There are times when forces of math, physics, or nature resist the will of man. And when that occurs those forces must be punished. Some of you may recall an ancient example from 480BC. It was then that Achaemenid Emperor Xerxes found his armies thwarted by the Dardanelles strait (or the Hellespont as it was formerly known) on their march to Greece. In response, Xerxes ordered his engineers to construct a bridge that would bear his force across the water.
This they did.
Unfortunately nature took offense to his presumption, and so she unfurled a storm that destroyed the entire span at nearly the moment of its completion. That’s the sort of insolence emperors are not prone to tolerate. Here’s a translation of Herodotus recounting Xerxes’ reaction.
So when Xerxes heard of it he was full of wrath, and straightway gave orders that the Hellespont should receive three hundred lashes, and that a pair of fetters should be cast into it. Nay, I have even heard it said that he bade the branders take their irons and therewith brand the Hellespont. It is certain that he commanded those who scourged the waters to utter, as they lashed them, these barbarian and wicked words: ‘Thou bitter water, thy lord lays on thee this punishment because thou has wronged him without a cause, having suffered no evil at this hands. Verily King Xerxes will cross thee, whether thou wilt or no. Well dost thou deserve that no man should honor thee with sacrifice; for thou art of a truth a treacherous and unsavory river.
Obviously 300 lashes and a branding for emphasis did not fall lightly on those lapping waves. But given similar circumstances, would you have shown that water greater clemency? As it happens, the treacherous and unsavory river fared better than Xerxes’ engineers, who were each separated from their head during those same disciplinary proceedings.
Eventually the Persians did cross the strait, with the gory battles that followed now seeming so racist to our refined sensibilities. After all, was there no Persian willing to publicly reprimand the Spartans for their obvious Anti-Achaemenidism? That embarrassing Hellenic xenophobia is certainly not a sentiment with which modern Westerners can relate; though I suppose we shouldn’t laugh at the folly of the ancients. Perhaps one day future peoples will marvel equally at our own unknowable delusions. I think the likelihood of that is substantial.
What’s probably much less substantial is the number of readers who have by now discerned that this post is about the state of Illinois. As you may know, Illinois is approaching something close to financial ruin, with the lowest debt rating for any state, ever. I was recently reading this analysis by the Chicago Federal Reserve, which places that state’s slow-motion fiscal disintegration largely on the shoulders of its public pension liabilities. As a percentage of economic output (GDP for states) Illinois shows a relentless and multi-decade increase in expenditures that consistently exceed revenues (taxes).
There is lengthy discussion to be had over how states and municipalities will increasingly struggle to sustain first world social amenities on the economic output of third-world populations. Taxes will rise, services will be cut, and still budgets will break as deficits balloon. Unlike the federal government, states will not be able to print their debt payments. The result is going to be a remorseless grinding down of living standards until they come into equilibrium with the capacity of the underlying population to produce them.
Or perhaps a judge will just rule that result unconstitutional.
In 2015, Illinois’ state pension debt reached a record $111 billion. Government-worker pensions already consume one-fourth of the state’s budget. And every day…the state’s pension debt grows by over $20 million.
The average career pensioner will get back his or her employee contributions after just two years in retirement. In all, pensioners’ direct employee contributions will only equal 6 percent of what they will receive in benefits over the course of their retirements.
Over half of state pensioners will receive $1 million or more in pension benefits over the course of their retirements. Nearly 1 in 5 will receive over $2 million in benefits.
That public pensions now consume a quarter of the state budget is startling. For such largesse to be fiscally sustainable Illinois would require an unusually high-tax-paying, low-tax-consuming population. Is that these people?
Because liberal Illinois state government workers must have someone in mind who is going to keep subsidizing their benefits while demanding relatively few for themselves. Maybe these are the ones.
At any rate, the pension dirt has been piling on the taxpayer for years. With the excess now spilling over into the state’s near junk status in the debt-market. Every sober mind understands this can not continue for the state to remain solvent. But that’s why sober minds don’t wear black.
The Illinois Supreme Court on Friday [in 2015] unanimously ruled unconstitutional a landmark state pension law that aimed to scale back government worker benefits to erase a massive $105 billion retirement system debt, sending lawmakers and the new governor back to the negotiating table to try to solve the pressing financial issue.
No gas? Keep driving. No money? Keep paying. I think that may be an excerpt from the court’s opinion. Here’s another: Thou bitter state balance sheet, the court lays on thee this punishment because thou has wronged others without cause, having suffered no evil at their hands. Verily Illinois will pay, whether it has the means or no. Well dost thou deserve that no man should honor thee with tax receipts; for thou art comprised of treacherous and unsavory figures.
So the budget was given 300 lashes and its numbers branded unconstitutional. Though to be fair to judges almost certainly undeserving of it, Illinois’ political actors have blithely watched this wave crest for years while using public pensions as a means to purchase votes. Only once the fiscal Fantasia brooms started running amok, did they finally look up from their prostitutes. Also, according to the article, the Illinois constitution ludicrously forbids public pensions from being “diminished or impaired.” Which should at least allow for a cessation of COLAs, though apparently even that was beyond Xerxes’ tolerance.
Which makes me wonder how such marvelous jurisprudential technology has yet to be adopted in more benighted countries. It is beyond my reckoning why African jurists haven’t thought to declare their country’s filth, violence, and poverty unconstitutional. These rulings would be joined by mandates for well-paved roads, modern hospitals, universal health coverage, K through post-graduate education, broad housing allowances, LGBT/BLT advancement programs, and Illinois-style retirement packages. Why don’t they think to do this? Does Africa have no courts of conscience? Are they savages?
Perhaps America’s most generous act of charity would be to donate her courts to the third-world.
Or perhaps our courts will donate the third-world to America. Illinois is on its way. With its debt now in near-junk status, borrowing costs will trend up, thus placing additional strain on what remains of discretionary spending. Taxes will have to increase substantially, but taxpayers will not have to remain in state paying them. And any exodus of those will pressure the budget further. The result is going to be a vortex of paying more and getting less.
I fear the balance sheet isn’t done being disciplined.