WALTER RUSSELL MEAD
Three states form the base of Democratic political power in the United States: California, New York and Illinois. All three states are locked in an accelerating economic, demographic and social decline; all three hope that they can stave off looming disaster at home by exporting the policies that have ruined them to the rest of the country.
Mary Williams Walsh, a talented reporter who is doing much to sustain the luster of the New York Times brand these days, hasa must-read piece on the mess that is Illinois, and it is a compelling description of the misery and ruin that well-intentioned liberals combined with aggressive public sector labor unions inflict on the poor they ostensibly want to serve.
Reporting on a bipartisan task force report on Illinois’ grotesquely mismanaged finances, Walsh tells it like it is. As Walsh summarizes the findings of the task force co-chaired by Paul Volcker and Richard Ravitch:
Illinois has the lowest credit rating of the 50 states and has America’s second-biggest public debt per capita, $9,624, including state and local borrowing. Only New York State’s debt is bigger, at $13,840 per capita. But Illinois has not been able to use much of the borrowed money to keep its roads, bridges and schools in good working order, because years of shoddy fiscal practices have taken a heavy toll, the report said.
This of course is President Obama’s home state; one wishes that he spent more time on the campaign trail describing his horror and remorse at what decades of bad government have done. Apparently, the subject holds no interest for him: no lessons to be learned here about where blue governance ultimately leads.
But there is more. As Walsh writes,
Nearly two-thirds of the Illinois state government’s $58 billion in direct debt consists of bonds the government issued to cover retirement payments for workers, including a $10 billion pension obligation bond that broke all previous records in 2003.
Yet despite all that borrowing, Illinois’ public pension system is still in tatters. In fact, its total pension shortfall is conservatively estimated at $85 billion. Recent changes that raised the retirement age for new workers and limited the pensions that future workers can earn have not reduced the existing obligations.
The task force said that further reductions in pension benefits appear inevitable, though legally difficult, because the state has promised more than it can deliver.
Illinois politicians, including the present President of the United States, have wrecked one of the country’s potentially most prosperous and dynamic states, condemned millions of poor children to substandard education, failed to maintain vital infrastructure, choked business development and growth through unsustainable tax and regulatory policies — and still failed to appease the demands of the public sector unions and fee-seeking Wall Street crony capitalists who make billions off the state’s distress.
Blue politicians speak eloquently and often sincerely about their desire to help the poor. They speak beautifully about the need for better education as a ticket to better lives. They speak intelligently about the contributions a well managed, well organized government can make to the common good.
But these beautiful sentiments have less and less to do with the actual policies they pursue. Readers of Via Meadia can see a pattern here. We have “peace movements” incapable of advancing the cause of peace; environmentalists whose political ineptitude damages the causes they most hope to serve; and we have a form of blue state liberalism that blights the lives of exactly the people it wants to help most.
American liberalism today is in an advanced stage of intellectual decline. Cynical and short sighted interests wrap themselves in the increasingly tattered mantles of sacred ideas. Liberals are right to feel that social justice matters, that the poor should have greater opportunity and that government in a democratic society cannot remain indifferent to the existence of great social evils.
But where liberals in America have the freest hand—in states like New York, California and Illinois—we see incontrovertible evidence that the policies they choose don’t have the consequences they predict. California by now should surely be an educational, environmental and social utopia. New York should be a wonder of glorious liberal governance. Illinois should be known far and wide as the state that works.
What’s interesting about the governance failures of these states is how comprehensive they are. Other than politicians, union officials and Wall Street investment banks, nobody really benefits from the choices Illinois has made. As the Volker-Ravitch report tells us, even the public sector unions, the architects of many of the state’s most destructive policies, are going to get shafted as a result of the bad policies they’ve supported. They’ve created a state that simply won’t be able to honor its promises to the workers the unions represent.
The French say that behind every great fortune lies a great crime. But it is also true to say that behind every great failure lies a great blunder. Late 20th century American liberalism is wrong about the way the world works. It doesn’t understand cause and effect very well. It cannot feed itself. Given full power it cannot design and implement policies that advance the causes it honors. Modern American liberalism can only win Pyrrhic victories, because liberals in power take steps that advance their decline.
This is not to say that conservatives and Republicans have all the answers. Sometimes, they aren’t even asking the right questions. What will happen to the African-American middle class if government employment continues to be cut, the USPS is allowed to reform, and the Supreme Court further restricts the use of race preferences in higher ed? If liberal policies are increasingly failing African Americans and the poor more broadly, what can be done? If bureaucracies staffed by unionized, life-tenured civil servants are too expensive and too inefficient to do the jobs that need to be done at a sustainable cost, what are some other ways we can organize government functions? Clinging grimly on to failing policies and dying institutions is the Democratic answer by and large, even as Democratic policies accelerate the rate of decline and aggravate the damage done. But the serious work of building alternative visions and models and testing them out at the state level is still in its very early stages.
Some 21st century answers, like charter schools, have already appeared and won a measure of bipartisan support, but much more needs to be done. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives need to think much more clearly and much less sentimentally about policy so that voters can have choices that are both clearer and better than the ones we have now.
In the meantime, it is more than troubling that President Obama seems so unwilling to reflect on the rich experience of liberal failure in his home state. A term or two as governor of Illinois, wrestling with the consequences of liberal decadence for the constituencies he cares most about, might have prepared him for a genuinely historic role. As it is, he is running for re-election as the torchbearer-in-chief of an ideology that has long passed its prime.
Doubts about his opponents (and many of these are well justified) and the lingering nostalgia many Americans still feel for the values and institutions of the liberal past may yet enable the President to squeak out a win next month and if so, I will join his supporters in wishing him well and in prayer that God will give him the wisdom and the strength to lead the country for another four years. But at a time when the overwhelming policy failures of modern American liberalism are undermining the basic viability of three of our greatest states, it is to say the least disappointing that the President wants to nail the national colors to the mast of a sinking ship—and that he has so little to say about the comprehensive failure of the political allies among whom he launched his career.