By: Mark Glennon*
I still remember the smiles on my grandparents’ faces when they described the 1920s. They were in Chicago then, which was perhaps the most rip-roaring center of dynamism and opportunity on the planet in what seemed like the best of times.
I wish I were writing why this decade promises to be the same, but that’s not to be.
Instead, this is the time to address the most frequent theme we see in comments on this site and emails we get, which is the coming resolution of Illinois’ state and local fiscal crisis. That crisis will resolve one way or another over the course of this decade. We know that because simple math says it must.
By “resolve” I’m not implying anything benign. I mean what you readers have called it here – a meltdown, big bang, crash, finale. Call it what you want. We’ve used those terms, too, though sometimes in different ways.
Just “let it blow up” is a common sentiment. Why bother suggesting reforms, many have asked, when the political establishment has no interest in reforms? It’s too late anyway now, with or without reforms, others say.
Here’s our view, which we emphasize because it’s key to our purpose: The meltdown should neither be accelerated by artificial pessimism nor delayed by artificial optimism. A meltdown, however, is both necessary and inevitable.
By meltdown I mean a crash in Illinois’ state and local public sector severe enough to shock the public and the political establishment into drastic reform. If a crash is artificially accelerated by deliberate action or misinformation, politicians would dismiss it as such. Today, the establishment still covers up the depth of our problems — by lying — and it would be a mistake to arm them with something better.
And the meltdown indeed must be severe enough to induce shock, because decades of experience show how impervious Illinois voters and lawmakers are to financial reality.
Based on that foundation, we often propose reforms that aren’t politically feasible for now. If we instead limited ourselves to what’s politically feasible today our work would be pointless. Reform proposals today are best thought of as building blocks that will be needed when the time comes. They must be thought through, popularized and put on the shelf, ready to go.
What form will the meltdown take and when will it happen? Your speculation is as good as ours.
Maybe the federal corruption probes will spark a massive government shake-up in both state and local government. Rumors persist that at least 20 state lawmakers have received notifications that they are federal targets. It’s entirely possible that the Chicago Machine, which still controls the state, could be decimated and decapitated. The risk then, however, is that they’d be replaced by the growing brand of progressives who are at least as fiscally reckless as the incumbents, so the crisis would continue.
Maybe the finale will be sparked by a recession or a natural disaster, or maybe bond investors will panic. Maybe there will be no single bang but a continuing, slow motion train wreck, which is what we suspect. “It’s happening” already, we’ve written before, the latest evidence being new Census Bureau data showing the state lost population for the sixth year in a row. Even a slow burn, however, must culminate in a moment where a majority finally says, “enough.”
One sentiment expressed by some of our commenters — that we reject — is that leaving the state is a universal solution. Some even say that’s a moral imperative. Leaving is entirely sensible for many but it’s simply not a viable solution for countless others.
And whether you stay, leave or are already gone, there’s more at stake than just Illinois. New Jersey, Connecticut, California and maybe others are not far behind us. How we respond to our crisis will provide the lessons for other fundamentally broken models of state and municipal government across the country.
For that reason, a genuinely historic decade is at hand.
Let’s hope that by the end of this decade people of basic decency and common sense will have roared, giving future historians a different reason to call this decade, too, the Roaring Twenties.
We’re enormously grateful to our informed commenters and generous contributors, so there’s no better way to end this than with a comment left by one who goes by Illinois Entrepreneur:
Happy Holidays, Wirepointers. As infuriating as Illinois is, I’m thankful that I can come here and vent with intelligent people who get it. Perhaps one day our voices will make a difference, but until then, it’s nice to commiserate with like-minded people.
Stay healthy and safe, and I wish all of you happiness during this season and beyond.
*Mark Glennon is founder of Wirepoints.