So a reader asked a good question a couple of days ago: What the heck is a “practical conservative?”
The query was prompted by the debut of my twice-a-week column through which I plan to explore how conservatism can be applied to solving real-world problems and to meeting the very real needs of ordinary Americans. After all, the test of any philosophy, political or otherwise, should be — does it work?
In the months ahead I’ll provide examples of what practical conservatism is, but today I want to explore what it isn’t. To see a great example of the exact opposite of both practicality and conservatism, let’s all peer over the backyard fence at our neighbors in the Land of Lincoln.
Welcome to Illinois, the state that doesn’t work.
Every time I venture back to the state of my birth, and the place where my parents lived their entire lives, I expect to see Gov. Pat Quinn on the side of the highway, just west of the Wabash, with a tin cup and a “Help a Neighbor in Need” sign.
How bad are things these days from Cairo to Chicago? Let’s study a few stats:
August unemployment rate: Illinois, 6.7 percent; Indiana, 5.8 percent; U.S. average, 6.1 percent.
Job creation since the end of the Great Recession: Illinois, 5.8 percent job growth; Indiana, 9.8 percent.
Per capita public debt: Illinois, $2,234; Indiana, $196.
The Tax Foundation’s business climate ratings: Illinois, 31st in the nation; Indiana, 10th.
National ranking of state and local tax burden: Illinois, 13th highest in the nation; Indiana, 22nd.
A year ago, state leaders were sequestered in Springfield tackling a fiscal crisis driven in part by the largest unfunded pension liability in the nation.
A deal was eventually reached, but Illinois still faces enormous fiscal challenges — including a structural budget deficit so massive that, according to University of Illinois researchers, “it cannot be eliminated by increases in economic growth alone, increases in taxes alone, or — alas — aggressive pension changes alone.”
The state’s bond rating remains barely above junk status, which makes borrowing — and Illinois’ leaders love to borrow — all the more expensive to fix roads, build schools and do other truly necessary things that government must do.
Now, doesn’t all that grim news make Michigan City’s smokestacks seem all the more beautiful?
Illinois residents find themselves in this sorry state because their elected leaders tend to filter decision-making through a progressive lens, one that places feel-your-pain sensitivities ahead of fiscal discipline.
And how’s that working out in Wrigleyville and beyond?
“In Indiana, you create jobs,” Ted Dabrowski, vice president of policy at the Illinois Policy Institute, said. “In Illinois, we create food stamp recipients.”
As Dabrowski himself says, that’s a blunt statement, but he backs it up by noting that in Indiana, three people go to work in a new job for every one person added to the food stamp rolls. In Illinois, the ratio is 0.55 new jobs per one new food stamp recipient.
Now before my liberal friends’ heads explode — it’s a really messy sight in the newsroom — let me fully acknowledge that Hoosierdom does not equal economic utopia.
Indiana unquestionably has a long way to go in helping improve the quality of life of its residents and the economic vitality of its communities. But while state and local governments have vital roles in driving progress, a lot of it also is up to those of who call Indiana our home.
For example, the biggest thing holding our state back is our abysmal ranking in education attainment of our workforce — 43rd in the nation. An essential part of that involves improving our schools, but a part, perhaps a larger part, requires transforming our cultural attitudes about education.
A responsible — a practical conservative — approach to tax and regulatory policy is not the panacea for all problems at all times.
But the opposite tact, as we see playing out in Illinois, is a sure way to create entirely new sets of challenges.