Friday, July 30, 2004

Let the games begin

It's been said that John Kerry doesn't really come alive in a political campaign until the fourth quarter, and I think last night he proved it. Although I think he could have shaved a good 10 minutes off his speech, I thought it was excellent (though I don't know why he has to give that sheepish grin after every applause line) and for the first time I thought he could be a formidable challenger to President Bush. I could have done without his corny "John Kerry reporting for duty" opener, in which he saluted. Enough already. I do, however, think it's a testimony to how much Bush is perceived to have bungled the war in Iraq that Democrats are able to credibly claim that they are the party that is friendly to the United States military.

Read my good friend Dave Copeland's take on the speech here. I agree with Dave on many points, namely, that fears over outsourcing, which Kerry exploits, are overblown, and that regulation of pharmaceutical companies could be dangerous. Unfortunately, Bush's own record on free trade isn't great, and the truth is there isn't a lot to distinguish the two men's positions. (If we're being honest, we'll admit that Ralph Nader on the left and Pat Buchanan on the right are correct--on many issues there is no longer much difference between the two parties.) I'm also not thrilled to hear Kerry promise a laundry list of government goodies, but I also don't think he's going to have a workable majority in Congress--if he has a majority at all--to do everything he wants. 

In the end, though I will say, despite all my cynicism, that I was damn near inspired by Kerry last night. I at least felt that I could vote for Kerry, and not just against George W. Bush.  

Thursday, July 29, 2004

There go the neighborhoods

Let's hope these publicly subsidized developments on the South Side and in Bloomfield compliment the existing businesses in those neighborhoods, and don't cannibalize them. And goodbye Mulu--and good riddance. Let's just hope his successor has a greater respect than he did for development that is driven by the private market.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

The Right Reverend

Al Sharpton gave an incendiary speech tonight at the Democratic National Convention, talking for 20 minutes when he was only supposed to be on for six. Technically, it was a fine piece of oratory, reminding the audience and viewers at home (I caught it on CNN) that Sharpton has been preaching since he was a child. Politically, it's probably going to be a headache for John Kerry, even though it wasn't carried on the three broadcast networks. Sharpton was rabid in his attacks on Bush and the Republicans, and at one point said that if Bush had been appointing Supreme Court justices in 1954, Clarence Thomas never would have gone to law school--thus implying that Bush would have been a segregationist. (And taking a swipe at Thomas at the same time.) Not the kind of positive tone Kerry was hoping to set at this convention.

Even more odious was the speech, which was covered only on C-Span (yes, I'm that much of a political junkie) by our own Fast Eddie Rendell, in which the guv decried the nation's dependence on foreign oil and promised that Kerry would help wean us off it as president. It was a terrible speech, and I wonder why Rendell was giving it. Plus, I'm always irked when people talk about reducing our dependence on foreign oil by mentioning alternative fuels such as natural gas. That's one solution, but a better plan is to use less energy, by improving public transportation and creating high-density, walkable communities.


Cracking the code

Thomas Hylton, Pennsylvania's most dogged champion in the fight against suburban sprawl, writes in today's Post-Gazette that the state's new Uniform Construction Code will remove many of the bureaucratic and economic hurdles to renovating older buildings.  Previously, the state's mish-mash of local building codes favored the construction of new buildings over the redevelopment of older ones. In my opinion, this is one of the few things our friends in Harrisburg can be proud of doing this year.

As an aside, in a bit of shameless self-promotion, I touched briefly--very briefly--on this issue in my article about housing in Downtown Pittsburgh in the final issue of Pulp.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Boys will be boys

As the New York Daily News tells us, we have a couple of third graders running for president.

As for more serious matters, the ultra-liberal Counterpunch is brave enough to say that the terrorists don't hate us because of what we are but because of what we do. In the days following Sept. 11, anyone who tried to suggest that there may be reasons why radical Islamists hate us were immediately shouted down as being anti-American. But an explanation isn't the same as an excuse. At the end of the day we may decide our foreign policy, and in particular our Middle Eastern policy, is perfectly justified, despite the wrath we may incur. But let's at least have that discussion.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Take your liberal bias and shove it

Daniel Okrent, public editor for the New York Times, dares to say the paper has a liberal worldview--if not a liberal bias--in his weekly column. Okrent, who was hired in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, has apparently made few friends in the Old Gray Lady's newsroom because of his uncompromising criticism of many of the Times'--and journalism's--basic tenets. Okrent notes that the Times' editors say their outlook is "urban", but as Okrent notes, half of their readership these days comes from outside New York City, and much of the what they publish--from accounts of avant garde fashion shows to gay marriage announcements--doesn't cut it in the heartland.

On the other side of the media spectrum, my former colleague and Trib op-ed editor Colin McNickle finds himself the subject of national headlines after would-be first lady Teresa Heinz Kerry tells him to "shove it" following a speech she gave in the run-up to the Democratic National Convention. Say what you want about Colin and the Trib's conservative editorial page, as video of the event shows, Colin was just doing his job--though knowing Colin, I suspect he's the happiest man on the planet right now.

By the way, Colin is keeping a blog while he's at the convention.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Tear down the Wal

In today's New York Times, Barbara Ehrenreich argues that Wal-Mart's success is unsustainable, chiefly because its millions of employees will grow increasingly unable to afford the chain's own hyper-discounted wares, not to mention the class action lawsuits it faces for sexual discrimination and failure to pay overtime. Interestingly, Ehrenreich proffers an example of a successful retail chain that, according to her, treats its employees fairly: Costco. I have to admit I've never been to one.

I do believe there is a lot of elitism in the opposition to Wal-Mart, but it seems clear they mistreat their employees at potentially great cost to the nation's social welfare system. Personally, I don't blame Wal-Mart, as others do, for the destruction of Main Street business districts. I blame the local governments who have given them millions of dollars in subsidies nationwide, as well as all the government programs and regulations that have favored low-density suburban development over high-density urban development. (Highway expenditures, zoning codes, federal home loan programs, etc.) Wal-Mart is a symptom of a larger problem, but one most of our leaders--and many of the citizens who elect them--are unwilling to face.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Want fries with that?

According to this New York Times op-ed, not only has job growth been anemic, but the jobs that have been created are at the low end of the wage scale. I wonder how this bodes for the man from Crawford...

In other news, I see that Wendy's is now offering a new kids meal, and the little ones can choose either mandarin oranges or french fries to go with their sandwich. Gee, I wonder which one will be most popular with the kids, mandarin oranges or french fries, french fries or mandarin oranges...

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Don't shoot the messenger

The conservative Allegheny Institute issued a report in which it said, compared to four other cities, Pittsburgh spends too much money, has too many employees and overtaxes its residents. Given the city's dire fiscal straits, none of this should be surprising. What also isn't surprising it that Mayor Murphy, based on his spokesman's reaction, is dismissive of the report, and will likely go on blaming suburban commuters and nonprofits (full disclosure: I work for one, though I speak only for myself) instead of the man in the mirror. 

Monday, July 19, 2004

Blood, sweat and tears

Copeland laments that neither of the two major candidates for president, nor their partisans, have done a good job of clearly articulating their positions on the most pressing issues, particularly the tenuous situation in Iraq. It got me thinking about the war, and led me to conclude that what I find most distressing about our current political climate is that none of our leaders are brave enough to ask the American people to make any kind of sacrifice--except our civil liberties, of course, but that's another story for another rant. What did President Bush and Vice President Cheney tell us would happen when our troops marched into Baghdad? Why, they would be greeted as liberators, of course. Did the administration really believe this? Was their ignorance of history so willful that they didn't understand that we might be viewed as conquerors no matter how vile the regime we replaced, or that the chaos we would unleash might be even worse? Perhaps. Or did they believe that they wouldn't be able to shanghai Congress and the American people into supporting an unnecessary war unless we were convinced it would be easy? It reminds me of something my fifth-grade teacher used to say: Nothing hard is ever easy. If it isn't worth sacrifice, it probably isn't worth doing.

On the other hand, it would be nice if, when he was asked what he would do in Iraq, John Kerry could say, "I wish I didn't have to do anything, but since President Bush got us into this mess..." But he can't preface his plan with that remark, because he--and his running mate--voted to give the president the authority to go to war. He can talk all he wants about being misled, but he's a big boy, with a Yale degree and everything, and besides, a lot of us didn't believe what the president was telling us even before we knew it was a load of dung. Kerry just didn't have the guts to take a principled but politically risky stand.

So this is our choice, ladies and gentleman. A president too arrogant and stubborn to admit he's made a mistake, and a challenger too afraid to make one.

Oh yeah, and Ralph Nader.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Long odds

In today’s Trib, Jennifer Bails demonstrates that slots, when compared to other casino games, can be the worst bet of all. (OK, so I promised to lay off slots for awhile. I lied.)

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Remember the union label

Local Teamsters leader Joseph Rossi writes in the Post-Gazette today that Pittsburgh's political leaders, not its unions, are responsible for the city's financial woes. I agree. But what Mr. Rossi does not acknowledge is that, had the city's political class behaved more responsibly lo these many years, the city would have fewer employees, and the workforce, including the police and fire departments, would have been downsized as the city's population shrunk. And no responsible politician should ever agree to a no layoffs clause, which some city unions enjoy.
While I am a city resident, I also dispute his contention that suburbanites should not be criticizing the city or its unions. Let's not forget that if Mayor Murphy gets his way, suburbanites will have to pay more taxes to bail out the city.  I think that gives them every right to speak their minds.

We distort, you decide

All the journalists in cyberspace are talking about these memos from Fox News.  And check out fellow Pittsburgh blogger bedsidemanner.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Misery loves Pittsburgh

Last week I bemoaned the fact that under the slots legislation passed by the Legislature and signed by Fast Eddie Rendell, Philadelphia will have no planning or zoning control over the slot parlors built there. Well, I learn through Fester that I overlooked a crucial fact: None of the state's proposed slots parlors will be subject to local controls. Municipalities like Pittsburgh will have only advisory input.

We usually get kissed first.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Neither liberty nor security

To my knowledge--and the six of you who read this page are free to correct me if I'm wrong--this nation has never postponed a presidential election. The United States held a presidential election during a civil war. Yet because of unspecified threats of terrorist attacks, the Department of Homeland Security is considering provisions for postponing the November election. It strikes me as odd that the administration and its defenders called it appeasement when Spain, led by a new government following the Madrid train bombing, withdrew its troops from Iraq. But the mere specter of another attack on U.S. soil has this administration--which came to office under dubious circumstances, and has profaned our constitutional protections--considering surrendering to fear our most basic exercise of freedom.

If people choose, out of fear, to stay home on Election Day, that is their right. But it should be their right to choose. Either this president and his administration believes in a free society and representative government, or he does not. As our president would remind the world, there is no longer any middle ground.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

While Pittsburgh burns

Via Copeland, I learn that Pittsburgh firefighters are up to more shenanigans to save their jobs. If they really care about the city and the welfare of its residents--and I believe that most of them do--they will sit down and engage in a serious debate about the proper level of fire protection that is needed for a city the size of Pittsburgh, instead of trying to scare people into believing that any and all cuts to the fire department's budget are bad.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Goodbye, Philadelphia

After today I'll probably lay off talking about slot machines for a while, but first, I'll call your attention to this Philadelphia Inquirer story. Philly, it turns out, will have no zoning or planning powers over casinos built in that city. It was apparently a poke in the eye by the Legislature at Mayor John Street, but as the article notes, it's the residents of Philadelphia who will suffer when a garrish casino that is incompatible with good urban design is erected.

Speaking of urban design, it's always worth your while to check out James Kunstler's Web site. Kunstler, an author and relentless critic of suburban sprawl and modernist architecture, chronicles a different architectural abortion every month.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

A shell game

Kudos to the Trib for pointing out the NFL's hypocrisy in prohibiting players from having any interest in a gambling enterprise, while ignoring the fact that team owners like the Rooneys own racetracks. The issue has come up because Steelers running back Jerome Bettis has been lobbying on behalf of a proposed racetrack and slots parlor. (I seem to recall that Art Rooney founded the Steelers with gambling winnings.)

The NFL, understandably, wants to prevent players from betting on sports or being associated with sports betting. But as the Trib's editorial points out, the slots parlors will not include sports gambling.

Speaking of gambling, the Trib also tells us today that the members of the state's Gaming Control Board, which will regulate the state's slots parlors, will be allowed to own interests in said slots parlors. Excuse me? How do I get named to this board? What's more, state legislators, who worked doggedly to pass slots legislation, are allowed to own up to a 1 percent stake in a company with a slots license.

Now I understand how this all works. State legislators minimize opposition to slots by promising that the state tax revenues they generate will go to property tax relief. In order for the slots to generate those funds, millions of Pennsylvanians will have to gamble away their hard-earned money, probably negating their much-hyped tax break. And at the end of the day, this money ends up in the pockets of state legislators and their hand-picked appointees to the Gaming Control Board. (Legislative leaders appoint four of seven members; the governor picks three.) You have to admire the sheer audacity of it all.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Great Minds

Fester weights in against slot machines in Pennsylvania, and unlike me, actually employs facts to back up his argument.

On another note, I stumbled across a great old movie while watching TV Saturday night: "The Best Years of Our Lives," which is about three World War II veterans struggling to readjust to civilian life. It garnered seven Academy Awards in 1946, including Best Picture.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Thank you

Special thanks to Pittsblog for the endorsement.

I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender...

As you've no doubt heard, Marlon Brando, who brought Method acting to American cinema and made actors like Cary Grant look like marionettes, has died. Sadly, many people know Brando as much for the bizarre behavior, tragic personal life and box-office clunkers that marked the latter part of his life as they do for one-of-a-kind performances like "On the Waterfront." As for his turn in "The Godfather" what more can be said?

Before Brando, actors on screen looked like they were merely...well, acting.

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A sucker's bet

The state House of Representatives has delayed voting on a slots bill until they get a bill requiring some of the proceeds go to property tax relief. The Trib quotes Oakmont Democrat Frank Dermody calling slots a win-win proposition for local taxpayers: "You don't ever have to put a dollar in a slot machine, and you'll get a property tax cut." Ah, yes, but in order for the state to realize the kind of revenues officials have been promising, a lot of people are going to have to sink a lot of dollars into slot machines, a lot of dollars that won't be going to other businesses, like restaurants, movie theaters, etc. State officials need to stop acting like this is free money--it ain't free. In fact, it ain't even cheap.

That's not to say I'm opposed to legalized gambling. I've surrendered some of my own spare change in the past to one-arm bandits. Besides, state governments long ago gave up any moral authority they had to outlow gambling when they started funding programs with lottery proceeds. But I'd prefer to see gambling confined to where it already exists--race tracks. Stand-alone slot parlors, in my opinion, will do more harm than good.

There is one benefit to this latest slots legislation--it may kill the proposed race track in Hays. See Friday's Trib.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Conventional wisdom

This excellent City Journal article probes the convention center craze that is sweeping the nation and leaving a trail of red ink in its path. Like Pittsburgh, cities from coast to coast are building or expanding convention centers, which city leaders promise will bring in millions in tourist dollars. The problem, as the author notes, is that there is a glut of convention space while the market for it declines. As we know in Pittsburgh, it doesn't end there: "Publicly financed hotels have now become the latest craze in the municipal convention-center wars," the magazine tells us. So in other words, private developers don't believe there's enough market to risk their own money in building convention center hotels. What sense does it make to use public dollars?

But there's not enough scoring

Daniel Gross, who writes an insightful and accessible financial column for Slate called Moneybox, has an interesting column comparing European soccer leagues to American professional sports leagues. European soccer, it turns out, represents capitalism at its most ruthless. The least successful franchises each year are essentially demoted to the minor leagues, so to speak, and the winningst teams in these lower leagues move up to compete with the big boys. By contrast, America's professional sports leagues are cartels that buoy the worst teams. Gross lampoons former U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp--also a former NFL quarterback--for once referring to European soccer as socialistic. It's hard to believe that guy never became president.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Destroying the village, part deux

Yesterday's post elicited some good comments. Fester cited Washington's Landing, Crawford Square and the Summerset housing development at Nine Mile Run as successful URA-directed redevelopment projects. I don't know enough about each to agree or disagree--though Washington's Landing certainly appears to be a gorgeous little community--but he did note some key differences with the projects I took to task; namely, more community buy-in and the fact that they were done on abandoned or underused land.

One thing I will say about Summerset is that while the city has very little new housing, it has plenty of older homes to choose from, and the homes at Summerset only cut into that market. That said, I think it's desirable for government to clean up brownfield sites and repair any necessary infrastructure to make the land attractive to private developers--but that's where government's role should end.