Saturday, December 01, 2012

Making justice real for all - a second bold experiment in Cook County

An op-ed in the New York Times today by Matthew Desmond starts with this powerful paragraph:

IT’S easy to tell who’s going to win in eviction court. On one side of the room sit the tenants: men in work uniforms, mothers with children in secondhand coats, confused and crowded together on hard benches. On the other side, often in a set-aside space, are not the landlords but their lawyers: dark suits doing crossword puzzles and joking with the bailiff as they casually wait for their cases to be called.
People without lawyers -- and that's just about everybody who gets paid less than $20/hour, since they can't afford one -- don't win cases in court. There are exceptions, but when someone doesn't have a lawyer, they usually lose. That's the definition of unfair.

Mr. Desmond goes on in his op-ed to call for publicly-funded lawyers for all tenants, just as we provide publicly-funded lawyers for all criminal defendants. It's a good idea, but we can do better.

The number of parties appearing in court without counsel -- pro se -- is increasing dramatically. Some family law courts have 80 to 90 percent of cases where one party doesn't have a lawyer.

Our court system is set up to be virtually impossible for a non-lawyer to navigate. But why should that be? Since most people who go to court for evictions or divorce don't have a lawyer and will never have a lawyer, we should change the court system so that they don't need one to get a fair result.

The adversarial system works very well when both parties have lawyers. In commercial litigation where one company is suing another company (something my law firm does), the system is great. The lawyers spend a lot of time developing the case, presenting evidence and challenging each other every step of the way. The judge takes a relatively passive role and reacts to the motions, arguments and evidence that is put before him or her. Then, after the lawyers are done fighting it out, the judge chooses which one of the lawyers will prevail.

But the adversarial system doesn't make any sense when most of the people aren't lawyers. They don't know how to make a legal argument or follow legal procedure. Why would they? Legal procedure is hard enough for lawyers to figure out -- how could someone who never went to college have any chance to follow the rules correctly? They just can't. The system is designed to fail people without a lawyer. The clerks (who are paid by taxpayers) are not allowed to give any advice to people on how they can sue someone or defend themselves, because that's legal advice. The judges (who are also paid by taxpayers) are not allowed to help someone make their case, because that would be representing a party. We pay for a whole lot of people to work in a judicial system that is totally inaccessible to the average person.

Why can't a citizen walk into a courtroom, tell a clerk or some other public employee what they want (get a divorce, or child support or some money they are owed or get rid of a tenant who isn't paying the rent) and then get some help with the paperwork so they can get before a judge with the other side of the dispute there as well? And then why can't the judge (or somebody else) have a regular conversation with both sides, sift through whatever they may have to prove what they are saying, schedule other hearings if need be and then come to a reasonable, appropriate resolution to the dispute without lawyers?

Why can't we make our justice system fair and accessible to the people who can't afford lawyers?

The answer is we can. We just haven't done so yet.

And Cook County is the place to do it. 100 years ago, Cook County was the place for a bold reinvention of the American justice system. As I've been learning from the book City of Courts by Michael Willrich, Cook County in 1905 decided to wholesale abolish their existing judicial system and set up a sparkling new, modern Municipal Court of Chicago -- the first of its kind in America. It worked out of what is now the City Hall / County Building at LaSalle and Washington (which is why it looks like a grand courthouse). 

Cook County civic and legal leaders in the Progressive Era weren't content with small improvements to their existing judicial system. They inherited a centuries-old Justice of the Peace system, where local Justice of the Peace officials appointed by the Governor ran a judicial business by charging fees from parties. They were called "justice shops" where the Justice of the Peace made more money by getting more cases and set up relationships with perennial lawyers and prosecutors (since they handled criminal cases too) to get as much money as possible. Civic leaders found this deplorable and knew they could do better. They didn't defer to centuries of practice. They created something brand new that fit the times.

They created out of whole cloth a Municipal Court with salaried judges, professional clerks and modern procedure. Their bold experiment, approved by the Illinois General Assembly in the spring of 1905 and then by Cook County voters later that year, became a national model for how to fix a broken judicial system. 

We should similarly be bold and recreate our judicial system for our times where most litigants are unrepresented in family law, housing and small claims. We should redefine the role of the clerk and judge so that an average resident can get a swift and fair resolution. We should make justice work with a new Act of the Illinois General Assembly that can serve as a model for the rest of the country.

And we can. We just have to decide to do it.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Every minute today an American is denied a ballot

An American walks up to the polling place and asks to vote.

Instead of getting a ballot, he or she is given an excuse.

"You're not on the list."

"You didn't register before the deadline -- which was a month ago."

"You didn't update your address. It's too late now."

And because that American lives in one of the 42 states that have not implemented same-day voter registration, that American walks away without voting.

This is happening every minute all day today.

It's sad. It's stupid. It's offensive to the idea of self-government.

And millions more Americans don't bother to try. They know they aren't registered at their current address and they know that their government won't allow them to register to vote today.

Why not? Because it's inconvenient. Or more insidiously, because some lawmakers don't want more people to vote. They'd rather only the "good" citizens vote.

These stupid, needless barriers particularly impact younger people who move every year, since the government requires citizens to tell some obscure government agency that they have moved weeks before the election - instead of telling the government on election day where they live.

I'll be working next year to remove more of these barriers so that on the next election day, we'll treat more Americans they way they do in Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Wyoming and Washington, D.C. and offer a voter registration, change of address form and ballot to citizens who proudly approach their polling place.

Want to join me?

Friday, November 02, 2012

Policy development: Italy shows how to get high speed trains running

I posted a similar version of this to the Midwest High Speed Rail Association blog and wanted to share it here too as an example of public policy development - a crucial tool to implementing the progressive agenda:

This is a great article from Forbes comparing the two (two!) high speed rail operators in Italy. This is true high speed rail -- 200 mph peak travel -- with brand new, modern trains running on electricity (not foreign oil). And they have two companies making it happen!

The second paragraph in particular is most compelling to a policy wonk like me as an example of policy development:

Right now, Italy is Europe’s cutting-edge country when it comes to high-speed trains. It not only has two versions, but they’re competing in a socialist-capitalist drama. In one corner is Trenitalia’s Frecciarossa, Italy’s state-owned TGV, and in the other, the privately owned Italo, which launched in April.  
Italo competes with TrenItalia’s Frecciarossa on the country’s two major trunk routes: Milan to Naples and Turin to Venice. Now, before you red staters start to cheer, let me introduce two other relevant facts. Italo exists because in 2003 the Italian parliament passed a law that ended the government train monopoly, but more pertinent, starting around that time, the state built an entirely new system of high-speed track to create the Frecciarossa. (There are some spectacular runs over viaducts and, on the Milan-Florence route, an astounding traverse of tunnels.) And before you blue-staters start groaning, Italo doesn’t get a free ride: It pays the Italian government about $156 million annually to use the high-speed infrastructure.

The lesson for us: the government should build brand-new passenger-only, electrified railroad tracks. And then the government should allow any private company to use these new tracks to run their own trains if they pay a fee -- in Italy's case, $156 million a year.

That's what the Illinois Tollway Authority can do now, thanks to a new law signed by Governor Quinn in August of this year. They should start work on costing out new tracks and then see what toll revenue it would take to finance those new tracks.

Every tollway or turnpike in the country that build and maintains roads should also get in the business of building new high-speed electrified tracks, paid for by tolling the train companies that use them.

Wouldn't it be great to have a few different choices of which high-speed train to take to get around (all of which used electricity instead of foreign oil)? Italy has figured it out. We just have to implement the same public policy of the government building the tracks and paying for it with tolls from private train companies to get similar results.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Lance Tyson for state rep in the 10th district

There aren't many close elections in Chicago.

Barack's going to win. There aren't any statewide races. All the countywide races will be won by Democrats. 

But there is one race that will likely be close that I hope my neighbors will pay attention to: the race for state representative in the 10th district. (The district includes parts of West Lincoln Park, Wicker Park, Bucktown, Garfield Park and Humboldt Park - mostly in the West Side. This is a district map.)

The Democratic nominee is Derrick Smith, a nice man who allegedly accepted a $7,000 cash bribe which triggered a federal indictment and then expulsion from the Illinois House. That doesn't happen very often.

His challenger is running on the 10th District Unity Party ticket and is named Lance Tyson. He's a lifelong Democrat as well, and decided to run after most of the Democratic elected officials in the area created a new political party just for the purpose of running someone against Mr. Smith (who, after winning the primary back in March, has chosen not to drop out of the race).

I'm voting for Lance Tyson and I hope he wins.

The challenge will be to make voters aware during a time of fascination with the presidential election and the many tight congressional races in the Chicago suburbs that there is a contested race for state representative and that there is a real risk of electing a man who has been expelled from the House.

I do take the presumption of innocence seriously, and I hope Mr. Smith beats the charges. I am aware that convicting politicians can be a source of prestige and a resume-builder for federal prosecutors who might want to run for office themselves some day, and that some prosectors can get overzealous in the pursuit of elected officials. Just because the US Attorney's office indicts someone doesn't make them guilty. I'm sure there's a sense by some of pushback against prosecutors who feel their time and attention ought to be spent on indicting gangbangers and drug dealers instead of trying to entrap some politicians. 

I think those who find that pushback attractive should reconsider voting for Mr. Smith to send a message against law enforcement, as our state (and especially the poorer areas of the district on the West Side) particularly need able and dedicated politicians working constantly to improve our government and our economy. 

There is no way that anyone facing a federal indictment can devote the time and attention to serving as a state legislator. It's just impossible to put in the time and mental energy to help improve our state when you're a defendant in a criminal trial. And we can't afford a legislator who isn't fully engaged in the job. As a lobbyist, I see the impact each individual politician can have to improve our economy and make life better for people. Lance Tyson can have that impact in a way that Derrick Smith just can't while on trial for public corruption charges. 

I hope you'll join me in spreading the word about this race to Chicagoans you know and ask them to vote for Lance Tyson. If people pay attention, we can avoid the indignity of electing someone who has been expelled from the House. If people don't pay attention, they might just vote for the Democratic nominee and not realize the third party candidate is the right choice. That would be a shame.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Per capita income, not government deficit, is how to judge politicians

It's easy to lose sight of the obvious sometimes.

Lots of Republicans often argue that they should be elected because they will balance the budget of the government they want to help run. That implies the measure of success of a politician is whether the budget is running a surplus or a deficit. If a state like Indiana can run a balanced budget, that must be better than a state like Illinois which runs a deficit.

That message is repeated so often it is hard to see how it is wrong.

While it is certainly better to have a government run a surplus instead of a deficit, the real thing we care about is personal income. If our income is rising and our government is running a deficit, that's better than if our income is falling or stagnant and our government is running a slight surplus (runaway debt notwithstanding).

And in Indiana, while the government budget is balanced, per capita income has plummeted under Republican policies of Mitch Daniels.

This insightful piece by Richard Longworth in his blog the Global Midwest lays out the case quite nicely, inspired by this piece by Aaron Renn of the Urbanophile:

Mitch Daniels will soon be leaving the Indiana governor's office to become president of Purdue University. He'll leave Indianapolis with praise from budget-balancers in other states, the admiration of pundits and a wistful regard from the Republican Party, which hoped that he could have been their presidential nominee this year. (He refused, for personal reasons.)
It's an odd chorus of huzzahs for a governor who, if he hasn't impoverished his state, has helped impoverish its residents. All statistics, including those from Daniels' own government, show that per capita income in Indiana has steadily declined during his eight years as governor. When he took over, Indiana ranked 33rd among the 50 states in per capita income: the latest figures, from 2010, rank it 42nd, with no reason to think things have improved since then.

We don't focus enough on per capita income of state residents as a way to measure progress by politicians. We tend to focus on the size of a state deficit or surplus. That's a mistake. Somehow, Indiana is generally considered to be in better shape than Illinois, even though per capita income is falling in that state relative to Illinois. I think it's largely because the dominant story on how to measure political success is based on the size of the government deficit and not what really matters: growth in per capita income.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

If two doctors diagnosed our economy from each political party...

This is an economic tale.

Imagine the American economy was a person. And the person wasn't feeling very well. He was sick. Not as strong as he should be.

Parts of his body simply weren't working. (The unemployed). His legs. His legs just didn't work. So he was on crutches.

Parts of his body were very healthy and very strong. (The wealthy). His hands (in honor of Rick Santorum). His hands were incredibly strong. He could crush cans with his hands.

He went to see two doctors to check him out, give him a diagnosis and prescribe a cure to get him healthy again.

The Democratic doctor looked him over, noticed that his legs weren't working at all and recognized that because his legs weren't working, his whole body is going to be weak. The way to get the body back to normal, healthy strength is to get all parts of the body working again. So he prescribed physical therapy for the legs, maybe some injections directly into the legs to get them working again and suggested the patient massage his legs with his strong hands every day to help get them back into shape.

The Republican doctor looked him over, noticed that his legs weren't working at all, noticed that his hands were incredibly strong, and prescribed steroid injections into the hands.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Madison WI and Washington State attack back on the war on voting

Fantastic news.

Progressive state and local governments are attacking back on the Republican's anti-American war on voting by implementing forward-thinking laws and policies that reduce the barriers between citizens and their ballots.

Yesterday, the Madison (WI) City Council passed an ordinance adding the voter registration form to the pile of paper documents that landlords must distribute to tenants when they move in. This is now law, just in time for the August move-in for UW-Madison students. Half the housing units in Madison are rental units and a large percentage of those units turn over every year.

As Alder Bridget Maniaci, the lead sponsor of the proposal explains, providing voter registration information to citizens when they move into a new place makes sense, since that's when people are changing their address (and they are probably unaware that they must proactively tell some obscure unit of local government they have moved in order to vote months later). From the Isthmus:

The way citizens in the United States vote is based on where they live, Maniaci adds, which means it is sensible to provide them with voting information when they change addresses.
"To provide to tenants voter registration forms at the time they move in, when most individuals are in the process of changing all of their other household information, everything from Netflix to their post-office address to the DMV, that's a very natural time to do this," she says.
As a bonus, getting citizens to register to vote early is cheaper for the city clerk to process than registering people in the crunch leading up to the election, so distributing these voter registration forms will save taxpayers some money.

On the West Coast, Washington State's Secretary of State is unveiling an app that will allow users to register to vote through Facebook. Since Washington State already uses online voter registration, pulling the data from a user's Facebook account and importing it into the voter registration program will make it easier for people to register -- and people can tell their friends about how they registered to vote, creating more of a social norm of democratic self-governance through participation.

Congratulations to Washington and Madison (named after two Founding Fathers, coincidentally) for further implementing the great democratic spirit of our American Republic.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Illinois Democrats attack back in the war on voting with a new law enfranchising citizens

Illinois Democrats continued to expand democracy this week by reducing the barriers that governments puts up between citizens and their ballots.
On July 6, Governor Pat Quinn signed into law SB 3722 (passed with exclusively Democratic votes) that contains two innovative and exciting provisions that will lead to more citizens voting this November.

The first extends the period of time when citizens can register to vote and update their address until the Saturday before the election. This Illinois-specific program is called the grace period for voter registration and runs from the regular registration deadline of 28 days before the election all the way (now) until the Saturday before the election. The deadline had been a week before the election before the new law. Grace period registrants must show up in person at the office of the election administrator (or any office they designate); on-the-street registrations or post office or motor vehicle offices all end at the regular deadline 28 days before the election. 

The grace period was implemented in 2005 for the first time (then-Governor Blagojevich's press release is here and my blog posts on the topic are here) with a 14 day window, extended in 2010 into a 21 day window (here is Governor Quinn's press release) and a few days ago, into a 25 day window. 

At least 20,000 people have been able to vote because of the grace period in the 2010 election. I suspect more than 25,000 will be able to vote -- who otherwise would have been turned away from their ballots because of government-imposed administrative deadlines -- in November of 2012.

The second provision of the new law requires election authorities to offer early voting on the college campuses of the major public universities in the state. This requirement will ensure that college students (who often don't have a car) won't have to make their way to the obscure office of the county clerk off-campus in order to cast an early ballot, but instead will be able to go to a high-traffic area and cast their ballot during the few weeks before the election when early voting is offered. 

This is a model for other states that actually want more people to vote (in clear contrast to mostly-Republican states that are increasing the barriers between citizens and their ballots in a War on Voting). 

Or put another way, Illinois Democrats Attack Back in the War on Voting!

Monday, July 02, 2012

Future of government procurement: concession model as shown by Chicago Department of Aviation

The future of government purchasing for things like trains, schools and subways is a concession. The government agency enters into an agreement with a private developer to design, build, maintain, operate and finance the asset for a number of years for a particular price, and after the term expires, the asset reverts back to the government.

This is a better model than the government playing all the roles, as the asset tends to get built faster and with a lower cost to the taxpayer.

We should be developing new streetcars (like the Clark Street streetcar that an organization I work with is promoting) and new high-speed train tracks and trains using this concession model, as much of Europe already does.

That's why I'm particularly happy to see the City of Chicago Department of Aviation put out a Request for Proposals for a new solar photovoltaic generation facility on O'Hare airport's land using the concession model.

The RFP is here and they call for a private developer to finance, design, construct, install, operate, maintain, repair and replace a new ground-mounted facility of solar panels on up to 52 acres.

The Department of Aviation has been very innovative under Commissioner Rosie Andolino and I'm glad they are continuing to push the envelope.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

High-rise developments like Wolf Point should include transit to avoid traffic congestion

Cities should be full of buildings, not surface parking lots. People in close proximity make cities the economic engines of the world. Surface parking lots are lost opportunities. Particularly in the core of cities, we should get as many buildings up and full of people as possible.

In Chicago, Wolf Point on the Chicago River just north of the Loop is a prime spot for high-rise development. The Kennedy family owns the site and has proposed building three towers according to this Tribune article. Alderman Brendan Reilly has begun the process of community input to determine whether he should support the project.

A group called Friends of Wolf Point has been organized to convey the views of existing residents to Alderman Reilly. The main concern of the organization is traffic congestion, as there isn't much room for hundreds of cars to navigate the very dense River North neighborhood.

Thus, the fundamental nature of cities -- density -- relies on a network of trains, buses and streetcars as thousands of private automobiles are simply too large and bulky in a dense urban environment. The benefit of a train or bus or streetcar is that it passes through and does not need to be parked in the densest, most valuable part of the city. Private automobiles require lots of parking spaces, which are essentially a waste. They also generate a lot of automobile traffic, putting the streets at or beyond their potential capacity, creating gridlock.

Traditionally, public transportation investment has been divorced from the process of real estate development. The government largely invests in buses, trains and streetcars independently of property development; real estate developers take advantage of the investment by building property around those assets.

This proposal presents an opportunity to merge the two processes for site-specific, innovative transit investments. Instead of only imposing parking requirements on proposed real estate developments, I suggest that cities should impose transit requirements as well. The real estate developer should be required to invest in local bus routes to connect to the closest train station or a small streetcar line to connect to other transit routes. As an example, the Wolf Point developers could be required to finance the operations of a new CTA bus line in perpetuity that will serve the expected thousands of new residents and visitors and connect to the Merchandise Mart Brown line station. The CTA already contracts with private institutions to provide specific bus service like the University of Chicago for the #170, #171 and #172 routes. A similar neighborhood shuttle -- based on the particular needs of the River North neighborhood -- can be developed and financed by the real estate developers (the annual contract cost of these buses are, I believe, in the mid-six figures, as fare revenue covers about half the roughly million-dollar cost of running a neighborhood bus route, plus or minus 100%).

Even better, where circumstances permit, would be laying track and running a portion of a streetcar. These streetcars could be extended over time as real estate development continues or circumstances warrant. The ideal city street isn't dominated by automobiles but rather by pedestrians. Imagine, as an example, what Clark Street could look like with a modern streetcar, as promoted by the new organization the Chicago Streetcar Renaissance.

As we live in the end of the oil era (just ask the Mexican government, which passed one of the world's strongest and most progressive climate and energy laws last month), investing in public transportation in the densest part of our cities is fundamental to our economic growth. We should harness the excitement and money of real estate developers to that public policy objective.

Monday, April 30, 2012

What I would do with unlimited resources

If I had unlimited resources, here are some of the things I would like to do:

1. Launch a campaign to educate people about why the government has made their lives better. The allergy to government as a concept in our country is one of the largest impediments to a higher standard of living. The corporate-funded Tea Party wing of the Republican Party aggressively spins a narrative of "government is bad" and, frankly, there isn't much of a counter-balance in the realm of public sentiment. It isn't intuitive that government improves our lives, so we have a story to tell in order to change hearts and minds.

2. Launch a campaign specifically about public works as a particulalry compelling solution to our economic doldrums at this time. Of course, this one is related to the first, but the old-fashioned term of public works is at the heart of what we ought to do to increase employment, increase income and invest in long-term productivity-enhancing infrastructure like high speed trains and education and research and broadband and renewable energy. This campaign would target regular voters so that a regular swing voter can be convinced that we should be investing in public works rather than the GOP mantra of lower taxes and less government. Especially now that interest rates are about the lowest they have ever been, we should borrow money and build 30- and 50-year projects to make life better now. We can make the case and sell people on it so that it becomes a reflexive answer by candidates as to "what are you going to do to improve the economy?" "Public works."

3. Since Catholic suburban married mothers who don't attend church regularly are one of the core groups of swing voters, I'd like to run a campaign targeted just at those women, by other Catholic suburban married mothers, about why government is a sensible, helpful tool to make raising a family easier. I'd find the voice and the messenger that resonates most with married Catholic suburban moms, and then get that voice and community all over social media, publish a magazine and even launch a weekly talk show on cable to build a community to spread that message.

4. Run issue-based infomercials in secondary cable markets where the cost of a 30 minute ad is under $100. Each infomercial would include a pitch to donate to the organization at the end (like those incredibly effective animal ads where Sarah McLaughlin sings about the arms of an angel) so the infomercials are self-sufficient (minus the cost of production, perhaps). That way the informercial educates all the viewers about the issue and it raises enough money to pay for the cost of running the 30 minute ad in the first place. It could be like a perpetual motion machine where the motion is teaching voters about an issue.

5. Target Republicans and Tea Party people with a Small Government Requires A Small Military message. The military takes up the bulk of all general revenues for the federal government and is way too expensive. It sucks up all our money and doesn't make our life better anywhere close to justifying its cost. The Republican House increased the military budget, despite all the talk of runaway spending and debt crises and blah blah blah. I had a chance to ask on a radio show Congressman Joe Walsh (a leading Tea Party GOP from suburban Chicago) about how he justified voting for a higher military budget despite his calls for a smaller government, and he essentially conceded that he wasn't consistent. The anti-government crowd knows that military spending is way too high, and they know that Republicans have not been consistent on this point. They are vulnerable. More importantly, military spending is way too high, and I'd like to convince regular voters who believe the government is too large to extend that belief into the size of the military budget, as right-wing people are the people we need to actually cut the military budget in half.

6. Run a global campaign for global democracy -- meaning, work to convince regular people around the world that we really ought to have some sort of global elections where we all vote to elect people to serve in the same body. That's such an exciting and revolutionary idea. And it's only inertia and lazy imaginations that prohibit us from realizing global democracy of some kind.

7. Write a book about the revolutionary property of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. This Act of Congress was the first time in history a ruling power decided that new territories would not be colonies but would be equal powers to the existing states. Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota came to be states with equal powers to the original 13 states, but it didn't have to be that way. We could have been colonies with fewer rights than the original Americans. The Northwest Ordinance is overlooked but almost as important as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in creating the character of our Republic. I first stumbled across this when reading a plaque in the Minnesota state capitol, and I wish I had the time and a research assistant to learn more about the revolutionary idea and implementation of the Northwest Ordinance.

8. Promote the European model of concessions for public transit and passenger train service. There are lots of private companies that compete for the right to operate buses and trains all over Europe and the government authorities for cities, suburbs and regions bid out on a regular basis the right to operate transit service along with the mobility subsidy from taxpayers. They get better, more innovative service than we do, and they are finding a more suitable role for private capital to play in public transit. Who would have thought that so-called socialist Europe is so far ahead of anti-government America, but we're still stuck in a monopoly model for transit (the government not only pays for transit but owns, operates, maintains and finances it as well here) while they are getting better, faster and cheaper service from the private sector.

9. Figure out how to restructure our financial industry to get away from a few banks that are too big to fail. Aside from just breaking up the big banks, there must be a way to help small banks become mid-sized banks that can serve our biggest companies. We can repeal the 90s-era laws that allowed banks and investment companies and insurance companies to all merge together, but I'd like to figure out how to help smaller and mid-sized banks and other financial institutions like credit unions to grow larger to provide alternatives to the biggest banks. And I'd like to know what cities and counties and states can do to help grow those smaller banks.

10. The adversarial structure of the American judicial system (a judge is a referee and each side has a lawyer who gets all the evidence in the record) does not work for people who can not afford an attorney. And that's most people. Any eviction proceeding, any small claims issue, most criminal proceedings -- the poor person is out of luck. We should develop a different structure where the judge is less of a referee and more of an active player in getting evidence, questioning the witnesses and bringing justice to the case. We taxpayers are already paying for the judge. Why should we pay for a public defender as well? And in non-criminal cases, there is no public defender, so we rely on the good will of lawyers who volunteer. It's structurally kind of dumb, especially when we start paying for non-profit organizations to try to fill the gap as psuedo public defenders. Let's just have a system where the judge handles more of the case so you don't need a lawyer anytime you go to court. There's a place for the adversarial system - when both parties have resources to duke it out. That's not how it is in most courtrooms today, so let's modernize our structure to reflect how things are (and save lots of taxpayer money in the process).

That's my top ten list of some of the things I wish I could be doing and would be doing if I had unlimited resources.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

We are the 1%

We are the 1%.

That's the sobering reality check from the excellent book The Haves and the Have-Nots by Branko Milanovic.

As it turns out, there are a whole lot of poor people in the world. And the United States is so very rich. Even the very poorest Americans living in what we consider to be abject poverty (and they are significantly poorer than the average American) is richer than more than two-thirds of the rest of the world.

For upper middle class Americans (defined as those who earn $34,000 a year per person, not per family), we are the 1%. Turns out, that level of income (after-taxes, per person, in dollars, living in the US) happens to be the line above which sits the top 1% richest people in the world.


I had thought I was part of the 99% (and in the US, I am). But in the world, I am part of the 1%.

Bit of a paradigm shift, right?

So just as I believe it is not only a moral imperative but a practical economic strategy to spend more of the income of the top 1% on public assets that benefit all Americans (like education and sewers and high speed trains and police officers and social workers and parks), I have to extend that logic to spend more of my income on public assets that benefit everyone in the world (like education in India and sewers in Cameroon and high speed trains in Brazil and police officers in Juarez, Mexico and social workers in Malasia and parks in Libya) as a moral imperative and as a solid economic development strategy.

Just as charity balls and voluntary private donations from rich Americans doesn't come close to substituting for the moral imperative and economic development strategy of taxing the 1% more to spend it on public assets that benefit all 100% of us, so too voluntary contributions from we wealthy Americans to relatively impoverished others does not cut it. We ought to be taxed. And that money ought to be spent making people wealthier in poor countries.

It's the same logic. They are the 99%. And spending some of our income to make them wealthier – whether all of us like it or not – is the right thing to do.