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.