Sunday, September 25, 2005

Another mouth to feed

Can't talk. New baby.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Pittsburgh needs a new pair of shoes

Well, Pittsburgh City Council voted to press the mayor to apply for a slots license, with council President Gene Ricciardi leading the way:

"Why allow one family, or a number of families, to make millions on a casino?" said Ricciardi, the proposal's author.

And while we're at it, why should one family reap all the profits from 84 Lumber? Or the Steelers? Or Eat 'n' Park? I realize that unlike those businesses, the slots parlors will be licensed and heavily regulated by the state, but that makes Ricciardi's statement no less assinine.

Still, I expect no better from him. What's truly disappointing is that Doug Shields and Bill Peduto, who I thought were the adults on council, apparently went along with this nonsense. The only no vote came from Sala Udin, the last person I'd expect to be the voice of reason:

"Gambling is not an essential public function," he (Udin) said.

Of course, Udin's belief in limited government is a recent development; as a member of the board of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, he's signed off on most of Tom Murphy's government-driven, top-down redevelopment schemes. Which should send a clear signal to the rest of us: If even Sala Udin is against this, it must be a truly, truly terrible idea.

Incidentally, Joel Kotkin has an op-ed in today's New York Times discussing the mayoral election in New York. He offers some advice that all cities should bear in mind: Stick to the basics.

Monday, September 19, 2005

And now a word from our sponsor

This blogging thing is OK, but I much prefer getting paid to write.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

A Katrina moment

Pittsburgh had its Katrina moment about two weeks before that hurricane devestated New Orleans and much of the rest of the Gulf Coast. A Downtown water main break flooded office buildings, ruined equipment and forced many of the city's few Downtown residents from their homes.

I'm certainly not drawing a parallel between the actual damage caused by that incident and Katrina. There are, however, other similarities. We now know that local, state and national officials had plenty of warnings that the infrastructure built to keep New Orleans safe was inadequate and in disrepair. In the same way, the water main break was another reminder that Pittsburgh's own basic infrastructure is in decay; some sections of pipe in the city are 150 years old. Water main breaks are fairly commonplace around here, which any casual viewer of local television newscasts knows. A related problem is our aging sewer systems, which during storms send raw sewage into our rivers and streams, a problem that is going to cost homeowners and local goverments millions of dollars to correct.

None of this will destroy the city overnight, of course, but it could render growth impossible and accelerate the region's precipitous decline. We should heed the words of this Post-Gazette editorial from August:

In hindsight, the water main along Fort Duquesne Boulevard should have been replaced when the thoroughfare was rebuilt in 2000. But that's too easy to say five years later. What is more difficult -- and a test of leadership -- is how to expedite the rehabilitation of an aging system now that we've seen the damage, in property and image, that can be done.

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Welcome to the neighborhood

If you asked me to describe my vision of Hell, it would probably look a lot like Cranberry Township in Butler County. Nothing but strip malls and franchise restaurants at the crossroads of a couple of highways far (by my standards) from the nearest city of any consequence. What's worse, you can't walk anywhere; if you suddenly run out of milk, you're getting in your car to get some more, whether you like it or not.

Well, now it seems that the people who live there aren't quite as keen on the place as they used to be. The Trib tells us that Cranberry and a handful of other suburban communities are trying to develop walkable Main Street business districts, in some cases building them from scratch or implementing new building requirements to foster walkable communities. It's a welcome development, but the smug, self-righteous part of me is laughing, because the residents and local officials who now bemoan these congested, sprawling communities are the same people who made them that way in the first place.

It's not that I expect everyone to want to live in cities, and I certainly can sympathize with the desire to flee crumbling infrastructure, high taxes and instititionalized corruption. (Not to mention failing schools.) But the best that cities have to offer--intimate, walkable and yes, high-density neighborhoods--can be replicated elsewhere, and on a smaller scale, if we so desire. We used to call them small towns, and they once were considered the heart of this nation, before shopping malls and Wal-Mart choked the life out of them.

But we can have them again, and it only takes a few simple steps. Allow for mixed-use development and multi-family dwellings. Build sidewalks. Install streetlights. Drop minimum frontage and parking requirements. If Wal-Mart wants to build a new store in your community, fine. Let them. But don't give them a penny in tax breaks, and make them pay for at least some of the additional infrastructure their mammoth store is sure to require.

Go visit places like Oakmont and Ligonier. Spend some time on Washington and Beverly roads in Mt. Lebanon. Hang out in Aspinwall. Just see what you've been missing.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

And to the republic, for which it stands

Students should not be required to say the Pledge of Allegiance in school (technically, they can't be compelled, but it's doubtful most of them know that) not because it contains the phrase "under God" but because it is little more than a loyalty oath, administered to children too young and naive to question its implications. I'm not too thrilled that every sporting event in this country begins with the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" but at least as an adult I'm well aware that I can refuse to sing along, or even stay seated, should I desire to bring down the wrath of those around me. Free societies should not compel their citizens, either through law or the force of social conformity, to demonstrate their love of country.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Four years ago

While my wife and I were out shopping, we suddenly realized that today is the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. I had a pang of guilt that I had forgotten, and that I had done nothing to mark the occassion. But then I remembered what the president asked Americans to do in the wake of the attacks--go shopping--and I realized that I was simply doing my patriotic duty.

Friday, September 09, 2005

The City of New Orleans

Jack Shafer in Slate dares to suggest that New Orleans is not worth rebuilding, and he makes a powerful if at times cynical argument. First, he correctly notes that overdevelopment and poor land and water management conspired to make last week's catastrophe inevitable. To wit:

Nobody disputes the geographical and oceanographic odds against New Orleans: that the Gulf of Mexico is a perfect breeding ground for hurricanes; that re-engineering the Mississippi River to control flooding has made New Orleans more vulnerable by denying it the deposits of sediment it needs to keep its head above water; that the aggressive extraction of oil and gas from the area has undermined the stability of its land.

"New Orleans naturally wants to be a lake," St. Louis University professor of earth and atmospheric sciences Timothy Kusky told Time this week. "A city should never have been built there in the first place," he said to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Why was it? Settlers built the original city on a curve of high flood land that the Mississippi River had deposited over eons, hence the nickname "Crescent City." But starting in the late 1800s and continuing into the early 20th century, developers began clearing and draining swamps behind the crescent, even dumping landfill into Lake Pontchartrain to extend the city.
To chart the aggressive reclamation, compare this map from 1798 with this one from 1908. Many of New Orleans' lower-lying neighborhoods, such as Navarre, the Lower Ninth Ward, Lake Terrace, and Pontchartrain Park, were rescued from the low-lying muck. The Lower Ninth Ward, clobbered by Katrina, started out as a cypress swamp, and by 1950 it was only half developed, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. Even such "high" land as City Park suffered from flooding before the engineers intervened. By the historical standards of the 400-year-old city, many of the heavily flooded neighborhoods are fresh off the boat.

But Shafer doesn't stop there. New Orleans, writes Shafer, was a morass of corruption and dysfunction. It's plagued by crime and failing schools, and its housing stock was crumbling even before it was washed away by the floodwaters. It's a city whose only real purpose anymore is to serve as a playground for decadent tourists. Shafer even comes to the defense of Barbara Bush, who suggested that the city's impoverished residents likely would be better off:

Only a sadist would insist on resurrecting this concentration of poverty, crime, and deplorable schools. Yet that's what New Orleans' cheerleaders—both natives and beignet-eating tourists—are advocating. They predict that once they drain the water and scrub the city clean, they'll restore New Orleans to its former "glory."

Implicit in Shafer's argument is that, absent the hurricane, New Orleans' decay would have continued unabated. A city on the upswing, no matter how many problems it faced, would have a much better shot at recovery, and the case for abandoning it under these circumstances would be harder to make. But New Orleans wasn't working. Its government failed it before the storm, and now that failure is complete. It sounds cruel to describe the storm as "creative destruction" as Shafer does, but here he makes an excellent point: Unless we can eliminate the poverty that plagued New Orleans in short order--which we likely can't--why stick it back in one place again? The poor are ill-served by being herded together, where they can be conveniently ignored by the rest of us. Shafer points out that many displaced residents already are settling down in new communities, with no plans to return. Who can blame them?

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The rich are different from you or me

You may have noticed that I'm not much of a liberal. I've grown more libertarian in recent years, and I think there are limits to what government can do to ameliorate poverty and other adverse social conditions. I also think there is plenty of room for reasonable people to disagree over the proper role of government.

But what I can't tolerate are those conservatives who claim that there are no class divisions in America, or that Americans don't think of themselves as belonging to a social class. Perhaps that's an illusion that comforts the middle class. But the very rich and the very poor know damn well that there are class divisions in this country. And no one who is honest with themselves can look at what happened in New Orleans and deny that. For further proof, check out how the very rich are getting by in the Big Easy.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

All politics is local

John Tierney spreads around the blame for the debacle in New Orleans, and neither federal nor local officials are spared. The greatest lesson for cities, Tierney writes, is one they should have learned a long time ago: Never rely on the federal government:

In New Orleans, the mayor seemed to assume all that was beyond his control, just like the mayors in the 1960's who let the riots occur.

They said their cities couldn't survive without help from Washington, which proceeded to shower inner cities with money and programs that did more damage than the riots. Cities didn't recover until some mayors, especially Republicans like Rudy Giuliani, tried self-reliance.

Mr. Giuliani was called heartless and racist for cutting the welfare rolls and focusing on crime reduction, but black neighborhoods were the greatest beneficiaries of his policies. He was criticized for ignoring social services as he concentrated on reorganizing the Police and Fire Departments, but his cold effectiveness made the city a more livable place and kept it calm after Sept. 11.

Yet Mr. Bush, with approval from conservatives who should have known better, reacted to Sept. 11 by centralizing disaster planning in Washington. He created the byzantine Homeland Security Department, with predictable results last week.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Happy Labor Day

With a movement afoot to raise Pennsylvania's minimum wage, this Slate article from last summer is worth considering:

Ordinarily, when we decide to transfer income to some group or another—whether it be the working poor, the unemployed, the victims of a flood, or the stockholders of American Airlines—we pay for the transfer out of general tax revenue. That has two advantages: It spreads the burden across all taxpayers, and it makes politicians accountable for their actions. It's easy to look up exactly how much the government gave American, and it's easy to look up exactly which senators voted for it.

By contrast, the minimum wage places the entire burden on one small group: the employers of low-wage workers and, to some extent, their customers. Suppose you're a small entrepreneur with, say, 10 full-time minimum-wage workers. Then a 50 cent increase in the minimum wage is going to cost you about $10,000 a year. That's no different from a $10,000 tax increase. But the politicians who imposed the burden get to claim they never raised anybody's taxes.

If you want to transfer income to the working poor, there are fairer and more honest ways to do it. The Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, accomplishes pretty much the same goals as the minimum wage but without concentrating the burden on a tiny minority. For that matter, the EITC also does a better job of helping the people you'd really want to help, as opposed to, say, middle-class teenagers working summer jobs. It's pretty hard to argue that a minimum-wage increase beats an EITC increase by any criterion.

The minimum wage is nothing but a huge off-the-books tax paid by a small group of people, with all the proceeds paid out as the equivalent of welfare to a different small group of people. If a tax-and-spend program that arbitrary were spelled out explicitly, voters would recoil. How unfortunate that when it is disguised as a minimum wage, not even our Republican president can manage to muster a principled objection.

It should be noted that the writer was speaking to the federal minimum wage, and the EITC is a federal program. But the principle is much the same.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

I like the eggs

Movie quote for a Sunday afternoon:

"It'll be great, because all those Ph.D.'s are in there, you know, like, discussing models of alienation and we'll be in here quietly humping." Woody Allen as Alvy in "Annie Hall."

One of the things that makes that film such a joy is Tony Roberts' performance as Alvy's self-absorbed friend Rob, who insists on calling Alvy "Max" and is obsessed with moving to California. When he finally does, he gets off a great line about California women:

"They're like the women in Playboy Magazine only they can move their arms and legs."

Just another word for nothing left to lose

The president and his administration are fond of using historical analogies to bolster America's resolve in the war on Iraq and the larger war on terror. The war against jihadism is akin to our nation's great and ultimately successful struggles against fascism in World War II and communism during the Cold War. Many of these analogies, of course, are bogus, and this thoughtful essay explains why the comparison to communism fails:

But there is an essential distinction -- one that may make the strategy that worked against the Soviet empire impotent with regard to the jihadists. Communism was a version of modernity. It valued education -- above all, scientific education -- and it insisted on gender equality. The United States was also committed to modernity. The conflict was thus a clash between two systems that shared certain fundamental presuppositions. And given the rank inferiority of the communist version, the belief that democracy and capitalism could and would prevail made sense.

But the conflict with jihadism is a contest between modernity and antimodernity, and, as we are discovering to our cost, obscurantism has a far larger constituency and a far more powerful hold on the popular imagination, certainly in the Islamic world, than most people imagined a generation ago. Jihadists have the advantage of speaking to a Muslim population that already shares many of their beliefs, whereas communists had to indoctrinate many of their constituents from scratch. Add to this the fact that, in countries like Egypt, a version of modernity has largely failed to provide ordinary people with a decent life, and the appeal of the fundamentalists is neither so difficult to explain nor so irrational as it sometimes appears. ...

Of course people crave freedom, but Karen Hughes's idea of it and the Ayatollah al-Sistani's idea of it are very different. As for people unfailingly choosing tolerance, the historical perspective suggests that this has been the exception rather than the rule. An American public diplomacy that convinces itself otherwise has little chance of success, no matter how influential the person at its helm and how many resources she has at her disposal.


Jimmy Carter is remembered as a failed president, and it seems unlikely historians will ever grant him a Trumanesque rehabilitation. But we correctly understood that America's oil dependence would one day take her down the road to ruin, as David Shribman reminds us in today's Post-Gazette:

Jimmy Carter was ridiculed three decades ago when he referred to the drive for energy conservation and independence as the moral equivalent of war, a phrase that came from a speech William James delivered at Stanford in 1906 but that, in a typical example of Carter's bad luck, had a pussy-cat acronym (MEOW). Now that we are literally at war in an oil-rich part of the world, and fighting a shadow war against terrorists whose ideology of violence was sown in part by the disruptions that oil money brought to the region, we regret that we didn't fight a moral war -- perhaps then we might have been able to avoid fighting a real one.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

A gas problem

I'm a little confused over the gasoline price-gouging controversy. What are the laws here? I know that oil companies can't conspire with one another to keep prices high, but what stops an individual gas station or supplier from taking advantage of the situation and trying to make a few extra bucks? Would you call the attorney general if Gap doubled the price of a pair of jeans tomorrow?

I know, I know, gasoline is different; it's a necessity. Well, it's such a necessity because we've made it so. I hate to get all James Kunstler on you, but we once again are reaping the whirlwind of poor development policies, of bad choices about where to live and how to organize our communities. (I'm not even discussing our abyssmal energy policies.) Will we finally be chastened and begin creating walkable, high-density communities, with adequate public transit, or when prices fall back to some reasonable level, will we breathe a sigh of relief and throw up another subdivision? I fear I already know the answer.

Friday, September 02, 2005

A fool and his money

Via Rauterkus, I learn that Pittsburgh City Council President Gene Ricciardi thinks the city should apply for a slots license so that it can use casino proceeds to eliminate property taxes, pay down debt, build a new arena, improve infrastructure and cure cancer. (OK, so I made up that last one.) I have a measured, thoughtful response:


I really need to learn to express myself.

His Honor

Slate has a quick profile of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. The article indicates the mayor did have some kind of evacuation plan.


I almost forget--I had an article in the Pittsburgh Business Times a couple of weeks ago.

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A perfect storm

From both ends of the political spectrum come indictments of the government's failure to respond to the unfolding catastrophe in New Orleans. First, from Paul Krugman:

I don't think this is a simple tale of incompetence. The reason the military wasn't rushed in to help along the Gulf Coast is, I believe, the same reason nothing was done to stop looting after the fall of Baghdad. Flood control was neglected for the same reason our troops in Iraq didn't get adequate armor.

At a fundamental level, I'd argue, our current leaders just aren't serious about some of the essential functions of government. They like waging war, but they don't like providing security, rescuing those in need or spending on preventive measures. And they never, ever ask for shared sacrifice.

Yesterday Mr. Bush made an utterly fantastic claim: that nobody expected the breach of the levees. In fact, there had been repeated warnings about exactly that risk.

So America, once famous for its can-do attitude, now has a can't-do government that makes excuses instead of doing its job. And while it makes those excuses, Americans are dying.

And from the right comes Jonah Goldberg, with a more generalized complaint about the corruption of the nation's political class:

The choice isn't between a lean, fiscally responsible, Republican budget and a porcine Democratic budget which included money for first responders. The Republican Congress has proven to be just about as disgusting in its spending as a Democratic Congress might have been. Sure, perhaps Democrats would have spent a bit more, but Republicans are supposed to be against bloated government and the stealing of tax dollars for personal projects and missions. So whatever pennies we've hypothetically saved with Republicans, their hypocrisy and betrayal of principle more than compensates. ...

...we were supposed to be preparing --at the national level -- for a major terrorist attack for the last four years. I just don't see much evidence of that preparation. Congress re-assembled lickity-split to deal with Terri Schiavo -- a decision that didn't and does not bother me the way it bothers some. But however you define the issues involved in that case, in terms of real human suffering they are very hard to stack-up against what's happened in New Orleans. Congress should have convened yesterday and rescinded the highway bill. It should have broken-open the farm bill like a piñata and reallocated the monies therein.

For supporters of the war, this spectacle is going to be particularly hard to accomodate because it is in the interests of the political classes to keep their pork and it is in the interests of the antiwar left to frame this as a choice between Baghdad and New Orleans. That should not be the choice. The choice should be between the highway bill, ag subsidies and the like. The Don Young Highway should at least be renamed to the "Go Suck Eggs New Orleans Highway."

I don't think there's anything to add, do you?

Thursday, September 01, 2005

You're the one with the dirty pictures

You know the problem with this country? Too much porn.

Wake me up in 2009.