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Paper Shufflers 

“Takes one to know one” says the

Illinois bureaucrat

Illinois Times 

September 24, 1992 

Grousing about public employees sby the locals trikes outsiders as odd in a government town, until they learn that in Springfield, a "useless bureaucrat" is anyone you know who has a state job that you could like to have. Springfieldians rally 'round, however, when outsiders sneer at state workers. Poor performance owes something to poor attitude and poor educations, sure, but it probably owes more to poor law-making and poor management. This defense of the state worker is not vigorous but it is a defense. 

I was reminded while strolling about the statehouse complex the other day how much Springfield resembles an ancient Egyptian temple community. No, not the stone buildings festooned with bad art. I mean the way the city's tens of thousands of bureaucrats constitute a multifarious priesthood that depends for their livelihoods on the peasants in the hinterland, whose contributions (they hope) purchase the good favor of the gods that hold sway over them.
The state worker is sometimes likened to—let us not mince words—a parasite that makes no productive contribution to the economy in return for his paycheck. The slander applies more accurately to the General Assembly, but whatever its accuracy it has been the majority view of the capital in the rest of Illinois for some time. It was voiced most recently by that mean Mike Madigan when he castigated bureaucrats living in Chatham as the real beneficiaries of the state's welfare policies. 

 The remark caused a stir, although I'm not sure why; the fact that so many of them work for the state is one of the nicer things about people who live in Chatham. Anyway, it shouldn't have surprised a man of Mr. Madigan's perspicacity that many of the wage-earners in a state capital might have government jobs, and indeed some 27,000 people in Sangamon County made their livings in government jobs in 1989 (including the military) out of a total of some 120,000 people employed. 

If social parasitism is made a crime then state workers will end up being double-bunked. This year for the first time in U.S. history, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were more government jobs (federal, state, and local) than there were jobs in all of manufacturing—18.6 million nationwide. 

That trend is confirmed in the 1991 Illinois Statistical Abstract. In 1989, the total personal income in Illinois was a little over $220 billion. Of that amount only $140 billion was earned in such industries as farming, timber and mining, manufacturing, financial services, indeed all private-sector enterprises. 

Like most such statistics, this comparison is somewhat misleading. The drop in manufacturing jobs to some extent reflects improved productivity per worker, which is good. And government jobs always tend to grow in recessions while manufacturing opportunities shrink. Even so, the numbers reflect the changes that are taking place in the economy at large that bode ill.

Especially for the government worker. Big government is not a problem if you have a big economy to support it. We don't. The paper-pusher and the bean-counter and the other subspecies of Bureaucratus springfieldii may make only marginal contributions to the nation's wealth. But is a woman who counts driver's license applications any more useless than a fast-food clerk? A mall clerk? A lawyer? The fact is that hardly anyone in the U.S. does productive work anymore.

 In fact, it sometimes seems as if hardly anyone works anymore, period. The income stream into Illinois in the form of so-called transfer payments, made as the government empties one pocket and fills others, has swollen to a flood. In 1989 the value of various Social Security benefits, unemployment insurance, AFDC, food stamps, veterans benefits, and government pensions (including payments made to nonprofit institutions) came to $29 billion—45 percent more than was paid out in wages and salaries to the government sector. Damned near everybody in Illinois is supported by government; the difference is that state workers in Springfield at least give some work in return. 

Even these numbers don't convey the magnitude of our collective dependency on government largess. They do not include off-the-books tax subsidies such as home mortgage interest deductions and other middle-class boodle, for example. Private universities are massively subsidized by public money through scholarships, low-cost guaranteed student loans, and tax exemptions.

Another example: Old people have become to the medical-industrial complex what cows and pigs and chickens are to the corn grower. The State of Illinois spends roughly $1 billion a year out of its General Funds to sustain a mere 50,000 old people in nursing homes through the Medicaid program. The old people get the benefit of the services, such as they are, but the medical industry pockets the cash. We are not taking in each others laundry, as the old economist's jape has it, but cleaning out each other's bed pans.  


Entitlements payments are generally made to people whether they need them or not, and are usually tax-free. Their sole contribution to the economy is that they enable otherwise useless people to maintain their consumer spending. This helps sustain a grotesquely out-of-scale retail sector. New stores on the west side look like factories, and indeed they are in a sense; more than 23,000 people in Sangamon County made their livings in the retail trade in 1989, only a few thousand fewer than work in all of government locally.  

But our money only moves around a bit before leaving our shores, like paper swirling around a flushing toilet. Entitlements cash, like all cash, is used increasingly to buy things made in other countries, while the interest on the money the feds borrowed to make the entitlements increasingly goes either to investors abroad or to rich people here. It is a splendid economic development strategy—for Japan.

Other nation's governments spend even more than do ours, in percentage terms and sometimes even in absolute terms. The difference is that their spending is more targeted toward economically productive projects—improving transportation infrastructure, underwriting research, teaching children how to read, think, and compute. The last is especially needful in Illinois. Spiegel's, the mail-order firm, recently yanked 2,000 jobs out of Chicago in large part because of what the commentators delicately call "a problematic workforce"—the problem being that the company can't find workers able to sign their own payroll cards.

In short, our politically-driven federal system puts its money in all the least productive enterprises, and adds to the folly by borrowing money to do it. During the 1980s we did manage to manufacture one thing that other nations wanted to buy—federal debt—but lately demand even for that has fallen off with shifts in world interest rates. In economic terms, shuffling dollar bills is even more useless than shuffling papers.  ●





John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

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 Encyclopedia of Chicago


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.

Illinois Great Places

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.

McLean County Museum

of History

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."

Illinois Digital Archives


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 Illinois State Museum


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

“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. 

History on the Fox

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

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

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.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

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.

University of

Illinois Press

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.

University of

Chicago Press

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

Vivian Maier.

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. 


Illinois Center for the Book

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.

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