Thursday, January 31, 2008

housing prices+

Lots of neat and unique stuff linking workforce/occupation data to regional housing price affordability from the Center for Housing Policy's Paycheck to Paycheck Interactive Database. Some Pittsburgh factoids: Pittsburgh does not come in cheap in the comparative rental prices across regions, you can check that out yourself. And no surprise, but the median home price in San Francisco as late as 3rd Quarter of 2007 = $770K..... and remember that is the median, so half come in more than that. It's more than 6 times Pittsburgh's $123K. (put another way, it's 40+ times the median price in Clairton we had data on last week). And even though the median home price is up just a bit (from $122K in 2006) the income they calculate you need to buy the median priced house here went down by 4% to $40,181. I presume because interest rates came down a bit but am not sure sure of that. Go tell someone in San Fran they can by an actual house with an income of $40K out there.


Wednesday, January 30, 2008

another primary down....

Writes Like She Talks has a pointer to what my be the most useful political blogs out there for in-depth analysis: PolySigh with a myriad of political science professor/blogger authors.

And just because it's in the news that Ron Francis withdrew last week from his announced bid for PA's 4th congressional district, setting up a rematch of between incumbent congressman Jason Altmire and former congresswoman Melissa Hart... here is the map I put up before of how the original race went:

We'll come back to this in the fall. But again, I think all these congressional races are soon to be impacted by reapportionment that will happen following the 2010 Census. Could be some pretty big changes in the shapes of these districts even if Pennsylvania loses just one congressional seat which is the conventional wisdom. Thus one of the reasons the current and next cycles of state legislative races are so important is because who controls Harrisburg in just a few years will determine how that redistricting goes.

Related trivia on that: if Pennsylvania goes from 19 to 18 congressional seats it will put the Pennsylvania delegation at exactly half of the largest delegation it ever sent which was made up of 36 congressional districts during the 1910's.

Not a new book, but for a lot of history on one of those moved/consolidated congressional districts locally is in:


Tuesday, January 29, 2008

video collection

Just fyi: I have made a list of my favorite videos on YouTube.


Monday, January 28, 2008

Bullish on the Rust Belt

Recession-mongering elsewhere or not... the Brits Canadians sure are bullish on our prospects for the future. From the BBC you can read about: The coming rust-belt recovery: Manufacturing will play a surprise lead role in the turnaround of the resilient U.S. economy.

What they said.


Pure Distilled Wonkery

Fun with numbers: from is this post on Six Influential Datasets that changed the way we think.

Speaking of data... you've heard of podcamp I bet... What do you think barcamp is? Not what you think I bet. See what the BBC describes in the lastest posting from it's Free Our Data column: 'No one in government IT will have done this before'.


Sunday, January 27, 2008

Not missing a zero - Mon Valley real estate prices

In recent years I have heard ever more often from friends and colleagues about out-of-town investors coming into the region to buy real estate here because it is perceived as such a bargain. In some extreme cases I am told this happens with properties being bought sight unseen. Perception of value is often based on one's own experiences and the truth is that some of the local real estate prices must seem unbelievable to those trapped in regions that have seen tremendous appreciation over the last decade or two. No matter how inexpensive, the point is to buy an asset that will increase in value and you have to wonder if some people from out of town know what they are getting themselves into. The print version of the Sunday PG has their regular real estate roundup (using RealStats data) focusing on some Mon Valley communities. For Clairton in 2007 (through September) the median sales price for homes came in at $18,000. For out of town readers, there is no zero missing in that. It's not a small universe problem either, that median was generated from a respectable 151 sales. Remember median means that half of those sales (75 of them) came in below $18K. That means you can buy a home there for cents on the dollar compared to what just a parking place costs in New York City. If the median sales price were to go to an equally unbelievable $36K, someone could claim to have made 100% on their investment, even if completely unleveraged.. yet that $18K median value according to the realstats data in the PG is actually down from a median of $19K the year before.


Saturday, January 26, 2008

You think you understand this blog thing

Every blogger reads to need this article in Wired: The Life Cycle of a Blog Post, From Servers to Spiders to Suits — to You .


South Carolina prognostications

If you are lost as I am in the survey chaff heading into the South Carolina primary today... Political Arithmetik breaks down the South Carolina Endgame.


Friday, January 25, 2008

unionization declining increasing?

Here is something that you would think would make more news than it did. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today that union membership in the US increased in 2007 for the first time in 28 years. Funny how the BLS PR does not really mention the historical significance. Odder that this has not made more news. One of the collateral impacts of the decline in unionization over the decades has been the gradual withering of the labor beat in major newspapers. Hard to find the dedicated labor journalist like there always were.


Happy Anniversary City Wage Tax

Mentioned last year, maybe we will make this an annual event: today is the anniversary of city council approving the wage tax in the city of Pittsburgh.


Thursday, January 24, 2008

remembering AHERF

Speaking of financial miasmas. This article was literally just published and talks about the calamity otherwise known as Pittsburgh's own Allegheny Health Education and Research Foundation. See:

Can a violation of investor trust lead to financial contagion in the market for tax-exempt hospital bonds? by Patrick M. Bernet and Thomas E. Getzen. International Journal of Health Care Finance and Economics. Friday, November 23, 2007.

I can't put it up in its entirety but here is the abstract:

"Not-for-profit hospitals rely heavily on tax-exempt debt. Investor confidence in such instruments was shaken by the 1998 bankruptcy of the Allegheny Health and Education Research Foundation (AHERF), which was the largest U.S. not-for-profit failure up to that date and whose default was accompanied by claims of accounting irregularities. Such shocks can result in contagion whereby all hospitals are viewed as riskier. We test for the significance and duration of resulting contagion using an industry-specific model of interest cost determinants. Empirical tests indicate that contagion does occur, resulting in higher interest on new debt issues from other hospitals. "

I was thinking of offering a prize if anyone out there could prove they found and read this article... anyone other than Fester that is, he has probably read it already.


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

postscript on the mayoral election

One of the biggest stories in the presidential primaries thus far is the big spike in turnout in several states. Which brings up one last thought on the mayoral election.

The fall election was just 2 months ago. Think back to the coverage of the mayoral campaign here in the city of Pittsburgh. Descriptions in the media like "most interest being generated in decades" were commonplace. Those statements beg the question of whether that sparked any atypical interest on the part of voters.

Soooo. Here is what I get if you break down the actual voters who showed up at the polls in the city in November (around 70K in total) broken down by how long it had been since their original voter registration. Note that their original registration may not be their first time they voted. People who move into the county from elsewhere need to register with the county to vote here... and not all new registrants are 'young people' either... plenty of people only register for the first time later on.

But when you break it out you get this pie chart:

Voters in Fall 2007 City of Pittsburgh General Election -
By Years Since Original Registration in Allegheny County

So people who registered heading into the election and who showed up to vote can't possibly have exceeded 1% of everyone who voted. That includes everyone who had registered over the previous 12 full months, so some may have been more interested in the primary election. You have to figure some (most?) of that 1% was just natural steady state new voter registration flow, not people motivated by the fall election in any particular way.

Note that there were many more people who registered to vote over the previous year, things like motor voter and other registration processes ensure that, but those who recently registered and actually voted gets you nothing more than that 1%. I tried to find some pattern in the new registrants who made up that 1%, but nothing stood out. They are pretty diffuse by age, by area of the city, and spread out across the year in terms of when they registered.

So did either of the mayoral campaigns include any new registration efforts at all? I doubt it because if they did they failed pretty completely. Even without explicit efforts to seek out new voters you would think the media attention itself would have spurred greater interest than that.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

boom goes the bond insurance market

Well... boom go all the markets this morning it seems. Looks like Bernanke has started the counterflooding. I have said in the past that the pension funds for the City of Pittsburgh will not really survive a bad year in the markets... but I usually meant that hypothetically. If you read this PG article from the fall," the city's portfolio is too heavy on stocks." Too heavy on stocks? Not pretty in the equity markets these days. Of course the alternative suggested was that the city ' "should triple its stake in "alternative investments" like real estate, venture capital funds and private companies.'. Real Estate? Frying pan go talk to the fire?

But I really started to point out that Fester again gets to the heart of the matter on how the implosion in the municipal bond insurance market connects directly to local city finance issues. Last week the bond rating agencies started to downgrade the municipal bond rating agencies. The first to tip was Ambac which was downgraded from AAA to AA on Friday and remains on a negative watch portending possible future downgrades. From what I read, nobody expects this to be the end of it. The whole bond insurance imbroglio remains pretty much the most important story to the economy that you just don't read about.

Why do we care? Ambac is one of just a handful of bond insurers and has insured large chunks of city debt in the past. Per the article linked above the consequences of this downgrade include:

"The downgrade likely means Ambac will not underwrite any more business, said John Flahive, director of fixed income for BNY Mellon Wealth Management. "
Fewer suppliers of bond insurance can only be bad news for the pricing and thus for the consumers of bond insurance, consumers like the city. As Fester points out as well, impending balloon payments in the city's existing debt schedule will eventually necessitate refinancing. It will be at that point that the turmoil in the muni bond insurance market will be an issue.

More generally, the last quote in that article explains the big picture for Pittsburgh and all local government entities with debt:
"At the very minimum the troubles of the insurers will drive up borrowing costs of cities and other local entities at a time when many are strained by weaker tax revenue, said John Atkins, a fixed-income analyst at"

There is a side story of sorts... not exactly a silver lining, but because of the hit on equity markets of late, money has been going into bonds. Thus bond rates, and in particular municipal bond insurance rates are being depressed. It could potentially be a good time to refinance chunks of municipal debt. One criticism of city debt offerings in the past is that there have been issuances with limited provision to refinance, something that makes the bonds more valuable to the purchaser... but more costly to the issuer in the long run. If I had time it would be an interesting exercise to see if the city has any refi options at all at this point and whether the rate regime is enough to offset the costs of either higher bond insurance costs, or the costs of borrowing at the city's lower innate credit rating.

With that, the wonk-alarm goes off.... about 5 paragraphs too late I know. Lest I start waxing poetic on cubic splines I will leave it at that. Also, my longer recent ramblings on the impact of bond insurance Will Warren Buffet Someday Own Pittsburgh... and a little farther back I ranted some more in: Sic Semper Ero Debitum.


Monday, January 21, 2008

MLK day

Just a question for MLK day. How much of the foundation for Martin Luther Kings' work was laid by Pittsburgh Courier Publisher Robert Lee Vann and the Double V Campaign sponsored by his paper?


Sunday, January 20, 2008

those elusive innovation metrics

On Friday the Commerce Department announced a major step forward in trying to measure innovation. Instead of me even trying to parse that huge topic (where do you begin?), they even have a web site dedicated to the topic which is kind of an innovation in itself: The full report just released is: Innovation Measurement: Tracking the State of Innovation Measurement in the American Economy.

OK. I lie, I am unable to remain parse-free. While innovation and entrepreneurship are not the same thing, they are often talked about together. How long has entrepreneurship been an issue in Pittsburgh? Old Pittsblog readers may recall this thread of thought, but you have to go and read: CONTRASTS IN AGGLOMERATION: NEW YORK AND PITTSBURGH. By Benjamin Chiniz who was the department chair in Economics back then at the University of Pittsburgh. Published in the American Economic Review,Papers and Proceedings,Vol. 51, 1961, pp. 279-289. A long time ago yes? Yet I'm not so sure you can't make some of the same arguments today. (if you are at a participating university, you can read the original via JSTOR).


Saturday, January 19, 2008

Pittsburgh Recast.. or is that re-recast

I have to admit I need to suspend disbelief on this myself... but for those who want to see the sum total of my (indirect I assure you) impact on the art world you have to see the Pittsburgh Recast exhibit now being shown at the Pittsburgh History Center. What impact could that possibly be? I guess you will just have to go see the exhibit.


Friday, January 18, 2008


You know... it's hard not to comment on the news that certain (and only certain) blogs are now blocked to City of Pittsburgh employees. I think my daily hit count has been cut in half. I have to admit I am confused anyone has time to read any blogs on the city's dime as it were. To the best of my recollection the policy of limiting city employees to a half hour a day on the web has never been publicly recanted. Anyone remember that? But I can't get out of my head the connection between this issue and this old advertisement (h/t to Adfreak) that has been dug up by a site called 2Spare.

But that got me on a stream of conscience thinking about blogs that could or should exist. Blogs seem to have hit the proverbial tipping point with new blogs popping up everywhere. I don't think I could run these myself, but for those looking for a blog-theme here are a few thoughts of blogs that should be started or re-started: actually exists, but looks like it has not been updated since 2002. Anyone have any idea who grabbed that name? This exists as well with only some old dead content. You would think that such a big employer might spawn some employee-based blog to spread gossip and innuendo if nothing else. Even has been taken, but has no content whatsover. Is there an extant un-official Giant Eagle blog out there? same. Taken but content-less. But it is not for our UPMC but for the Universal Pain Management Center. Maybe it is really the same place?

I saw a mention of a Cleveland history blog... maybe we need (available as of the time I type).

speaking of history... would be an interesting one to watch.... if it existed that is.

maybe for the blog deprived city employees:

Speaking of (former) city employees... I think Sophie should start a blog. Maybe something like

any other notional blog ideas out there? We need to make sure we are not caught in an inter-regional blog gap.


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Design police

Nothing to say today.... or nothing I have time to say at least. So here is a random website that is pretty funny:


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Rust Belt Divergence

All the news about Michigan over the last week had all the obligatory talk about how to 'save' the Michigan economy which most know is not doing well. It was hard not to hear echoes of all the debates that have gone on here for decades. On that note it is interesting to look at the recent trends in Detroit and Pittsburgh. Looking at just the last 5 years, the unemployment rate in Detroit, Pittsburgh and Cleveland (thrown in for good measure) were once fairly close to each other...

But if you play it out to today, the most interesting thing is not that Pittsburgh is doing better than the other two, but that the difference between the three is so large and how consistently the divergence has been. Where once the three regions showed nearly identical unemployment rates, Detroit's unemployment rate is nearly double Pittsburgh's. So again, just something to watch.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

There is a primary today right?

For the political junkies out there... just saw this blog 2008 Democratic Convention Watch which has some interesting stuff to keep track of the doings. Note it lists Sophie Masloff as one of the few Democratic Party superdelegates who have not endorsed a candidate as yet. I couldn't quite find a Republican Party analogy, though I did find a 2004 Republican Party Convention Blog with some recent content. Is it mis-named?


How Important is Quality of Life?

Area Development Magazine asks: How Important is Quality of Life? Is it a new question? Here is a conclusion about Pittsburgh's future:

...the Pittsburgh region's future depends to such a major extent upon retaining and attracting highly qualified and professional and technical people and business enterprisers, who are in demand everywhere and who command a high standard of residential amenity and cultural and professional opportunities.

What is surprising is that this quote isn't anything new. This all comes from Region With a Future. Volume 3 of the Economic Study of the Pittsburgh Region. Produced by the Pittsburgh Regional Planning Association. Edgar Hoover, Study Director. Published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. in 1964.


Sunday, January 13, 2008

Root Causes

With news of some agreements reached for a Community Benefit Agreement regarding the HIll District and the new arena being built, it is a good time to review where this all really started. Readers here have heard me say this before, but for anyone new.... or anyone who thinks that anything going on up on the Hill started last week, last month, or even last year or decade: I think everyone in Pittsburgh ought to read Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It, by Dr. Mindy Fullilove of Columbia University.

As disclosure, my review of the book was printed in the PG. That review was really overshadowed by some emotional photos from the PG's own archives which they ran alongside the text. Unfortunately those photos are not online. But I will repaste the text of that review below:


This is a book that many in Pittsburgh have no need to read. An account of the demolition of the Lower Hill District in the 1950s, it is a history many Pittsburghers experienced firsthand. Yet the book by Columbia University psychiatrist Mindy Thompson Fullilove is much more than a book about Pittsburgh. The author investigates the massive renewal projects that were intended to save urban America after World War II.

By documenting the profound loss of community that resulted from these projects, it's a scathing indictment of urban policy in the United States, past and present.

The uprooted communities -- the author estimates there are more than 1,600 across the country -- were concentrated in the African-American communities of America's large cities.

The consistent theme is that the wholesale displacement of neighborhoods had an impact more traumatic and longer-lasting than is understood. "Root shock ... ruptures bonds, dispersing people to all the directions of the compass," Fullilove writes. It caused the destruction of the interconnections that "were essential to the survival of the community."

Pittsburgh was not alone as a victim of massive urban renewal efforts run amok. The author focuses on three areas, balancing the saga of the Lower Hill with that of the Central Ward of Newark, N.J., and the smaller Virginia city of Roanoke.

They might seem to have been vastly different communities, but the analogies between their experiences with urban renewal outweigh their dissimilarities.

The book is about the destruction of housing yet not about housing at all. Fullilove points out that urban renewal was really no more than "contagious housing destruction."

The truth is these projects often did not include new housing at all, or provided housing only after decades, long after the original residents had moved on.

The legacy of many such projects was to leave vast "urban prairies" in their wake.

The implications of such widespread and systematic neighborhood destruction go far beyond the specific communities affected. "Root shock ... disabled powerful mechanisms of community, leaving the black world at an enormous disadvantage for meeting the challenges of globalization," Fullilove says.

Because urban renewal efforts were concentrated in traditionally African-American neighborhoods, the impact on the entire African-American community was magnified.

Fullilove is a social psychiatrist, but her book crosses many disciplines. It is hard to say whether the book is more about history, architecture, sociology, urban planning or psychiatry.

Arguably it is difficult to follow the thread that ties together all of these perspectives. Yet, to have written a more narrowly focused book would have oversimplified a complex issue. The multifaceted nature of the problem eschews labeling and needs a multidisciplinary synthesis such as Fullilove's.

The author and her husband, Robert E. Fullilove III, spent 1998 and much of 1999 in Pittsburgh as Falk Fellows at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health's Center for Minority Health.

That firsthand knowledge comes through as she often seems to be writing about the experiences of her most personal friends. The author is sometimes the compassionate caregiver dispensing advice to the community as a whole. At other times she is a more dispassionate observer documenting what are the most traumatic events of many lives.
What comes across most vividly are the real and palpable losses suffered by the individuals and families forced to leave their homes.

Just as the book seems to be focusing on just the history of urban renewal, the author reminds the reader that past can be prologue. Even, or especially, today the desire to improve urban neighborhoods overlooks the displacement of the residents.

The book's ultimate contribution may be asking the simple question: "What was it like before urban renewal?" Because "we cannot understand the losses unless we first appreciate what was there."

Apologists of failed renewal projects often point out the unknown of the counterfactual, or what would have happened without the projects. The unspoken premise is that what was there before was not worth saving in the first place.

Fullilove makes a clear argument that the essence of a community is irreplaceable.


Second City Goeth

I do get out you know and I wasn't alone today. Second City's production of Three Rivers Run Through It looked like it was sold out for their last show in town this evening. They did a commendable job of bringing out Pittsburgh's inner Tim Conway. The best line of the night was:
"This is Pittsburgh, it's the other places that are strange."
However.. If you want to experience Pittsburgh's inner Sartre, you have to go see Pittsburgh's Squonk Opera. The reprise of Pittsburgh: The Opera begins this Thursday at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater in the very heart of East Liberty (not the intersection of the Friendship and Shadyside Arts Corridor's as it is sometimes called).


mapping graduation rates

via BFD/Ed Morrison is a heads up to this neat mapping engine: , of high school graduation rates across the country. I will put the local zoom of their data below... but for all the online mappers out there, can you look up this fellow named Mercator please.


Saturday, January 12, 2008

measuring the virtual soap box

So it's easy to think this blogging gig gives you a big soap box to stand on. Looking at my daily hit count I see a couple hundred unique users daily these days. I think, 'wow' I have almost attained the readership of the Gammy Bird. Yet, when I look at how people are finding the blog I realize those numbers are not all they seem to be. For example, you can check this out yourself. Try this exact search which someone really used only to find Null Space: ohio workers comp + death benefits + reapportioment once children reach the age of majority (sic). The misspelling of 'reapportionment' probably was key, but they must have been disappointed in what they found. I don't think I was very helpful on their research topic...... and consistently the most popular search leading to this blog: Mallow Cup Prize Catalog. No joke. There is something about chaos theory to this... but I can't quite put it into words.

If you want a good overview explaining the measurement of the blogosphere and blog-metrics see this explanation from down under: blog statistics and demographics.


Friday, January 11, 2008

Steel ascendant?

Not everyone may realize that one of the biggest investments being made in the region is the $1 billion (that is a B) being planned by US Steel to upgrade its Clairton Coke works. If you wonder why they are doing that, the blog Steel Strip World pretty much gets to the heart of it: Read more. The story of the steel industry in general (not just the Pittsburgh miasma) really centers on the changing competitiveness of large integrated steel plants vs. electric arc minimills. What is an integrated steel plant? Just go take a look at the Edgar Thompson Works in Braddock. I (greatly) simplify of course, but what is an electric arc minimill? Things they they have mostly been building elsewhere for the last 40 years. For more on the state of steel here and elsewhere I refer to my friends over at Pitt's Center for Industry Studies.


a tale of two years

More interesting to me sometimes than the regional unemployment rate is the relative unemployment rate, i.e. how our numbers compare to national trends. One reason is that models of migration within the US often rely more on the relative unemployment rate and other factors than the absolute numbers. If things are good (or bad) everywhere it is hard to connect the level of unemployment to migration trends in and of themselves. Here is what you get when you compare US to Pittsburgh unemployment rates over the last couple of years which gives you a curious break between 2006 and 2007:


Thursday, January 10, 2008

the ultimate burgh innovation: blue bags

Governing Magazine today has a blog post on envrionmental problems posed by the uber-disposable thin plastic grocery bag.

I can't quickly find a clear historical reference for this, but buried in my head is the historical factoid that it was Sophie Masloff or someone on her staff who came up with the idea to get local supermarkets to change the color of their bags to blue so they could be used for the city's recycling program. If you think about it, it really was a remarkably rare bit of common sense introduced into public policy. People would have more incentive to use the program because they would not need to buy blue bags. and I imagine the program recaptures some of the bags that themselves would become garbage. Call it our contribution to the fight against global warming. Maybe some more branding should have been implemented. Is it too late to call them Sophie bags.


Ghost malls? Try Demolished Malls.

Who says Pittsburgh is behind the curve on development trends? Slate online had a story yesterday warning of how commercial retail could go the way of the residential sub-prime mess: read Ghost Malls. No mention there of a great site with some local contributors: Plenty of local examples on that site. I have been meaning to take a picture of the vast site that is now completely empty where Eastland Mall used to sit in North Versailles. It just isn't there anymore... an entire mall. Are there any other future greyfields in the region?


Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Just say no.... to Courier New

From the Arts and Entertainment Editor: Some personal musing. My long deceased father was at one point a letterpress printer. Letterpress printing is literally the same as Guttenberg devised: lead type with ink. It is a technology that is not entirely, but almost completely extinct today being made obsolete by later technologies. Nonetheless, one of the few manual skills I have that I am any good at is literally typesetting the old fashioned way. Strange life. What may be a bit ironic is that the most famous "Briem" in the world is the typeface designer Gunnlaugur SE Briem in Iceland. If there is a family connection it is lost to the ages which is a long story unto itself.. but enough personal stuff.

That is all a lead in to highlight the last few days of a movie that was written up in the New York Times last year called Helvetica*. The Times review is appropriately titled: The Life and Times of a Typeface. Pittsburgh Filmakers is showing it right now for a few days. I have not seen it yet but hope to be there tonight or tomorrow. It is quite literally a film about the typeface. See the Pittsburgh Filmakers site for information on showtimes. But a film about a typeface... it just does not get any higher on the wonk quotient.

* No that font isn't it's namesake, but blogger does not seem to have an easy option for helvetica itself I have no time to figure out how to hack it... simple as it probably is.


Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Why do we have primaries again?

What is on my 'bucket list'. I intend to move to Dixville Notch before I die, then register to vote, and then refuse to show up at midnight to cast my ballot. They can't close their primary until they account for all their voters right? What do they do if someone just isn't there by 12:01am?

I will plagiarize myself. Below is most of my primary election post from last year, at least the parts that are still germane. The last paragraph explains how Crawford County, Pennsylvania is responsible for the unique American primary system. And the "Freedom Curtain" video is pretty funny.


Given all the controversy over electronic voting machines these days, a fun video to watch is Behind the Freedom Curtain, a voting machine sales video circa 1957. Where is Herb Tarlek when you need him? Maybe people would be happier with the new machines if they were named "freedom screens". but speaking of voting...

The fact that there is an endorsement process raises a bigger question concerning the primary election itself. Or the primary to follow this one technically. There is a growing debate over the timing of the Pennsylvania presidential primary. Is it too late in the primary season to matter? PG covered the question last month, but a more in depth perspective came last week from PA politics guru Terry Madonna in his January 25th Politically Uncorrected column. Today the AP is reporting that a state senator is proposing that Pennsylvania's presidential primary be moved to February 5th. Think about that timing for a minute. That means candidates would have to file by New Years. Would that mean that the party nominations would take place before XMAS? One way or another it's going to be a perpetual election season. We have to get through this election then by fall the presidential primary season will be in full gear. By the time a new president elected the next mayoral campaign will be gearing up.

Which then makes you wonder why do we have primaries at all? Plenty of modern democracies do not hold primaries.. Not even all states in the US have primaries. The caucus system is still in use in Iowa as we will all re-learn a year from now. Can you imagine a caucus system in place here? It turns out that the direct primary system got its start just outside of Pittsburgh. Crawford County, Pennsylvania created the direct primary in 1842. The local Democratic Party had a chaotic and ultimately failed county convention that year whereupon no slate of candidates was nominated. In the machinations that followed, they ultimately dealt with the situation by allowing all Democrats to cast equal votes for who would represent the party in elections that fall. Seems like a normal enough idea now, but it had never been tried that way before. The idea was so well liked that it transformed from a provisional measure to the permanent method of selecting party nominees. While the idea spread throughout the state and nation, it was not an overnight change. Pennsylvania would not have a comprehensive law requiring primaries until 1913.


sub-prime notes (updated)

Not sure this would be a productive path here just because the circumstances are different, but the NYT has a story today about the City of Baltimore suing sub-prime lenders: Baltimore Is Suing Bank Over Foreclosure Crisis. The Pittsburgh angle to all this is popping up in different ways. Same author in the NYT has another story today about a Pittsburgh case where one of the major sub-prime lenders fabricated documents relevant to a case about a Monroeville resident who filed for bankruptcy. See: Lender Tells Judge It ‘Recreated’ Letters. The NYT also saves me the effort of looking into whether the district court has the relevant docs filed, they already have the relevant documents scanned online as well. See the scanned letters.

As an update... there is a lot of coverage of this foreclosure article/map in the Atlantic Magazine. (h/t to the marginal revolution and others). I took the liberty of blowing up the midatlantic region and in particular the Ohio/PA border which gives you this rather stunning map:

I really need to think about what other socioeconomic metric depicted at the county level would have such clear state lines as that illustration has.


Sunday, January 06, 2008

Be careful what you ask for

It deserves some debate what the decision by Lisa Bennington to not run for election means. At Rutgers Center for Women and Politics they have compiled this data on the number of women in the Pennsylvania House over recent years. That trend looks like this:

2007: 27
2006: 25
2005: 25
2004: 28
2003: 27
2002: 27
2001: 27
2000: 25
1999: 25
1998: 25
1997: 25
1996: 26
1995: 26

So if nothing else changes, but this one seat flips (by gender that is), it will mean that the decision by Bennington to not run again will ironically leave the Pennsylvania House not just with one fewer woman, but will single handedly put the PA house back to the same number of women as there were a decade ago. Does that really count as abetting progress? Go figure.

It may not be fair to pin the statewide number on a singl candidate, but when you run saying you are doing so because you are upset at the number of women in office you have to wonder about the timing of the decision to go home. It may be true that there is some strong female candidate out there about to run for this seat, but if not she has more than likely enabled the candidates who were already planning to run against her.. and those were mostly men I am pretty sure. Remember, its now less than two weeks to put in your application to be considered for the ACDC endorsement. It's not what you would want to do if you wanted to help another women fill this seat and by getting out this way the seat may not be filled by a woman for years to come... but we will see.

But there is a bigger issue that people don't like to talk about. Is a female candidate always the best candidate to support women's issues. The race between Pistella and Bennington is a good case in point. It's clearly true that Pistella had overstayed his welcome and after a tenure in office measured in decades one ought to find something else to do. With apologies to Senator Byrd, but after 30+ years if you are still in office they ought to be naming buildings for you if you stick around.

Yet somwhere in there Pistella did do things they were almost always supportive of women's issues. One of the disadvantages of a large legislature is that you cant have big headline successes for all 253 of them day in and day out. A lot of things don't make the news yet are pretty important. Once it was explained to me by a completely unpolitical source that Pistella had been instrumental in getting some insurance laws changed to allow the Children's Home here in Pittsburgh to offer some more services to disabled infants. Important for women? Important period? Do things like that make it into the public discourse? All rhetorical questions . That was just one example and you can look up his record on women or family issues yourself. Lots of little things like that had endeared Pistella to lots of local voters. He was known as a big support of elderly issues for sure and who makes up most elderly in the US: women.

But he lost and to figure out why you have to look at the hysteria wrapped up in the anger at the pay raise the legislators voted for themselves. What you saw in the aftermath of the pay raise fiasco that people came out and vo. So honestly, Pistella and others who went along with that may have deserved what they got.... but that says little about the ideas of their opponents in many cases. It's as if the none of the above vote was pressed.

As disclosure of sorts, or a disclosure of nothing to disclose: if it is not obvious this is my district and Pistella lives down the street though I have never met him in any venue at all. I would see him on the bus sometimes and to this day he is the only politician I have ever seen regularly using public transportation for actual transportation. and I have never met Bennington either. But my take of their race was not that Bennington ran for anything, but just against Pistella. Almost all of the campaign literature was simple and straightforward anti-Pistella. It all came down to: your representative took that pay raise and you should vote him out. It all looked like this sample piece:

To be fair, she was by far not the only candidate who rode to office on the backlash of anger against the pay raise, but were flyers like this a bit over the top? We could debate what is or isn't negative campaigning, but no matter what this ad is not about advancing women's issues or advancing anything else.. it says simply that the old guy is bad and ought to be kicked out. My bet is that someone had polling saying the pay raise was the issue and this pointed message is what the political consultants said would get to the voters.. no subtlety whatsoever just "WE CAUGHT THE INCUMBENT RED HANDED". The anonymous incumbent at that. It has about as much content as saying: "we need to get rid of the evildoers".

Here is the key question that is best asked after we see who wins this seat but still... after a two year interregnum, is the candidate that now eventually replaces Pistella going to be at least equal to his record on women's issues? better? or far worse??


Thursday, January 03, 2008

a smaller cheaper state legislature? maybe.

This post changed as I was typing it. News is that Elisabeth Bennington is choosing not to run again for state representative after upsetting long term incumbent Frank Pistella two years ago. As I mentioned earlier, she was likely to have a tough fight with at least former police commander Dom Costa said to be running along with ousted city councilman Len Bodack out there needing a job. It's a little late in the season to just now be telling people you are not running again. She may have just seen the writing on the wall at this point. Anyone who is running has to have a campaign in place at this point. It's literally only 37 days until the ACDC endorsement meeting. In fact, if you want to be considered at all for the endorsement, you have all of 14 days to send in the check. Yup, 14 days.

The race where Bennington beat Pistella is interesting one to compare to this race I read about when driving through rural Virginia a few weeks ago. I literally saw this headline which caught my eye in the Winchester Star: "Regional Senate race was state’s costliest ". What it says is that for Virginia's 27th State Senate a total of $3,866,202 was spent by candidates in the race. In the end district Republican Jill H. Vogel spent $1,721,304 in a 48-47 victory over Democrat Karen K. Schultz who spent $1,430,460. $3.8 million! think about that a bit. More significantly, of that 1.7 million spent by Vogel, the article explains that $466K came from ONE contributor. How much do local races cost? You can look up state financing on the Pennsylvania's secretary of state's campaign finance website. In the last state election cycle for legislators I looked up what the contested race in PA 21 cost the candidates. From what I see, then incumbent Frank Pistella spent $23,375 in the 2006 primary season. Bennington the victor spent $39,942. Even combined the total spent was 1/6oth of what was spent in that one Virginia race.

While all politicians need to worry about raising money I don't really sense that the myriad of state legislators in Pennsylvania spend all their time consumed with fundraising. For a local state legislator to raise over $1 million for a single race, that really means they have to be working on raising money all year long and then some. Many have advocated for a smaller Pennsylvania legislature and its a compelling argument. Yet, the large $$ amounts in that one Virginia race makes me wonder about how money would impact a smaller legislature. Maybe the larger legislature dilutes the influence of big money holds some water. Lobbying and influence seeking money will always be out there. If some of the more radical proposals for the Pennsylvania state legislature were implemented, say shrinking it from 203 to 50 seats... will all that same money just wind up concentrated on that many fewer candidates, often concentrated on the incumbents. It might lower the public payroll a bit, but with races costing in the $millions, the amount spent on salaries is a fraction of the money actually being spent in the political process. I am not sure what the lesser evil is in the end.

How much money is spent overall. I would not take this as definitive data, but I wrote a script to pull data from the campaign finance web site. Since the primary is coming up I pulled out what I think were all of the 2006 primary election races for the Pennsylvania house and senate. It's not the cleanest data with people changing the names of their committees, filing amendments and the like.... but I think I have an accurate summary. When you combine the results from cycles 1 2 and 3 in 2006 you get this list of total expenditures by campaign committee for the 2006 primary.

Overall I would say $20 million was reported as being spent in the 2006 primary season by over 800 individual filers at an average of $25K per campaign. At the very top were some of the biggest races for then senate leaders Brightbill and Jubalier which both spent over a million. The $ amounts drop off pretty fast from there. That one big $466K contributor in the Virginia race mentioned could have conceivably funded the entire expenditures of all but 6 of the campaigns in 2006 Pennsylvania primary races.

I may update this if I ever spend anytime cleaning the data, but here is my current list of top total expenditures by campaign . Note the district numbers could refer to either a house of senate district. I didn't think of that when pulling the data. And again, I would not take this as definitive, if you see something of interest, feel free to look up the details yourself with the online report search page. The changing names of the committees means some of the summaries are not the full picture and you can see some of the dups in there. The top 20 expenditures I will list below, the full excel file I have linked above.

Committee name District Total
(cycles 1,2 and 3)
Friends of Senator Jubelirer Committee 30 $1,400,398
Friends of John Perzel 172 $864,289
John Perzel Victory 2006 172 $483,069
Baker for Senate 20 $290,346
Friends of Mike Brubaker 36 $266,424
WHEATON, HEIDI F. 36 $218,836
Evans, John Friends of 5 $208,822
O'Donnell Brian for State Representative 121 $208,302


those tubes sure do stretch a long way

Just because I find the path that this news got to me curious.... down the street from me is the vast Don Allen Chevrolet dealership which has a lot of properties in Bloomfield/Friendship and environs. There may be news of this somewhere else, but my news filter first got work of the impending sale of Don Allen via a PR posted on this Chinese web site. It must have been unanticipated, looks like the PG even quoted a Don Allen employee last week with no mention of any imminent demise of the firm.

But it is a lot of property in the East End and it seems like the plan is to dismantle the dealership. What that means in terms of who is buying up the property and for what uses is just something to watch.


The Brits on our Subprime mess

How big a story is the US Subprime mess in Cleveland and elsewhere? So much that BBC focuses on Cleveland in this outsiders view of the subprime miasma. See: Foreclosure Crisis Sweeps America. The story incorporates some graphics on the Cleveland subprime landscape put together the folks at Case Western. The have these great (if depressing) maps:


Wednesday, January 02, 2008

random blast from the past

For the new year: