A Case of Bad “Metrics”

Like me, maybe you have wondered how the grandiose plans of Pittsburgh elites will be realized when the city is not growing, when the hemorrhaging from the industrial flight of the early 1980s continues. While the leading suits insist that the region is in recovery and on the cusp of a dazzling future, many see the shattered lives, dead-end jobs, and insecurity left in the wake of the broken promises of the last chorus of capitalist magnates.

 The vision of a New Pittsburgh took a heavy blow a few weeks ago with the US Census Bureau releasing the population growth figures for cities with over 200,000 population. The Pittsburgh Pet-Gazette put a gloomy, but hopeful spin on the loss of population for the second consecutive year, quoting the mayor’s spokesperson as saying: “Basically every indicator out there, subjective or objective, is showing growth in the city of Pittsburgh.” So the mayor’s office privileges vanity websites like Zagat’s over the fact-based report of the Census Bureau.

 The P-G, without an ounce of shame, turned to a local developer– one of the stakeholders in the New Pittsburgh myth– for a comment. Predictably, he fails to see a problem: “I don’t see where the reduction is occurring… but I know the influx of people wanting to live Downtown is increasing.” Surprise! A luxury- residence developer cannot see the rest of us from his perch.

 What the P-G left out of the report is most interesting. If you happened to browse a national newspaper for the story, you might have learned that Pittsburgh ranks seventh from last among US cities in population gain/loss in 2015, slightly better than Detroit, Buffalo, and Cleveland. Apparently, P-G editors did not want this sour note to further tarnish the New Pittsburgh euphoria.

 Another blow to the fantasy came last week with the latest unemployment figures for the region. The April rate advanced .3% from March and is up .4% from last April. Of the 15 comparable cities (Pittsburgh Today), Pittsburgh finished second in percentage unemployed and one of only two showing unemployment growth for the month. Tragic, neglected Detroit is Pittsburgh’s competitor for biggest loser in the unemployment derby. But Detroit’s unemployment rate actually declined by .8% in April while Pittsburgh’s increased!

 The P-G report on the unemployment increase sought a positive spin on the report, but conceded that the biggest job losses were the traditional better paying jobs in manufacturing, mining, and logging, while the biggest job gainer in the region of all categories was in the low-paying sector of leisure and hospitality. It takes a vivid imagination to found the New Pittsburgh on the meager incomes of bartenders and restaurant servers.

 Another blow to the med-ed growth model came with the release on June 2 of the annual Kauffman Foundation report on entrepreneurship, small businesses, and startups. “Firms in Pittsburgh are not growing like in other places” says the senior research analyst at Kauffman as reported by the P-G. Recall the Foundation presented a similarly bleak assessment of startups last year. The same researcher left a not-too-subtle hint with the P-G writer: “high tech is not necessarily a prerequisite for high-growth.” Is anyone in the government/foundation/corporation/ university nexis listening?

 Everyone would like to see a thriving Pittsburgh that accommodates the new along with the old, that accepts innovation while maintaining the integrity and well being of the existing neighborhoods. Unfortunately, our leaders have constructed a plan that scorns the Old Pittsburgh to court a new generation of mental workers, professionals, consultants, and “entrepreneurs”– groups that the urban planning  guru Richard Florida dubbed collectively “the creative class”. These “wunderkinds” are believed to be hope for future prosperity in our region. They are decidedly white, predominantly male, young, and well-educated. Consultants, academics, and foundation heads tell our politicians that every effort should be made to attract them to the region, every effort should be made to remove any obstacles to their comfort and perceived security, and every effort must be made to provide the amenities that they desire.

 At the same time, the 60% of Pittsburghers struggling to make a living with low-wage, low skill jobs are an inconvenience; they are the forgotten people, the invisible people. The plan for the New Pittsburgh offers nothing for the needs of the Old Pittsburgh. The housing, transportation, and well-being of the elderly, the infirmed, minorities, and the casualties of industrial betrayal are marginal to the grand project. Their needs are left to the vicissitudes of an unfriendly, impersonal market.

 The above sobering facts (the consultants like to dress them up and call them “metrics”) should suggest that the New Pittsburgh path is a rocky and unpromising road. Moreover, it is one only to be traveled by those with the proper travel documents. The rest of us are not invited on this journey. Instead of conceding failure, our local lords will likely double-down on their waste of public resources to woo the elusive “creative class” to Pittsburgh. A recent P-G editorial (Start our engines, 6-3-16) pleads for even more of the same.

 Where we go from here depends upon finding a new political vehicle to contest the vision undemocratically shoved down our throats by the corporate and foundation leaders and their political minions. Clearly, adversarial pressure has made a difference, exposing the injustices in the city’s transportation and housing policies. The ensuing embarrassment has caused the establishment to make some loud, but pathetically inadequate measures. More must be done. And it will only come from serious political challenges and heightened militancy.

Greg Godels

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