People from Countries With Highly Centralized Governments Think Our System Is Too Decentralized

The Chicago Tribune has, apparently, received an advance copy of the OECD’s territorial review of the Chicago metropolitan area. There’s a conference about it downtown today but the publication doesn’t appear to be online and the OECD’s web site says that it’s in preparation. I don’t know that I’ll have the heart to read it when it does become available. Here’s what the Trib has to say about it:

The report acknowledges the dearth of regional cooperation, and the impediments posed by self-interested public officials. In one of its most relevant observations, it notes how the region suffers under the weight of too many units of government. It counts 1,700 in the Chicago megalopolis. That’s 1,700 separate drains on the public coffers — costly, competitive, and dedicated to perpetuating themselves. The OECD recommends consolidating or eliminating many of these. Amen! But nothing will happen unless Chicago-area employers, policy groups and leaders of those same redundant governments make it happen.

The report looks at how the lack of regional transportation planning, for example, limits growth. It ticks off challenges for upgrading the nexus of road, rail and runway that stretches across Indiana and Wisconsin as well as Illinois: As is, priorities differ. Individual state efforts come and go. Competition among states prevents cooperation. The report provides a “tool kit” for more regionalized thinking about transportation.

This OECD document echoes points from the economic development plan for Chicago that Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced last week. Emanuel’s plan, produced by the nonprofit World Business Chicago, is less concerned with the tri-state area, although it does reference the “region” repeatedly. It is more streamlined than OECD’s opus, contains a fraction of the analysis and offers a more focused call to action, including a revitalization of job training programs.

We applaud these efforts to move greater Chicago toward more growth, more economic development, more jobs. The oft-sniping governors of Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana should exploit this wealth of research.

For those of you who aren’t aware of it Illinois has more independent taxing entities than any other state in the Union. Not only are there the state, county, and city governments but there are school districts, forest preserve districts, sanitary districts and a host of other entities each empowered to levy taxes without a by your leave from the state legislature. IIRC they number more than 10,000 in all.

A less self-interested political class would be nice but I have no idea how anything short of the National Guard coming in and placing the state under martial law would accomplish that. Illinois’s constitution has very little in the way of populist measures. We have neither the initiative nor the referendum (except under severe constraints). We can’t remove elected officials from office.

Let’s do a little thought experiment. Would a more streamlined regional political authority be more or less under the influence of Chicago than the present patchwork? I think more. Over the last several decades DuPage County and McHenry County have grown enormously faster than Cook County. While I can believe that Cook County would grow faster if it were more under the control of DuPage, I am skeptical that DuPage County would have grown faster if it had been even more under the control of Cook.

Take the problems with our transportation system, for example. The mess that we refer to as our local highway system, highly effective as a storage system for cars, much less effective in facilitating transport, continues to labor under the shadow of the late Mayor Daley who insisted that any major highway pass through the city of Chicago. O’Hare, our major airport, through a masterpiece of wishful thinking and gerrymandering is technically in the city of Chicago, linked to the city proper by a tiny strip of land that extends for miles. Are the problems with the Chicago metropolitan transportation system that the city of Chicago has had too little influence or too much?

Further, I think that the view apparently expressed in the review, that the economic growth of what we refer to here as “the collar counties” continues to depend on the city of Chicago is living in the past. It was true 40 years ago but nowadays there are independent satellites: Schaumburg, Oak Brook, Naperville, Aurora, McHenry, Merrillville, and so on. These satellites have grown despite the best efforts of the city of Chicago, a counterbalance to the city of Chicago.

Going a bit farther afield I think it’s likely that Illinois could benefit by more influence on the part of Indiana but would Indiana really prosper if Illinois had more control over it? In what direction would power be likely to flow?

It’s nice to fantasize about greater cooperation among the diverse governmental entities in Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan in the Chicago vicinity but the likelihood of it coming to pass is slim and, at least in my opinion the prospects if it actually came to pass bleak. What needs to happen first is reforming Illinois, reforming the city of Chicago.

2 comments… add one
  • Drew Link

    I think the last two paragraphs summarize it all. People who don’t live in the area won’t be familiar with the regional diversity, but as you know, western Michigan couldn’t be more different than eastern, NW Indiana more different from downstate, west of DeKalb more different from Naperville or of Chicago.

    With the cesspool of Chicago being what it is, it’s hard to imagine any of those rural, or new business hubs like Shaumburg or Naperville, putting up with that malarchy. People here still make fun of the el tracks that are ” ahem” part of the city of Chicago.

  • Icepick Link

    including a revitalization of job training programs.

    Whenever I hear anyone speak about the need for job training programs I immediately assume they have no idea what the fuck they are talking about.

    More generally, wouldn’t it be maximally efficient for Rahm (or some other Mayor) to declare himself Dictator for Life, invade neighboring polities and bring everything under the rule of one person? That would cut out the red tape.

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