Thursday, October 30, 2014

Why I'm voting for Quinn: rewarding responsibility

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

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

Rewarding Responsibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For that reason alone, they deserve re-election.

Facts versus Fables

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it's a fable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I really hope you do the same.

Monday, October 13, 2014

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

This is a moral test.

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

Would you do that?

Or would you rather them go without insurance?

It's all up to you.

It's a real question.

Would you give someone else health insurance if you could?

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

I would.

I imagine you would too.

How could you not?

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

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

Would you say no?

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

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

Bruce Rauner would have said no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So would you say no to that cashier?

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Progressive policy roundup - pricing pollution for climate change

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can I do?

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

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

Culture versus cost

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

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

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

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


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

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Everybody lobbies

Why should you lobby?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 07, 2014

Lead by believing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 30, 2014

Building a City of Justice

We're somewhere between chaos and perfection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 06, 2014

The progressive agenda: Vote for me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 05, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Social progress requires a longer time horizon

Making big changes takes decades. Not months. Decades.

We're ultimately changing the minds of millions of people. That doesn't happen quickly. Gay marriage is a good example. This is a social change that is like lightning. Most people (including me) 8 or 10 years ago thought gay marriage wasn't quite right. Civil unions were fine, but marriage? Nah. And in the last decade, most people changed their mind.

That was fast! And I can imagine how frustrating it must have been for the people trying to change it.

Accepting the long time horizon inherent in any big social progress is a tough pill to swallow -- especially because we rely on "the fierce urgency of now" to inspire us to work on the cause and invest our time and money into it. It's a paradox: we have to be impatient enough to actually demand progress and work on building support, while at the same time, patient enough to recognize how long it takes to be successful.

Moving an issue like free college tuition from having the support of 30% of the people to 40% of the people seems like a pretty insignificant accomplishment. But that's a huge step forward! And that can take years to build that support, one person at a time. So hammering away at a cause to change a few more minds and help elect a few more politicians who agree with the proposal sure feels frustrating in the short-term, because we don't ever get to enjoy a dramatic change. By the time we get to implementation, things seem obvious, not audacious.

I wish I knew how to balance respect for the long game with the fire of short-term inspiration. There's a risk that we get too comfortable with the long-term nature of social progress and stop pushing. It's easy to think progress is inevitable and coast for a while without rocking the boat. That's dangerously seductive, especially as one gets closer to power. Tomorrow I'll push for that unreasonable change, but for now, I don't want to be ostracized...when I finally get my seat at the table, that's when I'll really change things. Sound familiar?

We've all got to navigate the Scylla of burned-out frustration from a lack of speedy progress and the Charybdis of delaying aggressive advocacy in exchange for access to power. It's a long game. But we have to keep playing it.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Lobbying is awesome. You should try it.

I am a lobbyist.

I love it.

It is really the most fun thing I do. It's my hobby. It is really fun.

I want you to try it.

Government and the history of the's a never-ending drama. And when you lobby, you get to be a part of it! You get to shape the future! What a privilege.

When you convince a politician to file a bill, that becomes part of the permanent record. In 100 years, if there are libraries with dusty books, someone can pull out the record of the government's actions in the year you lived and look up and see the bill that got filed because of you. And maybe they will read it and realize that you were on to something and then finally implement it. Or better yet, they'll have enjoyed that great policy for decades and look back and wonder how anyone would have argued against the idea. Or wonder what life must have been like before everyone took that policy for granted. Like the way we take women voting for granted. Or free schools for everyone, no matter how poor they are. Or water that doesn't have any diseases in it. At the time, those were hugely controversial ideas, mocked mercilessly by the establishment as hopelessly romantic and stupid suggestions.

The best feeling is when you convince a politician to vote for an idea. They don't have to. They can say no. But when they say yes....there's nothing better. It's exhilarating. Every time there's a vote on the floor or in committee on a bill I'm working on, even when I know that it is going to pass, I get nervous. I start to breathe harder. My heart pounds. And when it passes, such relief. And when the bills fail – despair! Devastation. But (and this is comforting), it never ends. Bills never really die. We can always come back later that session or next year with a slightly different bill or, perhaps, a different perspective from the politicians.

The progressive movement is all about making our economy and our government work better to improve all of our lives. And to do that, our elected officials need lobbyists to help them implement the thousands of potential improvements to government and navigate as many of them as we can through the legislative process.

Think of each particular improvement to government as a person. It starts out as an idea – just a little baby. That baby needs to grow up and become a full-fledged adult: passed into law, fully implemented and fully funded to be part of our government and society. And a lobbyist is like the parent of that baby who has to help it grow. And then think of us as living in a world where the infant mortality rate is medieval: 95%. Most babies die. Most children die. Only the very strong survive. Well, most bills die. They never become a law. Most good ideas never even get introduced as a bill. They just live as a white paper somewhere, or an op-ed or blog post. Even for those bills that do get passed into law, many laws never get implemented. Or they never get funded. It's a massacre out there!

As it turns out, it is really difficult to pass a bill and implement it. It's very easy to kill a bill. And it's very hard to transform an idea into a bill and then into a law, and then a program, and then into a part of everyday life. That's what lobbyists do – we shield that idea from all the many enemies (including inertia and indifference) and help move it along at every one of the dozens of steps along the way.

This is a sample of the big legislative steps an idea must take to become a law.
  1. Get introduced as a bill. Thus, one of the legislators needs to be convinced to sponsor the bill.
  2. Get assigned to a substantive committee Thus, the legislative leadership must be convinced to assign the bill and not just let it stay unassigned, as many, many bills remain.
  3. Get called for a vote in that committee. Thus, the chair of that committee needs to be convinced to allow the bill to be called for a vote.,
  4. Earn a majority of the votes of the members of that committee.
  5. Get a vote from the full body on the floor of each chamber. The leadership needs to be convinced to call the bill for a vote.
  6. Earn a majority of votes from the members of the full chamber.
  7. Repeat the entire process in the second chamber.
  8. Get the Governor to approve the bill.

Any time the opponents of the bill can stop any one of those steps from happening, they win and the bill is dead. They only need to win once out of the dozen or so steps to pass a bill. We advocates need to win at every single step to pass the bill – we need to go 12 for 12. That is much harder than finding one step along the way to kill a bill (say, recruiting one committee chairman who refuses to call a bill for a committee vote they don't like).

Imagine a state senator. (Maybe it's you one day). She has a great idea. So she files a bill. And she works it. She asks the Senate President to assign the bill to a committee, she asks her colleagues to vote for the bill in that committee, and she asks her colleagues to vote for the bill on the floor of the Senate – and she is successful! That's great.

Now the bill goes to the House. And someone else has to take the bill from there. Our state senator is done. A state representative has to pick up her bill and then he has to go to a House committee and ask his colleagues to vote for the bill, and then go the floor of the House and ask his colleagues to vote for the bill. What if there isn't a state representative who is as passionate about the bill as the state senator? What then? Well, the bill will probably die. Because while the bill is supposed to be moving through the House, our state senator is busy at the exact same time working in the Senate, trying to pass bills through that chamber.

A lobbyist, however, will work with that state representative and remind him that the bill is up in committee, and ask him to ask the chair to call the bill for a vote, and will ask each of the members of the committee if they will vote for the bill, and report back to the state representative that the bill is looking good, and provide talking points and analysis to the state representative about why the bill is such a good idea, and when the opponents try to kill the bill, the lobbyist will counteract each one of the opponents' arguments (or else the state representative, who has lots of other bills to try to pass and lots of other bills before him he needs to weigh in on, so not much time or capacity to develop the arguments and nuances of every bill he supports, is more likely to lose a vote to the opponents). We have to push, fight, amend, beg, cajole, plead, trade, accommodate and adjust along the way to keep bills alive.

And we've got to develop and mobilize a constituency so the legislators will know there really are people who want this thing to happen.

It's hard to pass a bill. The more the bill does, the harder it gets, because it generates more opposition. And it's easy to kill a bill. That's why most bills that pass are small but significant steps, not massive changes, because massive changes pick up too much opposition to survive the treacherous path and become a law.

That's why lobbyists get a bad name. When people try to pass a big change, it's a lobbyist who kills the bill. And most lobbyists are bill killers. I call them assassins. They lie in wait and, on behalf of their clients (usually big businesses or trade associations that represent big businesses) they do their best to kill those bills that would benefit most people at the expense of their client. It's a rare idea that makes life better for everyone – usually, a few people are worse off in the short-term (high-income taxpayers or companies making a lot of money) when progressive improvements happen (like buying affordable college or making insurance companies pay for more medical claims). So the lobbyists for the special interests work very hard to kill any bills that would do that.

On the others side, of course, charging up the hill, pushing against the forces of the status quo, are the lobbyists and legislators trying to make a change. The odds seem impossible. So many bills die. But then again, every year, lots and lots of bills make it. Why can't it be ours?

Guess what – it can be! No one is in charge! Put another way: you're as much in charge as anyone else. You just have to start acting like it. So look at the government, figure out how it works, figure out how to improve it and get to work making it happen. Because it is a blast. An absolute blast.

Lobbying is at the heart of the First Amendment to petition your government for a redress of grievances. It's the highest form of citizenship. And it's what I hope to encourage you to do.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Educating voters a permanent campaign for social progress

Ultimately, we get to decide what sort of economy we want. We voters get to decide whether we want everyone to have a decent standard of living (or some are forced to grind out in poverty). We get to decide whether we want to live in pollution and suffer the health consequences or whether we want clean air and water. We get to vote for who runs the government. That's a precious power.

But it's difficult for someone to do that if they don't understand some of the basics of government.

How do people learn about politics? Public education only gets us so far, as it's the rare high school student who is too young to vote who will really learn about government and politics. Political campaigns aren't likely to spend a lot of their time educating voters -- their job is to get their candidates elected, by any means necessary.

Newspapers are pretty good at teaching people about politics, especially editorial boards and columnists. That's how I first learned about politics. I liked reading editorials and magazine articles and columnists who would tell a story about how things worked. But then again, I was interested. What about the people who aren't interested enough to seek out the information?

This is a particular problem for Democrats and progressives. People with less education and less income are less less likely to understand that voting for progressive policies and candidates is the right move for them. People with more education and more income vote more often and understand that voting for Republicans is in their interest. The strong correlation between education and income means that candidates who focus on raising incomes -- not perpetuating wealth -- have a harder time convincing their base to understand the connection between voting and increasing income. The Democratic base is just less educated.

Educating lower-income voters about politics is a permanent feature of electing Democratic candidates. It's also a good thing to do for society as educated voters are a good thing, no matter what. But to implement the progressive agenda, we've got to elect more Democrats. And to elect more Democrats, we've got to educate more low-income voters.

I think it means a media company.

We ought to have a newspaper. The content matters but the distribution is more important. We should be mailing this newspaper to the less-educated voters and potential voters. Maybe it gets thrown away, but I think some of these papers get read. And with that infrastructure in place, mailing regularly (every other week) we can, over time, turn our base of potential voters and voters who pick the wrong side due to a lack of knowledge into a governing majority.

That's the base upon which progressive policy gets built: one voter at a time.

Friday, May 30, 2014

We haven't figured out sustainable economic growth yet

There's a big picture problem that we haven't figured out yet.

Our population keeps growing and the amount of stuff we build and create keeps growing - but there's only one planet. Eventually, we're going to run out. We're going to run out of clean water. We're going to run out of fossil fuels to burn for our energy. We're going to run out of lithium and iron. There's only so much stuff and if we keep growing at 3 or 4 percent a year, that growth will hit the limit.

To demonstrate the point more insightfully than I can do, I'll quote from an essay from the Chief Investment Officers of a $100 billion company (actually condensed in a Guardian column by George Monbiot) on the impossibility of sustained compounded growth.

Let us imagine that in 3030BC the total possessions of the people of Egypt filled one cubic metre. Let us propose that these possessions grew by 4.5% a year. How big would that stash have been by the Battle of Actium in 30BC? This is the calculation performed by the investment banker Jeremy Grantham.
Go on, take a guess. Ten times the size of the pyramids? All the sand in the Sahara? The Atlantic ocean? The volume of the planet? A little more? It's 2.5 billion billion solar systems. It does not take you long, pondering this outcome, to reach the paradoxical position that salvation lies in collapse.

That's something else.

Let that sink in.

It's like the bad side of collecting interest in a bank account for 30 years. Instead of getting rich on wealth, we're getting buried in the stuff we're consuming.

Taking the long-term view (a dozen generations or so) means our current social model of perpetually increasing consumption won't work. It will break when we hit the limit of our resources. And we're bumping up against the limits of oil, natural gas and coal in the next few decades (not to mention we've basically passed the limits of what the atmosphere can handle from our pollution).

On the other hand, creating a perpetually higher living standard (healthier, wealthier, smarter) is fundamental to ... humanity. The best reaction to recognizing the impossibility of sustained compounded growth isn't to give up on a progress. There's got to be a way to raise our standard of living without relying on ever-increasing consumption.

What a great problem to solve! Sustainable societies and economies!

I don't know what the answer is, but I'm really interested in trying to figure it out. I think renewable energy has to be at the center of the solution. Stamping out inefficiencies in our industries (like health insurance financing) has to part of it.

But it also probably involves the very nature of work, money and wealth. We probably need to find a way to value (and pay for) services more than goods. We need better measurements of economic prosperity that value services more than goods so more people can make a living from services.

It's a big problem. I can barely get my arms around it, but it's exciting to think about in order to generate the inspiration and the fuel to start changing our economy now to move in the direction of that sustainable society.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Policy: Electrify transportation for climate change, prosperity backed by utilities

Burning oil for transportation as we all do for our cars, trucks, buses and trains, is an expensive habit. Most of us live in regions like Chicagoland or Illinois that don't have any oil, so we have to import it. That reduces our wealth, leaving less to go around for everything else. And to get that oil out of the ground in the first place, whether from under the sands of the Middle East or under the water in the Gulf of Mexico, is very expensive. Thus, oil costs more than $100 a barrel this week and gasoline costs more that $3.50 a gallon. Those prices are likely to rise.

Even worse, burning that oil pollutes the atmosphere and contributes to climate change, which is a very expensive habit. Extreme weather and coastal flooding (Hurricane Sandy in NYC and New Jersey as one of the most expensive examples) is, to put it mildly, not cheap.

To quit polluting so much and reduce climate change, we need to largely stop burning coal and natural gas for electricity and switch to solar and wind. That's the push for clean energy.

But we can't use any renewable energy like solar or wind for any of our vehicles that run on gasoline. They only run on oil.

That means we need to electrify our transportation network and run electric-powered cars, trucks, buses and trains in order to use non-polluting energy.

That isn't widely appreciated, even among leaders who are pushing to stop climate change. There's a policy gap. Most of the environmentalists (for lack of a better term) push for changing the existing electrical distribution mix from fossil fuels to renewables (phasing out coal in favor of solar). They are right to do it.

But we need to also expand the reach of electrical distribution to those sectors that use oil (like transportation). Otherwise we could have a 100% solar and wind powered electric grid and be burning oil for all our cars and trucks -- clearly, not good enough to hold us back from the tipping point of global warming.

The natural political power in this policy campaign would be the electrical companies that would benefit from new customers. Our utilities are among the most influential entities in politics. It would be ideal to harness their power for such an innovative improvement to our economy and our environment. We do make electricity here, so substituting domestically-produced electricity for imported oil would generate more prosperity. Shrinking imports is the same as expanding exports -- and the latter is a clear policy objective.

One big gap in our knowledge: what is the actual economic impact for substituting an imported barrel of oil for domestically-created renewable power? Is there a multiplier of some sort? I would imagine so, but we don't know that. The first step would likely be a gathering of economists and policy makers to review the state of the literature and identify what we need to learn in order to adequately and concisely explain the job-creating impact of electrifying transportation. We should hire some economists to come up with that number.

Policy changes to implement electrification would include changing tax laws to favor electric cars, requiring licensed gas stations to install fast chargers, buying electric instead of diesel buses for transit agencies and running electric wires over railroads (like the Metra Electric in Chicago or the Acela on the Northeast Corridor) to phase out diesel-powered trains.

I hope some far-sighted utility executives see the light on a campaign to electrify transportation.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Price is Not Right. Prince Charles is correct: global capitalism needs to change

One of the best things I learned in law school is the myth of a black-and-white debate between "capitalism" and its opposite (socialism or communism or sometimes just government regulations). Life and our economy are much more complicated and nuanced than that.

With that context, I'm glad to see Prince Charles calling for a fundamental transformation of global capitalism in order to avoid global warming's catastrophes. In this Guardian article, Prince Charles said business must “account properly for carbon dioxide emissions, the use of water and fertiliser, the pollution we produce and the biodiversity we lose." Today, of course, no one pays for their pollution. So we're collectively binging on it. Hey, it's free! Dig in!

This is the fundamental transformation we have to figure out how to implement: getting the price right. Right now, buying a shirt made from renewable energy costs the same as buying a shirt made from polluting energy. There's no pollution tax. And there should be. There should be a pollution tax built into the price of everything we buy or sell, so that we'll buy less of the things that pollute and more of the things that don't. There is a huge cost to all that pollution. Someone has to pay it, and currently, the people who are making that pollution just aren't paying the bill, because we haven't figure out as a society how to invoice the polluters.

This is where the anti-government reflex of way too many Americans kicks in. It's not that people think it makes sense to keep pollution free. It's that they just don't want government 'involved'. They'd rather have a 'private sector' solution. And so any attempt to get the price right runs into the anti-government crowd.

There is no such thing as a free market without government regulation. Private property doesn't exist without a government full of police and courts to enforce it. Government regulation is baked into any market. It's a question of degree, not kind. It's still 'capitalism' to quit letting polluters freeload and instead start to charge them for the damage they cause through a fee or a tax.

If we can earn more hearts and minds and convince more Americans to understand that's how government and 'free markets' work - regulation is part of the structure of any market and making pollution free is as much 'socialism' as charging polluters something -- then we're closer to building a consensus that we should get the price right. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Manage the commonwealth wisely: another way to change the world

Some of our older states have better names than our younger states. Massachusetts, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky are all, legally, commonwealths.

That's the right way to think about the $3 trillion in assets held by state and local pension funds. They are the commonwealth. That tremendous pool of wealth is deployed to finance some activities and not others.

What are we doing with our commonwealth?

As the world's wealth distribution gets more unequal (hurting our economy and lowering the median standard of living) and as a maniacal focus on short-term strategy by many business leaders leaves us hurtling ever closer to the point of no return for coastal-flooding, drought-creating climate change, we should be investing our commonwealth into those institutions that are pushing us in a more sustainable direction. Companies that are building and buying renewable energy should get our commonwealth, not those that are building and buying climate-change-causing energy. Companies that pay their top managers 400 times more than their lowest-paid workers should not be financed; companies that pay their lowest-paid workers a high wage with great benefits should.

I don't trust Wall Street money managers to use our commonwealth wisely. Their investments in private prisons, predatory lenders, mega-polluters and manufacturers of weapons of mass destruction make the world a worse place. How can we find better stewards of our commonwealth?

One tactic is legislative -- passing new state laws and local ordinances that regular how the commonwealth will be invested to create the Great Society -- more equal, more just, more prosperous, more peaceful. I suspect European nations have some of these laws on the books for their pension funds. I'd like to know more about that.

Another tactic is entrepreneurial -- join the team of pension fund managers as a consultant for using the commonwealth to advance the Great Society. Advise the pension funds how to vote on shareholder resolutions. Represent the pension funds as internal advocates within publicly-traded companies for longer-term strategies and sustainable business practices. Recruit candidates for corporate boards who will insist on raising pay for workers, not CEOs, and get them elected. Find smaller scale companies who need access to capital and devote part of the commonwealth to those entrepreneurs.

I don't think there are many money managers of pension funds (or the vastly greater pool of private wealth) who deliver services beyond promising the highest rate of return -- no matter the costs to society of extracting that wealth. There can't be many managers of wealth who can show they have invested their clients' money in companies that are responsible for high wages, renewable energy and increased general prosperity. I suspect there's an untapped demand for that. And if there isn't much of one today, we need to convince our elected representatives to hire more far-sighted managers of our commonwealth.

If you know of any good managers, please let me know.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day is an echo of horror unimaginable

We remember the veterans -- usually men who when they were boys or very young men were sent to a faraway hell on earth to maim and kill and hope to survive the carnage. We honor their service and remember the dead and try to reconcile the faded monuments from the Great Army of the Republic who defeated a slave-owning Southern empire and the very old men who defeated an alliance of genocidal nations in the Second World War with the younger veterans who were sent to Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan with more ambiguous results.

We hear the stories of war, if we want to hear them. They aren't pretty or comforting. They are often senseless and brutal. They are often kept from us. My wife's grandfather would lose his smile and his eyes would lose their focus when he talked of the Pacific. Butchery. Savagery. Scars of the soul that never heal.

We see the movies about the war in Iraq and they rivet us. For an hour or so. And then we can shrug them off and award the director wearing a gown and the actor in a tuxedo for their work. We can forget the fear after the film. But they can't forget.

We honor veterans more than any other government employee: more than police officers, more than firefighters, more than teachers. We elevate them to an unreasonable pantheon: our heroes. We upbraid those who don't sufficiently honor them with health care or employment. We do this because of what we do to them.

We tell them to kill in our name.

We wage war. We do. We have too much.

We can do better.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Policy: deploying our $3 trillion in public pensions for a better world

The 100 largest state and local pensions systems combined control more than $3 trillion. They -- I mean, we citizens -- hold $1.1 trillion in corporate stock.

This is a mega-opportunity to grasp a powerful tool to reshape the world.

The data is from the US Census quarterly survey of pension systems. The biggest 100 dominate the field with almost 90% of all the capital in public pension funds. What could we do with this money?

Consider the world's biggest problems: climate change, savage and rising inequality and a basic lack of investment in the poorer half of the globe. Imagine if every publicly-traded corporation decided to raise the wages they pay, implement aggressive supplier diversity programs and become carbon-negative (generate less pollution than if they didn't exist). And imagine they stopped funding political movements that slow down progress.

That can happen. We own these companies. We elect their boards of directors. We vote on corporate policy every year through shareholder resolutions. We just don't exercise our responsibility to shape the direction of publicly-traded corporations. Instead, we let Wall Street money managers who are focused on quarterly results and not on long-term sustainability vote for us.

Every state legislature and county board and city council could direct their pension funds to start using our enormous sums of capital as a force for a more sustainable, prosperous world. All we have to do is start electing board members and supporting corporate resolutions to do the right thing: pay higher wages, create less pollution and buy from diverse suppliers.

I suspect that very few of these 100 pension funds even have a public policy on how they cast their votes in corporate elections. I suspect that most of them just allow the money managers to decide how to vote -- which is basically voting for the status quo. And the status quo is not working very well.

There's a huge opportunity to shape policy to harness the power of three trillion dollars. And it's a state and local campaign, so it is winnable. (It's not like we need to somehow convince John Boehner to support something -- we need our blue cities, counties and state who are already predisposed to support the effort to take action).

This is a battleground for climate change. It should be. How do we get the fossil fuel companies to transition into clean energy companies? Well, we own them! We just direct them -- through our trillion+ of corporate stock -- to transition to energy development that won't cook the planet.

We're basically the landlords of corporate America, and we just let the Wall Street money manager tenants run the place.

Every publicly-traded corporation could take the view that long-term prosperity relies on lots of customers with lots of disposable income so as a policy, they pay wages significantly above what the market will bear. They could take the view that long-term prosperity relies on a planet that isn't cooked, so they will only buy renewable energy and only do business with suppliers that do the same. They could take the view that long-term prosperity requires an educated workforce so they will stop seeking special tax breaks from competing governments that have the affect of draining money from schools.

Wresting control over our three trillion in assets from the short-term-only money managers and instead investing in long-term prosperity for a better world through more enlightened corporate policies could be one of the most significant, high-impact, bang-for-your-buck political/issue campaigns in state and local governments.