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Editor's Note: A Group of Children Tries to Solve a Grown-Up Problem

Dana Heupel
NPR Illinois

OK, children, today’s class is a lesson in problem solving. We all know the state of Illinois owes a big pot of money to its workers for their retirement savings — as much as $100 billion — but it doesn’t have enough to pay them. That’s our problem. So, let’s make it fun and discuss it.

Does anyone know how much $100 billion is? Ty?

“It’s as much as all of the members of the Civic Committee have in all their piggy banks.”

That’s a good guess, Ty, but it may be even more than that. Patrick?

“It’s so much that the state won’t be able to take care of poor people and chase bad guys and fix the highways because every last cent will go to old state workers unless we take some of it away from them.”

Well, that’s pretty dramatic, and there is some debate about that. But I guess it is a possible concern, so we’ll say, “Close enough” and move on. Does anybody know who caused the pension problem? Class?

“Not me!” “Not me, either!” “It wasn’t me!” “I didn’t do it!” “It was Mike!” “No, it wasn’t, it was Rod!”

Let’s not all speak at once. John?

“Well, technically, it was mostly bad legislators and bad governors who skipped payments to the workers, but it doesn’t really matter because now there’s a problem and we have to solve it.”

That’s mostly accurate, John. Now, how do you propose we do that?

“First, I think we should ask the workers how much they’re willing to give up, and then find out how much more we need.”

OK, John, that’s one way. Anybody else? Mike?

“I think we should just take what we need from the workers and beat them up if they object.”

Well, Mike, that’s pretty drastic, but I guess it might work, too. Patrick?

“Most of all, I just think it should be done somehow, and none of us should get any candy until it’s done. And when it’s finally done, I think I should get an A because I told everybody to do it, and then I should be re-elected class president!”

Patrick, that would be taking credit for others’ work. You know we don’t do that. And the rules of this class don’t allow the president to withhold candy to make everyone else bend to his will.

“I think I found a way around the rules. Besides, Mike and John told me they wouldn’t give the workers more candy even if I promised it to them, so there!”

This is getting a little contentious. I think we might need to appoint some classroom judges to help us decide some of these sticky issues. Yes, Mike?

“I’ll pick the judges! I’ll pick the judges!”

OK, Mike, since you were the first to volunteer for that responsibility. But we’ll have to wait awhile on that. Anyone else? Ty?

“What if I went and said bad things about the class to the other teachers, and then they’d give everyone bad grades, and then everyone would have to take everything from the workers so they could get good grades again, and then everybody would be happy, except the workers, but that’s OK.”

Nobody likes a tattletale, Ty. … Yes, Kwame, you keep raising your hand.

“I can’t get Patrick and John and Mike to stop throwing spitballs at each other long enough to talk with me about the problem.”

Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
WUIS/Illinois Issues

  Thank you, Kwame. I know you’re trying. Elaine, you, too. Now, you three boys settle down!! We haven’t heard from the rest of the class. Who else wants to contribute? Yes, John Q.?

“I asked around, and two-thirds of us agree with Patrick that we ought to withhold candy from the leaders of the class until the problem is settled.”

That’s what’s called a mob mentality, John Q. Would you really want any class president to have so much power that he or she could force the class to do anything — anything — by refusing to pass out candy? That’s not how our class was set up, even if Patrick thinks he’s found a loophole.


OK, someone else? Ralph?

“I think we should all chip in a little bit and pay the old, retired workers what we owe them.”

“B-o-o-o-o-o!” “No way!” “Goody-two-shoes!” “We’ve given them enough already!” “Not out of my lunchbox!”

Class!! Class!! We’re back to a mob scene, again. Let’s treat Ralph and everybody else with some respect. I’m sure we’ll consider his ideas. Right, Patrick? Right, John? Right, Mike?

“Nope.” “Not me.” “No way, Jose!”

Well, at least you three agree on something. Henry, we haven’t heard anything from you.

“The noble, old retirees were promised that money for slaving all of those years under the whips of their cruel masters. A promise is a promise is a promise is a promise is a promise …”

OK, Henry we get your point, even if it is a bit embellished. How many of you agree with Henry? Let’s have a show of hands this time — don’t shout out!

One, two, three … A lot of people keep raising their hands, then taking them down. Why are you doing that?

“We’re trying to figure out who — Henry or Ty or Mike or John — will give us more candy if we ever decide to run for a class office.”

I can’t see who said that. Would you please identify yourself?


OK. It’s clear we can’t do anything with such a big group. Kwame, why don’t you and Elaine take a couple of your classmates over there in the corner and see if you can solve the problem in a way that everyone can live with. Yes, Patrick?

“I just want to tell them they have to be finished by tomorrow!”

That’s not for you to decide, Patrick. Yes, Ty, what do you want now?

“I want to say that I really didn’t say what I said about talking to other teachers and giving the class bad grades.”

But that is what you said … oh, never mind; the bell’s about to ring, anyway. OK, children, what did we learn today? We haven’t heard from you, Abe. What’s your honest opinion?

“Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser — in fees, expenses and waste of time.”

Well said, Abe. Everyone, you could do worse than abiding by those words. Class dismissed. Patrick, Mike, John — don’t run in the halls!!

Illinois Issues, September 2013

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