Parallels between Irish tragedy and Illinois

Opinion: Columns

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Jack Crowe

Frisch weht der Wind / Der Heimat zu / Mein Irisch Kind, / Wo weilest du?

Fresh blows the wind to the homeland. My Irish girl, where do you linger?

These are the tragic lines near the end of Wagner's opera "Tristan and Isolde." Tristan is dying from a mortal wound along the shore in Brittany and waiting for his love Isolde to return from Ireland by sea and heal him. Tristan asks a shepherd whether he sees the sail of Isolde's ship over the horizon. The shepherd answers:

Oed' und leer das Meer. Wide and empty the sea.

Tristan dies. This is a cautionary tale about those who drink the potion and love too much.

A more recent Irish tale has a message for Illinois. Ireland is on the brink of a full-blown credit crisis. For years the Irish Tiger took on debt as its growth exceeded all other countries in the European Union. But after 2008 the Emerald Isle started taking over failed banks and became responsible for their ever-increasing losses. Now, Ireland carries a debt of more than $50,000 for every Irish soul. Like a credit card holder with a worsening credit rating, the price Ireland must pay to borrow money keeps rising steeply. Soon, its creditors may pull the plug and stop lending entirely. Like Tristan, Ireland placed an urgent call for help. It sent a distress signal to its continental partners in the EU. It hopes that, like Greece, the EU will play sugar daddy and guarantee additional lending as Ireland races to implement an austerity budget that slashes spending. So far, the EU's response is lukewarm.

So what does this have to do with Illinois and Oak Park? Like Tristan, Illinois is very sick. Our debt stands at about $25,000 per household. The state's credit rating has been dropping, although not yet precipitously, and its cost of borrowing is steadily rising. As reported recently in The Economist, our state pensions are the most underfunded in the nation, at less than half, and if something does not change soon they will be depleted within eight years. To pay current obligations, the pensions have been forced to sell off assets. Once empty, the state would have a choice — stop paying pensioners or default on its loans. But unlike Tristan, Illinois does not have a lover on the horizon who may save the day.

Imagine the response when Gov. Pat Quinn appeals to Washington for assistance in covering our chronic budget shortfalls. Imagine the day when Illinois goes to market to borrow money and nobody shows. The credit crisis will come not on a day of our choosing, and we will be alone. And then Triton Community College will close for lack of state funding. And local institutions that serve the poor but rely on state funding, like Hephzibah and Thrive, will have their own crisis. And the social network of the state will collapse. And as much as no one likes to talk about this, retired teachers and state employees will be left out in the cold.

When the credit crisis comes to Illinois the sea will be wide and empty and we will have only ourselves to blame.

Jack Crowe is a third-generation Oak Parker. He cycles with the Lake and Harlem group and volunteers at Christ the King Jesuit College Prep in Austin.

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