By John F. Di Leo -
For much of human history, world leaders never met each other.
Oh, they might have met on the field of battle, or at the arranged weddings of their children… but for the most part, rulers didn’t meet unless they ruled neighboring countries. The world was simply too big a place, distances too great, the burdens of monarchy too demanding, to risk a three or six month voyage. You might not have a throne to return to, by the time you returned.
So they invented diplomats. Nations would appoint permanent ambassadors, or at least temporary envoys, to visit other heads of state on their behalf. The whole industry of embassies and consulates is based on the fact that countries need to retain formal relations with each other, without having their bosses visit in person all the time.
Technology has changed the world. Today, kings and queens, emperors and dictators, prime ministers and presidents can all hop a flight anywhere in the world, visiting whomever they wish, committing mere days, not months or years, to the voyage.
They can. But that doesn’t mean they should.
Because of security concerns in this era of Marxist protesters and jihadist terrorists, the May 2012 NATO Summit requires disruptions on every CTA and Metra train in Chicagoland. Road closures create gridlock (yes, even worse than usual, in some cases by a matter of hours, not minutes) throughout the city and especially on the critical thoroughfare between O’Hare International Airport and downtown Chicago.
To deal with the expected tens of thousands of protesters and potential security risks, airport-style security checkpoints will be added on many trains bound for downtown Chicago and McCormick Place… no food or drink, no bicycles, limits on the size of your briefcases or purses, no backpacks at all on some routes.
If you’re a businessman with a presentation, or a student with classes, or one of a million other civilians with normal jobs or normal plans for life in a big city on these days, forget it. From Friday to Monday, May 18 to 21, and to a lesser extent, for days in each direction, the city of Chicago exists for the greater glory of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his hosting of the NATO Summit.
No one doubts that modern summits require careful security provisions. Everyone acknowledges that. But if such security provisions rob an entire metro area – the third largest in the United States – of productivity for four-plus days, shouldn’t the whole question of whether to host the event take that issue into account?
There is no name for the current economy. It’s not a recession because they haven’t counted two successive quarters of negative growth, but it’s also not a recovery because unemployment keeps climbing, home values keep plummeting, and opportunities are frozen by an economy terrified of the next crippling decision, regulation, or program to emanate from that torture chamber on the Potomac known as Washington, D.C.
Chicago has a thrilling shopping district – several of them, in fact, as the Loop shopping area is distinct from the Michigan Avenue and Water Tower areas. This event will rob them of several days of clientele. How much of that clientele? Impossible to judge – twenty percent? Forty percent? More? In addition to dissuading shoppers from doing their shopping these days, the reduced sales will cost the shop owners and chain stores their profits, and the sales clerks their commissions. Not to mention the reduced sales tax receipts and transit ticket income that will result from these cancelled or curtailed shopping excursions.
When people shop, they eat. At diners, at restaurants, at food courts, at pushcarts. The great Chicago pizzerias, steakhouses, and ethnic and other cuisines that put this city on the culinary map all depend on these shoppers to stop for lunch between stores, or for dinner at the end of the shopping day. This momentary boom for McCormick Place will cost hundreds of restaurants their 20%, or 40%, or more, as well. Chefs, cooks, owners, hostesses, waiters and waitresses, busboys and dishwashers… and the supply houses, the SYSCOs and Continentals and other institutional providers of ingredients to the restaurant business. They may or may not notice, being one or two steps removed from the event, but their May sales will be lower, as a result of Mayor Emanuel’s ego. And by the way… all these places collect sales tax as well, collections that will drop proportionally from the food service world for the duration. One would think the aldermen, county commissioners, and state legislators might have thought about this too.
Chicago is the home of major schools, colleges, universities. From the Northwestern University Law School to the Business Schools of Loyola, DePaul, and the University of Chicago… from the relatively small school of the Art Institute to the enormous University of Illinois at Chicago… these students and teachers need to get into town for regular classes, for extra studying, not just on Friday and Monday but for the special executive classes held on weekends as well. The city may not care as much about adding two or three hours to their commutes – no sales tax receipts are jeopardized by holding THEM up – but when these kids get their degrees, and are deciding whether to stay in Chicago or leave for a friendlier community far away, they will remember this week of unnecessary shutdowns, slowdowns, and patdowns. And many will vote with their feet.
Too much of this discussion has focused on the groups for which they have easy answers (not good ones, just easy ones). Many businessmen can choose to take a paid vacation day, so let’s not talk about the ones who cannot. Many of the theaters have already sold tickets, so they won’t lose that many last minute sales, right? Never mind the fact that anyone who travels to Chicago to shop and see a play on this particular weekend will tell their friends of nothing but the gridlock when they get home.
Mayor Emanuel is so focused on the boom at McCormick Place and the international press coverage about the summit, he and his staff have refused to consider the negatives of hosting the event. When people travel to Chicago to see a play at the Cadillac Palace, at the Schubert, at the Lyric, they should be returning home to sing the praises of this wonderful city – how great the acting was, how delicious the food, how beautiful the skyline, how comfortable the hotel. Not the travelers of mid-May, 2012.
Mayor Emanuel has dreamed of sending out fifty-some entourages of ambassadors for Chicago, as these heads of state and their staffs report back home about how wonderful their time in Chicago was, as if all they have to say about a summit was the scenery and friendliness of the hosts… as if the policy discussions of the meetings would be set aside in favor of the human interest story of Chicago’s great buildings by Helmut, Mies, and Louis.
In fact, the most likely reality is that the world leaders won’t be the PR story at all. Rather, the mayor will be sending out tens of thousands of tourists who’ll never return to Chicago after this, ticket-buyers who won’t return to the shopping, the hotels, or the theaters, shoppers who’ll never again visit Water Tower or our landmark Macy’s.
Instead, they’ll tell their friends to stay away, to visit any other city but this one, because of what a nightmare the gridlock was, what an affront the security checks were, how miserable it was to have spent a mint for tickets to a play and then never made it there, or only arrived at the intermission, because who could ever have dreamed that the traffic would be THIS bad…
The mayor says that we’ve endured slowdowns before, and this is true. We have unexpected slowdowns caused by blizzards, unavoidable slowdowns caused by necessary road construction or equipment trouble on the rail lines, expected slowdowns caused by the baseball and football games of our century-old sports teams. All such traffic disruptions are essentially logical… as is even the general lousy traffic of a normal Chicago day. It’s a big city; travelers and locals alike understand and expect rough traffic caused by the layout and the sports stadiums that predate our arrival here.
But travelers and locals alike do not expect intentional bad traffic, intentional slowdowns, intentional shutdowns of 27 train station, major highways, critical intersections and neighborhoods. It’s the fact that this is unnecessary, intentional even, that makes it so infuriating.
The event could have been held near Washington, D.C. or New York City, both of which expect such foreign dignitaries and meetings. It would have been no disruption to speak of if held there. Or it could have been held near some smaller metro area, one where the venue could have been more convenient to the airport, outside the city rather than within it. There are dozens of such locations, all over the country, locations where the security issues would have caused no traffic disruptions, no intrusions on the liberty and commerce of everyone else.
Or best of all, the event could simply not have been held at all. Why gather dozens of heads of state into a single place? Why create the massive expenditures of public funds, both for the host country and the homes of all the attendees? Why should France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, England, and their many neighbors all pay tens of millions of their respective constituents’ tax dollars, just to fly their rulers and their top tier of apparatchiks to some distant den of iniquity for a conference? If they were staying, it might be worth the money for these respective home countries, but these thousands of politicians and civil servants will all return home at the end of it.
These countries are practically all bankrupt. Whether they admit it or not, the vast majority of the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization members are in severe economic trouble (the USA included), with weak manufacturing, sluggish GDPs, unaffordable acknowledged debt, and suffocating unspoken and unfunded mandates. They could have saved their economies a few million dollars each by staying home. Why don’t they?
This is the most upsetting issue at hand. In addition to the summit being destructive to the host city’s people and pocketbooks, it is also destructive to the visitors’ home countries. It is, in fact, destructive to everyone.
World leaders have diplomats to send. They have speakerphones and cellphones to dial. They have Skype on their computers and monitors on their walls. They could have held a conference call or videochat, and saved their respective constituents a total in the billions of dollars.
But tragically, this crop of world leaders isn’t interested in saving their constituents their hard-earned tax dollars; they’d rather expend precious time and money on a huge and unnecessary photo op than act in the best interest of their citizenries.
And on that issue at least, Mayor Emanuel fits right in with NATO heads of state. Heaven help us.
Copyright 2012 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade compliance trainer. As a fan of NATO and a student of history, he doesn’t have a problem with these leaders talking; he just wishes they’d do it over the phone, and shepherd their precious resources toward the next time they need to cooperate on the battlefield. Modern wars are expensive; a fragile and indebted economy is a poor foundation for a military alliance.
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