The most striking aspect of last night's WTTW forum among the four major candidates for Chicago Mayor was the paucity of attention to the factors that are most likely to drive economic growth in the future in the city, and certainly to those growth factors that are important from a free market perspective.
The liberal/conservative imbalance at Chicago Public TV (WTTW)
We are told the questions for the debate, in large part, came from the WTTW Chicago Tonight team. From the public persona of that team, it appears fairly left of center, and that could explain the questions' emphasis. Simplifying, liberals tend to see economic growth as a function, primarily, of how much is being spent by the government and conservatives, in addition to that, keep a sharp eye on how government services are provided and financed, and how we are taxed.
Also, there are no Republican candidates in this non-partisan race. There certainly are none among the four major candidates: Former White House Chief of Staff and 5th CD Cong. Rahm Emanuel, former Mayor Daley Chief of Staff and Chicago Public School ("CPS") School Board President Gery Chico, former U. S. Senator Carol Moseley-Braun and City Clerk and former State Senator Miguel del Valle. This may technically be a non-partisan election. But, it sure seems like a Democratic Primary.
Lack of Republican Chicago mayoral candidates
The absence of Republicans in this race is important because it is conservative Republicans who dominate entities like the Club for Economic Growth and Americans for Prosperity. Further, even the quasi pro-growth, centrist Democratic Leadership Council just folded. The Democratic Party's big tent just doesn't have much room left for those who focus on the growth of the private sector economy and jobs. So, the lack of Republicans in the race helped skew the content of the forum.
Education: a Chicago mayoral issue?
If you were to ask economists and certainly free market economists, what is the most important "economic growth," service provided by the City of Chicago, it would be education or human capital. Yes, the city can and does import educated employees. But, it pays a high societal and economic price for its inadequate education system. Yet, not one question on education last night. Or, if so, I blinked and missed it. Amb. Braun did start to complain about too much privatization of the schools, but she was cut-off.
Further, the City's entire budget, not counting education, is about six billion dollars. And, the CPS budget is yet another six billion dollars (including federal, state and city funding). That alone makes it a significant factor. Mayor Daley and the City of Chicago took control of the CPS fifteen years ago. There is a great deal of data available as to the performance of the CPS in that time period. There has been a significant amount of variation in how education has been provided within the CPS: magnet schools, charter schools, Renaissance 2010 and traditional neighborhood schools. Chicago public school education spending has increased considerably over time: from about 9 K per kid per year in 2003 to about 15 K per kid per year now in the CPS.
Questions on education that could have been asked
Notwithstanding the importance of the topic, as we noted, above, there was not one question last night on education. And the candidates differ significantly in their approaches to this issue, especially on education reform, if not on how much to spend on the CPS. Here are a few questions we could have asked: Gery Chico, you favor school vouchers for kids in CPS schools at the bottom decile of performance. Should that be a fully funded school voucher, 15K, to be spent at the school of the parents' choice? Rahm, Miguel and Carol, you are all opposed to school vouchers, what would you say to that low income parent who wants to remove her child from a low-performing CPS school and send her child to the school of her choice?
Anybody, do charters and vouchers provide competition for the CPS and is competition a good thing? Anybody, anybody?
Gery, you have suggested we should lengthen annual classroom instruction time by about 50%? How would you pay for it? Anybody agree with Gery?
Carol and Miguel, both of you don't want to give CPS students an opportunity to attend a charter school. But, the waiting lists for these schools and opinion polls tell us this is a choice they want. This choice wouldn't cost any more than the education that is currently being provided. Why not give parents and your potential voters this choice?
Chicago's sales tax, property tax, potential income tax and a corruption tax are just a few of the tax issues that come to mind regarding economic growth, but all were virtually ignored in last night's forum. Of course, Rahm has proposed an expansion of the Chicago sales tax to certain services and a lowering of the Chicago sales tax rate on all items. Chico has labeled this the Rahm tax and Rahm has been vague as to which services will actually be taxed: Legal services, accounting services? Pet Grooming? Bowling? Impact on economic growth?
Rahm did state last night, as he has before, that he favors cutting back on City employee pension benefits to avoid raising property taxes by 90% by 2015. Carol Marin could have asked what has been the rate of growth of property taxes and what growth rate would the candidates support in the future. What impact do those taxes have on the economic growth of the City?
The tax issue has been discussed somewhat at other forums, but plenty of questions on this topic have not been asked. Marin did push a bit on which of the candidates, if anyone, has fingered corruption directly. But, that is not going at it, whole hog, and asking this type of question: In Chicago, there has been extensive phony testing for hiring, campaign work on city time, and the Mayor's patronage boss and Water Commissioner were both sent to prison for those kinds of illegal activities, but none of you think that the corruption was run from the top? And, what was the cost of the corruption tax on lost economic growth and jobs in Chicago?
The Tea Party
Finally, Miguel Del Valle asserted Gery Chico had received the Tea Party's endorsement. Chico essentially said he neither sought nor wanted that endorsement. Carol Marin could have asked the candidates: Since the Tea Party members often say they stand primarily for less government spending, less government borrowing, lower tax rates and strict adherence to U. S. Constitutional principles, why wouldn't a candidate for mayor want that endorsement? Because the candidates think the voters all want more spending? But, Carol Mosely Braun has said she stands for "no new taxes." And, among the candidates, only Miguel del Valle seems to favor a significant net increase in city taxes. So, this was certainly an issue worth probing.
Bringing balance to the WTTW Chicago Tonight team
Anybody who has ever hosted a TV show knows just how hard it is to provide balance. Even WTTW Chicago Tonight host Phil Ponce has noted that moderating a forum is more of an "art," than a "science." But, if you have a strong left of center team, why not grab a centrist and have him join your team? Even someone slightly right of center? That's got to make achieving balance a little easier. Someone who could look over the forum prep., above, plug the relevant holes and improve the final product by asking:
--Isn't education one of the three primary topics in this race?
--What about taxes and tax rates? Those items have to be in the mix.
--What drives economic growth in Chicago?
Someone who could add some thought, style and knowledge diversity to your team balance.
Where could we find such a person who knows TV, economics, law, education, politics and public policy? And, who brings balance to WTTW?