The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Five hundred million

Long flights give me a chance to catch up on reading. In between disposing of all the back issues of whatever magazines I haven't opened in weeks, and Kindling the novels I've had queued up for months, I also get to read through the emails I've cached for days in anticipation of the downtime.

This morning's cache included the daily Crain's Chicago Business update, whose first article is about how my cost of living is going up. It turns out, the city owes retired municipal employees so much money that the mayor has proposed raising property taxes by $500 million next year. Without getting into too much detail, let me say only that this will cost me about $1,000 if it goes through.

Long-time readers of this blog know I'm not exactly an Ayn-Rand-quoting, anti-tax spewing, adolescent-thinking nut-job. I like democracy and all that. So while I'm not happy about the additional taxes, I accept them, even though I recognize the uncomfortable levels of corruption in the Greatest City in North America. Here's why.

Successive city governments for the last 20 or 30 years made promises to municipal employees that we, as a city, would pay handsome retirement benefits if they would agree to put out fires and arrest criminals. We (through our sort-of-elected representatives) made these promises when no one really wanted to fight crime or fires in Chicago. But the pension guarantees helped make being a city employee in the 1980s and 1990s one of the best gigs around.

In exchange, we got a great fire department, decent policing (despite unrepentant sociopaths like Jon Burge), and overall a much cleaner, hipper city than anyone living here in 1975 could ever have hoped. And we kept taxes low, so that people would move back to the city from their white-flight suburbs, spend money, and demand clean, safe, not-on-fire streets.

Well, now we have to pay up on those promises. And that's OK. (I'm not naive, though. I really want another Shakman suit to claw back all the corruption, but that's a different blog post.)

All these increased property taxes are, essentially, a loan coming due. Chicago in 1985 borrowed money from Chicago in 2015, in order that Chicago in 2015 would be an enviable place to live. Whatever I think of Mayors Daley fils or Emanuel, I believe both have the city's best interests in mind right after their own. (In Chicago, this is considered a noble philosophy.) And while I resent Daley's transparent zipper-lowering on parking meters and a couple of other privatization deals, I believe he really wanted to make the city a better place to live.

That's not how most people see it, I grant. Most people care only about how much they have to pay right now. Thus has it been throughout history, which explains every right-wing government ever*.

It's hard for people to see how everyone really is "in this together." The ideal—I admit, almost never seen in nature—is that a city comprises a group of people who agree to share some responsibilities (police, fire, roads) in exchange for some pro rata contribution. It's not communism; it's civics. I don't want to spend my time building a road to get to the market and neither do you. So let's band together, pool our resources, set up rules to limit cheating as much as we can (without denying the humanity of people who really can't contribute directly), and muddle through.

And if the most effective way to do that is to promise extravagant retirement packages to the people who kept the city clean and safe during one of its worst eras, well, that's OK.

* The basic electoral argument of the political right is simple: taxes take your money and give it to them. It's no coincidence that the right also want to stop you from getting a liberal education, because then you'd learn that (a) them means you to the people selling this line, and (b) no matter how much better your life is under a right-leaning government, it's a hundred times better for right-leaning politicians and their friends. We're all in this together; let's act like it.

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