By Peter Stern, Philosophy Faculty
We humble men and women of the good ship RMU Eagle are justly noted for our very admirable commitment to teaching students in a wide range of subject areas and for our miraculous ability to successfully steer students through immense oceans of ignorance until they acquire the skills they need to master the area they’ve chosen to specialize in; however, I must report that I now find trying to understand current developments in my area of expertise an increasingly difficult challenge.
Let me attempt to explain what I mean. For some unknown reason, I’ve always been interested in politics. I can remember reading newspapers and magazines at a reasonably early age looking for info on politics be it about issues or individuals–presidents in particular. The names of every member of Congress were known to me as were all the Supreme Court Justices. Usually, I also knew the names of all the individuals who served as members of the President’s cabinet. In high school, I wrote articles about politics in the school newspaper and participated a bit in student government. I continued following politics in college, and majored in political science. When I went on to graduate school, my goal was again to get a degree in political science, though I varied my concentration a bit by specializing in political philosophy.
Now as I leap forward an immense amount of years and enter the sunset of my career, I believe I have a fairly solid grasp of my field, even as my interests broadened after leaving graduate school, but increasingly I realize that developing a firm grasp on current political developments seems more difficult than it was in the past. I’m not sure if this is because my brain is slowly and sometimes, to my immense dismay, quickly unraveling, or because, instead, political developments today have become more complicated than they were a few decades ago. Of course a third possibility is that both factors are at work.
Let me give you, you heavenly Turtle gourmets, a relatively simple example of the frustrations I run into analyzing the current political landscape. Let’s say my goal is to determine how our famous city of broad shouldered hog butchers is fairing at present. Well, candor compels me to confess that I’m having an absurdly difficult time answering this question. On the surface, things seem fine. The lakefront looks great; in fact it’s never looked better. North Michigan Avenue appears to be thriving, buses around town seem full, more people are going to movies; they’re also starting to buy more cars, and reports indicate that the housing market is finally opening up.
On the other hand, the city’s budget gives some cause for concern. Once again on the surface, our mayor, Rahmbo, the Extraordinarily Magnificent, submitted a budget for next year that didn’t cause budget experts to sound anxious alarms. Yet whether the alarms should have gone off is a question which lingers, given the enormity of the pension problems the city faces, and the public school system’s very substantial debt–by substantial I’m talking about a billion dollar debt with rating agencies recently downgrading Chicago issued bonds.
These issues sound relatively objective and adult, but I’ve not yet mentioned another factor, one quite bizarre and surely not brand new, which plays a mighty role in the governance of our so called toddling town. I’m referring to the disturbing fact that Chicago’s been governed (run) for over a 100 years by a one party machine organization making our city one of the most corrupt in the country. The machine knows no real outside control which helps explain why the city’s finances seem so shaky for the machine cuts deals which often benefit itself at the city’s expense.
A wacko example of such dealings hit the front page of the Sun-Times last weekend, though it had been already been in the papers several times over the past two years. The story involved a major league law suit that our mayor initiated against owners of the Park Grill Restaurant located on the edge of Millenium Park. Why did Rahmbo the Extraordinarily Magnificent sue the Park Grill owners two years ago in a case that’s already run up over 2 million dollars in legal fees, and has seen part of the suit go all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court where a majority of the justices ruled against the city?
The altruistic reason the mayor gives for the suit is that the restaurant’s owners won a sweetheart deal from the city because they’re clout engorged cronies of Chicago’s ex steward–yes, I mean they’re close pals of our beloved, revered, and respected ex mayor, originally of Bridgeport, who now resides somewhere along the corridors of the trendy well healed precincts of North Michigan Avenue. Yes, he said Yes, and again yes, yes! Yes, the Right Honorable Richard M. Daley approved an absurdly favorable deal for the Grill Restaurant owners which included The Grill getting free utilities for between 20 and 30 years, and paying peanuts in taxes on the revenues the restaurant earned over this extended period of time. But why the over qualified, immensely talented, and hugely public spirited current Chicago mayor is going for blood here is a question I can’t answer since deals like the one given to the Park Grill owners represent a 100 year Chicago tradition. All anyone can say for sure is that Rahmbo, the Extraordinarily Magnificent, has made this suit a priority item.
These old fashioned realities combined with new political developments is what makes analyzing current politics increasingly difficult. I believe that most of the difficulty is rooted in the introduction of new strategies for dealing with government budgets which make it easier for politicians to evade or ignore budgetary constraints, at least in the short run. The odd thing is that a phenomenon which in the past seemed very objective and real–namely individuals and organizations knew whether or not they were solvent– no longer appear so clear cut.
Moreover, the higher the level of government, the less budget numbers assume an objective status. To me, this change goes a long way towards explaining why Congress had so much difficulty negotiating a reasonable budget agreement which would have avoided shutting down the federal government, even though the shut down lasted for a very short period of time. As far as our legislators are concerned, when push comes to shove, the government–especially the federal government– can always take on more debt particularly when the government can borrow at rates it keeps artificially low.
And this is also why relatively intelligent folks like myself now find keeping up with political developments much harder than they were in the past.