Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
Odds & ends
Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
The Corn Latitudes
In which invective is betrayed by ignorance
May 18, 1979
I argued with myself about whether to enshrine this piece in this archive because it expressed views that today embarrass me for their smugness and meanness. It’s not all tosh; there are some good bits. But I had a lot to learn in 1979.
I was not alone. The people of Illinois, as I point out again and again in this archive, are steadfast in their adherence to the principle that a free people should never be expected to actually pay for the services they demand from state government. State workers (and their pensions) were reduced, often even though workloads were not.
The result, in the forty years after this piece was written, was the gradual hollowing out of the State of Illinois workforce. There was still plenty of work to do, but fewer people to do it. It was harder and harder to do a job well, and morale dropped. Senior staff got fed up and left, taking their expertise and experience with them. It took nearly 40 years before Illinois had a governor who believed that the first problem that state government had to solve was ignoring the people who believed that government was the problem.
V. S. Pritchett. reviewing a new study of the Russian mind, reminds us that the revolution, instead of making the State wither away, has made it a more intrusive force in the daily lives of Soviet citizens. The results are predictable. “The bureaucrat is not admired” in Russia, says Pritchett, “and may be jeered at as he carries his hated briefcase in the street."
There are no jeers in the streets of Springfield yet, though one reads them from time to time in the letters columns. As the state capital, Springfield employs an estimated 25,000 government workers, some 18,000 of whom work for either the state or federal governments. Springfield thus symbolizes Bureaucracy to many lllinoisans, the way Paris is sometimes thought to symbolize Love.
It is widely assumed that the top dogs in this growing heap are underworked and overpaid. The fact is, however, that most bureaucrats are probably overworked and overpaid. (The differences between a bureaucrat and an ordinary state employee are subtle, and resemble South African racial definitions in both their complexity and their effects. The principal difference seems to be that bureaucrats get their names printed on their note pads.) Still, it's hard for the person in the street to recall the fringe benefits awarded civil servants—free parking spaces, phones with buttons on them that can be used to call Mom or order football tickets long-distance at no cost, free Xeroxing of sons' term papers or daughters' Little League rosters, two-hour-long hour lunch breaks— without muttering, "There but for the grace of Alan Dixon go I."
Bureaucrat-bashing has become fashionable, in part because the public misunderstands what it is a bureaucrat does. It is a maxim of the paper-shuffler that one never solves a problem (that would render one useless come budget time), one studies it or reviews it, preferably making it more complicated in the process, so that next time there will be even more to study or review. What most people fail to realize is that, as the bureaucracies' resources of manpower, money, and information become more sophisticated, it is getting harder and harder to avoid solving problems.
Failing to solve problems used to be easy back when the cogs in the state machine were patronage hacks for whom a trip to Springfield was looked upon as paid rest leave. It takes real ingenuity today, though, and standards are much higher as a result. The ranks of the bureaucracy are manned by un-achievers who are brighter and better educated than ever before. What a British observer noted about that country's marvelously elaborate bureaucracy can be said about Illinois's as well: "A high proportion of our ablest people are in futile, or at least unproductive and inessential occupations."
This is progress, but progress has its price. Even when bureaucrats do nothing, they tend to do it at increasing costs—one measure of the higher standards in the civil service is that it wastes money more efficiently than ever before. Top people must be paid top salaries. Wage packages must be generous to lure people to Springfield; the state pays its top people well for the same reason that the Navy feeds steaks to submariners while surface sailors get meatloaf, as a recruitment incentive for onerous duty.
Springfield, however, is a minor league city when it comes to bureaucracy as well as baseball. The federal bureaucracy in Washington, of course, is the New York Yankees of Paper-Shuffling. But even Washington must bow to Great Britain, whose bureaucrats have scaled heights to which Senator Proxmire's Golden Fleecers can only dream. It is a measure of how remote they have grown from the daily life of the average Briton—and a remarkable coda to last winter's public servants' strikes—that when some classes of social service workers walked out, no one noticed.
As Great Britain has proved, bureaucracy has been developed into a socialist art form; in fact, bureaucracies are to socialism what the interstate highway system is to American capitalism—the system's pride and the ultimate expression of ideology. This is plainly evident in the Soviet Union, where filling out forms and standing in line is a way of life. Russians must get bureaucrats' approval to marry, to travel, to take an apartment. It is a system which our local paper-pushers, who are limited to licensing hairdressers or misrouting unemployment checks, must regard with envy.
Two years ago, editorialists decried a General Assembly proposal to establish an eighteen-member State Productivity Council as wasteful and duplicative. The job of monitoring and improving efficiency in state agencies, they pointed out, was already invested in the personnel department, the Economic and Fiscal Commission, and the Auditor General. Kid's stuff. In Sienyang, in the People's Republic of China, there is a regular agriculture bureau, a special cotton office, a pig-raising department, a poultry office, a vegetable office, a "Learn from Tachai" office (named for what used to be the model farm unit), and an office for rural policy. That is not an isolated example. A small rural county is said to have printed over one million pieces of paper in 1978, the local party chief had to study an average of sixteen daily reports from superiors, and 360 local officials spent more than a third of their time traveling to and from the county seat for meetings.
Any bureaucrat in Springfield can point to his own appointment book and make much the same claims. But rather than trying to reduce this clutter, we taxpayers ought to encourage more of it. Why? Because the only was we can guarantee our lives and fortunes against the depredations of the bureaucrats is to give them free hand to make things so horribly complicated that they end up spending all their time dealing with each other and leaving us alone.
Those readers who dismiss this as a too-distant hope should read the letter Gov. Thompson sent President Carter last March. Speaking of joint state-federal programs to regulate coal mining, Thompson complained, "Too often state governments must spend more time and resources dealing with the federal government than with the problem that needs to be solved."
I suggest that readers write both Thompson and Carter and urge them to keep up the good work. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
Illinois Labor History Society
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
Illinois Migration History 1850-2017
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
Southern Illinois University Press
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
Northern Illinois University Press
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.
Politics & government
Arts & culture