George Will

Daley believes that Census figures are evidence of what will happen if he wins his wager on forgoing some future revenue streams in order to put money to work immediately. Chicago, like many other cities, lost population in the 1950s. And the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. But in the 1990s it gained at least 112,290 residents, a 4 percent increase. (Daley believes the Census undercounts African-Americans and Latinos, who together are a majority of Chicagoans.)

By selling future revenue streams, Daley believes the city can ignite a virtuous cycle: Buying improvements "as quickly as possible" in education and infrastructure can lure people back into the city, thereby improving the city's tax base and cultural vibrancy, which enables further improvements that attract still more residents.

Unfortunately, Daley's theory -- that it can be better to get a sum X immediately, rather than getting over many years a sum Y that is substantially larger than X -- assumes something that cannot be assumed. It assumes that governments will prudently husband sudden surges of revenue from the lease or sale of assets. Still, his theory has adherents downstate, in Springfield.

The state government is hoping to lease the state lottery for at least $10 billion. The purchaser would get most of the lottery's revenues and profits for up to 75 years. Last year, the lottery made $630 million on revenues of $2 billion.

Daley stresses that the assets sold are not "core competencies" of the city government, such as public safety and education. Actually, what competencies are really "core" is debatable. Leasing -- privatizing -- some cities' school systems probably would make the systems more competent. Perhaps the moral of Chicago's story is that what government can shed, it should shed.

This lesson was illustrated exactly 50 years ago by Murray Kempton, the finest practitioner of the columnist's craft, when he heard the great defense attorney Edward Bennett Williams deliver his successful closing argument for Jimmy Hoffa's acquittal. Kempton's conclusion: "To watch Williams and then to watch a Department of Justice lawyer contending with him is to understand the essential superiority of free enterprise to government ownership."


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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