Monday, August 18, 2014

Political Courage and Sophie Masloff

If you want to see a moment of sheer political courage, watch the late Mayor Sophie Masloff face an irate room full of supervoters arguing for some adjustments to local tax rates. Watch from time 1:00 forward of the video below saved by Dan Sullivan. Do the themes of keeping young families living in the city sound familiar?


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Monday, July 21, 2014

Cactus Yunz?

Hagiography watch, but a view from down under: Why Adelaide should be more like Pittsburgh — a phoenix city that has reinvented itself.  Subtitled: Pittsburgh has gone from rustbucket city to thriving metropolis.



I do admit I wish they better cited some material there which I lay good odds comes form here, not that you would know.  But still I have to applaud that they alone among almost every other media reference to the timing of it all get it:  "And to add insult to injury, the Steelers missed the playoffs in 1981, presaging a decade of poor performances for the home team."  So only the Australians realize that the Superbowls of the 1970s were not played during the economic miasma of the 1980s.



But also I note an odd Australian only take on what could be construed into a more creative-cities amenity type argument.  They note "As a measure of vibrancy, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in May that the city had the most bars per person — 12 per 10,000 — of any city in the US."  Of course I don't know how one would impute causality given that I suspect we had a pretty high bars-per-capita metric decades ago as well.  I mean, some city neighborhoods were hip before there was hip if that is the metric that matters.



and to think I once blogged here worrying that the Australians were going to hate us.  2007: Thought she was cactus??

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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Pittsburgh immigration stats update

I don't think anyone has looked at this specifically as yet, but the most recent data on immigration statistics from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) are out and this is what the data says for Pittsburgh through 2013:


I know there are strong opinions out there to the contrary, but at least in this rather hard data there is only an elusive trend at most in there for Pittsburgh. But what has been a robust trend for Pittsburgh, the immigrants settling here from Asia again form a supermajority in the region.  Of the 2,645 new permanent residents in Pittsburgh in 2013, just a smidge under 2/3rds (65.7%) were born in Asia or Oceania.   Just 399 were born in Europe. Still, 2,645 is a relatively small number no matter how you want to benchmark it. Boston for one possibly unfair comparison came in at 23,837 over the same year. But how about Columbus, OH which had 4,868 new permanent residents in 2013.

Of course 'lawful permanent residents' refers to just one part of the immigration flow impacting most regions.  Many here on temporary visas are not captured by these numbers (but they would be captured when they convert there status to any permanent visa) and then there is the more complex debate that is too much to get into right here on the number of undocumented immigrants here in the region. 

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Monday, July 14, 2014

Transit Transitions

Trib mentions that former Port Authority of Allegheny County CEO Steve Bland is up for a new job in Nashville. My still extant Google news filter for Steve Bland is fired for not catching any of this. A fuller story is from The Tennessean: Ousted Pittsburgh transit exec leads pack for MTA job. Note the version they have of his ouster here.

Who cares eh?  What I find curious is there is at most only cursory discussion of public transit in the whole debate over ridesharing and deregulation of the taxi industry.  Think they are not connected... they were just recently per this news article from 2012. Note the argument over privatizing bus routes covered in a recent article with this quote: '"They control the cab business," he said of the PUC. "What good has that done?"'

Anyways I digress. I was curious how big a deal this job in Nashville was. According to the National Transit Database, the most recent number of "unlinked passenger trips" I add up for the two transit agencies looks like this:



So basically Mr. Bland is taking over an agency with ridership numbers more akin to that of the EBA.

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Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Jitney in all of us


The whole fight over ridesharing in Pittsburgh is so much more bizarre than you may think if you just stick to the headlines. Where to start?

The fight is all being portrayed as the vast new network of entrepreneurial drivers against the vast pseudo-monopoly of Yellow Cab (there are some other taxi services in play, to include at least in a niche way the local Veterans Taxi service, might be interesting to get their opinion on the record about all of this?). So who is Yellow Cab? It is itself a subsidiary of the international conglomerate Veolia. So what?  Veolia is the same company that some of the same folks fought hard to get the contract to professionalize the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, which is key to a set of enormously important infrastructure that have to be addressed in the region. So to be clear möbius here, the city is fighting the corporate entity known as Veolia which runs in a very similar way yet another regulated entity operating coterminously within the City of Pittsburgh. I don't know what I'd think about the city if I were running the company. Friend or foe?

But the whole ridesharing debate has much larger political angles. Take for example that no less than Grover Norquist is a big big fan of what Uber could mean for the future. Via Reuters: How Uber can help the GOP gain control of the cities. That is not a new idea in a sense and there is a theme going back. If you dig into it deregulation of local taxi service has been an idea pushed at least as far back as the Reagan Administration. See this from the 80s: An Economic Analysis of Taxicab Regulation

It all may even be a bigger political deal than that. Looking back, I'd argue ridesharing was the determinative tool used by protesters to maintain the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955/6. What am I talking about?  To get boycotting riders to work, alternative transportation including ad hoc taxi service was set up. It had much the same challenges as alternative taxi service today, to include proper insurance which was eventually supplied by Lloyds of London. The effective alternative transportation is arguably what forced the bus companies to back down since it sustained the boycott and kept business away from the bus companies. (Uber and Lyft PR types: you're welcome for the future talking point).

But is that analogy valid here? Maybe, but I tell you something as an observer of local political machinations, did anyone fighting for Uber today ever expend any similar efforts defending the rights of Jitneys to operate their very similar ridesharing service, one that they do routinely get ticketed for by the PUC? Just asking.

Anyways, there are a lot of conflicting ideas out there about the actual facts on the ground. Lots of folks seem to think Uber and Lyft are operating in Philadelphia. That mostly isn't true, at least they are not operating as they are trying to in Pittsburgh. Don't believe me, read the statement from the company as reported by the Inky recently:  "(UberX) has no plans to seek the Philadelphia Parking Authority's permission to offer ride sharing ". In fact the closer analogy to what Uber is doing in most places is the competitor Sidecar which was shut down by Philadelphia regulators.

There is an interesting sidebar to that story in that Philadelphia long ago repatriated the right to regulate the taxi industry in the city there. But it is not the City of Philadelphia that exercises that power, it is the Philadelphia Parking Authority that exercises that regulates taxis there. Some want to do the same thing here, but do we want to give the Pittsburgh Parking Authority vast new powers to regulate an entire industry?  The unintended consequences of implementing similar here could potentially swamp whatever the nominal intent is. Whether it is even legally possible is lost in state law, and lawyers better start reading the state's public authority law to determine what is even possible.

Another myth I hear is that Pittsburgh's taxi operate as a medallion service which some are used to elsewhere in places like New York or Philadelphia. To be clear, there is no taxi medallion system here fwiw. In fact, it appears the taxi medallion system was introduced in Philadelphia as a reform to improve the taxi system there. I can't begin to say whether that worked.

and for your intertube long-tail zen research... check out: www.taxi-library.org

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Wednesday, July 09, 2014

if you have a milkshake, and I have a milkshake

Just your random economic factoid of the day.  If you do the math with recent data on crude oil production by state, I think it shows that right now Ohio has the highest year over year percentage growth in crude oil production.

Hmm.

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A million here, a million there

Sorry, but .......

Some years ago I had this post, which for entirely unrelated reasons has had a life of it's own on the internet I'll explain in a second.  But a deep dive in some of the most esoteric of public finance issues (bond insurance) and the fad of variable rate bonds being used locally. See: About those SEA bonds (2008)


Now look at the news today covered by the Trib: Taxpayers on the hook for $1M more for Consol Energy Center lease


So then and now.. variable interest rates bonds = bad and as is unsurprising the state is backing up the cost.  But the bad is all so complex that it all sounds like it isn't a problem. The state's backing of the Consol arena's bonds is another whole story that has been blogged about here as well. I still believe that if you look at the state's covenants on the deal, the state really is on the hook for the arena bonds should they be at risk of not being paid.  If so, why the need to pay for bond insurance? But the actual risk and legalities are lost in translation it seems.


Funny thing is that old blog post from 2008 may be one of the most read blog posts here ever, but not because the long tail cares much about the SEA bonds. In my rambling I reference an old study by investor Bill Ackman who made a fortune pointing out the problems with bond insurer MBIA.  In the long tail of the Internet that report seems not to exist anywhere else and has been referenced by many as Ackman has taken on other companies since then.  So the search engines of the world land here. 

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Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Soccer Spirit

How things change.  For a moment today I thought Pittsburgh was a soccer town.  Maybe not as new as you may think.  Some may recall the brief history of the Pittsburgh Spirit.

What I find amazing is the factoid on the website funwhileitlasted.net that says the Spirit season of 1983-1984 had a higher average attendance than did the Pittsburgh Penguins, which shared with the Spirit not only a venue in the Civic Arena, but were both owned at the time by mall developer Edward Debartolo. That says as much about the trajectory of hockey spirit here as it does about the Spirit itself.

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Low or high?

Just one overwrought indicator, but the monthly unemployment rate for Pittsburgh in May has been released. The headline I guess will be that it is down 1/10th over the month to 5.5%. I'll add that the Pittsburgh MSA is now 91 months below the national unemployment rate FWIW.

But not to repeat my relative unemployment chart, which looks much the same, how about this.  Another headline bullet point may be that the regional unemployment rate is now down to its lowest rate since October 2008, or over 5 and a half hears ago. Also FWIW.

But what is low? Economists have been debating how low unemployment rates can go and be sustained since forever without the greatest of conclusions. Much of that debate looks at sustainable national unemployment rates. Much less debate looks at how low regional rates in any one area can stay.  Certainly through the 1990s, areas like Charlotte maintained sub 3% unemployment rates for extended periods. For the record, I believe the lowest unemployment rate ever recorded for the Pittsburgh metropolitan area as then defined was 2.3% in November 1966.

For Pittsburgh below is the distribution of monthly unemployment rates in Pittsburgh since 1970 highlighting the current data.  For reference the median monthly unemployment rate over that time has been 6.2% and the average monthly unemployment rate (really pushed up by the long tail miasma of the 1980s) is over 6.6%. Note that at 5.5% we are at the bottom end of the range for the group highlighted.


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Sunday, June 29, 2014

It's raining men

ICYMI, there is an article on the latest set of population estimates released by the Census gnomes. Not new population estimates, but some age and gender breakdowns of previously released estimates. Trib: Oilfields may be fountain of youth for Western Pa. In short, the data is showing a bigger growth in younger men than younger women. 

It is a curious gender imbalance in the data. If it's a robust trend, it begs the question of why.  Hopefully it is not a burst of new inmates at the Western Penitentiary, but I have not heard of any big expansion there.  So that leaves us with the potential shale explanation. 

Incidental to the story is what may be the most honest admission I've yet seen captured in the record of the continuing state of the shale workforce in Pennsylvania.  From a local business owner primarily in the shale biz: 
Drilling probably isn't making the region younger because most workers in drill crews don't change residences, said Daniel Donahue, president of Indiana County-based Falcon Drilling.
He expanded the company from 100 employees when he bought it in 2011 to 325 employees, but the drillers come from all over and typically live in hotels for the two weeks they're on a job site, said Donahue, 35, of Fox Chapel. 
“The guys we're hiring, they don't come to Indiana,” he said.

Seems a pretty authoritative source? We all know that of course, but the industry just does not like to talk about it in such stark terms. If you read the immediate next quote... I really think the honesty there really caught the Range spokesperson off guard. It isn't quite how the memo reads on how these stories are supposed to play out. 

But back to the gender imbalance.  The hypothesis that this could be an artifact of shale development is at least plausible given the employment patterns in the industry. Looking at the somewhat broader Mining, Quarrying, and Oil and Gas Extraction industries, it remains mostly a men only story.




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Saturday, June 28, 2014

Pittsburgh Point Passing

My inner economic historian, along with my memories of a brief tenure on Wall Street, are just in shock that the stock of US Steel has been taken off of the S&P 500.  JP Morgan and Elbert Gary are turning over in their graves.  Something that is bigger news in Indiana than here it seems. Even the neomodern USAToday appreciates the history of it all.

Should not really be as much of a surprise I guess given the news today that more layoffs are coming at the corporation's headquarters Downtown, which all came in addition to the layoffs that were recently announced for US Steel operations in McKeesport. Note for those keeping count, the impact of neither of those two layoffs are yet reflected in any of the jobs data reported as yet. So when they actually go into effect, expect more freefall. 

That all motivated me to update this graph, which tells me I missed a related seminal point in Pittsburgh's economic history.  With the latest jobs data (for May 2014) made available last week, the proportion of regional jobs in manufacturing industries has now dropped to its lowest point ever.  This happened despite a very small uptick in manufacturing jobs, but it was a smaller jump than in the total job count. So by my count, manufacturing jobs are now at 7.4% of all local jobs, a proportion that has dropped down below a previous nadir that came in 2011.




and points for those who grok the title.

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Friday, June 27, 2014

Free our (parking) data

One of the less appreciated news items this month was the approval of variable rate parking at city of Pittsburgh meters. That came to mind while reading this from DC: When parking prices reflect demand, everybody wins.

If you read that carefully, you see it talks about the über (that would be the generic, and lower case über) data-driven parking modalities of San Francisco.  For more on that check out: SFpark.org  and you will see what they have going on.

Here in Pittsburgh, lots of data is being generated by our new and ubiquitous electronic parking meters that were installed by the Pittsburgh Parking Authority. Did anyone even consider making available the data those meters are generating for uses such as what is happening in San Francisco? Think this is all to hard to implement? It is child's play compared to what is happening in Chicago where the light poles are going all Skynet.

And the thing about it is, I bet it wouldn't cost much money.  If there was just an open data stream I bet Pittsburgh's civic-minded tech community would make great use of the data, all for the better-ment of all.

But no.. I get it.  The contract that put in the parking meters probably never even considered such uses so I speculate there is an easy excuse to never see any data like this in the public realm, no matter what is happening elsewhere.  Although I do want to know what the status is of the phone-paying parking app the parking authority said was in the works.  In itself it is a data-point showing the data-potential the system is capable of. And until we do, it hurts that we are falling ever further behind the tech-metropolis of Latrobe, PA.

and if that works and we get open parking data in Pittsburgh, we can really push the limits and merge the local memes of robotics with parking. No, I am not talking driverless cars, but the very real robotic valets that could improve the efficiency of all parking facilities everywhere.



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Thursday, June 26, 2014

There's old and then there's the Insulbrick

So if you have not read it, Jim R. has something of a viral hit in a recent column:Not So Much ‘New York Poor’ as ‘Pittsburgh Rich’

Regional variability in the cost of living is pretty much about housing and the issue of housing affordability is a pretty large topic.  Still, if there is a "Pittsburgh Rich" story it is about some lower cost housing still to be had across the region.

But you have to think about what housing we have and in a lot of ways our housing is not the housing available elsewhere.  Put another way, you get what you pay for.  This all came to mind because the WashPo's Wonkblog has a whole little data story on the age of housing across the US. See: Map: The age of housing in every zip code in the U.S.

Nice little bit of data work, but it does not really give you the benchmarking to make it useful. By many measures, Pittsburgh has some of the oldest housing stock in the nation.  Sort of like with us, its not about temporal age, but 'real' age.  The only major city that really comes close to Pittsburgh for old housing is Boston, and I will bet that our housing is a tad bit more disinvested than the older housing of Boston.  So if you are interested in the topic locally, this this map I like to call the Insulbrick index



Still, the best quote that encapsulates it all is:
"It is cheap to live here. It's the only city I know of where you can have a part-time job at a coffee shop, still afford a mortgage payment and be able to go out once a week. ... How would that not be appealing to any young person who isn't ready to settle down?"
From the PG a few years ago: Watch out Portland, Pittsburgh's lookin' hip, Is it really possible we are actually, authentically cool?

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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Ferlo Dividend

I was thinking that the 166 page Act 47 plan has some similarities to an Umberto Eco novel.* So yes, I thought I would read the whole plan, I figure someone ought to. Some of the most unnoticed things are most interesting to me. Remember the recurring topic of how much the city of Pittsburgh loses out because of loopholes in Pennsylvania law. (old post: Forbes: Tax Shelter from Hell - U.S. Steel Tower in Pittsburgh)

Last year the law was changed and at least one big loophole called the 89-11 rule was closed, much due to the effort of retiring State Senator Ferlo. Did it help?

First, go back to the news earlier in the year from the Pittsburgh school district. A vastly improved fiscal situation this coming year, where a big deficit turned into a fairly historic surplus, came in part due to a big jump in Now the city of Pittsburgh has the exact same tax base (with the minor exception of the Borough known as Mount Oliver) as the school district. See PG: Pittsburgh school district ends '13 with $20.8 million surplus). Transfer taxes came in "$3.9 million over the budgeted amount. The transfer taxes, which totaled $10.9 million, were higher than they have ever been"

So how did the city of Pittsburgh fare with real estate transfer taxes?  Pretty good it turns out and in a budget sense better than the school district.. The city budgeted (expected) an amount of $15.9 million to come in from transfer taxes in 2013.  Turns out the amount was  $21.3 million, or over $5.4 million above what was budgeted for 2013.

So the unexpected windfall from transfer taxes offset much of  the lower regular real estate taxes said to be from a miscalculation from the reassessment.(2013 budgeted $130.5 million, actual $123.4 million). A $7.1 million shortfall, but if real estate and transfer taxes were added together, the shortfall from budgeted comes to $1.7 million, which is well within the range of volatility common over recent decades.

How much of the transfer tax windfall is due to the closing of the loophole? Not all of it for sure, and it would take a lot more data and work to calculate. Potentially Senatory Ferlo could be responsible for Pittsburgh city and school district having over $9 million more in their respective budgets last year. So the question then becomes what about the future. A $9+ million per year gain annually in to the future equates has a NPV of ?? a few hundred $million maybe depending on your assumptions. So if there is a balanced city budget now, or into the future, offer the good senator, and former city councilor, some kudos.

But maybe it was all a fluke or a variation that will not be repeated?   That certainly seems to be the belief of the Act 47 team that does not expect the 2013 take in transfer taxes will be repeated even the next year. Claiming the transfer tax being too volatile they expect transfer tax revenues to actually decline in 2014.  Nowhere in the new Act 47 plan is there any mention of the impact of closing the 89-11 loophole and even 5 years out the assumed transfer tax revenues remain below what was actually collected in 2013. Since these are THE tax experts, they are saying something in not saying anything about the change in tax law.  They must believe it is all de minimus?

Consider that if the loophole had been closed the year earlier, the Steel Tower sale by itself would have brought the city and school district together an addition $10 million (4% of $250 million reported price).  I bet even absent the change in the law, general trends in city real estate trends might be generating higher rates of real estate transactions, and thus more transfer taxes. Also, it looks like the loophole was further closed only in the middle of 2013, so the impact was only partially felt in the 2013 tax revenues. Yet still the trend is presumed to be down.  

_________________________
* That is just a puzzle for @VannevarB to grok. Others probably just want to move on.

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Monday, June 23, 2014

Jobs up and jobs down

For every Yin there is a Yang.  Regional construction employment may be up, but there is this lingering mystery of why employment revisions were so bad for the Pittsburgh region in 2013.  I am late catching this data recently released (and thanks to the NS peanut gallery for pointing it out), but it appears that employment decline in Westmoreland County (-1.3% between December 2012 and December 2013) was among the worst drops the nation in 2013

Just one data point, but it may explain some things. Why are the numbers so bad for last year when it just does not seem so looking around Downtown and environs.  Looks like the suburban counties came in pretty low this year for this county-level (jobs by place of work) data. This is the same data that has had Washington county among the fastest job gainers in frequently over the last decade.  But this year, absolutely flat (0.0%) employment growth in Washington County, while Allegheny County had growth.  So best not to forget that regional metrics are indeed derived from what is happening across the region, not just in its core.

The table linked previously only has data for the largest counties in the US, so only some of counties in the Pittsburgh MSA. For the larger counties in the region the December 12 to December 13 employment change (%):  Allegheny +0.4%, Butler  -0.4%, Washington 0.0%. Westmoreland -1.3%

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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Building, building, building....

One of the weaker points in the regional economy in recent years has been sheer construction activity.  That's the bad news.  The good news is that the latest data just out shows a pretty healthy jump in construction employment over the pervious year.


Still not back to the peaks reached in the boom before the recession set in, but a lot of artificial pumping going in in real estate world back then globally, but also the construction of both the Rivers Casino and the Consol Arena were ongoing. Take those two projects out and I'd argue we are at one of the highest employment levels in the construction industry in a decade. We will see what the peak
construction season of the summer brings.

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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Parkonomics Dahntahn

Looks like the Pittsburgh Parking Authority is going with the flow and raising rates at its Downtown garages by some more than trivial percentages. Not a new trend. And I am sure that if anyone wanted to plot out the rates over time at the private garages Downtown, the trend would look much the same.  PG: Pittsburgh Parking Authority approves big fee increases

How can they get away with raising rates so much?  Supply? Rather fixed at best. Demand?  Must be doing pretty well. Anyone want to make the connection between ever higher parking rates Downtown and the Port Authority route cuts over the years?  Efficient for the Port Authority for sure, they got rid of many of their long squiggly lines.  But did those lost riders make it onto other bus routes?   Actually I am sure the Parking Authority could raise rates even more and match the private sector rates if they wanted to.

What will the future hold?  Another new skyscraper racing toward completion might add just a few jobs Downtown and I bet a few of those workers will want to drive to work and need to park somewhere.  What happens when the Lower Hill Development ever gets going in one form or another?  All those temporary parking lots are going to be taken out of the mix for sure. And on the North Side, eventually some of those parking lots are going to be developed into something that takes out a few more spots.  And unless we are about to resort to landfill to expand the Mon Wharf parking, there are few options for new parking options in any close proximity to Downtown.

So it is hard to see the situation getting better anytime soon. We may not have Manhattan parking prices yet, but who knows what the future holds.  I wish I had time to build a CGE model of this, but I'd love to estimate the elasticity between the cost to subsidize the $ losses to operate one of those suburban bus routes that were cut with the incremental parking rates all 40K parkers have to pay.

Well, on the bright side... Higher revenues for the PPA will give them the money needed to pay that pension asset.  That and the higher rates will be taxed by the city, itself bringing in additional revenue. What does the Act 47 project for parking tax revenues into the future?  


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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

ICA retreats to the "deep web"

OK.. enough is enough.  Here we are at this critical juncture where the city of Pittsburgh has to come up with its quinquennial Act 47 plan.  This is what the Act 47 team does every 5 years, and little else during the intervening years. Yet the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (ICA) for the City of Pittsburgh is a standing body with actual fiscal oversight over the city of Pittsburgh year in and year out.  So what information does the ICA have on its Public Documents Page as of June 18, 2014... Nothing at all.



You could chalk up as lack of effort, but the ICA does have a lot of documents... documents that the pubic has literally spent $millions to produce. Has anyone added up what all these reports (oh yeah, nobody knows about the reports any longer) cost to produce  Yet all that work over the years has just vanished. In fact, they used to make such documents readily available digitally, but no longer.  So we are moving backwards when it comes to transparency and open-ness.  Moving backwards pretty rapidly actually, at least when it comes to the ICA.





So... for the 5 folks actually interested in such things (Hi, Bram)... here is my proxy ICA web page with as many documents as I could scrounge up. A work in progress of course, but I'll get there.  Feel free to email me if you have any other documents to add. Just ICA documents please. If you think this is all de-minimus, check out the last document I have there: the appropriations request for the current fiscal year.  Is it worth a half million dollars this year to.... (fill in the verb of choice).  If nothing else, I bet if sent over the school district, a half million could hire more than a few teachers this year.



and can someone.. anyone.. please tell the ICA how to fix their screwed up DNS/domain redirect. It's embarrassing (and isn't the 'new' Pittsburgh all about the information tech-nol-o-gee?)   They are paying for web services as well I bet. You gotta wonder how much $$$ they spend on the web page, not we can tell from what is on the web page.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Pittsburgh and entrepreneurship: What would Chinitz say?

With the president in town to talk about entrepreneurship in Pittsburgh, the past is still awfully deterministic of the future. So if you have not seen it, the the Rosetta Stone of Pittsburgh's history in entrepreneurship remains: Ben Chinitz: Contrasts in Agglomeration, New York and Pittsburgh, American Economic Review, May 1961.






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Monday, June 16, 2014

Pittsburgh mythos revisted

The passing of Chuck Noll has brought a minor resurgence of the idea that the 1970s Steelers played through the worst of the economic miasma Pittsburgh endured with the contraction of the regional steel industry.  I've argued the inconsistency of that mythos with virtually all known data.  I'll put it another way, if indeed workers in Pittsburgh in the 1970s felt they were enduring the worst of times, they had yet to conceive of how bad things were going to get AFTER the Steelers won their 4th Super Bowl in January 1980.

Not that you would think that for a second.  PG:
"Their amazing success was much more than just a much-needed diversion from the hard economic times. It gave the city's people a chance to pull themselves up out of their despair". 

or Trib:
"He made a city undergoing seismic economic changes proud and confident, even as heavy industry abandoned the region"
Newsday:
"(Noll) lift the franchise out of some of its darkest days at the same time the city of Pittsburgh struggled to find its way out of a rough economic time,"

"Hard economic times" "Darkest days"  "Despair"  "Seismic economic changes" and abandonment.  WRONG decade.
If you still suffer from cognitive dissonance believing me, here is some basic data parsed a different way.  Here is total employment in the Pittsburgh region through both the 1970s and 1980s indexed to the employment level as of the first month of the decade.  So January 1970, or January 1980 both = 1.0 in each series.


So the bad times of Pittsburgh through the 1970s were characterized by increasing employment through most of the decade, hitting new all-time highs repeatedly late in the decade. That was matched by faster growing wage rates and even an expanding workforce across the region. In fact,  wages in Pittsburgh increased even faster in the 1970s than they did in the nation as a whole.  Average per capita income in Pittsburgh started the 1970s trailing the nation slightly, but finished well ahead of the nation. Or finally how about this logic...  none of the four Super Bowls were played at a time when the total employment in Pittsburgh was less than what it was at the beginning of the decade. None.

But maybe the total employment trend masks a drop in the number of manufacturing jobs in Pittsburgh, and the story could still hold. To be fair, it is true that manufacturing employment in Southwestern Pennsylvania declined between 1970 and 1979.  By my count a drop of -0.8% per the following miasmic trend....





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Saturday, June 14, 2014

Chuck Noll's Choice

The late Chuck Noll who passed away yesterday was almost a perfect Pittsburgh icon with a low key, fundamentals-driven, hard working, and of course successful style that was all his own.  But what really generated that success?  You really have to go back to the choice to make Joe Greene (meanjoegreene75.com), from the virtually unheard of school of North Texas State, the Steelers very first draft choice that year. More solid draft choices would define the success the Steelers had under Noll, but to make such an objective choice out of the box on day 1 (draft day was his first day on the job working for the Steelers), and have that choice be so successful, marks a leadership style rare to this day, in or of football.  For one thing, he clearly was not looking toward fan reaction when that Greene was picked.  The man on the street reaction was a disdainful "They had a chance at Hanratty? They didn't take him?"  or better yet at the end of the same article the sheer disdain of this quote "I hope it turns out better than the usual Steeler first round pick."

It did of course. And Terry Hanratty would in fact be drafted by the Steelers in the 2nd round of the draft that very year. Would Joe Greene have still been in the mix?

I wonder what modern sports radio would have said the day after the draft about how the Steelers used their first round draft choice.. one of the highest first round choices they have ever had because of their 1-13 season the year before. The one victory in 1968 came in the very last game when the Steelers won (or lost I suppose) the now infamously nicknamed "OJ Simpson Bowl".

Just think, without that choice, the greatest sports commercial of all time would never have been made? 






Still, and this is only a side note to the news of the man's passing, but I already feel the vibe of folks linking Noll to miasmic steel collapse and what the Steelers meant to all the unemployed Steelworkers as they won their 4 Superbowls.  It is a mythic belief that belies all facts about when Pittsburgh's collapsed actually happened. For more on that see this old post: The Economics of Cliff Stoudt

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Friday, June 13, 2014

Psst. It's Flag Day Tomorrow


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Thursday, June 12, 2014

R immigrants us?

I just have to ask a question.  So many times there are these news items or general punditry about how welcoming Pittsburgh is for immigrants.  Just another round is being set off by the Global Great Lakes Conference being hosted here.  For more on that see: Global Great Lakes Conference Attracts Immigrants to Pittsburgh.

So, is it true?  Is Pittsburgh this uncharacteristically welcoming place for immigrants?

I can't answer that really. But every now and then there is a news article that does not stick to the approved meme.  One of the most honest articles I have read is datelined from just beyond Greater Pittsburgh. In the New York Times some years ago: Altoona, with no immigrant problem, decides to solve it.

Which, to be clear, is  not to be the one to unfairly throw the first stone at Altoona... is the story any different than what you might read here? See this in the PG: (Allegheny) County council considering law on illegal immigration.  Apparently, even today "Illegal immigration is a problem across the county,"

Welcoming? What message does that legislation send, and is it really necessary to have county legislation here unlike most anywhere else in the nation? For Altoona and Allegheny County, you really are talking about two places that are about the most minimally impacted by immigration as any in metropolitan America... by large measure. Yet the lack of immigration in both regions seems to be the very spur extra-ordinary policy efforts to keep the numbers minimal.

Nonetheless, the more feel good stories continue. They likely bear some truth if you are an immigrant who came here with advanced education, much as has been focused on in the ongoing series at the PG, but that is a small small part of the immigrant flow into the United States. I am not even sure it is always true even for the rarefied case of highly skilled immigrants. It's mostly talk that I can't back up in any way, so I won't put any names to this... but there have been examples talked about over the years of corporate relocations away from Pittsburgh spurred by how unwelcoming we can be for foreign born executives. I hope that is not true, but would not be surprised.

If you want a more wonkish, and certainly objective, take on the whole issue of immigration in Pittsburgh, I like having people read this not terribly old white paper by a journalist turned consultant turned professor Gregg Zachary now at the Arizona State University.  See his report which talks a lot about Pittsburgh: Immigrants as urban saviors:When Immigrants Revive a City and When They Don’t - Lessons from the United States.

He also has a longer, and under-appreciated, book that looks at many of the core issues on how immigration and diversity interacts with regional competitiveness, though without the Pittsburgh focus of the report. See The Global Me: New Cosmopolitans and the Competitive Edge: Picking Globalism's Winners and Losers



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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

How partisan is Harrisburg? No need for pundits, now there is data.

Neat bit of data driven journalism and visualization by the Sunlight Foundation looking at partisanship in state legislatures. See more: How partisan are your state's legislators?

For Pennsylvania their graphics for how partisan the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the Pennsylvania Senate are embodied in the two figures below. Neat stuff. But go back to the first link for more explanation of what these mean.



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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Ubernomics and where pie charts fail

With an IPO last week the ridesharing service is reported to now be valued at $18.2 Billion give of take.  I wonder if Warren Buffet is buying any stock? But compare that to the fines the PUC levied against Uber recently in Pittsburgh, a nontrivial sum for some of us of $95,000. In a pie chart the comparison of the two numbers looks like this:



Anyways... lest you think the whole Uber/taxi debate is a Pittsburgh thing, or even if what is happening here is even a footnote elsewhere.... see the headlines today in the UK. BBC: London braced for anti-Uber protests. Also, Bloomberg: Uber Protests Poised to Block Roads From London to Madrid. Or if you prefer on this side of the pond. LaTimes: L.A. taxi drivers to protest Uber, other ride-share apps at City Hall or it you want a little closer to home. BostonGlobe:  Boston Taxi Drivers Hold Rally to Shut Down Uber

So you might think otherwise if reading local coverage of all this, but Pittsburgh may be one of the least contentious cities where Uber is trying to operate.  Ponder that.

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Monday, June 09, 2014

Manufacturing a conundrum

If there is a news thread conflicted these days it is what is up with manufacturing in Western Pennsylvania? Yesterday @brotheroneill took up directly as few others have as yet the contradiction between marketing themes most hear repeatedly via paid (and earned) media and hard news in Patriotism is pipe dream to some steel purchasers.

So what is the connection between manufacturing and shale development? A report just produced by  a local law firm looks at all things Marcellus and one of the main conclusions is that:"we are at the threshold of a manufacturing renaissance."Yet the news last week as all about the announced shut down of the US Steel's Tubular Works in Mckeesport, the very plant that was supposed to benefit the most by shale-induced demand.

The bottom line of late is that, shale related or not, it is not shaping up to be a good year for manufacturing in Pittsburgh. Literally today, the news was only getting worse with over 400 more manufacturing jobs put on the chopping block at the Anchor Hocking plant in Monaca, a far larger hit than what is expected in McKeesport. The lesser attention that closing is likely to get goes with the greater mythos of steel in Pittsburgh. Those losses again being on top of other as mentioned recently, job losses over over 100 each at a local industrial bakery and nuclear storage container maker. Note that those two sites collectively have far more jobs than are being lost at the tubular works in McKeesport. Again, unlikely to make anywhere near as much news.

and as much to make note of the new embed feature KDKA-TV is making available for their video segements as the obvious vanity reference in this...  more on all of the above in this:

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Friday, June 06, 2014

Steel then, steel now

There was a time no news would be bigger than this in Pittsburgh. It is remarkable that the news coverage of the potential closing of US Steel's Tubular works in McKeesport included this quote from the mayor of McKeesport describing the impact:  'Mr. Cherepko said, "it's a minimal hit, it's a minimal loss."'

That short quote encapsulates a generation of economic change in Pittsburgh better than 50 powerpoint slides I often use. For an elected official in the Mon Valley to be saying that.... I really had to read it twice.

The closing is blamed on imports, which apparently are taking market share even for the tubular products needed locally in shale development here.The pipeline infrastructure construction to support the new natgas development is going to be going on for some time into the future, so the issue of where pipes will be sourced is going to be a factor here, large or small.

American steel manufacturers have actually been waging a war against imports since the 1960s.  Today it again seems to be an argument focused on imports from Asia, but it that has not always been the case. More recently, a little more than a decade ago the US imposed tariffs on steel from European Union countries for much the same reason, arguing European steel producers were selling at an unfair discount to US Producers.  Back then there was a curious sidebar. When the EU proposed a set of counterveiling tariffs against the US, one of the targeted industries was 'nuclear power plant parts.'  Why you might wonder. The best guess is that the analysis showing what regions that might benefit from the US tariffs included Pittsburgh, and the list of industries that were mostly concentrated here was indeed the nuclear industry.  What the EU folks might have missed was that the bulk of the commercial nuclear industry here, in the form of Westinghouse, was actually owned by a British firm at the time (British Nuclear Fuels Inc or BNFL). So they were essentially going to counterveil against themselves.  The brewing trade war at the time was eventually averted when President GHW Bush lifted the original American tariffs on steel in 2003. We will see how this all plays out this time around.

Still, the hit on jobs at Tube City is on top of what I pointed out earlier in the week and some moderate and seemingly permanent job losses at some other manufacturing sites in the region. Losses that included 130 jobs making cookies, and an identical 130 jobs making nuclear waste storage containers. Individually those numbers are not the biggest, but given they are all news items from the last couple of weeks, the losses add up.

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Thursday, June 05, 2014

'Pittsburgh Rich' or New York poor?

Two real estate listings that are virtually identical in asking price:

1- Pittsburgh: Conservatively, a home for the magazines.

2- New York City: An exaggeration if described as a pied-à-terre.

Note the former might be sold, from time I started typing this, the listing has been removed.  Dare I mention the current assessed value is less than a third what the asking price is or was. It might be time to start asking (again) if assessed values are out of whack with current markets in Allegheny County.Still times are a changing, and the last sale on that property a decade ago was for a lot less. But maybe... just maybe.. the time of the valid use of "Pittsburgh Rich" describing the impact of housing prices here is coming to an end?

Note the last link there is for some Cleveburgh musings today of Joel Kotkin in Forbes: Shaking Off The Rust: Cleveland Workforce Gets Younger And Smarter.  Also, my best explanation of the whole 'Pittsburgh Rich' concept is encapsulated in some quotes collected by the Toland in the PG (for more see this old post here: The Unbearable Assessment of the Pittsburgh Hipster)


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Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Lest we forget

On the anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Midway in 1942, I feel an obligation to repost this.

At the center of the battle was Homewood native and Peabody High School graduate Arthur Ely who was awarded the Navy Cross posthumously with this citation:
The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Navy Cross (Posthumously) to Lieutenant Arthur Vincent Ely (NSN: 0-75039), United States Navy, for extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy while serving as Pilot of a carrier-based Navy Torpedo Plane and Executive Officer of Torpedo Squadron SIX (VT-6), attached to the U.S.S. ENTERPRISE (CV-6), during the "Air Battle of Midway," against enemy Japanese forces on 4 June 1942. Participating in a vigorous and intensive assault against the Japanese invasion fleet, Lieutenant Ely pressed home his attack with relentless determination in the face of a terrific barrage of anti-aircraft fire. The unprecedented conditions under which his squadron launched its offensive were so exceptional that it is highly improbably the occasion may ever recur where other pilots of the service will be called upon to demonstrate an equal degree of gallantry and fortitude. His extreme disregard of personal safety contributed materially to the success of our forces and his loyal conduct was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.
If you want to read more on the battle and don't have time for Professor Goldstein's authoritative treatment, the crib notes are in the Atlantic: World War II: Battle of Midway and the Aleutian Campaign. But it is hard to intepret what the citation above is really saying without reading the book: The Unknown Battle of Midway: The Destruction of the American Torpedo Squadrons.

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Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Housing Choice vs. School Choice?

I often get caught up wondering how so many stories make it print without referencing each other even, or especially, when the run in the same paper. Here are a couple painful stories from the weekend that beg to be read together at the very least.

First a seemingly minor news story on budget machinations in the Wilkinsburg School District encapsulate the failed state of education for many kids. See: Wilkinsburg budget cuts teachers, expands courses.  In a classic example of burying the lede, the headline seems to focus on some budget ephemera, but then has this remarkable line almost in passing:
The current high school schedule offers no math beyond pre-calculus, no upper level science, English or foreign language courses, no advanced placement or computer courses and just a handful of electives.
So what is the Mendoza line for secondary education in Pennsylvania?  Lower than most would expect for a school in the developed world.

Then there was this story:Section 8 housing vouchers lead to limited neighborhood choices. First off, why was that only a city-centric story?  Does the issue of housing end at the city's edge.. in the East End?  How far is the distance from Homewood, which is mentioned in the story, to Wilkinsburg? Cartographers will understand it is a trick question.

But beyond sheer pontification, what data is relevant? Maybe the trend in the number of kids in Wilkinsburg. Here is the trend for births in Wilkinsburg since 1990. If you skip over a jump in the most recent year, it is a trend that is among the worst in the region and can only foretell greater contraction into the future.



Then I thought that might not be quite fair and the question is how the Wilkinsburg trends compare in some greater context. So here is birth data indexed to 1990 for Wilkinsburg, the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County net of the city of Pittsburgh.




Now that jump in 2012 for births in Wilkinsburg could be part of a pretty big convergence with the trend for the city of Pittsburgh.  Maybe just an anomaly from the longer trend, but what if it isn't? So here we get back to the housing story and difficulty of some to find housing in the city of Pittsburgh.  Are all such folks finding housing options in other city of Pittsburgh neighborhoods? I bet not, which might explain what is going on in Wilkinsburg despite not only a barely functioning school district, but some a place charging some almost unbelievable tax rates. Merely a hypothesis, but do housing options trump school options?  At least in the short run? Or for those without greater options?  And does any of this relate to population trends in the city of Pittsburgh? Someone has to ask.

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