Sunday, December 28, 2008

My discussion of Professor Barack Obama as part of Time's Person of the Year coverage

Barack Obama was my law professor in 1998. I was fortunate to be interviewed by Time Magazine (along with Illinois State Board of Education Chair Jesse Ruiz) in Classroom 5 of the University of Chicago Law School where we shared our thoughts and experience with Professor Obama's inclusive and real-world-oriented pedagogical style.

The video is available on Time's website here.

Jesse and I start at the 1:10 mark. Here's a partial transcript.

Dan Johnson-Weinberger: My first opportunity to take a class with him came my
second year which was 1998. He taught a class called Voting Rghts.

Narrator: Obama continued to teach, even as he became a state senator,
challenging students to use his political office as an example in class

Dan: He was exceptionally generous with allowing his
political career to sort of be autopsied as an academic exercise.

Narrator: Dan Johnson-Weinberger went on to a career in politics after
finishing his law degree.

Dan: The tough questions that you're kind of not supposed to ask about -- he wanted us to really dig deeply into the intellectual challenge of reconciling competing demands in a campaign finance regime, so he allowed himself to be used as part of the classroom.

Narrator: And, these former students say, the intellectual inquiry they
saw in Professor Obama is what they expect from a President Obama.

Jesse Ruiz: Sometimes you can get lost in the law and the loftiness of what we're
studying and we forget this involves the lives of people. He wouldn't let us
forget that.

Dan: One of the skills he developed at the University of
Chicago Law School was a real hunger for lots of people presenting new and
innovative and sometimes untested ideas to solve problems. I think the times are
calling for and his campaign was calling for bold change. And I don't think
Washington is a bold place. My hope is that that broken political culture in
Washington really does change.

Jesse: I think the greater gains will be seen long after he leaves office in eight years and that will be a change in the attitude of Americans

The people at Time did an excellent job with the video (and they were kind enough to include a screen shot of my company, Progressive Public Affairs) so please do check out the full video. Apparently CNN ran a story about this video as well.

On related broadcast media news, Beyond the Beltway will be airing their taped year-end program where I represented the Democratic point of view tonight on WLS radio from 6 to 8 pm and on WYCC at 10:30 tonight (as well as on the Comcast cable network over the next few days). I'll also be on a BBC Five Live radio show at 6 pm (Chicago time) Tuesday night with my frequent other-side-of-the-aisle pundit friend Dan Proft discussing how Barack will live up to the lofty expectations an anxious world has put upon his shoulders.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Stockholm traffic management lessons from Randy Blankenhorn

Today at the Metropolitan Planning Council's "Around the World in 90 Minutes in Global Infrastructure Best Practices" Randy Blankenhorn of CMAP shared some insight into how we can reduce traffic congestion through better management, Stockholm-style.

We don't really do much to manage traffic flow in Northeastern Illinois. There's an Illinois Department of Transportation website on real-time highway congestion, but nothing on arterial streets. Drivers should be getting information about what routes are congested (so they can avoid them), but that information isn't widely disseminated. As an example Randy brought up, there are big signs on the highways that tell drivers how much time it takes to get downtown, but those signs should be before the entrance ramp so drivers can decide whether or not to take the expressway or stick with arterial streets. And we don't really manage traffic signals at all, particularly in the suburbs.

Part of the problem is that the municipalities own and set the traffic lights. There is no regional body to run traffic signals on a real-time basis to adjust traffic signals to changing conditions (like an accident). Airports have the federal air traffic control to manage the traffic. There is no Illinois road traffic control to open express lanes or change traffic signals or (ideally) adjust prices on tollroads to keep roads at a free-flow level). And there should be.

Stockholm has a Trafik Stockholm Joint Traffic Management Centre that takes information in from thousands of cameras and sensors and immediately dispatches roadside assistance, shifts or closes lanes and (I think) adjusts traffic signals. That's something we should emulate as we learn how to manage our transportation infrastructure more efficiently.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Senator Jeff Schoenberg hits the blogosphere

Joining Representative John Fritchey in Blogistan, Senator Jeff Schoenberg launched Deep Blue Illinois, a policy-oriented blog with some good political insight as well (at least based on his first three posts....).

Senator Schoenberg was one of the first blog readers, even telling me on the record when I came to testify before his Senate Appropriations Committee a few years ago "you can submit your testimony on your blog if you'd like."

Senator Schoenberg has one of the best financial minds in the General Assembly, so his discussion about Treasurer Giannoulias' proposal to merge the state's five pension funds into one is definitely worth a read.

Federal stimulus an opportunity for passenger trains and transit

Change is coming to Washington, and that change could mean a new investment in transit and passenger trains.

Today, President-Elect Barack Obama is in Philadelphia meeting with almost all of the nation's governors who are pushing for a major federal investment in infrastructure and Medicaid spending. The governors are looking for a stimulus package to pass in less than eight weeks (!) to reverse the economic contraction that is throwing people out of work.

This is happening so fast that it can be hard to see the fundamental change in the federal government's philosophy towards the economy. For most of the last 25 years, the ideas has been that the best government is an anti-government - cut spending, cut taxes, cut regulation of business and prosperity will follow. Well, that failed miserably. Now the philosophy is to increase spending, increase regulation (and maybe increase taxes on high incomes) to generate prosperity. This is good news for transit and passenger trains.

Advocates need to have their projects "shovel-ready" in order to overcome objections from Republicans that the additional spending won't create additional jobs in the short term. So now is the time to ensure that every one of your potential projects are ready to go in order to get in line for a bigger share of federal stimulus funding.

And now is *definitely* the time to tell your Members of Congress than the nation needs a major investment in infrastructure. The Midwest High Speed Rail Association is calling for a $5 billion investment in high speed rail (and you can participate in that action alert as well). Speaker Nancy Pelosi's team said they are looking for a total package of around $400 to $500 billion. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he thought the package would come in around $500 billion. It is not clear how much of that could go to transit and passenger trains, so call your Members of Congress and ask them to push that figure as high as possible to get people working again and expand transit and trains!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Best bailout for GM, Ford, Chrysler: Government health insurance (with private doctors)

While the Democratic leaders in Congress are pushing hard for a bailout of some kind to the nation's big three automakers (Ford, GM and Chrysler), the Republicans have basically said no

"The financial straits that the Big Three find themselves in is not the product of our current economic downturn, but instead is the legacy of the uncompetitive structure of its manufacturing and labor force," Mr Richard C. Shelby, senior Republican on the banking committee said.
And on the House side, Republican and Minority Leader John Boehner said:

"Spending billions of additional federal tax dollars with no promises to reform the root causes of crippling automakers' competitiveness around the world is neither fair to taxpayers nor sound fiscal policy."
What most Republicans want to do is just bust the union and lower wages. High wages is a central economic strategy of any recovery, so it's bad policy to try to lower wages. (That's the single strongest reason why government policy should always be to encourage more labor unions to form -- unions result in higher wages for workers, which results in more purchasing power for Americans which results in a stronger economy). 

However, the Republicans do have a point. It's too expensive to make cars in the U.S. compared to Japan or Europe. And it's not because we pay our workers too much. 

It's because the cost of buying health insurance to workers and retirees is contained in the cost of the car for American companies and not for Japanese and European companies. 

We force GM, Ford and Chrysler to pay for health insurance and run a huge insurance division. If we handle health insurance the way most European companies and Japan handles it -- which is to have the government pay for all health insurance while hospitals and doctors and providers are private and they just get paid by the government -- then the American automakers would save billions of dollars and become much more competitive.

Even just extending Medicare -- the most efficient health insurance company in the nation -- to people who are 55 and over and letting them buy into the plan (as many Democratic Members of Congress have suggested) is a great bailout of automakers by helping to solve a structural problem that makes them (and every other manufacturer) less competitive. 

I hope that's part of change in Washington. And I suspect that a smarter way to pay for health insurance than making American manufacturers less competitive will be.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Huge overflow crowd at Highland Indiana rally

This multi-racial crowd has overwhelmed the park on a beautiful Halloween night. Costumes aren't allowed so kids are wearing their parents jackets over princess outfits. The crowd tastes victory in Indiana while we wait for the next President to appear. It feels like a new majority. Friendly, crowded but firm in the absolute rejection of Republican rule. The few pro-lifers outside seem like renmants of a dying regime. It's a new day.

Who should I vote for? If you make less than 100 grand, Obama. More than 250 grand, McCain.

If you are going to base your vote exclusively on which candidate will cut *your* taxes, then the choice is clear, depending on how much money you make.

Start by remembering how much money you made in 2007 and how much you realistically expect to make next year. Got it?

If you will make less than $100,000, then Obama will cut your taxes more than McCain will. No question. If you make $40,000 or $60,000 or $80,000 a year, and you are going to vote based on which candidate will cut your taxes the most, then Obama is your candidate.

If you will make between $100,000 and $250,000, then it's about the same. Both candidates will cut your taxes about the same amount. There are slight differences based on your personal circumstances, but it basically comes out in the wash. You have to use a different reason to choose who to vote for then which candidate will cut your federal taxes more if you make between $100,000 and $250,000.

And if you will make more than $250,000, McCain will cut your taxes while Obama will raise your taxes. If you make more than a quarter million dollars a year and you want a candidate who will cut your taxes, McCain is your candidate.

This is why people say that the Republican Party is for the rich while the Democratic Party is for working people, because Republican candidates almost always want to cut taxes for the rich while Democratic candidates want to improve the lives of regular people (the people who make between $20,000 and $100,000 a year).

These conclusions come from an independent analysis by the Tax Policy Center and the big accounting firm Deloitte, and reported in the New York Times.

Now there are lots of other (perhaps better) reasons to vote for a candidate and a political party than which one will cut *your* personal taxes more, but now you know which candidate will cut your taxes based on your annual income. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

McCain calls Obama tax plan socialism for "spreading the wealth" ...

John McCain calls Barack Obama's tax plan "socialism" as it w0uld reinstate the tax rates we had from 1993-2001 where any income above $250,000 paid an additional 3.6% more than they do now. 

That's the difference between our economy today and "socialism" according to the Republican Party -- if someone makes more than $250,000, that person would pay a little less on the money earned up to $250,000, but the tax rate applied to any income above a quarter million dollars would be 3.6% higher. That, my friends, is socialism.


I don't know about you, but I wouldn't call the Obama-style tax rates we had in the 1990s under Bill Clinton "socialism" -- I'd call that "prosperity." If we lived under "socialism" in the 1990s and we've been living under something else since Bush got elected, then guess what -- I'll take the 1990s type of socialism any day of the week. Wouldn't you?

Please, ask a voter who is leaning towards McCain: would you rather have the economy of the 90s with the Democratic tax rates or the economy since 2001 with the Republican tax rates? Because that's the choice. McCain calls Barack's tax plan -- the exact tax rates for high incomes that we used throughout Bill Clinton's term -- "socialism" as if calling the Clinton tax rates that delivered higher wages and budget surpluses and a roaring economy something that sounds like a bad thing will make people choose the economy of the Bush years over the economy of the Clinton years. 

Don't be scared of words. Vote for the tax plan that made our country better off. 

And remember: people who make more than a quarter million dollars a year can afford to pay more. They're doing it for their own good -- because they will reap the benefits of a strong Clinton-style 1990s economy just as much as everyone else will. And the richest Americans will end up with more money even when they are paying an extra 3.6% on anything they earn over $250,000 because the economy will be stronger under the Clinton-Obama-Democratic type of tax rates than it would be under the Bush-McCain-Republican tax rates.  Not too many rich people are feeling very rich right now, and that's largely because Republicans have screwed up the economy with their anti-government government. 

If you want peace and prosperity again (or, in McCain's words, socialism), do what we did last time we had it: elect a Democratic President. 

Monday, October 27, 2008

20,462 people would have been excluded without grace period registration

The deadline to register to vote in Illinois is 28 days before the election. After that, the state extends a grace period of an extra 14 days where citizens can register to vote, but they have to do so in the office of the election administrator (no drivers license facilities or street-corner registrations from outside organizations are permitted after the regular deadline). And to make it easier on the election administators, grace period registrants must vote when they register, so the administators need not get their information, including a digital signature, to the polling place in that 14 day window.

This year, 20,462 Illinois citizens were not excluded from voting by the regular deadline to register, according to the State Journal-Register, as those 20,462 citizens registered and voted during the grace period.

Senator James Meeks (D-Chicago) and then-Representative Robin Kelly (now Chief of Staff to Treasurer Alexi Gionnoulias) sponsored the bill to implement grace period registration in their respective chambers. The bill, SB 2133, passed on essentially a party-line vote (with the exception of then-Republican Paul Froehlich who voted for it -- an early sign of his admirable independence and consistent work to improve democracy and government for all citizens). 

I was the advocate and lobbyist for the grace period registration bill and I hope that in 2009 the General Assembly will extend registration opportunities to more citizens who wish to vote but find out they can not because of a government deadline to provide the government with their residence information. Today, thousands of citizens (particularly the young and the mobile) are learning to their dismay that they are not registered at their current address or at all and are thus unable to vote. We should implement same-day voter registration, if not at the polling place as Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Hampshire, aine and a few other states use, then at least at the office of the election authority where same-day registrants can show up, show ID, register and vote. This is how Montana offers same-day registration (essentially an extension through election-day of Illinois' grace period registration Montana calls "late registration" -- doesn't "grace period" sound more inclusive than "late registration"?). 

Let's extend our grace period through election day in 2010 and stop excluding citizens from voting.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Upcoming radio appearances: the BBC and Beyond the Beltway

Must be a B for Barack alliteration: the BBC and Beyond the Beltway have kindly asked me to appear on their shows as a Democratic voter voice in the next week or so. 

I'll be on Beyond the Beltway tonight (to balance out the right-of-center Mancow who is getting back on Chicago radio on WLS).

And on Election Night, I'll be on the BBC Five Live's Richard Bacon show. I hope we'll get a booth at the Grant Park rally. Dan Proft will represent the Republican perspective (or as I call it, the permanent minority party).

It's really fun to mix it up on political talk shows, so if you happen to be a producer or host of one and you're looking for a progressive Democratic guest from Chicago, email me at Dan -at- 

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Best voters guide I've ever seen -- Tribune's website

This is one of the coolest innovations in voters' guides I've ever seen.

The Chicago Tribune (which does the most work of any organization in the state interviewing candidates for public office and offering those answers to the electorate) now has a very nifty online feature: a voter-specific ballot that compares the answers from each candidate for each race on a voters' particular ballot. Then you can make your choice among all the candidates running based on answers to substantive qustions posed by the Trib's editorial board.

Poll: Illinois voters want federal-style tax brackets

Two-thirds of Illinois voters want a progressive income tax with federal-style tax brackets instead of a flat rate income tax according to the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute's most recent poll.

That's by far the most popular method of raising revenue.
Add income tax brackets with a higher rate for higher incomes? 66% support
Raising the state sales tax? 17% support
Taxing services? 28% support
More gambling? 47% support
Sell or lease the lottery or other assets? 38% support

And that's one more reason to amend the state constitution by voting YES on the constitutional convention question on the ballot this November.

Our constitution has a flat income tax rate requirement. That's dumb. Since the General Assembly didn't put a constitutional amendment on amending the income tax on the ballot this November (like they should have), we'll have to convene a constitutional convention to put the amendment on the ballot in 2010. So then at least the next Governor can implement a progressive income tax in 2011 in his or her first term.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Why would anyone vote for more Republican rule in Washington?

Republicans have screwed things up so badly that they all ought to be fired.

Why would anyone vote to give Republicans more control over the government after they:

1. Invaded the wrong country after we were attacked
2. Got rid of all any regulations over the banks that could have stopped the meltdown
3. Made the middle class and working people worse off with lower or flat wages 
4. Made America's millionaire's much richer by cutting their taxes a lot (and now call Barack a socialist for trying to bring back the same tax rates for millionaires that we used when Clinton was the president -- which seemed to work out very well economically speaking and
5. Made college more expensive (very little financial aid) and
6. Tried to put Social Security in the same financial companies' control that just went bankrupt

This is the year to give Democrats control over the entire federal government and vote against any Republican Member of Congress.

Democrats fired Senator Clinton for voting to go to Iraq (replacing her with Barack Obama, as she was essentially the presumptive nominee before Iowa). Now it's time to do the same for any Republican who voted to go to Iraq. They ought to be fired for wasting our money and ending tens of thousands of lives in a mistaken war. 

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Undecided voters -- and most voters -- want big government spending

I learned something watching the presidential debate last night: we want big government spending.

Every time McCain would rail against "big government spending" as the problem at the cause of our financial crisis, those little lines by the undecided Ohio voters would stay flat or go negative. And every time Obama would talk about investing in Americans and the need for more spending on the programs that work, those lines would go up. They hit the roof when he talked about better education.

And I think one of the reasons why McCain and the Repuublican Party is collapsing while Obama and the Democratic Party is consolidating support among a majority of voters is because the nation has an appetite for big government spending on themselves. We want big government spending on education. We want big government spending on our economy and our jobs and ultimately our standard of living. We want the government to buy us a better life. Because the Republican plan of not having the government buy us anything and waiting for higher wages and stronger health insurance and cheaper, better colleges and better public schools and better infrastructure hasn't worked out at all.

The interesting thing is the fetish that each of the moderators -- who represent the Washington Consensus -- has on cutting back on spending plans given the big deficit. I think that's a big disconnect. Most voters, I would suggest, don't care about the deficit, so long as the big government spending makes our lives better. And whether the Democratic majority delivers on making our lives better will require pushing aside the Washington consensus on cutting back on new spending programs. If we do cut back on new spending programs and then our lives do not get significantly better as a result, we'll lose an opportunity to not only do the right thing for people but consolidate political support for the next election.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Post-debate discussion on WGN tonight with Milt Rosenberg

I'm going on the Milt Rosenberg show on WGN 720 am tonight for some post-presidential debate discussion. Apparently we're doing something fun by steaming live for awhile on WGN Radio 2 when we're pre-empted by sports and then going on the air. Should be a good time.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Canadian election shows how to run a voter registration system without our problems

Voter registration in the United States is a mess. Because it is the job of the citizen and not the government to keep voter registration information current, it's really up to the political campaigns and other non-government, private organizations to help people register to vote.

Some of these private, transient organizations that pop up every election cycle and then die down again aren't run very well. How can they be without permanent staff to develop expertise? Instead, some of them end up assisting citizens to register to vote several times or turn in incorrect information to the government. The government's role is reactive -- they take and process and attempt to verify any information that they get about a citizen who wishes to be registered. This causes a huge pile of work to come in to the government's office at the last minute, which is inherently inefficient, since no one but the government has an incentive to keep the list of registered voters current and inclusive during non-election seasons. 

Even worse, each county (and we've got almost 3000 of thm in the United States) runs their own elections. They each have different procedures and laws -- some of them vastly different. They each keep their own list of registered voters, so a citizen has to know what obscure government agency of their county to contact in order to verify their registration status and to acquire specific information about voting.

Canada is different. They have one federal agency that handles all voter registration. It's called Elections Canada. Easy, right? Every Canadian citizen can check one easy website to get all the information on voting and the election they need. 

Even better, the government has the job to get people registered to vote. Elections Canada keeps the permanent list of registered voters updated automatically when Canadian citizens tell some other agency of government (like the post office or a federal agency like Revenue or Immigration) that they have a new address or that there's a new 18-year old. 

Finally, if someone isn't on the list of registered voters, they can register to vote on Election Day in Canada. That's in every province (not just in a few states, like in the US).

The federal government in the United States should take over voter registration, using Canada as a model. Every American is entitled to be a voter. They shouldn't have to jump through hoops with some county agency to vote for the President of the United States. And we shouldn't have to rely on temporary organizations popping up to get people registered to vote with their inevitable sloppy work that some will call systemic fraud. The best way to maintain a clean, accurate list of all Americans over 18 and thus eligible to vote is to require the federal government to keep and maintain such a list, using data from the Postal Service, the Internal Revenue Service and every other database the government keeps.

Our two nations are both in the middle of a heated federal election. There are hundreds of news stories on the fierce political and legal battles over voter registration in America with litigation and accusations of fraud and suppression. There are not in Canada. They are doing something right to settle the question and task an independent federal agency to compile a trusted list of voters. We should follow their lead.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Updated -- list of Cook County judges to vote against

I had a bit of feedback on reprinting the Chicago Bar Association's recommendations for judicial candidates in Cook County, so I thought I'd see who else is not recommended.

Typically, all state judges win their races. That seems wrong to me (especially as today I saw a WBEZ story that a federal judge is complaining that Cook County judges are falling down on their job with bond cases). With almost 100 judges up for election or retention (basically re-election), at least a few of them should get fired on a regular basis. Since the state constitution gives me the job to decide which state judges should get fired, I'm going to take the advice of the lawyers who take the time and review the job performance of all the judges. (Yes, I snuck in another reason to vote yes on the constitutional convention so I don't have to decide which judges keep their jobs or not. If you like the way we pick our state judges now, vote against the constitutional convention!). 

The Chicago Bar Association picked four judges out of dozens and dozens to fire. They are

Anthony Lynn Burrell
Evelyn B. Clay
Vanessa A. Hopkins
Casandra Lewis

What about other associations, a friend of mine asked? 

Kathleen Marie McGury
Gerald C. Bender
Evelyn B. Clay
Shelli Williams Hayes
Vanessa A. Hopkins
Edward N. Pietrucha
Janet Adams Brosnahan
Casandra Lewis
Valeria Turner

And then there's an association of associations at with a lot more information.

My preference, though, is for some group of lawyers to have a longer list of judges to vote against. I'd like to raise the bar (so to speak) on judges to get ever-higher standards applied to the judicial branch. So if any association tells me to vote against a judge, I'm taking that advice. There are far too many groups and people that take the opposite approach (include the judicial campaign) which is to vote yes on all judges. That's bad politics and bad policy. In any organization, some people ought to get let go on a regular basis so new and better talent can join up. That's how a culture of excellent and achievement in an organization is created -- not by keeping everyone on the job no matter what.

So, I'll be voting no on all the judges listed above. If anyone knows of any other associations or groups with their picks to vote against, maybe for the first time in Cook County history (a bit of hyperbole, but not much), some bad or just mediocre judges will get let go, making the rest of the judiciary a little bit better.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

The list of Cook County judges to vote against this election

The Chicago Bar Association just released their evaluation of all the judicial candidates on the ballot this November. Most of them are qualified and worth a vote. But about six of them are not, and they are the people that we should vote against this November.

They are:

Anthony Lynn Burrell
Evelyn B. Clay
Vanessa A. Hopkins
Casandra Lewis

Every other judge on the countywide ballot was rated as Qualified or Highly Qualified. But those four judges were not. So vote no on them and spread the word to others.

Monday, October 06, 2008

My magazine written up in 37signals blog

I publish a magazine for the public transportation field called More Riders. It's for anyone who wants to help generate more riders on transit by better communication.

Today, the Chicago-based software company 37 signals wrote us up in their Product Blog, since I use their products Basecamp and Highrise to run the magazine.

If you are looking for project management software or content management software, I highly recomment checking out Basecamp and Highrise, respectively. You can read all about my testimonial at their Product Blog.

And if you want to read the More Riders blog and add your own ideas about how to generate more riders (and thus break our nation's oil addiction, slow climate change and reduce traffic congestion and fatal car crashes), come on by.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Amtrak train riders should vote for Obama since McCain votes against Amtrak

I think John McCain made a major strategic mistake last week in Washington: he continued his decades-long record of opposition to Amtrak by voting against the best federal legislation for Amtrak in a decade. The bill is HR 2095, the Passenger Rail Improvement and Investment Act. Barack Obama voted to strengthen Amtrak and provide more passenger rail service; John McCain voted against it. Here is the Senate roll call.

The bill -- which President Bush has said he will sign into law -- will improve Amtrak servive and extend more passenger rail to more people. This is one of the smartest ways to break our addiction to foreign oil and give some relief to Americans who are suffering from high oil prices. Our nation needs a lot more rail service, not less. Barack Obama gets that which is why he voted for the bill. John McCain does not. That's why he voted against it.

So Amtrak riders in Wisconsin (there are a ton of them who ride the Hiawatha's 7 daily trains between Milwaukee, General Mitchell Field Airport, Sturtevant (near Racince) and then into Glenview and Chicago) and Minnesota (who ride the usually sold-out Empire Builder) who might want to vote for John McCain will think twice about putting into power a president who would be the biggest enemy of Amtrak we've ever had.

George Bush is going to sign the bill. That makes John McCain more of an Amtrak-opponent than George Bush -- and George Bush tried to eliminate all federal support for Amtrak in his budget two years ago! 

It's not a partisan thing. Republicans in Wisconsin generally support Amtrak. Former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson was a huge supporter of Amtrak. Senator Norm Coleman, a Republican from Minnesota, voted for the bill. Lots of Republicans in the Senate are big supporters of Amtrak. But John McCain is not. He is one of the country's leading opponents of Amtrak while Barack Obama has consistently been a supporter.

John McCain's opposition to Amtrak is a bad political move, particularly in the must-win states for McCain of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania. 

I mean, how can you vote for $700 billion for the investment banks and then in the same week vote against more trains for Americans? That will, I predict, lose John Mccain a good number of votes among Republican-leaning men in the Midwest who understand how important trains are to our economy -- and how we need a modern resurgence of train service to grow our Midwestern economy.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

DeFazio unveils a non taxpayer-as-sucker fix to credit crisis instead of a bail out

The fundamental problem with forcing you and I and every other American to risk $2300 of each our taxes to buy stupid loans from investment banks that -- if they were so smart, the Wall Street wizards never would have bought in the first place -- is that we are being taken for suckers.

We pay for the bad investments: socialism for financial losses. Instead, they should pay for it.

And we should fix the credit crisis by fixing the credit crisis, not by buying off the stupid investments that Wall Street made.

There are lots of better ways to fix the credit crisis. Representative Peter DeFazio of Oregon has introduced a low-cost NO BAILOUTS Act (people like acronyms in DC).

Here is the text from his Dear Colleague letter to other Members of Congress. They should each dump the Bush Administration proposal to buy bad investments (as if we should trust them not to let the taxpayer get ripped off by the investment banks!) and instead focus on fixing the credit crisis:

The Paulson Premise Flawed
Simon Johnson, a former chief
economist as the International Monetary Fund, stated today in the New York Times
of Paulson’s plan, “It’s our view that this package, in a fundamental sense,
will not solve the problem.” Other economic analysts noted yesterday that
the credit markets around the world were almost entirely dysfunctional even when
political leaders and investors assumed that Congress had reached a deal and
would easily approve the bailout. There is no reason to believe Paulson’s
plan will work.

We have
credible alternatives to the Paulson/Bush $700 billion gamble. William
Isaac, the chairman of the FDIC during the previous worst financial crisis in
the United States during the 1980s, believes Congress can address the current
crisis with simple changes to Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)
rules. Mr. Isaac points out that while we face serious financial
challenges today, many banks are still in good shape. This allows Congress
to take swift, uncomplicated steps to ensure the financial markets return to
working order. After that, we can work to resolve the housing crisis and pass
effective job stimulus.
Today I am offering an alternative to the
Wall Street bailout that will correct the capital shortfalls experienced by many
financial institutions and help protect the integrity and quality of the
securities market. My plan could be implemented promptly meeting the
demands of the Bush Administration to act immediately without putting the
American taxpayer on the hook for billions of dollars.

I really hope Congress doesn't get rolled by the Bush Administration .... again.

Monday, September 29, 2008

History repeats itself? 1932 failure and then passage of big legislation is instructive

Jim Oleske has a post on dailykos with a history lesson.

In 1932, Congress tried to pass a new tax since government funds were all drying up. There was a Washington consensus around a sales tax. But the people said no, and the Members of Congress rebelled against their leaders to reject the proposal. A few months later, they passed a progressive income tax which helped build the largest middle class the world has evern know.

Now, with the defeat of an investment bank windfall bailout, what's the progressive opportunity?

A transaction tax to pay for Wall Street abuse, past and future?

Re-regulation to finally end the failed Reagan Revolution of anti-government government?

It's a good post, but more importantly, a good reminder that we must demand more from our government than a stupid massive bailout of stupid investment bankers with our money.

I'm glad the bailout of investment banks did not pass

I hope it doesn't.

Yes, the bill that just went down is much better than the absurd plan the President put forward a few weeks ago. But it isn't nearly good enough.

If the financial sector is the problem, then a tax on financial transactions (like a stock fee) is the way to pay for the solution, not from general revenues.

Let the investment banks fail. They can get their ten or twenty cents on the dollar on their bad loans. And if we need a lot of liquidity pumped into the credit market, then we can do that in lots of other ways instead of using general revenues to prop up stupid investment bankers' companies.

Take your time, Congress. Keep working on this. If it waits until next week or next month, so be it.

Friday, September 26, 2008

No bailout of investment banks. Or at least use a Wall Street tax to pay for it.

The problem is that banks became investment banks (and insurance companies and every other financial instrument seller they could). So when they started buying stupid investments, like mortgages that the homeowner could never pay for, the stupidity spilled over into non-stupid things, like running a bank. 

Well, it looks like most of the big investment banks are turning into just regular banks and containing their losses. Or, they go out of business. Too bad for their stockholders and their bondholders, but it doesn't cost the taxpayer anything, so not such a tragedy. Businesses end all the time. That's capitalism.

So why exactly do we taxpayers need to buy these horrible loans? Why can't the investment banks just take a bath, take a loss, take the hit and move on? 

Good question.

Do you have any idea how much money $700 billion is?

There are 300 million Americans, counting infants, immigrants and everybody else in this country at this time.

$700 billion is more than $2,000 per person.

Guess what -- if you want an economic stimulus, send me a $2,000 check. I'll stimulate the economy. And I'll bet with that amount of money in every American's pocket, the banks that weren't so stupid to invest in those mortgages will be able to collect those checks as deposits and make loans to businesses.

Washington Mutual just went bankrupt. And life goes on.

Let the big banks that were dumb enough to invest in those mortgages go bankrupt. 

And if there's something fundamental I'm missing here about the financial industry where only the government can rescue the entire sector of the economy, then at the very least have the financial industry pay for their own bailout with a transaction fee for every stock or bond bought or sold. Representative DeFazio from Oregon is pushing for a Wall Street tax of 25 cents per transaction to pay for this bailout

Wall Street should pay for their own mess. I don't want to.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

When will McCain answer the "divided Republicans" question

One of John McCain's biggest rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, Congressman Ron Paul, just formalized his rejection of the McCain/Palin ticket in favor of the Constitution Party's presidential campaign of Chuck Baldwin.

Congressman Paul was earning up to 25% of the votes of Republican primary-goers in the second half of the campaign (after McCain clinched it). That's a lot of unhappy conservatives!

After Senator Clinton held an event in Unity, New Hampshire and aggressively and enthusiastically endorsed Obama -- along with every single one of the other Democratic candidates -- isn't it time for some stories on how the Republican/conservative base is more divided than the Democratic base?

A Republican Member of Congress and second-tier but not inconsequential Republican presidential candidate rejecting the Republican nominee in favor of a third party is a rather big deal. 

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Obama Administration: Pragmatic above all else (my quote in the New York Times)

I appear in a story in the New York Times Sunday Magazine today on what lessons can be drawn from Professor Barack Obama of the University of Chicago Law School. He was my professor for Voting Rights in 1999 so I was quoted as part of today's story.

Here is the end of the piece:

Dan Johnson-Weinberger studied voting rights with Obama two years after
Turbes did. He remembers Obama as an able observer of the allocation of power in
the American democratic system. As Obama shepherded students through the
evolution of how Americans elect their representatives, Johnson-Weinberger told
me, he emphasized how important the rules of the game were in determining who
won elections.

That background in voting law, the former student said, played a factor in
Obama’s primary triumph over Senator Hillary
Rodham Clinton. “He understood how important the caucus states would be, and
he grasped that voters in African-American Congressional districts would have a
disproportionate impact in selecting the nominee,” he said. “I think one of the
reasons he said yes to this race is that he grasped the structural path to

Johnson-Weinberger, who has championed alternative electoral systems like
proportional voting in Illinois, found Obama’s practical approach to be a
welcome respite from traditional law-school fare. His former professor, he
speculates, would bring a similar mind-set to the White House. “I don’t think
he’s wedded to any particular ideology,” Johnson-Weinberger told me. “If he has
an impatience about anything, it’s the idea that some proposals aren’t worthy of

Johnson-Weinberger has long been an Obama fan. He volunteered for Obama’s
losing 2000 primary challenge to Representative Bobby Rush and his triumphant
Senate run four years later. But even he is a little stunned by how rapid
Obama’s rise has been. “If I had told him then that he was going to be the
Democratic presidential nominee in 2008, he would have laughed,”
Johnson-Weinberger said.

The rest of the article is worth a read, particularly because I think it sheds some light on how Obama is likely to govern as a 'ruthless pragmatic' if the electorate decides not to put McCain -- another deregulation ideologue who constantly pushes for the same economic policies that led to this week's financial meltdown and then inevitable bailout of the biggest banks and financial companies that were deregulated to make bad decisions -- into power. On the economy, there's no question that John McCain will bring more of the same.

(For a bit more on how "free market" -- doesn't look so free now, right? -- policies lead to years of huge profits for companies and then massive bailouts paid for by you and me when we should have just kept reasonable regulations in place to avoid all this ridiculous excess, see this column in the Tribune by John McCarron. The best way to maintain economic growth is with Democratic policies, not Republican deregulators who create these huge messes that put us into recessions).

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Another $85 billion for the bankers? Do you know how much high speed rail we could build for that?

It's unbelievable. Money is no object when the banks are in trouble.

$85 billion for an insurance company loan.

We could make a loan to a private company for $85 billion to build and operate the best high speed rail network in the world and within five years, have trips like Chicago-New York City trip in under five hours all over the country. That's what Spain is doing now. We could do that too if we made an $85 billion commitment to it.

And the high speed rail operator would have as much chance of paying that loan back as the insurance company that just got the $85 billion loan. Which is to say, more than zero and less than 100 percent. That's good enough for the insurance company, so it ought to be good enough for high speed rail.

When they say the government doesn't have the money, they aren't telling the full story. They are saying the government doesn't have the money for your idea. The government always has the money for something that is deemed important enough for the sake of the country.

On that note, Congress just spent $8 billion from the general revenue fund on highway spending.

Eight billion dollars.

That's enough to build most of the Midwest high-speed rail network.

We should stop spending money on highways and start spending it on high speed rail and transit.

It's all about priorities. And it's time for us to make smarter spending (like high speed rail instead of insurance company and bank bailouts) a much higher priority with much bigger dollars on the good investments.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Toe-to-toe with the Barack's Swift Boaters tonight on WGN

I was fortunate enough to be invited to appear on the Milt Rosenberg show (streaming now on on WGN 720 am to defend the idea of truth and honesty on the other side of the table from David Freddoso, the author of a hatchet job on Barack Obama. This from the same publisher who put out one of the Swift Boat books against John Kerry -- and part of the problem in modern politics.

If you can download the podcast, let me know how I did.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Our common purposes: Meeks, black students and New Trier education

The best part of Senator Obama's acceptance speech was the second half when he returned to the theme of his political career. He reminded us that we've lost a sense of common purpose in the partisan wars. We're losing the idea that we are all in this together and that our government -- the only institution that we all belong to -- can and must help all of us live better lives.

That's the spirit that should take hold among wealthier white people as hundreds of parents of poorer black children try to enroll their kids in one of the best public schools in the nation today, even though the government says those kids do not belong.

I'm a graduate of New Trier High School. I grew up in Winnetka surrounded by children of fantastic wealth and some of us of more modest means. The mansions of Winnetka were taxed to fund New Trier and feeder schools (like Washburne Junior High and Hubbard Woods Elementary) and many of them had to pony up $15,000 every year to operate those schools of excellence. The owners could afford to pay that tax (or, like my family, paid it until the last kid was a senior in high school to buy that excellent education and then left for cheaper pastures).

I recognize that my career and current earnings would not have been possible without my public education. Because the taxpayers invested in me as a child, I am today a far happier and much more productive adult. My family -- raised by our mother without a college degree, one child constantly in and out of the hospital, and a persistent rebellious streak among the boys -- ended up successful, largely because of our education. But if we were in a gang-infested school with mediocre teachers and nothing happening after school, I know our lives today would be much worse. New Trier's education -- the after school programs every day, the culture of achievement -- significantly improved my life.

But many, many children today are not allowed to attend New Trier. They don't live among mansions. They live in Robbins. Or Dolton. Or Calumet City. There, the hard-working families of modest means aren't lifted up by an excellent public school. Instead they are burdened by mediocre schools. And their lives suffer as a direct result.

What will we do for the children of Calumet City? Will we call Senator Meeks a flamboyant clown for staging a protest where hundreds of students try to enroll in a school far, far better than their own? Perhaps we'll shrug our shoulders and say that it isn't really about the money, but about the parents or about the culture, or we'll think of mediocre schools in our county and in our state stunting the lives of poorer children every year as something regrettable but out of our control, like a hurricane.

The motto of New Trier High School is "Minds to Inquiry, Hearts to Compassion and Lives to the Service of Mankind." Elegant, isn't it? To their credit, the New Trier Administration has embraced Senator Meeks and the hundreds of families of New Salem Baptist Church, likely recognizing their common purpose to educate all our children.

It isn't easy to find a way to instill a culture of academic achievement (I remember as a sixth grader writing in my assignment notebook "Work Harder" as a stern note to myself -- this was not uncommon among my peers) and break altogether the nagging culture of anti-intellectualism and anti-achievement that still penetrates too many pockets of our county and state. And it isn't easy for the taxpayers who already pay for excellent schools in their communities (where the schoolhouse doors are literally barred to students who live 30 miles away but in a different and poorer suburb) to shoulder the additional burden of paying more for schools filled with poorer children. It isn't easy to balance local control and performance standards to improve the capacity of the school board members of poorer suburbs who, almost by definition, have less time and expertise and personal wealth to manage their schools as well as school board members from wealthy communities.

But as Barack might say, don't tell me that we can't find a way to provide the children of Senator Meeks' community with the resources and accountability and culture of academic achievement that we already do the children of Winnetka if we try.

That's our common purpose, especially in state government. That's our challenge as Illinois citizens. And this year is our time to meet Senator Meeks' families and devote more children's minds to inquiry, hearts to compassion and lives to the service of mankind.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Olympics makes me think we need global government

All this Olympics pageantry reminds me that we need a global government.

Not the corporate global government we have today under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade or the World Trade Organization, where unelected officers can strike down national and state laws.

A real one, with an elected legislature.

And access to a common market for those democracies that choose to participate (so we might move some of the undemocratic world, like China, to embrace some of the best of the West, like private property and democracy).

The United Nations was set up in the 40s. It's time for a new global government. And seeing all those nations uniting in Beijing just makes it seem natural to have a government that reflects all those people that can put corrupt local officials in jail, spread literacy and improve the standard of living, particularly among the poorest on earth. 

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

How I would save the local newspaper

Take this one for what it's worth, but with newspaper stock prices in freefall and absolutely no buyers stepping up for the many local papers that are for sale (since no one can figure out how to turn around the fundamental economics of dwindling subscription base, falling ad revenues and flat costs of staff and newsprint), here's my take.

If I bought a local paper, I'd do the following things:

1. Start charging for access to the website at about $100 a year (roughly the cost of a print subscription). 

2. Drop the daily printed version and switch to a weekly printed version more like a thick magazine than a Sunday newspaper.

3. Mail the weekly version instead of paying for my own distribution network.

4. Film the reporters talking about their stories and put that video on the site for paying subscribers.

5. Start cutting deals with the local network-owned TV stations to provide lots of content for their local news (the networks make a ton of money off of local news).

So, who wants to back me buying Gatehouse? Or who wants to hire me as a consultant?

Monday, August 04, 2008

Illinois constitutional convention needs to amend the redistricting provision

One part of the Illinois Constitution is clearly broken (even Dawn Clark Netsch agrees) and that's the provision that governs redistricting.

The General Assembly gets to draw the map. And if they can't, then a Commission is set up to do the job, 4 Dems and 4 Republicans. And if they can't do the job, then guess how the ninth member of the Commission is chosen, pursuant to the Illinois Constitution?
Not later than September 5, the Secretary of State publicly shall draw by
random selection the name of one of the two persons to serve as the ninth member
of the Commission.

That's right: out of a hat.

We have democracy by lottery. And that is unique to the nation -- and perhaps the democratic world. The Paul Simon Institute has a nice white paper for some background reading.

There are lots of ways to fix this problem. The Ladd Commission (a blue ribbon panel set up in the mid to late 1990s) suggested a computer-generated map would help as well as separating the two House districts from the one Senate district. Representative James Brosnahan filed a constitutional amendment HJRCA 44 that passed the House but did not get called in the Senate that would also separate the House map from the Senate map and ditch the Commission with it's democracy by lottery provision in favor of a Special Master appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (and one other Member). Representative Jack Franks suggests in an NPR story today that a computer-generated map would make most sense instead of having "incumbets protect their own turf."

The best way to tackle this glaring deficiency in the Illinois Constitution is to convene a constitutional convention by voting yes this November where we can solve this before the 2011 redistricting process with an amendment to appear on the 2010 ballot.

Of course, some people who think we should not tolerate such a ridiculous provision of the Constitution are scared of a constitutional convention. Governor Edgar apparently falls in that camp. He's in the same WBEZ story as Representative Franks, and he said because there's no "guarantee" that the issue will be dealt with the way you want them dealt with, there's no reason to roll the dice.

Problem is, the way the issue has been dealt with is by sticking with democracy by lottery (with the exception of the House of Representatives that did pass the Brosnahan amendment). So either you decide to trust the people to fix the problem through an elected body focused only on improving the constitution, or you hope the General Assembly will put an amendment on the ballot when they haven't done so in the 38 years we've had the current Constitution.

So voting no is really rolling the dice -- on who gets to draw the map in 2011!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Vote for my video on transit with US PIRG ("I love traffic")

I co-wrote a video with my friend Andy Cobb (who directed and edited the entire thing) calling on Congress to fund transit in order to lessen traffic. We tried to make it funny by having the protagonist love traffic and call on Congress *not* to fund public transportation that sucks the lifeblood right of traffic.

We submitted the video to US PIRG's contest and we made it as one of the three finalists. Anyone can vote for the winner among the three finalists, so please check out the three videos and vote for "I love traffic").

It's timely, because while it isn't widely known, the nation's entire transportation infrastructure system is essentially broken. We rely on the gas tax to fund the Interstate Highway System and public transportation systems around the nation. Well, people are driving less so they are buying less gas which means the gas tax is not bringing in nearly as much money as it used to. That means we can't afford to keep the transportation system we have today in good shape, much less expand it (and we need to dramatically expand trains and buses to get us away from high gas prices). So things will be changing in Washington next year. Even President Bush's Secretary of Transportation agrees that transportation is broken (check out her blog).

It's fun to check out the video (and I do hope you vote for mine), but joining up with US PIRG as well as one of my clients, the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, will help to build political support to make sure Congress and the new President fund more trains and buses that save us money by using less gas instead of more highways that make us poorer by using much more expensive gasoline to get people around. 

I love traffic! Don't fund public transportation!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Why isn't Obama's replacement going to be elected instead of selected?

Assuming that Senator Barack Obama is elected our next President, then someone will have to decide who will be Illinois' junior U.S. Senator for the next two years.

Illinois law currently vests the Governor with the exclusive power to appoint a replacement to represent Illinois' 12 million citizens in the United States Senate.

Why don't the people get to decide?

Consider what happened when Speaker Dennis Hastert retired in the middle of his term last year. Instead of one person appointing a Member of the House for the last 9 months or so of the term, we held a special election and Bill Foster won.

Isn't that much better than having an appointment?

And if you think it's impractical, consider that there has never been a Member of the House of Representatives who has ever been appointed. Every single Member of the House, from the first days of the American Republic, has been elected by the people.

I want to be able to pick who my U.S. Senator is going to be for the next two years (if the American people elect Senator Obama as the next President). I don't think the Governor (whoever he or she happens to be) should make that decision for me.

This, by the way, is a question of state law. Other states do hold special elections. If John Kerry has been elected President, Massachusetts would have held a special election to fill out the rest of his term. If John McCain is elected President, Arizona law gives the Governor the power to appoint a replacement, but the appointment must be of the same party as the incumbent Senator. Illinois just gives the Governor unfettered discretion to appoint a replacement. We ought to change our law to hold a special election instead.

Monday, July 21, 2008

If France can improve their constitution, why can't Illinois?

Today the French parliament (by one vote!) agreed to a sweeping series of constitutional improvements.

The list of improvements is here (according to the Associated Press).

One neat one: the parliament will elect a few representatives for French citizens living abroad. The Democratic Party does that now (Democrats Abroad gets a few delegates -- Barack won them by a big margin). I think the Republican Party does it as well. But, of course, the Congress does not represent American citizens living abroad, except that they can vote in at their last American address. 

The French constitution is not as democratic as the United States, and this is a move to democratize the Republic.

So.....if France can improve its constitution, can't Illinois do the same? Vote yes for the constitutional convention.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Sales and property taxes are too high -- vote for a constitutional convention

The main reason why property taxes are too high in Illinois and our sales tax in Cook County is too high (the highest in the nation, as a matter of fact) is because our state income tax is too low. And it's too low because of the state constitution. The state constitution stupidly requires a flat rate. That's a mistake that needs to be corrected.

There are only three main sources of taxes for the government: sales, income and property taxes. Because Illinois' constitution requires a flat rate, our rate is the lowest in the nation at only 3%. That's low. That means state and local governments have to rely too heavily on the other two taxes: sales and property.

And that's what people complain about: high property taxes and high sales taxes.

The way to lower those taxes is to bring in more money from an income tax. And the way to do that is to fix the state constitution.

And the way to do that is to vote yes this November on the question whether or not to call a convention of citizens who can put amendments on the 2010 ballot for the electorate to decide whether to approve or not.

This is one in a series of reasons why Illinois citizens should vote yes on the question of calling a constitutional convention this November.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Alliance for the Politics of Fear convenes to oppose improvements in Illinois government

Thanks to Rich Miller (subscribers-only, so if you don't subscribe to Capitol Fax, sign up) for the raw audio of a press conference launched by an Alliance to Protect the Status Quo -- I'm sorry, the Alliance to Protect the Constitution -- that are looking to spend $3 million of business and union money to oppose an opportunity for citizens to elect a group of people to debate potential improvements to Illinois government.

The question is on this ballot this November to call a constitutional convention where amendments could be presented to the electorate for their approval or rejection.

The basic message of the Alliance to Protect the [Current] Constitution is that people should just elect new legislators if they want improvements to the government.

They just don't acknowledge the serious shortcomings with the document, including but not limited to:

1. A mandated flat-rate income tax
2. A lack of any right for kids in poor districts for a quality public education (this is the heart of 'education funding reform' and the only way that kids in poor districts in most states ever got the state to pay for their schools in a substantive way).
3. A redistricting regime among the worst in the world. If one party doesn't dominate government and draw a partisan map, we literally flip a coin to determine which party draws the partisan map.

These three issues alone merit a full discussion and debate in a constitutional convention and thus justify a yes vote this November.

Because on the first two at least, legislative efforts by some excellent legislators (not "those mopes" as one of the members of the Alliance called them) came up short. The amendment process is not working.

There are lots of other shortcomings in our constitution that need attention.

4. A fully partisan judicial branch. Who really thinks it's a good idea for independent judges to have a party label by their name and to get elected in a party primary?
5. A broken property tax assessment system.
6. A constitutional requirement that vacancies in office be filled by appointment instead of special election.

And there are other issues that I think are improvements but others might not

7. Multi-member districts and cumulative voting rights in the Illinois House
8. Way too much authority in the Office of the Governor (at the very heart of the lack of any consensus on the capital bill) to withholding funding for duly appropriated budget items at his or her discretion. If we found a way to institutionally share power in distributing funding (like the 'lockboxes' that Speaker Hastert and President Poshard were floating), then one major hurdle to a capital infusion would be solved, permanently. (Because someday in the future, there will be some other Governor of whatever party that isn't trusted by legislators).

If you want a constitutional amendment to improve Illinois government, then voting yes is the best way to get one.

If you want the status quo, then voting no is the best way to keep it.

It is essentially the politics of fear versus the politics of hope.

And what are they afraid of?

Maybe a power of recall. Maybe a power of a statewide initiative (that's what the Chamber is afraid of). Maybe some nebulous concern about weakening some part of the bill of rights -- which part wasn't ever clarified.

And who would get the power under a recall or statewide initiative? Oh, that's right. We would. The citizens.

And who would we trust not to weaken our own civil liberties? Oh, that's right. Us.

Only the electorate could amend the constitution. The delegates to the convention could suggest amendments. But only the electorate could approve or reject them.

The boogeyman is coming and he is going to have a $3 million campaign behind him to scare you into voting against giving yourself more power over improving your state government. Don't hide under the blankets. Vote yes.

Changing what is possible is our job

"People say politics is the art of the possible, but they are wrong. Politics is
the art of creating the possible. And what is possible is what people
believe is possible."

Isn't that a great quote?

This is the core mission of progressive advocates. We need to shift the sense of what is possible. Elected officials work to implement policies based on what is perceived to be possible. That's their job. Our job as advocates is to shift what is possible.

The way we do that is by relentlessly refining the way we discuss our proposals so they become more common-sense and less exotic or uncomfortable, as well as constantly earning more supporters for the benefits that our proposals will bring.

The quote came from Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP), a great Chicago-based group (who cited a Boston-area nurse for it). I think the language of the proposal (now most commonly known as "Medicare for All" is getting much better than "single-payer health care"), but I think we should also start talking about health insurance reform instead of health care reform. Our health care is largely pretty good. Our health insurance with for-profit companies making billions and denying care to their customers is really bad. Health insurance should be non-profit. That idea resonates with most people, and it helps us politically to drive a language wedge between doctors, nurses, hospitals, patients on one side and for-profit insurance companies on the other. Of course, just saying the government should cover all health insurance instead of for-profit companies and keep all of health care private as it is now takes most of the sting out of "socialized medicine." Few people really care whether the for-profit insurance companies continue to exist, since most people suspect they add no value to our economy.

Friday, June 13, 2008

War, Inc., a comedy on war profiteering by John Cusack, playing this weekend

War, Inc. by Chicago's own John Cusack looks like a good film to check out. It's playing this weekend and at the Landmark Century Cinema n Lake View and the Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland Park.

It's hard to get our arms around how much money corporations are making off of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. And it's hard to think about how much war is getting privatized (and then there's a very strong political force for more war, because that's how they get paid). John Cusack, a really smart and dedicated progressive who happens to be a movie star, made this film as a comedy to (I'm assuming) get the point across. I hope it works. I plan to check it out.

Man, we have got to elect Barack Obama and a massive Democratic Congress in November (with a stronger anti-invasion contingent) to get away from the soul-numbing atrocities that come out of any war -- especially one that our government chose to wage under false and illegal pretenses that enriched a large part of their political base.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

What is John Kass' obsession with Barack Obama?

I really don't get it.

I try not to let John Kass get under my skin. I admire his background as a reporter and I think he turns a poetic phrase. But his overwhelming narcissism to fancy himself a political force unto himself combined with his currently zealotry to convince the national press that Barack Obama is not a political reformer because....because he's from Chicago! is getting ridiculous.

His latest column is a good example

For the last, oh, three years, John Kass has tried to sully up Obama's well-deserved reputation as a force for government transparency because he is not waging a battle in the city council against (presumably) Mayor Daley. That's enough to make him borderline corrupt in Kass' columns. Helping to negotiate the biggest Illinois ethics reform since Watergate in his first few years as a state senator? No big deal. Moving the federal ethics law forward after the Dems cleaned up Congress in 2007, essentially on his own through relentless advocacy for greater transparency within the caucus? Whatever. Conceiving of and passing the most aggressive procurement transparency measure the federal government has ever done in partnership with a conservate Republican back when he was in the minority? So what? He endorsed Daley for mayor! So he must be corrupt!

I mean, if Barack Obama were an Alderman and wasn't vigorously pursuing out of some deference to Daley the exact same agenda of transparency and reform that he has successfully implemented in every legislature that he has served, then I think Kass would have a point. But, of course, he's not an Alderman. He's working on federal transparency instead of municipal transparency because, oh, that's his job. 

I really hope Kass quits trying to connect invisible dots for other reporters in some vain attempt to alter Obama's well-earned reputation as a political reformer. It's getting a little creepy.  

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

One of the coolest political moments in my lifetime

Chicago's own Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee for President.

And as the "Democrat with backbone" -- a creature he called too rare in his U.S. Senate campaign kickoff speech -- he essentially accepted the nomination in the middle of the Republican convention hall! The audacity! I love it.

This is our moment. It's our moment to elect a leader with blazing intelligence, refreshing humility and a Lincolnian faith in the power of regular people who choose to engage in governance to create a kinder, more just and more productive nation.

This is one of the coolest political moments of my lifetime.

And it will be eclipsed in November when we elect Barack Obama as the next President of the United States of America.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Hyde Park event today on democracy and the national popular vote

I'll be participating in this discussion tonight and am also scheduled to discuss the national popular vote on the Cliff Kelley show on WVON this afternoon.

One Person, One Vote? Reinventing Democracy

Monday, June 2

6:30 PM - 8:30 PM
Experimental Station
6100 S Blackstone Ave

A desire for change is mobilizing record numbers of voters to participate in the primaries this presidential election season. A diverse, robust, and ever-changing population is asserting itself in the electoral process. But how democratic is the political process in this country? As a society, how can we understand and overcome the racialized nature of American citizenship? Who gets to vote, who doesn’t and why? And ultimately, how much do our votes really count?

Join us for a lively, critical conversation about these questions and an opportunity tochallenge ourselves to think, imagine, and act to revitalize and re-invent a more participatory democracy. This program is a part of The Public Square at the IHC's "Looking for Democracy in '08 and Beyond" series.

Free and open to the public. Reservations are required and can be made by e-mail at, or by calling 312.422.5580. Refreshments will be served.

"Louder than a Bomb" poets, Cydney Edwards and Esther Ikoro, will open up this roundtable conversation featuring:

Martha Biondi (moderator) is a member of the Department of African American Studies with a courtesy joint appointment in the History Department. She specializes in 20th century African American history, with a focus on social movements, politics, ideology and protest. She is the author of To Stand and Fight: the Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City.

Michael Dawson, Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, is one of the nation's leading experts on race and politics, the founding director of the University’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, and a principal investigator on several important studies of Black politics. He is the author of Black Visions: The Roots of Contemporary African-American Political Ideologies and Behind the Mule: Race and Class in African-American Politics.

Dan Johnson-Weinberger is the President of Progressive Public Affairs, a communications and policy development firm for people and organizations that want to improve the world. He is an advocate for the national popular vote movement.

Theresa Amato, a Chicago lawyer, is the founder of the DuPage County-based Citizen Advocacy Center and has worked with several nonprofit organizations to build democracy, train citizen advocates, watchdog government and corporate power, and advance justice. In both 2000 and 2004, Amato served as the national presidential campaign manager for Ralph Nader, producing the highest vote count for a third-party progressive candidate in the last 80 years. In 2008, the New Press (New York) is publishing her book, Grand Illusion: The Fantasy of Voter Choice in a Two-Party Tyranny, which examines the discrimination against third-parties and Independents in our flawed electoral system.

Alejandra Ibanez is the executive director of Pilsen Alliance, a non-profit grassroots community agency committed to preserving the historic cultural class identity of Pilsen by developing grassroots leadership and facilitating advocacy and organizing campaigns that promote self-determination, demand accountability, and build democracy.

This event will kick off our “Looking for Democracy” Postcard Project. Look for the Question Postcards available during the event for your opportunity to voice a burning question that should be at the forefront of America’s agenda this election season and beyond. All postcards will be on display at the Hyde Park Art Center until early fall. Speak up and be heard!

This program is presented in partnership with the Neighborhood Writing Alliance, Dropping Knowledge, DePaul University’s John J. Egan Urban Center, Hyde Park Art Center, Southwest Youth Collaborative, Contratiempo , and Experimental Station.

For more information, call 312.422.5580.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Hold Em Poker for February 2010 tournament....the best World Series of poker in a decade

I've been playing Texas Hold Em lately. Probably way too much for my own good, so if my analogy is strained, you know what to blame. But as we approach the 2010 Democratic primary, it's a huge poker tournament. Let me explain.

Eric Zorn kicks off the campaign season with his call for Attorney General Lisa Madigan to go all in and announce now that she is running for governor.  Think of the 2010 primary, as I have increasingly done, as a poker table. There are savvy players around the table. Lisa Madigan, Pat Quinn, Dan Hynes, Paul Vallas, Jack Franks, Alexi Giannoulias and, of course, Rod Blagojevich. These are all smart, aggressive, good players. And they are all holding their cards close to the vest.

Now, if someone bets hard (say, Lisa announces that she's all in, or Alexi announces he is running for sure), that will cause some players, even with good cards, to fold. No one is folding now. So who will go in first? If a player with a low chip stack goes all in (say, Jack Franks) and announces that he is running, will that cause anyone else to fold? Probably not. What if someone bets lightly by announcing an exploratory committee? Probably won't cause anyone else to fold. So who is going all in?

That's the delicious season of anticipation that we're in now.

Then the fun part is in the ripple effect. For the first time in a decade, lots of offices can open up. Senator Obama's seat will be open in 2010, as will every statewide state elected. So if both Dan Hynes and Pat Quinn run for governor, then Comptroller and Lt. Governor are both open. In other words, in one way or another, every part of the Illinois Democratic Party is around the 2010 poker table with seven different offices to fill, at least half of which are likely to be open seats. So everyone in the state gets to play. It's going to be very exciting.

People who are better at hold em than I am can explain how most of the game's success is in the strategy of betting. And over the next six months, we get to see how the best players in the party bet with the hands they've been dealt.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Great idea: a federal same-day voter registration law

Thanks to Upper Midwest Democratic Members of Congress Russ Feingold, Amy Klobuchar and Keith Ellison for introducing legislation in the House and Senate for same-day voter registration in federal elections.

This news article from the Dickinson Press out of North Dakota has the skinny.

The idea that citizens who want to vote are told by the government that they are not permitted to do so is appalling. And it happens every election.

Same-day voter registration puts more of the burden on the government -- as it should be -- to make sure that every citizen who wants to vote has an opportunity to do so.

Of course, Congress only has the authority to require same-day voter registration for federal elections, as the Constitution gives the authority to states to run their own elections any way they want.

But just like the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (usually called "motor-voter") that required federal voter registration forms in drivers' license facilities and public welfare offices where government officials regularly interact with citizens, these bills are also the right step led by Congress that most states will probably choose to follow for their state and local elections as well. Only a few states (notably Illinois under then-Governor Jim Edgar) petulantly ran two systems of voter registration, one for federal elections to comply with the NVRA and one for state and local elections. Now the entire nation largely follows the NVRA for state elections as well.

This is real progress and I predict and hope that with President Obama (a guy who got his start in politics with a huge 1992 voter registration drive in Chicago) and a Democratic Congress, the bill will be enacted into law in 2009, effective for the 2010 federal elections.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The General Assembly will decide this week whether we hold a constitutional convention next year

This week is the deadline for the General Assembly to place constitutional amendments on the November ballot. (The Constitution has a six-months-before-the-election deadline).

The main reason to hold a constitutional convention is because voters have not had an opportunity to amend the constitution in a substantive way for over a decade. We have not had the chance to vote on the recall power. We have not had the chance to vote on the flat tax mandate. We have not had the chance to vote on making school funding a right, rather than a goal, of the state. We have not had the chance to vote on reining in the extremely broad amendatory veto power. We have not had the chance to vote on our absolutely broken redistricting regime that essentially works to pick the leaders of the chamber at random.

A constitutional convention would provide an avenue to put these amendments on the ballot for the voters to approve or reject.

If the General Assembly process of asking voters to approve or reject constitutional amendments works -- that is, if the General Assembly does in fact place amendments on the ballot for the voters to accept or reject -- then there isn't much reason for a constitutional convention.

If, however, the General Assembly does not place any amendments on the ballot this year, as they have not for at least a decade, then there is a very good reason for a constitutional convention, because it is the only way for voters to amend the constitution.

This week the General Assembly will decide whether we hold a constitutional convention.

If they find a way to put at least one substantive amendment on the November ballot, the call for a constitutional convention will surely fail.

If they do not find a way to put any amendment on the ballot, then the call for a constitutional convention might pass.

So for those of you who don't want to see a constitutional convention, I suggest you lobby the General Assembly to put an amendment on the ballot this week! (My favorite is SJRCA 92 that would ask voters to scrap the mandate for a flat rate income tax, but you might like recall or redistricting).

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Obama tells the truth on gas tax; McCain and Clinton are pander bears

Have you heard of the pander bear?

It's an exotic cousin of the panda bear.

The pander bear is a political candidate who tells voters what they want to hear, even when they know it's a bad idea, in order to win some votes.

And John McCain and Hillary Clinton are both pander bears in Indiana over the gas tax.

We should have raised the gas tax years ago so that we have a reason to use less oil and develop alternative fuels and modern transit. That's essentially what Europe did and now their economy is in a better position to deal with $115 per barrel oil.

Remember, a few years ago, a gallon of gas in the US was cheaper than a gallon of water, so we haven't had to invest in transit and alternative fuels. We just burned the oil and now our economy is in a very bad position to deal with high oil prices.

According to this New York Times article filed an hour ago (we're super-fast on the Internet!), both McCain and Clinton are responding to the economic damage from not raising the gas tax years ago and thus growing economically dependent on cheap oil by .... calling for a cut in the gas tax.

So what will that do? It will essentially end any maintenance of the interstate system and mass transit systems. And it will allow the oil companies and the other side of the War on Terror to make more money, since prices won't really fall.

Senator Barack Obama tells the truth -- one of the core themes of his entire career. His candor is why he is going to be the next President of the United States. 

Obama spoke out against halting a tax on gasoline during the summer months, a move supported by Clinton and presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, saying it may not bring down prices and would deplete a fund used for building highways.

"The only way we're going to lower gas prices over the long term is if we start using less oil," Obama said.

Don't feed the pander bears! It will just encourage them.

Instead, support the candidate of candor: Barack Obama.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Obama's magic number is 291. Help him clinch.

It's like baseball.

Near the end of the season, teams that are going to make the playoffs have a magic number of wins (or their rivals' losses) to clinch their spot. We also have a magic number: the number of delegates to pick up in order to clinch the nomination. And our goal is to get that magic number by July 1 when every superdelegate (according to the Chairman of the Party) should make their opinion known.

Our magic number is 291 (according to this Sun-Times report quoting the Obama campaign). Barack Obama needs 291 more delegates to earn the 2024 to win the nomination. And our job is to help secure 291 more delegates for the Obama campaign over the next eight weeks.

There's not all that much more to say besides our efforts ought be focused on winning these primaries and caucuses -- and ensuring that the superdelegates that we are in a position to influence make their pledge public.

The superdelegate closest to where I live is Rahm Emanuel. He's in a tough spot, since his primary voters supported Obama (he lives in Chicago) but his personal friendship with the Clintons is a big part of his life. However, this is a tough business, and in my view, it's time to publicly endorse Obama so that we can move that magic number down to zero.

Remember, the only reason that there is any discussion at all about chaos in Denver is that there are some superdelegates who have so far refused to publicly make a choice between Senators Clinton and Obama. That refusal to choose is damaging.

The magic number is 291. Let's bring it down to zero and clinch this thing.

Monday, April 21, 2008

I'll be on WGN primary night on Milt Rosenberg's Extension 720

Just got word that I'll be discussing the results from the Pennsylvania primary election on Milt Rosenberg's Extension 720 where Senator Clinton will graciously acknowledge the obvious -- she has lost the primary race since she did not earn more than 65% of the vote in Pennsylvania and she can not catch up to Obama's insurmountable lead -- and concede to the next President of the United States, Senator Barack Obama.

Would be nice, wouldn't it?

It's on from 9 pm to 11 pm CST on WGN, 720 am Tuesday night.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

History of the English language driven by the French

I subscribe to Delancey Place, a fantastic free email-newsletter with insightful excerpts from books and magazines. I encourage you to subscribe or read the blog. The editor of Delancey Place is Richard Wade Vague.

This is a good one that I'll repost in its entirely.

In today's encore excerpt--many of the reasons that English spelling contains many silent letters and other complexities date from the 15th century, around the time of William Caxton's 1476 introduction the printing press in England:

"In spelling, the [English] language was assimilating the consequences of having a civil service of French scribes, who paid little attention to the traditions of English spelling that had developed in Anglo-Saxon times. Not only did French qu arrive, replacing Old English cw (as in queen), but ch replaced c (in words such as church--Old English cirice), sh and sch replaced sc (as in ship--Old English scip), and much more. Vowels were written in a great number of ways. Much of the irregularity of modern English spelling derives from the forcing together of Old English and French systems of spelling in the Middle Ages. People struggled to find the best way of writing English throughout the period. ... Even Caxton didn't help, at times. Some of his typesetters were Dutch, and they introduced some of their own spelling conventions into their work. That is where the gh in such words as ghost comes from.

"Any desire to standardize would also have been hindered by the ... Great English Vowel Shift, [which] took place in the early 1400s. Before the shift, a word like loud would have been pronounced 'lood'; name as 'nahm'; leaf as 'layf'; mice as 'mees'. ...

"The renewed interest in classical languages and cultures, which formed part of the ethos of the Renaissance, had introduced a new perspective into spelling: etymology. Etymology is the study of the history of words, and there was a widespread view that words should show their history in the way they were spelled. These weren't classicists showing off. There was a genuine belief that it would help people if they could 'see' the original Latin in a Latin-derived English word. So someone added a b to the word typically spelled det, dett, or dette in Middle English, because the source in Latin was debitum, and it became debt, and caught on. Similarly, an o was added to peple, because it came from populum: we find both poeple and people, before the latter became the norm. An s was added to ile and iland, because of Latin insula, so we now have island. There are many more such cases. Some people nowadays find it hard to understand why there are so many 'silent letters' of this kind in English. It is because other people thought they were helping."

David Crystal, The Fight for English: How language pundits ate, shot, and left, Oxford, 2006, pp. 26-9.