Meet the Rascals: Austin Berg

Austin Berg, 29, is a regular panelist with me on the Mincing Rascals podcast at WGN-plus. He is the Vice President of Marketing for the Illinois Policy Institute and a contributor to the Economist, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, ABC 7 Chicago and WTTW-Ch. 11. He is also the co-author of “The New Chicago Way: Lessons from Other Big Cities,” and he wrote the 2016 documentary film, “Madigan: Power. Privilege. Politics.” This interview, edited for length and clarity, was part of a Mincing Rascals episode in December, 2019

JOHN WILLIAMS (HOST) : Tell us where you’re from.

AUSTIN BERG: I was born in Evanston. My mom was a scientist at Northwestern University. She has a PhD in cell biology. I moved around throughout the state as a kid, and then I went to college out east at Tufts University just outside Boston

JW: You were a Jumbo!

AB: Go Jumbos!

ERIC ZORN (FELLOW PANELIST): Why did you move around the state so much as a kid?

AB: For my dad’s job

EZ: Is he an academic too?

AB: No. He works in healthcare finance. He ran for a congressional seat when we lived in Decatur. So as a kid I was throwing out candy in parades and stuff.

JW: He didn’t get elected?

AB: No. He lost in the primary. We also lived in Champaign before moving to the western suburbs. I went to Hinsdale Central High School.

JW: No kidding! Because, you know I’m a Lyons Township guy, which is Hinsdale’s rival.

AB: Well, Hinsdale Central thinks New Trier is its rival. But if you ask someone from New Trier if they think that’s true they’ll dismiss you. And Hinsdale Central has similar thoughts about LT.

JW: So in other words, Hinsdale is so much better than LT that when LT says “That’s our rival,” Hinsdale people say “No, not so much, you’re not there yet.”

AB: That’s what I observed.

JW: Which is what LT says about Oak Park/River Forest, by the way.

EZ: What did you study at Tufts?

AB: Political science and economics

JW: And was this the sort of thing you aspired to do someday? Working for the Illinois Policy Institute? Analyzing social issues? Almost nobody gets paid to do that. How fortunate for you.

AB: Oh my gosh, yes. It’s the best job ever.

EZ: What was your path to that?

AB: When I was in high school I did yard work one summer and I’d just gotten a device that allowed me to listen to audiobooks. Someone told me to listen to “Free to Choose” by Milton Friedman. And I loved it. I got way into Friedman. I got way into behavioral economics.

So then I went to college and studied that. And one summer I applied for a program that offers students fellowships for think tanks. They said you can go to D.C. or you can work at a state-based think tank. I learned that if I chose the Illinois Policy Institute, I could live free at my parents’ house and still get to keep the housing stipend. That’s why I ended up there as an intern. After I graduated they had a job opening and I’ve been there since 2014.

JW: So what’s a day like for you?

AB: Well, first I have to do background reading to find out what the political and policy narrative is at the state and local levels. We do a lot of storytelling work around public policy issues. We do a lot of engagement with lawmakers personally in order to advance the policies that we think will better the state. And then we do a ton of writing and a ton of engagement on social media. We have the biggest policy megaphone in the state. We have 1.5 million people on our email list (updated number). We have a huge Facebook following.

EZ: Do you have a lot of meetings at the office?

AB: I’m a hater of meetings. I try to avoid meetings as much as possible. (in a December 2021 update, Austin reports he’s now in meetings up to six hours a day) We have a “policy pipeline” meeting once a week when the teams get together and talk about our priorities and discuss how we can best effect change and tell our community what’s going on.

JW: Is the IPI doing somebody’s bidding? Are you taking direction from Republicans?

AB: Definitely not. For all of our legislative proposals last year, the chief sponsor was a Democrat because we care about passing laws and the Democrats have a supermajority in the House and Senate and they have the governor’s mansion. So we need to get along and work with Democrats on all sorts of issues. We independently come up with our legislative agenda every year.

JW: So are you more left-leaning than people think?

AB: It depends on the issue. We’ve been criticized viciously by the right and by the left. But given the state’s fiscal problems we’re often most vocal in ways that would be considered right wing.

EZ: The IPI defines itself libertarian, right? And that’s where your heart is.

AB: That’s my lane, yes.

JW: So what’s the definition of that? Is it economically conservative?

AB: In terms of state policy it’s don’t spend more than you take in. Don’t dump billions of dollars of debt onto the next generation. On social issues — like abortion or the Second Amendment — we don’t take positions because you can’t comment on everything and that’s not our specialty. But on things like criminal justice reform we’ve done a lot of work.

One of my most rewarding projects was working with a woman named Lisa Creason in Decatur, helping her get an occupational licensing bill passed. She’d paid her own way through nursing school, lived in a terrible part of Decatur, and raised three kids by herself after her fiancé was killed by a stray bullet. But after she graduated from nursing school the state said she couldn’t get a license to be a registered nurse because she’d been convicted of attempting to steal from a Subway sandwich shop cash register when she was 19.

We lobbied for her in the legislature and got a bill passed that allowed her to get her license. Now she has that job and a meaningful way to earn a living. Since then, thousands of other people in similar situations have been able to do that. That’s not a traditional right- leaning issue but that story is an example of how we care most about economic opportunity. That’s where we play.

EZ: What do you do when you’re not nerding out our policy?

JW: Basketball? You’re very tall. How tall are you?

AB: I’m 6’3” to 6’4”, somewhere around there. Eric and I should stand back to back to see who’s taller.

EZ: We’re about the same height, but at my age I’m shrinking, so…

JW: Steve Bertrand comes in at 6’6”

AB: I love music. I collect music. I go to a lot of shows.

JW: Who’s your band? What’s the last show you went to?

AB: The last great show I went to was Will Kraus. He’s a noise musician from New York. He played at Schubas. It was a really good show. I also love Wilco.

JW: Married? Kids?

AB: Not married. (note, Austin was married in 2023) No kids. Two siblings. (December, 2021 update: I’m engaged to my long-time live-in girlfriend, Emily, a middle-school English teacher. We went to the same high school. The summer after our freshman year of college —she went to UW-Madison — we rode the train together every day into the city. Months later, on the same day, we independently told a mutual friend we had feelings for each other. He’ll  be our wedding officiant ).