By: Mark Glennon*
A bit of a national stir has erupted over an editorial by the Chicago Tribune’s Kristen McQueary. Frustrated by Chicago’s unwillingness to face up to its financial crises, she wrote about why we need a shock into action. “That’s why I find myself praying for a real storm,” she wrote. “It’s why I can relate, metaphorically, to the residents of New Orleans climbing onto their rooftops and begging for help and waving their arms and lurching toward rescue helicopters.”
We’ll get back to the story, but here’s a fact that’s more important than any editorial: The fiscal storm we face is far worse than Katrina inflicted (in terms of dollars, that is, not human suffering). Three years ago, when we were kicking off our work on this site to flag how bad things were, we went through the numbers showing that the unfunded pension liabilities for Illinois and Chicago are higher than the combined damage from both Katrina and Sandy, the hurricane that hit the Northeast in 2012. Damages from those two storms totaled about $150 billion; our combined pension deficits alone are higher than that. That’s on a statewide basis, but the problems for Illinois, Chicago and the rest of its municipalities are part of the same mess. (The total unfunded pension liability for Illinois and Chicago, including healthcare, exceeds $150 billion, even using official numbers.)
And here’s the kicker: Those damages from Sandy and Katrina were spread across many states, many people, many governments and many insurance companies. Sandy affected some 80 million people across fifteen states. Insurance companies paid most of its damages. The Federal government covered most of Katrina’s. But there is only one source for Chicago and Illinois to pay its liabilities — their taxpayers. There will be no Federal help and there is no insurance.
Human suffering is a different subject. Dollars don’t measure what Katrina inflicted, and the dereliction of the Bush Administration as Katrina unfolded was a catastrophe unto itself. But have no doubt that human suffering from fiscal incompetence is massive and that its consequences grow every day that action is delayed. The faces of the victims are not be as easily identifiable as in New Orleans, but they’re there.
Now, about McQueary’s editorial:
Anxious for a shot at financially realistic McQueary and the Tribune, their critics pounced. Dozens of articles are saying she literally wants Chicago to get hit with something like Hurricane Katrina that hit New Orleans. “The most evil op-ed writer ever,” says one. “Insensitive…racist,” wrote plenty of others.
And nobody was happier than Illinois’ political establishment to have that shot at the Tribune. “I find it morally reprehensible they would use the unfortunate death of 1500 people – poor and colored people – that way,” said Mayor Emanuel. “Cheerleading for Katrina-like disaster to strike confirms paper’s bankrupt journalism,” tweeted state senator Lou Lang (D-Skokie).
McQueary now has written again to explain and express regret, but not really to apologize. Good. Some of her readers do seem to have taken her literally to say that she was hoping for a disaster. That was a clear misreading, I think, since no rational person would hope for that. Indeed, her article starts by saying, “Envy isn’t a rational response to the upcoming 10-year anniversary of Katrina.” Still, for those readers, McQueary’s words failed. For them, her explanation and regret is appropriate.
But a simple “drop dead” would be the right answer for her other critics — the ones who know full well what she was trying to say — and that she’s right. When you say, ‘drop dead,’ that doesn’t really mean you really want somebody dead.
The uproar about her article should be about her real point — that Chicago needs to be shocked into action. She’d be right on that, except it’s too late now. Here’s what Richard Ravitch said three years ago. He led the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority during that city’s financial crisis of the mid-1970s “I think it’s going to reach a point where there’s either social disorder or bankruptcy before people will act.” We, too, wrote three years ago that “only a devastating shock” would wake Chicago up.
Since then, McQueary and the Tribune’s editorial pages have been the only regular media in Illinois saying how bad things truly are. McQueary’s most recent articles have been superb. The last lines of her latest piece say it all: “Chicago needs urgent, revolutionary change. We can’t keep borrowing our way into bankruptcy. That’s what was in my heart.”
Chicago hasn’t listened.
Chicago is now at a point like ten years ago when we watched water start breaking through the berms surrounding New Orleans. It’s in a financial death spiral and the only question now is how badly it will end. The engineers responsible knew those berms had failed. Chicago’s leadership still denies. The only way in which McQueary was wrong is that it’s too late for a big shock to help much now.
*Mark Glennon is founder of WirePoints. Opinions expressed are his own.