Thursday, December 02, 2010

Objections to candidates for Chicago alderman filed

One of the fun parts of working as a Chicago election lawyer is the next month or so when objections filed against aldermanic and mayoral candidates are filed and adjudicated. This is the busy season.

The 2011 season is the busiest in a long time because of the huge number of open seats, both citywide and in the City Council.

As an example, in my own 43rd Ward, there are 12 candidates running for the office. 11 of them have been challenged. Only Rafael Vargas avoided a challenge.

Some (many?) of the challenges are meritless. A few of them present fascinating questions of statutory interpretation. Many of them involve lots of time grinding out one signature at a time at the Board of Elections to see if that particular scribble collected on a cold night with a pen that wasn't working really matches the digital image of a signature of a voter collected 20 years ago from the Board of Election.

For political observers and players, following the status of the challenges is a good exercise. You can check out the often-updated pdf posted by the Board of Elections here. You can see which campaigns are more aggressive at the challenge process (hint: any campaign involving Senator Rickey Hendon is exceptionally aggressive. Read his just-published book if you don't believe me) and thus likely to be more aggressive at picking up votes.

Friday is the first day most campaigns get to read the objections filed against them and the process of scheduling all of these objections starts Monday. It will be a busy and illuminating December.

Monday, November 08, 2010

If you are not rich, House Republicans are not for you

The new House Republican majority can not make it any clearer.

They want everyone to pay more over time so that the rich can pay less.

If you are going to earn more than $250,000 in 2010, then the Republicans are looking out for you.

Eric Cantor announced today that, no matter how large the deficit and the debt, the Republicans are going to look out for the rich people who are going to earn more than $250,000 this year by making everyone else pay higher taxes to pay back the debt to the Chinese for the next 40 years in order to finance the tax cuts for the rich.

Here is the article in the Tribune:

In another ominous sign of new political gridlock developing in Washington, House Republican leaders Sunday took a hard line on compromising with President Obama on extending tax cuts that are due to expire at the end of the year.

"I really want to see that we can come together and agree upon the notion that Washington doesn't need more revenues right now," Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the No. 2 House Republican, said on "Fox News Sunday."

"And to sit here and say we're just going to go about halfway, or we're going to send a signal that it's going to be uncertain for job creators and investors to put capital to work, that's exactly what we don't need right now."

Obama has proposed permanently extending tax cuts for American households making less than $250,000 a year, but he has argued that the country cannot afford to extend those cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

The president repeated that proposal in his weekly address this weekend.

"At a time when we are going to ask folks across the board to make such difficult sacrifices, I don't see how we can afford to borrow an additional $700 billion from other countries to make all the Bush tax cuts permanent, even for the wealthiest 2% of Americans," he said.

So the Republicans are saying that they want the rich to pay less in taxes in order to take on more government debt which we will all eventually have to pay back. And that means you and I (assuming you, like me, won't be paid $250,000 or more this year) will pay more in taxes becaus the Republicans want to make sure that the rich pay less.

Do you want to pay more in taxes so that millionaires can pay less? I don't. That's why I voted for Democrats to run the government.

If you voted for a Republican to run the government, and you make less than $250,000, are you a little surprised that the Republicans now that they are elected want to make you pay more taxes?

Somebody's got to pay the government debt.

And if the rich pay less, that means we pay more.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

NYC video on how they are improving quality of lives today

The core message of the video on how the Bloomberg Administration has worked to improve the quality of lives -- today -- of New Yorkers is to change the perception of streets from existing for automobiles to exist instead for people. The other message is to transform their bus network into a surface subway system by increasing speeds, removing bus stops, putting fare collection at the station (instead of on the bus) and implementing traffic signal prioritization to hold a green light for a bus.

Monday, October 11, 2010

New website: Register to vote until October 26 with the grace period

The Democrats in the Illinois General Assembly have worked over the last few years to reduce the barriers that the government puts between citizens and their right to vote.

For many people who move every year (especially people under the age of 30), letting some obscure government agency know their updated address a month before each election is a real burden that creates an unnecessary barrier to vote. The deadline to register is a month before the election. Recognizing that this bureaucratic rule has been keeping citizens from voting, the Democrats (led by Robin Kelly, James Meeks and Will Davis) have created a three-week grace period where citizens can register to vote after the regular deadline if they do so in person at the office of the election administrator.

This year, the Democrats have taken the program a step further by putting grace period registration on each college campus.

I'm excited to promote a website my friend Abby Abraham set up that promotes the new grace period registration. It's . Please check it out and spread the word -- especially to people who may not be registered to vote at their current address.

This is what government is supposed to do: serve the people by reducing *their* administrative barriers to voting. I appreciate the Democrats (and the very few Republicans) in the General Assembly who have voted for these bills -- and the Democratic governors who have signed the bills into law.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Illinois voters may decide US Senate control. Vote Alexi

On the one hand, it is a little thrilling to have a general election where my vote actually matters. I'm not used to that in Illinois. Since 2002 or so, every general election in November has been largely a foregone conclusion with an unbroken streak of Democratic statewide victories for the last three general elections.

Not in 2010. We are now a purple state where almost every single statewide contest is a close one. Two two most important elections are for Governor and for U.S. Senator and they are both neck-and-neck.

The U.S. Senate race between Alexi Giannoulias and Mark Kirk is particularly important, because it looks like it may be the decisive race that determines whether Democrats or Republicans will control the United States Senate. Democrats control 60 votes in the Senate today, and Republicans are going to win at least half a dozen seats. If Democratic voters in blue states don't show up and vote, then Republicans can win even more. And one of their high-water marks for the biggest victory for their agenda would be a win in Illinois of Mark Kirk over Alexi Giannoulias. That is a very real possibility. Today, polls show Kirk is ahead.

The federal Republican Party supports the agenda of corporate America and rich people. Bottom line. That's why they want the George Bush economy where the rich get richer, the corporations do whatever they want and the middle class get pummelled.

The Democratic Party is what makes the middle class. That's where affordable education comes from. That's where affordable health care comes from. That's where middle-class jobs come from. That's where upward mobility comes from. Government shapes our economy, like it or not. And when the Republicans run the government, they shape the economy to benefit the rich and powerful.

If we don't elect Alexi in Illinois by coming out to vote in the next few weeks, then we are likely handing control of the federal government to the rich and the powerful, guaranteeing that our standard of living will continue to stagnate while the rich will get richer.

It feels more like a chore than making history this time, but that's what work is. It is work to build a middle class. And the work for the next few weeks is getting you and a dozen others like you to vote Democratic.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Fix the filibuster (if we can't abolish the US Senate)

The most undemocratic legislative body in the Western world - the United States Senate where the half million people of Wyoming get as much power as the 12 million people of Illinois - has a particularly bad rule that has stifled popular will from becoming the law of the land.

That rule is the most recent incarnation of the filibuster where one Senator (who represents a tiny fraction of the people) can block the rest of the people from implementing their will.

This filibuster, which is not in the Constitution and was most famously used to block the implementation of civil rights legislation for years in the middle of the 20th century by southern racists (then Democrats), has grown in its destructive power to block the ability of a majority of citizens from shaping government to their vision. It locks the status quo in place. And it needs to be tamed.

I've signed this petition and I encourage you to do the same so that leaders of the Senate, when the convene in January and have an opportunity to fix the filibuster, will be more likely to do so.

Elections should have consequences. The 2008 election should have had more consequences than it did, and the reason why the country has not gotten as much of the improvement that we voted for is because of these radical anti-change legislative rules like the filibuster.

Help fix the filibuster by signing this petition.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Why should Bush tax cuts expire? Great explanation from White House

This is a great explanation from a natural communicator on why President Obama and the Democrats are right to push end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Why would we borrow money from China to give to American millionaires a tax cut of $100,000 each? That's what Republicans are pushing to do.

Language that doesn't favor cars over transit or people: excellent memo on objective language

Language matters. It shapes how we approach politics and governance.

And to reduce our dangerous reliance ("addiction", as President George W. Bush put it) on foreign oil, our country needs to burn less gasoline by driving and flying less.

That means we need more trains and buses, from local transit to high speed rail, for our transportation network.

And that means our transportation officials need language that doesn't favor the automobile. We need to use objective language.

Jarrett Walker on his blog Human Transit found an excellent example of a memo from the City Administrator of West Palm Beach, Florida to all Department Heads directing them to use objective language to describe transportation choices. He accurately notes that most of our transportation language is biased in favor of ever-more investments in automobile traffic, which distorts the public will.

A few paraphrased examples:

Instead of referring to a car accident, refer to a car crash or car collision. After all, almost all car crashes are preventable with policies that create slower speeds or with better choices from the person at fault. The term accident suggests that nothing could be done to prevent the random occurence and lessens the drive to prevent future collisions in the future.

Instead of referring to an alternative to car traffic (which implies that non-car traffic is outside the mainstream), refer to non-motorized modes of transportation or be specific to refer to walking, biking or transit.

Instead of referring to an upgrade or improvement to a road, which implies that every investment in road capacity is a good thing, refer to the project objectively as a lane addition or a change in the road.

We still over-invest in roads and under-invest in trains in our country. Our 1950s-era language to describe road investments is a part of the reason why our policy hasn't caught up to our economic, national security and environmental objectives to spend more on transit and less on roads.

Friday, September 24, 2010

I'm in the New York Times today as the unnamed lobbyist

One of my long-term clients, the Coalition for Illinois Midwifery, is the subject of a write-up in today's New York Times (produced by the Chicago News Cooperative).

They have been pushing for 25 years or so to make it legal for non-nurses to help women have birth at home. Lots of women prefer to avoid hospital births (either because they don't like the medical interventions or they have religious or cultural reasons), but because it is illegal in Illinois for midwives to help women have home births (and then transfer them to a doctor if things go wrong or if they are a high-risk mother and thus not appropriate for a home birth), we have an underground network of a few providers without any real transparency or protections. Not good.

So they hired me a few years ago to join 20-some other states and legalize the practice to pass the Home Birth Safety Act. We've been making slow and steady progress building support among legislators (especially thanks to champions like Senator Bill Haine, Representative Mary Flowers, Representative Paul Froehlich, former Representative Julie Hamos and Representative Robyn Gabel), fighting the doctors' lobby every step of the way (and they are one tough lobby).

Today it was nice to get a little credit for that in the article:

After 30 years of trying to get the legislature to license direct-entry midwives, Illinois’s midwifery organizations are guardedly optimistic. In May, the State Senate passed the Home Birth Safety Act. A House vote is pending.
The bill’s supporters say it toughens standards and protects pregnant women and fetuses from untrained practitioners, while allowing qualified midwives to practice openly and to transport emergency cases to hospitals without fear of reprisal or arrest. (Women often register home births as “unassisted” to protect their midwives.)
State Representative Robyn Gabel, Democrat of Evanston, is the bill’s chief sponsor. “It’s an uphill battle in the House,” Ms. Gabel said.
That the bill has made it this far is testament to the midwifery community’s newfound political acumen and its first lobbyist, hired by the Coalition for Illinois Midwifery in 2006.

There's a lesson for anyone that wants to change the world: engage in politics and hire (or become) a lobbyist. It's part of Progressive Public Affairs' method of policy development. Figuring out what you want the government to do, and then lobbying the elected officials in a position to deliver that change is how you change the government, and the government is the best way to change the world.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Analyst: Government spending cuts will hurt economy (and stock market)

Government spending is good for our economy, as it puts money in our pockets that we can then spend on goods and services that keep us employed.

When governments cuts back, the economy slows down, in so many different ways. And when the economy slows down, even the stock market takes note.

Here are some clips from a Chicago Tribune column by Gail Marks Jarvis on Citigroup strategist Tobias Levkovich who warns that government spending cuts will reduce consumer spending (the driver of our economy).

"It could be as mundane as shaving cream," he said. People who face cuts in food stamps will continue to buy food, but might be forced to switch to a cheaper store or stretch their non-food-stamp dollars by buying generic shaving cream and making it last longer, he explained.

But Levkovich believes Xerox, which depends on government for 28 percent of its sales, could see a stressed government cut back on printing. And cuts in farm support programs "could easily affect seed companies, fertilizer sales and tractor producers with domino effect on steel or glass production.
"The multiplier effect is most probably not well understood by investors."

While the idea of government spending is unpopular, the real impact of government spending is much more so. In order to keep our standard of living high, we should increase, not cut, government spending (especially where it improves our standard of living the most with domestic programs).

Saturday, September 04, 2010

A Laffer curve for government spending

Conservatives are fond of the following oxymoronic proposition: cut taxes and more revenue will flow into the government's coffers. If the government taxes less, then people will work more and even with lower tax rates, there will be a larger government take because of all the extra work to be taxed.

It's a ridiculous proposition on its face, particularly given the historically low tax rates on high-incomes in the United States (the highest marginal tax rate during World Word Two was 91 percent -- it's 35 percent on income above $340,000 or so today). But this ridiculous idea is at the heart of most Republican proposals to balance the budget and reduce our long-term debt.

An economist named Arthur Laffer who worked in the Reagan Administration popularized the idea enough that the idea bears his name: a Laffer curve exists for taxation like an upside-down U. The vertical axis is government revenue and the horizontal axis is the tax rate. At a tax rate of zero percent, raising the rate to 1 percent will raise more revenue, so the curve goes up from left to right. On the other side, at a tax rate of 100 percent, no one would work so no revenue would be collected (although I can probably think of examples where that doesn't apply, but stick with the theory). So lowering the tax rate from 100 percent to 99 percent would allow people to take home 1 percent of their money, which would give them a reason to actually work. Since some people would work and earn money that wouldn't have done it before, government revenues increase, and the curve goes up from the right to left.

This curve, raising from left to right and from right to left, then meets in the middle, like an upside down U. So if we happen to be on the right side of the peak, we can raise more government revenue if we cut the tax rate, and if we're on the left side of the peak, we can raise more government revenue if we raise the tax rate. That's the theory.

Even if true, we're almost certainly on the left side of the peak, since our tax rates our relatively low (except, perhaps, on low-income earners if one considers local and state taxation). That means today, the way to raise more reveue is to raise the tax rate.

But I've got a better idea.

We need a Laffer curve for government spending.

See, government spending generates more economic activity. When the government spends money, like on hiring a teacher or a bureaucrat, someone has a job. And that person has income. So that person pays taxes on that income. Immediately, there is a return to the government of some of their spending in the form of tax revenue. That person with the government job then spends their income on things. The retailer pays a sales tax and a property tax on her store. More government revenue based on the first burst of government spending. And when the person spends their money, then someone else has more income. And that someone else then pays taxes on that income. The government gets even more revenue from the original spending.

At some point, the government gets back all the money it spent. And after that, the government gets more money back in revenue then it spent in the first place.

That's a Laffer curve for government spending.

So we should be able to say the same thing about government spending that the conservatives say about tax cuts -- if we increase spending, we'll get more revenue back. And the converse: if we cut government spending, we'll get less revenue and be worse off from a deficit perspective.

Conceptually, it makes as much sense as the Laffer curve on taxes.

Now some government spending will work better in generating more revenue for the government than others. Hiring a cook in South Korea to work on the military base by the DMZ won't generate any revenue to American governments. But hiring a teacher who not only spends her money and generates more economic activity in her community (paying her own local and state taxes and also bringing more income to the retailers and restaurant owners and grocery store owners and utility owners that she buys things from who then pay local, state and federal taxes on that additional income) would bring in more revenue. Plus, that teacher will teach students, making them smarter and thus more employable, which will generate more revenue from the government.

In my next post (after I think about it some more), I'll talk about the multiplier effect that shows some government spending brings in more revenue than other types of government spending, and try to come up with a better way to talk about government spending that resonates as well as the Laffer curve does.

We've got to hand it to the conservatives - they've got great language to advance their agenda, no matter how ridiculous their ideas turn out to be in practice. Now that President Obama and the Democratic Congress are actually implementing policies that work in practice, we need the best possible language to describe why and how they are working so that average voters will keep them in power and not let the party that believes cutting taxes today will bring in more revenue run the government.

Government spending as a concept seems to taking a beating these days, but in practice, it is one of the best ways to make our lives better and strengthen our economy. There is a big gap between how well government spending works in practice and the view of government spending in the mind of the average voter. It's our job to close that gap and explain how government spending makes our lives better in a common-sense way. Just because it happens to be true doesn't mean that people understand it -- or that we're explaining it well.

A Laffer curve for government spending might address the concerns about the debt and the deficit, leeching the strength away from "runaway, out-of-control spending" because all the spending comes back to the government anyway in more tax revenue -- if we focus on the best government spending that actually does it.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Friendlier language for "social" considerations and costs

One of my clients is the Midwest High Speed Rail Association (join us!) and we advocate for building bullet trains and expanding Amtrak. It's a great investment for our country to make, as it is among the most efficient methods of travel for trips between 100-750 miles that humans have invented.

One of our challenges is that high speed rail is more efficient than all other modes (mainly driving or flying) when comparing *all* costs, not just government costs. So think of 1000 people deciding to travel between Ann Arbor and Chicago. If they each drive, think of each of them at a gas station, filling up their tank, spending $50 or $75, and exporting their wealth from their pockets to Saudi Arabia. Then they depreciate 1000 different vehicles for 200-some miles. And then there are the costs of maintaining and financing the parking spots on both ends. We normally don't think of those as costs born by society. Instead we tend to compare the costs of a building and maintaining a highway to the costs of building and maintaining a high speed rail line and end up with the conclusion: "jeez, high speed rail is expensive."

But if they each get in the same one train that sits more than 1000 people and take the same train to Chicago that lets them off in a very compact train station (compared to an airport or a 1000-car parking lot), using a relatively tiny amount of energy to move the train compared to moving a plane or moving 1000 separate cars, then the total cost is much cheaper.

We need better language to convey the total costs to all of society and encourage voters to 'zoom out' their perspective on how we run our country. Usually, government-run or -financed investments make a lot of sense from the perspective of the total costs paid by everyone in the country or state, but they don't make as much sense without that crucial perspective. Public transportation is a great example. One of the major benefits of public transportation is the reduction in time-wasting traffic congestion for drivers. If everyone on a train got in a car, traffic would be much, much worse. And that would impose a real cost on everyone else. But if we don't 'zoom out' and consider the costs born by everyone as a cost that each of us should care about, then we miss the point of making our country more efficient and economical through government-financed initiatives like public transportation. We just focus on the tax to maintain public transportation and think of that as the only cost we are all paying.

It's hard not to consider this a type of socialistic thinking, because after all, we're thinking about everyone in society. Socialism is still considered a taboo term, even though most government-investments that are really socialist institutions like highways or or high schools or fire departments are as mainstream as the military. What language can we use that avoids the taboo term of 'social' costs and benefits? (And hopefully the taboo is wearing off so we can have pragmatic and accurate discussions and debates about the best way to run our country in the most efficient, economical way).

I'm growing fond of the term 'wasteful' to describe how we run things without sufficient government investment (if, in fact, the costs born by society are higher than they would be with more government involvements -- of course, that isn't always the case). In transportation, we rely too much on roads and cars for our mobility, and that is inherently costly and wasteful. We spend far too much on gasoline, which is exporting our wealth to the oil-producing states (funding the other side of the war on terror) and the costs of transportation in the aggregate are way too high compared to what they could be with far more public transportation and high speed rail.

So as a way to get people to start zooming out and to accurately calculate the costs and benefits of different transportation investments (auto-heavy, or more government-investment in public transportation), I'm going to use the terms 'wasteful' and 'productive' as the two metrics to consider. Because ultimately, our economy needs to be more productive and less wasteful if we're going to raise our standard of living. It's a shift for lots of voters to think of their personal economic well-being as fundamentally connected to the economic well-being of their neighbors and fellow Americans, but it happens to be true. That means if our neighbors spend less money on transportation out of their personal budgets (because they have access to public transportation), we are better off because of it. And the more people who see their world in that accurate, interdependent way, the more people will vote for policies that make all of us better off. Otherwise, we're stuck with voters and politicians who believe that it doesn't really matter what makes all of us better off, it's that they are against the very idea of a government reducing costs for everyone. That idea of opposition to government generally takes our eyes off the ball of what works to improve all of our standard of living.

And so ultimately, to reduce voters' opposition to government generally, we should be encouraging citizens to think about all the costs that all Americans spend in transportation or education or health care or business. Because if government can save all of us money -- and it absolutely does -- it is economically self-defeating for Americans to continue to be wasteful because of a rejection of the idea of government.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Neat campaign idea for progressives: Reusable grocery bags with a re-elect tag line

Maryland State Senator Jamie Raskin's campaign came up with a smart idea to promote his re-election campaign among the socially progressive voters of his base: distributing reusable grocery bags that say "Re-use, Re-duce, Re-cycle and Re-elect Senator Jamie Raskin!"

It's just as good as a lawn sign or a bumper sticker, because it is a visible tool that gets circulated at the grocery stores and on the way home. Plus it firmly identifies the candidate as part of the sustainable movement.

By the way, in just one term, Senator Raskin has established his record as one of the most progressive state legislators in the nation. One of my favorite bills gets to the heart of the structure of American capitalism that currently imposes a legal duty upon directrors of corporations to follow their fidicuary duty to disregard employees, the environment and everything else besides maximizing corporate profits. This is a problem, because imposing a legal requirement on every single director of every single corporation to systematically ignore everything besides the maximization of profit means all of our businesses pay less than what would be optimal for our economy's purchasing power and consumes more resources that is optimal for our long-term sustainability. Profit is key, but it shouldn't be the only outcome driving corporate decision-making. And every state's corporate law imposes that obligation on all of the for-profit corporations duly incorporated in their state. Except for Maryland. A new law, authored by Senator Raskin, permits the creation of a Benefit Corporation, where the company exists not only for profit but for the benefit of the community. These B Corporations will, I hope and predict, become an increasingly important part of our economic life.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Want a pro-business environment in Illinois? Regulate insurance companies.

You know how we can create a better environment for business growth in Illinois? We can start regulating the for-profit, parasitic insurance companies so that the people who actually create jobs and grow our economy can get better, cheaper health care for the premiums they pay.

Fortunately, the Obama and Quinn Administrations are doing something about that. The federal health insurance law includes a provision to help states beef up their ability to regulate insurance companies. In Illinois, we don't do that at all. One staffer at the Department of Insurance spends about an hour per insurance rate filing and they are all approved, because the Department doesn't have the ability to do anything about ridiculously high premium increases, according to this Sun-Times story.

Quinn's Insurance Director Michael McRaith is trying to change that. He wants the authority to approve or deny premium increases, so that businesses who pay them can save money and spend that money on creating jobs. About half the states do that, and I'll just bet the businesses in those states pay less for better health care because the insurance companies are regulated. From the Sun-Times story:

All insurance companies licensed in Illinois are for-profit, and state law doesn't require them to tell policyholders in advance about rate increases. It also doesn't restrict what premiums can be charged to individuals or employers with more than 50 workers. Smaller businesses have slightly more protection because state law limits how much premiums can vary from the norm.
McRaith said he's certain he'll be able to find lawmakers to sponsor a bill giving his department the authority to approve or deny increases, as about 25 other states do.

The bigger picture is that the "pro-business" agenda has been hijacked by the insurance companies and utilities. The people who create jobs have a completely different agenda than the insurance companies and utilities. Entrepreneurs want cheaper health care while insurance companies want to charge more. Entrepreneurs want to regulate insurance companies while insurance companies don't want to be regulated. Entrepreneurs want cheaper energy. Utilities want to charge more. Entrepreneurs want the government to regulate utilities to get them cheaper energy. Utilities say that's anti-business and they don't want to be regulated.

So in this particular debate, where the rubber meets the road, as to whether the Illinois Department of Insurance should be able to approve or deny rate increases from the for-profit insurance companies, the pro-business stance is to say HELL YES! For the companies that actually create jobs (like mine, by the way), including every freelancer who created their own job, we want the state to regulate insurance companies and get us cheaper premiums and force them to pay more claims. That will reduce our costs and allow us to create more jobs.

That's why I represent the Small Business Advocacy Council. Because finally there is a business organization that will represent organizations that create jobs, not just the insurance companies and the utilities. And they won't spend millions and millions fighting the federal health insurance law and the candidates who support them like the United States Chamber of Commerce is doing right now -- in the name of a "pro-business" agenda. If you don't like that, then join the Small Business Advocacy Council right now and organize with other businesses!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Thank goodness the Bush tax cuts are expiring.. on the road to Recovery!

Neat chart in the Wall Street Journal on the actual tax rates (the top tax rate is on income over $373,000!) for the federal government's six tax brackets (five if we revert to the Clinton era rules).

The Bush tax cuts are almost certainly going to expire, as promised by candidate and President Obama, which will do more to shrink our deficit and reduce our debt to China than anything else. If we spend it on infrastructure, we'll generate more jobs and more wealth. Or if we do what the Republicans want and keep the tax rates at the Bush rules, then all that income above $373,000 to our millionaires can go to .... speculative investments or trust funds or anything at all that won't really create wealth or generate jobs in *our* economy. And that's our bottom line (or at least, it should be): what tax rates in which tax brackets will do the most good for the most Americans. I'll take the Clinton tax rates on the right (with billions and billions of taxes to be spent on our economy) instead of the Bush tax rates on the left (removing those billions from the government balance sheet and keeping our economy slow and in debt to China).

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Illinois continues to expand the franchise by putting voter registration on campus

On Independence Day, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed into law SB 3012 that extends the franchise to more citizens by putting voter registration and early voting on the campuses of public universities.

The important language of the law reads:

10 ILCS 5/1-20 new
Sec 1-20. Public university registration and voting pilot project. For the 2010 general election, each appropriate election authority shall conduct grace period registration and early voting in a high traffic location on the main campus of each public university within the election authority's jurisdiction. 

I predict that tens of thousands of citizens will vote this November who otherwise would not have done so because of this law.

This is particularly important because public universities are built around pedestrians, and many of the staff and students don't have automobiles. That makes traveling to the county clerk's office which often requires a car more of a pain than it should be in order for a citizen to register and vote.

I testified in favor of earlier versions of the bill (those did not limit the law to November of this year as a pilot program; such is the nature of legislative compromise as those did not pass) and found that opponents to the bill believed that requiring the local election administrators to offer grace period registration and early voting on the campuses of public universities was both unwarranted and unwise. People should figure out how to get to the county clerk's office if they miss the regular registration deadline of a month before the election, and if most first-time voters have never heard of a county clerk and wouldn't have guessed that they need to appear before an official in a relatively anonymous layer of local government in order to vote, well, too bad for them.

After all, it costs money to offer voter registration where lots of unregistered citizens work and study. Better to spend that money elsewhere and keep the burdens that we place on citizens relatively high in order for them to exercise their fundamental right.

I take a different view.

I think any barrier between a citizen and her ballot is an enemy of democracy. Our job is to snuff out the enemy. Opposing this law or other laws like it (and I'm sorry to report that most Republican legislators opposed the bill rather vociferously) is disenfranchisement. It's offensive to the best ideals of our Republic.

The entire operation of voter registration -- where citizens need pre-approval from the government in order to vote for the people who will run the government -- is a major barrier to democracy and should be viewed with deep suspicion. The convenience of government bureaucrats in processing registration data is far less important than ensuring every citizen has the opportunity to vote. The relatively successful run of extending voter registration opportunities over the law eight years in Illinois under Democratic control has been implemented over the opposition of many election administrators and most Republican legislators. It has been a success of democracy over bureaucracy.

I understand there is a benefit-cost assessment in all government administration, and that we will hit a point of diminishing returns on how many additional voters we can attract with the next use of taxpayer dollars to make elections more accessible. That's certainly the argument some of the election administrators have been making. But we need to recognize that in the United States, the government does so little work to prepare the registration list and essentially waits for the citizen to figure out what obscure local government office is in charge of voter registration to process the paper. Most governments in the Western world take it upon themselves to prepare an accurate registration list instead of putting that burden on the citizen. In the United Kingdom, government employees go out and knock on doors to make sure all citizens are registered! In Canada, they proactively mail out voter registration applications to people they think are eligible and unregistered. Some countries combine existing government databases of citizens' names and addresses, generated from things like drivers' licenses and tax returns, to prepare the voter registration list with updated information, instead of expecting the citizen to update their information with each separate layer of government. So the small steps that the Illinois General Assembly and now Governor Pat Quinn are requiring local election administrators to do in setting up voter registration and early voting on a college campus really pale in comparison to what election administrators in other countries do on a regular basis without any fuss.

This November, Illinois will take some bold steps to expand the franchise by putting grace period registration and early voting on college campuses. It's telling how far we have to go in election administration that actually putting government services like voter registration in the place where people who are most likely to use them actually are like a college campus is a bold step, but so it is. Reform only happens incrementally, and the progress of SB 3012 in extending the ballot to tens of thousands more Illinois citizens is consistent with the spirit of democratic revolution of our Independence Day.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Neat idea: publish a data-driven list of retailers' green practices

What if you want to support retailers that are more progressive and environmental than the average company? How do you know which ones to pick?

And if you help run a retailer, how do you know how to incrementally get more green relative to your peers?

Here's a neat idea: some non-profit run an annual ranking of retailers based on an objective assessment of their green practices. As an example: out of 100 points, they get 1 point for every ten percentage points of their electricity that is generates from renewable sources. With points awarded for clear, objective (and somehow verifiable) behavior, publishing the list will encourage companies to earn each additional point by improving their environmental behavior.

I was inspired by this from looking at a J. Crew catalog today. On the cover was a notice of their commitment to sustainability in the use of their paper sourcing through the Forest Sustainability Council certification process (with a particular certification number from the FSC) where they use 30% of post-consumer content and they only get wood from sustainable forests.

Looks like a campaign from Forest Ethics out of San Francisco has helped to put just this kind of public pressure on companies. They put out an annual Santa-themed naughty-or-nice ranking of big mailers (check out the 2008 version and the 2009 version).

The neat idea would be to expand this ranking into other objective assessments (perhaps with the purchase of renewable electricity, or LEED certification for their buildings or similar commitments to green sourcing) to not only put pressure on our companies but also offer companies a clear roadmap to earning better environmental credentials among the many citizens who care.

Part of the trick will be to determine exactly what those objective assessments should be. And part of the trick will be to get the publicity and credibility that the environmental measurements are legitimate and worth considering. But no one can manage what they can't measure, so the sooner we come up with some fair measurements of behavior (X% of resources devoted to renewable energy or X pounds of paper generated per employee or revenue or X% of products sold with renewable/organic/sustainable content), the sooner companies can work to achieve those objectives. That would be incremental progress -- the only kind there is!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Entrepreneurs who actually create jobs need a voice to shape policy and politics

The standard Republican narrative for economic development goes something like this: in order to attract businesses to come here, we need to create a business-friendly environment, and that means low taxes and fewer regulations.

Thus, according to the standard Republican playbook, the way to increase employment is to lower taxes, particularly on the wealthy.

The Chamber of Commerce follows that Republican line, fiercely opposing most of the Democratic Party's agenda (buying more and better health care and education through higher taxes on the wealthy, imposing more regulations on businesses to better improve the lives of regular people).

The great disconnect is between the entrepreneurs who are actually creating jobs (and the first job they create is their own) and the Republican-leaning Chamber of Commerce that purports to speak for them.

Chambers of Commerce (particularly federal and state) primarily represent established businesses. Big companies have budgets to join groups like the Chamber, while smaller, growing companies typically do not. So the "voice of business" tends to sound a lot like the voice of Republican low-tax ideology and push for the interests of big businesses (that tend to downsize and fire employees more than hire new ones).

This disconnect came home for me this legislative session in Springfield. I was working against a bill pushed by the banks that would essentially allow lenders to make more money from their business loans. Thus, the business borrowers would pay more money. The Illinois Chamber of Commerce supported the bill, siding with the banks over any business borrower. During committee testimony, a senior Republican legislator asked why in the world the Chamber of Commerce was supporting the bill. And the unspoken answer is that most business organizations promote the interests of their largest members -- big banks, big utilities and big insurance companies.

But entrepreneurs have diametrically opposed interests to the banks, utilities and insurance companies. We want cheaper credit and the banks want more expensive credit. We want cheaper energy and the utilites want more expensive energy. We want cheaper and better insurance and the insurance companies want to charge higher premiums and pay out fewer claims. So when there is a bill that could tilt the balance of power between entrepreneurs and the banks, insurance companies or utilities, guess which side the Chamber of Commerce always takes? Not the side of the job creators.

The frustrating thing is that I believe most legislators want to do the right thing -- and if we can show that entrepreneur-supportive policies which are generally Democratic-leaning policies (regulate the banks, insurance companies and utilities to create cheaper and better products) will create more jobs than the alternative, we'll get some traction. The trouble is there isn't enough of a voice for the entrepreneurs to explain the more effective way of creating jobs than just lowering taxes and regulation -- by explaining exactly how they have been successful so far at actually creating jobs. The Chamber is supposed to play that role, but they largely don't.

We need an organization of entrepreneurs to engage in politics and policy development. And by the way, I count leaders of non-profit organizations in the definition of entrepreneur. Someone who starts and runs a dance company or an after-school program can create the same amount of jobs as someone who starts a software company or construction company. Cutting corporate taxes doesn't affect the growth of a non-profit organization (that doesn't pay any). Developing public policies to encourage more employment has to include the needs of non-profits as well, or we'll skew the results and end up with suboptimal policies.

Of course, some Chambers are better than others, but the US Chamber of Commerce is now one of the main political organizations against President Obama and the Democratic-led Congress, planning to spend $50 million in 2010 to unseat Democrats, according to this Washington Post article.

For entrepreneurs who understand that Democrats have been delivering real job-growth policies (like the Wall Street reform package forged this week that will allow us to get cheaper credit or the health insurance reform law that will allow us to get cheaper and better health insurance), we need an organization of our own. And quickly, before voters make up their minds.

Friday, June 25, 2010

World Cup brings dreams of a World Election

It isn't easy to unite the world's attention in one place for one common purpose. Sport does it every two years: the Olympics during presidential summers and the World Cup two years later. It is a wonderful thing to remember that we Americans have much more in common with the people of Asia, Africa, Europe and South America than we differ, and following the rules and results of a soccer tournament at the same time as everyone else in the world is a palpable example of our commonality. 

The best and noblest extension of our essential commonality is a world election where all the people of the world have one vote.

Imagine it: candidates stumping for votes in different languages and in different continents, appealing to the better instincts of all of humankind. The same strong sense of national purpose that a presidential election generates when each citizen is asked to help shape the future of their country with their vote would be felt by all the people of the world as they are asked to help shape the future of the world.

Closer to home, we have a lot in common with the people of Mexico. Our economies are inextricably linked. Our labor markets and immigration policies are essentially two sides of the same coin. Our drug policies and violent crime challenges are similarly tied together. But we never get a chance to vote together -- Mexicans and Americans - ideas and proposals to improve our standard of living and solve problems. The nature of separate elections leads us away from thinking about solutions that improve lives on both sides of the Rio Grande. Imagine, instead, elections for something -- it almost doesn't matter what the office would be -- where we both voted among candidates looking for votes equally from Mexicans and Americans. Imagine the shifted dynamics in the development of the public will and the candidate platforms when millions more matter in the results of the election. Imagine the debates, both between the candidates and among the electorate, when everyone affected by the policies gets an equal vote in the outcome.

That democratic spirit could sweep the entire world.

For the first time in the history of the world, thanks largely to information technology, it is feasible for billions of us (if not quite all six billion of us) to vote in the same election at about the same time and all participate in the same debate on how best to improve our shared circumstances. 

I want to join a world debate triggered by an world election in my lifetime. Because the debate, discussion and eventual decision by the people will be among the best steps towards justice for all the people of the world we can possibly take.

"Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better, or equal hope in the world?" Abraham Lincoln

Monday, April 26, 2010

What do we need for a stronger economy? An entrepreneurial culture.

This is insightful.

Eric Lefkofsky, one of the most successful business leaders in Chicago believes that the key to sparking our Midwestern economy is a change in culture.

We have the cash. We have the talent. Why are we not growing as many new businesses as California or New York?

Because we don't value risk. We don't embrace entrepreneurs. We are stuck in a culture of risk-aversion.

And that is something we can change today.

Here is his example.

In order to innovate you need a culture that honors risk taking.  One of my co-panelists summed it up perfectly.  When the day comes where a 35 year old husband and father comes home from work one day and says to his wife, “honey I just quit my job today to launch a start-up” and she says “that’s great news” – that’s when you’ll have a culture that honors risk taking.

Unfortunately, we don’t have that culture yet in Chicago.  We don’t encourage people to drop everything and pursue their dreams.   We don’t encourage them to sit in front of a white board and sketch out untested solutions.  We don’t throw money at new ideas.

We don’t start off believing, we start off disbelieving.

The same is true in politics. Too often, the initial reaction to a bill or a proposal or a great idea is to say why it can't be done, why the established powers will never allow it and why it won't happen.

Instead, we need to embrace the new ideas and the new policies that are relevant for growing our economy, not the economy of 1930 or 1950 or 1970.

We need to look at immigration policy (something I debated last night on Beyond the Beltway) as an opportunity to forge a new North American Union, similar to the European Union, to reflect our inextricably linked destinies in Mexico, the US and Canada, rather than reflexively try to throw out the undocumented who stream north.

We need to look at higher education as an economic driver if we reject prestige-driven performance measures (like the US News and World Report rankings) and develop our own performance measures that focus on economic growth through smarter students at the lowest possible cost.

We need to look at our transportation network as another driver of economic growth, and realize our failure to embrace high speed rail for decades has put us at the mercy of oil-producing nations and kept our cities in the Midwest too far apart to operate as one regional unit -- sapping the potential of tying the intellectual capital of our universities to the business savvy of Chicago and smaller cities.

But it all starts with embracing risk and embracing the failure that comes with risk. We should reject the safe path. That leads to mediocrity. It's a powerful thought that our personal valuation of risk can lead to major economic growth for the region -- and significantly better public policies.

How do we build a social norm that celebrates risk?

Friday, April 16, 2010 bury the Axis

We're in the middle of two wars.

The way to pay for those wars is through taxes.

In 1943, in the midst of World War Two, the Walt Disney company put out this video starring Donald Duck to explain why "every American should pay their income tax, gladly and proudly."

(Thanks to Adam Bonin for the link)

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Video: Change Washington's thinking by recruiting your mayor

Courtesy of the Kansas City Light Rail blog, here is some video of me at the Midwest High Speed Rail Association's annual meeting talking about the power of one individual to change the thinking of federal legislators by convincing their local elected officials to support high speed rail. 

I'm a believer in progressive advocacy starting from the bottom up. 

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The start of Obama's health insurance reform: Room 400 of the Capitol Building in Springfield

I'm a bit inspired by Glenn Beck tonight to write up this post I've been percolating for a few weeks.

He's explaining on his TV show how both Barack Obama is a revolutionary straight out of the 60s implementing a decades-long plan to take over the country. That's why, in his view, President Obama spent so much time passing health care reform. Now the radical is ready for the next sucker punch to America in order to launch a socialist takeover.  That's his theory as to why President Barack Obama spent so much of his political capital to pass health insurance reform into law.

Here is mine.

This picture is Room 400 of the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield (thanks to for the link). It's a beautiful Senate hearing room on the 4th floor. And it's where State Senator Barack Obama spent hours and hours in 2003 and 2004 holding hearings as the Chair of the Health and Human Services Committee.

You see, when the Democrats took control of the Illinois Senate in November 2002, Senator Barack Obama could have chaired almost any committee he wanted as a member with some seniority. He chose Health and Human Services. Because even then, one can surmise, he knew that our fundamentally broken health care system was one of the largest anchors pulling down the standard of living of regular folks. And that finding out how to improve that system to help regular people was one of the best uses of his political capital.

I remember watching him chair a committee hearing. The room was packed, but tired, because there was a lot of testimony and a lot of witnesses. State governments administer very large health insurance programs (Medicaid is a joint federal-state program and states have a lot of flexibility to design their own systems) and at the time, Illinois was in the midst of a significant expansion of Medicaid through a new AllKids program. It was rather groundbreaking stuff. There were a lot of experts and advocacy groups sharing perspectives on the consequences of the failures of our health care system and proposals to better regulate insurance companies or expand eligibility to Medicaid for lower-income people, week after week. The hearings were long and frequent. The subject matter was difficult and complicated. And Chairman Obama drank it all in. One question he asked a health care expert at the end of her testimony during a long hearing captured for me his approach to health care policy: "for my own edification, would you mind elaborating on...."  He was personally intellectually engaged in the very knotty problem of diagnosing the structural shortcomings of our health care system and prescribing policy solutions to ameliorate the worst shortcomings.

He spent the time to learn and understand how bad our health insurance really is in practice. He knows the details. He knows the nuances. He knows the consequences. He understands, as only a legislator engaged in the battle for policy improvements against a hostile industry can know, just how important better regulations and policies are to improve the lives of and prevent catastrophes to regular people. And he knew all this before he went to Washington.

So when President Obama faced conventional wisdom in Washington suggesting he scale back the year-long effort or settle for small steps and moving on to the next issue, he refused to quit. And I'm convinced all those hours in Room 400 of the Capitol Building chairing the Health and Human Services Committee came back to him while in the Oval Office these last 14 months to steel his resolve to see health insurance reform through. Because he knew -- he knew -- how people would continue to suffer needlessly without it.

That knowledge of how bad our health system is now and the understanding of why major (but commonsense) government regulations over the for-profit health insurance companies that drove President Obama is also the key for why more and more people over the last week are turning to support the new law. Because as people learn what the law does (and then learn that, before the Obama law, insurance companies could and did throw people out of coverage when they got sick and could and did refuse to cover anyone with a pre-existing condition and could and did take premiums for years and then not pay for medical bills after a lifetime cap), people come to the same conclusion that Chairman Barack Obama came to in Springfield: we need the government to regulate the insurance companies. A lot.

I'm proud that Chairman Barack Obama delivered on health insurance reform for the country. And Glenn Beck's theories of the source of Obama's determination to improve the system notwithstanding, I'm heartened that a big part of the basis of his drive to improve the system came from a full and complete diagnosis of the fundamental shortcomings of our health care system forged in Room 400.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The future of successful cities: massive expansion of universities

This New York Times article explains how New York University intends to expand its physical campus in the City by 40%.

Forty percent!

There are 40,000-some students at NYU today. By 2031, NYU expects to educate 46,500.

That's how to lead the future! As University President John Sexton said "for New York to be a great city, we need N.Y.U. to be a great university."

That means Chicago should be actively encouraging Northwestern, DePaul, Loyola, UIC and the University of Chicago (not to mention Columbia, Roosevelt and Robert Morris) to each be expanding as aggressively as their endowments can support. That's how we'll build the future leaders of our economy. And that's how we'll make Chicago great.

Similarly, Downstate cities in Illinois should do everything in their power to grow the universities in their communities. They should bend over backwards to attract for-profit colleges like Robert Morris to their downtowns. And every community should see their community colleges as engines for growth to spin-off private colleges and other partnerships to grow their educational engine.

I know there's always some blowback from 'the community' that opposes university expansion. That means the expansion should be inclusive of the people who live around the university (especially with investments like hiring students to assist public schoolteachers with their classrooms once a week -- a great program I participated in at the University of Chicago). But it should not mean that expansion is halted. The only path to greatness as a city, region and nation is through intelligence and wisdom. Universities more than any other institution generate that intellectual capital. We need them to be larger and stronger.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Great video on taxing banks a tiny fraction to fund the government

While this is from a UK campaign, the premise is an excellent one: tax banks' speculative investments by a tiny bit in order to fund the government.

It's a great idea and long overdue, especially as income inequality is at its highest level since the 1920s and massive government budget deficits are hurting our economy (we're not investing in education nearly enough, as an example).

They call it the Robin Hood tax. I like it.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Scott Lee Cohen shows Illinois should use runoffs for primary elections

Illinois primaries should use a runoff, like Chicago elections, to make sure we don't nominate someone the majority of voters wouldn't want.

Scott Lee Cohen's 26% victory (ahead of well-respected Deputy Majority Leader Art Turner's 22% showing) in a six-man race has shown the danger of our plurality elections. When anyone can win with 26% of the vote.....anyone can win.

Republicans might also be feeling a bit concerned with their gubernatorial nominee Senator Bill Brady. He earned 20% of the vote – a virtual tie with his colleague Senator Kirk Dillard. Conventional wisdom suggests the conservative Downstater Brady might be a weaker candidate than the majority of Republicans would have liked.

The easiest way to fix this problem is to hold a runoff election. If no one earns the support of the majority of voters, then no one has yet earned the nomination. A runoff a month or two later between the top two candidates would settle the question and ensure the nominee has the most support in the party.

Does anyone doubt that Representative Turner would earn more support among Democrats than Scott Lee Cohen? And while it's an open question whether Senator Dillard would earn more support than Senator Brady among Republicans, it's a question that ought to be asked and answered in a runoff election. A runoff would guarantee the right person who represent the party, because that person would earn a majority of support, not just 20 or 26 percent in a multi-candidate lottery.

Some political scientists would note that primary runoff elections were traditionally used in Southern states to deny blacks a chance to ever elect anyone. In the land of Obama, that isn't a problem. African-American candidates can earn a majority of the primary vote in Illinois. Just ask Robin Kelly who earned 58% of the vote this week (or Jesse White).

Some others might argue that spending another month or two in a runoff election would take too long. With our early February primary, there is plenty of time to hold a runoff in late March or April. And another month of exposure to the top two candidates in a runoff election would be a very helpful thing for democracy.

Both Chicago and Springfield voters are used to runoffs in city elections. The Illinois General Assembly should require the use of runoffs for statewide primary elections as well to avoid any more mistakes where the person the majority of the party wouldn't want wins the primary.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Proof from the experts: stimulus worked. We need another one.

USA Today surveyed 50 top economists and found agreement among one question: did the stimulus work? The answer is absolutely.

The stimulus package (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) reduced unemployment by 0.8 percent -- that's 1.2 million people that would have been laid off without our significant increase in government spending during this nasty recession.

It's common sense: if most businesses and people have less money this year and they buy fewer things, then there are fewer jobs for people to make the products or services that the businesses or people would have bought. There is less tax money coming in to state and local governments, so teachers and other government workers get laid off, slowing the economy down even more since the people who are laid off don't have any money to spend. The way to get out of this slow-down in spending is for the one institution that can spend now to keep people employed to do so -- and that's the federal government. Only DC can spend on things we need -- like clean energy and high speed rail and teachers -- when everyone else is out of money. And by spending money this year and next year, we'll build up our economy so that in a few years when our economy is moving again, we can pay back the loans the fedreal government is taking out now.

Or, we can say that "all government spending is bad" and then we'll fire more people and slow down our economy even more.

Ask the experts -- the economists who study how to get more people working. They all agree, according to this USA Today news article -- that the stimulus was successful and that the federal government should pass another one.