Skip to main content
margaret wente

Last week I went to Chicago to help out my sister, who was having surgery. I felt as if I'd stepped into an alternate universe. The hospital (Northwestern Memorial, one of the finest in the country) reminded me of a gleaming convention hotel, with vast meeting spaces and sumptuous food courts. My sister had a spacious private room with a fold-out couch in case I wanted to stay over. There were plenty of empty beds. Attentive nurses were at her beck and call. The day she was scheduled to go home, her surgeon dropped by and encouraged her to stay an extra night because she looked a little tired. My jaw dropped. We Canadians can only dream of such luxuries.

But millions of Americans have it worse than us. At least we can choose our doctors and hospitals. Americans without gold-plated insurance plans cannot. They still pay high deductibles. Health care in the United States is steeply tiered by class. Obamacare has turned out to be a regulatory nightmare that enriches insurers but does nothing to stem runaway health costs. (It is also impossible for any normal human being to figure out.)

The United States is inexorably dividing into a country of haves and have-nots. The haves get nice schools, nice hospitals and safe neighbourhoods. The have-nots don't. Nowhere is this contrast more apparent than in Chicago, my home town. Along the Magnificent Mile, tourists cram the Apple Store and snap selfies. Not far away, in the grim parts where the tourists never go, life is not so pleasant. So far this year Chicago has racked up 215 murders, including eight people shot dead over Mother's Day Weekend. (No doubt the total will be higher by the time you read this.) Almost all the victims were young and black.

Since last year, violent crime rates have soared. One cause is probably the "Ferguson Effect." In the wake of several widely publicized police killings of black men, police know there will be hell to pay for any further incidents. To avoid nasty consequences, they have eased up on policing violent neighbourhoods. The result: In many cities, including Chicago, the violence has gotten worse.

Here in Canada, your income level has very little impact on your access to decent schools, good health care and safe neighbourhoods. In the United States, it has a lot. Chicago's population is 32 per cent white, but less than 10 per cent of the kids in public schools are white. (White parents move to the suburbs, or send their kids to private schools.) Its teachers are among the highest paid in the country, but a third of the kids don't graduate from high school. The teachers' pension fund has only half the money it needs to fund teachers' retirements, and the school board has a billion-dollar deficit.

No wonder so many Americans have so much contempt for government.

As Illinois Policy, a free-market think tank, says: "The political scheming of the past two decades has led to the devastation of a school district meant to educate Chicago's children, the destruction of the job and retirement security of the teachers who educate them, and the contempt of the taxpayers who fund it all."

Chicago is just one example. Across the country, politicians have colluded with public-sector unions to promise rich benefits they have no idea how to pay for. On top of that, many public pension funds have allowed themselves to be fleeced by fancy hedge-fund managers who charged sky-high fees for miserable returns. Chicago's deeply unpopular mayor, Rahm Emanuel, is at war with the teachers' union over costs and pensions, to little effect. Chicago's bonds are rated as junk, so his only recourse to help pay the bills is to hike taxes and fees on already overtaxed Chicagoans.

In the United States, amenities we take for granted are increasingly out of reach to those below the upper middle class. This is not the fault of any one party. It is a bipartisan debacle. For many years, federal and state governments have failed miserably to address the country's chronic social ills, and done much to make them worse.

Bad governance is the real dysfunction plaguing the United States today. And despite the most dramatic presidential race of our age, nothing that happens in November is likely to fix that.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct