EP. 55 Sean Casten, IL-06
NICIE PANETTA: Greetings and welcome to another candidate Friday on The MidPod: The Midterms Podcast. I'm Nicie Panetta with Heather Atwood. One thing we worry about a lot in our current political environment is the risk of attending constantly to the urgent at the expense of the truly important. How do we balance the need to absorb and react to the tweet of the day, the broken norm of the day, the moral outrage of the day? How do we balance this press of events with the need to plan and act on crucial long-term policy issues, like the future of jobs, or like climate change and the future of our shared home, planet Earth? In this episode we bring you a conversation with an emphasis on these truly important issues with Sean Casten. He's the Democratic nominee in Illinois sixth congressional district outside of Chicago. This is a seat currently held by Republican incumbent Peter Roskam. It's rated tossup by the Cook Political Report. Casten is a successful energy entrepreneur with insight into the role Congress could and should be playing in reducing our carbon emissions in a market economy. So we used our time with him to geek out and get his views on the future of our economy and the future of our planet. Casten explained his thoughts on carbon regulation in plain language that we could actually understand. You'll also hear his thoughts on this race and what life is like for the whole family now that he's running for office.
NICIE: Would you like to start by just introducing yourself for our listeners?
SEAN CASTEN: Sure, I I am Sean Casten and a Sagittarius. Now I'm the I'm the Democratic nominee for Congress in the sixth district of Illinois. I have never prior to March of last year ever thought about running for office, but had been had been spent the last 20 years building and running a number of companies dedicated to the proposition that you can profitably reduce greenhouse gas emissions and as the what I believe is the biggest existential threat to our survival as a species that we're doing nothing about from a policy perspective. That rather than rather than fighting dirty with people if I can find ways to build a company that can make money by lowering CO2, maybe people would copy copy me even if just out of greed. And so we we built about 80 projects, invested a couple hundred million dollars, along the way became aware that while there are there are no thermodynamic barriers to doing what we did, there are no economic barriers, there are a lot of policy barriers in between the laws of thermodynamics, the laws of economics, and the laws of the United States, one of those is changeable.
CASTEN: And so ended up running some clean energy advocacy organizations along the way, worked on the state and federal level and after we we sold our business in September of '16 and then Trump happened, decided that for the things I want to accomplish in my life, and for the...we're being represented by somebody calls climate change "junk science," have already had some success in my life by making decisions based on facts and surrounding myself with people who have good character, and getting a president who doesn't particularly do either of those very well decided to run for office. And so we are now, depending on who's counting, I think Politico has this district as one of the top 10 races to watch, it's a district Hillary won. And my question is not...the goal is to win, but the real goal is to win by, by the kind of margins that will send messages to the rest of the of the party that you can't debate in facts and character and never expect to win an election again. That's maybe a lofty goal but you might as well shoot for.
NICIE: We really want to get into, spend our time focused on the issue of climate change and environment and how you would have an impact on the Hill. But I guess since you brought it up, it it would be good just to get a little bit of the flavor of the district from your point of view, politically because we noted in reviewing the data that this is a district that interestingly went Obama, Romney, and then Clinton by quite a lot. So what's your sense of your electorate? You know, who are they and and what are they focused on?
CASTEN: So from a values perspective this electorate is you know I I joke with friends that this electorate has the values of the Republican Party circa 1995, which makes them which makes them Democrats in values, but Republicans historically in the voting booth. So it's a, it's a district that's between just north of Argonne National Lab in just east of Fermi National lab. So it is highly educated, it's more affluent than average, it is whiter than average. And but it's but it's generally quite progressive on social issues. So it's the kind of place where people value science, people value business, people think it's important to preserve the post-WII order and have a strong national security. It's people who you know are you know somewhat skeptical about the idea of paying taxes. But at the same time are massively negative on the tax bill because of the impacts on deficits and the ability to provide health care, and and jobs, all of those things that we expect a functioning economy to provide. You know I think the great are people who who understand internally the the argument that Will Wilkinson made on Fox last week that capitalism is the thing you use to pay for social programs. We are best not when we're 100 percent capitalist or 100 percent socialist but when we recognize that the two work in synergy with each other and that's who the District is.
NICIE: Yeah, I'll just mention that one of our favorite interviews that we've done with experts for this project is with Jacob Hacker at Yale University and he wrote a book called American Amnesia, talking about the mixed economy that we had in the 50s and 60s and 70s that really powered our economic success and prosperity as a nation. And it's been interesting to start to see some of that talk come back from some of the candidates that we're speaking with. We we just met with Amy McGrath in Kentucky earlier this week and she was very passionately talking about that. So, it'll it'll be interesting to see if that starts to to really take hold as a as a message and as something to for everyone to really rally around a little bit like government does not have to be the enemy.
CASTEN: Yeah I mean I mean I talk about it all the time and people there get it because I mean Chicago was this hub of manufacturing forever so everybody in the Chicagoland area knows people who currently or used to work in manufacturing environments. The companies over there we get our our customers employed about 6.000 people in paper manufacturing, plastics, chemicals, you know steel, we made a lot of heavy industrials, and 20 years ago they employed 60,000 people and made half as much half as much on an economic basis. And and I think you're absolutely right that there is this there's this issue where the combination of automation, globalization, the the revolutions in communications and logistics have made us all wealthier. But in the course of that transition to an economy that is very good at creating jobs for the very highly-educated, the under-educated, but totally hollowed out the middle.
NICIE: Yeah. So tell us how you would think about this if you were in Congress. You know what are the jobs of the future? How do we deal with automation risks and and the like?
HEATHER ATWOOD: Can I add to that question, Sean?
CASTEN: Sure, sure.
HEATHER: I really love your metaphor about the Homestead Act, and I think that will resonate with a lot of people so if you could answer both these questions maybe repeat your your statement about the Homestead Act and the green economy can actually...the green green energy can be economically you know a good force for us.
CASTEN: Sure so I think if I'm if I'm remembering all of my all of my metaphors the the metaphor I've made about the Homestead Act is that U.S. policy when it is at its best articulates goals and then gets out of the way. U.S. policy at its at its worst articulates paths and then gets all muddled and so much of our energy policy has been paths rather than goal-focused. And the metaphor I made to the Homestead Act was that when we passed the Homestead Act, we didn't say, "If you buy six white horses and hook them to a Conestoga wagon and go North by Northwest through Cleveland and then make a left and eventually get up to Utah, I will give you a piece of land or really a tax credit for a piece of land." You know and some go to Western land. And yes you'd have to realistically hopefully were involved but there you go. In tons of our environmental and economic policy if we simply said we want to get the CO2 down as fast as possible and we want to get it done in a way that's as economically beneficial as possible. We would unleash massive investments in the private sector. As it is, we you know we incentivize this technology now, we incentivize that technology and yesterday it will incentivize another technology tomorrow, sometimes it's with tax credit sometimes it's with something else, and it makes it very hard for the business community to invest in assets that take a couple of years to build and you're not going to get your capital back for five or six years because you can't count on a stable a stable regulatory policy. So that's the that's the answer I think to your second question. Remind me now I've lost the thread of what your first question was.
NICIE: That's okay just just jobs of the future and what role green jobs can can play.
CASTEN: Yeah. So I think the basic risk of of automation has been with us for at least a century. Right? I mean ever since the you know ever since the cotton gin was invented maybe even before then, smart people have been lamenting the rise of the rise of robots and what it's going to do to our economy. Keynes back in the 20s wrote that because productivity growth kept outpacing GDP growth, eventually it was going to be a luxury to work because if you extend those those trajectories into the future, we're going to have more wealth than jobs. And I think Keynes was basically right but for the fact that he didn't contemplate that wealth inequality would rise at the same time. Right? Because you know if if we could ultimately have robots do all the work for all of us does it does the wealth accrue to the citizens or to the owner of the robots? We have historically kept a step ahead of the robots not by fighting back against automation but by inventing whole new industries that replace the ones that got automated away before right? So when buggy whips got displaced we invented electricity and the automobile, we we invented radio, we invented air travel, we invented you know semiconductors. We've always stayed one step ahead and we have done that not because you know politicians in their wisdom or lack thereof have said you know what we shouldn't do was invent semiconductors. We've done that because we've invested in education, we've made commitments to the rule of law.
CASTEN: We've we've had an immigration policy that made our country more attractive to smart people around the world relative to any other place they could go. And and then we benefited from that. You know it's it's the it's the internet thing that there's there's one neat trick to become the preeminent global power: being a country that smart people want to live in. Right? And and that's a little different than I think you know, but I think what a lot of people think about is the green jobs of the future because at least in you know in my experience we we did projects with we did gas, we did geothermal, we did biomass, we we even did some coal. The common theme was we were always at least twice as efficient as the grid. But in almost every case when you transition to a cleaner energy technology, you also transition to a less labor-intensive technology. Coal is dying in no small part because it's really expensive to operate, in the dash handlers and fuel handlers. And when you put a solar panel on the roof, you don't hire somebody to man your solar power. Right? You've got construction jobs but it's part of the Clean Energy Transition is a short-term spike in employment for people to install those, but long-term part of the reason why those technologies economically are kicking the butts of historically fossil fuel technologies is because they don't they don't have any marginal cost. And part of that is that they don't even marginally. So what we need to do to make sure we absolutely need to train people in those jobs and make sure that that they're there. But what we really need to do is to you know to double down on our commitment to education, to double down on our commitment to welcoming smart people to our country and to recognize that the rest of the world is catching up. Right? You know it used to be that if you were living in in Ghana or in India that you know just basic access to food and water meant you'd rather come to the United States. As those countries have improved, we got to make sure that we're keeping the gap right? It's not what the Trump administration's doing it's not what the Republicans are doing. But we know how to do it because it's what we've done for the last eight years.
NICIE: When you talked about kind of unleashing that those creative forces is a carbon tax maybe the best way after all, or...what are your thoughts?
CASTEN: So let me talk about carbon regulation and then which is somewhat separate from your question. We should absolutely regulate carbon, and we need to regulate it because we have to get it down as quickly as possible. The only measure of whether a carbon regulation is successful is does it lower CO2? And because lowering CO2 requires a massive investment in clean infrastructure to replace sturdy infrastructure, does it incentivize construction of clean infrastructure? My personal view, and I say this with a lot of experience of bringing a lot of projects through to you know investment committees for approval, you know some of which were approved, most of which weren't, is that a carbon tax provides zero incentive for investment in clean technology. And the reason is because the presence of a stick on your competitor has nothing to do with a carrot for you. So I vastly prefer a tradable permits in places where you can get paid to reduce carbon rather than send your competitors will pass it along. And it's something that I think a lot of a lot of even you know economists don't understand because if I'm a coal plant and I get slapped with a carbon tax, one choice is that I passed the tax alone to my customers in the form of higher rates in which case the solar plant guy has has you know an easier way to compete and therefore their product is more valuable. But the implication of that is that the investors in the coal plant had no differential incentive to stop investing in coal because their shareholders didn't pay the price. If on the other hand the carbon tax has the effect of driving capital away from the coal plant, it means that they didn't pass along and their shareholders ate that cost.
CASTEN: And now the solar developer's saying well the price of energy to go up, so let them have a differential incentive to invest. Cap and trade by contrast says that the coal plant has to pay the solar developer and now the solar developer has a revenue stream and the, and the, and the the the coal plant has a cost and ideally you can structure those markets so that the consumer's agnostic. And and that's what I'd like to see. Now setting that aside which is admittedly a bit wonky, I don't think that's the that's the most urgent and immediate thing or even the easiest, certainly not the easiest thing to get done with the political environment. There are a ton of of fairly easy to reform incentives that we can fix that really shouldn't get a lot of a lot of challenge that would massively unleash investments in carbon reduction that primarily derive from the fact that CO2 is the only pollutant that costs you money to re release because you have to pay for fossil fuel, once you burn the fossil fuel to release CO2. Other pollutants require you to spend money so you know to get lead out of gasoline you have to invest in technologies to remove the lead, to make less soot from your power plants you have to invest in a back house or some other kind of filter to get it out. And so much of our our environmental regulation is framed around the idea that the economy and the environment are in conflict, which is true in the narrow sense for some pollutants. For Carbon Dioxide it was never true.
CASTEN: And so there's examples of places that that comes up and I'll have to apologize here for getting wonky but I think the example's illustrative. There's a provision in the Clean Air Act that says once you have an air permit, you your air permit will last for you know 10, 15, 20 years over the time that your permit's in place, standards might tighten but you will not be mandated to tighten your permit because otherwise you wouldn't invest. And that's that's fair it attracts capital, but the there's a provision in the Clean Air Act that's called the the major modification role, that says if you increase the output of your plant you have to be permanent. And that's to protect people from gaming the system by building bigger and bigger plants and keeping competition at bay. It all sounds like a great idea except that what it means practically is that if you're a if you're a steel mill or a paper mill or a power plant and you have an air permit, and you have the opportunity to invest in energy efficiency that will increase your output without increasing your combustion, you don't do it because if you did you'd get slapped with a bunch of additional permitting requirements. And there are hundreds of billions of dollars that are not being invested today because of the Clean Air Act that would lower CO2. And it's not intentional, it's fixable. It's just that the people who drafted the rules didn't contemplate that we would actually have economically beneficial environmental investments to make it when it comes to CO2. So there's a whole host of things that are like that that folks in the energy industry no one understands really well that folks in the energy industry historically have not been members of Congress.
NICIE: Yeah. And and these would be changes that would need to be codified into law as opposed to done on an executive basis through through the EPA, or?
CASTEN: Look I mean if the if the Trump administration's telling us nothing, it's that you can do a lot on executive orders but they're not very sticky. So to make these things last, let's make sure that you know all the branches of government are involved. For what it's worth you know I've had friends at the EPA who I've talked about this for years with. And you know the example I gave about the major modification is one of five or six things that would chew up the better part of this podcast. But what what my friends in the EPA have consistently told me is they totally agree that these changes could be made, but that to make the change they really need to be run through Congress, and they need to have confidence that the final version of the bill is not is not ruined by by all sorts of tinkering with the edges. And so basically with someone who's got the leadership running through them feels comfortable, as a friend told me back in the Bush administration he said if you can guarantee Cheney won't get his fingerprints on this we'll push for it. But if you can't make that guarantee don't make too much noise. So the answer to your question is "yes" but it takes, it takes leaders in Congress who understand this stuff and will will keep the bill clean.
NICIE: We've been so interested to to see that there are quite a number of green tech entrepreneurs with science and engineering backgrounds who are running for Congress in this cycle and they would include Joseph Kopser in Texas 21, and Dan McCready in North Carolina's 9th. It's interesting and you know listeners take note, if if there were you you'd almost have like a caucus in the making if the majority of you all won. Have you have you talked to any of them yet and compared notes?
CASTEN: I've I've met the nice thing is that I don't know of a lot of people running but you know a lot of the names you're mentioning are also on the D triple C's "Red to Blue" list, you know which means that you know the party thinks that we're we've got a good chance of winning and it's bringing us together, so we do get to get together and brainstorm a little bit and I think we're all kind of excited about the fact that that you know there's a we all gotta win, but you know if we do all win there's a lot of there's a lot of intellectual horsepower coming into this freshman class.
NICIE: So you had the opportunity to debate your opponent this week for the Chicago Tribune editorial board is that right?
NICIE: How'd it go?
CASTEN: I was I was very pleased. It is a it's an interesting process because having spent having spent my own career in science and business you just deal in facts and truths and you, you know you instinctively think about orders of magnitude you don't waste time talking about slices of bread when we're trying to build a bakery, and you talk about the whole bakery. He having values and views that are wildly at odds with the district but being an experienced politician, is very good about saying you know you know people love poison and the truth is that there's a tiny amount of mercury in your bed. You know just the sort of representations that are nonsensical. You know so he'll say things like, "Oh that he's very bipartisan because, because John Lewis told him that he served on an interesting committee." This guy has an F rating from the NAPPCP and the fact that he's got the gall to throw up John Lewis as a as a supporter is is unusual to put it mildly.
NICIE: Yeah and he is if I'm not mistaken in some ways is going to be one of the heirs to the Paul Ryan legacy of reducing the tax base and ballooning the deficit and then looking to the entitlement programs as a source of savings. Is that right?
CASTEN: Yeah I mean he you know he is the ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Committee which was the which was where the tax bill first had to be written before it came to the House floor for the vote. So his, his fingerprints are all over that and is, you know, is personally responsible for the fact that we got two trillion deficits now and have increased our borrowing by 4 percent and all the rest of that. He's he's a little more than that, I mean and you know my view is that is that Trump is Trump is a symptom of the of what the elected Republicans have become, he's not the cause. So, you know...
NICIE: We've been saying that for, since the beginning of this project.
CASTEN: Absolutely. You know like, you know as an example in 2015, Peter Roskam voted to deport people who had self-identified under DACA. He is now telling voters that he's you know he's offended at what Trump is doing to DACA, and I'm sitting there saying look, he's fulfilling your wildest dreams right now. You were voting for this when, you know before he came into office. He, Roskam voted against the Violence Against Women Act. And and you know he voted in favor of a counterfeit bill that would've you know would have had conscience conscience objections and slashed funding by 30 percent. We are now sitting here today with you know a president who brags about violence against women, and the Violence Against Women Act is up for it expires on September 30th. There are as of today 134 sponsors of that bill. Not a single one of them is a Republican.
NICIE: Yeah and you know this is actually one of an emerging theme of the podcast is to try to provide some background and then ultimately we hope some blueprints for the future of the GOP even though we're Democrats because this is so concerning and in our episode this week we interviewed Michele Swers from Georgetown who has studied Republican women in Congress and she talks specifically in our interview about the crucial role that I believe it was Connie Morella from Maryland played in getting the Violence Against Women Act passed and she's gone and she probably wouldn't be welcome in the party anymore if she were here now.
CASTEN: Yeah and I appreciate that you're doing that because I I you know like I didn't I didn't decide to hang a single letter off after my name until I ran for office. You know there were you know I voted for George H.W. Bush. I thought he was the best from a foreign policy perspective and he was second to no one.
NICIE: German reunification right?
CASTEN: Yeah but the well and and you know the Iraq war one I think was it was a master stroke in diplomacy. The but the the kind of values that that you know Republicans of character and I share. Right? That I believe in competitive markets. I don't confuse a competitive market with the existence of a for-profit business but believe in competitive markets. I believe in the post-World War II order in the United States and being the muscular enforcer of that order. I believe that the government has no place in my my bedroom and my bathroom. The I am certain that there are there are elected Republicans today who share those values. But name one of them who is standing up and saying the the party's lost its way. I can in the number of them who are quitting, but I can't name any of them were standing up and I don't think that's 'cause they're not there, I think it's because the the ideology of the party, the discipline of the party, and the and the the radicalization of the fringe of the party that votes in primaries is has made has put those folks in a situation where to stand up is to you know invite being replaced by someone else.
NICIE: Yeah, and and the GOP donor class is has heavily bought into these these zero government types of ideas.
CASTEN: Absolutely. But I but I do think it means that the there needs to be a massive electoral win for the Dems in this cycle not because the Dems have a have a a monopoly on good ideas, but because there has to be such a beat-down of Republicans that you know the next version of that you know Republican Study Committee after the Romney loss that was thrown away the one that said they needed to reach out to Hispanics more––.
CASTEN: That there has to be such a big beat-down that the next version that report, people say, "Yeah I for me to win in the future I have to actually be a person of good character not just someone who ran a you know a clinical field and you know disenfranchise the minorities game."
NICIE: We know you're busy and we don't want to take too much your time today but we just had a couple more personal questions. One is we know you're quite an athlete and Heather's a food writer, so tell us what are the , what are your, what's the athlete's diet, Sean Casten style?
NICIE: Off the campaign trail.
CASTEN: You're won't like my answer on this so I I don't have any great food guidance for folks, but I do wish I had more time to exercise right now, because...
NICIE: And how 'bout your family, tell us about your kids, you got two girls right? What are they into?
CASTEN: Yeah two girls, 11 and 14, and my wife Kara was the one who's been complete sentence in this process.
NICIE: I always think of of candidates' families when we get into this part of the race which seems to have arrived a little bit ahead of normal schedule where the mud starts flying. And we've noted that GOP outside groups and the CLF and all these organizations are running tons and tons of negative ads already it's not even Labor Day. How's that how's that feeling, how's that working?
CASTEN: So you know, the water starting and they're and they're you know being dumped into this, but the but they're all you know all a little bit angry but they didn't use violence yet. You know I think the positive piece is that the look it's legitimately hard to be doing this job and have a family and become a public figure and have to have those conversations. But as against that, you know they're sitting there taking social studies right now learning about government and getting this real-time education from the trenches, and what's been really really cool as a dad is that in my prior jobs I also traveled a lot, I also was never home quite as much as I wanted to be, but they found my job really boring. But with my current job, they found the job fascinating and they can come and help out with, whether that's canvassing or stuffing envelopes or putting signs together, or or marching in marching in Pride parades and Women's marches. It's just it's just really kind of neat. And you know the fact that you know they get to go out and meet people that they've seen on television from time to time, it's it's just kind of a cool thing because my girls hit that teenager period where you know any parent they want to be treated like adults before you're really ready to treat them like adults. And now now I'm doing this thing where where they can interact with me on terms that they feel like an adult, it's pretty neat.
NICIE: Well, this has been great and we should just ask you in closing how should our listeners find out more about about your campaign and and your race?
CASTEN: The Web site is CastenforCongress.com. C-A-S-T-E-N F-O-R Congress.com We're presently neck-and-neck in the polls and we know that among the undecideds once they heard about me they vastly prefer me. So everything right now depends on making sure that we we get out to vote and we touch people with truth before before they get touched by lies. So that's what we'll do, we're grateful for any help that is, that you can do to help us get there.
NICIE: That was Sean Casten running in Illinois' sixth congressional district. Now next week we're taking you to the great state of Maine in high summer to learn about the race in Maine's 2nd Congressional District. You'll hear about the candidates, the communities, and the crops that are making Downeast Maine both very traditional and very 21st-century. Thanks for listening, and please stay active.