Posted by Leave a Commenton Thursday, June 23, 2016 |
Is It Time for Chicago to Embrace the B-Word: Bankruptcy?
Few concepts seem to create more confusion than bankruptcy.
Recently, Hulk Hogan was awarded $140 million in damages in a lawsuit he brought against Gawker Media, which had released a decade-old sex tape involving Hogan and the wife of a media personality. Three months after the verdict was reached, Gawker filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Critics and haters of the Gawker media empire —which includes the sports website Deadspin, the video game site Kotaku, the tech site Gizmodo, among others — hailed the bankruptcy filing as the end of Gawker, forever and ever, amen.
But, of course, that’s not how bankruptcy works. That’s not how any of it works.
A significant source of the common confusion on bankruptcy is, I believe, our board game understanding of the term. When you go bankrupt in Monopoly, you’re done. The game, for you, is over. Entertainment contributes to these misconceptions, too, when bankruptcy is typically used as a punch like, like in this example from The Office:
In the early days of the Obama presidency, when he and his political cohorts were arguing for a taxpayer-funded bailout of General Motors, a common line of argument was that bankruptcy would mean the end of the American auto industry as we know it. As with much political rhetoric, that statement was just true enough. But, of course, bankruptcy wouldn’t cause the factories and offices of GM to go *poof* and vanish into thin air, or even necessitate that the company itself be liquidated and dissolved. GM still have valuable assets, after all. They just needed relief from their crushing debt obligations.
Chapter 11 bankruptcy provides the opportunity for restructuring while the company continues to operate. For General Motors, this would have allowed them to jettison some of their legacy labor costs that were artificially driving up the cost of their automobiles in comparison to their competitors. For Gawker, it will likely facilitate of sale of all of the operation, or the selling off of individual websites, to others to keep Hulk Hogan from taking control.
Bankruptcy regularly enables businesses to emerge from the other side much healthier than when they entered. It can be a bumpy ride to get there, for sure. Some creditors end up lower on the priority list than others. Some employees don’t return. Corporate leadership is typically trimmed, if not completely replaced. But the company survives, and is usually better and stronger than before.
I bring all of this up because we may not be that far off from a time when the city of Chicago needs to consider bankruptcy as a means to solve its myriad crises.
“Bankruptcy was the opportunity to bring together a number of parties . . . both on the financial and on the labor side,” said Kevyn Orr, who was the emergency manager for Detroit when it filed three years ago. ”They said, ‘Look, we know the jig is up. We know we have to do this. You have to help me manage my own constituencies and cut a deal. I have to go out and villainize you, but I know this is what you’re capable of.’
“I’m hopeful that kind of discussion can occur outside a bankruptcy environment,” he continued. “But my experience has been (that) bankruptcy accelerates that discussion because it becomes real real, real quick. You have a federal judge that’s supervising the process, and parties have to drop some of the Kabuki theater and get to where the rubber meets the road.”
Look, I get it. Bankruptcy isn’t something that you intentionally angle for, with the possible exception of Donald Trump’s companies. No CEO wants to be the person in charge when it happens. No politician would want to be the one at the helm when it happens, either. But those are arguments about self-preservation for politicians. They aren’t arguments about the wisdom of pursuing bankruptcy when you’re staring down enormous structural deficits and multi-billion unfunded pension liabilities, like the city of Chicago is right now.
More from the Crain’s panel:
“The most high-quality buyers, they hear the word bankruptcy spoken, they’re out,” said Bill Black, a managing director and senior portfolio manager at City National Rochdale. “So you’ve lost your best lever (to avoid insolvency by borrowing) by talking about bankruptcy. By the time that word’s being invoked, you better be sure you’re pretty far down the road to discuss using that hammer.”
I’m sure Black is right. But in the “silver linings” department for Chicago, the city’s bond rating is currently near junk levels after Fitch’s most recent downgrade in March. There’s no way borrowing is going to solve this crisis anyway.
A lot would still need to occur before Chicago could seek bankruptcy protection, including legislation in Springfield specifically authorizing municipalities to do it. But when you consider the political moving of heaven and earth that would be necessary for Chicago to get its fiscal house in order without filing bankruptcy, Springfield passing the legislation necessary to make bankruptcy a possibility starts to seem like the real path of least resistance.
Last week, AFSCME Council 31 released a short online video taking some swings at the Illinois Policy Institute:
All in all, this is pretty ho-hum stuff, and just about what you’d expect rhetorically from AFSCME. Up to and especially including the obligatory, “Ahhhh, the boogeyman!” mention of the Koch Brothers.
But let’s take a quick look at some of the liberties AFSCME took with this video.
First up, the Chicago Tribune column from Diana Sroka Rickert. Rickert is VP of Communications at IPI, and regularly publishes a guest column in the Tribune. Here’s the freeze-frame from the video where they highlight the headline and the byline:
Notice the byline. Now look how it actually appears on the Tribune‘s website:
Just a name. No identifier. Here’s now the identifier shows up in a footer at the bottom of the column, emphasis mine:
Diana Sroka Rickert is a writer with the Illinois Policy Institute. The opinions in this essay are her own.
I’ve looked, and I can’t find where this article appears with the byline as displayed in the AFSCME video. I’m left to assume that the video image has been edited to add “a writer with the Illinois Policy Institute” behind Rickert’s name or to remove the second half of what appears in the footer, clarifying that “the opinions in this essay are her own.”
The second part is important. Rickert is not writing this piece in an official capacity for IPI. She’s expressing her own opinions. I would like to imagine that AFSCME would appreciate the same courtesy being extended to their members and officials when expressing their opinions in a private-citizen capacity and not as speaking on behalf of AFSCME. Otherwise, it’s fair game to attribute everything AFSCME members say to the union itself. Things like, perhaps, this.
Also left on the cutting room floor? The real, complete thrust of Rickert’s proposal:
Lay off the entire state workforce, and close the pension system. Work with the General Assembly to open a different retirement plan for newly hired government workers, modeled after the nation’s most popular retirement vehicle: the 401(k). Then offer to rehire state workers under the new retirement plan.
Guess they forgot to mention that whole “hire them all back part.” Oops.
Overall, there’s no sourcing for anything in this video. Most political campaign ads include some kind of citations where, if you’re really interested, you can go find and examine their justification for the claims being made. But AFSCME doesn’t tell you where you can find any context for what they’ve chosen to excerpt here.
For example, they’ve attributed the words “abandon pensions” to IPI CEO John Tillman. A quick Google search for John Tillman “abandon pensions” returns no results. And even if I stipulate that Tillman has said these two words consecutively at some point in time, there’s no way to access any greater context for those remarks. They’re two words. I imagine if we went back through the statements of AFSCME officials we could have some tremendous fun excerpting two-word phrases out of context from their greater statements.
Later on, the video asserts that IPI’s agenda is to “Wipe Out Unions.” Their justification for this claim is this:
Establishing local right-to-work zones = “wipe out unions?”
First of all, we’re only talking about localized right-to-work zones. In this particular case, this is about legislation that was approved in Lincolnshire that only governs that village. Simply put, there are unions within right-to-work zones. There are 26 right-to-work states in the country, including union-heavy Michigan. There are unions existing and operating within all of those states. The only difference is that there are no closed shops. No one has to join a union (or pay tribute) in order to take a job and work in those states. They can choose to. But they’re not compelled against their will.
Claiming the establishment of local right-to-work zones is tantamount to “wiping out unions” is absurd, and pretty self-indicting the part of the unions. What they’re really saying is that they believe when people are extended a choice on whether or not to join a union, people will overwhelmingly choose not to join, thus resulting in the union being “wiped out.” They’re saying that they themselves believe unions are only sustainable when people are coerced and compelled into joining and supporting them. What does that say about unions?
If this is really the best that AFSCME has to offer, then that’s pretty weak sauce.
There are plenty of people who are disenchanted with the current election cycle. But I think it’s safe to say that Reboot Illinois publisher and Chicago Sun-Times columnist Madeleine Doubek is not looking forward to this fall’s state contestso:
Why should we care about what happens in contested state legislative races all over the state this year? Each really is about the battle for control between GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan. You knew that, but perhaps you didn’t realize we all will lose no matter who wins.
I can empathize with the general feeling. I’ve accepted that, for me, this year’s presidential election ends in tears no matter what happens. I’ve taken to describing it as the Alien vs. Predator election. Whoever wins… we lose:
Anyway, let’s get to why Doubek thinks this:
Every election cycle, there typically are a couple dozen hotly contested state legislative races, even after one political party or the other gets done rigging maps in their favor. Each party in both chambers has seats they can swipe from the other side. It’s in those races, traditionally, where most of the money is raised and spent.
This year is no different. But where it has changed, is that Republicans now are energized because of GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner. Rauner changes the political landscape in Illinois with his determination to shake up Springfield and his bottomless checking account. After years and years of failure, Republicans have their best shot in decades at winning the nuclear arms race that is funding and winning campaigns. …
Rauner shook up Springfield all right. Now, instead of one dictator, we now have two.
Rauner and Madigan control how much money goes into the key races like never before.
Tthe importance of money to political elections is generally overstated. Yes, it’s important. But it’s not everything. If you think money is everything, be sure to tell that to people like Republican Presidential nominee Jeb Bush or Illinois U.S. Senator Blair Hull. Or Bryce Benton, who challenged State Sen. Sam McCann, backed by a large amount of money, and lost by a sizable margin. They’re all examples that spending all the money in the world can’t make people vote for you if they don’t want to.
And the “dictator” line is just ridiculous hyperbole.
But this general consternation over how much money is being spent in Illinois political races, of the type being expressed here by Doubek, seems to be a recent phenomenon. And, at that, one prompted mostly by Gov. Bruce Rauner’s regular and significant investments in Republican candidates and infrastructure.
But for years, House Speaker Mike Madigan was the central bank of political contributions in the state. He controlled a fortune that was doled out to the candidates of his choice. And yet, it seems that far fewer people ever batted an eye at that hegemonic control of the campaign purse than they are at Rauner’s attempts to level the playing field for Republican candidates.
How can we constituents fight to be heard when the politicians all owe their jobs to Madigan and Rauner?
I’d say they can be heard in that there’s an alternative to Madigan’s singular control over politics in this state. At least there’s an alternative. And I think she gives far too little credit to voters, assuming they don’t know what they’re buying, or what is generally at stake in this election.
We’ll find out in a few weeks time what the voters think.
If there is one thing that Chicagoland politicians are good at, it’s finding all kinds of new and creative ways to separate you from your hard-earned money. Take, for example, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who has the benefit of being viewed as reasonable and competent by far too many people mostly because she’s not Todd Stroger. According to Fran Spielman of the Chicago Sun-Times, she’s currently mulling a tax on soda and other sugary drinks as a desperation ploy to try to close the county’s budget gap:
County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is “looking hard” at a new tax on sugary soft drinks — anywhere from half a penny to a full penny an ounce — to close a $174.3 million budget shortfall without employee layoffs, sources said Tuesday. …
Now, Preckwinkle is returning to another controversial revenue idea she considered last year: a tax on sugary soft drinks long championed by public health advocates to curb obesity and diabetes that drives burgeoning health care costs.
Anything to avoid admitting the need for structural reform, I guess.
Back when the state was considering a similar tax, I wrote about why taxing soda — and other so-called vice taxes — are inherently contradictory in rationale and just generally terrible public policy:
First, the notion that obesity is an epidemic is commonplace but also grossly overstated. And the idea that people aren’t aware of what the First Lady of the United States has spent the last 5-plus years working to combat is absurd.
But the bigger insult to logic and reason is the 2nd paragraph in the quoted text above. We hear this same kind of reasoning, typically from Democrats and the left, when it comes to cigarette taxes. It goes like this: “This tax increase on [cigarettes, soda, whatever] will be a good thing because that tax revenue will help fund this really, really, really important government program. And, also, by raising the price of [smoking, drinking soda, whatever] it will discourage people from doing something that really just isn’t all that good for them.”
I hope you can clearly see the problems there. Cigarette taxes, and now soda/sugary drink taxes, are seemingly the one area of life where the left will acknowledge that what you tax you get less of. You tax cigarettes, you get less smoking. You tax soda, you get less consumption of soda. You tax income/work … you get less work? Of course. Except the left usually never makes that connection on that last one. Weird.
On the other side of the argument is the notion that said cigarette or soda tax revenue is going to help pay for some critical government program. Except that typically there won’t be enough revenue generated by the tax to actually fund the program, especially when you consider the diminishing returns on the tax revenue by the higher cost of consuming the drinks. The cigarette tax that was to fund the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or S-CHIP, had one major problem: it needed about 22 million MORE smokers in order to fully fund the program. Oops.
That’s all assuming that this tax will actually be successful in driving people to other drinks. …
For the tax to have the effect Rep. Gabel desires, to drive people to drink something other than soda or other sugary drinks, it needs to be significant enough to make it costly enough for people to seek other alternatives. Will a penny per ounce do that? Unlikely. Adding extra $.12 to a can of soda or $.20 to a bottle, or $.32 or $.64 to fountain drinks isn’t likely to be enough of a cost burden to drive people to seek alternatives. There are a whole gaggle of people who regularly shell out $4 or $5 for a coffee or cappuccino at Starbucks. Do you really think that less than a dollar of extra cost is going to make that big of a difference? For most people, again, unlikely.
Which brings us to the last big problem: the problem of acceptable alternatives. Say the tax is effective in driving people to want to buy something other than soda or the other sugar-filled drink they like. It won’t be, but let’s say it does work. What alternatives exist out there? It seems clear that most people won’t be satiated with just water. Not everyone is going to want to drink coffee instead — into which people often put a significant amount of sugar. Nor does it seem likely people will flock to tea — iced tea often being sweetened, as well.
There just doesn’t seem to be a lot of alternatives out there for people to choose from if they don’t want to bear the cost of the tax on sugary drinks. So, they’re then still likely to just bite the bullet and buy the drink they want.
This tax just isn’t significant enough to have the discouraging effects that they proponents claim to want.
Which makes the real point of this gambit clear. It’s about revenue. It’s not about a concern for people’s health. And, why is it any of Rep. Gabel’s business what people want to drink any way? It’s a clear example of politicians feigning concern for your well-being in order to regulate the minutia of your life. And, finding new and exciting ways to separate you from your hard-earned money, to boot.
It was a terrible idea then. It’s a terrible idea now. And if Preckwinkle pursues it in this year’s budget, it’s nothing more than kicking the can of real, meaningful reform down the road even further for Cook County.
If you haven’t seen it yet, the Illinois Policy Institute has a new documentary film coming out on Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. The trailer:
The kicker: the website for the documentary is www.MichaelMadigan.com. Which begs the question, even if he famously eschews technology, how on earth did Madigan’s team not own that URL?
Capitol Fax‘s Rich Miller is in the film. But he’s claiming that he was “duped” into participating. From Miller’s Crain’s Chicago Business column:
I was duped by a right-wing organization into appearing in what will probably be a propaganda movie. It’s my own fault. The producer claimed that while some people were pointing fingers at House Speaker Michael Madigan, his company was interested in doing a fair and balanced film about “what’s really at the center of it all.”
Two days later, I found out that the forthcoming “documentary” is backed by an arm of the well-funded Illinois Policy Institute, one of Madigan’s fiercest critics and a staunch ally of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. The institute’s top executive is also a close Rauner adviser. I’m not exactly popular with that group, although I have strongly supported several of its small-business initiatives in Chicago. I’m not expecting to come out of the editing room looking too well.
Such is life.
I’m curious if Miller really thinks that the film will slice and dice what he said to make him look bad, ala the modus operandi of The Daily Show. Anyway, I can’t wait to see what he had to say if he’s openly fretting that he won’t “come out of the editing room looking too well.”
As for this controversy… look, I wasn’t there. But I’ll say this much: there’s a lot of pre-judging of a film that no one has seen yet going on here. It’s hardly uncommon for documentaries to have a distinct point of view. Take a look at some of the recent Oscar winners for Best Documentary:
- 2014: Citizenfour, which is a very sympathetic look at NSA whistleblower/leaker Edward Snowden.
- 2010: Inside Job, which contends that the 2008 financial meltdown was, well, an inside job perpetrated by the corrupt financial services industry.
- 2006: An Inconvenient Truth, a very one-sided and widely disputed take on global warming/climate change featuring Al Gore.
- 2002: Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore’s anti-gun take on the Columbine school shooting.
And those are just some of the winners. Nominees with distinct points of view have included films like Super Size Me, Jesus Camp, Sicko, Food Inc., Gasland, and plenty of others that were never nominated. If “propaganda” is now being defined as a film having a point of view, then you’d have to say all of these films are propaganda. And it’s pretty hard to judge the Madigan film, since it hasn’t been released yet. Let’s cross that critical bridge when we come to it.
But something caught my attention in the comments on the first Capitol Fax post about this story. Here’s a supposedly anonymous comment:
And Miller’s response:
Sounds awful threatening. And so much for anonymous comments being anonymous, I guess.