Greece’s ominous bankruptcy is rightly commanding widespread international notice. But another case of fiscal folly’s potentially devastating consequences was also in full view last week much closer to home as America’s “Second City” — Chicago — took extraordinary action in its ongoing struggle to meet unsustainable financial obligations.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, citing the heavy and growing burden of the Chicago Public Schools’ unrealistically generous pension plan, announced deep cuts in the district’s workforce. As the Chicago Tribune reported, “1,050 workers will lose their jobs, 350 vacant positions will be eliminated and several education programs will be slashed as a result of $200 million in budget cuts.”
The mayor also proposed a property tax boost of $175 million help cover the buy-down deal he’s offering on those teacher pensions — providing those educators and state lawmakers agree to that “grand bargain.” And Illinois, like its largest city, is in serious financial trouble.
Of course, a large property tax increase would hardly encourage private companies to move to Chicago and contribute to its economic life. Neither would layoffs that compromise public services.
However, Mayor Emanuel, who served as a top adviser to President Bill Clinton and chief of staff to President Barack Obama, stated an all-too-obvious general truth that applies at all levels of government.
Though decrying the belt-tightening side-effects, Mr. Emanuel conceded this grim reality:
“In my view, these cuts are intolerable, they’re unacceptable and they’re totally unconscionable. They’re a result of a political system that’s sprung a leak and now it’s a geyser. There’s a series of political compromises and patchwork over the years that can no longer continue.”
It’s reassuring to see the mayor recognize the cause-and-effect relationship of runaway budgets.
But officials in Washington, where Mayor Emanuel also worked as a congressman, persist in their own annual “patchwork” of fiscal irresponsibility while our record national debt, which as of Wednesday was $18.3 trillion, continues to climb.
So keep that staggering sum in mind before too smugly chastising the elected officials and voters of Chicago, of Illinois and of Greece — or, for that matter, of the debt-laden U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.
Unlike our federal government, those cash-strapped jurisdictions can’t print money to paper over their balance-sheet shortfalls — even if their reckless spending suggests otherwise.
Every government — local, state, territorial and national — eventually must pay the piper.
And ultimately, when they persist in spending far beyond their means, the painful price must be covered by the taxpayers.