The Barbershop has re-located

The proprietor has moved the shop to ChicagoNow, a Chicago Tribune site that showcases some of the best bloggers in the Chicago area. You can logo on to the Barbershop home page here. The ChicagoNow home page is here.

You'll still be able to post comments with the same ease as in this location. The proprietor also will keep this web site alive if you wish to review old posts.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Blagojevich's budget of smoke and mirrors

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

It takes a huge helping of gall for Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to blame his Republican gubernatorial opponent, Judy Baar Topinka, for a $5 billion state budget deficit that he says was amassed during the administration of former Gov. George Ryan.

Especially when Blagojevich himself has made such a botch of state finances. Especially when Blagojevich, the charade meister, falsely claimed in 2003: "We will balance the budget and we will end the budget games. It took years of mismanagement and waste to create the mess we now face--and it will take tough times and tough choices to fix it."

But under Blagojevich, the budget games have swelled to Olympic-size proportions. Massive short-term borrowing to pay for everyday bills. Raiding the state pension fund to make his budget appear balanced. Loony proposals to sell state assets such as buildings and the lottery. All kinds of unaffordable new spending on programs that look good in a campaign brochure, but whose effectiveness is suspect. These are signs of fiscal desperation. And still the deficit grows.

Blagojevich is counting on voters to be stupid or bored enough to blame Topinka for Ryan's mess. But as state treasurer, Topinka doesn't propose or enact the budget. She has no control over how much or where money is spent.

True, she could have been more critical of the fiscal irresponsibility of Ryan and the Democratic-controlled legislature. But as for Blagojevich blaming her for Ryan's mess, she's no more responsible for Ryan's mess than she is for Blagojevich's.

The numbers from Controller Dan Hynes, a member of the governor's own party, tell the story. For example, Blagojevich's recently released comprehensive financial statements for fiscal year 2005, ending June 30 of last year, show that the general fund deficit was about 22 percent larger than the deficit at the end of the previous year, a $569 million increase. And the updated quarterly report shows that the fiscal year 2006 deficit, on this June 30, was $3.064 billion.

Incredibly, Blagojevich brags that he has "eliminated" the deficit, but that's only if he ignores--which he does--about $7.5 billion of unpaid bills that are left for someone in the future to pay. That includes almost $3 billion in unpaid medical costs.

Then there is the incredible amount of borrowing to pull off the deception of a "balanced" budget. Illinois has the nation's third-highest bond debt and the sixth-highest per-capita debt, according to Moody's Investors Service. To simplify: This is like going to the bank for a loan to buy groceries.

Cook County taxpayers can be doubly thankful for the governor's legerdemain. Partly because the state is way behind in reimbursing the county for certain medical costs, the Cook County Board recently was forced to take out a line of credit of as much as $200 million to keep up with its bills. As if the county's budget weren't confused and ugly enough already.

None of this seems to bother the Blagojevich administration. State budget director John Filan recently told the Rockford Register Star, "In terms of day-to-day running the joint, so to speak, we've taken in more money than we've spent in terms of expenditures."

The reality, however, is: Despite a surprisingly large increase in state revenue from an improving economy, the budget still is in the red.

Think of it in terms of a household budget. Say you're making more money this year than last. But you're spending more and you've added to your credit card debt so that you can say that you've balanced your budget. At the same time, you push off current bills until next year, acting as if they aren't past due. If you include everything that describes your financial health, you're in the fast lane to bankruptcy. But if you want to be a jerk about it, you pretend everything is fine.

Just like Blagojevich.

Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune

Monday, July 24, 2006

Fiefdom politics in Cook County

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

Aristocracy --Government by a small group of people, especially hereditary nobility.

Or maybe feudalism is a more apt description of Cook County government as run by Democratic Party bosses, as they demonstrated last week by installing the unqualified Todd Stroger as the next lord of the realm.

Feudalism --The dominant social system in medieval Europe in which the nobility held lands from the crown, in exchange for military service. Vassals, in turn, were tenants of the nobles. Their serfs were obliged to live on their lord's land and give him homage, labor and a share of the produce, in exchange for military protection.

Just substitute "government jobs" for "land" and you're on your way to understanding the dominant political system in medieval Cook County. Like serfs and vassals, the patronage workers give the lord homage, labor and a share of the political produce, in exchange for job protection.

It took Europeans centuries to free themselves from the servitude of feudalism. How long will it take for the voters and taxpayers of Cook County? If they don't do it now, they'll never do it.

Because they will have demonstrated that there is no insult, no abuse they cannot endure.

Yet, there's hope. They'll need a plan to combat the blindly loyal serfs as they come marching out of Castle Stroger during the campaign to inflict grave wounds on the citizens of Cook County. It would take:

- An uprising of Democrats. Not as far-fetched as it seems. Cook County Commissioner Forrest Claypool received almost half of the vote in the Democratic primary for County Board president. True, Todd Stroger's father John, the incumbent Claypool challenged, had just suffered a stroke, making his ability to handle the job suspect. And some Republicans were crossing over to vote for Claypool, believing it was their best bet for cleaning up government. Still, many Democrats did show an ability to protest the many failings of the "system" by voting against the elder Stroger.

- Fed up African-American voters. Predictions that they'll dutifully vote for Todd Stroger because of his race imply an insulting stereotype. Perhaps some black voters may look at it this way: Stroger is a creature of a political organization headed by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, the same man who as state's attorney outrageously ignored the warning signs that Jon Burge and other police detectives were torturing African-American suspects.

Moreover, some black voters might not buy the deeply flawed logic that the endless nepotism of white politicians justifies the same fault in black politicians. And some black voters might be just as sick as white voters of "the way things are," as they most assuredly are in county government. And that the Stroger anointment is simply another example of fiefdom politics as practiced by the Daley vassals on the Cook County Democratic Central Committee.

- Democratic social liberals with a conscience. As much as they would loathe to vote for anyone who doesn't share their views (such as some social conservatives), they might dampen their ideological purity to do something right and vote for Todd Stroger's opponent, Republican Commissioner Tony Peraica.

- Seriously reinvigorated county GOP. Might the business and civic leaders who have signed on to the Daley-Stroger-Democratic organization decide for once to support their natural allies in the GOP?

Those are a lot of ifs, but with regular GOP voters, maybe they can build a new reform coalition that can end the practices that Todd Stroger's puppeteers represent. The puppeteers' strategy, of course, will be to argue that he is independent, competent and a refreshingly new voice for honest and efficient government. Maybe the strategy will work because the rest of us will be laid up, our sides split from laughter, and unable to make it to the polls.

What does Stroger represent? Consider: His biography shows a long series of government jobs, while proudly proclaiming that in 1994 he joined the SBK-Brooks Investment Corp., even though his resume shows no prior investment banking experience. Maybe his old man didn't clout Todd into the job. But the regional investment banking firm's Web site lists its involvement as co-manager of more than $1 billion in bond deals with Cook County and additional hundreds of millions with other Illinois and local governments.

Draw your own conclusions. Mine is: If Stroger is elected, nothing will change. Absolutely nothing.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Bring in the Troops

By Dennis Byrne

Leaders call for international military force to impose peace in worsening Israeli, Lebanon conflict--News item.

Gee, now why didn't someone think of that sooner? Like 45 years ago?

You'd think that there would have been calls for an international military force years ago to keep Israelis, Palestinians and the rest of that bunch from cutting each other up. After all, similar calls have routinely gone out to cool bloodthirsty conflicts in places like the former Yugoslavia, Sudan, Somalia and Rwanda. So, why doesn't the same logic apply to protecting innocent lives in Israel and surrounding lands?

Maybe it has something to do with the last time the United States tried it in 1983. More than 200 Marines died in their Beirut barracks from a terrorist bombing. The U.S. hightailed it out of there and never returned.

Now United Nations Sec. Gen. Kofi Annan has called for the deployment of a multilateral force to Lebanon. So has British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who said, "The blunt reality is that this violence is not going to stop unless we create the conditions for the cessation of violence. The only way is if we have a deployment of international forces that can stop bombardment coming into Israel."

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert quickly opposed the plan, based on the belief that it won't work while also depriving Israel of the right to defend itself. Instead, according to some reports, he wants Lebanese forces to take control of the border and disarm the Hezbollah, the terrorist group which set off this most recent havoc.

What Lebanese forces? Olmert must be making a joke.

Continue at realclearpolitics.com

Monday, July 17, 2006

In search of employment

Will Chicago aldermen suffer an outbreak of good sense and reject a city wage law?

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

We suburbanites will have to send Chicago City Council members our thanks if they make it harder for big retail stores to operate in the city.

It'll mean more sales and property tax revenue for our local governments, more jobs for our residents, more money for us.

Obviously (to everyone but the aldermen), Chicago aldermen would better serve their constituents by welcoming the business of the Wal-Marts, Targets, Kmarts and other "big box" retailers into depressed city neighborhoods whose residents really need the jobs.

But some aldermen are poised to adopt an ordinance on July 26 telling retailers with Chicago stores of more than 90,000 square feet or more than $1 billion in gross sales how much to pay their employees who work more than five hours a week. (They'd also tell them they couldn't refuse to hire convicts.)

For the "nonpartisan" Economic Policy Institute--which regularly supports such liberal causes--the ordinance is of global importance. Chicago, it exclaimed, is in the "throes of fundamental debate about the future direction of the American economy and its workers, one that touches on our most pressing concerns, from globalization to the role of government."

For this Washington-based group, it should be no big deal for Chicago to slit its own throat by adopting an ordinance that would require a minimum starting wage of $10 an hour and $3 an hour of health-care benefits by 2010. Its "analysis" said it would merely increase the price of a pair of $1 Wal-Mart socks less than a cent. Or reduce its profit margin by less than a percentage point.

"A more logical course of action by a well-run company would be to reduce their work force by 20 percent," responded David Vite, president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. The trade group figures that the ordinance would increase labor costs 40 percent to 50 percent in stores that have an average profit margin of just 1 percent to 2 percent. It also argues that any government-imposed increased labor costs should be across-the-board nationally, to avoid discriminating against larger businesses or certain geographic areas.

But it doesn't really matter whether prices increase a penny, nickel or dime. What counts is what the retailers think, because they are free to open or close stores wherever they want. This does not make them evil, no more than shopping for the best bargain or searching for a higher-paying job makes you evil. It makes them businesspeople, although in some people's eyes, that automatically makes them evil. If they conclude that the economics of doing business in the city won't work, then they won't do business in the city. Simple as that.

And if they decide to take their business elsewhere, who will that hurt? Chicago's unemployed citizens who live in neighborhoods with high joblessness. Those with limited skills who are looking for entry-level jobs. The city's employed who, again, will have to find a way to get to the more numerous suburban jobs. Chicago shoppers who will have to go the extra mile to find a wider, better and more affordable selection of merchandise. But nuts to them; the aldermen have bigger fish to fry.

You'd think that the aldermen would have learned by now. A few years ago, they rejected a Wal-Mart proposal to build two stores in Chicago. The council only allowed one--on the West Side--forcing the company to find a site in Evergreen Park. Some 25,000 people applied for the 325 jobs in the store, which produced about $1 million in sales and property taxes for the suburb. Money and jobs Chicago could have had.

Why are aldermen acting so stupidly? To placate organized labor, which wants government to do the union's work for it by enforcing wage and work rules that it can't bargain into place by itself. As usual, its handmaidens are aldermen who value the political organizing muscle and campaign contributions that labor provides more than the good of their city.

But, you never know when a majority of aldermen might suffer an outbreak of good sense and reject the ordinance. So let's get in touch with them now, to encourage them to do what's good for the suburbs. We suburbanites also should encourage organized labor to keep up its pressure on the aldermen. Because that's how the "city that works" works so well for suburbanites.


Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune

Monday, July 10, 2006

Independence Day for City Hall

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

Political consultant David Axelrod is absolutely right: Whatever federal juries may conclude about the illegalities of the Chicago patronage system, the voters of Chicago will re-elect Mayor Richard M. Daley, if he decides to run.

Maybe even if he decides not to run. Maybe without any opposition, even Spanky the Clown.

No matter how many indictments U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald obtains against patronage gatekeepers, grafters, insiders and schemers. Or how many federal juries convict the system's practitioners, as one did last week with Daley's former top patronage aide and three others on charges arising from a system of placing campaign workers on the city payroll.

Axelrod last week explained on WTTW's "Chicago Tonight" that voters would re-elect Daley because he's a great mayor who has done wonderful things for the city. And, as Axelrod implied in an article he wrote last year for the Tribune's Perspective section, the alternative of a system in which workers aren't recommended by "elected officials, business, labor and community leaders" is as scary as the federal bureaucracy. As the widely accepted (in Chicago) argument goes: Hiring sponsored workers makes them more responsive to their bosses and their bosses more accountable to voters.

Except the patronage system is not as benign as Axelrod and its supporters would have it. No need to go over the evidence of how the system has dumped incompetents into such important positions that are supposed to protect public safety. Someone needs to explain how the existence of thousands of incompetents, slackers and no-shows on the public payroll makes for a better city. And how workers responsible only to their political sponsors ensure quality. Yeah sure, thousands of energetic and competent workers are on the payroll, and so what? Aren't they all supposed to be energetic and competent? Isn't that what taxpayers are paying for?

Those who argue that a well-oiled machine makes for a "wunnerful" city engage in a fundamental logical error: The simultaneous presence of a patronage army and the existence of a viable city is not automatic proof that the first causes the second.

Dare I suggest that things beyond Daley's patronage workers, contractor buddies and City Hall itself may also account for Chicago's success? That the city rose on an expanding national economy and lifestyle choices made by yuppies and others who value urban living? Or that the city's success came in spite of a system that encourages dishonesty and corruption?

This apparently is a hard concept for Chicago voters to grasp, as they reliably march to the polls to ratify misconduct and fraud. Among their numbers are the tens of thousands who directly benefit, through jobs and contracts. And the tens of thousands more who indirectly benefit from relatives and friends on the payroll. And the uncounted more in business, labor, civic and neighborhood organizations who buy their way inside. Also include the misguided who honestly believe that illegality is necessary for success, illegal as in violating civil and criminal law.

Such is Chicago's lore, fed by those of us in the media who enjoy writing about it, who value graft for its humor and entertainment. Reformers like Robert Merriam and Martin Kennelly are mocked as ineffective daydreamers, and perhaps they were. While newspaper editorial boards are fuming about corruption, favoritism, secrecy and nepotism at the city, county and state levels, commentators, historians, authors and others are getting their jollies describing the goofiness and grittiness of it all. It's all part of the city's patina.

What I'm trying to say is that the network of political, business, labor, community, media and other interests has become so invested in the system that few are left to risk being labeled excessively moralistic for protesting the "way things work."

One clear symptom is the nearly complete absence of what used to be a vibrant community of political independents, something of a loyal opposition that brought the force of conscience into the public arena. Nobody wants to be a "do-gooder." How ironic, then, that Daley recently complained about the City Council messing around with a proposal to ban Chicago restaurants from using cooking oils that contain trans fats. Maybe if he gave the aldermen something real to do, they wouldn't be wasting the taxpayers' time with such nonsense.

Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune

Save Patrick Fitzgerald

By Dennis Byrne

President Bush faces a major test of his integrity when, or if, he ever gets around to reappointing Patrick Fitzgerald as U.S. Attorney in Chicago.

The nation needs to know that Bush's failure to back Fitzgerald will betray a gapping hole in the conscience of the president. While most of America may think of Fitzgerald as the aggressive prosecutor in the Valerie Plame affair and the bombing of the World Trade Center, those of us in Chicago have a closer view of the man.

He is one of the few government officials left in Chicago and Illinois that loathes corruption, and who is in a position to do something about as the U.S. Attorney for Northern Illinois.

In that role, he has put away former Illinois Gov. George Ryan and a host of other grafters. He is scrutinizing current Gov. Rod Blagojevich's administration for its hiring practices. And he is hot on the trail of the corruption that pervades Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley's City Hall. Score another for Fitzgerald as a federal jury this week convicted Daley's patronage chief and three other men on charges that they engaged in an elaborate and long-running scheme to reward the mayor's campaign workers with choice jobs.

Read more at realclearpolitics.com

Monday, July 03, 2006

Contorting the law as a rebuke

By Dennis Byrne

Now that we've exhausted ourselves arguing the politics of the U.S. Supreme Court's "repudiation" of the Bush administration's handling of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, maybe we can take a closer look at the decision itself.

Whatever you think of Thursday's ruling that gives Osama bin Laden's driver and bodyguard the same protections as prisoners of war who fight in uniform and by the rules, the path to this conclusion was twisting, indeed.

For example: Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote the decision, said the war against terror is not an "international conflict." He had to say this to arrive at the conclusion that the detainee, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, is just another prisoner of war who deserves the same legal protections as our own soldiers under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. You'd have to read his opinion to fathom his reasoning, but to suggest that the terrorist war being waged against us is just some localized conflict defies fact.

He also said (as paraphrased from the case syllabus):

- It is "unsound" to presume that the field-grade military officer who would preside over Hamdan's case would conduct the proceedings "in good faith and according to law." Why? Because if his prison sentence is "less than 10 years," he has no right to a federal court review of the commission's decision. (In other words, a military judge would be so biased that he would allow Hamdan off with less than a 10-year sentence, just to escape an appeal. Amazing.) And because he "will be and, indeed, already has been excluded from his own trial." Excluded?

Read on.

- It is a violation of the Geneva Conventions to prevent Hamdan from sitting and listening to classified evidence against him. That would include information about who turned him in, how the government tracks terrorists and a load of other intelligence useful to them. It's not enough that Hamdan's appointed military counsel has access to all that information. Never mind that the judge is not required to exclude Hamdan; the rules only gave the judge the discretion to--but then again, we can't trust the judge.

- While Hamdan is charged with conspiracy, that crime has "rarely if ever been tried as such" by any U.S. military commission, nor does the charge appear in the Geneva or The Hague Conventions. Here I guess that Stevens means that because war criminals are rarely tried for conspiracy, Hamdan and others should never be tried for it. By the way, our own soldiers can be tried for conspiracy under the UCMJ, but I guess that part of the code doesn't apply to Hamdan.

- Even if he could be charged with conspiracy, the commission wouldn't have jurisdiction to try Hamdan on it because he is not "alleged to have committed any overt act in a theater of war or on any specified date after Sept. 11, 2001." As if the United States isn't in the theater of war. As if post-Sept. 11 acts are beyond the commission's reach.

- Common Article 2 of Geneva Conventions doesn't apply; Common Article 3 does. This takes some explaining. Article 2 says signatories to the convention (meaning us) have to abide by the provisions of the convention only if the other side (Al Qaeda) accepts those provisions. Since we can't just dial up bin Laden to ask whether he would refrain from taking hostages--as if we didn't know the answer--it's clear, to me anyway, that the Geneva Conventions don't apply. Stevens, however, just brushes aside Article 2, as if it didn't exist. Article 3, which provides some protections for Hamdan, applies, Stevens said, because the war on terror isn't an international war (there it is again).

By most accounts, Article 3 was meant for internal civil wars, and Article 2 for international wars. Here's the exact language of the convention: Article 3 applies in cases of "armed conflict not of an international character occurring in the territory of one or more of the [signatories]." Article 2 says signatories shall be "bound by the Convention in relation to the [non-signer], if the latter accepts and applies the provisions there of."

I'm not a lawyer, but I can read. And what I read is a desperate effort by one of the court's most liberal members to twist the law to obtain the desired outcome, which is "a stunning rebuke" to the Bush administration.


Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune