“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
― Lewis Carroll,
By: Mark Glennon*
Is some form of madness behind the response of Chicago and Cook County to the death spiral they are in? Let’s first look at the headlines from just this past week because, like Alice, you may quickly find six crazy things you’ll have to accept:
– Two weeks after raising Cook County’s sales tax to the highest in the country, it’s now considering a pay increase of $130 million over five years.
– Chicago may authorize “capital appreciation bonds” that, like a negative mortgage, would push principal and interest payments off until later, an idea rejected by Puerto Rice as being too risky and too expensive.
– Chicago released numbers showing it faces a $426 million dollar budget deficit, but that’s based on rosy assumptions, including the almost certainly false hope that it will get pension reforms it wants, so the real deficit is likely over $1 billion.
– No ideas emerged on how Chicago can fund a primary obligation of any modern government — schools.
– Detroit is trading places with Chicago on credit ratings. The raters began upgrading Detroit to investment grade while Chicago sinks further into junk status.
– Senate President John Cullerton went before the Chicago Tribune editorial board and stuck to his position that things aren’t as bad as reported. House Speaker Michael Madigan wrote an op-ed with the usual claim that his leadership is best for the poor and middle class.
Maybe it’s just a routine matter of what shrinks call “cognitive dissonance.” The starting point on that theory would be a fact that’s hard to deny rationally — that our model of government in Illinois is broken. We simply aren’t generating the jobs, revenue and growth we need to meet promises made. Try saying it just that way to a traditional Illinois politician, like pretty much every officeholder from Cook County. I have, including to some legislative leaders. You don’t really get disagreement. You get a blank stare. They can’t directly deny it. How could they?
But acknowledging that truth would invalidate pretty much everything they’ve stood for in their public lives. It would mean telling their supporters, in particular, that they won’t be getting their checks. Reality is an existential threat to all they stand for.
They resolve the conflict in the worst ways that cognitive dissonance theory predicts — by ignoring fact and equating opposition with immorality. Their talking points are things like, “the ‘sky isn’t falling.” Things will return to normal after the unusually tough recession fully passes. We just need more of what we’ve been doing, which is more revenue and more programs that alleviate the symptoms. We’re standing up for the little guy. The opposition is just greedy — the rich want to cut their tax bills and steal pensions from widows and orphans.
It doesn’t help that so many in Chicago’s political establishment are so, well, parochial. Many grew up in the neighborhoods they represent. Many still go to the same parishes as when they were kids. They’ve worked little with people from elsewhere, most being lawyers whose practice focuses only on Illinois matters — property taxes, regulatory issues and the like. That contrasts with most people today in the private sector, even the young who have lived only here. Most everybody now is constantly on the phone or the internet, watching presentations, solving problems and dealing with government issues and people around the country if not the world. They’ve acquired a different approach to problems and a fresh perspective on how things can be better.
Personally, I don’t think members of our political class are really crazy in some way — individually, that is. But masses are a different thing entirely and in that sense, yes, whole societies can be nuts.
“In individuals, insanity is rare, said Friedrich Nietzsche, “but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”
History is crammed with tragedies caused by the pull of allegiance to widely accepted norms of many forms — quack ideologies, nationalist zeal, populist distortions, half-baked war plans and outright superstition. The common denominator is confidence in group orthodoxy. Leadership begins to believe its own you-know-what.
It’s the same in economic history, where scandal and collapse regularly derive from herd confidence feeding on itself. Bernie Madoff and countless like him were widely regarded as superstars, even kind-hearted ones. Enron had the “smartest guys in the room.” GM and Ford couldn’t go bankrupt. Everybody knew that mortgage backed securities were secured and safe. The stock market couldn’t go down in the roaring twenties. “Things were different” in the 1990s tech world. Price bubbles of all kinds are nothing more than group confidence in group action.
The inertia and mass in Chicago is particularly strong by historical standards. Chicago hasn’t seen any serious challenge to its model of government in generations, except from the far left. Most voters have never heard from a genuinely different candidate. Both Daleys are still regarded as fine guys, devoted to their families, who somehow made Chicago what they think was “the city that worked.” Yes, cracks in public confidence are growing, but the central reality that the model is broken hasn’t fully sunk in.
It’s early, but I’m pretty sure the quote of the year will be House Minority Leader Jim Durkin’s from back in March. To the majority, he said, “You’re insane. And history will look upon you unkindly.”
The problem is that he was addressing state government. There, at lease the brakes have been slammed on, thanks to Governor Rauner and a few in the General Assembly, including Durkin. True, maybe a better analogy is that they’ve thrown a wrench in the works, because it has indeed gotten messy, but at least in Springfield the traditional momentum is stopped. Rauner did instinctively and immediately what must be done when the model is broken — stop funding it and fix it. For the state, either Rauner will succeed or Illinois will fail with him. Nothing is clearer, whether you like his approach or not.
Chicago and Cook County have no Rauner, nor any minority to call out insanity. Their race to the cliff continues. Only radical changes will break the spiral.
*Mark Glennon is founder of WirePoints. Opinions expressed are his own.