Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Old friends

Through the miracle of the Internets, a good friend with whom I'd lost touch, Matt Meyer, found me and sent me a link to his blog. He's a talented writer and musician and a good-hearted guy. Good to hear from you, Matt.

Our so-called leaders speak

Cynics like me tend to make fun of people who actually act on their beliefs, like Mark Rauterkus, who ran a quixotic campaign for the GOP nomination for mayor in 2001 and is now running as a Libertarian for state Senate. But I'll give credit where it is due: Rauterkus sums up quite nicely much of what is wrong with Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy's stewardship of the city:

Murphy isn't good at playing defense. He isn't good at playing offense either, as his agenda has been a proven failure. And, when he can't play well in either role, the best we can hope for is for him to remove himself and take it to the sideline. That is what should have and still needs to occur.

This is no memory to laugh about and reflect upon as history. This year, 2005, we stay in neutral and keep the back slide in high gear.

Then, what is this bit about Murphy was bluffing? I assume you are talking about his actions in 2000, 2001, 2002. The swim pool closed -- many for good. The kids didn't play baseball. The rec centers still are NOT open. What bluff is that? Is he still pulling the wool over your eyes? Let's not be at odds with the truth. Let's not re-write history so soon and with such absurd stances.

The mayor is still bluffing every second he sits in the Mayor's office. So, perhaps the bluffing from Murphy still in high gear. He isn't leading this city. He hasn't done so in years.

Grant Street blues

Fester discusses the possible candidates for Pittsburgh mayor, and I respond:

Few of those names bring me comfort. Walko has been a critic of a lot of the Grant Street inspired redevelopment schemes, so perhaps he might be able to break away from the machine. I'd like to see Peduto run but I don't think his chances are great. Pittsburgh is still too much of a rascist town for Udin to win citywide, and Flaherty, Riccardi and Cox would be disasters.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Merry Christmas

I've been dealing with the usual stress of the holidays, worrying about how my poorly insulated pipes will fare during another cold spell and complaining about having to shuttle back and forth between parents, in-laws, grandparents, divorced parents and their families, etc. I didn't think I was acting like a spoiled child until I read about these families of soldiers killed in Iraq, spending their first of many Christmases without their loved ones:

Marianna Winchester, whose 25-year-old son died in September, eight days into his second tour of duty in Iraq, hung his Christmas stocking from the mantel, just below his baby pictures, just above the poster of him as an offensive lineman at the United States Naval Academy. Sitting on the couch, surrounded by ceramic snowmen that her son made as a child, she repeated what she said when a friend telephoned and asked how she was.

"Fine until you called," Mrs. Winchester said.

Jeanin Urbina, 17, the sister of a 29-year-old National Guardsman who was killed outside Baghdad on Nov. 29, described what this first Christmas without her brother was like. "Really there are a million different ways to say it: Christmas will never be the same," she said. "We don't really want to talk. We just want to start healing."

This saddens and sickens me. How many more people will have to die in a senseless war? A CNN military analyst said that things may be far different in Iraq a year from now, that things are likely to improve. And that may be. Perhaps 50 years from now we will realize that for all the criticism hurled at him, George W. Bush did the right thing. Yet I can't escape the conclusion that none of this had to happen. We owe it to the brave men and women who are willing to make the sacrifices the majority of us are not that those sacrifices will not be in vain. Time will tell if we have fulfilled that obligation.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

His honor

Mayor Murphy has decided not to seek re-election. But if you think that means the city can finally turn things around, think again. For Tom Murphy is but a symptom of Pittsburgh's problems, and not the cause. He's an example of a mindset that has dominated this region for decades, and which bears much responsibility for its demise. Part of that mindset is a belief that we can trust our civic and corporate leaders to always do what is best for us. That our unions will always take care of us. That the best decisions are those made by a handful of self-appointed men and women in corporate boardrooms and in the halls of the City-County Building. He's part of a long line of people here who claim to love cities, but who hate everything that makes them special. He thought of himself as a visionary, but he offered nothing that hadn't been done before, and failed. Here's hoping we don't try it again.


Dave Copeland, a good friend and former coworker, is giving up his blog. He had a pretty good ride, and he inspired a lot of the rest of us to waste our time and yours with our pointless opinions.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Happy Holidays

I'm sure that if you've been listening to Bill O'Reilly, Pat Buchanan and Newt Gingrich these days, you know that anyone who dares say "Merry Christmas" is in danger of being dragged of to government re-education camps. Of course, I'm exaggerating. But as Frank Rich notes in the New York Times, there's a me-thinks-they-doth-protest-too-much quality in the furor over politically correct Christmas, er, excuse me, holiday celebrations:

The only evidence of what Pat Buchanan has called Christmas-season "hate crimes against Christianity" consists of a few ridiculous and isolated incidents, like the banishment of a religious float from a parade in Denver and of religious songs from a high school band concert in New Jersey. (In scale, this is nothing compared with the refusal of the world's largest retailer, Wal- Mart, to stock George Carlin's new best seller, "When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?," whose cover depicts its author at the Last Supper.) Yet the hysteria is being pumped up daily by Fox News, newspapers like The New York Post and The Washington Times, and Web sites like Mr. O'Reilly and Jerry Falwell have gone so far as to name Michael Bloomberg an anti-Christmas conspirator because the mayor referred to the Christmas tree as a "holiday tree" in the lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center.

What is this about? How can those in this country's overwhelming religious majority maintain that they are victims in a fiery battle with forces of darkness? It is certainly not about actual victimization. Christmas is as pervasive as it has ever been in America, where it wasn't even declared a federal holiday until after the Civil War. What's really going on here is yet another example of a post-Election-Day winner-takes-all power grab by the "moral values" brigade. ...The idea is to intimidate and marginalize anyone who objects to their efforts to impose the most conservative of Christian dogma on public policy. If you're against their views, you don't have a differing opinion — you're anti-Christian (even if you are a Christian).

An aside--there is something very silly about many of the efforts to scrub Christmas from public holiday celebrations. If you put up a pine tree, string lights on it and throw on ornaments, it's a Christmas tree. It may not be a religious symbol per se, but you're not going to find Hindus, Muslims or Jews putting a tree up in their homes during the month of December. And if your community's parade has Santa, it is a Christmas parade. If someone is to be offended by that, relabeling it isn't going to help.

Nonetheless, Rich's point is correct, as is the larger point he makes, which is that the media largely ignores the Christian voices that are not theologically or politically conservatives. Many people in this nation who call themselves Christian are not fundamentalists nor evangelicals, yet no one seems to be invited to represent their views. The result is that our religious debates, like our political ones, grow more and more polarized.

The Next Big Thing

We can look around and find so many symbols of Pittsburgh's decline, and the folly of its leaders, that it is hard to pick just one. Today, however, the Post-Gazette has chosen for us--Pittsburgh International Airport. Now that the airline for whom it was built teeters on the edge of financial ruin, the airport may be too big for the region's needs. Big surprise.

The airport is typical of how our so-called leaders have gone about trying to revive the region's economy over the past several decades. In fact, it is emblematic of how our political and corporate leaders operated even when the region was a thriving manufacturing center. Instead of trying to develop a diverse economy, we are always placing all our hopes on The Next Big Thing, whether it be a mammoth convention center, a big-box department store, or a state-of-the-art airport that is supposed to spur nearby development. (Which never happened.)

It's not just that the airport is too big; it's that it was built to please a single carrier, US Airways. That's the kind of paternalism that has doomed this region, and it existed even when the region was flush with steel jobs. Civic and corporate fathers in the heyday of the steel age conspired to keep other industries out of Pittsburgh, and tailored the region's economic policies to meet the steel companies' needs. When the industry collapsed, there was thus nothing left to build on but rust.

In the end, the airport can stay afloat, ferrying all those people fleeing Pittsburgh for fairer climes.

Friday, December 17, 2004

But at least it isn't raining

You think I'm cynical? Let's check in with James Kunstler, fresh from a vacation to Europe:

American public life by comparison is pathetic-to-nonexistent. Americans venture out only to roam the warehouse depots, and only by car. In most American places bars are strictly for lowlifes, and the public realm for the employed classes is pretty much restricted to television, with its predictable cast of manufactured characters and situations. The alienation and isolation of American life is so pervasive and pathological, compared to life lived elsewhere in this world, that all the Prozac ever made will never avail to make things better for us.

The process of making America an alienated land of solitary, obese driver-shoppers has been very profitable for predatory corporations. They have systematically disassembled the public social infrastructure and repackaged pieces of it for sale -- starting with the single-family house isolated on its lot from all the normal amenities of culture and society. Everybody now has their 'home theater' so the cinema is only a place to park children for two hours so you can drive elsewhere to buy the cheez doodles, frozen pizza, Pepsi, and other staples of the American diet. You equip your kitchen with an espresso machine and there is no reason to "waste your time" in a cafe. Everybody has to have their own pool, so the kids can go swimming by themselves. Family values. The rest of the human race is unimportant.

Why does he hate freedom?

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

The war on sanity

Christopher Hitchens wisely notes that by waging the war on drugs in Afghanistan, we may very well lose the war on terror:

Reporting from Afghanistan a few months ago (Vanity Fair, November 2004) I pointed out a few obvious facts. Twenty and more years ago, the country's main export was grapes and raisins. It was a vineyard culture. But many if not most of those vines have been dried up or cut down, or even uprooted and burned for firewood, in the course of the hideous depredations of the past decades. An Afghan who was optimistic enough to plant a vine today could expect to wait five years before seeing any return for it, whereas a quick planting of poppies will see pods flourishing in six months. What would you do, if your family or your village were on a knife-edge? The American officers I met, tasked with repressing this cultivation, were to a man convinced that they were wasting their time and abusing the welcome they had at first received in the countryside. It doesn't take much intelligence to understand the history of Prohibition, or to know that American consumer demand is strong enough to overcome any attempt to inhibit supply. In any case, we know this already from dire experience in Bolivia, Colombia, and Mexico.

There is the further point that opium is good for us. Painkillers and anesthetics have to come from somewhere, and we have an arrangement with Turkey to grow and refine the stuff that we need. Why Turkey, an already over-indulged client state? Isn't it time to give the struggling Afghans a share of the business? We could simultaneously ensure a boost for Afghan agriculture, remove an essential commodity from terrorist and warlord control, and guarantee a steady supply of analgesics that would be free of impurities or additives.

In order to comprehend this point, there is no need to know much about Afghanistan. Do you know anyone who really believes in the "war on drugs" as it is supposedly waged in the United States? It is widely understood to be the main index of pointless and costly and unjust incarceration, a huge source of corruption in police departments, and a cause of crime in its own right as well as a source of tainted and "cut" narcotics. And that is before you even consider absurdities and cruelties like the denial of medical marijuana, or the diversion of personnel and resources from the war against more threatening gangsters. Our entire state policy, at home and abroad, is devoted not to stopping a trade that actually grows every year, but rather to ensuring that all its profitable means of production, distribution, and exchange remain the fiefdom of criminal elements. We consciously deny ourselves access to properly refined and labeled products and to the vast revenue that could accrue to the Treasury instead of to the mobsters here and overseas.

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Listening to Reason

Copeland, who spent about six weeks in Germany last year, has a nice article in Reason magazine about Berlin's failed attempts to create a city center through government-driven development projects. Here's the money shot, in my opinion:

Berlin isn’t the only city to learn these urban planning lessons the hard way. Granted, New York still has its Times Square, but it’s more a destination for tourists—much as Potsdamer Platz is becoming—than a place where people want to live. And it’s next to impossible to single out any one residential or neighborhood business district that defines any other major urban area, whether in Tokyo, Los Angeles, London, or Moscow. Contemporary urban growth patterns have turned many cities into collections of places, which combine to create an overall urban identity. Surely it’s no accident that the Berlin districts that are doing best are also those that have been thus far ignored by city planners.

For decades, Pittsburgh has poured good money after bad to redevelop its Downtown, ignoring in the meantime that plenty of neighborhood business districts--like the South Side, the Strip District, Shadyside, Squirrel Hill, and even Brookline--are thriving without any help at all. A bustling Downtown is great if it can happen on its own, but it's not a necessary or sufficient condition for the city's success. It's just something that looks pretty on a postcard.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Somewhere, Robert Moses smiles

The federal government has approved funding to extend the Mon-Fayette Expressway to the Parkway East, thus driving a dagger into the heart of the city. Our so-called leaders have hailed this boondoggle as an engine of job creation, but that kind of thinking is decades out of date. The region's bloated governments and high taxes are as much an impediment to economic development as its aging infrastructure, which had it been properly maintained over the years would be much better suited to support and sustain growth. About the only politicians who seem to oppose the new highway are city leaders like Mayor Murphy, who have as about as much influence in the state these days as Howard Dean at a meeting of the Christian Coalition.

This city is so finished.

Monday, December 06, 2004

A hero's death

The U.S. military brass covered up the ugly truth of Pat Tillman's death, and then used him as a recruiting poster.

Dozens of witness statements, e-mails, investigation findings, logbooks, maps and photographs obtained by The Washington Post show that Tillman died unnecessarily after botched communications, a mistaken decision to split his platoon over the objections of its leader, and negligent shooting by pumped-up young Rangers -- some in their first firefight -- who failed to identify their targets as they blasted their way out of a frightening ambush.

The records show Tillman fought bravely and honorably until his last breath. They also show that his superiors exaggerated his actions and invented details as they burnished his legend in public, at the same time suppressing details that might tarnish Tillman's commanders.

Army commanders hurriedly awarded Tillman a posthumous Silver Star for valor and released a nine-paragraph account of his heroism that made no mention of fratricide. A month later the head of the Army's Special Operations Command, Lt. Gen. Philip R. Kensinger Jr., called a news conference to disclose in a brief statement that Tillman "probably" died by "friendly fire." Kensinger refused to answer questions.

(Via Andrew Sullivan and AmbivaBlog.)

The 10th Amendment

I'm off work today, in case you are wondering what I'm doing wasting company time by blogging at 10 in the morning. Anyway, Andrew Sullivan (subscription required) has a nice take on states' rights, and the GOP's sudden aversion to them, now that they are in power in Washington and not crazy about what some states want to do (legalize medical marijuana, allow gay marriage, etc.) He also has some sage advice for liberals as well.

Let Ohio prevent gay couples from having legal protections. But let California enact a sweeping civil-unions bill that brings gay couples very close to marriage rights. Let Washington ban federally funded embryonic stem-cell research. But allow Sacramento to set up a huge research program. Not only do you give both sides something--finding a compromise where no compromise seemed possible--but you also get a chance to see how social experiments succeed or fail in practice. Within a few years, we will have a much better idea of the real promise of embryonic stem cells and the social impact of gay marriage. Then the discussion can actually move forward, instead of in increasingly tight and bitter circles.

There's a lesson for liberals in this as well. Cool it on the courts. One of the biggest setbacks for abortion rights was the Roe v. Wade overreach. Abortion rights were gaining in state legislatures before these advances were jeopardized by the Supreme Court's backlash-kindling intervention. If gay activists push too far too fast now to mandate marriage rights across the entire country, they may well get a federal constitutional ban that will destroy gay rights for generations. Federalism can work for both sides. The alternative is bipartisan hypocrisy that renders political debate as acrimonious as it is futile. In the United States, we can do better. And for two centuries, we often have.

And for those of you concerned about the Constitution's full faith and credit clause when it comes to gay marriage, Sullivan reminds us that we have the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

A losing bet, part 75

It's been a long time since I bored you with my opposition to the state's new law legalizing slots machines, so here goes: The PG has a great op-ed today outlining the hypocrisy of the governor and General Assembly in approving the law, as well as all the reasons why slots won't reduce taxes or grow the state's economy. The tone of the piece is a bit too moralistic for my taste, but it makes all the right points. It also notes that voters in Michigan recently denied racetrack owners the ability to put in slots at their tracks. That reminds me that Pennsylvania had a reasonable compromise available to it between opponents and proponents of expanded gambling: limit slots to racetracks, where gambling already exists. But that just didn't provide the same opportunities for influence-peddling, I guess.

Corporate fascism, Pittsburgh style

The Post-Gazette has a laudatory article today about Station Square and its emergence as a major entertainment center in Pittsburgh. Keep in mind that the Forest City Enterprises received local tax subsidies as well as a recent state grant for improvements there. Here's the story's most unintentionally revealing paragraph:

Just down Carson Street is the South Side, still a very popular nightspot, and the emerging South Side Works complex, with the Cheesecake Factory, a new movie house and other options. There's also competition from the Waterfront in Homestead and the Strip, with its nightclubs, bars and restaurants.

All of the above mentioned received subsidies to open or expand within the last five years or so, except the Strip District (and the unmentioned businesses up and down Carson Street that were there long before SouthSide Works.) The problem here, folks, is that the region's population is stagnant. (Actually, that's being kind--the population has been in freefall for decades.) So what does that mean? Since most people have a finite amount of money to spend on leisure activities, without an infusion of new residents to the region, at least one of these night spots is likely to fail in the long run.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Um, isn't there a war to fight or something?

The United States is under threat by terrorists, millions of people don't have health insurance and the imminent retirement of the Baby Boomers threatens to push Social Security into insolvency. Yet through it all, John McCain says he will find time to craft legislation that would impose drug testing on professional athletes.

"Major league baseball players and owners should meet immediately to enact the standards that apply to the minor leagues, and if they don't, I will have to introduce legislation that says professional sports will have minimum standards for testing," McCain said after returning from a European trip late yesterday. "I'll give them until January, and then I'll introduce legislation."

Would someone please explain to me why this is a matter that should be of concern to Congress? For that matter, I'm not even sure why it should be of concern to Major League Baseball. True, the athletes who play by the rules are penalized for doing so if baseball doesn't go after violators. Thus, baseball and its players union need to decide what constitutes fair play, and how that is to be enforced. But my opinion on the use of steroids is the same as my opinion on the use of any drug. Adults should be able to put whatever they want into their bodies, as long as they don't hurt anyone else in the process.

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Thursday, December 02, 2004

Hearts and minds

A Pentagon task force issued a damning but obscure report on the administration's "war on terror." I'm admittedly trusting Salon's synopsis (subscription required)--as long as I maintain this site for free, I'm not breezing through a 111-page government document. According to Salon, here are some highlights:

"There is no yearning-to-be-liberated-by-the-U.S. groundswell among Muslim societies -- except to be liberated perhaps from what they see as apostate tyrannies that the U.S. so determinedly promotes and defends. (Original emphasis.)" Rhetoric about freedom is received as "no more than self-serving hypocrisy," daily highlighted by the U.S. occupation in Iraq. "Muslims do not 'hate our freedom,' but rather, they hate our policies." The "dramatic narrative since 9/11" of the "war on terrorism," Bush's grand justification, his story line connecting all the dots from the World Trade Center to Baghdad, has "borne out the entire radical Islamist bill of particulars." As a result, jihadists have been able to transform themselves from marginal figures in the Muslim world into defenders against invasion and attack with a growing following of millions.