Forbes.com asks, “Do you live in a death spiral state?”
For those who live in Illinois and other state government disaster areas, that answer is Yes Of Course We Do.
For reference, here’s how Forbes qualifies what “death spiral” means: (1) more takers than makers, which means more people who draw from the government rather than pay into it, and (2) a state credit situation downgraded for large debt, uncompetitive business climate, and weak home prices and employment numbers.
But what is a “death spiral”? What does it really mean to actual people? Well, I’m no expert on economics, but I do play one on this blog, and I know a thing or two about it, so here is my take on what a “death spiral” means for actual people.
First of all, abstract debt numbers like $80 or 90 billion help almost nobody, because almost nobody comprehends them. ‘Billion’ looks and sounds like ‘million’, but a billion is 1,000 times more than a million, so it is a much larger number. It’s 1,000,000,000 vs. 1,000,000. See the difference? Nine zeros, not just six.
The majority of those who may not fully grasp the gravity of the fiscal situation in Illinois do not understand such numbers in any meaningful way – and why should they? They are irrelevant to our lives. Regular folks have no reason at all to understand them.
But regular folks do have a reason to understand that fiscal realities will eventually have a real-world impact on regular people, on our jobs, our cost of living, our taxes, our property values, and the quality of our schools, among other things. Huge debts cause lower credit ratings – which just happened again to Illinois last week - which means higher borrowing costs for the state going forward for every bond issued. Those costs are passed on to the taxpayer, of course – bonds scheduled to be issued today, in fact, will now cost the taxpayers of Illinois $95M more in interest for that single bond issue. In addition, the state income tax has already doubled, which will more than likely decrease the income to the state treasury, making the budget deficit and debt worse instead of better.
Imagine a vicious cycle of increasing tax burdens and decreasing municipal and state services which causes jobs to flee the state, incomes and property values to decline, and school quality and other community services to suffer. Each of those feeds the other, and quality of life declines in just about every conceivable way. Lather, rinse, repeat. That is what a death spiral might look like.
Need more details? How about budget cuts in the schools leading to cutting teachers, and programs like band, drama, and sports, but probably not the administrators, whose role in educating children is almost nil. Budget cuts in city and county services, like picking up garbage less often, fewer snowplows and people to man them to keep streets clear, and firing building inspectors which will slow down every real estate transaction and construction project. Higher property taxes since declining state tax revenues will impact public schools and others who rely on state funding, and the government trough has to get filled from somewhere. Higher unemployment and declining property values from all of the above, plus businesses leaving and downsizing. Add to that the many young people saddled with huge college debt that they simply can never repay (nor can they discharge it via bankruptcy), and people who cannot find work and are essentially forced to drop out of the labor force and become takers rather than makers. Lather, rinse, repeat.
People have choices in life. Those who own a business now, or would start one, have choices on where to do that. Those who have a family and career now, or are ready to start down that path, have choices on where to do that, too. They can choose a place like Illinois with a spending problem and a rather “iffy” prognosis for recovery, or a place that is stable and growing and where people have jobs and where schools are more likely to improve than to go downhill.
Is there something special about Illinois that can overcome those disadvantages? What would those be? The beautiful scenery? The fantastic climate? I don’t think so.
The rational, logical side of my brain understands this and accepts the conclusion for what it is, but the emotional side of my brain says, “this sure as hell is not the world I was counting on for my kids”.