Saturday, December 23, 2006

The high cost of low living

Pittsburgh's civic boosters like to talk up the region's low cost of living, but as this writer in the Post-Gazette points out, low cost of living is offset by low salaries. He relies largely on anecdotes to make his case, but I think it's an argument worth considering. What do we talk about when we discuss the region's cost of living.?Does it merely include housing and consumer goods, or do we also factor in taxes? Does it consider the hidden costs of living with aging and inadequate infrastructure? For example, I'm guessing that brakes and shocks wear out a lot sooner on western Pennsylvania roads than elsewhere.

Perhaps the cost of living is not so much of a draw for recent college graduates and young professionals, who don't mind living in a small apartment or sharing costs with roommates, and want more money for some of the extras that Matthew Dillon ticks off in his Post-Gazette essay, like eating out, vacations and a nice car. It might be that cost of living tips the scales in our favor with older professionals who have either been able to cash in on a hot real estate market, or have a salary or savings commensurate with a higher-cost region. I'm not sure that's what the boosters want to hear.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Government is the problem

The Burgh Report puts the casino fracas into its proper perspective.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Bread and circuses

I don't know enough about the three casino proposals to say with confidence whether the state Gaming Control Board made the right decision in awarding PITG the city's lone casino license. I do think that the North Shore was the best location for a casino; it's relatively isolated from residential neighborhoods with decent access to transportation and parking. And it just might lead people to use the boondogle that is the North Shore Connector.

I am bemused at the tantrums thrown by supporters of the Isle of Capri's plan, whose biggest selling point appeared to be that it would provide funding for a new "multi-purpose facility" (hockey arena). I don't understand why people believe that government power or funding should be expended to provide homes to professional sports teams--which are, after all, private businesses. (Mike Madison has been talking sense on this issue at Pittsblog, here and here.)

Isle of Capri pledged $290 million toward a new arena. But what about cost overruns? Would they have paid those? And who would have received the revenues from this facility? Mario Lemieux recently referred to the proposed arena as a public facility, which meant it would not generate property taxes. Does that mean the public would have gotten the revenues from non-hockey events? Because that's not how things worked out at PNC Park or Heinz Field.

Proponents endorsed the Isle of Capri plan because of its promise of a privately funded arena. But the casino licensees are expected--required, I believe--to make contributions to their communities. So money spent on a hockey arena would not have been spent on more pressing needs, of which Pittsburgh has many. (The same goes with the money promised by PITG toward Plan B.) The idea that public officials should have awarded the casino license based on its impact on a hockey team would be laughable were it not so indicative of the quality of governance to which we have grown sadly accustomed.

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Monday, December 18, 2006

City of Angels

It turns out that America's freeway capital is trying to build one of the nation's best public transportation systems:

Los Angeles is No. 2 in the nation in bus ridership and No. 3 in light rail, according to industry statistics. Since 1993, it and Detroit are the only major metropolitan regions in the nation that have succeeded in lowering the annual hours of delay per traveler. In October, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) named Los Angeles County's Mass Transportation Authority the best public transportation system in the country -- truly a man-bites-dog turnaround for an agency that for years was known for incompetence and shady deals. Other cities interested in expanding their public transit systems, notably Atlanta and Tampa, are even studying Los Angeles.

Critics have long regarded Los Angeles as the epitome of suburban sprawl, a city with no true center that is clogged with traffic and pollution. But Los Angeles is the nation's densest urban region, and it makes me realize that advocates of high-density development and public transit like yours truly) have probably confused cause and effect: Excellent public transit systems do not necessarily lead to high-density communities. (Because people cannot be forced to use transit. Besides, many of the earliest suburbs grew up around commuter railroad stations.) Rather, as communities grow denser, residents will demand high-quality public transit.

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Playing politics

It doesn't bode well for Bill Peduto's mayoral aspirations that he failed to persuade any other members of Pittsburgh City Council to join him in voting against Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's budget. The mayor has previously deflected Peduto's criticisms by claiming Peduto was "playing politics." That was bogus, but it's an accusation that will acquire more currency if Peduto finds himself isolated on City Council.

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Are they built for speed or comfort?

I finally got around to watching "Wedding Crashers" and I thought it was very good. Vince Vaughn was something of a scene stealer but Owen Wilson got off some great lines as well.

One of the most refreshing things about the movie is that Christopher Walken was actually allowed to act, and wasn't merely called on to be a caricature of all the creepy roles he's played. The man is capable of doing far more than staring wide-eyed and bobbing his head back and forth. (One of his more noteworthy recent roles was "Scotland, Pa.")

"Wedding Crashers" provided some great laughs, but it also had some good acting, which is more important to comedies than a lot of modern filmmakers seem to realize. I think the success of the Vaughn/Wilsons/Stiller/Ferrell/etc. comedy troupe is due in part to their skills as actors. Another good example is Steve Carell; "The 40 Year Old Virgin" certainly wasn't the funniest movie I've ever seen, but it had some good performances, and that's what makes it hold up on multiple viewings.

I do have a problem, however, with movies like "Wedding Crashers" in which we are supposed to root for the protagonist to steal a woman away from a boyfriend who is obviously horrible for her. The problem (and "The Wedding Singer" is another good example) is that the rival suitor is always made to be such a louse that we are left to wonder what the woman in question ever saw in him in the first place. Sure, we all know someone in real life who has dated or every married a person who is lousy for them. At some point though--unless the relationship is abusive--we tend to lose sympathy for them and figure they've gotten what they asked for. But I don't think that's the reaction filmmakers want us to have.

"Wedding Crashers", as my wife observed, really poured it on thick--portraying the character of Zachary Lodge as not only arrogant and vain, but violent and philandering--because Wilson's John Beckwith was no Boy Scout himself: He attended weddings to which he was not invited in order to have one-night stands with woman who believed he was someone else. He needed a foil even more despicable than that.

It's a small quibble. It was, after all, just a comedy, and a damn funny one at that.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Tell us what you really think

James Howard Kunstler weighs in on Robert Bruegmann's "Sprawl" with this review. If you're familiar with the book, and familiar with Kunstler, you won't be surprised to learn that Kunstler hates the book as much as he hates the phenomenon its title describes:

Despite his boatloads of statistics, Bruegmann is just flat-out wrong in many of his positions and virtually all of his conclusions. At the center of his thesis is the unquestioned assumption that the suburban project can continue indefinitely, that it is a good thing, that we will get more of it, and we ought to stop carping and enjoy it. His book fails entirely to acknowledge the fact that we are entering a permanent global energy crisis that will put an end to the drive-in utopia whether people like it or not. This singular harsh fact obviates all the rationalizations brought to the quixotic defense of suburbia.

I hope to write about Bruegmann's book soon at my other blog, but for now I'll say this: While Kunstler scores some points in his review (and takes some typical cheap shots), he confirms one of the Bruegmann's central points, which is that much of the criticism of sprawl is based on subjective, aesthetic judgments made by people who scorn the choices freely made by their fellow citizens. (And I say that as someone who regularly criticizes those choices myself.) Kunstler's review is a good example of how two people can look at the same set of facts and come to radically different conclusions.

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P.S.--Don't watch "Seinfeld"

The way the Rev. Al Sharpton tells it, you'd think that the Declaration of Independence asserts the inalienable right to life, liberty and cheap cable television:

You would think that a channel called the NFL Network would have a lot of game coverage, but really it only offers eight games each week -- games that have been rescheduled to Thursday and Saturday nights and that do not even feature your home team. For only eight extra games, the NFL Network wants to quadruple its rates to nearly a dollar per subscriber per month, digging even deeper into working families' wallets.

Sports teams and leagues have been creating their own TV networks for years. But this NFL power grab has even prompted Congress to question if the league is violating the Sherman Antitrust Act by using its monopoly control over pro-football television rights to force unreasonable price hikes on consumers. If the NFL -- the fattest cat of all among sports leagues -- gets away with bamboozling consumers, then every sport will be emboldened to follow suit, littering our cable bills with additional price increases.

That is why Time Warner and Cablevision have decided not to carry the network, arguing that most viewers -- including most football fans -- would not want to be forced to pay premium fees for a few games in which they may have little or no interest. The NFL has demanded that cable carriers put the NFL Network in basic channel lineups, meaning everyone pays the price, even viewers who don't watch football.

I suppose we should be glad that he's execrating the NFL and not trying to provoke a race war. (I wonder if Time Warner and Cablevision are signing any checks for Al.) By the way, Chris Briem over at NullSpace tells us that Pennsylvania's own senior senator, Arlen Specter, is leading the charge to strip the NFL of its antitrust exemption.

Um, isn't there a war on?

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Meet the new boss, same as all the old bosses

Luke Ravenstahl is a young guy, but for some reason, when he talks about making Pittsburgh cool, he reminds me of one of those middle-aged high school teachers who tries to be the students' pal. They were nice and all, but their jokes were corny and their trying-too-hard-to-be-hip references were always six months behind.

In other words, the mayor is a new dog, but he's full of old tricks. With the city struggling to stay out of the red, he wants to give away tax breaks for new housing Downtown, without explaining where the demand for this new housing coming from, and why, if there is such demand, developers have to be bribed to build it.

As evidence of the city's emerging hipness, he cites American Eagle Outfitters move from Marshall Township to SouthSide Works, apparently forgetting that American Eagle received more than $6 million in state aid to shift its headquarters from one part of Allegheny County to another.

Then again, maybe he hasn't forgotten, because, as the Post-Gazette notes, "He wants to replicate that development's style elsewhere, and intends to tap Gov. Ed Rendell for dollars to get that done." Oh, and he wants parking garages to offer free spaces during select days, like Light-Up Night, even though free holiday parking in 2001 and 2002 failed to save Lazarus and Lord & Taylor.

The mayor, given a chance to start things anew, wants to keep doing everything the same. What's so cool about that?

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Saturday, December 02, 2006

The very least we can do

Greg Mankiw explains why raising the minimum wage is a rather clumsy means of fighting poverty. I discussed this briefly last year.

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