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.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Election Day is the right day to pass marriage equality

Fittingly, same-sex marriage passed not on Valentine's Day, but on Election Day, where the people in Virginia and New York City and Boston decided who would run their governments. The triumph in Illinois, unthinkable only a decade ago, is ultimately because the people in Illinois changed their minds and voted for leaders to change the law. These leaders are overwhelmingly Democratic. 95% of the legislators who voted for marriage equality are Democratic. The triumph today is also a triumph for the people of the Democratic Party.

One of the 61 representatives to vote yes, Sam Yingling (a man who took the opportunity after voting for marriage equality to propose a few hours later in the Governor's Mansion to his same sex partner), is a Democrat who barely won his election in a Republican area. Without that unexpected victory, and several more like his to select a Democratic Speaker of the House, there would no triumph this week. If Pat Quinn, the Democratic candidate for governor, had not won his election a few years ago by the narrowest of margins, the marriage equality bill would have been vetoed by the Republican governor and thus the vote would not have taken place at all.

There were a few Republican legislators (3 of 61 in the House and 1 of 34 in the Senate) who voted for the bill and there were several Democrats who did not vote for the bill. But against the backdrop of the election in Virginia for Attorney General that will be decided by a few hundred votes out of two million cast, it's important to remember that social progress and joy-inducing improvements in government ultimately derive from partisan elections. And these days, that means electing Democrats.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Robert Reich's Labor Day agenda deliverable by state and local governments

Robert Reich (Clinton's Labor Secretary) released a video today with on the best way to celebrate Labor Day - remembering just how bad working people have fared in the last few decades and calling for a six-step policy agenda to increase wages again.

The interesting thing is that the six-step agenda can all be delivered by state and local governments. We often think we need the feds to deliver reform (and then get frustrated when they don't). But the exciting thing is that our blue states and cities can go ahead and implement this progressive agenda. Here's the video:

Reich's list to boost labor (near the end of the video):

1. Living wage (states and cities can raise those)
2. Larger earned income tax credit (every state can max out the state EITC)
3. Free universal childcare (something states and cities can implement)
4. Good schools (run by local governments with funding by states)
5. Universal health insurance (states can do this for their citizens)
6. Union rights (a little tougher with federal preemption but a lot to be done)

I find it inspiring that one of the intellectual leaders of progressive policy lays out the agenda for prosperity and it does not rely on the feds to implement. We can do it.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Creating replicable progressive state and local policy is really valuable

We progressives are part of the governing coalition of a whole lot of governments. (The federal government isn't one of them, alas. The US House blocks everything). We don't come close to taking full advantage of that.

Our blue cities, counties and states should be raising standards of living and per capita purchasing power by cutting household budget costs and buying in bulk the insurance, education, recreation and transportation everyone needs. And we should be figuring out how to push the envelope every year.

So if progressives in one blue city or state can figure out how to implement a good policy (like a local minimum wage or paid leave) that is replicable, then the many other blue cities and states can piggyback off their hard work and implement the same thing with likely very similar results.

That means our job is to figure out how to develop and implement replicable progressive state and local policies. And then help spread the word about them.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Every minute today an American is denied a ballot

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

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

"You're not on the list."

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

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

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

This is happening every minute all day today.

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

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

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

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

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

Want to join me?

Friday, November 02, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 19, 2012

Lance Tyson for state rep in the 10th district

There aren't many close elections in Chicago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 02, 2012

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

This is an economic tale.

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

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

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

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

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

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