by Steve Bartin 02/26/2015
Despite a huge advantage in name recognition, massively more money, and a lift from President Obama, Rahm Emanuel failed to avoid a run-off Tuesday. It seems many Chicago residents are beginning to realize that our present system – and leaders – are leading us off a precipice.
In the adopted home of a President and the most fabled political machine in the country, the issue here is the factors that drive political decisions. It is increasingly clear that the old political science sense that politicians are less self-interested than regular people – suckers, taxpayers – is dead wrong. Many American political scientists will claim with enormous conviction that those engaged in the marketplace are more self-interested than those involved in the political process. Liberal scholars and the mainstream media constantly complain about market failure; much less attention is paid to political failure.
Not all academics studying politics have been so naïve about the political process. Over 100 year ago FDR’s influential progressive advisor Frederic C. Howe, in his long forgotten book,Confessions of a Monopolist explained the essence of politics:
This is the story of something for nothing—of making the other fellow pay. This making the other fellow pay, of getting something for nothing, explains the lust for franchises, mining rights, tariff privileges, railway control, tax evasions. All these things mean monopoly, and all monopoly is bottomed on legislation.
Seeking special privileges, Howe reasoned, leads to corruption. By the 1960s this notion was explored by economists Gordon Tullock and Anne Krueger, who developed the concept of “rent-seeking.” They saw how politics represents often merely an investment towards plundering the taxpayers for private gain.
Now we have a modern day examination of this phenomena, particularly in the crony capital of the world, Illinois. Political scholars Thomas Gradel and Dick Simpson have written a path breaking book from The University of Illinois Press on corruption in the state of Illinois. This book is the most comprehensive survey of corruption in the state of Illinois ever published. The lessons here are useful well beyond Illinois. You’ll never understand, for example, Barack Obama’s political career unless you read this book. Gradel and Simpson also remind us that Chicago isn’t the only corrupt place in Illinois. The corrupt politicians, judges, police, and government bureaucrats are catalogued here and backed by empirical evidence.
Illinois’ biggest town was corrupt from the start. Even the incorporation vote to start Chicago was fraudulently conducted. Chicago’s City Council is the epitome of the place’s corruption. Gradel and Simpson present the evidence:
Thirty-three Chicago aldermen and former aldermen have been convicted and gone to jail since 1973. Two others died before they could be tried. Since 1928 there have been only fifty aldermen serving in the council at any one time. Fewer than two hundred men and women have served in the Chicago city council since the 1970’s, so the federal crime rate in the council chamber is higher than in the most dangerous ghetto in the city.
Those Chicago Aldermen who went on to commit crimes represent all elements of society. White, black, college graduates, rich, poor, felonies on the job, felonies off the job, and more. But, Chicago’s city council isn’t the only corrupt place. Chicago’s police department has faced its’ share of negative publicity:
Since 1960, more than three hundred Chicago police officers have been convicted of serious crimes, such as drug dealing, beating civilians, destroying evidence, protecting mobsters, theft, and murder. However, this doesn’t include all the illegal and unethical activities that have gone undetected or were covered up internally by the police department.
The Emanuel administration still has to deal with police behavior from decades ago. Commander Jon Burge, Chicago’s most infamous police torturer, has already cost the city $120 million in settlements and legal fees with the meter still running. William Hanhardt, who was elevated to Chief of Detectives after joining the police force in 1953, rose through the ranks to be the Chicago Mob’s most important asset on the force. He was eventually indicted for running a nationwide jewelry theft ring. This was not any ordinary theft ring. As U.S. Attorney Scott Lassar clearly stated: “Hanhardt’s organization surpasses in duration and sophistication -just about any other jewelry theft ring we’ve seen in federal law enforcement.” Chicago’s City Council never held hearings on who Hanhardt promoted in his long career and the long racketeering enterprise he ran.
The big question: Was Barack Obama separate from the ethical swamp of Illinois politics? Obama was a foot soldier of the Daley machine when Congressman Bobby Rush had the nerve to run against Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1999, Daley needed to send Congressman Rush a message. The Daley operation “encouraged” Illinois State Senator Barack Obama to challenge Congressman Bobby Rush. Obama lost, but won the loyalty of Mayor Daley. The Chicago machine pushed Obama for the Illinois State Senate, the U.S. Senate, and then the Presidency. Barack Obama was there when the chips were down. As one Obama observer explained, he endorsed Daley last time in 2007 despite the corruption and the many civil rights violations. Daley, for his part, backed Obama in his successful run for the white House.
President Obama previously taught constitutional law classes at one the country’s most prestigious law schools, the University of Chicago. Given President Obama’s civil rights knowledge as a law school professor, President Obama’s 2007 endorsement of Daley for mayor remains even more perplexing. Recent revelations about a Chicago police “black site” – much along the lines of CIA interrogation centers — seem to have done little to change his embrace of the machine.
Clearly the cord to the machine has hardly been cut. Just look at who President Obama hired as top staff members. Daley fundraiser Rahm Emanuel served as Chief of Staff. Mayor Daley’s brother William followed him as Chief of Staff. Another powerful figure is Mayor Daley’s deputy Chief of Staff, Valerie Jarret. The head of the less than successful Chicago Public School system, Arne Duncan, got promoted Secretary of Education. Chicago machine donor and housing fraudster Penny Pritzker got appointed to Secretary of Commerce.
But don’t rely just on me. Read Thomas Gradel and Dick Simpson— you may realize the price we all, not just in Chicago or Illinois pay, for not confronting the culture of corruption.
Steve Bartin is a resident of Cook County and native who blogs regularly about urban affairs. He works in Internet sales.