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EDITORIAL BOARD QUESTIONNAIRES

Sean Casten

Democratic candidate for U.S. House (6th district)

Sean Casten

Sean Casten

Democratic candidate for U.S. House (6th district)

Education
B.A., Molecular Biology & Biochemistry, Middlebury College (1993) M.S. Biochemical Engineering, Dartmouth College / Thayer School of Engineering (1998) M.E.M. Engineering Management, Dartmouth College / Thayer School of Engineering (1998)
Occupation
Retired Clean Energy Entrepreneur
Home
Downers Grove
Past Political/Civic Experience
None

Responses to our questions

The U.S. government is now $20 trillion in debt. To address that historic level of public indebtedness, the country would need to raise revenue and/or decrease spending. What is your position on the budget and debt?

As a former CEO, I cannot fathom running any organization - much less one with the size and complexity of the federal government - without a balance sheet. As any business- or home-owner knows, the opportunity to borrow at low rates and invest in higher-returning assets is advantageous. Yet while we report on federal deficits and debt, we never report on a federal balance sheet. We consistently make trillion-dollar budgetary decisions without asking the right questions.

To be fair, it would be hard to precisely calculate a federal balance sheet. But even a crude starting balance sheet would allow us to make much more informed decisions. Spending money to open a new foreign embassy is functionally different from giving all federal employees a pay raise, even if both have the same impact on deficits - but without considering the offsetting value of the new asset in the first case we tend to view the two as fiscally equivalent.

My bias is to maintain and even increase infrastructure investment. Supporting and maintaining the arteries and veins of America - that accelerate commerce and improve quality of life - is vital to our financial future and national security. Assets like roads, high-speed fiber networks, public parks, community centers, and state-of-the-art schools build communities we can leave for our children. Prudent leadership in this space means minimizing non-accretive operating expenses and setting taxes at the level necessary to close that gap.

Can you identify any major federal expenditures or programs that you would eliminate?

There are many wasteful government expenditures. To take a few recent headlines: The frequent use of private jets by Trump and his staff; the decision of the first family to occupy a "second White House" in New York City; the president's weekly golf trips; Scott Pruitt's bizarre sound-proof room. Not to mention the billions in tax breaks we give to the fossil fuel industry each year.

However, as a practical matter, without focusing on defense spending, Medicare and Medicaid we're ignoring the overwhelming majority of the budget. To that end:

  1. I support the efforts of Sen. Tim Kaine and Sen. Jeff Flake to reduce the scope of the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force; if the last 16 years have taught us anything, it's that blanket authorizations for an unspecified adversary with no defined end state is a recipe for massive and unnecessary federal spending.
  2. I support the full implementation and expansion of the Affordable Care Act to ensure universal health coverage - on economic grounds. Developed nations with universal health coverage pay less per capita on healthcare than the United States, and deliver better overall health outcomes. This is not surprising, given that these systems direct proportionally more resources towards preventative care. While the United States spends nearly $10,000 per person per year on health care, countries with true universal health care spend $5,000 - $7,000. A properly designed universal system should save us 30% or more on our $2.7 trillion annual health care bill. Note also that approximately 40 cents of every dollar spent on healthcare in the U.S. is spent by Medicare and Medicaid, suggesting that such a shift could save ~$400 billion in annual government expenditure.

Medicare and Medicaid costs continue to spiral. How can these programs be restructured to control costs and avoid collapse? Be specific about your willingness to change or reduce future benefits.

The only credible long-term way to lower healthcare expenses is through a transition to universal healthcare. Anything else is fiddling at the edges.

In my experience running businesses that provided employer-funded health insurance since 2000, I came to expect an annual 7-8% increase in health insurance costs. This was in a pre-ACA world and was a hard employee conversation every year. Our ability to provide increased compensation was always constrained by rising benefit expense.

However, a few years after ACA passage, we saw the proverbial cost curve start to bend. By 2011, our premiums were only increasing at 3 - 5% per year. This was still too high, and still above background inflation, but was exactly as would be expected as more healthy people entered the market - and as broader coverage induced a proportional shift towards preventative rather than urgent care.

This personal experience, coupled with country-by-country comparisons has convinced me that true universal health care will dramatically lower the cost of our entire health system in the U.S., including both the publicly and privately-funded portions.

Despite inefficiencies in Medicare and Medicaid , the underlying problem of rising health delivery costs and drug prices must be addressed to make a meaningful dent in the cost of any of these systems. To that end: a) Medicare should be able to negotiate prescription drug prices. There is no reason why federal agencies should not have the negotiating power that any private sector participant would have. b) We need to learn from robust health care systems that consistently deliver the best health outcomes in the U.S. The Mayo Clinic, for example, specifically ties profit incentives to patient health outcomes rather than to procedures.

What if anything should be the federal government's role in helping Americans obtain health insurance coverage?

I would like to see a return of the individual mandate that was removed by the recent GOP tax bill. This is necessary to ensure that the insurance pool includes a full mix of Americans to better allow insurance companies to spread their risk, and lower health insurance costs for all.

I believe strongly in the value of universal healthcare to provide lower cost care and better overall health outcomes. I particularly like those models in other countries that include base coverage for all (along the lines of a public option in the U.S.), but leverage the vibrancy and dynamics of a competitive market for optional services. The best markets are those that give consumers the right to opt-in to alternative plans that meet particular health needs, while still ensuring that all have basic access to preventative medicine and unplanned 'catastrophic' coverage.

I prefer markets where all citizens have access to the same 'menu' of choices, without regard to their state of residency or employer. The ACA could be tweaked to mirror such a system, if it were expanded to include a public option and all Americans were given the option to elect - at their discretion - into Medicare.

Economic growth has been steady but wage growth is slow. Are you content with the state of the economy? What is your recipe for enhancing American prosperity?

GDP growth and stock market indices are poor metrics for the health of the economy and are largely irrelevant to most Americans.

My biggest concerns with the current economy are (a) the decline in medium-skilled jobs, (b) the failure of real wage growth to keep up with inflation and (c) the continued rise in wealth inequality. These issues are interconnected.

The rise of automation has made it possible for many global manufacturers to outsource jobs not just overseas, but to increasingly roboticized domestic plants. Simultaneously, the revolution in communications and logistics has given labor-intensive businesses access to a global labor pool. When there is little difference in cost to deliver goods to Boston from a plant in Los Angeles or Shanghai, Californian workers are effectively competing for wages with the Chinese.

The result is that while the U.S. economy continues to grow and create new jobs, those jobs are increasingly concentrated at the very high- and very low-end of the skill spectrum where outsourcing is hard or impossible. Medium-skilled workers have borne the brunt of this squeeze, either losing their jobs or being forced into underemployment to make ends meet and provide for their families.

I saw this directly in my career. We were the sole provider of utilities to more than 60 different businesses, which employed more than 6,000 people. Those same plants employed 60,000 people 20 years ago, and generated roughly half as much economic activity. The manufacturing plants we served were awesome to behold - the expertise and precision required to make high volume canned food, medical devices, or gypsum wallboard is a remarkable testament to American innovation. But that innovation has come at the expense of the workforce, and every one of those plants had cafeterias that were eerily empty, even when running at full capacity.

Fixing this problem will require renewed commitment to American innovation. It is not guaranteed, but it is the only proven tool we have to address technological change in the workforce. We need to provide more, not fewer opportunities for Americans to pursue post-graduate education - especially in STEM fields. We need to continue attracting and retaining the best and brightest to our shores. From Nikolai Tesla to Sergey Brin, our economy has long depended on the importation of smart foreigners.

Lastly, we need to make sure our tax code is structured to incentivize investment. Across-the-board corporate tax cuts are simply a gift to shareholders, but I strongly support providing an equivalent volume of targeted tax cuts, via accelerated depreciation or employment credits that provide corporations with fiscal incentives to upgrade and modernize our domestic economy.

If you could fix longstanding problems with this country's immigration system tomorrow, what would you do? What is your position on the future of DACA and the Dreamers?

It is unethical to send people who have contributed to the U.S. back to countries they weren't born in or didn't grow up in solely because of the conditions of their parents' entry to the U.S. President Trump's efforts to undo these programs is a testament first and foremost to his low moral character.

But there are also purely rational, fact-based reasons to encourage U.S. immigration. I was in the second class of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs' Emerging Leader program in 2009. Over the next two years, our group studied U.S. Immigration Policy, with a focus on comprehensive immigration reform. Our final product focused on Chicago-specific impacts of those changes. That experience informed several conclusions:

  1. Immigrants to the U.S. - both documented and undocumented - are a net economic gain and are less prone to criminal activity than the native-born U.S. population.
  2. Immigration trends in recent decades have been concentrated at opposite ends of the skill spectrum, largely in response to U.S. labor imbalances. This is generally welcome at the high-skilled end of the spectrum but has created a xenophobic backlash at the low-skilled end of the spectrum. Medium-skilled workers have been forced into low-skilled jobs and then forced to compete with new immigrants. We cannot solve this without addressing underlying job creation trends.

Several immediate changes to the U.S. immigration system:

  1. For permanent immigrants, we should transition proportionally towards a merit-based quota system and away from the current national-origin based system. So long as we ensure that the basis for merit includes all gaps in the U.S. labor force, this will help ensure that immigrants are better matched to economic needs.
  2. When reviewing permanent immigrant applications, we should prioritize immigrants who came to the U.S. on temporary visas and earned degrees from U.S. institutions.
  3. We should be much more welcoming to refugees. It is morally unconscionable that the U.S. has accepted fewer Syrian refugees than Canada or Germany numerically, much less on a per capita basis.
  4. Immigration enforcement must be based on facts, not politics. The overwhelming majority of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today are here on visa overstays, not illegal border crossings. We don't need border walls, we need resources to keep track of those who legally enter the country but stay longer than their visa allows.
  5. These policies must be more closely coordinated with our foreign partners. There are too many examples of foreign criminal syndicates fueled by U.S. deportations who were radicalized once they landed in countries with laxer law enforcement and surveillance. We cannot assume that once someone leaves our country they no longer pose a threat.
  6. Finally, I support DACA and the Dreamers. We should accept and support young people who have embraced American culture and made meaningful contributions to our country. It is unjust to upend their lives and hard work to satisfy the irrational fears and hypocrisy of those who themselves descended from immigrants seeking a better life on American shores.

North Korea's nuclear weapons program represents a direct threat to the security of the United States and its Pacific allies. How should the U.S. confront or contain Kim Jong Un's regime?

I do not trust any government led by Donald Trump to make an informed decision based on the best U.S. intelligence or available diplomatic options. Our most promising path to peace on the Korean peninsula is (a) to ensure they do not have the financial resources to obtain fissile material and (b) to pursue every diplomatic option - or as former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Admiral James Stavridis said this week, we should "aggressively" pursue diplomacy with North Korea." This will require additional international sanctions, increased diplomatic pressure on Russia and significant coordination with China. President Trump's weakening of international institutions, underfunding of the State Department and weakening of U.S. standing among our allies all reduce our ability to address the North Korean threat.

ISIS is contained in Syria and Iraq but terrorism remains a threat. What are your priorities in keeping the country safe?

U.S. Terrorism policy by necessity must be both reactive (responding to near term threats) and proactive (addressing the root causes of global terrorism). On the first front, I am broadly supportive of the efforts undertaken by the Bush and Obama administrations to coordinate the actions of domestic intelligence agencies and work more closely with our allies in Europe and the Middle East to share intelligence data, sources and methods. President Trump's recent alienation of domestic agencies (for example, sharing Israeli intelligence with Russia) degrades our international standing and increases the likelihood of terror attacks by reducing our access to information.

Regarding border security, there is no need for a 'wall' because it simply won't make our nation more secure. The terrorist attacks used as justification for a border wall were perpetrated by domestic terrorists or those who entered the United States via completely legal paths. Addressing the root causes of radicalization is critical; building walls is a waste of money. I would however like to see a shift in TSA prioritization to emphasize higher risk threats, much as the Israelis have done. Spending time and resources screening young children or frequent travellers could be better spent with more efforts on individuals and travel patterns that present a greater statistical risk.

Terror networks have grown and developed in failed nations where institutional government controls are weak. The unnecessary invasion of Iraq destabilized much of the Middle East and is substantially responsible for the rise of ISIS. I supported the invasion of Afghanistan, but even there we could do a much better job of focusing resources on a Marshall Plan-type infrastructure and nation state model. We have instead focused too heavily on trillion-dollar military adventures that have, in many cases, served only to line the pockets of corrupt leaders without filtering down to ordinary Afghanis.

Finally, we need to recognize that U.S. terrorist threats are concentrated among radicalized young men, regardless of their geography or religion. U.S. risks of domestic terrorism are no more likely to come from ISIS or al Qaeda as they are from the alt-Right and the KKK. The overwhelming majority of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil both before and after 9/11 have come from these domestic risks. Unemployment and underemployment in rural areas, coupled with rising wealth inequality and politicians using xenophobic, nationalistic messaging are the raw ingredients for global terror whether in Chechnya, Damascus or Charlottesville. We cannot protect Americans from the risk of "the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims" if we focus only on those threats that arise from overseas.

Should the U.S. continue to abide by the terms of the nuclear agreement with Iran?

Yes. First, the treaty signed by President Obama contained appropriate checks and incentives, and seems to be keeping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Second, when presidents renege on treaties signed by their predecessors, the U.S. can no longer be considered a credible negotiating party. If Iran violates the treaty, we are under no obligation to continue to abide by our terms, but it is juvenile and irresponsible to walk away from the treaty simply because it was negotiated by a previous president.

What is your position on the continued presence of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan?

Pursuant to my previous answer on major federal expenditures, I believe we have remained deployed in Afghanistan too long, largely because there seems to be a lack of clearly-defined goals for our continued presence there. I would like to see a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force that includes a clearly-defined end state with specific goals that inform when our mission is accomplished. Once that end state is achieved, I would expect a systematic draw dawn of our forces.

Do you support a unified, federal background check system for gun sales? Do you support magazine limits or a ban on certain rifles? Describe, briefly, your position on how to balance safety with the Second Amendment.

Yes, I support universal and unified federal background checks. I also support magazine limits, bans on 'bump stocks' and the sale any weapon intended primarily to efficiently kill large numbers of human beings.

As relates to the Second Amendment, I support the rights of law-abiding citizens to own firearms and use them to hunt for wild game or to defend themselves and their families in the face of mortal harm. However, I do not believe that these weapons should be available to members of the general public who are not subject to at least as much safety training and oversight as we require of the law enforcement community and military.

Gun safety is not in conflict with the Second Amendment - it is in conflict with the gun lobby. There is nothing about the Second Amendment that precludes background checks, or that compels us to provide guns to people on the "No Fly" list, or that prevents us from ensuring that those convicted of domestic violence should not be allowed to procure deadly weapons. And there is certainly no reason to believe that Illinois will be safer if we allow people from surrounding states to cross our borders with concealed-carry privileges.

The overwhelming majority of Americans - gun owners and non-gun owners alike - agree on common-sense, pro-safety gun control. The gap between majority opinion and Congressional voting history is informed not by the Second Amendment but by the pernicious influence of gun lobby money in electoral politics.

Should the U.S. government take steps to curb emissions of greenhouse gas? If so, what steps? If not, why not?

Yes, unquestionably. Climate change is the biggest challenge of our generation and has been the primary focus of my professional career. It is a risk not only because of the damage it does to the environment in the form of rising seas, acidified oceans, melting ice caps and loss of habitat, but also because it destabilizes global security. When fertile crop lands fail due to rising temperatures, flash floods or migrating tropical pests, we create waves of refugees and political instability.

The State and Defense Departments have rightly called out climate change as one of the single largest threats to global stability - yet current elected officials in Washington think it is useful and/or humorous to bring a snowball into the Senate and question science. Ignoring facts and physics may play well on Fox News, but it is both stupid and morally irresponsible.

So what should we do? The good news, which I have proven over my career is that there are billions, if not trillions of dollars of investment opportunities that would, if made, lower CO2 emissions and lower the cost of energy while creating jobs, modernizing U.S. infrastructure and grow our economy. The reason is fairly simple: you cannot make CO2 without burning fossil fuels, and no one gives away fossil fuels for free. Any investment to increase our energy conversion efficiency is a win-win. The only question is what the rate of return on that capital will be. This makes CO2 a fundamentally different pollutant than those that were contemplated in the original Clean Air Act and there are a host of inadvertent policy disincentives to profitable CO2 reduction that can be easily fixed by Congress, provided we elect people with the will and knowledge to do so.

Beyond those policy fixes, we absolutely need to come up with a global cap on CO2 emissions and I am a strong proponent of market based regulations to do so, the better to enable markets to optimize capital allocation. There are many regulatory approaches I would support, but only provided they meet two key criteria: (a) they must provide a financial incentive to reduce CO2 as quickly and as cheaply as possible and (b) they must encourage the deployment of capital necessary to modernize and replace our current aging and CO2-intensive fleet. Far too many proposed CO2 regulations fail those simple tests either by focusing on penalties instead of incentives or by using the proceeds of CO2 taxes to fund other unrelated projects. I have written extensively on this subject at Grist.org and would be happy to outline my preferred approaches in more detail.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us.

As a 16 year-old boy, I rode my bike across the country with a friend of mine in the summer of 1988. We followed the "Bikecentennial route" that President Carter had commissioned, from New Jersey down to Washington D.C., then west through Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and Colorado, then north to Wyoming and Idaho, finally ending on the Oregon coast. We paid for a proper proper campsite just three nights of that summer. Every other night we found ourselves being offered free lodging. We slept in farmers' fields, fire stations, church pews, and back yards over the course of 56 days. At the time, I thought about this largely as a physical accomplishment to brag to my friends about. But, with a bit of age and wisdom, it sticks out more as a as a testament to the fundamental kindness and hospitality of the American people.

If you are an incumbent, tell us the most significant accomplishment of your current term.

N/A