Monday, February 28, 2005

Attention must finally be paid

The neoconservative Weekly Standard offers a rebuttal to the hagiographic obituaries of the recently deceased Arthur Miller. The writer, Steven Schwartz, offers many salient points but is off target in places. For example, his dismissal of Miller's best known work:

Death of a Salesman hasn't aged particularly well. In the post-Reagan era of triumphant entrepreneurship, a drama proclaiming the uselessness of hard work and devotion to a job lacks the force it once seemed to have.

I beg to differ. For if Americans have more opportunities for economic independence than they did when Miller wrote the play--and I believe they do--than the forces that conspire against them have multiplied as well. If we've learned anything in our post-industrial, globalized economy, it's that loyalty and hard work often go unrewarded. Corporations ship jobs overseas and default on their pension plans, and even white-collar workers who once believed they were safe from downward pressures on wages find themselves downsized and outsourced. And besides, Death of a Salesman was as much a statement on Americans' demanding definition of success and the premium we place on personal ambition as it was a warning against the perils of being overly devoted to one's job.

The essay's writer, Stephen Schwartz, also takes issue with The Crucible, Miller's allegory against McCarthyism:

The Crucible effectively dramatizes the terror of false accusation and persecution. And yet, as Peter Mullen wrote in the London Times, "There were no witches in Salem, Mr. Miller. But there were plenty of communist enemies of the state in America."

It may be true that liberals have exaggerated the excesses of the Red Scare. But the conservative counterargument, that there really were communist spies in America, misses the point. The fact that America has real enemies, then as now, is no reason to deprive citizens of their basic rights, nor to ostracize them merely for their political beliefs. It is also undeniable, then as now, that some politicians exploit genuine threats for their own political gain. Somehow, I fail to see how that makes us safe.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Fear and loathing

There's been plenty written about the death of Hunter S. Thompson, and a lot of people have ascribed poetic meaning to his decision to kill himself--"He lived on his terms, he died on his own terms" as Henry Allen wrote in the Washington Post.

But as singular as Thompson's life might have been, there was something painfully familiar in some of the speculation surrounding his motives for taking his own life. Ten years ago, my Uncle Dean--my father's older brother--shot himself, and he was about the age as Thompson when he died. The two men were obviously nothing alike--indeed, if my uncle had read Thompson, I'm sure he would have found him highly offensive.

My uncle had been a highly successful executive who had retired to enjoy a big house he had built on a sizable piece of land in upstate New York. But he seemed to miss work, and he found himself aging physically more quickly than he anticipated. He also had a tough time coping with my grandmother's stroke-induced dementia (my grandmother died in 2002, never knowing that she had outlived her oldest child) and a few weeks before he killed himself, his beloved dog Tristan had died.

Like Thompson, he left no note, so were left to guess at his reasons through a mixture of grief and anger. Perhaps he simply believed that his best days were behind him, and there wasn't much point in wading through what remained. I don't know if anyone could have convinced him otherwise. But I know we wish that we'd had the chance.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Neither a trade nor a profession

The late, great Hunter S. Thompson on the limits of objective journalism:

"Objective journalism is one of the main reasons that American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long," Thompson told interviewers in a characteristic pronouncement on both institutions.

"You can't be objective about Nixon," he said. "How can you be objective about Clinton?"

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Strange bedfellows

Jack Markowitz, the curmudgeonly and conservative retired Trib business editor, finds himself aghast to be opposed to one of the president's proposed budget cuts: the Amtrak subsidy. He makes a concise yet eloquent defense for continuing to subsidized the nation's beleaguered passenger rail system:

Rail travel gets a public contribution to ticket prices in even the countries with the best, fastest trains, such as Japan and France. In fact, all sorts of transportation receive subsidies overt or hidden.

U.S. rail travel might be kept on the shortest rations. Yet it's the last line of defense against dooming all inter-city travel to the automobile (fuel-wasting and smashup-prone), airlines (whipsawed by oil prices, security scares and socked-in airports) or buses (crowded and dingy at terminal level).

Like most of Bush's budget cuts, I suspect slashing the Amtrak subsidy is a bargaining chip or a way to shift blame to Congress for the nation's profligate spending. Northeastern lawmakers, whose constituents use Amtrak or who rely on it themselves, usually end up salvaging the railroad system. As Markowitz notes, Amtrak would be wise to eliminate some inefficiencies and, if money allows, to add lines at peak times that would attract more travelers. In any case, I agree that Amtrak is worth saving.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Your backyard would make a great Wal-Mart

Bill Steigerwald talks to Scott Bullock, an Institute for Justice attorney who will be arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court against the abuse of eminent domain by the city of New London, Connecticut. That city wants to force owners to sell their property not for a public use, like a school or road, but for private development that the government believes will be more lucrative:

We have to prove that this is not "a public use." The Constitution says very clearly that private property shall "not be taken for public use without just compensation." The real question in this case is whether or not these takings are for a public use. The government's taking someone's property simply in the hope that the new owners will produce more tax revenue and that the city will gain from the trickle-down effects of private business development cannot be a public use. If it is, then there really are no limits on government's eminent domain power.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

The definition of insanity, part four

It's hard to tell who's telling the truth in this he said-she said account of a squabble between a New York developer and Mayor Murphy and the URA. But given the city's history, it is tempting to believe the developer, who claims his bid to buy the shuttered Lazarus building is being blocked because city officials don't like what he wants to do with it:

At one time, Jemal, president of the family-owned J.J. Operating Corp., had an agreement with Federated to purchase the property. But the deal fell through, in part because the Murphy administration wanted Jemal to sign a pledge that he would not bring gambling to the building.

Another developer, J.J. Gumberg Co., had agreed to sign such a pledge as part of its deal to buy the closed Lord & Taylor department store building, Downtown.

The URA and Jemal also squabbled over the type of retailing expected at the site. URA officials told representatives for J.J. Operating that they wanted a "quality retailer." Jemal balked at the interpretation, saying he did not believe the URA had right of approval.

First of all, let me say that I agree with the city's attempt to keep gambling out of Downtown. I'd like to keep it out of the city altogether, but the wishes of a hack-turned-flack blogger don't account for much in the commonwealth.

The PG's story goes on to say that developer Samuel Jemal agreed to take gambling off the table, and the city still insisted on controlling what goes into the building. Why is this believable? Because the city and the URA has consistently tried to impose their will on Downtown retailers and property owners. They tried and failed to reinvigorate Downtown through high-end retail. The URA refuses to sell off in piecemeal the properties it owns in the Fifth-Forbes corridor, insisting that it will only sell to a developer that will control the entire block. In other words, they have tried to revitalize Downtown in defiance of everything we know about how markets work and how successful urban neighborhoods develop. And my great fear is that this mentality will live on even after Tom Murphy has retired to his Butler County farm.

Will the last person leaving Pittsburgh please turn out the lights?

(See "The definition of insanity" parts one, two and three.

Monday, February 07, 2005

At home in nowhere

Joel Kotkin, writing in the Washington Post, hails the triumph of the suburbs over cities, and said suburbia is where the American dream finds its true expression. As suburbs become less dependent on cities, they need to create a more complete sense of community than what they now offer:

The urbanization of suburbia -- the creation of a more sophisticated, self-sufficient community -- is already beginning. From the suburbs of Northern Virginia to the Los Angeles basin, cities are restoring the commercial cores of what had once been autonomous small towns. Often devastated by malls and big-box shopping centers, these downtowns once gave suburban towns a sense of distinctiveness -- something many now wish to recover. Other places are attempting to create whole new communities, with their own defined town centers complete with fine restaurants, smart shops and even nightclubs.

Over the past decade, for example, Naperville, Ill., has grown from simply another Chicago suburb into a definable place, with a well-appointed old town center, a lovely riverside park and even some striking public architecture. It is filled with pedestrians from the surrounding area. "Our downtown is what keeps us together," says Christine Jeffries, a civic leader in the community of 138,000. "It gives us an identity."

Wait a second here--If the suburbs are so great, why are they trying to transform themselves into cities? Could it be that high-density, pedestrian-friendly development is a more natural, more hospitable way to live?

And while Kotkin notes that metropolitan regions across the globe are becoming more suburbanized, it is important to remember that in America, the suburbs did not flourish by accident, nor solely as a result of the free choice of the people who moved there. Decades of government policies, from subsidized mortgages that favored new construction over housing rehabilitation, from highway projects that slashed city neighborhoods to ribbons, to accelerated depreciation rules that made shopping malls profitable, have accelerated suburban growth and the flight from cities. Many of the policies ostensibly designed to help cities also contributed to their demise, such as welfare, public housing and urban redevelopment.

Finally, regardless of how Kotkin chooses to live, and regardless of the fact that many cities bear responsibility for their own deteroriation, it strikes me as unseemly--though certainly not un-American--to take joy in their downfall.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

The house always wins

Dennis Roddy travels to West Virginia's Mountaineer Race Track and Gaming Resort to see what the future holds for Pennsylvania:

The criticism of slot machines, which are also credited with saving West Virginia's horse racing industry by drawing new marks to the casinos and the adjacent tracks, is that they drain money from people who could better spend it on things like washers, dryers, cars, groceries, mortgages and medicine.

"A lot of people get hurt here, my friend," Poulos said. He told of a banker pal who took all of two years to extinguish his pension savings.

At the same time, Hancock County's economy wasn't exactly building new pensions at the time MTR Gaming Group turned 342 racetrack jobs into 1,700 casino positions.

It's not gambling I have a problem with. I've done it myself. It's gambling as an economic development strategy and vehicle for tax "reform" that gives me pause.