Home > Public Service, Unions > Chicago and Baghdad: Sister cities for the age of profligacy

Chicago and Baghdad: Sister cities for the age of profligacy

An interesting article from Dennis Byrne in today’s Chicago Tribune asks whether Chicago is ready for democracy, which echoes eerily the punditocracy’s take on Iraq.  He’s on to something though.  Chicago has never really been a representative government, having suffered through years of mobsters, union thugs, and political machines (and occasionally all three at once).  Not to mention more than 40 years of Daleys.  Speaking of Daley:

Why hasn’t he endorsed an heir apparent? Why didn’t he groom anyone for the job?

The absence of a clear line of succession has some people worried about the return of Council Wars and “Beirut on the Lake,” the consequences of the ugly brawl for the orb and scepter of Daley’s father, Richard J.

What is this, the Grand Duchy of Daley?

Well, I suppose that’s a good question.  Chicago has found itself unwilling and unable to elect anyone not named Daley since the first George Bush was in office.  This despite the fact that Chicago, and indeed the entire state of Illinois, is bankrupt almost beyond comprehension. 

Although he is currently facing an approval rating of roughly 35%, Daley managed to rake in more than 70% of the vote in his last few elections.  And one certainly wouldn’t view his low approval numbers as fatal to another campaign, given the ruthless efficiency with which the machine organizes. 

How does one become so untouchably popular?  Byrne has an idea:

Not a few people see value in Daley’s “strong leadership,” for bringing the city together, for ending (or at least submerging) the racial and ethnic hostilities that have historically divided this city. It has almost become a cliche in recent days: Daley held the city together by bringing everyone “in.”

Uh-huh. If he is to receive credit for the sea change, it wasn’t that he just opened up his City Hall office for every faction and said, “Take a seat at the table.” He did it by giving them stuff.

…Stuff that, when you add it all up, costs money, lots of it. To the tune of an estimated budget deficit of $655 million next year.

The result of corruption, like the Daley administration, is massive problems that get kicked down to the next generation, but when the bill comes due, where will the city turn?  Here’s a brief summary of Chicago’s seemingly intractable problems:

All this kumbaya has virtually sunk this city, and whoever inherits this mess has some serious cutting to do. Cutting that will have to be balanced racially, ethnically, geographically and, pray tell, by sexual preference. The problems line up to the horizon: gang warfare; sinking credit ratings; the remainder of a 10-year labor contract that Daley gave to major city unions in 2007; other out-of-control employee costs; tax increment financing boondoggles; Block 37; ill-considered, overly ambitious and underfunded capital projects; three-person garbage trucks.

What’s the moral of the Daley story?  Simply this: if you want to remove corruption from the government, remove power from those who govern.  Chicago is not a responsive democracy, and it’s not a city that has any institutional respect for the rule of law, preferring instead to rely on strongmen more in the mold of Latin American caudillos than the founding fathers.  Because of that, the city’s imperial overlord, along with his corrupt cronies, have been able to abscond with the municipal wealth for decades.  The situation is sad, but not unexpected. 

After all, it has happened before.  In Iraq.

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