most people.

That means they make more money. They have fewer costs. And thus, they are happier and healthier.

There are lots of ways to increase income. One easy way is to reduce the taxes they pay. (That's what the 1% politicians are working to do – increase the income of the richest by cutting the federal income tax). Reducing taxes on regular people is a good thing. Cutting regressive taxes like the sales, payroll and property taxes are good, because regular people end up paying a disproportionate share of those. Not so much the income, estate or corporate taxes because regular people don't pay that much of those. 

A better way to increase the income or regular people is to increase wages. Most working people make most of their money from wages, not from investments. So if wages go up, income for most people goes up as well. We can reduce the taxes on wages (the payroll tax, which the federal Dems did for a few years). We can increase the minimum wage. And we can help get more people into unions so that they can work together to raise everybody's wage. Nothing raises wages faster than being in a union. 

The progressive agenda is also about decreasing the costs for regular people. This one is really interesting. Here are costs for regular people we can reduce through government policies

Health insurance. That's the triumph of the Affordable Care Act (and why it is named the Affordable Care Act) -- it lowers the cost of health insurance for almost everybody. And when the Republicans vote in Washington to repeal it (about every two weeks), they are voting to make health insurance more expensive. Even with ObamaCare, health insurance is still really expensive. We can reduce costs even more by building off the success of the Affordable Care Act: expanding the relatively efficient government-financed insurance pools like Medicare, Medicaid and public employee pools, better regulate insurance and pharmaceutical companies and create non-profit alternatives like health insurance co-operatives. The more the government can buy health care in bulk and drive the price down, the better off families who pay for it will be.

Gas and utilities Energy costs -- gas for the car, electric, natural gas or heating oil for the home -- are high. Oil in particular is expensive, and that's what we use for gasoline. Requiring cars to be far more fuel-efficient, getting more electric-powered cars and running much more public transportation would be much cheaper for people. For utilities, we should always be on the side of cheaper power (short-term and long-term). We can better regulate the electric and natural gas companies. We can develop non-profit alternatives (like municipal power) to make our utility costs cheaper and save money. Did you know that cities with their own power plants, like Los Angeles, pay much less than cities with a privately-owned power plant? I'd like cheaper utility bills every month. Wouldn't you?

Rent Rent is really expensive in cities. Even in cheaper places to live, rent can be a big bite out of the budget. We should talk about lowering rents in every campaign. Probably the best way to do it is to get more rental units built to increase supply, but whenever we can side with tenants to keep them from getting nickel-and-dimed by landlords, we should to lower the cost of rent.

Education. College is way too expensive. Making college more affordable means that families keep more money. Part of our agenda needs to be making college cheaper and making public schools better. The more we improve our public (free) education the more valuable it becomes – which makes the students who benefit from the public schools more valuable as well.

The progressive agenda has to resonate directly with a regular person, or we haven't found the right pitch yet. When a politician makes a proposal, the right question to ask is “what's in it for me?” Our answer has to be “you and your family will be better off with more money in your pocket.” That will get heads nodding.

The progressive agenda is increasing income and reducing costs for families, often by buying things through the government.

When a politician says “Vote for me” the citizen can say “Vote for me” - voting for the progressive agenda that makes life better for me. Increase my income. Lower my costs. Vote for me.  

Thursday, June 05, 2014

It's expensive to be poor. Bank accounts make it cheaper.

It sucks to be poor. It's even worse to try to work your way out of poverty.

That is next to impossible. There are dozens and dozens of traps that keep people from moving up economically.

There's one trap we can eliminate: currency exchanges.

Currency exchanges make a lot of money off of working people by charging hefty fees for basic services like cashing a check or cutting a money order. The people who own them do very, very well. And the people who use them … not so much.

Trouble is, banks don't like to open in poor neighborhoods. There's a bank on almost every corner in rich neighborhoods, but not in poor neighborhoods. Into that gap come the currency exchanges, charging a fee just to cash a check.

Imagine that! Imagine every time you deposited a check you paid a 1% or 2% fee. Every time! That's a whole week's worth of pay, just to cash your checks. Getting into a free checking account at a bank means an entire week's extra pay. For working people living on the edge, that's a big deal.

10 years ago, this would be a really tough problem to solve. It's hard to make banks open up branches in poor neighborhoods. And it's politically hard to regulate the fees that currency exchanges pay because they have so much money to throw around to block any bills.

Today, though, online banks are everywhere. All you need is a phone with a camera and you can deposit your check by taking a picture of it. Some of them don't charge any fees. This is a big opportunity to get working people out of expensive currency exchanges and into cheap banking.

It's still a little bit isolated, though, without any branch or in-person institution to connect to the online bank account. This is where government can step in, especially local governments with lower-income residents.

Governments deal with residents all the time. They collect fees. They collect taxes. They mail to residents. Kids go to school and parents sign up. People sign up for park programs and set up accounts.

What we don't do – and we should – is connect them with a free, online bank account when they financially interact with the government. So when they pay local taxes or pay for a school field trip or even pay a parking ticket our local governments should offer to set them up with an online bank account. And even better, because the governments will be marketing these accounts to thousands of potential customers, they should negotiate with the banks a great package for very low overdraft fees (as working poor people don't have much of a cushion week-to-week to keep a positive balance).

Every high school kid should get a free bank account online as part of going to high school. One study suggested how powerful a simple bank account it – the professor found that of those kids who graduated high school and intended to go to college but just didn't, for whatever reason, the number on statistically significant factor for those kids who actually went to college is whether they had a bank account in their own name.

Just having the bank account made a major difference in the lives of these kids. Perhaps it's a sense of autonomy or self-direction that a bank account provides. But whatever the reason, it helps.

For those of us who are fortunate enough to have been born into a culture and wealth bracket of banking and relative prosperity, we should extend those privileges to people who aren't so lucky and make it slightly less expensive to be poor.

This is a great issue for local elected officials to champion. We just need someone to run around and convince them to do it – ideally after working it out with a few different online banks so the potential vendors are ready to go.