A Blast from the Past

May 08, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

CHICAGO — Chicago. -- Dawn Netsch has found her niche in the political market. She offers ''Nick at Nite'' politics. The ''Nick at Nite'' cable programming caters to viewers nostalgic for shows from the 1950s and 1960s. Ms. Netsch offers liberalism for the politically nostalgic.

A former Northwestern law professor and state legislator who represented ''Lake Shore liberals,'' Ms. Netsch, 67, is state comptroller. She knows numbers. She has never lost an election. Her political pin-ups include Adlai Stevenson, she is as loquacious as Hubert Humphrey and her program is the essence of old time liberalism -- redistribution of wealth by government power.

The northern edge of this state is north of Cape Cod, the southern tip is south of Richmond. Demographically the state resembles the nation and politically it is the nation's barometer: Only twice in the past 100 years (1916 and 1976) has it not voted with the winner in a presidential election. So politicians nationwide are watching Ms. Netsch campaign on her promise to raise income taxes.

She would raise them $2.5 billion. She would use $1 billion for property-tax relief, would use $500 million to make the income tax progressive by instituting a progressive personal exemption, and would spend $1 billion on education. This plan is suspect as social policy but perhaps politically shrewd.

Property taxes are unpopular because they are disconnected from the individual's current ability to pay and they are increased by inflation. Affluent homeowners may be net winners from Ms. Netsch's plan. Many such people live in Chicago's suburbs, home of a huge swing vote. In 1992, twice as many votes were cast there as in the city.

Her proposal to purchase $500 million worth of tax progressivity is an orthodox liberal choice. But the $1 billion for education is a banal way of avoiding real reforms.

The world has turned often since the decades that ''Nick at Nite'' recalls, since the post-1945 baby boom triggered vast spending on public education. Back then the education lobby insisted that increased funding would be reliably associated with enhanced school performance.

But by now much research refutes the idea that variations in school expenditures correlate directly with school performance. And abundant experience suggests that private schools, operating without the sort of sclerotic bureaucracies that burden Chicago's and other cities' schools, and spending less per pupil than public systems spend, often do better. They do better partly because parents are energized by the opportunity to shop for educational choices.

Does Ms. Netsch favor expansive school choice programs? No. The former professor of antitrust law launches a strained argument suggesting this: Antitrust intervention is sometimes required when ''market failure'' in the form of inadequate information leaves consumers unable to make informed choices among products. And government denial of choice programs protects the children of parents who would be uninformed shoppers for schools.

Of course information could be made available by requiring schools to publish, say, students' test scores and graduation rates. But teachers' unions oppose choice, so virtually all Democratic office seekers do too.

The best predictor of school performance is the nature of the families from which the children come to their schools. The pupil-teacher ratio is important, but not as important as the pupil-parent ratio. Much, from the caliber of schools to the safety and prosperity of neighborhoods, depends on a high proportion of intact families. So, does Ms. Netsch have ideas for policies to help dampen the increase of illegitimate births? When asked, she merely shows political delicacy by stressing that illegitimacy is a problem among whites as well as blacks. Does she approve the New Jersey law denying welfare increases to mothers who have additional children while on welfare? No.

Republicans have held the Illinois governorship for 18 years. The incumbent seeking a second term is Jim Edgar, a bland downstate legislator. He has restrained spending, but proposals for privatization and welfare reform are gathering dust.

The conservative National Review, noting the contrast with reforming Republican governors nearby in Wisconsin (Tommy Thompson) and Michigan (John Engler), describes Mr. Edgar as ''George Bush without the charisma.'' The Chicago Sun-Times says the governor offers only ''austerity without change.''

Ms. Netsch offers spending as an alternative to serious change -- fresh funding for failing social structures. If Illinois' choice is between ''Nick at Nite'' liberalism or George Bush re-runs, the nation's barometer is indicating a stultifying political climate.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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