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Archive for February 1st, 2020

Is Greece the international version of New Jersey or is New Jersey the American version of Greece?

Is New Jersey the national version of Chicago, or is Chicago the the local version of New Jersey?

The answer is yes, regardless of how the question is phrased because – in all cases – we’re talking about examples of how politicians (and short-sighted voters) create “Goldfish Government.”

Let’s examine Chicago to see how this process works.

The Washington Post noted early last year that the new mayor was going to face an enormous fiscal challenge because of the reckless choices made by previous generations of politicians.

The city has been underfunding its pensions for decades, with dire results. Chicago’s pension plans collectively have only about a quarter of the assets they’ll need to pay benefits, one of the worst funding ratios in the nation. To put that hole in dollar terms, Chicago is about $28 billion short of what it needs, even under relatively favorable assumptions about future returns, or about $10,000 for every man, woman and child living in the city. …radical surgery still needed. Within a few years, pension contributions are projected to suck up more than 20 percent of the city’s budget. And Chicago can’t count on much help from the state, which is dealing with its own, equally severe case of pension underfunding. …what’s happening in Illinois is merely the earliest and most extreme manifestation of a quandary that will soon be dominating the public conversation in many states: how to pay for retirement promises to public employees without entering a fiscal death spiral. …shoddy accounting allowed generations of politicians all over the country to curry favor with public-sector workers by offering them ever-fatter pension packages, gaining immediate benefit while deferring the political cost of paying for all those benefits until much later. Later is now arriving. …Chicago has been losing lower- and middle-class residents for years, in part because of its heavily regressive tax burden. And when Chicago and Illinois both start raising the rates on upper earners — as they will have to, and soon — they run the risk that those people ,too, will start trickling away, either to smaller cities without the burdensome pension-legacy costs.

Megan McArdle pointed out that Chicago is a mess because of “public choice” – i.e., politicians make short-sighted and irresponsible decisions in order to maximize votes and power.

Throw in a recession sometime in the next couple of years, and Chicago is going to be in a full-blown crisis. …it’s the fault of generations of politicians before them who promised an ever-richer array of benefits to government workers. Particularly, they liked to raise the retirement benefits. …The whole point of giving workers pension benefits instead of cash was that you didn’t have to pay for them; you could promise the benefits now and gather up the votes that the grateful workers tossed at your feet, all without costing current taxpayers a single dime. …Future taxpayers mostly weren’t voting in 1982 municipal elections. …Chicagoans, welcome to “later.” The municipal pensions only have about 25 percent of the assets they’ll need to cover projected benefits, a shortfall of roughly $28 billion. …If you use a more cautious method, you come up with a shortfall of more than $40 billion. …Moody’s Investors Service rates the city’s general obligation debt as junk bonds. …Chicago is now approaching the point where the growth of its obligations will outpace the growth of any possible revenue stream it might use to cover them. It’s a few steps from there to municipal bankruptcy.

Unsurprisingly, Chicago’s relatively new mayor wants to keep the scam going.

As reported by the Chicago Tribune, she wants to extract more money from taxpayers.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot…said there’s “no question” residents will need to pay more in taxes or fees to plug a looming city budget shortfall… “There’s no question we’re going to have to come to the taxpayers and ask for additional revenue.” …Lightfoot did not specify what sort of revenue she expects to raise — whether it would come in the form of new taxes, a property tax hike or increased fees. …referring to her campaign promise to seek cuts before asking taxpayers for more money, Lightfoot added, “I meant what I said on the course of the campaign: We have a lot of hard choices we’re going to have to make regarding city finances.”

Like previous mayors, she’s buying votes with other people’s money.

The Wall Street Journal opined last year about her surrender to the teacher unions (a Chicago tradition, as illustrated by the adjacent cartoon by Lisa Benson).

Except it wasn’t really a surrender since she was already on their side (as perfectly captured by this Ramirez cartoon).

So the net result is a combination of bad fiscal policy and bad education policy.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Chicago Teachers Union on Thursday struck an agreement to end an 11-day strike, and by the looks of it the union was bargaining with itself. The mayor is touting the new contract as the most generous in Chicago history, and she’s right. …The new contract includes a 16% raise over five years (not including raises based on longevity), a three-year freeze on health insurance premiums, lower copays, …and more than 450 new social workers and nurses. …you can bet it will be expensive. Last week the mayor proposed a slew of tax increases including levies on ride-hailing services and restaurant meals. This week her staff suggested that property taxes may have to increase . . . again. Michelle Obama the other day complained that white people were leaving the city to escape minorities who are moving in. No, they’re fleeing Chicago’s high taxes and lousy schools—and so are minorities.

This story from Reason is a powerful (and nauseating) example of how a money-hungry city is making life miserable for ordinary people.

Chicago police pulled Spencer Byrd over for a broken turn signal. Byrd says his signal wasn’t broken, but that detail would soon be the least of his worries. …Byrd was giving a client, a man he says he had never met before, a ride… Police pulled both of them out of the car and searched them. Byrd was clean, but in his passenger’s pocket was a bag of heroin… Police released Byrd after a short stint in an interrogation room without charging him with a crime. But when Byrd went to retrieve his car, he found out the Chicago Police Department had seized and impounded it. …The program impounds cars when the owner beats a criminal case or isn’t charged with a crime in the first place. It impounds cars even when the owner isn’t even driving, like when a child is borrowing a parent’s car. …Byrd calls his car his “livelihood,” and he has been fighting for close to two years now to recover it. He says he has $3,500-worth of tools locked in the trunk, and he can’t retrieve them. …Like tens of thousands of other Chicagoans, Byrd was a victim of years of the city’s fiscal negligence. …to try and nickel-and-dime…out of these massive budget gaps. …The result is a uniquely punitive impound system, in which Chicago profits off restricting the ability of its residents to drive.

Amazingly, Chicago’s politicians want to dig an even deeper hole.

The Wall Street Journal has a new editorial examining a scheme to borrow even more money in hopes of keeping the gravy train rolling.

Chicago has been seeking to take advantage of historically low interest rates by refinancing debt—even as its credit rating has deteriorated amid swelling budget deficits and pension payments. …In 2017 state and city politicians contrived a shell scheme to lower the city’s borrowing costs. The city essentially sold off sales-tax revenue that it receives from the state to a corporation specially created to pay creditors. …Voila, Chicago’s financial magicians spun junk into gold. …Chicago’s budget woes are mounting, and financial alchemists are diluting the claims of existing creditors. If the city were to renege on its $8 billion in GO debt, those bondholders would surely demand a slice of the sales-tax revenue now pledged to other creditors. This is what happened in Puerto Rico. …Chicago’s population has declined for each of the past four years, and taxpayers are getting tapped out. On top of a $50 million increase in property taxes this year, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has imposed a new “congestion” fee on Uber and taxi rides, doubled the tax on restaurant meals, and raised a special personal property tax on computer cloud software. Yet a recession would probably blow a gigantic hole in its budget and could cause its pension funds to run dry. Does anyone think that city politicians wouldn’t prioritize public workers over bondholders?

So when will this house of cards collapse?

I have no idea. There’s a famous quote from the late economist Rudiger Dornbusch, who observed that, “In economics, things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then they happen faster than you thought they could.”

The people buying bonds from Chicago are betting that the collapse won’t happen in the near future.

But that was the same mentality of the people who bought Greek bonds in, say, 2005.

I’ll simply observe that what’s happening in Chicago is confirmation of my “First Theorem of Government.”

And I’ll also make an easy prediction that the people buying Chicago bonds will want a bailout when the you-know-what hits the fan.

Needless to say, the answer should be a resounding no.

P.S. If you want to know all my Theorems of Government, click here.

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