Why I Changed the Name of this Blog

When I started this blog 6 years ago, I had a clear mission to share common sense ideas positioned to the right of many of my Chicago peers. As my bio states, I am an economist at heart and that perspective often unearths challenges with otherwise well-meaning progressive policy ideas.

Back then, the term conservative fit. It didn’t mean right winger, zealot, or evangelist. Those far right of center subscriptions each had their own labels, and conservative was a term with which I was comfortable – at least when it came to non-social issues. I still believe that the cost of big government is personal freedom, that building one’s station through personal productivity is one the clearest paths to happiness, that contemporary unions are wolves in sheep’s clothing, that history matters, and that there are just too many darned laws.

Because everything that works, happens in the center.

But the former President and his attention-drunk followers co-opted the word conservative into something else. Now it leans toward anti-maskers, isolationism, good-old-days, and social justice insensitivity – concepts just as dangerous as their left wing counterparts: hyper-maskers, pandering to our international enemies, the tyranny of woke, and defunding the police. Idiots on both sides of the spectrum are equally in need of a slap.

My gut feeling is that there has never been a more equitable, more just, and more opportunity-filled time to be an American. The foundation of society, as we come out of this rule-breaking shut-down, is more pliable than ever before. It’s an unprecedented opportunity to make changes for the better. But we’ve been through a boiler of a year and it’s bubbled a lot of nasty things to the surface. These things need to be addressed openly and without fear and I look forward to exploring them on this site.

So welcome to my site, A Card Carrying Centrist. Same content, same mission, new and improved name.

The Day I Was Chef

On about a decade ago, I received a day in Charlie Trotter’s kitchen as a gift from some friends. They had purchased it for me at a charity auction. I like to cook for my friends and do so often. I also worked in restaurants through my teens and college so I have nearly a decade’s experience at the prep and line level. As far as home cooks go, I consider myself a pretty good one, but by no yardstick a chef.

Charlie Trotter’s, if you do not know, was – maybe still is – one of the most important restaurants in culinary history. Following Alice Water’s legendary focus on highest quality dill for salmon and chocolate for cakes, Charlie Trotter blew it up by putting the chocolate on the salmon. Chicagoans were lucky that he built his practice in Chicago. His was the spear tip that drove culinary innovation. His protégés sparked countless award-winning restaurants and turned Chicago into one of the finest restaurant cities in the world.

More purple, damnit!

By the time of this story, these kitchen certificates were standard fare and had been given to charities for years. They were more special to the recipient and less expensive for the restaurant than a gift certificate. Hundreds had gone before me, and the program was well established. I was greeted at the door by the sommelier and escorted into the secondary dining room where lunch was awaiting me. He explained the day which included some time in the kitchen, the pre-shift meeting with the manager and servers, some front-of-the-house time, and some other experiential but out-of-the-way activities. He also asked about my expectations. I told him I wanted to experience the true Charlie Trotter’s working environment. “How are your knife skills?” he asked. “Pretty good, I think, but you can be the judge.” With that I was sent down to change into my awaiting restaurant-supplied whites.

The kitchen was abustle when I entered. Bright lights, colorful ingredients, and a dozen rapidly moving chefs gave the room a magical intensity. I was set-up on a prep table and handed 2 dozen sous-vide artichoke hearts. I was instructed to quarter them and carve each part into the shape of a flamingo – the choke making a colorful beak. I’m sorry what? The chef picked one up, pulled a raptor knife from his pocket, and with one deft slice, turned the vegetable into a bird.

I wasn’t deft but I figured it out. I guess I did a passable job, because when I was finished, they let me stay. Next came in an overflowing tray of morels. You could have bought a used car with what these mushrooms were worth. I cleaned and cored them for maybe an hour. “Next?’ I inquired?  Out came 4 flats of strawberries – each to be cored, cut in half, and then sliced onto 32 equally thick pieces, which would then be added to the maceration solution. On this task I spent the next two hours.

Another give-back that Charlie Trotter created was a program that hired inner-city high-school kids to work in the kitchen. They cleaned, prepped food, and assisted the chefs. I am sure that many of them went on to successful careers in the culinary industry. I wish I remembered the name of the fellow in this roll the day I was there, because he is important to this story but for that I apologize. We had been working side by side for a while, chopping away, when he referred to me as “Chef Curt.” I chuckled humbly and informed him that I was just renting the spot for the day and a chef by no means. For the first time that day, he stopped moving, looked straight into my eyes and asked me, “are you working in Chef Charlie Trotter’s kitchen today or not?” I agreed I was, and he informed me, “then today you are Chef.” This soon turned out to be truer than I could have imagined.

I had been working at the team’s disposal for so long – and perhaps so quietly – that the front-of-the-house staff forgot I was there. I missed the pre-opening meeting and the shift meal with the wait staff. In fact, by the time I proudly lifted my head from that glorious vat of liquifying strawberries, the kitchen was buzzing in a whole different way. I ventured to the front of the room and found a safe place to observe. Dinner had started and the staff had moved to their action positions around the line. Well-dressed waiters were coming in, grabbing plates, wiping the edges, and heading out. Charlie had not yet arrived, but the chef in front, likely the sous chef, controlled the room like a conductor directing an orchestra. There was commotion, but also a sense of forced, busy quiet.

As entrees started going out, the appetizer dishes started to pile up. I noticed with interest that there was not person assigned as dishwasher.  This organization was so flat that every chef was expected to do everything of which he was capable. I also noted that the institutional dishwasher was a brand I recognized from my own high-school restaurant days. It was many decades newer but worked basically the same. I set to work rinsing the plates, placing them in the racks, opening the door, running the machine, and removing them to airdry. The process took about 60 seconds per load. I had no idea where they went, so I just stacked the dishes on the counter and prepared the next load. After about 10 minutes of this, I heard a sharp request. “Chef Curt! Did anyone tell you to wash those dishes?” “No sir” I replied, “but I know the machine and figured I would help.” “Chef Curt,” he now ordered, “I need you behind the line at the sauté station!”

“More caviar! No we can’t charge them for more, we just do it! That’s what we do, the right thing. Anything less would not be enough!” 

World Famous Chef Homaro Cantu quoting Charlie Trotter

You want some context? Imagine, you are sitting at Wrigley Field in some hard-won front row seats. Anthony Rizzo has been yanked, and David Ross approaches you and tells you that you are needed at first base – right now! My job was sautéing salmon – four to six pans at a time, moving between them, ensuring that none stick, and flipping when ready. Once to temperature (no thermometer, you tell with a touch), they were plated and garnished. I was getting along surprisingly competently when Chef Trotter arrived and asked what I was doing there. I learned later that in all the years of the charity certificate, I was the only recipient who had ever received this honor. I was sprinkling brightly colored flowers across a plate while I introduced myself, and he responded with, “well, welcome, now, damnit, more purple!” I absolutely beamed.

This is one of my favorite stories and not without lesson. The whole day turned with an earnest and insightful request from a teenager that I reconsider how I view myself. I had hoped for a terrific spectator vantage leading to improved understanding of people I admired. But when my heart and mind opened, the experience carried me beyond my expectations. I came to observe the show, but in the end I was part of it.

Following my 10 minutes behind the line, I was handed a glass of fantastic Brunello and sent downstairs to change out of my whites. My wife and another couple were meeting me there for dinner, and I had brought a change of clothes. In my excitement, I accidentally (I swear) put my restaurant supplied whites into my backpack with my own dirty clothes. I meant to return them, but the restaurant closed several months later. Those whites have hung proudly next to my suits, for the past 9 years as a reminder of the time I got yelled at by Charlie Trotter for not putting enough purple flowers on top of a piece of salmon and was able to live-out a real-life fantasy because a kid told me to be more than I thought I was.

Infection Rate, Selection Bias, and Hats

We all know the famous Mark Twain line: “There are three kinds of lieslies, damned lies, and statistics.” That and the adage that one can find a statistic to prove anything may suggest that statistics are just untrustworthy.

In fact, measurement and analysis – the fundamentals of statistics – are the only honest way to understand a full story – with the caveat that the numbers and the methods for their collection are understood and sound.

Stand-alone numbers rarely help one understand an event. If I told you that 7 people in the room had hats, you would know almost nothing about the situation I describe.

A nice hat.

But ratios are more descriptive. If I told you that 7 out of 100 (7/100 or 7%) of the people in the room had hats, you would know that most people were not wearing hats. The picture is more clear.

Even better is the time series. If I told you that 7% of the people in the room were wearing hats and that at last year’s event, 14% of people wore hats, you would know that the number of people who wear hats is small and fell year to year. You would have a a story about what was happening with the hats.

But this still isn’t enough. We also need to know how the numbers were collected if we are to trust the story they tell. If the number of people in the room was measured at lunch time one year and during the heart of the event a year later, we would have little confidence in the number of people the room. Similarly, if the hats were counted on heads one year and inside the coatroom the other year, we would not have confidence in the number of hats.

Some fellows have hats. Some do not.

Furthermore, it is important to discount any data that may be biased. If our hat statisticians offered a reward to ensure participation, they likely introduced selection bias (as mentioned in yesterday’s post). They likely missed the number of hats in the room and ended up with the number of hats worn by people who liked the reward. Imagine how different the results would be if the reward was a hat pin (a bias toward those who liked hats) or a tube of sunblock (a bias toward those who do not wear hats).

Back on point, here’s a great example demonstrating how COVID Infection Rate will be impacted by selection bias. As we approach this year’s flu season the infection rate is likely to go down even though the number of people infected with COVID stays the same or increases. The reason is that flu symptom confusion will lead more people to seek out COVID testing. This bias could dramatically increase the number of tests (the denominator) leading the infection rate to fall irrespective of the number of people infected.

Summing up, the clean numbers are, fatality rate, hospital beds (available and filled), and population size. Ratios and time series that include these numbers will help us correctly analyze the situation. However, ratios that include biased numbers such as COVID Infection Rate should be avoided. No matter how often the Governor repeats it, it does not describe the picture we are seeing.

Also, hats are cool.

Understand the Statistics of COVID – please?

Recently we have been hearing a lot of talk about the infection rate in Illinois. The growth in this number is quite shocking. Where it was 3% a month ago, it was 5.7% last Thursday, and it is 8% as of this writing!

Figure 1 New cases in Illinois (Bing's COVID Update)
Figure 1 New cases in Illinois (Bing’s COVID Update)

One might be led to believe that this means that 8% of Illinoisans are infected with COVID, but it does not. It means that 8% of those tested were positive. Those are wildly different things and the actual percentage of Illinoisans with the disease is something different. It could be higher and is likely much lower. Its rise could indicate a growth in the general infection rate or nothing at all. Residents of Illinois – more than almost any other state – need to be able to read between the lines recited by your officials.

I am not a conspiracist or an anti-science guy. Furthermore, I believe that the number of people catching COVID in Illinois in increasing rapidly and is cause for concern. However, my knowledge of science (and statistics in particular) leads me to worry that our elected officials are incorrectly interpreting “positivity rate” and ignoring more appropriate statistics altogether when making policy decisions.

Let us return to the early days of COVID. Initially the positivity rate throughout the Rush Medical System started in the 8% range. Within a couple weeks, that number had spiked to 25% This was consistent with what was reported in the press. The overall rate of infection in the state was unknown, but this number jumped because, given the shortage of tests, doctors began screening for symptoms before allowing a test to be administered. So, if a patient was asymptomatic or wanted a test to placate personal or professional curiosity, the request for a test was denied. Only the people who were likely sick or front-line were tested.  The infection rate of all Illinois was well below 1% at the time, but the 25% (and rising) infection rate measured meant that the tests were being used more effectively.

Post-it note captured at a Rush nurse’s station in April 2020

At some point the purpose of the this statistic was corrupted. The number is easy to track and regularly reported and it has come to be used in a way that was never intended. Testing issues have improved since then, people who are sick are still more likely to seek out testing and doctors are more likely to prescribe testing to symptomatic patients. Further complicating the issue, certain professional and demographic groups get tested more than others leading to overall results that do not match the population. In statistical terms, this is called selection bias. So, when you hear that the infection rate is 8%, understand that there is no scientific or even commonsense reason to equate that to the whole of Illinois, Chicago, or any geographic group.

Even though the positivity rate has risen 1300% since June, the fatality rate has fallen by 80% since the first peak

Still, there are important stats worth watching. My favorite (as macabre as this sounds) is fatality rate which – due to research, improved medical infrastructure, and improved treatment – has fallen consistently throughout COVID. On the first pandemic peak on May 13, 4100 people tested positive and 141 people died. On the second peak in October, 6100 people tested positive and 63 people died. This stat is not perfect either, but still, a positive test in May represented a 4.7% chance of death and a positive test in October represented a 1.0% chance of death. So even though positivity rate has risen 1300% since its low point in June, the chance of dying has fallen by 79% since the first peak. This is a reason to rejoice, not retreat further into our fears.

Figure 2 Fatal cases in Illinois (Bing's COVID Update)
Figure 2 Fatal cases in Illinois (Bing’s COVID Update)

Perhaps the best statistic available is deaths per 100,000 people. This stat cleanly identifies one’s likelihood to die from COVID and is calculated using the relatively bias-free numbers of population and COVID deaths while avoiding the sample bias of testing. Illinois’s current D/100K number is 78. That number sounds arbitrary but makes sense when used for comparison purposes. Remember our Mayor villainizing that COVID hotbed, the State of Wisconsin, a few weeks ago? Yet Wisconsin’s number is only 32. For whatever reason, Illinoisans have over twice the chance of dying from COVID than their neighbors to the north. Iowa’s number is 53, Indiana’s is 62, and Missouri’s is 47 – suggesting that all neighboring states are safer than Illinois. In fact, Illinois is and has been one of the top 10 most dangerous states as a function of COVID. Pile crime, politics, and taxes on top of that and start wondering why anyone lives here – but that is a subject for another day.

Figure 3 Death rates from COVID-19 as of October 28, 2020, by state (Statistica.com)
Figure 3 Death rates from COVID-19 as of October 28, 2020, by state.
For the complete chart, follow the link above. (Statistica.com)

I have been frustrated by misdirected, arbitrary, or politically motivated COVID policy since the beginning. I am not arguing that COVID is not dangerous. I am not arguing that people should not be diligent. I am arguing that Illinois officials are looking at the wrong data, looking at data incorrectly, and in too many cases expecting the public to accept “because science says so” without understanding the science themselves.

This issue has unfortunately been politicized. Please, do not reject my logic because it coincidentally aligns with the politics of others you oppose – some of whom you view as idiots. All the links to these numbers are included above and none of my sites have any political bias. If you wish not to believe me, click through and do your own research.

“Finally Fair” or debt reduction? The Governor’s plan can’t deliver both and likely delivers neither

Two of Springfield’s most trust-worthy politicians

Over the last two weeks I have published a bunch of posts outlining my opposition to the graduated income tax amendment or as our Governor incorrectly calls it” the fair tax amendment.” You can read them here.  What I’ve realized as a result is that its even simpler than I thought. So, channeling Douglas Adams, this is my 5th post in my 4-part series.

In order to understand the Governors proposed tax program, it is important to separate his two very separate proposals. The first is an amendment to the Illinois constitution which grants lawmakers sweeping new powers to change the way Illinois citizens are taxed. The second is a legislative proposal indicating how the amendment will first be used to increase taxes for some and lower taxes for others.

We have all heard the TV ads within which proponents of the “Fair Tax Amendment” talk about increasing the tax rate for the top 3% of earners and reducing it for everyone else. Yet the new wording proposed for the Illinois Constitution doesn’t mention top-3% this or tax-cuts that. These details are not part of the amendment. The Governor’s proposed amendment very simply removes the flat tax requirement and allows the legislature to increase  – or lower – taxes on any group at-will.

The Governor’s second proposal is to use these new legislative powers to immediately increase taxes from 4.95% to 8% for earners making more than $250,000 per year and to decrease everyone else’s tax rate from 4.95% to 4.9%. This, he promises, will 1) ensure that rich people “finally pay their fair share” (his words) and 2) eliminate the State’s deficit, leading ultimately to a reduction in the State’s debt.

We need that first one – the constitutional amendment – before the benefits of the second one – the legislative proposal – are possible. Unfortunately, those two benefits still aren’t possible as currently written. Only one can be true – and the governor knows it.

If you dig in (math shared at end of post), you will see that the numbers associated with the Governor’s program do not come close to eliminating the deficit. That “finally fair tax program” will only increase the State’s revenue by $3 billion – far short of the $6 billion annual deficit. As a result, the State will need to continue borrowing, at higher and higher interest rates, and the debt will continue to grow, and the State’s financial situation will continue to worsen.

OR…on the other hand, with the new legislative powers that the amendment provides, the State could say “to hell with fair and promises,” and legislate increases large enough to reduce the debt. The Governor’s tax rate details are not written in stone. The Legislature could enact them for a year and pick something much more aggressive the following session or just scrap the promises altogether and raise rates across the board now.

So what gives? Is the Governor trying to enact a tax program that is finally fair, or use the amendment to raise taxes to pay-off the State’s debt? The answer is likely neither.

Opponents of the program – and even some supporters – recognize that the Amendment marketing has not been completely honest. The Governor is looking for an additional revenue stream, and this amendment gets him one. It is understood that, the increased revenue will be directed at regular state services (including unchecked inefficiency and graft) and reduce borrowing. Despite promises, it was never intended to fix underfunded pensions or eliminate the deficit. It is a short-term solution to generate cash and in a few years it will be absorbed, Illinois debt will be pushing $80 billion, new sources of revenue will be needed, and that tax amendment will be right there, all warmed up ,and ready to facilitate another round of tax increases, this time much less “fair” and more widely shared.

The amount of money our state needs is big and growing and the three percenter’s pie is just not big enough to solve the problem. Everyone from middle-class on-up will eventually pay a higher rate as a result of this amendment. The usual suspects (Increasing debt service, unfunded pensions, growing entitlements, ballooning – yet ineffective – police departments and school districts) will continue to put pressure on coffers. Tax rates will rise for everyone, additional tax tiers will be introduced each with its own tax details, and 50% or even 100% of retirement income will be taxed at regular income levels. Within three to ten years of this amendment’s passage all Illinoisans will be paying higher state taxes, and some may be paying twice what they pay today.

“So, Jackass,” as my detractors may ask “what is the alternative? We can’t do nothing and isn’t this something?” Nope! The act of creating less than nothing does not make it something! Educated voters need to discern between programs which improve the fiscal health of our State and those that hurt it – regardless of promises. A tax amendment that is sold on the promise of reducing the state’s debt but in fact increases the state’s debt is not a step in the right direction. It is not something.

But, as Crain’s (I think?) pointed out last week, there may be a silver lining here. The failure of this amendment may signal a step forward for the Governor. Prior G, Bruce Rauner’s, message to state legislators was clear, if you can reduce waste, demonstrate commitment to fiscal responsibility, and pass pension reform, Illinoisans will pass a bipartisan tax increase. Before coughing up cash or turning over additional power, Illinoisans deserve proof that our legislators have turned the corner on governmental waste and that buying votes with taxpayer dollars is no longer acceptable.

If a failed graduated tax amendment in 2020 was followed by graduated tax amendment AND a pension reform amendment in 2021, taxpayers would feel a lot safer accepting it.

Note:

Here are the numbers to which I am referring. Illinois typically runs about a $6 billion dollar deficit. With COVID, 2020 will mark about a $7.5 billion shortfall. Illinois’s debt is currently at about $64 billion and growing at $6-7.5 billion per year. Without intervention, it is scheduled to hit $100 billion in 5 years.

The new tax program, proposed by the Governor, and requiring the Amendment to enact, increases the tax rate to 8% from 4.95% for earners making more than $250,000 per year and to decrease everyone else is tax right from 4.95% to 4.9%. This equates to a tax reduction for a family making $100,000/year by $1 per week, and a proposed increase in revenue of $3 billion. The State’s debt will continue to grow under this program by $3-$4.5 billion per year.

The Governor has stated that 8% is the “finally fair” tax rate for rich people even though this is insufficient to make a dent in our debt. In fact, the State’s debt is so big that at a “unfair” tax rate of 15% it would still take one full generation to pay off the debt.

“Fair Tax” impact on IL debt likely to be minimal

while unintended consequences may be severe

NOT Illinois’ new super heroes

Illinois is facing a constitutional amendment to eliminate the flat tax that has been in place for years. our Governor thinks that a change to Illinois’s tax program is the ticket to buy the state out of trouble. Unfortunately the numbers just don’t add up.

I found the following paragraph on the AARP website supporting the “Fair Tax” Amendment.

Illinois was drowning in debt. The pandemic has caused large parts of the economy to shut down and significantly reduced many sources of state revenue, like from income and sales taxes, as well as gaming.  As a result, Illinois now faces a budget shortfall of $6.2 billion.  If the graduated income tax ballot initiative does not pass, this shortfall will climb to $7.4 billion.

The article was called “Facts and Fallacies”, and this was listed as a fact. Unfortunately, it is a fallacy. These numbers are calculated under the assumption that nothing other than the tax formula will change. As I discussed in an earlier segment of this series, the behavior of the State’s greatest tax contributors will change.

Many highly paid Illinoisans will choose to reduce their income or stall its growth. Earlier, I discussed forgoing a promotion to avoid the higher tax rates, but this is not the only strategy Illinoisans will employ. Executive perks such as travel, cars, and luxury offices can be categorized as corporate expenses reducing personal as well as corporate taxation. Additionally, promises of corporate charitable giving can sub in for personal compensation. But most employers and executives will agree to reduce taxable income in favor of retirement income or deferred compensation.

It is important to note that retirement income is not taxed in Illinois – for now (take heed AARP). Following the amendment’s passage, Illinoisans will move to maximize their IRAs, profit sharing plans, and defined benefits plans or pensions. There are limits to all of these, but each removes money from the State’s pool of taxable income.

Deferred compensation such as vested options and stock sharing, will increase as a share of executive compensation. These programs do not generate taxable income until the assets are sold and can be held indefinitely without contributing any State revenue.

There will also be Illinois tax contributors who choose to set up permanent residence in Florida or Texas, where there is no (0%) state Income tax. New York and New Jersey have been suffering from the flight of its most wealthy for decades.

But there is another issue at work here and that is the danger of corporate flight. Illinois – and Chicago in particular – is viewed nationally and internationally as an unsafe environment due to guns, riots and looting, a high murder rate, an ineffective police force, and general, all-around poor, civic management. Meanwhile, the political climate is critical of right-leaning dissent and intolerant of most religion. As an additional 3% state income tax is added on to these issues, corporations considering a move to Chicago may take a pass, but the real fear is that corporations already here will choose to uproot and move to a more hospitable state with a lower tax rate and a friendlier climate to its executives.

With all these things taken into account, what does that $3 billion per year promised income really look like? I haven’t run any numbers, but I can imagine it being $2.5 billion additional in the first year – because behavioral change takes time – but $0 additional by the end of year five or six. The program might in total collect as little as $8-10 billion while offsetting that with a billion or two of additional unchecked spending – all this toward out deficit of $64 billion today and maybe as much as $100 billion at the end of the decade.

Meanwhile, we will have emboldened an already corrupt legislation to purchase more votes with tax payer dollars, witnessed the flight of many of Illinois’ best citizens, and diminished Chicago’s status as an international business center.

Now some naysayers may call me a chicken little. They will argue that there are far too many successful professionals and corporations in Chicago for a little flight to have any overall impact. And those that stay will contribute all the tax revenue the state needs to accomplish the State’s objectives of paying off the debt and increasing government services. But history offers a response t that. Detroit was one of the richest cities in the country in the 1960s and politicians making the same arguments we are hearing today increased taxes on the wealthy and driving them to the suburbs, leaving Detroit with a diminished tax base, ballooning costs of social programs supporting its urban poor, and leading the city into bankruptcy.

We do not want Chicago
to become Detroit

The COVID pandemic has dramatically increased state expenditures and decreased states revenue. This is the single greatest deficit ballooning event in history. There is no instant panacea. Revenues will need to be increased and costs will need to be cut in order to dig out of this hole. To think that regular Illinoisans will be able to get through this unscathed while Scrooge McDuck and the Monopoly Guy foot the bill is absurd. Regardless, which way this constitutional amendment goes, our politicians need to get their heads out of the sand, roll up their sleeves, and reform five decades of terrible governance.

“Fair Tax” Message Unfairly Ignores Contributions of Many Illinoisans

Illinois is facing a constitutional amendment to change the way Illinois citizens are charged taxes. Historically, Illinois has had a flat tax system where everyone pays the same rate. This does not imply that everyone pays the same taxes. A 4% flat tax equates to $40,000 on earned income of $1 million, but only $2,000 on earned income of $50,000.

But Illinois is in bad fiscal condition right now, and our Governor thinks that a change to Illinois’s tax program is the ticket he needs to buy the state out of trouble. In this third installment opposing the State Constitutional edit, and today I challenge the argument on the basis of fairness.

The pro graduated tax lobby has a pretty easy job. Their message, intended to appeal to the solipsistic masses, is that if all the regular joes vote together to approve the constitutional edit there won’t be enough votes on the other side to counter it. In other words, stick it to them, or the state will stick it to you.

It is an age-old argument that the rich should be taxed because they can afford it. These sentiments are fueled by occasional stories of some wealthy douche-hat that gets caught cheating on his taxes or some group of politicians that creates a loophole in the tax law that allows rich constituents to avoid paying taxes on certain earnings.

But these anecdotes ignore the primary fact that most wealthy Americans already pay the lion’s share of all taxes without complaint. At the federal level, a proxy for graduated tax distribution, the top 1% pays 40% of all income tax. The top 10% pays 70%, and the bottom 90% pays 30%.

In flat-tax Illinois, the distribution for income tax is a little more balanced, with the top 15% contributing 60% of the tax revenue collected, but when we consider property and sales taxes, the percentage contributed by wealthy Illinoisans increases due to expensive homes, and higher expenditures on consumer goods. Under a graduated tax program, the biggest contributors would see their taxes nearly double.

At what point are the rich paying their fair share? Imagine in your own life, one particularly good year followed by checks written to the government worth $1,000,000 on April 15. That money is not going to your family’s stability, your children’s education, your grandchildren’s independence, or the charitable causes you support. You don’t get a thank you note from the government, or the citizens it supports. Instead, you hear the ongoing call, that you should be paying even more. And if you argue the contrary you will be badged as greedy and probably evil too.

Stick it to them or
the State will stick it to you.

Our wealthy Governor has stood up, a presumptive poster child for rich Illinoisans, and said that he feels he should pay higher tax rate. But let us be honest, as a member of the richest family in the state, his lifestyle and legacy would not be diminished at any tax rate. The challenges facing a guy that owns private jets are not the same as those faced by the fellow successful enough to fly business class occasionally.

The flat tax is fair.  A graduated tax program could be fair and must be if it is successful.  But we must reject that idea that just because someone has been successful is evidence – in itself – that they did not deserve to be. If Illinois cannot create a tax system that feels fair to those contributing the greatest amount already, those taxpayers will change their behavior, reducing their productivity and taxes paid before ultimately relocating to another state.

CTU should be more careful with its wishes

This morning as I was walking IMG_2346.JPGmy children to school a popular teacher enthusiastically handed me a flyer about the upcoming “Day of Action.” As I read it I was interested to note the things the Union hopes to accomplish on behalf of my children on April 1.

  • Demand: Tax the rich!
  • Expect that education and social services be properly funded
  • Put TIF money back into schools

Now first, I take exception to the idiotic and inflammatory “tax the rich” mantra. Our school is located in a neighborhood where the average home price is over $1 million dollars. Is the Union or that friendly teacher really hoping to hurt the parents of his students? Last I checked, they were already paying some of the highest taxes in the country. In addition, these are the most generous donors to the school. Whenever I hear these statements, I wonder if the writer believes that those better off really need to give more or if they need to be punished just for making more. But maybe I digress.

The rest of this all seems good. More for education means books, additional programs, a school nurse, and reduced class size. TIF Funds means physical improvement to the schools, improved HVAC, water fountains that work, and a general all around reduction in our school’s dumpiness. These are things I can get behind.

Unfortunately, in today’s newspaper the exact same CTU claims that Friday’s Strike (note their changing choice of nouns) is legal because it is in protest of the CPS’s failure to pay “raises based on experience and educational attainment.” (Chicago Tribune, 3/30/2016).

So in the document to get the parents on their side, CTU says that Friday is a day-of-action in support of better educational services and nicer schools. Yet to the courts, CTU says they are striking to get raises! Which is it?

If history is a precedent, the answer is pretty clear. Last time we had a strike, there were ten things on the strike priority list, the last two were compensation and job security. I wish I still had the list, but smaller class sizes, facility improvements, and even central air conditioning listed higher. Not surprisingly, when the strike was over, the only things that were addressed were issues compensation and job security – the only thing the Union really cares about.

This (in particular) is not a criticism of the Union. It is their job. The pipe fitter’s union doesn’t care about the lives of pipes. They are paid to care about electricians. By the same token, the teacher’s union is not paid to care about children, they are paid care about teachers. Now, do teachers care about students? Absolutely! But there is occasionally a conflict between what is best for a student and what is best for a teacher. The Union’s job is to take the teachers’ side, play the hardball, and protect the teachers from the associated ugliness.

Unfortunately, in this case, the Union is playing a game that they can win only if the city loses. Property taxes (for those paying them) have skyrocketed this year. City service fees have similarly jumped, while the actual services offered have been reduced. The only way to give the Union what it wants is to further increase taxes or further slash services. This environment of rising taxes and falling services is exactly what precipitated the exodus of the middle-class from Detroit.

People argue that this won’t happen here. People in Chicago are loyal and they love it here in spite of the machine politics, union corruption, and high taxes. Yet only days ago the Tribune ran this headline…

Chicago area sees greatest population loss of any major U.S. city [or] region in 2015

Be careful what you “demand,” CTU.

Chicago’s Game of Bags benefits no one

Much of the difference between common sense conservatives and common sense liberals is how much faith each group has in the government’s ability to solve problems. Liberals tend to think that a group of thoughtful politicians can influence people’s behavior through properly crafted legislation. Conservatives tend to believe that even well-meaning legislation is likely to be botched by unintended consequences. It is tough to imagine a law that makes the conservative point more soundly than Chicago’s ban on disposable shopping bags.

The problem, as it was described by the City Council and advocates is that too many disposable plastic shopping bags are produced, used and discarded. These flimsy menaces create litter, increase our carbon footprint, fill our landfills, and are largely unrecyclable.

The solution was to require retailers to offer only bags with handles that could be reused at least 125 times. The thinking is that stronger bags are less likely to be discarded and could be reused many times. Stores are given the choice between selling them and giving them away. Most give them away and those that don’t charge such a negligible amount for them – say 5-10 cents – that no one notices.

But this foolish law which regulates only bags and retailers seems to be predicated on the assumption that bags reuse themselves and fails to acknowledge the actual decision maker in the problem – the consumer. Some consumers have long chosen to reuse bags and others throw them out.target bags

The law does not provide any incentive for those who chose to discard their bags to change their behavior. As a result, those who reused bags before the law continue to reuse them and those who discarded them before the law continue to discard them. Many pet owners depend on shopping bags to discard pet waste and have little option but to continue the practice. Even well-intentioned shoppers often forget their bags and after accumulating more than they need are forced to discard bags. The difference is that now they are throwing away thicker, bigger bags, with larger carbon footprints, and which take up more space in the landfill.

As a result, this well-meaning piece of legislation has likely accomplished the opposite of what it intended – due to unintended consequences or just lack of intelligent conception.

Let’s be clear, I support a law that accomplishes the goal of reducing disposable bags. It’s easy to design and it looks like this:

  • All bags must be made out of cloth or pressed cloth-like material.
  • All bags must be a standard size so customers don’t have to store multiple sizes.
  • All bags must be sold at a price which incents consumers to hold onto them – say two dollars each.
  • Cheaper or free plastic or paper bags cannot be sold or offered as an alternative at checkout.

But the problem with a properly-crafted disposable shopping bag ban is that it is effectively a regressive consumption tax. Because the value of the goods put into bags by poor people tends to be lower, they pay a higher tax rate than their wealthier neighbors which isn’t cool with our City Council.

So now we see that the problem as it was described was only half the problem. The other requirement was that it could not place a larger burden on the poorer south and west sides – areas that couldn’t care less about disposable plastic bags – than it does on the North side – where the wealthier residents and image-conscious mayor were seeking a solution. Creating a Chicago-wide law that accomplishes both of these objectives is simply not possible. They are in conflict. As a result, we end up with a stupid law that penalizes all citizens equally but offers benefits to no one.

This point goes to the common sense conservatives.

Wasted opportunities in Chicago

When I first learned that the red light, speeding, and school zone cameras were to be erected around Chicago I was in favor of the idea. What better way to plug the city’s budget deficit than fining people who were actually breaking the law. My thinking continued that it should force everyone to be more conscientious drivers. The fact that it wouldn’t affect driving records or insurance premiums made it seem all the more innocuous. Besides, as a good driver who has never had a ticket, I appreciated not being the target of a government revenue program for once.

And then I realized I was very much the target. It turns out that the city wasn’t after just the scofflaarlington_red_light_cameraws that were driving recklessly, ignoring signs, and putting people’s lives in danger. They were after every penny they could squeeze from this new resource. In situations that would have generated no tickets in the past – like a pattern of traffic where everyone is driving a bit above the limit – the City can now efficiently issue a ticket to everyone. In school zones when no children are present, no real cop would ever pull a driver over, but robot cameras can facelessly issue tickets to everyone who passes through. As for the appeal process? There is one and you are encouraged to follow the process. A few weeks later, you will get a nondescript “NOPE!” (and an implied “HA HA!”)

No, the red light cameras were not erected to segregate taxation between the scofflaws and the lawful. They were erected with the assumption that every citizen is presumed guilty and any punishment the City chooses to heap upon them is deserved.

Interestingly, this revelation parallels the one I have gone through with Mayor Rahm Emanuel. I was a pretty big support of Rahm up front. I liked the idea of a guy waking up every morning with a list of whose ass he was going to kick that day. It struck me that there were a lot of bad guys in politics around here and on the City’s payroll and I was darned happy to have a fighter coming in to bop some of them in the nose, get rid of others, and ebb the tide of corruption.  Finally, a “my guy” I could vote for mayor.rahm-emanuel-305x263

But instead of putting his gumption to use to eliminate Madigan’s spending shenanigans he has used it to shove through a property tax that forces you and me to pay for more of them. He sort-of stood up to Karen Lewis, but lost to her PR machine and came out looking like a bully with no financial improvements to show for it. His hand-picked staff which should have been a Justice league of no-bullshit straight-shooters has been string of lightweights, buffoons, and hand-in-the-cookie-jar criminals.

Meanwhile, gun violence in four small south-side neighborhoods – Auburn Gresham, Grand Crossing, Chatam, and Englewood, approaches the level of countries at war. Four neighborhoods! Less than 5% of the City’s total area. How hard can it be to augment the police presence in such a small area to the point where the neighbors don’t shoot children? Certainly these are communities have many problems, but in the short-term, is there a reason why the Illinois National Guard can’t be used to stop the shooting?

I still think Rahm Emmanuel is a smart man, and I believe he wants Chicago to be a better place. But the voters need to be convinced that everything in between there and here is more than just a nuisance to him. A teacher’s strike, black people killing each other, and all us irritating citizens expecting something for our tax dollars need to be things he becomes passionate about. If he can’t do that, it’s going to be tough for any of us to see him as “my guy” next time around.