Trying to pay attention to what’s happening in this media drenched world is at once easier than it used to be, and harder. There’s more text, images, and video out there than ever—the news is running on little screens in elevators, for crying out loud. But there’s less quality control. That’s a subjective judgment, for sure, but I’m confident it’s true.
The other difficulty is the pure dissonance that all the images and reports create. How does one reconcile it all?
Take last week. In the papers—print and online—and TV and the blogo-tweeto-spheres—we had images of Baltimore protests and violence and fires and a baseball stadium sans fans. Stories about the incident that precipitated that were fragmented and undocumented. Same for the stories about the protests and violence that followed.
Overlapping this spectacle was the NFL Draft, resplendent in wretched excess.
The excess was especially excessive if you live in downtown Chicago. About two weeks ago, on the plaza in front of the building where I work, the NFL and Pepsi installed giant football helmets representing each team in the league. Bypassers were encouraged to take a selfie and send it in for a chance to win tickets to the NFL draft, which was, finally, held this past Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Bus stops and billboards were plastered with promotional graphics for “NFL Draft Town.” The draft was held in the historic Auditorium Theater, forcing the Joffrey Ballet to relocate its scheduled performances to another locale. Michigan Avenue and Congress Boulevard were closed for days, and you couldn’t even walk down Michigan between Van Buren and Balbo.
Police and other security measures—portable video monitors, giant salt-spreader trucks and dump trucks positioned as blockades, and cops and cop cars everywhere—probably were only exceeded by the presence in Baltimore.
The NFL and Mayor Emanuel say it won’t cost taxpayers a dime. But so far they refuse to release financials on the operation. The real question is: Why wouldn’t the cash-rich NFL pay out the nose to use our beautiful city as a backdrop for its event, money that could be used for schools, parks, etc., in other parts not so beautiful?
(There will be those who say it’s an economic positive: These things—olympics, whatever, rarely, if ever, are, and the data has proven it again and again.)
But, how is one to jibe the lavishing of cash and resources on the NFL Draft while seeing the Baltimore images, reading the Baltimore stories. Forget Baltimore, how to jibe the NFL orgy with what’s going on in Chicago neighborhoods a few subway stops away?
It’s easy to dismiss any connection between the two. I’d like to. But every cell in my body tells me that there is indeed a connection.
It’s not that the NFL is a causal factor for what happened in Baltimore. Or Ferguson. Or the mean streets of some South Side and West Side Chicago neighborhoods.
But it is an illustration of a pervasive pattern of screwed up priorities by our leaders and by us–that do cause these things.
If you read one thing this week, read this. It’s a brilliantly reported and written piece by Greg Easterbrook about how the NFL fleeces taxpayers across this great land. (Easterbrook, by the way, is a giant NFL fan who writes a weekly football column during the NFL season called Tuesday Morning Quarterback for ESPN.com—this isn’t about the sport, but the business.)
Now think about this scenario repeated again and again—whether it’s the misuse of TIF funds in Chicago to divert funds from the people and neighborhoods TIFs were intended to help or Wall Street bailouts or….
Here in Illinois, we have big budget problems. And, as in lots of other places, we’re taking our problems and angst out on poor people and public employees (especially teachers), who are villafied as fat cats causing the problem. This, even though, as Rich Whitney writes:
The fundamental cause of our state’s financial woes has nothing to do with exorbitant spending, exorbitant pensions or “big government.” Illinois has the smallest number of state employees per capita in the United States, at 4.1 per 1,000 residents. And while the occasional abusers of our public pension systems make headlines, the media rarely tells the other part of the story: Illinois ranks in the bottom one-fifth of all states for retirement benefits paid to its state workers.
It doesn’t mean there isn’t waste that can be found—and cut. Just the opposite—but why do we always start at the bottom, and begin at the place where the cuts will hurt people who are already on the edge the most?
I’ll be happy to have public discussions about Medicaid and mental health services for the poor, two of the first targets here in Illinois.
But only after we look at the gratuitous and unnecessary subsidies and tax loopholes for those who can well do without them.
Right now, that doesn’t happen, because the really big money makes sure it’s protected.
We’ve got things upside down.