Friday, November 27, 2015
We fail ourselves every day
The state of Illinois is cracked. Our government is broken and no one can fix it. Our leaders bicker and squabble and waste day after day after day. We can't approve a budget, never mind balance one. The figures are astronomical: Illinois has a public worker pension obligation of $111 billion dollars.
That's equal to the gross national product of Morocco.
The politicians are rigid, unyielding. Gov. Bruce Rauner and House Speaker Michael Madigan are twin bookends: grim, rigid, lipless men, holding firm while the state slides further and further to hell. Rahm Emanuel seems increasingly irrelevant, like the form of a man far away in the distance, silhouetted against the horizon. But you can't blame them because they've had so much help, from all the politicians in the past. They signed a check we couldn't cash, then skedaddled. And we let them.
The problem is so complex, so enormous, spanning decades, billions of dollars, thousands of employees. Often the mind just wants to reject it. There's no point in keeping track because nothing happens anyway. It just somehow keeps getting worse and worse. The more they try to fill the hole, the deeper it becomes. It's a puzzle, a conundrum; who can make sense of it?
And then suddenly the whole problem presents itself in front of you in a clear and unmistakeable fashion.
I was waiting for my wife to get off work at the Attorney General's office one Friday late last month, standing in front of the Thompson Center, Helmut Jahn's elephantine salmon and baby blue monstrosity, which the state is in the process of selling off because, as I mentioned, we're broke.
And as I stood waiting — she takes her work very seriously, and would no sooner leave before 5 p.m. than she would steal reams of copy paper — I glanced down, at the tableau below. The stone slabs in front of the building had cracked, no doubt from shoddy construction and years of neglect, and someone had slapped a strip of silver duct tape over a crack.
You can see how well that worked.
I had noticed duct tape used in the building before—in the governor's office, embarrassingly. Visitors to the governor of Illinois find themselves in a waiting room where the threadbare, 40 year old carpet is ripped and patched with duct tape.
That's bad, but this repair out front on the public sidewalk was worse, because at least the duct tape on the thin carpets worked. Some state employee — or perhaps one of the contract employees we hired to do what we can no longer do — saw the crack and thought, "Better slap some duct tape on that one." A half-assed half measure that didn't half work. An oozing bandage poorly applied over our gaping civic wound.
Isn't that the story of the state of Illinois? How can we be afraid of terrorists striking us when we so effectively strike at ourselves? Our creaky government entities collapsing around us, our public roads crumbling, our bridges coming down on our heads. Where was the pride of the guy in a blue coveralls kneeling down and yanking off a strip of duct tape, perhaps nipping it with his teeth before he tore off a strip, pressing it down upon the stone? Where is the pride of we who pass it? Illinois is a laughingstock, the sick man of the United States, on the bottom of the pile. How could we allow it? How can we? We plan meticulously to face disasters that may never come, while our own self-created disaster gets worse and worse, swelling before our eyes in broad daylight. We keep not doing what we have to do, fighting over who gets a bigger slice of a pie that's crumbling away into nothing. Our leaders fail us, but then that's apt, because we fail ourselves, eyes wide open, every hour of every day.