A Splash of Reality

A splash of reality might be welcome a midst the euphoria of self-congratulation and pumped up civic pride accompanying the many accolades awarded to the New Pittsburgh. While the list of beauty pageant first-places grows profusely, cold, harsh facts might cause one to pause before jumping on the “We’re the Greatest!” band wagon.

The most sobering data came two weeks ago from Doug Heuck’s Pittsburgh Today website. Heuck reports: “The Pittsburgh region added 2,200 jobs between March 2015 and March 2016, a 0.2 percent increase. That percentage was below the benchmark average of 2.1 percent and was the lowest of all benchmark regions.” [my italics]. So we must factor this dead last finish among 15 demographically similar cities among the many first prizes collected for urban chic.

This report should silence the braggarts for those even marginally concerned with the fate of nearly 6 out of 10 of the county’s workers that count as “low wage, low skilled.”  Even more alarming, the data shows:

…in the 12-month period, manufacturing jobs declined by 5.8 percent (the largest decline among benchmark regions), and transportation and utilities jobs declined by 2 percent (the second-largest decline among benchmark regions).

Sectors which gained jobs in the 12-month period include leisure and hospitality (up 5.7 percent and the third-largest increase among benchmark regions), other services (up 2.2 percent) and education and health services (up 1 percent but still the smallest increase among benchmark regions).

Even the most intoxicated cheerleader for Pittsburgh knows that the industries where job growth actually declined in the region are where the best paying jobs resided. And the industries where jobs grew most vigorously (leisure and hospitality, other services) are where poverty wages are paid. Even the region’s signature “Meds” and “Eds” sector only grew by 1%, the lowest growth of the 15 counterpart regions!

While not wanting to pee on the parade of local pundits hailing the Pittsburgh “miracle,” it seems apparent that the latest renaissance does not accrue to ordinary Pittsburghers, the proverbial masses. Their prospects seem to be worsening.

Others seem to be recognizing a counter-narrative to the happy tale eagerly sold to the natives. In the City Paper (Made in Pittsburgh?, 4-20-27/2016), staff writer Ryan Deto voices the criticism that Pittsburgh’s leadership caters to and coddles the tech sector over manufacturing. His diligent research unearths several manufacturers who sought to locate or remain in Pittsburgh while receiving no help or encouragement from local agencies. At the same time, he highlights the maniacal, fawning pursuit of technology firms, enterprises that bring neither many jobs, nor opportunities for less skilled employment.

And KDKA investigative reporter Andy Sheehan pokes a hole in the luxury housing boom that followed in the wake of the technology mania. Interviewing local residential real estate mogul, Hoddy Hanna, Sheehan confirms what many of us suspect:

KDKA’s Andy Sheehan: “You don’t think we have enough people to fill these buildings?”

Hoddy Hanna: “I don’t see where they’re going to come from.”

Hanna, of Howard Hanna Real Estate, says much of the luxury apartment boom here in Pittsburgh and in cities nationwide is being fueled by easy financing and unrealistic expectations.

Hanna says much of the job growth in the city has leveled off, and another burst of employment will be needed to sustain the boom.

There’s going to be a bubble somewhere in the rental housing market in the next year and half,” he says.

It makes sense to all but those blinded by the “We’re Number One!” eye wash: Meager job growth coupled with a massive luxury residential build-out will trip up the housing market. And if Hanna is to be believed, sooner rather than later.

Yet the cheer leading continues. The usual suspects– business leaders and foundation heads– beat the drum for the New Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh Pet-Gazette gives generous column inches to Buhl Foundation head Frederick Theiman. Theiman characteristically piles laudatory boiler plate on top of boiler plate, citing “our incredible quality of life,” a truth he bizarrely sees brought forth as “not simply an impression but an objective reality” by the unfriendly G-20 military operation. He repeats the now familiar, tiresome Pittsburgh catechism:

Only recently has the momentum turned around. From its appearance at the top of virtually every metropolitan rating system to its national image, from the resurgence of its downtown to the growth of the tech, meds, and eds communities, Pittsburgh is now clearly on the rise.

Tasty Kool Aid, but nothing here for the 60% of the local work force stuck in low-wage, deadend jobs, retirees, the handicapped, or disadvantaged. Nothing here for the homeless or those dislocated by playgrounds for the new elites. Nothing here for the college graduates saddled with huge debt while working for tips in Pittsburgh’s heralded restaurant renaissance or in minimum wage call centers.

Venture capitalist Sean Sebastian and tech guru Paul Graham have recently urged their thoughts on Pittsburgh’s future. Both see more and more investment in the tech sector as the way forward. Graham, who fancies himself the Socrates of Silicon Valley, counts the acclaimed Pittsburgh restaurant renaissance as the first step of a hopeful progression towards a three-rivers tech hub. All we need is more and more investment capital thrown at the feet of local start ups. Oddly enough local banks have been parsimonious towards this program, while our local political leaders have bent over backwards to smooth the way with public funds.

Graham is somewhat notorious for his quirky, self-serving defense of economic inequality, a defense that engages philosophical pretension, special pleading, and logical howlers. But in the end it comes down to the fact that inequality can’t be bad because Paul Graham and his colleague’s interests increases it:

You can’t prevent great variations in wealth without preventing people from getting rich, and you can’t do that without preventing them from starting startups.

So let’s be clear about that. Eliminating great variations in wealth would mean eliminating startups. And that doesn’t seem a wise move.

It’s hard to imagine an “argument” more full of broken logic or full of itself.

Graham is only one tiresome voice of many touting the process of “turning rustbelts into brainbelts.” In The Smartest Places on Earth, economist Antoine van Agtmael and journalist Fred Baker extol the virtues of old industrial cities reinventing themselves as technology centers. In the words of a recent book reviewer, “[t]he authors assert that close cooperation between government, academia, and the private sector” will end up “generating innovations and helping troubled communities thrive.”

But reviewer Marc Levinson (Turning Rustbelts Into Brainbelts, The Wall Street Journal, April 15, 2016) is skeptical of the tech miracles. In fact, he is down right dubious. He cites the once touted “Massachusetts Miracle,” a science and technology vision dating to the 1980’s. Today, “Gov. Dukakis’s centers of excellence are long gone.”

Levinson shows that even the examples of success stories cited in The Smartest Places on Earth are suspect at best. Akron, Ohio, for example, now hails itself as the “Polymer Valley.” It is a strange success story, however, that leaves the majority of the population untouched (perhaps like Pittsburgh?). Levinson recounts that the surrounding county is aged, with wages below the national average and employment peaking over a decade ago. Some success story.

And consider Albany, NY, another area heralded as a hub of nanoscience. Levinson points out that the title was won by offering “one of the biggest taxpayer handouts ever offered to a private enterprise in the United States.” To achieve that lofty title, local taxpayers had to shell out $1.2 billion– the equivalent of nearly $1 million per job. Levinson suggests that the money could have been better spent on “plant worker’s wages.”

While rust belt mayors, consultants, local elites, and academics continue to sell a tech makeover as the magic elixir for economic recovery, the evidence is questionable, at best, that their programs will approach their promised goals. But far more troubling is the fact that these costly experiments in urban prospecting offer nothing more than slim pickings to those abandoned earlier by profit-seeking manufacturing corporations. The low wage, low skilled majority have no role in the technology economy embraced by urban planners. Surely, there’s a better way to lead a city forward rather than kicking it’s long suffering residents to the curb.

Greg Godels





Born A Man

I need nothing to be a man

Because I was born a man

And I deserve the right to live

Like any other man.

— Big Youth, “My Time”

In case you haven’t heard, Pittsburgh is “one of the most segregated metropolitan communities in the country.”  That statement comes from the Urban Institute’s Margaret Simms, one of the authors of a report on Pittsburgh published last fall.  That study, “Barriers & Bridges,” and a steady stream of others by think tanks, universities and foundations, have all demonstrated what our eyes, ears, out-of-town visitors and life experiences have long told us: Greater Pittsburgh is an extremely racist region.

Some of our white friends will object, but before they do let’s look at the cradle-to-grave numbers in black and white — and the Pittsburgh area basically is black and white, with relatively few people of Asian and Hispanic descent.

We can start with Allegheny County’s black infant mortality rate, which is twice the national average and about the same as Sri Lanka’s.  While growing up in our region, African-American youth are arrested at six times the rate of white youth — it’s “only” two-to-one nationally.  If one successfully avoids jail or prison, then one needs a job.  But the black unemployment rate is consistently double the white rate (you’ll notice a “two-to-one” pattern with many of these statistics).  And even that figure understates the problem for males, since only about half of black men, 18 to 64, are even in the workforce.

The over and under

Okay, so let’s say a black person gets a job.  Care to guess how much this person might earn, compared to a white counterpart?  Yes!  It’s about half as much, with blacks leading 2-to-1 in the $25,000 and under category, and whites leading 2-to-1 in the over $50,000 category.  Not surprisingly, the black poverty rate is a staggering 33 percent, more than double the considerable white rate of 15 percent.

How do people get to work?  Well, nearly a third of blacks rely on public transportation, while only 4 percent of workers “of other races” do so.  A slightly larger number of the “others” — 8 percent — use mass transit for any reason at least once a week.  One may surmise that many of them are taking advantage of services dedicated to getting people to and from the North Side stadiums.

Where do people live?  You shouldn’t be surprised to find that the percentage of whites who own their homes is double the black rate; after all, blacks are denied loans at twice the rate as whites.

We can play this game ad nauseam — looking at education level, educational achievement, health, crime (where blacks are more likely to both be arrested for, and victims of, violent crime), but you get the picture.  The real point is this: what does this picture tell us about our region, and what can be done about it?

Now many people will say that these statistics point to some deficiency in black people — their “culture of poverty,” which doesn’t exactly blame the individual so much as it does the entire class of people from which he or she springs.  Those people need to learn to follow the norms and rules of our society; you have to be tough to teach them independence and self-sufficiency.

This type of thinking leads to a crime-fighting policy that locks up black people for doing the same kinds of things free whites do all the time.  It leads to black people being killed for minor transgressions that white people survive — like a traffic stop or quietly drinking in public.  It allows Bill Clinton, and too many older black people, to continue to pretend that most of those black and brown bodies crowding the prisons are crack dealers who cynically got innocent kids “hopped up” on drugs.  (Hey!  I thought it was the government that did that!)

But all of those arguments are old, stale even.  The problem is racism, pure and simple.  It’s not about civilizing uncultured black people; it’s about addressing centuries of virulent racism, in Pittsburgh and nationally.  It’s about providing opportunity and support to people have been denied opportunity for generations.

Even the polite folks at Heinz Endowments and the Urban Institute, which “does not take positions on issues,” pretty much name the problem as structural racism.  However, their tentatively suggested remedies are weak, relying on good will from the public and leadership from corporations and large institutions.  Perhaps we should rely instead on the force of law, for here is a fact: to the international community, such racism is illegal, a violation of human rights.

Twentieth-century African-American leaders like W.E.B. DuBois, William Patterson and Malcolm X understood this.  Their strategy (at one point or another in their respective careers) was to expose US racism to the world and let our leaders justify themselves before world, whose hearts and minds our leaders so fervently wished to win.  Today, we should expose backwards, paternalistic Pittsburgh — whose political and business leaders have long sought to sell our region as some underappreciated diamond-in-the rough to the nation and world.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The United States, as a founder of United Nations, also signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is recognized “as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.”  Everyone is entitled to the rights set forth in the Declaration, regardless not only of such distinctions as “race, colour, sex, language [and] religion,” but also regardless of “property” (or lack thereof) and “birth or other status.”

In other words, people can’t be deprived of the rights inscribed in the Declaration just because they happen to be born black and/or poor.  Article 5, for example, prohibits “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”  Common examples of this would include police tactics that target only blacks: stop-and-frisk, anti-loitering patrols and the like. Article 9 also prohibits “arbitrary arrest [and] detention.”

Articles 22, 23 and 25 address “social security” and work — basically “the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being” of a person or family.  Some of the things the signers of the Declaration — and therefore, the United States government — believe guarantee this standard of living include housing, medical care, and adequate income during periods of unemployment and old age.

In all, the Declaration is a neat, tidy document that suits our modern age far more than the hallowed U.S. Constitution that gets so much lip-service.  The U.S. signed the Declaration and purports to be the world’s leader in everything, including human (although political leaders much prefer to say “democratic”) rights.  Well, Pittsburgh and its surrounding counties and municipalities are part of the U.S. and therefore subject to all relevant international treaties and agreements.  Just as activists in North Carolina and Georgia are loudly alerting the world to the doings of the homophobic idiots who are in power in those states, we Pittsburghers have to alert the world to the naked inequality that scars our region.

Pittsburgh’s African-American population doesn’t need to be “civilized” in order to enjoy a slice of the pie.  We were born into the human family and, according to the United Nations, that is more than enough. We need opportunity.  Perhaps the word that those fixated on our culture are looking for is “assimilate.” That has been the goal of most African Americans since slavery days, but we can only do so if we are let in.   Black people are plenty civilized and have contributed mightily to this nation, in spite of all the obstacles.  Give us the chance to do more.

(Sources include the aforementioned “Bridges and Barriers,” funded by The Heinz Endowments; “Pittsburgh’s Racial Demographics 2015: Differences and Disparities,” published by the University of Pittsburgh Center on Race and Social Problems; and “The Pittsburgh Regional Quality of Life Survey,which can found at the PittsburghTODAY website.  The various sources defined Greater Pittsburgh variously, from just the city and Allegheny County, to a metro area comprising Allegheny and seven other counties, to the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), which includes 25 counties in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland and Ohio that surround Pittsburgh.)


— James Collins




Hope for the “Other” Pittsburgh


As much as Pittsburgh’s movers-and-shakers would like you to believe that the city is the “most liveable,” as much as our elites rally around the authoritative words of upper-middle-class visiting travel editors and life-style writers, the truth is that Pittsburgh is far from the urban showcase that many pretend.

Like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Pittsburgh is two cities: a glitzy urban playground with luxury housing, a burgeoning restaurant scene, abundant bike lanes, and the other amenities of the urban gentry. Standing below or apart from this superstructure of leisure and consumption is a largely silent and nearly entirely neglected majority of poor, low and modest income workers, unemployed, underemployed, fixed income retirees, and otherwise disadvantaged citizens. For Pittsburgh’s leaders, those not participating in the city’s revival represent the losers from a bygone era of manufacturing and mining, a time when Pittsburgh stood as a centerpiece of US industry. Those leaders have put that period behind them; and they would like to put the people behind them as well.

For local politicians, for foundation heads, and for corporate leaders, the way ahead is to keep the majority mollified and out of sight while courting a new urban elite. And thanks to the compliant local media, they are largely successful.

But the facts are inescapable.

Pittsburgh is an aging city with little or no population growth. The county rivals the retirement destinations like Dade County in average age and it’s getting older. One estimate places the county’s working population 55 and older at 23.8% of the work force. Those workers will retire and age the population even more. Civic leaders are not attending to that fact.

Despite the fervent efforts of numerous agencies, the population of the region has been stagnant. Diversifying the region and invigorating the economy through population growth has been proven a failure with no reasonable promise of success going forward. Civic leaders are not attending to that fact.

Incomes for most county residents are on the decline. According to a report from the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board (TRWIB) cited in the Post-Gazette, average income of the bottom 99% fell by 4% between 2001 and 2012. The average county income fell to $41,876 in 2012 (roughly $20/hour). Those making $20/hour or less account for 57.5% of the workforce, a figure classified as “low wage, low skilled” according to Vera Krofcheck, chief strategy officer for TRWIB. She adds that Allegheny County consistently has a higher density of low wage jobs than its peer regions. Moreover, they are concentrated in the under $15.00/hour range with 34.43% of the work force earning between $8 and $15/hour.

The fact that UPMC will agree to take its 62,000 employees to this threshold by 2021 hardly inspires a celebration of “livability.” Civic leaders are not attending to these facts.

It takes little imagination to recognize that the life opportunities for most Pittsburghers are limited– home ownership or rent, reliable transportation, adequate health insurance, higher education, and even modest amenities are barely in reach without multiple jobs or significant indebtedness for 60% of the population saddled with “low wage” employment. Civic leaders are not attending to this fact.

As they have in the past, our elites continue to find resources to fuel the uber-city, the entertainment and cultural playgrounds, the hip amenities, and upper-middle-class oases secure from the urban underclasses. But the needs of the many, the long suffering residents of the diverse residential neighborhoods, go unattended. The streets go unpaved, the playgrounds deteriorate and go unsupervised, the homeless struggle, the mentally ill are criminalized, the schools are underfunded, and a laundry list of other urgent needs are simply ignored. Nothing underscores the obscene misplacement of priorities like the naked fact that Pittsburgh is spawning 10,000 new accommodations at a time when the authorities acknowledge a 21,000 shortfall of so-called affordable housing. Estimates are that a mere 3% of the 10,000 are “affordable” — the rest are market-rate (luxury).

Of course the market has yet to speak on the rationality of the frenzied luxury build out. Smart money says that it will fizzle.

When pressed on strengthening the neighborhoods– public sector jobs, day care centers, youth activity and job training facilities, mental health and senior services, etc.– our leaders plead poverty and preach austerity. When 40% of the property in Pittsburgh goes untaxed largely from non-profit tax exemption, when private projects are excused from tax liabilities, and when new revenues are generated through consumption and flat taxes that overly burden low and moderate income people, it is difficult to challenge the austerity hawks. While the leaders manage to generously offer tax abatement and infrastructure support for developers’ needs, they are remarkably tight-fisted when it comes to the peoples’ needs.

We undoubtedly need a peoples’ agenda to shift priorities from the unfettered courtship of the “New Pittsburgh” to the neighborhoods and the majority of people who populate them. But even more we desperately need people determined to wrest civic leadership from the institutional Democratic Party, the governmental bureaucracies, the university technocrats, and the corporate and foundation leaders who have brought us to this unhappy moment. Well intentioned people in and outside of this nexus who believe that cooperation and dialogue solely within these circles will produce adequate change are living in fantasy land. Officialese, spoken with expressions of sincerity and sobriety, mask the inertia of those personally shielded from the harsh realities of inequality, poverty, and insecurity.

Its going to take all of us…”, “There are a lot of good people working on a lot of fronts…” “Hopefully, we’re going to see some innovative activity…”, “…we’re working every day to find the solutions we so desperately need”, “We need data sources to make informed public policy decisions”, “…the future of our city depends on figuring out ways to solve these problems”, “What’s the best way for the New Pittsburgh?”, “Now we are asking ourselves if in the next several decades we can produce a city that is equitable and livable.”

This is just a sample of the vacuous, uninspiring comments of several prominent leaders participating in a recent internet forum concerning one of the city’s more acute problems. There are no solutions here, only soothing balm for those neglected. If we settle for words and promises from the mis-leaders, we will have only the mis-leaders, their words, and their promises a decade from now.

Our local politicians proudly describe themselves as “progressives,” a term that fell into common usage when the Clintonites and their supporters ran away from the term “liberal” decades ago. I thought of them when I read a recent Harpers article written by Thomas Frank (Nor A Lender Be, April, 2016). He sought words to capture the feeble, self-serving poverty road-shows sponsored by the Clinton Foundation:

This is modern liberalism in action: an unregulated virtue exchange in which representatives of one class of humanity ritually forgive the sins of another class, all of it convened and facilitated by a vast army of well-credentialed American technocrats, while the objects of their high and noble compassion sink slowly back into a preindustrial state.

I believe this aptly describes the local task forces, forums, study groups, and other exhibitions of hand-wringing and earnestness that leave the challenges that face most Pittsburghers untouched. We must push these mis-leaders aside or replace them if we ever hope to reconfigure our priorities.

–Greg Godels

GOP Lockout Prevails in Budget Battle

Governor Tom Wolf gave in last week and succumbed to the GOP lockout of spending for social services and education by letting the general assembly’s GOP budget pass. Wolf gave up after almost nine months of trying to trade increased spending in exchange for regressive tax hikes and a promise to look at private liquor-store options, but the Republicans were having none of it.

GOP leaders boasted of holding the line on tax increases while shaving some $800 million from the budget compromise Wolf had agreed to back in December. And they promise more of the same for the 2016-17 budget battle – at least until they get some action on pension evisceration and liquor store privatization. Just the thought of all the missed money-making opportunities for businessmen being “wasted” in the state store system makes Republican politicians crazy with anger, as does the act of paying decent pensions to lowly public school teachers and state workers.

I wonder how many of them object to the $140,000 annual pension the disgraced Pennsylvania Supreme Court judge, Michael Eakin, will get. The state’s judicial discipline court ruled that Eakin, a Republican and key player in the email scandal, “dramatically lessened public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the entire judiciary.”  Most commentators describe the emails as “lewd,” “racist,” and “sexist” – just like the majority in the General Assembly.

For his efforts, Gov. Wolf got around $200 million more for education – half of what he originally wanted – but the most cash-strapped school districts borrowed a billion dollars during the budget impasse and are stuck with $40 to $50 million in interest obligations. Human service providers are likewise in the hole.  The director of the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership was reported in the P-G as saying that nonprofits will be paying debt service for years as a result of this one budget fiasco.  And the next one is only a few months away.

Get mad or stay sad

Wolf, a political neophyte, basically got played. He came into office presenting himself as a nice, reasonable guy.  But today’s conservatives eat nice guys for snacks; you’ve got to be tough and you’ve got to be serious about being tough, just to hang with them.

But the governor and his fellow Democrats in the General Assembly aren’t the only softies who’ve been exposed by this GOP offensive. School boards and superintendents, and teacher’s unions – those people in the business of “teaching” the youth various lessons about life – sure failed this civics lesson: their students watched their wannabe role models whining, complaining and pleading helplessly from the sidelines.

Nonprofit agencies, charged with administering the safety net that the GOP cares so little about, mimicked to no effect the high-sounding, empty phrases of their educated cohorts. Unions, public and private, exercised no muscle and didn’t threaten to flex any on behalf of the middle class, working class, or any other class. The poorest, most disadvantaged people – the people who count most on social and human services – were left out in the cold.

So, where do we go from here? The Republicans have promised to continue blocking anything resembling a semi-humane budget.  The afore-mentioned representatives and champions of civic and civil society have shown themselves to be confused, weak, and totally incapable of countering this opposition.  This is, in part, a product of their steadfast allegiance to myths about representative democracy that haven’t applied in a long time.  This is the age of the Almighty Dollar, and everyone who’s anyone knows that at least 90 cents of every single one should go to those who are “smart” and “talented” enough to have rigged the game in their favor.

The people who need to be drawn into politics today are the people who aren’t “educated” enough to believe in bureaucracies, procedures, processes and lies. We need to hear from the people who don’t have anything to believe in – not even hope – and who don’t have anything to lose. Those who are charged with speaking in their behalf have been on a losing streak for some time now.

James Collins