Reflections on the downgrading of Chicago’s bond rating and the mind of a Chicago politician…
If you have ever attended a good old-fashioned museum, you may have seen this popular type of exhibit: the “reconstructed rooms” of the past:
The Thorne Miniature Rooms of the Art Institute of Chicago… the Streets of Old Chicago at the Museum of Science and Industry (down the hall from the ice cream parlor!)… and best of all, the old Milwaukee street scene in the Milwaukee County Museum.
As museum-goers walk past each room – we can’t go in, we can only peer through the windows – we see what life was like, long ago, in each different culture. An Estonian house, a Czech house, a German brewery, a country blacksmith…
We linger a little longer at the exhibits with a personal connection. My grandparents were Italian, Austrian, Irish and Scots-Irish. Those exhibits hit home, as we imagine the lives of our ancestors and better understand the choices they made, the possessions they valued, the heirlooms they lovingly passed on to us. For us modern Americans, raised with gas-fired furnaces and central air conditioners, wearing mass-produced clothing and using store-bought appliances, these brief moments at the museum are fascinating, illuminating, educational.
Sometimes – too rarely perhaps, but sometimes – we experience a similar window into the world of another culture, through the mass media. It’s one of the subjects they teach in journalism school – how to write a feature so it draws in the reader, helping him experience another place, another time, another way of life.
I had such an experience myself on March 29, while listening to the Dan Proft and Amy Jacobson Show on Chicago’s WIND, AM-560, known as “The Answer.” They were interviewing a Chicago alderman, and when Dan Proft asked him for his reaction to the freshly announced downgrade in Chicago’s bond rating (it’s now just one step above “junk,” assuming you’re into recycling), the alderman responded that “Chicago hasn’t yet found a dependable revenue stream.”
Does anyone not know that Chicago has an enormous income stream from taxes, grants, fees, licenses, and revenue sharing from other government bodies; it just spends more than it takes in?
The alderman went on to talk about how Chicago is full of abandoned buildings, and of course abandoned buildings don’t produce property taxes… and about how Chicago is full of empty storefronts, and of course empty stores don’t bring in sales taxes.
His brief response to the question about Chicago’s bond rating, while technically correct, was illuminative, at least to this one listener. It wasn’t exactly that there was anything untrue about what he said, and I don’t want to go overboard by attacking him; it’s certainly true that empty buildings don’t produce taxes. But was that point, on its own, in any way helpful?
Nonetheless, the moment produced a window into the mind of a modern statist (yes, he serves in the Chicago city council, a one-party legislature of pure statists). When asked about Chicago’s bond rating – an analysis based entirely on how good the city is at living within its means – he immediately blamed the lack of a revenue stream, caused by so many empty buildings.
The gentleman betrayed his personal economic philosophy: to him, buildings are there for government to bleed for revenue; if they can’t be squeezed for revenue, something is wrong.
Is that how today’s Left actually thinks?
The Chicken or the Egg?
Children first learn the difference between causes and symptoms when they feel sick. Perhaps if your nose and throat are stuffed by a virus, there’s no cure, so you treat the symptoms. Sometimes if your nose and throat are stuffed, it’s an indicator of a bacterial infection, so you take an antibiotic to treat the cause. Sometimes the problem is where the pain is; sometimes the pain is a deflection, and the real problem is somewhere else. Knowing the difference between a cause and a symptom is critical when it’s time for diagnosis and prescription.
In today’s case, we see the Left react to a very real problem – the downgrading of a city’s bond rating, which means that all new borrowing will become much more costly for the city than it was before – by identifying other very real problems – a plethora of empty buildings – without any hint that he knows why they’re empty or what steps are needed to fill them, without recognizing that these are all just more symptoms of other, deeper problems.
It is indeed the chicken-or-egg problem, on the grand scale. Chicago has lost about two-sevenths of its population since its high-water mark in the 1950s. This outflowing of population – some to the suburbs, some to other cities, some to the sun belt – has continued unabated for sixty years. Only recently has the city acknowledged that it might be a problem, and tried in some narrow ways to address it. Rather than seeming to care why the city is bleeding residents, it just looks on it as yet another challenge, not as a symptom of something else.
Speaking for the modern American Left – for this is how they think today, don’t kid yourself – the Alderman cites the huge number of unoccupied real estate as a root cause, when in fact that unoccupied real estate is really just the most obvious symptom of a different, deeper root cause underneath.
Asking a Conservative
Ask the very same question of a conservative, and you would receive a very different answer.
Why was our bond rating downgraded again; what does this mean to us?
“That’s a softball question,” a conservative would reply. “it was downgraded because a city that’s been bleeding both population and jobs for generations, plagued with high crime, a greedy leviathan, and a welfare state population locked in stasis, is simply unsustainable. The idea that there’s enough duct tape in America to keep this wreck together indefinitely is obviously fiction.”
“But if you want a hardball question,” the conservative would continue, “ask how to solve it.”
As any conservative knows, we need to do the following:
Leviathan: We must shrink the leviathan as much as possible. The primary cost of any government is in its staff; we must reduce the size and salaries of government at almost every level. There are challenges here, as police and fire cannot be shrunken as fast as aldermanic staffs and licensing boards can. But the direction must be made. A city that’s two-sevenths smaller should have at least two-sevenths fewer schools, at least two-sevenths fewer buses, at least two-sevenths fewer city parks to manage. The city has recently started on that course (especially in difficult school closures), but needs to move faster.
Welfare State: Like many of America’s big cities, Chicago has a millstone around its neck: the unsupportable weight of over half its population being recipients of some form government aid. While some few are in that condition by choice, the vast majority are in that condition because of conscious decisions by government. Government – at all levels – has spent generations driving jobs out of the city, out of the state, out of the country, with unbearable tax and regulatory policy, a lopsided anti-business legal climate, and a horrendous revolving-door criminal justice system. We must reverse all these errors to encourage our lost manufacturing, distribution, and offices to return. Only by creating jobs can we hope for the chronically (even generationally) unemployed to join the march toward the American Dream and escape the nihilist trap of the welfare state.
Publicly Managed Gang Recruitment Centers: Some people still call these huge old buildings “schools”… but they bear minimal resemblance to the traditional educational centers that most suburban and rural residents, and only a few favored city residents, enjoy. We must close the buildings that have such a substantial criminal population, such a high danger level to the non-criminal attendees, that any education that really does take place must be attributed to sheer luck. Homeschooling, private schooling, web-instruction – there are limitless alternatives available. Keep the good schools in place… but set thresholds for danger and test scores, below which, the school is leveled and all staff dismissed. There is no greater crime than requiring a child, under pain of prosecution for truancy, to attend a school where he or she is likely to be attacked, molested, robbed, addicted, or recruited into anything other than an internship.
Infrastructure: The Chicago of 2016 cannot afford to maintain the streets, bridges, and public transport of the Chicago of 1950. Every block of street and sidewalk has a cost; we have hundreds, maybe thousands, of blocks that lack a drop of taxpaying activity to fund them. The city must either grow in population (employed, taxpaying, self-sufficient population, either businesses or residents or both) by leaps and bounds, or the city must shrink in area (by condemning and selling great swaths as farmland, or by turning sections into prairie). Turning a quarter of the city into an Olympic park was the last mayor’s idea on this line; we need a better one.
Crime: The single biggest deterrent to improvement – in real estate, business, and residency alike – is a crime problem. People will tolerate cramped conditions, crushing traffic, and awful weather to live in a vibrant, exciting city if it’s affordable for them. But an epidemic of gang-land activity, from drugs to prostitution to muggings to home invasion, can outrank all of the above. The semi-riots and flash mob assaults in Chicago’s most important shopping districts in recent years have threatened Chicago’s status like no other. Only a true crackdown on crime – meaning the extermination of drug gangs, rapists, murderers and home invaders – can make Chicago the destination for employment and general economic growth that it so desperately needs to become.
Solutions and Challenges
On the bright side, many of these issues solve each other. Fix the crime problem, and jobs will come. Lure enough jobs, of enough variety, and the burden of the welfare state shrinks to a manageable size. As more people and businesses have an income, tax revenues rise, so the city can begin paying back its old bills at last.
But on the dark side, some of these problems are largely out of Chicago’s hands. The federal government is responsible for much of the expulsion of employers from our cities. The federal government shares responsibility for the revolving door of our criminal justice system. The federal government invited in these massive numbers of unemployable illegal immigrants, who swell the costly ranks of the police files, the school system rosters and the welfare rolls.
Many of the steps most necessary for our cities are contrary to leftist policy, so they will only occur if conservatives win control of the Executive Branch in Washington. Our big cities need a Republican president even more than our Republican rural areas do, but they’ll never admit it, even if they do ever realize it (and the odds are against it).
So, no conservative will tell you that it’s an easy fix. But at least the conservative will start by telling you the truth, by identifying the root causes and launching a discussion of possible solutions. The modern leftist cannot, and for an important reason.
The Zero Sum Game
Though few leftists will admit it outright, the modern Left believes in what is known as a “zero sum game:” the theory that the world is what it is, and all that government can do is redistribute it all.
So it is the Left that looks at buildings, and sees them – not as locations of families or shops or offices or factories, all of which provide a plethora of opportunities themselves – but as sources of revenue, nothing more, nothing less.
Here’s why this is important.
The conservative recognizes that there are different uses for a building: a church or charity will produce little revenue, but perhaps a societal good; an small office may produce little in property taxes but significant income taxes; a shop may produce minimal property and income taxes, but plenty of sales taxes. The conservative knows the advantages of all elements of the private sector, as different types of activity combine to produce a greater net in opportunities as well as pecuniary output.
The conservative sees a university town like Evanston, recognizing that the entire campus is off the property tax rolls, but sees the greater good of the sales tax revenue of the surrounding restaurant and shopping district, the income taxes and property taxes paid by the college staffers who live nearby. So the conservative sees the net positive even in this type of untaxed enterprise.
The leftist, however, may have just retained bits of knowledge from past studies, and lost the context. Empty buildings are a crime and fire danger, and they’re non-taxpaying, so fill them fast, with whatever you have. So the Left will open a government office, then another, then another. Before you know it, blocks and blocks of bad neighborhoods are filled with government offices. They don’t pay property or sales taxes, they just expand the welfare state. They employ more bureaucrats, obligate more rent and upkeep, hand out grants, make life more difficult for regular private sector enterprises.
The Left sees a store and just expects it to produce sales taxes, as if there’s a magical cornucopia pouring shoppers – with pockets stuffed with cash – directly into the revolving door, ready to buy, ready to pay taxes.
The Left sees an office building and thinks there are businesses happy to move in, if only the roads had fewer potholes, if only the newspapers would stop publishing those pesky stories about flash mobs and muggers and gangs and scaring them off. And then there would be some more property tax revenue.
Note that the Left has a reason for not worrying about the people having jobs; in their world, the people just have to move in, and then the money will begin to flow. Automatically.
- The federal and state education dollars follow the student to the grammar school, high school or college, no matter whether the student’s parents have jobs or not.
- The federal and state food stamps follow the shopper to the grocery store, liquor store, or big b box store, they all have a “WIC accepted here” sticker, no matter whether the clientele have jobs or not.
- The slum lord who gets a waiver for the problems with his building can rent to plenty of indigents; Section 8 housing aid will pay the landlord, so he can pay his taxes and his alderman, no matter whether his tenants have ever had jobs or not.
The Leftists have lived in the cities so long, they are insulated from the functions of the free market. Their answers may be superficial because their understanding of the issues are superficial… and because so much of what simply must be done – to control crime, to create employment, to return to prosperity – is so anathema to the Left, they simple don’t think deeply enough to get there.
Consider too, that the Left’s approach isn’t really interested in improving the lives of the people forced to live in these conditions. The Left is concerned about raising enough revenue to pay the government workers – the teachers union members, the police union members, the city sealers and ward heelers – but where is the effort to free the unemployed from their chains to the welfare check? Where is the desire to set people on a path out of poverty and into the middle class or better?
The conservative is the one whose interest is not in the bureaucrat but the private citizen. The conservative is the one who knows that the right way to measure success is not by how many more receive a government check, but by how many more have been freed from dependence on one.
Again, today’s exploration is nothing against a single Chicago alderman. There is no reason, from this short, polite radio exchange, to think that he, his value system, and his problem-solving ideas, are any worse than the rest of his caucus.
But it has been instructive, has it not, to take a moment, ever so briefly, to look through the window of the soul, and see the thought processes of the modern Big City Left.
To paraphrase the late F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The Left, you see, are different from you and me.”
And that is why every government you entrust to them – be it the city of Chicago, the state of California, or the nation of Venezuela – eventually becomes a bankrupt disaster area, desperately seeking a bailout from somebody outside.
Assuming there’s still somebody else outside whom they haven’t similarly bankrupted already.
Copyright 2016 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based international trade lecturer and writer. A movement conservative in the 1980s and minor party activist in the 1990s, he has now been a recovering politician for nearly nineteen years.
Just for the record, the alderman in question, in the March 29 AM560 interview, was Roderick T. Sawyer of Chicago’s 6th Ward. Just in case you’re interested.
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