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.