The Ever-Upward Irresponsible Trend

Am I missing something?  Nobody seems to be paying any attention to federal spending and deficits anymore.

stacks-of-moneyThe Republicans, who used to be the preachers of deficit reduction, balanced budgets, and fiscal discipline, are much too busy trying to distance themselves from President Trump to do much of anything about anything, much less something detail-oriented and difficult, like tackling federal spending.  And the Democrats never seemed to have much appetite for actually considering whether legacy federal programs make sense in the current world, or are performing as they were intended, or are actually having a positive impact from a cost-benefit standpoint.  Expecting Congress to actually pass a budget seems to be hopelessly passe, and continuing to spend more, more, more seems to be the default approach.  And, given the kinds of deficits we’re racking up, and the experience of Puerto Rico, and Illinois, and other states that haven’t paid attention to basic economic realities, “default” seems like an apt word.

In case you’re interested, June 2017 was the first month in history where the American federal government spent more than $400 billion.  You can see the number — $428.8 billion — on page 2, in the “outlays” column, of this dry document called the monthly report of revenues and outlays, issued by the Treasury Department.   And here’s an interesting statistic, for comparison’s sake:  according to this report from the Congressional Budget Office, the amount of federal government outlays for the entire year of 1976 did not even reach $400 billion.  But ever since that time, it’s been an ever upward trend, and now we’ve reach the point where the federal government spends more in a single month than it spent in an entire year only 40 years ago.

You’d think that somewhere, someone in Congress would be up in arms about what is obviously an alarming and unsustainable trend.  You’d think someone, somewhere would be waving that dry Treasury report around and asking why the spending by the list of the government agencies set forth in small type later in the report needs to be ever increasing, and demanding that those agencies tighten their belts or justify their existence.  You’d think that someone, somewhere, would be glancing uneasily at Puerto Rico and Illinois, looking at the federal trends, and deciding that we need to do something to curb our profligate ways before we’re irretrievably on the road to economic perdition and financial ruin.

Of course, you’d be wrong on that.  It’s much easier to just react to the latest Trump Administration dust-up and let things slide.  The only worrying seems to be done by those of us out in the real world whose practical experiences with household budgets and controlling family spending makes us grind our teeth at the amazing irresponsibility of our elected representatives.

A federal government that spends more than $400 billion in a single month!  And nobody is talking about it.

At The Bottom Of The Lottery Barrel

Here’s a telling indicator of just how bad Illinois’ financial situation is:  the Powerball and Mega Millions lotteries have kicked Illinois out of the games because the state legislature has been unable to agree on a balanced budget.

You read that right.  The Land of Lincoln is such a financial basket case that even the big lotteries won’t have anything to do with the state.  Apparently the lotteries have been talking about pulling the plug on Illinois for years, and they’ve finally decided to do it.

310-million-powerball-ticket-sold-at-mich-gas-station

It’s a significant step on the lotteries’ part, because Illinois reported $99.4 million in Mega Millions sales and $208 million in Powerball sales within the 2016 budget year.  And the loss of the lotteries will be an issue for Illinois from a budget standpoint, too, because 40 percent of the sales revenue goes to fund public schools — and how is the cash-strapped state going to make up the difference?

A spokesman for the Multi-State Lottery Association, which runs the games, said the group “is focused on protecting the integrity of its games and the experience of its players.”

What does that mean, exactly?  It’s kind of weird for the lotteries, which make their money solely by selling tickets to credulous rubes who don’t know or don’t care that the odds of winning are astronomical, to be talking about the “integrity” of their games.  Are they saying they’re afraid that Illinois, in its desperate search for cash, might try to tinker with the games to jury-rig the results, or seize the proceeds if the winner happens to live in Illinois, or decline to hand over the sales revenues?

It’s not entirely clear, but we do know this:  You know you’re really in deep doo-doo when gamblers think you’re too tainted to deal with.   Even the gamblers aren’t willing to gamble on dealing with Illinois.

Eyeing The Illini

Tonight the Ohio State Buckeyes play their second night game in a row. This week, their opponents are the Fighting Illini of the University of Illinois, and the Illibuck — the wooden turtle that goes to the winner — will be at stake. I’ll be there in the Horseshoe with a group of friends for the match-up.

Ohio State’s performance last week against Penn State hurt it both literally and figuratively. Literally, because quarterback J.T. Barrett sustained a knee injury that is concerning, even though he was able to tough it out and lead the Buckeyes to victory in overtime. Figuratively, because most people — me excepted — thought the Buckeyes would beat the Nittany Lions easily, and the fact that Penn State came back to force the game into overtime clearly hurt the Buckeyes’ national reputation. It’s part of the reason why Ohio State is sitting at number 16 in the bowl playoff rankings, which puts it pretty much in the “out of contention” category for now.

Ohio State has three goals in the game tonight. First, win. A loss to Illinois, which had struggled mightily before upsetting Minnesota last weekend, would end any hope Ohio State has of making it to the first college football playoff. Second, perform well enough to allow J.T. Barrett to give his knee a rest while Cardale Jones and other quarterbacks play. Barrett says he will be ready, but I’m expecting that — if he plays at all — his role will be limited to handing off and passing, where there is less chance of aggravating the injury. That means Ohio State needs to run the ball effectively and get off to a fast start, and the Buckeyes can’t give Illinois any flukey scores, like the pick-six that allowed Penn State to get back in the game last weekend.

Finally, Ohio State needs to win impressively if it hopes to move up in the football playoff rankings. I’m not sure that it’s possible to wow selectors with a win over Illinois — no matter how lopsided — but Ohio State simply can’t afford a ho-hum effort that causes them to drop farther down the rankings.  As it is, a lot of dominoes will need to fall for Ohio State to have a chance.

All of these goals recognize one thing: the big game for Ohio State really is next weekend, in East Lansing, against Michigan State. They will need J.T. Barrett at his best for that game — which is the next big opportunity for Ohio State to impress the voters by beating an excellent team on the road. But focusing on that game just increases the risk that Illinois might pull off the upset tonight, as it did last week. The Buckeyes can’t let that happen.  Tonight, focus will be the key.

Richard’s Fine 9/11 Piece

Richard has moved over to the Metro desk at the Chicago Tribune, and yesterday he had a fine piece in the paper about an art exhibit that includes pencil drawings of every Illinois soldier killed in action since 9/11.  The exhibit, called “Portrait of a Soldier,” includes more than 300 drawings of members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines.

It’s a touching piece about a gentle way of remembering what has happened in the aftermath of 9/11, and the sacrifices that our men and women in uniform, and their families and friends, have made since that terrible day.  Interesting, isn’t it, how art can be such a powerful way of expressing things, and how something simple like a pencil sketch of a soldier can nevertheless have profound meaning?

Thanks for the Rafting Roommate for sending this along to me.

Farmers’ Markets Without Farmers

Richard has another good story in the Chicago Tribune today.  This one is about farmers’ markets in the Chicago area that don’t have enough participating farmers.

We’ve been hearing a lot about “urban food deserts” — that is, entire sections of urban areas where it is claimed that only fast food outlets, gas stations, and convenience stores sell food, and those outlets don’t stock fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, and other healthy eats.  As a result, the theory goes, people in those areas eat only crummy, salty, fatty, processed snack foods like chips and soda rather than green beans and peaches.

In Chicago, some people have tried to set up farmers’ markets to address the issue.  The problem, though, is that there aren’t enough farmers to go around.  Farmers want to go to places where there will be lots of traffic and not too much competition for sales of the goods they will offer.  Inner-city farmers’ markets often lose out in the cost-benefit analysis, and offering incentives might not make up the difference.

It’s surprising that Chicago is having this problem, because once you get outside of the Chicago metropolitan area Illinois is primarily an agricultural state.  You would think there would be lots of farmers, cheesemakers, and other food artisans willing to load up their wares and take them to the big city for sale.  The fact that it isn’t happening suggests that addressing the “food desert” issue might be more difficult than people think.

Style Points

This afternoon the Ohio State Buckeyes beat Illinois on the road, 60-35.  The win left the Buckeyes 10-0 and winners of 22 games in a row.

But, for commentators, winning just isn’t enough these days.  Sure, the Buckeyes won . . . butBut, Illinois stinks.  But, the Big Ten stinks.  But, the Buckeyes let Illinois score 35 points.  But, the Buckeyes led by less than two scores in the fourth quarter before putting the game away.  But, the Ohio State offense had to punt the ball more than they have in weeks.  But, but, but!

IMG_1815To the ESPN commentators, college football these days is all about “style points.”  If you’re not one of the top two teams in the BCS rankings, just winning isn’t enough.  You’ve got to pulverize your opponent, grinding them into the ground while at the same time showing the speed, skill, and flair that might cause wary voters to think that you belong on the same field as one of the top two teams.  And if you give up 35 points to a dreadful team like Illinois, well, you’re just not cutting it in the style category.

This all seems very silly to me, and largely a media effort to stir up pointless controversy and increase their ratings and website hits.  Oregon won with a lot of style . . . until they got manhandled.  Clemson showed a lot of style . . . until they got trounced.  I’d rather see the Buckeyes try to work on things and continue to improve — and win, of course — rather than just trying to score as many points as they possibly can.

Just win, baby!  Win, and let the chips fall where they may.  There are still a lot of games to be played, and talking about “style points” seems awfully premature.

Back, Safe And Sound

Yesterday we drove from Columbia, Missouri to Columbus, Ohio.  It’s a straight shot on I-70, and it was one of those journeys that offer the best and worst that the American interstate highway system has to offer.

At first we rolled through the Missouri and Illinois countryside on a sunny Sunday morning.  We racked up the miles and made good time on good roads, listening to the radio and marveling at the freedom of a fun weekend road trip.

DSC04124Then, as traffic picked up, we encountered the road rage crew — hyper-aggressive drivers who can’t stand to wait in the passing lane with everyone else.  If you drive, you know the type.  You first notice them in the rear-view mirror, darting back and forth through the traffic as they come barreling up.  Then they are upon you, passing cars on the right, stupidly flirting with a semi or two, squeezing into a too-small space in the passing lane left by a driver who still adheres to the quaint notion of maintaining an assured clear distance, and leaving the brake lights of law-abiding motorists flashing in their wake.  If they have to wait to pass, they show their impatience by swinging out to the left of the passing lane to see what is keeping them from driving 90.  I always feel safer when the ragers pass by without incident.

At the Indiana-Ohio border we caught up with the western edge of a slow-moving storm.  On a desolate stretch of road, traffic just stopped for no apparent reason.  We were out in the middle of nowhere in the blackness, the rain pelting down and the traffic inching forward, not knowing whether we were dealing with an accident or a road closure.  It was raining so hard that even putting the windshield wipers on rapid speed provided little visibility relief.  There was nothing to do but grit your teeth, stay alert to the traffic flow, and plow through the storm.  After traffic finally picked up again about 20 miles and an hour or so later, we had to deal with interstate truckers driving faster than conditions warranted to make up for lost time and coating our car with road water in the process.

The day ended with a drive down an unlighted country road in the downpour on our way to pick up Penny and Kasey from the kennel.  When we finally pulled into our garage, our dry and snug little house never looked so good.

Winning, And Saluting Our Soldiers

Yesterday the Ohio State Buckeyes manhandled the Fighting Illini, 52-22, in a game that really wasn’t that close.  Ohio State ran the ball at will, completed long pass plays, and throttled the Illinois offense as they moved to 10-0.

It also was a good example of why attending a game is a different experience than watching it on TV.  Before the game, at halftime, and during all those timeouts when TV viewers are forced to watch commercials about cars and beer, Ohio Stadium was saluting our military.

When timeouts came, recorded greetings from Buckeyes serving abroad were played on the big scoreboard, and students in the ROTC were introduced down on the field.  Before the game military members unfurled a huge flag as The Best Damn Band In The Land played the National Anthem, and then two fighter jets screamed by overhead.  And at halftime, TBDBITL played a series of songs from military movies while the band members marched into patriotic shapes and Old Glory was displayed again, at the center of a star.

TBDBITL is always wonderful, and yesterday’s show and general salute to the members of our military, presented just a few days before Veterans’ Day, was well timed for another reason — at the end of a long and sometimes bitter presidential campaign, it was nice to see something that everyone in attendance, regardless of party affiliation, could cheer wholeheartedly.

Gunning For 10 And 0

This afternoon Ohio State plays Illinois in Ohio Stadium.  Under new coach Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes have bounced back from last year’s grim 6-7 record and now stand at 9-0 — surprising all but the most optimistic members of Buckeye Nation.

Like OSU, Illinois has a new head coach — former Toledo coach Tim Beckman — but the similarities end there.  The Illini season has been one of disappointment rather than accomplishment.  Illinois is 2-6, has lost every one of their four Big Ten games, and has experienced some embarrassing losses, like a 52-24 loss, at home, to Louisiana Tech and a 45-0 drubbing at the hands of the Michigan Wolverines.  Illinois’ offense has sputtered and broken down; the Fighting Illini are one of the worst teams in the BCS in passing and scoring offense and not much better at running the ball.  Their once-promising quarterback, Nathan Scheelhaase, remains a run-pass threat, but he hasn’t had much help.  Last week, against Indiana, he was sacked seven times.  Today, the Buckeyes also will try to put pressure on Scheelhaase and force him into bad decisions.

This is a game that Ohio State should win, but also one that the Buckeyes can’t afford to take for granted.  Ohio State hasn’t exactly been overwhelming, and in many games the Buckeyes experienced offensive or defensive breakdowns that kept the outcome in doubt until late the fourth quarter.  And those of us, myself included, who went to the Purdue game only two weeks ago remember what happened the last time a winless Big Ten team came to Ohio Stadium for a match-up that Buckeye fans thought would be an easy win.  As exciting as the Purdue finish was, I don’t want to see today’s game hanging in the balance as the clock ticks down.

Ohio State needs to execute on offense, score early and often against an Illinois defense that has given up a lot of points this season, take advantage of an Illinois offense that has struggled to score, and show a killer instinct in putting this game away as early as possible.  There will be time enough to reflect on the season so far next weekend, when Ohio State has a bye.

The Little Big Ten

Today the Big Ten kicks off league play.  It should be a competitive conference race, because the Big Ten clearly doesn’t have any powerhouse teams this year.

The results of pre-conference play were not kind to the teams in the Old Conference.  Michigan got pulverized by Alabama and then played badly in a loss to Notre Dame.  Wisconsin lost to Oregon State and has struggled mightily against mediocre teams like Utah State and UNLV.  Pre-season favorites Michigan State and Nebraska have fallen from the ranks of the unbeaten, with the Spartans getting pounded by Notre Dame and the Cornhuskers dropping a winnable game to UCLA.  Iowa, Penn State, and Illinois already have two defeats.  Minnesota is undefeated, but hasn’t played anybody.  The best team in the conference could be Northwestern, which has knocked off Syracuse, Vanderbilt, and Boston College.

The marquee games today are Wisconsin at Nebraska and Ohio State at Michigan State.  The Badgers will be trying to get their offense back on track against a Nebraska defense that was dismal in its only game against a tough foe.  The Ohio State-Michigan State contest is intriguing because MSU handed OSU an embarrassing home loss last year, when the Spartans manhandled the Buckeye offense.  Ohio State is undefeated, but it has played mediocre football against inferior teams and hasn’t played a road game yet.  The tilt in East Lansing today will tell us a lot about whether Ohio State is competitive — and also whether Braxton Miller can weave his offensive magic against a very stout defense.

Thanks to NCAA penalties, Ohio State can’t play in a bowl game or the Big Ten conference championship game this year.  If the team wants to make something of this lost year, it needs to win games like today’s match-up.

Like Federal, Like State

We tend to talk a lot about the federal debt — and for good reason! — but there are reasons for concern on the state level, too.

A recent report on the amount of debt at the level is very sobering.  The report looked at regular debt, the 2013 fiscal year budget gap, outstanding unemployment trust fund loans, unfunded benefit liabilities, and unfunded pension liabilities, and showed that for all of the proud words of the governors who spoke at the Republican and Democratic conventions, many states are drowning in debt.  California is in the worst shape, with a stunning $617 billion in debt, followed by New York ($300 billion), Texas ($287 billion), Illinois ($271 billion) and New Jersey ($258 billion).  Ohio, unfortunately, stands sixth with $239 billion in debt.  The state in the best shape is Vermont, with only $5.8 billion in debt — less than 1/100th of the amount owed by California.

In all, states are laboring under a crushing $4 trillion in debt.  It’s just another reminder that the flood of red ink is found across our country — and that it’s high time we start doing something about it.

A Fine (Regular Season) Finale

Today the Big Ten regular season basketball season comes to an end.  Many consider the Big Ten to be the toughest conference, top to bottom, in the country, and the competitiveness of the teams has made for a wild and entertaining ride.

Many people will focus on the game at East Lansing, where Ohio State seeks revenge for the Spartans’ win last month.  The Buckeyes’ dreadful showing in that contest triggered several inconsistent performances that have tested Ohio State’s mettle and raised questions about its NCAA Tournament hopes.  A win against a top 10 team, coached by legendary Tom Izzo, in a brutal venue — and on Michigan State’s senior day, to boot — would answer those questions.  Ohio State will need to shoot a lot better and rebound a lot better if they hope to do so.

If Michigan State wins today, the Spartans win the conference outright.  An Ohio State win means at least a two-way tie, and the Buckeyes and Spartans could be joined by Michigan if the Wolverines avoid stubbing their toe at Penn State.

The Wolverines are one of several Big Ten teams that must be pleased with their regular season performance.  The Wolverines have shown grit and won several close games.  Wisconsin overcame a bad start and has played well down the stretch. Purdue and Indiana, who are playing today in one of the sport’s great rivalry games, both have beaten low expectations, played tough, and will end up with winning records in the conference.  And Northwestern – scrappy, always-on-the-brink Northwestern — beat Iowa yesterday and hope to win a game or two in the Big Ten Tournament and make it to the Big Dance for the first time.

The stories aren’t so pretty at the bottom of the conference.  Minnesota’s season has been crippled by injuries, but Illinois has experienced an outright collapse that probably will result in the ouster of coach Bruce Weber.  The Illini are baffling because they have one of the best big men in the conference in Meyers Leonard and a great scorer in Brandon Paul, but they play poor defense and lack the leadership and chemistry needed to win consistently.  Nebraska’s coach, too, is likely on the chopping block; the Cornhuskers look to be far away from being competitive in the conference.  And Penn State, which has a new coach this year, always seems to be rebuilding, but never quite getting to the top.

I’m a traditionalist.  I think the Big Ten regular season title means a lot more than does winning the Big Ten Tournament, because success in the regular season requires winning at hostile venues and consistently displaying the teamwork and character that is essential to success on the road.  If the Buckeyes can win at the Breslin Center today, they will have truly earned some bragging rights.

Home Cooking For The Buckeyes

Ohio State blitzed Illinois yesterday and avoided having an actual losing streak for the first time in years.  Playing in front of a friendly home crowd, the Buckeyes shot lights out in the first half and gave their reserves plenty of playing time in the second half.  They ended up beating Illinois 83-67, in a game that really wasn’t as close as the final score.

For Ohio State fans, there was joy in seeing the Buckeyes shoot the ball well.  As Uncle Mack has (gleefully) pointed out in his last few basketball-related posts, Ohio State has thrown up its share of bricks in the losses to Michigan State and Michigan.  Against Illinois — which, admittedly, is not one of the toughest defensive teams in the Big Ten — the Buckeyes shot 65 percent from the field and better than 50 percent from beyond the three-point arc.  Getting some fast-break baskets and dunks certainly helped.

I’m convinced that there are two keys to how well the Buckeyes do for the rest of the year:  William Buford and Aaron Craft.  When Buford plays within the offense and shoots the ball reasonably well, Ohio State becomes a more multi-dimensional offensive team that is much harder to guard.  Craft, on the other hand, is the engine that makes the team run.  When he gets steals and forces turnovers, and particularly when he takes the ball down the lane and either dishes or shoots, he converts Ohio State from a very good team into a real contender.

The Buckeyes finish the season with a home game against gritty Wisconsin, a visit to Evanston to play Northwestern, and then the rematch against Michigan State.  We’ll find out soon enough whether the Buckeyes’ home cooking against Illinois was the start of a good-shooting trend, or just the result of playing an overmatched opponent that is wrestling with all kinds of demons.

How Do I Brick Thee?

College basketball is one of my favorite sports.  Often, I’ll watch a game even if one of my favorite teams isn’t playing.

Last night I watched Illinois play Michigan State.  It promised to be a tough game between two teams fighting for the Big Ten lead — but it became an ugly brickfest in which neither team could make a basket.  Illinois finally won by the ridiculous score of 42-41.  The Illini shot less than 33% from the field; the Spartans made fewer than 25% — 25%! — of their attempts.

The absurdly bad shooting got to be comical, and moved me to verse:

How Do I Brick Thee?  (with apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

How do I brick thee? Let me count the ways.
I brick thee by hurling thee against glass
And failing to make a capable pass
In an offense so far out of phase.

I brick thee on layup and on three-point shot
The efforts I launch all resound with a clang
And each ugly brick leads to coaches’ harangue;
I brick thee ’cause no teammate is hot.

I brick thee with all the pow’r I produce
Though the results be nothing but lame.
I brick thee and bear the fans’ harsh abuse,
With each miss I shrivel in shame,
I brick thee and see my shots leave a bruise,
I wish I was taught how to aim!

The Big Ten Free-For-All

This afternoon Ohio State hosts Indiana at the Schott.  Even though the season is young, it’s being viewed as a must-win game for the Buckeyes — but then again, just about every game in the Big Ten this year may be of the must-win variety.

This year appears to be the most balanced Big Ten in years.  Only five games in, every team has lost at least one game.  Northwestern’s huge upset win yesterday over unbeaten Michigan State proved, again, that no game can be taken for granted.  As of today, Michigan State and Illinois stand at 4-1, four teams, including the Buckeyes, have two losses, and three teams have three losses.

That’s why Ohio State’s game today against Indiana is seen as a must-win contest.  The Buckeyes lost to Indiana in a foul-plagued, turnover-heavy game at Assembly Hall, so they need to win today to even the season series.  Ohio State also lost at Illinois when Illinois’ Brandon Paul had one of those magical games where he simply could not miss.  If the Buckeyes want to stay within range of Illinois and Michigan State, they need to put today’s game in the win column.  We’ll be looking for our senior, William Buford, to lead the way.

As an Ohio State fan, I want the Buckeyes to win every game by 30 points.  As a sports fan, however, I’m enjoying an unpredictable Big Ten season where many talented teams get the chance to beat up on each other.