Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

Opinion: George Will Disses His Home State

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    NEWSLETTERS

    It’s hard to believe, but conservative columnist George Will was once a child. And he was a child right here in Illinois. Will grew up in Champaign, where his father was a university professor (which is not so hard to believe.)

    In today’s column, Will attacked his home state, predicting our high taxation and pension benefits will destroy our competitive advantage in the Midwest.

        After trying to tax Illinois to governmental solvency and economic dynamism, Pat Quinn, a Democrat who has been governor since 2009, now says “our rendezvous with reality has arrived.” Actually, Illinois is still reality-averse, so Americans may soon learn the importance of the freedom to fail in a system of competitive federalism.
        Illinois was more heavily taxed than the five contiguous states (Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin) even before January 2011, when Quinn got a lame duck Legislature (its successor has fewer Democrats) to raise corporate taxes 30 percent (from 7.3 percent to 9.5 percent), giving Illinois one of the highest state corporate taxes, and the fourth-highest combination of national and local corporate taxation in the industrialized world. Since 2009, Quinn has spent more than $500 million in corporate welfare to bribe companies not to flee the tax environment he has created.
        At least 12 percent of Americans change their residences each year, often moving to more hospitable economic environments. In a system of competitive federalism, Peterson and Nadler write, “If states and localities attempt in a serious way to tax the rich and give to the poor, the rich will depart while the poor will be attracted.” And government revenues and expenditures vary inversely.

    Like so many partisan theories -- on the right and the left -- the claim that higher taxes drive out residents does not survive the reality test. Consider the five lower tax states that border on Illinois, and add Michigan, which shares a nautical border with us. Are Illinoisans fleeing to those states? Hell, no. People from those states are fleeing to Illinois.

    Just walk around Lake View and look at the flags outside the taverns. Every Big Ten college is represented by at least one bar to soothe the homesickness of alumni who moved to Chicago for a better-paying, more glamorous job than he could find in Milwaukee, Evansville, Cedar Rapids or St. Louis. Several years ago, the governor of Iowa visited Chicago to beg young Iowans to come home. There are more recent Michigan State University graduates in Chicago than in any Michigan City. R.C. Longworth, author of the book Caught In the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalization, speaks to audiences all over the Midwest. When he asks what Chicago can do for their small towns, they all have the same answer:

      “Give us back our children.”

    Chicago is the capital of the Midwest. It’s an Alpha world city, with world class opera, theater, restaurants, sports teams, and headquarters of national and international business. Does Will really believe that a young Purdue graduate is going to examine the tax tables and conclude, “I think I’ll be better off staying in West Lafayette?” Not if he has any ambition.

    This is not to trivialize Illinois’s fiscal problems, just to point out that most people don’t think ideologically when making life decisions. Including Will. Will lives in Washington, D.C., which has higher taxes and more generous public benefits than, say, Texas or Idaho, as well as a worse history of corruption and mismanagement than Illinois. Why doesn’t Will move to a more conservative part of the country, with lower taxes? Because his career requires him to be in the nation’s capital. And because he has a table at his favorite French restaurant there.