Saturday, December 31, 2005

Good riddance

I don't know what kind of mayor Bob O'Connor will be, but I do know what kind of mayor his predecessor was: a lousy one. And I don't think we need wait for the verdict of history, as this overly complimentary Post-Gazette editorial suggests:

History may be kinder to Tom Murphy than some of his constituents. After 12 years at the helm of Pennsylvania second-largest city, he leaves the mayor's office with a fat sheaf of successes, failures and undiminished pride.

It was Mayor Murphy, after all, who doggedly pursued funding for two new stadiums and a convention center; Mayor Murphy who developed the riverfront, former mill sites and an old slag dump; Mayor Murphy who cut personnel by 32 percent; Mayor Murphy who believed, correctly, that Downtown should be the jewel of the region -- not just a place to work, but a place to live, shop and recreate.

Let's take this in order: I don't believe that public funds should be spent on facilities for professional sports franchises--especially when those teams, as was the case here, end up receiving almost all the revenues for every event that is held in those facilities. They are not engines for economic development. Whatever development is happening on the North Shore is requiring further public investment, and is merely shifting around private resources--not growing new ones. And the convention center is too big, the market for conventions already saturated, and the facility is drowning in debt. Well done, Mayor Murphy.

Tom Murphy does deserve credit for the riverfront trails, which are genuine public assets and make the city more livable. That's about all I can say about that. As for the for former slag dumps and mill sites--we'll, let's just say that perhaps what I said earlier was wrong. Only time will tell whether they will flourish, and more importantly, whether they will flourish without hurting pre-existing retail and residential areas. Spending other people's money is easy, and it doesn't take "vision."

What about the personnel cuts? I don't know much about the mayor's first term, but I'm guessing that most of those cuts came in 2003 and 2004, when the mayor was forced to make layoffs to avoid bankruptcy, a crisis that he--and to be fair, City Council--should have averted earlier. As for Downtown, the mayor may believe that it should be the city's jewel, but his policies hastened its decay.

The PG is not too quick to let Tom Murphy off the hook for his failures, but it does offer him and his successor a little too much wiggle room with this statement:

In fairness to him and other mayors, this is not the best time to be running a post-industrial city. Washington is not sympathetic to urban problems, and the Republican-controlled state Legislature is tone deaf to fiscal ills exacerbated by a heavy concentration of tax-exempt property, a declining population and outmoded tax laws.

Let us no longer countenance the belief that Pittsburgh and other American cities are not responsible for their own problems, or at the very least, that they don't have all the tools to fix those problems at their own disposal. The federal government was never capable of helping cities, even when it wanted to try. We are better off now that it doesn't. And the events of the last few months have proven that the Legislature is capable of doing little save fattening its members' wallets.

Pittsburgh's problems are its own, and no one else's. The fact that other cities may share them is immaterial. No one can solve them but us.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Opposing viewpoints are welcome

The Weekly Standard presents an argument in favor of the president's domestic spying program that doesn't rely on fear-mongering or flag-waving to make its point. I welcome the author's assertion that Congress needs to reclaim its role in overseeing executive behavior. Other than that, I'm not prepared to respond, so I invite you, my faithless readers, to do it for me. What do you think?

Bargaining chips

I don't normally have much sympathy for public-sector unions. They have a disproportionate influence over the collective bargaining process, particularly when compared to their private-sector cousins. For one, the government usually has a monopoly on the services it offers, so when workers strike--which sometimes is illegal--customers, i.e., taxpayers, have no alternatives. Also, public employee unions, through the electoral process, can help to hire or fire the people with whom they bargain--elected officials and their appointees. (See this post.)

That said, I have to agree with Fester's assessment of the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority's last-minute demand that new transit workers contribute 6 percent to their pensions, up from 2 percent for current workers. That demand prompted the transit union's strike--an illegal strike, I might add--which brought New York City to its knees and forced the authority to make rather hefty concessions.

Despite having to contribute toward their health insurance for the first time, the union was the big winner in this dispute, and the loser, as is often the case, was the taxpayers who consume government services, as is noted in this New York Times article:

"If someone didn't do well in this settlement, it was probably the riding public," said Raymond D. Horton, a professor at Columbia Business School, complaining that the deal did little to hold down costs or increase productivity.

In early talks, the authority made a big issue of increasing productivity by, for example, calling for station agents to empty trash cans and station cleaners to change light bulbs and paint over graffiti. But the union got those demands dropped.

"The M.T.A. had three goals: health premiums, pensions and productivity," Mr. Brecher said. "They got one out of three - that's a far better batting average than many people get in bargaining with municipal unions."

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Save Ardmore

Not long after I started this blog I wrote about a plan in Ardmore, just outside Philadelphia, to bulldoze much of the town's existing business district in order to build a retail and residential complex. This is the kind of eminent domain abuse the Supreme Court sanctioned with its decision last summer in Kelo v. New London.

I was therefore pleased to learn that the property owners in Ardmore are not going down without a fight. Please support their efforts in whatever way you can to keep arrogant public officials from deciding what is and isn't the best use of someone else' property.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005


Yes, yes, yes:

Willful disregard of a law is potentially an impeachable offense. It is at least as impeachable as having a sexual escapade under the Oval Office desk and lying about it later. The members of the House Judiciary Committee who staged the impeachment of President Clinton ought to be as outraged at this situation. They ought to investigate it, consider it carefully and report either a bill that would change the wiretap laws to suit the president or a bill of impeachment.
It is important to be clear that an impeachment case, if it comes to that, would not be about wiretapping, or about a possible Constitutional right not to be wiretapped. It would be about the power of Congress to set wiretapping rules by law, and it is about the obligation of the president to follow the rules in the Acts that he and his predecessors signed into law. ...

Published reports quote sources saying that 14 members of Congress were notified of the wiretapping. If some had misgivings, apparently they were scared of being called names, as the president did last week when he said: "It was a shameful act for someone to disclose this very important program in a time of war. The fact that we're discussing this program is helping the enemy."

Wrong. If we don't discuss the program and the lack of authority for it, we are meeting the enemy -- in the mirror.

Guess where this appeared. The Nation? No. The New York Times op-ed page? Wrong again.

Barron's, which is published by that bastion of American liberalism, the Dow Jones Company.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

In order to form a more perfect union

There’s part of me that wants to commend Vice President Dick Cheney for not merely invoking the specter of 9/11 in defending the administration’s domestic spying program, but for also trying to advance a philosophical argument on behalf of a “strong and robust” presidency.

Granted, it is a convenient argument for a sitting vice president to make. George Will recently noted that the Republican disdain for a strong chief executive, nurtured by their antipathy toward FDR and the New Deal, has not survived their victories in seven of the last 10 presidential elections. But imagine how edifying the 2008 presidential election would be if it centered on a debate over the proper role of the president and the Congress in our constitutional system. It might even give way to a vigorous discussion of the role of the judiciary that considered a broader range of precedents than merely Roe v. Wade.

These are not purely academic matters. Despite Cheney’s protestations that Vietnam and Watergate weakened the presidency, we are witnessing, both in the domestic war on terror and in the war in Iraq, the consequences of four decades of congressional withdrawal from war making and national security policy. Ted Kennedy can complain all he wants about the vice president misreading the Constitution, but the fact is that Congress pretty much threw in the towel with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

So let’s have that debate, Mr. Vice President. As your boss might say, bring it on.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Back to the future

Pittsblog and AntiRust do a great job of summing up everything wrong with the latest inane scheme to redevelop Downtown Pittsburgh, this time with a publicly financed skyscraper. As for me, I keep asking the same question: Why? Why do our so-called leaders keep repeating the mistakes of the past?

It's a question that contains its own answer. They keep doing the same thing over and over again because to do otherwise would be to admit, finally, that 50 years of top-down, government-driven redevelopment policies have failed spectacularly. And our elected officials, even if they played no role in any of those decisions--the alleged Renaissance (numbers one and two), bulldozing the Hill District, gutting East Liberty, etc.--are heavily invested, emotionally and politically, in the myths those projects spawned.

Because the truth is that Pittsburgh has been in free fall for half a century, and no one has been able to arrest it. The air is cleaner, the rivers are cleaner, and the Golden Triangle sure looks great from Mt. Washington, but none of it matters. Our infrastructure is crumbling, our taxes are too high, our government is too big, and people keep leaving.

It's all a house of cards, and no one wants to be the one who finally makes it collapse.

No cure for reefer madness

The war on drugs marches on, here and here.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Have they no decency?

Over the last several years, conservative pundits have endeavored to rehabilitate the reputation of the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy. "There really were communist spies" is the refrain used to justify the persecutions of the Red Scare. The beauty of that statement lies in its truth; it is after all a fact. It also is irrelevant. After all, there really are criminals, but that doesn't give the police the right to kick in my door.

Then again, in George Bush's America, maybe it does. The president exploited the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to start a needless war and to assault the civil liberties of American citizens. He and his cronies are acting with such contempt for the rule of law that it would have embarrassed Richard Nixon. (Perhaps it is no accident that conservatives reacted with such ire earlier this year when Deep Throat's identity was revealed. The president has kicked off a witch hunt for the person responsible for leaking his domestic spying operation to the New York Times.)

George Bush says he is defending America, and he is right to proclaim that it is duty to do so. But defending this nation means much more than merely keeping its citizens safe from physical harm. For America was founded upon a set of ideals. Americans do not share a common nationality. Our shared history is quite brief compared to the rest of the world. All we have are our principles. If we part with those, there won't be much left worth defending.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Here we go again

Mark Rauterkus responds to Pittsburgh officials' concerns that Saks Fifth Avenue will leave Downtown when its lease expires--in 2011. This is a city that can barely balance a budget from one month to the next and people are worried about an upscale retailer leaving in six years. Rauterkus nails it:

Saks must and will figure out where to put its stores based upon the marketplace. The stores will go to places where customers have money, tastes, and in turn jobs and opportunities. We need to make sure government does its job of in the sector of government -- and then the citizens can be more prosperous. And, in turn, the marketplace will respond in healthy ways.

I'm starting to bleed, banging my head against the same brick wall all these years.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Listen to the money talk

George Will allows me to punctuate the discussion I sparked about campaign finance reform with a little history about the late Eugene McCarthy's 1968 bid to unseat Lyndon Johnson:

McCarthy's insurgency, the most luminous memory of many aging liberals, would today be impossible -- criminal, actually -- thanks to the recent "reform" most cherished by liberals, the McCain-Feingold campaign regulations. McCarthy's audacious challenge to an incumbent president was utterly dependent on large early contributions from five rich liberals. Stewart Mott's $210,000 would be more than $1.2 million in today's dollars.

McCain-Feingold codifies two absurdities: large contributions are inherently evil, and political money can be limited without limiting political speech. McCain-Feingold criminalizes the sort of seed money that enabled McCarthy to be heard. Under McCain-Feingold's current limit of $2,100 per contributor, McCarthy's top five contributors combined could have given just $10,500, which in 1968 dollars would have been just $1,834.30. But, then, McCain-Feingold was written by incumbents to protect what they cherish: themselves.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

March of the Penguins

You almost--almost--have to feel sorry for the Pittsburgh Penguins. They waited about seven years too late to hold the franchise hostage over public funding for a new arena. There was a time when Mayor Murphy and his allies in state and county government would have been only too happy to oblige. But the city's finances are in the crapper, the mayor is on his way out, and while Gov. Rendell is determined to pour good money after bad into Pittsburgh redevelopment schemes, it all seems to be headed Downtown.

So where does that leave the Pens? The team is hoping to get a slots license, or failing that, hopes that public officials will pressure whoever does get the license to spend some of the profits on a new arena. Proving that common sense is not dead yet, the Pittsburgh Gaming Task Force--which has little real power--is balking. The task force wants whoever gets the license to offer some kind of "community giveback" but they're not sure that a new arena qualifies.

They are right to be suspicious. A new arena would be no more a public asset than PNC Park and Heinz Field. You can certainly make a case that whoever gets the slots license should be expected to give something back to the community. But if Mario wants a new arena, he needs to pay for it himself, or find other private investors who will. And his bid for a slots license should be evaluated on its merits, and not on the possibility that it will yield him a new playground.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity

The hyperliberal Counterpunch calls out Democrats who claim they were duped into voting to authorize President Bush to go to war in Iraq. John Walsh writes that former Senator Bob Graham has reported that the Democratic members of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, which he chaired, knew in the fall of 2002 that the intelligence the administration was championing was suspect, and that four of those Democrats in addition to Graham voted no. Walsh plausibly argues that other senators should have known the intelligence was flawed as well:

There were 19 members of that committee, all of whom had to know that Bush was lying. Only the four in caps above voted against the war. But if 19, out of what is often called a small and intimate club of 100 Senators, knew that the war was based on a lie, can one believe that the rest did not know? And given the bloodletting that was about to be unleashed, why did none of these 19, including Graham, release the "confidential" NIE report? What sort of men and women are these?

It's a question worth asking.

Monday, December 05, 2005

He's always been at the inn

See a trailer for the feel-good movie of the year.

Sunday, December 04, 2005


My post on campaign finance reform sparked a healthy discussion. Check it out.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Amen brother

I could rant about the $30 million state contribution to the city's pitiful plan for redeveloping Downtown Pittsburgh, but I couldn't say it any better than AntiRust. You da man.