Saturday, September 29, 2007

Maybe he could challenge the president to a spelling bee

I understand the Democratic response to the president's weekly radio address was given by a 12-year-old boy. Finally, a rhetorical contest in which the president has a fighting chance.

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Power to the people right on

North Side residents are shocked, shocked, to learn that Luke Ravenstahl could care less what they want for their neighborhood:

Others at the meeting, held at The Pittsburgh Project building on North Charles Street, accused officials of being more enthused about building a casino than tackling the crime and poverty that have ravaged North Side neighborhoods. (link)

Well, duh. Of course politicians would rather build a casino than address crime and poverty. Just like they would rather build stadiums, arenas, convention centers and luxury condominiums than address crime and poverty. As our president might say, reducing crime and poverty is hard work. The causes are complex and the solutions not readily apparent. Progress often occurs so slowly that if you're not careful your successors end up taking all the credit. (New York City's celebrated decline in crime began under David Dinkins, for example.)

But large, glitzy economic development projects are easy. You just hand over money to a politically connected developer and within a matter of months you're getting your photo taken with a big shiny shovel. By the time anyone realizes the project was a dud, you just might be out of office, or even dead. Which would you prefer if you were a politician?

The North Side residents are not wrong to demand more of their mayor. Just a bit naive. On the other hand, there is an alternative.

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It's a mixed up muddled up shook up world

Jason and Pat Buchanan are in agreement, and I don't think either one is too pleased about it. Seriously, though, what has become of our foreign policy when Pat Buchanan is a voice of reason?

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Mr. President

Christopher Hitchens wants Al Gore to run for president. My favorite part:

I am only guessing here, but I think that when Gore wakes up early and upset, he isn't whimpering about the time that the Supreme Court finally ruled against him in 2000. He is whimpering about the time in 1992 when he left the field open to Bill Clinton, a man he secretly despised. Can he really stand to watch yet another Clinton walk away with a nomination that could have been, or could still be, his? To move, then, from a consideration of elevated politics to a reflection upon the baser motives, we have to ask if Gore can possibly be content to be a "citizen" when he could still be a contender.

Meanwhile, the Romney boys answer the call of duty.

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Friday, September 21, 2007

Cops and robbers

Good for Mark DeSantis for leaving Downtown to talk about a good bread-and-butter issue in the neighborhoods. (Thanks to the Pittsburgh Comet.) And why am I not convinced that we really need to spend more than a half-million dollars to re-open the West End police station?:

Reopening the station in January won't carry a high cost, said Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, because the building is already operating as a station for motorcycle, traffic and bicycle officers.

Yet, Deputy Police Chief Paul Donaldson said the station will require seven new sergeants, two detectives and one crime analyst. Those salaries total $564,560, but the cost and additions won't necessarily improve police response times even though it's the main complaint from West End residents who have lobbied for the station's return. ...

Statistics show overall crime in the West End did not increase after the station closed in 2003, and there's some evidence that suggests cities both larger and smaller than Pittsburgh can function with fewer stations. Buffalo, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Lexington, Ky., Raleigh and Tampa have fewer police zone stations per capita compared to Pittsburgh.

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Saturday, September 15, 2007

The auteur

Earlier this week, the New York Times published an appreciation of Francis Ford Coppola as part of its fall film preview. The writer, A.O. Scott, notes that much of Coppola's career has been overshadowed by his early successes, namely the first two "Godfather" films but also "The Conversation" and the spectacle that is "Apocalypse Now."

Scott points to some excellent films that Coppola directed in the 1980s, which may not be in the same league as the aforementioned classics but which are worthy of mention nonetheless. Perhaps my favorite is the 1987 film "Gardens of Stone", which centers on the soldiers assigned to the honor guard at Arlington National Cemetery during the Vietnam War. The film features strong performances from James Caan, James Earl Jones and D.B. Sweeney. Caan is a drill sergeant and Vietnam veteran who is embittered by the war, and Sweeney is the idealistic young soldier he takes under his wing. It's hard to think of another film that so deftly portrays the camaraderie that soldiers share and that leads them to lay down their lives for one another, no matter what they think of the war they've been sent to fight.

It is, in other words, the perfect film for our times.

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Pot luck

The ABD has obtained an internal Ravenstahl administration document. Meanwhile, those of you who watched the president's address to the nation Thursday may recall that the president said that 36 nations have troops in Iraq. If that number seemed a bit high to you, you're not alone. (Thanks to the Newshoggers.)

I certainly hope they didn't forget Poland.

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Sunday, September 09, 2007

In the little valley town

My former co-worker Mark Houser has a good story in today's Trib about efforts to revive the Mon Valley. One passage in particular caught my attention:

Mayor Betty Esper publicly credited the Waterfront for bringing her town out of distressed status this spring. The booming commercial and residential complex on the former site of U.S. Steel's Homestead Works has added more than $500,000 in tax money to the borough's bottom line, Esper said, an amount that will grow as the development pays off construction loans under a tax-increment financing plan.

But median house prices in Homestead fell nearly 8 percent in the past four years, according to RealSTATS, a Pittsburgh real estate analysis firm.

Attempts to lure traffic to Homestead's Eighth Avenue strip have failed so far. Sonja Sailor and her husband, who live in a restored Victorian house up the hill in Munhall, opened the Alexander Graham Bell Cafe on the strip in 2003 and closed it shortly after. The vegetarian restaurant that moved in after them also folded.

"We thought when we came in that there would be a lot of people who would do something similar to what we did, and that didn't happen. I think that Eighth Avenue just isn't ready yet," Sailor said.

Of course the Waterfront hasn't done squat for Eighth Avenue. It was never meant to. Oh, maybe local officials hoped it would. But the developers clearly wanted it to be cut off from Homestead's business district. Why else would there be only one access point from Eighth Avenue, which is poorly marked and confusing to navigate? I understand that the developers had to have their arms twisted to provide that entrance. It seems to me the Waterfront was designed merely to lure shoppers from the city and other suburbs, and keep them at a safe distrance from the scary people in Homestead.

For an interesting discussion on Mon-Valley development--or lack thereof--check out this post at Tube City.


In other news, a state loan to help the Penguins and the Sports and Exhibition Authority acquire land for the new arena has turned into a grant. At least we don't have any other uses for that money.

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Saturday, September 01, 2007

Wanted: blue collars

State and local leaders should take note of Bill Steigerwald's Q &A with Joel Kotkin. I've occassionally had my differences with Kotkin, but he's right on the money in much of what he says about the state of the American manufacturing industry. Here are some relevant quotes and my thoughts:

I have to tell you, almost every place I go in this country, particularly where the economy is growing, if you ask business people what is it that would really help them, they say "skills." Machinists. Welders. It's not like there's a Ph. D. shortage, generally speaking. But there is a welder shortage, there's a plumber shortage, there's a machinist shortage. But nobody wants to talk about this. Cities that have lost their industrial base don't want to talk about it, and many cities that still have it are almost ashamed of it. In one of the great historical ironies, the places where they are not ashamed of manufacturing are places like Houston and Charleston and Charlotte. But the places with the great industrial traditions, it's almost as if they are ashamed of their lineage.

Many Pittsburghers are so ashamed of their steel-making heritage that we wring our hands over a lousy football team mascot, and the mayor brags on national television--somewhat erroneously--that steel has completely vanished from the regional economy.

Kotkin's other point, about skilled labor, hits close to home as well. When I was still at the Tribune-Review, around 2000, I wrote a story exploring Pennsylvania's dearth of skilled and technical workers. (The Trib's archives are hard to navigate, but you are welcome to dig for it.) We are flush with colleges and universities (I now work for one) but we don't have enough technical schools, and guidance counselors and teachers turn their noses up at vocational high schools. Talented students are pushed into college no matter where their interests lie. But workers with technical training can earn as much as those with bachelor's degrees, and guess what? You can't outsource plumbing or carpentry to India.

Let's continue:

But I think the reason that manufacturing -- particularly at the higher end, which is more and more what is there -- is so important is that -- going back to Jane Jacobs -- it is a classic export industry. If you are in Seattle and you are assembling planes, or if you are in Dubuque and you are assembling and building systems for building roads around the world, you are taking money from other parts of the country or the world and you're bringing that money in to your town. Most of the stuff that has been growing isn't doing that -- it's retail; it's health care, which is basically serving your own people. ...manufacturing is one part of what you have to offer...

Even somebody who's going to work in, let's say, an auto plant today, going forward is going to be more skilled because you're going to have more robots; it's going to be more computerized. So it's kind of misleading to look at manufacturing as a low-skilled industry. ...

States in the Upper Plains have basically fairly high education levels. A high school graduate in Iowa or the Dakotas is generally much more literate than a high school graduate in the Northeast or California.

So Kotkin presumably thinks that manufacturing is a necessary condition for a truly robust economy, and that a high level of basic and technical education is a necessary condition for manufacturing. Going back to my previous point, that puts us in a bind if indeed we do lack a good base of skilled labor. One of the things I was told when I did my story for the Trib was that professional labor is more likely to relocate than skilled, blue-collar labor. So if you don't have a homegrown pool of local talent, manufacturers will pass you by.

So what do we do?

I would try to find out if there are companies that are expanding. Are there companies that would like to expand? Are there companies that want to stay? Ask them what they want. We live in this dream world where we say, "Well, if we have a fancy stadium with sky boxes, that will keep businesses here." Well, what do you mean by businesses? Do you mean the gauleiters who represent multinational corporations, so they can hang out at a fancy football game? Or are we talking about somebody who's got 15 people working for him in a shop somewhere in the suburbs and would like to get to 30? What are his issues? Are they tax issues? Are they training issues? Are they regulatory issues? You've got to go ask! I don't see anyone interested in that anymore. It's all "What does some 23-year-old, footloose student want? Does he have enough jazz clubs to go to?" Or some footloose 50-year-old corporate henchman. "Does he have enough arts facilities?"

As a country, we're kind of delusional about our economies.

What Kotkin says here makes a lot of sense, but it would be easy for local and state officials to take his advice too far. We don't want to relax safety and environmental regulations just to please manufacturers, because the long-term costs could outweight the benefits. We don't want to give away subsidies and tax breaks, because they rarely give us a return on our investment.

What we do want to do is drastically re-order our priorities, and consider what we need to do--that we have failed to do thus far--to build a truly sustainable economy.

Happy Labor Day.

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