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A Drought of Ideas
Governor Pat Quinn is joined by President Barack Obama for a get out the vote campaign rally at Chicago State University, Chicago, IL, October 19, 2014. (Sara Mays/Quinn for Illinois/Flickr)

A Drought of Ideas

Walter Russell Mead

Last weekend, the New York Times ran a profile of Chicago State University, a 150-year-old state school predominantly serving poor black residents of Chicago’s South Side that is on the verge of closing its doors. Caught in a budget fight between Illiniois’ Republican Governor Bruce Rauner and the state’s Democrat-dominated lesiglature, the school has not received any money since last July. It relies on state funding to cover 30 percent of its budget. The Times:

In February, the school declared a financial emergency. Officials canceled spring break and moved commencement up to April 28, rushing to finish the semester before funding goes dry. Last month, members of the faculty and staff were notified that the school was making contingency plans to collect their keys. Reserve funds to pay employees will run out after April 30.

“People are losing their minds,” said Barbara Ameyedowo, 28, a math major who is expecting to graduate in December. “Students are leaving. I’m hopeful that it will be resolved, but I’m so sad. Chicago State is all this part of the South Side has left.”’

The Times vaguely alludes to mismanagement problems at the school: apparently, the story notes, the university administration failed to bill its students for tuition for an entire semester in 2010. That’s an almost charming oversight—poor students got a free semester of education due to administrative bungling! But the story airbrushes out the less cute problems besetting the institution. For example, Governor Rauner’s office has pointed out that Chicago State has the highest administrator-to-student ratio of any state school in Illinois—one for every 17 students—and that it spends up to 45 percent of its total payroll on those administrators.

Airbrushing inconvenient truths out of the picture is standard operating procedure for sentimental reporters writing stories about the problems of the poor. We’ve heard much more about the suffering imposed on Puerto Rico’s municipal employees than about the decades of cronyism and dysfunction that produced a bloated, inefficient government that can neither provide needed services nor pay its own bills. One could read the New York Times for decades without hearing warnings about how one-party Democratic rule has entrenched patterns of corruption and sloth in major American cities. It’s much more fun to wring our hands about the problems of the poor, and blame everything untoward on Republican racist tightwads. John F. Kennedy once said that Americans were willing to do anything for Latin America except read about it; one often feels that a certain type of contemporary liberal will do anything for the poor that doesn’t involve thinking.

But that doesn’t let Republicans off the hook. Just because deep blue Democrats prefer sentiment over analysis and let their allegiance to vested interests trump their concern for the poor is no excuse for Republicans to treat the students of Chicago State with indifference. It’s fine to say “hold the line on taxes and starve the beast“—and there are times when this is necessary. But doing that alone is not a plan for better governance. Illinois’ budget woes are a direct result of years of terrible decisions and the absence of serious planning at both state and local levels. And the chief victims of this neglect of duty are poor people—those who depend most on government for services.

Where are the plans for a revitalization of Illinois and Chicago? Where are the proposals for changes in the way Illinois is administered, its higher ed system organized, its pension burdens managed and rationalized? How will the built-in cost structures that make cities like Chicago so difficult to operate in be reduced? How will the costs of interacting with the regulatory state be reined in, and the process simplified for businesses and homeowners? How will the miserably failing school systems of Chicago and other communities be revived, and labor relations in the school system detoxified? And, among these larger questions, how will the students at Chicago State finish their coursework and get their degrees?

To understand both the voter frustration and the political polarization of the country, it’s necessary to see how neither party is offering real solutions for these problems. The Democrats just keep looking for new funds to pour into the sinkhole; Republicans hope to starve the beast to force a crisis. Neither agenda will do much for Illinois. Democrats’ proposals stave off present pain at the cost of making the inevitable day of reckoning that much worse. Republicans bring on Armageddon now without any idea of what comes after. Voters are right to hold both approaches in disdain. They are right to be contemptuous of the party machines and the think tank apparatchiks who can’t come up with anything better. Until one or both parties develops workable approaches to the serious problems the country faces, politics is going to remain open to demagogues and con artists.

Vain and self-aggrandizing politicians deserve a lot of the blame for not trying to tackle the problems sooner, but they are far from being the sole guilty parties. After all, politicians can’t fight for solutions that don’t yet exist. And that there is so little creative thinking about these issues is the fault of think tanks, public intellectuals and academics. It is the cognitive elite that has let the country down.

The Republicans, who are much less well represented in the academy, and who benefit from fewer sources of traditional philanthropy (like the Ford Foundation and its friends), have done more at this point with less. This is not because they are somehow more virtuous and civic minded; rather, it is because the orthodox liberal pieties that the intellectual establishment holds as eternal truths pretty much block any serious thinking about the crisis of American society today. The liberal establishment is both politically and intellectually committed to the conservation of an unsustainable status quo. Republicans, on the other hand, instinctively loathe the redistributionist nanny state and intuitively perceive its growing dysfunction; they therefore have an easier time thinking about theoretical alternatives.

This is why right-wing think tanks have on the whole done a better job at developing some creative ideas than their larger and better funded competitors on the left. But neither side has done enough. The budget problems at all levels of government are going to get worse as the pension bills come due, deferred maintenance and infrastructure deficits take a higher toll, health care costs inexorably rise, and as the institutions of blue model governance further corrode.

And of course behind the crisis of state and municipal governance, there is the broader problem of the crises of the American middle class and of American society. These are big problems and they require bold, unconventional thinking. We clearly aren’t getting enough of that today and the nation knows it. Establishment politicians leave the public unsatisfied; that opens the door to the quacks and the snake oil salesmen.

But the failures of social imagination and political vision that weaken our country’s political order have graver consequences still. A nation as poorly governed as the United States now is cannot long serve as the cornerstone of world order: the combination of budget pressures and political dysfunction at home is already sapping the nation’s will and capacity to lead abroad, and this is likely to get worse rather than better without a course change.

The problems of a predominantly African-American college on the South Side of Chicago may seem like small beer to those not directly involved, but they point to something larger. The decay in our institutions points to a weakness at the heart of liberal society, a weakness that undermines the strength of our republic at home and endangers world peace. It is time for America to step up its game, and as the first step in that process it is time for a wave of creative social thought, some coming from the Right and some from the Left, so that the present stale competition between parties bereft of serious policy ideas can be replaced by something meaningful and real.

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