Fiscal problems are commonplace these days among local governments, but Chicago’s are particularly grim and far predate the Great Recession. Cook County treasurer Maria Pappas estimates that within the city of Chicago, there’s a stunning $63,525 in total local government liabilities per household. Not all of this is city debt; the region’s byzantine political structure includes many layers of government, including hundreds of local taxing districts. But pensions for city workers alone are $12 billion underfunded. If benefits aren’t reduced, the city will have to increase its contributions to the pension fund by $710 million a year for the next 50 years, according to the Civic Federation. Chicago’s annual budget, too, has been structurally out of balance, running an annual deficit of about $650 million in recent years…
The debt and obligations begin to explain why jobs are leaving Chicago. It isn’t a matter, as in many cities, of high taxes driving away businesses and residents. Though Chicago has the nation’s highest sales tax, Illinois isn’t a high-tax state; it scores 28th in the Tax Foundation’s ranking of the best state tax climates. But the sheer scale of the state’s debts means that last year’s income-tax hikes are probably just a taste of what’s to come. (Cutting costs is another option, but that may be tricky, since Illinois is surprisingly lean in some areas already; it has the lowest number of state government employees per capita of any state, for example.) The expectation of higher future taxes has cast a cloud over the state’s business climate and contributed to the bleak economic numbers.
But that isn’t the whole story. Many of Chicago’s woes derive from the way it has thrown itself into being a “global city” and the uncomfortable fact that its enthusiasm may be delusional. Most true global cities are a dominant location of a major industry: finance in New York, entertainment in Los Angeles, government in Washington, and so on. That position lets them harvest outsize tax revenues that can be fed back into sustaining the region. Thus New York uses Wall Street money, perhaps to too great an extent, to pay its bills (see “Wall Street Isn’t Enough,” page 12).
Chicago, however, isn’t the epicenter of any important macro-industry, so it lacks this wealth-generation engine. It has some specialties, such as financial derivatives and the design of supertall skyscrapers, but they’re too small to drive the city.