Thursday, May 31, 2007

В Правде нет известий, а в Известиях нет правды

I heard this on the radio yesterday and actually tuned in the evening TV news last night to see if it was really going to be a story. The TV version lead with a statement that went like this: illegal immigration is increasing in the region... stay tuned for the details. What were the details? 6 undocumented immigrants who were detained after a traffic stop on a local highway.

6 immigrants. As in a half of a dozen. Does that show a trend? I guess if you think there were literally zero here last week, 6 would represent a tsunami. Does anyone realize that 'evidence' like that is really the exception that proves the rule. What other region the entire country has so few illegal or undocumented immigrants that this particular incident would make news at all? I'm serious. The very fact that it made even a blip of news here is indirect, but pretty strong evidence that the numbers here are few. That it deserves coverage in print, TV and radio is kind of sad in a way.

And not only that. The Trib has more details. These were subcontractors of subcontractors from Chicago, it sounds like they were hired for a single project, driving a truck with an expired Texas plate and living temporarily in a hotel with no mention of any family members with them... all of which makes this even less of a sign of a migration trend of any kind. but I bet that most viewers only retained the lede which was that this was an increasing, if not exploding, trend here locally.

..... must... not.... mention... border... guard... bob....


an election in the fall?

Most have seen the news that there will be a Republican on the ballot for mayor of the City of Pittsburgh this fall. Some stray thoughts:

Mark Desantis has an inaugural interview in the Post Gazette today. He starts out on a bad note for me just because he starts out on day one by throwing out baseless myths as indisputable facts. Of course he is not the first, and certainly won't be the last, politician to make up some data to make a point. But note his quote that "We're losing jobs." Really? Is he talking about jobs in the city? If so it's just not true. Population in the city is going down for sure, but not jobs. You don't get to mix and match data like that. (to be balanced, tomorrow I will ping on an exhortation of a Democratic politician that is in the news today).

An interesting question is why this was such a stealth campaign, especially near the end? He could easily have submitted petitions for the nomination and start the earned media train that much earlier. I would put good money that part of it was intentional. What it did was blunt any effort to get others to write in LR's name on the ballot. From the news, LR did in fact get 294 write in votes on the Republican side, which means if nobody else was running, he would have been nominated on both tickets. If they knew this was coming early enough, I bet it would have been easy enough to get a few hundred supporters to switch parties just to write in LR, but that didn't happen. It could also have been a sign they were not confident they could pull this off . By never 'officially' announcing a campaign they could say they didn't fail if it didn't work.

Can he win is probably not the right question, he seems a bright enough fellow to know that isn't going to happen. Here is a map of straight Democratic ticket voting in the last general election. If that pattern holds, it means a Republican challenger would have to win 70+% of the remaining vote in the city to win. I think the mayor could be in jail in November and still get enough votes to win. I suspect Desantis will do better than Joe Weinroth did last time around just because he will get a combination of support from those few actual Republicans in town along with any protest vote by those who are upset there was no opposition in the primary. The 2005 returns imply that Joe just got the former.

Do you have to be a glutton for punishment to run for Mayor of the city as a Republican. Not necessarily. This fellow did just earn himself more free publicity than he would ever get on his own. The media feels obliged to give equal time.. so just as Joe Weinroth went from unknown to perpetually itinerant media guest overnight, I suspect the same will happen this time around. That has not always been the case. The series of Republican nominees for mayor over the years has been a curiously diverse group: men and women, lawyers and philosophers, de facto Democrats and hard core Republicans. Can you name the last 6 Republican nominees for Mayor?

Speaking of Republicans running for office. Anyone else note the short blurb on former Freemarkets CEO Glen Meakam's remarks at the African American Chamber of Commerce. From the PG he is reported to have said:
"This blood in our streets is the ultimate evidence that the economic policies of the state of Pennsylvania are just not working"
Think someone is running for governor? but according to the PG he also "framed his questions within the context of the region's continuing loss of population.....". I really just give up. He may not be the first politician to play up the population numbers, but when does this end.


Wednesday, May 30, 2007

bike books and memorial

Of interest to anyone who has ever hiked, biked or otherwise used the C & O Canal (between Cumberland, MD and Washington, DC.) is that Capt. Thomas Hahn, USN(Ret.) passed away last week. He was one of the most prolific writers on the canal. One of the last editions of his work was the: Towpath Guide to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal

Speaking of the C & O Canal. This is not news to most people, but I still find many still do not realize you can bike through from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC almost entirely road-free. The C & O Canal is a big part of that link. If you are planning that trip here are a few more books that you need:

and again being repetitive, but there is an economic aspect to all of this. Even before the trail was completed, Steve Farber here at Pitt completed a Survey and Economic Impact of the Allegheny Trail Alliance...


Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Famous ex-Pittsburghers

Over the weekend the PG's Morning File had a brief synopsis of all the famous people from Pittsburgh. They just scratched the surface of course, but it got me thinking. If I had time I would try to do this myself: should someone compile and maintain a list like that for certain groups: something like Fortune 500 CEO's with ties to Pittsburgh? or how about all the Nobel Prize winners who have come from Pittsburgh, been educated here or worked here? That isn't a short list. Maybe someone has done this?


Saturday, May 26, 2007

Memorial Day

I will just repeat this for Memorial Day: New bricks being staged for installation at Soldiers and Sailors Hall last month.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

immigrants in uniform

I feel obliged to point this out given the debate over immigration reform. People who want to curtail immigration generally skip over something important. How many immigrants serve in the armed forces? overseas? in Iraq or Afghanistan?

Some time ago I heard a pundit on TV say that they only recruit 'legal' immigrants into the military. I kind of doubt that even today. But if you go back in time the distinction we make now between 'legal' and 'illegal' immigrants, or 'documented' and 'undocumented' immigrants did not have the connotation it does today. Below is the actual WWI draft card of my grandfather who at 22 would be drafted as the US entered World War I:

Note under section 4 it asks if you are a (1) natural born citizen (2) naturalized citizen (3) alien (4) state your intention of becoming a citizen. His answer: ALIEN and that he was NOT DECLARED when it even came to his intention to seek citizenship. Nonetheless, he would wind up in the Army, serve in the US Army's 339th infantry regiment which was comprised of men drafted in Michigan and Wisconsin which would form the core of the U.S. military intervention in northern Russia at the end of World War I. The irony is that they sent in Michiganers because someone had the bright idea that they could handle the brutal cold of Archangel in the winter. (something we might call a GOBI today for those who know the military term). So there was my poor grandfather, not long off the boat after arriving from never chilly Crete being sent to the coldest inhabited part of the world because he had the bad fortune of settling in Detroit.

Hey, where is my buddy from Ypsilanti?


Thursday, May 24, 2007

numbers, entrepreneurship and Pittsburgh

If you saw the PG today there is a short article on a Kaufman Foundation report on entrepreneurship statistics they have compiled. Pennsylvania ranks low in entrepreneurship which of course gets people concerned. People spend their careers studying what promotes entrepreneurship here and elsewhere. I did get briefly quoted in the article, but there are two points which I didn't expect would make into the article that are still worth noting:

I have mentioned this before: the classic article looking at the question of why entrepreneurship appears to be lower in Pittsburgh than elsewhere is by Ben Chinitz in this article:Contrasts in Agglomeration: New York and Pittsburgh. American Economic Review. Papers and Proceedings,Vol. 51, 1961, pp. 279-289. Granted its from the 1960's, but the answer he hypothesized was that the unique structure of the Pittsburgh economy, which was remarkably un-diversified, not just by industry but by ownership was the cause. The idea was that a few large corporations had fixed bureaucratic supply networks that were not conducive to new smaller suppliers that were trying to break into the business. Are there lessons for today from that? I bet there are.

But going back to the story in today's paper. You can read the full report online. In the realm of how some numbers are not all that they appear it's worth deconstructing a bit. I did get quoted on the age issue as it relates to these statistics... but something far more interesting. If you look at table 5 in that report you will see how entrepreneurship rates differ by educational attainment. What would you presume that pattern looks like? Higher educated groups have higher entrepreneurship rates? That turns out to be the exact opposite the findings in this report which showed entrepreneurship rates highest by far for those with less than a high school degree. Their numbers show that the percentage of population who are entrepreneurs is 0.36% for those with less than a high school degree compared to 0.30% for those with a bachelor's degree or higher.

What does that mean? I certainly don't have an answer, at least not one worth hypothesizing about here.. but when you consider that the local population is highly educated... especially when you correct for our unique age demographic... what does this report really mean for the region or state. We show up low in entrepreneurship.... because we are highly educated?? Again causality and correlation are not the same. But to the degree this report gets into it, you are left wondering. If you corrected for different patterns of education, how would we rank? At the very least it suggests the question and answer is a little more complicated than the issue of tax policy and business climate that is usually how this debate evolves.


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

more on gas

How short is memory? I tried this question out on someone recently and got some strange answers. How long has it been since gasoline prices locally, or anywhere for that matter, were below $1 a gallon (in nominal terms that is). Never? Decades ago? The answer: December of 2001, which really isn't that long ago. Almost hard to imagine these days.

I actually thought of the question while filling the tank with my FuelPerks points of course. I don't actually buy much gas so I wind up with a sizable discount when I fill the tank. For all the success Fuelperks seems to be at the moment, imagine what it would be if the price of gas was close to $1/gallon. That is not a prediction in any way, but the discount accrues the same no matter. Percentage-wise it's a big difference: at $3/gal. a 50 cents per gallon discount is 17% off, at $1/gal. its a 50% discount. Some people may even perceive that would will be getting gas for free at that price.

Maybe asking about the elasticity of demand for gas is the wrong question. Maybe there is a cross-elasticity out there worth noting. From Governing is this snippet from North Dakota of all places saying that high gas prices are causing people to buy less lottery tickets? Anyone have data on whether that is happening here?What else could start to hit lottery revenue? I mentioned before that casino revenues have to have some impact on lottery revenues... large or small we will have to see. What about bingo revenue? Still a question worth asking.

Since it is Wednesday, the weekly updates on national oil markets are out. In the sea of government data out there, the people at the Department of Energy who put out This Week In Petroleum are by far the only ones with any sense of humor whatsoever. To explain gas prices this week they actually start out with a quote by Shakespeare:

What's in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

I personally would love to put out a report with a quote by Shakespeare. But what you see in one of their weekly charts is simple. People can yell and scream about the big oil companies unfairly ramping up prices, gouging if you will... but in the end you can't really get around the fact that the demand for gasoline is 9.433 million barrels per day.. which I think is the highest for any May week ever. They have also done everyone a service by coming up with the definitive inflation adjusted calculation of gas prices going back in time. So what was the lowest gasoline price (at the pump, and a national average) in the last quarter century? 77.6 cents per gallon in December of 1986. Just think, the Iggle might have to pay some people to use their gas at that price.


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Old Pittsburgh Stocks

I was going to end the political cycle by assessing the performance of the New Pittsburgh Stock Exchange (the answer is so so)... I will get back to that, but for a token post that sticks to the knitting I would mention some real Pittsburgh stocks.

Sam got me discussing last week how some Pittsburgh stocks are doing. This is no secret of course, but the stock of venerable US Steel is up more than 11 fold, or technically 1123% as of a few minutes ago from its nadir in March of 2003. That's a pretty phenomenal rate of return. A fun, but mostly meaningless comparison: Microsoft is up ~12% over that same period. If ownership of US Steel were still concentrated locally, the $10 billion or so increase in market capitialization could be a windfall for a lot of local investors. Unfortunately, ownership of US Steel has long since diversified widely. Today it has a broad ownership including a lot of institutional ownership. So compared to say a big IPO of a relatively new firm which creates a lot of new wealth seeking projects for re-investment, I don't see much in the way of new steel millionaires around town affecting the local investment climate. Some are out there I am sure, but just no elephant in the china shop.

Is US Steel the lone exception that proves the rule? It turns out that the Bloomberg Pittsburgh Index of local stocks is doing rather well over the last year. Do I expect the old Pittsburgh Stock Exchange to be restarted anytime soon? Not really, but given the ever increasing price of oil, imagine if the Pittsburgh Oil Exchange had remained here.


Monday, May 21, 2007

history and the election returns

I should leave this one be, but it's hard not to note all the commentary on the meaning of election results last week, and in particular the taxonomy of everything into whether it was in line with or opposed to AC Democratic Committee endorsement. One theory out there is that the results are a protest against, or at the very least a sign of diminishing power of, ACDC endorsements. The other side is that most endorsed candidates won. I actually think both arguments way overstate what happened last week.

The unstated premise of the both sides is that the endorsements really decided the elections in the past, something which history does not support very well. So a long way back for some I am sure, but back when the Lawrence machine was still the power to be reckoned with, a fellow named Harry Kramer received the unanimous (did I say unanimous) endorsement of the ACDC along with the support of most every other elected officials in town. Yet somehow a maverick named Pete Flaherty would easily win the Democratic Party nomination in 1969 and then again in 1973. For lots of reason we could discuss, bucking the party apparatus must have been a much harder thing to do back then compared to now. Remarkably he would not even get the ACDC endorsement as a popular incumbent 4 years later, yet win nomination and re-election. Think about that for a minute. Irrelevant ancient history? Mayor Caliguiri would not seek the Democratic endorsement in 1977 yet would easily beat Tom Foerester. And then in the first race after Mayor Caliguiri passed away, the ACDC endorsed candidate in one Tom Flaherty came in last.. LAST. (actually I should make sure he was last, but suffice it to say it didn't help him an iota, possibly worked against him...). And the endorsement for Tom Murphy would not pre-empt what were extremely tight races against Bob O'Connor that could easily have gone either way. I bet if one were to dissect city council elections over the last couple decades, more than a few people have been elected without the party endorsement when they first ran for office. Does it mean endorsements are unimportant, certainly not. But to say they themselves decide elections is unsupportable. If you objectively look at trends over the last decade or two in terms of influence of ACDC endorsements, is it up or down? I would go so far as to say the endorsements are more reflective of support from a certain constituency as much as they are determinative in themselves. Thus the ubiquitous folly of assuming causality from correlation.

So where is this idea coming from that everything is driven by party endorsements? A rhetorical question I know, but still. Whether one agrees with the logic or not, I really think voters are a lot more complicated then people are making them out to be. I mentioned before the idea that some voters were apt to vote for the challengers in some cases and the incumbents in others or otherwise vote in different ways that seem to confound people. A certain older female supervoter I know in the city with absolutely no ties to the ACDC has always been a near perfect barometer of political sentiments in town and beyond. I will tell you that for this election the unsolicited comment on this election was that she was proud that all of her (the emphasis is hers) candidates won... who were they: Dowd, Lamb and Ravenstahl, thus a combination of unendorsed, endorsed and unopposed. Just one datapoint I know, but the numbers this cycle show there must be a lot like her who voted similarly.

What does this mean? I dunno. I just think that a lot of this talk about upsetting the 'machine' for what it is worth tends to diminish the accomplishments of all those who won. This cycle it seems each race was so different from each other in circumstance and personality of candidates that it is unreasonable to try and tie them together as many are wont to do.

Just think... in two years minus a week we do this all again. With a Presidential race in between no less.


The Pirates as a value investment

For those who are baseball stat-geeks.. Here is a web site you have to check out. It has a daily update on how the Pirates stack up compared to other teams in relation to their salary. As bad as they are, the Pirates are outperforming their salary ranking. It s a pretty neat graphic, you can use the scroll-bar on top to quickly look at how this works out for any day in the season:


Sunday, May 20, 2007

rethinking price elasticity for gas and Curitiba

I may need to read the USAToday more often. They have a story showing how national driving trends have leveled off for the first time in 26 years. The reasons they surmise: demographics, impact of gas prices and expanding public transit options. Expanding? Not talking about us I guess. I will take a look at the local trends next week, but looking into the future I am not sure how the impending Port Authority cuts can do anything but push our numbers in the opposite direction. Note the quotes in the article from William Millar, now president of the American Public Transportation Association, but past Port Authority Chief Executive.

but for those who remember the cartoon in the PG that said looking toward the Brazilian city of Curitiba would provide a guide to help us through out transit issues here. The New York Times has an article today on the state of Curitiba that has some telling perspectives on the actual state of that city:
Indeed, some say it is going badly these days. The rivers, once crystalline, reek of untreated sewage. The bus system that has won admirers throughout the world appears to be nearing capacity; what’s more, Curitiba, by some measures, has a higher per capita ownership of private cars than any city in Brazil — even exceeding BrasÃlia, a city that was designed for cars.

Now it may be fair to say that the cartoon in the PG was not pointing toward the current state of transit in Curitiba, but maybe some idealized past. But if that factoid about the highest car ownership is true, what is the success of Curitiba and more importantly, how does it translate into what we can do here. I have said it before, the core of the Curitiba bus system is really the busway system that Pittsburgh has pioneered as much as anywhere in the US.


Saturday, May 19, 2007

another condo downtown?

It may not seem like a big deal but the news that the state office building Downtown could be sold has some interesting ramifications. If sold outright to a private developer, the building would represent a noticeable increase in taxable property value for the city and school district. The current nominal assessment of 8 million dollars translates into a quarter million per year in taxes in city, county and school district revenue.

Of course the question is going to come up whether a developer needs some level of incentives or abatement to invest in such a project. Because this is being sold by a government entity the issues are a little different. One way or the other the value of incentives or a tax abatement should be capitalized into the value of the building itself. So the question of whether or not an incentive is needed is almost irrelevant, it just comes down to whether the state or the city takes the loss. Without an incentive, the value of the building goes down (thus hitting the state in its sales price). If there is an incentive, the building should sell for more (helping the state but socking local governments with lost revenues). How will all that work out?

Then there is an interesting question over what will happen to the building and its employees. The views from the upper floors of the state office building are as good as they come Downtown. If it becomes condos they will put pressure on the other high end condos downtown. And remember the haranguing over the glut of office space downtown? Between UPMC taking up a large footprint in the Steel building and this, the condition of the Downtown market could shift significantly. The story says 800 or so workers in the building. At a conservative 200 sq. feet per worker that could comes out to 160K square feet of new demand for office space. That makes it equivalent to the space UPMC just put into Downtown.


Friday, May 18, 2007

Michigan Pittsburgh Freakonomics

Freakonomics, urban development, Richard Florida and more: A good interview with Steve Levitt, the author of Freakonomics, is online at Metromode, which covers things Michigan. Could that all be about Pittsburgh? Note he mentions in passing the topic in Levitt's book that gets the most press, a link he hypothesizes between legalized abortion and crime rates. Matt Kahn points out some more recent research that has another explanation for the long term decline in crime: lead abatement. See the recent NBER paper on the topic if you are interested: Environmental Policy as Social Policy? The Impact of Childhood Lead Exposure on Crime by Jessica Wolpaw Reyes


Philly Transit Study


H1B visa sponsors

InformationWeek has an interesting table out there of the top 200 companies sponsoring H1-B visas in 2006. It used to be that local company iGate, formerly Mastech, would rank near the top in this list.. right up there with some of the huge corporations that consistently sponsor the largest numbers of H1-B visas.. firms like Microsoft, Intel and IBM. This year iGate is on the list, but has slipped to #42 with 378 visas sponsored in 2006... though that does put it ahead of #53 Google with 328 sponsored visas. The University of Pittsburgh is #73 (and the 11th ranked university by my count) with 275 visas sponsored. Anyone see any other local firms on that list? Harrisburg based Rite-Aid is way up there (#63 with 301 visas sponsored).


Not the same issue, but it seems a good point to poke fun at our friends in the media. I read this a while back about a California paper advertising to outsource a journalist position to India. That has to be a joke. Something about reading the transcripts online.


Thursday, May 17, 2007

What about that at large seat on county council

It seems a curiosity, but has anyone really thought about how the nomination of Charles Mccollough to the County Council at large seat could play out in the fall. The details of Mr. McCollough's rather bizarre situation are covered in the PG and the Trib. He tried to remove himself from the ballot after the deadline for such withdrawals. Then despite there being another active candidate on the ballot he still won. I read the news that says he intends to keep the nomination and run in the fall. If he does stay on the ballot, and his negative press ramps up going into the fall, is it really assured that he will win one of the two at-large seats on county council? According to the Trib today the guy who lost, Kevin Acklin, is undecided about running a write in campaign. One question is whether that is even permissible for these at-large seats.

Despite popular belief to the contrary, the at-large seats on County Council are not designated for one Democrat and one Republican. If you read the county's home rule charter it says:

§ 1.3-305. d - Any political party or body shall be entitled to nominate one candidate for the office of at-large County Council Member. In the municipal election, each voter may vote for no more than one candidate for the office of at-large Council Member and the two candidates receiving the highest number of votes shall be elected as the at-large County Council Members.
So would a write-in candidate have to declare himself a political body and then nominate him(or her)self to run for this seat? Now I am not sure if anyone really knows what any political body is.. as in something different from a political party... but theoretically it means that someone who is not a Democrat or Republican could fill one of the seats. A party can only nominate one candidate so both at-large seats can't be of the same party, but there is no reason the two parties represented are limited to the two major parties. That's just the way it would normally work.

If Mr Mccollough's support is seen to erode or split among Republicans, does it open up the possibility of a third party candidate getting the 2nd most votes? Hard, but not inconceivable. I could even see some incentives for the Democratics to encourage some voters to vote for the hypothetical third party candidate. The only risk to that is so many switch that the Democratic party candidate comes in third, but that seems a remote possibility. Game theory at its finest...


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

post election ramblings

I will leave to the news and others to explain the election returns. What is interesting is that if you were to read all of the pre-election gnashing, especially in the greater blogosphere, you would have thought the fix was in for all of the endorsed candidates... yet you could go through the list of endorsed candidates who were defeated and it isn't short.

but more interesting is that the returns were quite varied. It's not like there was some mass revolt to the party's endorsed candidates. There is no evidence that the people who were voting for Kraus, Dowd, Arnet, Frazier and others were withholding their votes for LR or DO or Lamb or Burgess... at least not that many.

So in some cases the same exact voters were deciding to vote for and endorsed candidate who was unopposed, in others they were choosing the endorsed candidate who had lots of opposition , in others they were choosing the unendorsed candidate against a single endorsed opponent and in others they were choosing the unendorsed candidate in a wide field. Maybe voters deserve a little more credit than they get for being discerning. It seems to me that the blogosphere sometimes ranks up there with political talk show hosts in saying that the people who don't think like they do are just not thinking. Clearly the voters yesterday were deliberative if nothing else. Is it fair to go so far to say that most races were decided by just these type of 'ticket splitters'?


Or maybe I should temper that by saying it applies to just those who showed up. Turnout deserves a mention. So some numbers for Allegheny County in 2007

Population: ~1,226K
Voting Age: ~973K
Registered Voters: 894K *
Votes Cast: 219K
Turnout: 24.6%
Participation: 22.5%

for the city:

Population: ~310K
Voting Age population: ~252K
Registered voters: 228K*
Votes cast: 46,513
Turnout: 20.4%
Participation: 18.4%

nuff said.

* but I will save for a future post the screwyness of the "registered voters" data.. Think hearse.


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

election day ramblings

Did you vote yet? Polls close at 8pm.

Last chance for you to try out some of the political races I put into the New Pittsburgh Stock Exchange. Think of it as an online exit poll maybe. Check it out.

on the apparent Republican candidate for mayor. Not quite sure what to make of this ad hoc run for Mayor by Mark Desantis. Kind of funny to think that the only thing contested about the mayor's race is whether the Democratic mayor gets more write-in votes on the Republican side than a stealth candidate who seemed to disavow running last week. Either would need 250 votes to actually get the 'nomination'.. may not seem like a lot but consider that Joe Weinroth received a sum total of 4,079 votes in the Republican primary last time around and he had been actively campaigning for months with a lot of 'earned' media along the way. You have to believe there will be (a lot?) fewer Republican votes cast this time around. In fact, what motivation is there for a city republican to come out and vote at all in this election? In the end you may need to get 9-10% of the R voters city-wide to actually fill in a write-in name. That isn't a trivial exercise. Some say it's easier with the new machines, but I am not convinced. How accurate do you have to be spelling a name? Didn't candidates give out pre-printed stickers you could actually paste in the box with the old mechanical machines for cases like this? It goes with the age statistics, but I dont see your average Pittsburgh voter being too keen on typing on a touch screen. Update: it would be silly of me to criticize anyone else's spelling... but this is the problem with the write-in campaign. KDKA's story today online is telling people it is Mark Desantos running, not Desantis.. Would a judge consider that the same person? It also says something about how well he is known. I predict they will correct the error, but it has been a couple hours.

Speaking of Republicans at the polls. Does each voting district really have a minority clerk? Does that mean Republican? 400+ voting districts in the city. That would mean a sizable percentage of republicans votes cast are actually just the poll workers themselves? that is a question, I really don't know.

on Act 1: Man oh man. How bad is the public knowledge of this "Act 1" referendum that is going on today. Last night on OnQ, no less than Jim Roddey, Joe Mistick and Chris Moore agreed with a misinformed caller and gave out completely false information that Independents can't vote on the referendum today. The primary election is closed, which means only those registered in one of the major parties can vote for candidates... but independents can indeed vote for the referendum. But if those three got it wrong, imagine what the average voter knows about this referendum. Wow.

and if you are part of that last minute push to Get Out the Vote... here is a suggestion: Turn off those automated phone calls. In fact there is some research to support the idea that the phone calls don't work at all, possibly even work against the candidates. See:

Does canvassing increase voter turnout? A field experiment. by Alan S. Gerber and Donald P. Green

There is even some collaborating research says the same thing here: Phone-Based GOTV—What’s on the Line? Field Experiments with Varied Partisan Components, 2002-2003 by John E. Mcnulty. State University of New York at Binghamton
I am not so surprised by that finding, although there is some debate over its validity. I bet most start to tune out the calls when they really start to come in all the time. I actually think the calls actually just get some people angry in the end.


Monday, May 14, 2007

Is 'young voter' an oxymoron?

I know some people hate hearing this, but it is worth understanding why tomorrow is going to be elderocracy at its ultimate. Hey, at least I am consistent. It is no secret that voting in Pittsburgh is dominated by older voters. Is it just some reflection of youth apathy? Maybe a little, but not really. It really is the perfect storm here to produce what is probably the oldest voting demographic in the nation.

Some cold facts. Here is something I had years ago which breaks out the age demographics of actual voters in the spring 2003 primary for Allegheny County.

Look at that some. Basically for every voter under age 30 (not under 20.. under Thirty) there are 8 voters age 60 and over. There were actually two voters over 80 for everyone under 30 who cast a ballot. That really is an amazing ratio. And this is for the county as a whole. There are parts of the county much older than the average. Can you imagine what this pie chart looks like there?

But why? First off is the obvious that the region and county in particular is older than average by large measure. We typically talk about the percentage of population age 65 being 17-18% here compared to 12% or so across the country. But compared to younger areas it is a bigger difference. If you look just within the voting age population it is an even larger discrepancy between our demographics and elsewhere.

So what? Well, for lots of obvious reasons younger voters don't make it to the polls as much as older voters, especially for primaries or special elections compared to general elections. An approximation of voter participation (votes cast divided by voting age population) came out for that race. The vertical axis is a percentage:

So we have far more elderly to begin with.. and then on top of that the ones we do have vote about 7 times more often than younger voters. But the thing is, even that is not the full answer. One of the things driving this is that our local population is far more likely to have been here a long time than most other regions. There is a factoid people like to come up with every now and then that ranks regions or cities by the percentage of people who have lived in their current household for 30 or more years.. Pittsburgh always comes out on top of that ranking. Why does that matter? If you have been living in the same location for decades you are that much more likely to have registered to vote at some point. That statistic is almost by definition being driven by older voters. It is also why I am pretty sure our voter demographics are older than some of the places in Florida that are similarly old' as we are. When your elderly population is made up of snowbirds or recent movers I bet the proportion who have actually registered to vote in Florida is much lower than the percentage of elderly here who are registered and make it out to vote.

So consider you are looking for voters.. especially now that it's after the date you can register. Pull an average younger person from the population and that person is far more likely to have moved within the recent past. So even if its a politically active voter, they will also have to have re-registered in their current place of residence to vote. Many of course go to their previous residence to vote but the prevalence of that has to be a lot smaller than for others. Add all that up.. and if you come up with a calculated 'value' per voter of finding and convincing them to vote for you.. the ratio for those over 60 vs those under 30 approaches an order of magnitude. Not many elections outside of Pittsburgh can say anything like that extreme. Thus supervoters have even older age demographics than the averages above show.

What does it all mean? Maybe not as much as it seems. I am not so convinced that older voters are unwilling to vote for younger candidates... but it does mean that you can't just focus on young persons' issues. Ignore them at your peril. I think the bigger issue is that our demographics are what the nation will look like in coming decades. Extrapolating from our voting patterns will give a peak what national voting patterns are going to look like. Worth some thought.


Sunday, May 13, 2007

Ultimate Reading List on Cities

The Economist has what may be the ultimate reading list on cities.

I can't really add much to that list of books... but some multi-media I have mentioned before includes the archived documentary: The City (part 1) by the American Institute of Planners, 1939, available as an MPEG stream via the Prelinger Archives. and Part 2.

Actually, I will add one to that list. Worth a read is


Saturday, May 12, 2007

voters voters voters

If you are a political operative, voter turnout is now your focus given that the election is hours away. Beyond that I don't think voter turnout (votes cast divided by registered voters) is a very meaningful metric for really understanding political dynamics in town. Voter participation (votes cast divided by voting age population) I think is a much more meaninful metric. Nonetheless, for the election cycle here are some maps I put up last june on the combined voter turnout in the 2006 primary:

PDF versions are available here: County, City

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Homewood bound

For the record, I don't have any idea how to address the serious street level crime that has been in the news. The problem is I wonder if anyone else has any idea what to do. I really don't see a lot more resources being thrown at the problem anytime soon in the current political environment. So in the realm of ideas to try when you don't have anything else to fall back on here is my thought: Is there any reason the city can't move the police chief's office to Homewood. No, I don't think Homewood is the only problem, but it would be a starting point because of recent news. There has to be enough communications technology that the Chief's office could operate effectively from a new location in short order.

Actually, why do half measures? Is there any reason the mayor's office couldn't move whole to Homewood. Phones, computers, networks are ever more mobile these days. Need to meet the mayor or his staff? Instead of meandering across the 5th floor or heading Downtown, make the trip to Homewood. It's not inconceivable. I bet there is a vacant storefront or office space that would work. Cheaper parking even.

Yeah, I know.... Some may need a map.


Thursday, May 10, 2007

new census data - transit usage by state house district again

Some may remember when I estimated numbers for the prevalence of workers using public transit by state house district. Subsequent to that, the census has actually come out with their own data of the same. My data was an estimation. For the wonkish out there I indexed census block groups to state house geographies and it worked pretty well. But the census gets to use their raw data so they now have better, and definitive data out there. Given the transit rallies in the news I figure there is some interest in the new data. I have put online the entire transit usage table for all PA state house districts: click here.

PS. which says much that I wrote before. But there is now a definitive count for the lowest public transit usage in the state. District 84 in Lycoming county which somehow comes in at 0.04% public transit usage. I suspect that is some error. Could be a single census response where somebody filled out the form incorrectly. Might as well be zero public transit usage. Amazingly Representative Garth D. Everett who represents the district is on the urban affairs committee.

and with a few city council district races out there this might be of interest. I admit is clunky, but it does generally work. This web link below brings up a page that if you go to "information" and in the pull down boxes select "city council districts" and "census 2000 SF1" you will get options to pull data compiled by city council district.

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if an election happens in the woods and nobody is around....

Despite popular belief to the contrary, there really is an election next week. I may have forgotten, but the door knockers have come out in force. I actually had a door knocker left for me for a candidate I can't vote for. Someone wasn't looking at their maps or just got confused. I figure the army platoon of volunteers out there must be a little frazzled at this point... but this particular door knocker was off by more than a couple blocks from their targeted district unless it was intentional. alas.

I had some longer musings on primaries in Pennsylvania a couple months ago. More recently, the Governing blog has an interesting post mentioning Kentucky politics where people debate whether candidates are RINO (Republican in Name only). I take that you generally need to be a Republican to be elected down there which leads to such intra-party type of squabbling. Not exactly an issue here at least for Republicans. Last week the AP ran this years version of the annual story on the lack of Republican Registration here. Do Democrats really outnumber Republicans 5-1 in the city? The answer is yes, but I wonder if that really reflects political philosophy. Thus the question.. how big is the DINO population locally.

So lacking much else to work on this election cycle, here is a contrived map. I matched the % voting for Bush over Kerry to the % of Registered Republicans by voting district in the city. If you don't look at either of their numbers individually, but instead you look at the difference between them you get this:

Difference between % Bush (2004) and % Registered Republican
Yes, I know.. a county map might be more interesting. Some other day maybe. but again, this is neither a map of the % voting for GB nor a map of % registered as Republicans. The darker the color just means there was a bigger discrepancy in the % voting for Bush than the % registered as Republican would lead you to expect. Some of the lighter colors can either be because it is a heavily Democratic district that actually voted Democratic or a Republican district that has expected election returns. I have in the past made up maps of the % registered Democrats and the % registered Republicans in the county.


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Trivia question for the week: who is this?

I certainly don't look like this fellow, but feel like him a little bit on some days. Can anyone identify who this is? Somebody has to get this before Mike M. figures it out. There is one (very minimal) clue embedded in the picture.


Tuesday, May 08, 2007

book of the (undetermined time period) club

Here is the first book in the unofficial Briem Book Club. Given the growing debate over the impact of a new arena on the Hill District, I do think everyone ought to read Root Shock, by Dr. Mindy Fullilove. My review of the book was actually printed in the PG. The review itself was really overshadowed by some emotional photos from its own archives which the PG ran with the text. Unfortunately those photos are not online.

Full disclosure: I believe I get some token compensation if you use the link below , but if you care to support your local blogger, here is a quick way to purchase the book:

PS. I am not sure the use of the Amazon associates program is a good idea. I will try this as a test for the moment. I really can't imagine I will wind up with more than a few cent's out of the deal (or about one googolth the value of Oprah's Book Club) so it ought not to endanger any objectivity here. I'm tempted to offer lunch to the first person who earns me a commission as it were, but that is too much of a loss leader even for the cheapest lunch.

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Johnny U

I feel remiss for not catching that yesterday was the anniversary of Johnny Unitas' birthday in 1933. Unitas would play for the Semi-Pro Bloomfield Rams.... a team whose moniker would be passed on to this bloggers own Immaculate Conception Rams and who also played on Deans field under the Bloomfield Bridge. I doubt Unitas played on the rock hard astroturf that would be put down after it had seen its better playing days used up at Three Rivers Stadium. How small is Pittsburgh? Unitas' coach on the Rams was "the bear" Rogers who would run the Immaculate Conception Athletic Association for years and passed away just a month ago. All of the team's equipment was stored in the Bear's house just down the street from where I live now. It was always an event to go get your equipment for the season by rummaging through his garage. Rummaging being a euphemism for 50 or so pre-teen boys 'negotiating' for the limited number of new helmets each year.

But still it is amazing there was no local notice at all of Johnny U's birthday. I wonder... is Johnny Unitas the best football player to ever come out of Pittsburgh?

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Monday, May 07, 2007

tax abatements again

The debate over the proposed tax abatements in certain city neighborhoods is progressing. I actually watched some of City Council's deliberations last week on the topic. I am on record advocating that it makes sense to make the abatement universal across the city, and not limit it to specific neighborhoods or just Downtown as has been proposed. There just isn't much private residential investment coming online other than that which is already exempt, abated or tif'd in some way already. My argument was based on the economics alone, but the PG article today highlights a more significant reason: why pit neighbor against neighborhood when the cost of expanding the program is so low.

I will presume some think there is a significant cost to expand the program across the city. A legitimate issue for tax abatement proposals, large or small, is calculating the opportunity cost of the program. i.e. how much tax revenue is foregone by abating the incremental tax on new investment. For the 21 neighborhood tax abatement program being debated now, the city itself put out an estimate of how much tax revenue would be lost: $10,000. I think they meant per neighborhood, but it's still an amazingly small number. No zero missing there... ten thousand dollars. That is a truly phenomenal admission by the city into the record. For all practical purposes a round number like that just means the opportunity cost is a guess and most likely zero.... at the very least so low as to be incalculable. If I wrote down the slide they presented correctly the explanation given by the city itself for the low number was verbatim: "Minimal development now so impact on foregone revenue is minimal". I suspect that assessment is correct.

I was going to back of the envelope the potential cost to abate all new construction activity across the city, but it deserves a little more effort than I have time for. Suffice it to say I am sure its a relatively small number. How much private residential activity is happening in the city of late? Calculate the millage rate of property tax of that incremental investment and you get a number. The goal is to retain just a few income paying residents within the city. I wonder how many retained income-tax-paying residents it would take to make up for the potentially abated property tax revenue. Pure pure guess, but if you worked it out I bet it comes out to just a few hundred people per year.


Sunday, May 06, 2007

neverending story

people have been asking me if I have any comment on Bill Steigerwald's column in Reason Magazine online again musing casuistically on the population decline story in Pittsburgh.

I really am not going to repeat myself yet again. I'm as tired of writing it as most must be of reading it. but Bill's piece raises an entirely different Pittsburghism: confusing the city with the county and the region. The only news that came out recently was population data for the Pittsburgh region.. in particular the 7 county Pittsburgh MSA. The Places-Rated story was also a ranking based mostly on regional data, although I do admit the occasional verbiage of saying we are the most livable city would confuse the issue.. What I notice a lot of people doing, and Bill does explicitly is take the foil of the population news blurb pertaining to the region and jump right into talking about the City of Pittsburgh. It's a huge and tenuous leap.

I can't say he is close to being alone. It's hard to explain how most people who read the news about the region's population loss would talk to me as if it was a story of the city's population loss. Don't get me wrong, I am sure the city's population is declining and we should all hold our hats because the city population data will actually be released by the census next month. This whole news cycle is bound to repeat itself, hopefully with a little less hyperbole, but I wouldn't hold my breath.

There are some common threads for sure, but the city is a small part of the county which itself is at most half of the region, depending on the definition of the region. There are some very different things going on for each and to just skip between talking about one level of geography and facts pertaining to the other is confounding at best.

and for those who really want to talk about population loss within the city proper over the last 50 years, I am always curious that they just skip over the corollary that jobs in the city of Pittsburgh have remarkably remained the same, or even gone up some, at the same time. Not many cities similar to Pittsburgh can say that. Maybe that deserves repeating: there are at least as many, possibly more, jobs located within the city of Pittsburgh today than there were 50 years ago. Any fair discussion of trends in the city has to include that along with the population data...... Unless you are trying to spin a particular point that is. Remember that when the population numbers for the city come out next month.


Friday, May 04, 2007

transit visions

Governing has a note about a story in the LATimes about a fellow who makes up alternative transit maps such as this. I thought it would be a fun thing to do here, but there really is no need to reinvent the wheel. We have re-visioned public transit here so many times over the last century. Here is just one vision of the future from the Allegheny County Rapid Transit Plan of 1965:

Which got me thinking... I have not been to the History Center in a little bit. I know they have a trolley in there, but have they ever put together an analogous retrospective like this. Lots of transit history in town. I would even volunteer to be the guest curator for something like that. :-)


Thursday, May 03, 2007

More on the unemployment rate

Ok.. I am not ignoring all the caveats that are important when looking at unemployment rates (sample size issues, labor force vs. unemployment, etc.. etc).. but still it is worth talking more about the trend in Pittsburgh's unemployment rate of late. Only because we can all rest assured that if this trends had been the opposite (i.e. rising vs. falling so much so fast) it would have been a number one story for a week. Everyone would have been talking about how the roof was falling in.

Here is a new factoid: Pittsburgh is tied for first for the largest DROP in unemployment rates over the last year among large metro areas. I am not sure there is a similar month we could have ever said that in the past and I am too lazy to go figure it out myself. But again, if the situation were reversed, anyone want to bet it would have been a top of news/above the fold type of story, not buried on an inside biz page at best or in the case of this relative ranking, not mentioned at all locally. If the data supported it, I bet someone would have resurrected the font size used to announce Pearl Harbor for a headline of "Largest Unemployment Rate Increase in the Nation"


I thought that a more positive blog-comment than ranting about Mike Seate's column in the Trib today where he also makes this unsupported leap about how population loss is all about young people leaving. It just isn't true. No need to repeat myself, my venting on this is here and here.The funny thing is that in the end, bad premises and quarter-baked logic aside, I agree with his conclusion that that migration is really a job story in the end.

There is also a false conclusion between the lines of Mike's column. He implies that everyone is "hoofing it out" as he puts it because of low wages. People can't seem to even contemplate that they might just have the causality backwards. Thus the great conundrum of the Pittsburgh labor market. We produce so many highly educated graduates, and so many of them stick around that local wages are not pressured to shoot up. I have pointed out before that if you look at the younger working age population, the proportion of Pittsburghers with higher education ranks near the top. So it just isn't true that they are all fleeing. Maybe local employers, having the luxury of so many highly educated workers (and so many who are staying by the way) being pumped into the local labor market, don't need to offer the same salaries as other areas which need to attract workers from across the country. We are in many ways a victim of our own success, yet persistently see it as a failure.

Actually, not to overly pick on Mike, but it is worth noting that the foil for his column is a friend who left Pittsburgh with a career as a TV producer. Think about that. Is it surprising that people in fairly specialized occupations wind up gravitating toward the regions which have concentrations of specific industries? So TV producers to Atlanta (which as Mike points out has CNN and the Weather Channel among others in addition to a large local market media). A lot of actors, directors and producers go to California and New York I bet as well. This is how the American labor market works. The media biz might be a case in point even. Anyone wonder why there is no dedicated journalism school per se in town. If Pittsburgh had ever been a hotbed of media employment I am quite sure Pitt would have created a J-School long ago and the fact that it never has is indicative of the lack of an inordinant media presence here going back a long time. So more power to his friend who chose a career he wanted and found a job he wanted in a region where they do a lot of it. But to infer that it reflects badly on Pittsburgh is a stretch.



Westinghouse CEO lunch/lecture

Speaking of Energy.... you can hear the CEO of Westinghouse Electric speak on the future of Nuclear Power next week.

Thursday May 10, 2007 --
Nuclear Power Renaissance
Steve Tritch, President and CEO, Westinghouse Electric Company

11:45 a.m. Luncheon
12:30 p.m. Presentation
1:15 p.m. Adjournment
The Omni William Penn
530 William Penn Place,
Downtown Pittsburgh

For more info and reservations: click here

Sponsored by the Economic Club of Pittsburgh


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

gas prices

Nothing Pittsburgh specific about this.... but I caught a bit of a local news story on TV about rising gas prices. It had all the normal quotes from everyone, the guy on the street to the governor even. All were perplexed, concerned or mad that the oil companies were raising oil prices. I think someone said "why are they doing this to us?".

You don't need to go far to really get at the recent rise in gasoline prices. One of the scarier graphs is in this week's version of the Department of Energy's This week in Petroleum online report. The graph below on US gasoline inventories pretty much says it all. The shaded band is the typical level of gasoline inventory in the US at different points in the year and the line represents the actual trend over the last year. In just over two months, the US gasoline inventory has gone from well above average to well below. That and the fact that gasoline inventories are still declining in a period when they typlically are increasing is causing the markets to react as they are.


Tuesday, May 01, 2007

a persistent aberration?

So last month I noted how the media completely wrote off the February unemployment statistic that came out, saying that a big drop in the local unemployment rate was a statistical aberration. I concurred to a degree that it was most likely a one-off number that would correct itself the following month.... but I felt the extremes the media went to write off what isn't bad news endemic to the Pittsburgh psychology more than anything else.

I was wrong. The March numbers are out and not only did the local unemployment rate not correct itself by going up, it went down further, from 3.9% in February to 3.7% in March. A number which puts us even further below the US average of 4.4%. The last time it was lower was 3.1% in February 1970. There was one brief month in June 1991 when the local and US unemployment rates were 6.1% and 6.9% respectively and thus an equal 0.8% difference. Just another factoid of note. The seasonally adjusted unemployment count of 43,000 is also the lowest since February of 1970. What was the peak unemployment count in the 7 county region: 201 thousand in January of 1983.

So we will wait another month to see if this aberration corrects itself. Here is what the graph looks like of the time series of the difference in unemployment rates locally vs. those in the US:

maybe one last question to ponder. They have not even started construction of the casino unless I am mistaken. I bet Don Barden would have had that project geared up if not for legal and administrative roadblocks. What would the numbers look like if that had come online already. It's a big enough project that he wants to get done quickly that it could in itself be noticed in the numbers.


more transit musings

Anything to not talk about migration.... Thanks to the Transportationist for noticing this blurb in The Economist about how the semi-privatization of the London Underground has not resulted in any miraculous cost savings. Note the numbers in that article.. the cost overruns for the modernization of the Tube are 750 million pounds sterling... that's just the overrun, equivalent to about $1.5 billion. Thet are spending around $34 billion just to refurbish the system. The lesson for us: public transit is expensive everywhere, there is no silver bullet to cut costs. It puts in perspective the amounts we debate here compared to what others are willing to invest in public transit.

As with everything else in the world, there is a Pittsburgh connection. The London Underground is run by Pittsburgh native Tim O'Toole who was brought in from the private sector,... something pretty rare among the leaders of all the major transit systems in the world.

As for our own version of the Tube, an analogy it's hard to make with a straight face: From the the KDKA archives here are some news blurbs on the construction and opening of the T. Makes me wonder, if one were to build the London Underground from scratch today, what would it cost?