Tuesday, June 30, 2009

afternoon musings

Not around to comment on the Act 47 machinations... but man is that weird.

Top of the fold front page comment in the Financial Times that pokes a bit at recent 'livability' rankings that have come out: If cities are so liveable, why are people not living in them. The irony will be obvious when you see the news tomorrow.

But Pittsburgh comes in the top 5 of Forbes latest ranking of most affordable places.

and steel demand may at least be stabilizing.


June 1975

Unemployment is up. Pittsburgh regional unemployment at 7.5%. The US is at 9.4%. Detroit jumped another remarkable 1.4 percentage points ove rthe previous month and is now just a blip below twice our unemployment rate at 14.9%. I really don't think that has ever been the case, but we would have to ask the historians to confirm that.

June 1975 is the last month that Pittsburgh's unemployment rate was 1.9 percentage points below the US. For consistent data I have since 1969, the most Pittsburgh has been below the US is 2.1 percentage points in April of 1975. More than that and it's kind of uncharted territory.


Monday, June 29, 2009

The McCullough/Acklin Race

I had this huge rant on just how screwey this whole situation with County Councilman Chuck McCullough is... but I thought the better of it. It's not worth repeating since I typed most of it before and before that even. The one key thing that really gets me is just bizarrely quiet folks are about the situation. For alleged behavior half as egregious you would normally have politicians on both sides speaking out. The utter silence is just plain odd. Remember, this is probably the guy I was pretty sure had the Republican's best shot at being elected County Executive some day. Think about that some.

But the thing about McCullough is again how he got elected despite having 'dropped out' of the race and against an opponent who had a lot of political support in town. Jim Roddey and others would regularly talk up Acklin in public and in the media heading into that race. Kevin even had the (potentially counterproductive I admit) Post-Gazette endorsement for the race. All the charges against McCullough were front and center in th enews heading into election day in the spring of 2007 ... and yet he won despite all of that .... by a decent margin no less.

So how did he do that? Below is a somewhat quick and dirty map of the results between Acklin and McCullough in the 2007 Republican Primary for the County Council at Large seat. It's potentially one of those maps that can be over interpreted. When I first made it up I ran into a problem quickly that I couldn't come up with a percentage of votes for either candidate because in a whole lot of voting districts there were literally no Republicans. Even in the districts where there were some Republicans, a lot had total votes cast in this race of under 10 ballots or less. So a district might be shaded one way, but there is a big discepancy in the number of votes it represents. So the first thing I did was to arbitrarily shade out the districts with 5 or fewer total votes cast in this race. You will see the swaths of the city and a few other places in the Mon Valley where I have shaded grey. Again grey here means total votes cast in the Republican primary were under 5, as in the digits of one hand. Lots of the areas I left shaded don't have much more than 5 votes.. But I picked 5 arbitrarily as a cutoff.

Note also that I couldn't quite figure out what would be color-neutral shading. No matter what I tried there was some color-symbolism. So here the red and greed are arbitrary, not intended to mean anything else.

Oh yeah, the map:

What's it mean? As some have explained to me the general explanation for McCullough's victory was his suburban residence. Municipality of record is shown on the ballot in this race so it was McCullough (Upper St. Clair) vs. Acklin (Pittsburgh). The map bears that out pretty much. Acklin's support was mostly in the city. If you break out the numbers.


City 977 2,307

Outside City 25,514 17,865


City 29.5% 69.7%

Outside City 58.5% 41.0%

So what jumps out is that Acklin won the city, but the city just wasn't a factor in that race. Note how few Republicans voted in the primary within the city. All of 7% of the Republicans votes in this race came from within the City proper. Granted for primaries like these, city R's may not have a lot of incentive to come out and vote, so you don't want to infer too much about the number of votes that may represent in a general election... but still.


Smoky and Hip

Couldn't pass this one up. Jim R. catches the Miama Herald's latest contribution to Pittsburgh hagiography of late: Going with the flow has served Pittsburgh well - Home to H.J. Heinz, the Steelers and Andy Warhol, the Iron City has morphed from smoky-industrial to vibrant and hip..


Sunday, June 28, 2009

the long squiggly ghost

Reading the PG's Next Page contribution today: The big leap in transit we didn't get -- but could and it's reference to Curibita, Brazil to solve our public transit predicaments.

The references there are all back to the earlier Next Page piece: The Long Squiggly Line.

No time to repeat myself, who wants to endure that anyway. But most of what I would say would be the same as before. The confusion with and idealization of Curibita is just too superficial to be meaningul. In the replicable ways Curibita is already the model for much of the Port Authority design here... Or is it the other way around?! If so what does that say about seeking lessons from them.

The longer rants go like this:

Confusing Counterarguments

False Choices and McAnalysis

Rethinking price elasticity for gas and Curibita

But on the bigger issues facing folks these days: The False Choices phrase is probably the best way to put it. I've been staying out of the current Port Authority system design debate mostly because it was so frustrating having the Port Authority refuse all my requests for information during the route cut debates not so long ago. There just isn't time to deal with that again and it convinced me they don't really want any more than token public comment... I've even had (slightly) better response getting pension data out of the city over the years.

But there is clearly this plan going on to shape the public comment as it were to work like this. Two major options presented. Port Authority will take that in and somewhere down the line, pretty soon I imagine, someone down there will start to say that the public made clear it 'prefers' one option. No mention will be made that there were just a very limited set of options to begin with and the logical leap to being strongly behind one of them will not make much sense. Watch and listen... it will be the spin at some point.


Saturday, June 27, 2009

The single most endangered mall in America is.....

Coming up first on US News' list of most endangered malls in the nation is none other than Century III Mall. Not a surprise.

Last month the NYTimes had an interactive chart on the Fall of the Mall.


Friday, June 26, 2009

board openings

Just reading the news over City of Pittsburgh board appointments I am reminded of this:


I think at the time I put my name in the hat to be on the sinking fund board, I thought it was for pensions.

and I think the Zoning Board opinion by Mittinger that is at the center of some of this is here.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

another angle on education in Pittsburgh

Just getting around to this. I have to admit I haven't read the actual report, but Hoagie has a pretty thorough (if opinionated) synopsis of the recently released audit of the city's housing authority. His first critique is that the housing authority spends too much on education and training especially compared to the city of Pittsburgh. The numbers he has which I am sure come from the controllers report are $523 per employee in 2007 at the HACP vs $75 per employee for City government proper.

But wait... think about those numbers for a minute. I really don't know how the $500 or so compares... but isn't the shocker just how ridiculous that a major employer of any kind spends all of $75 per employee per year for education, training and travel expenses. That is the real story if those numbers are accurate. I would think even crossing guards could use $75 in retraining every year, but almost every other employee certainly needs a lot more than that just to maintain proficiency in each of their respective professions. Wow. Maybe the Controller can audit workforce training standards in the city.

But beyond that.. Unless there is something else brewing , it really is quite a whimper of an ending to the tempest of news there was over the vast Housing Authority spending scandal that briefly took over the local news cycle. If I recall this all correctly, at one point Pat F. was trying to spin this all as if he was a whistleblower on machinations within the Housing Authority. I wonder if anyone will ever sort out all the internal politics that were going on behind the scenes to that. Of course, it all got subsumed by the great billboard blow out.

What is up with the billboard anyway? If we make it a few more days it will be 6 weeks without even a mention Pat F. in the news which will the longest we have gone on that in a few years I think.


Credit where due?

Over on Pittsblog I mentioned recently how Tom Murphy is getting nary a mention in the positive press the convention center is getting of late. Good or bad he built it. It's the fact that he is being written out of history that is curious. The unhistory of the former mayor has reached the point where he isn't even controversial enough to rant at anymore and that post only drew a few remarks. I'm waiting for someone to actually say to me: Tom who?

Look, if you get me talking about the monetization of Pittsburgh's water authority in the early 1990's or the sale of city tax liens later on I will rant against how irresponsible the city's financial policies were through the 1990's. But I still am amazed that Tom Murphy gets no credit for the things that everyone agrees he is almost single handedly responsible for. Thus the story I see today about the city's bike trails and growing recognition in bike-world. Yet again not a single mention of Tom Murphy who was the one who pushed the bike trail system his whole time in office. It's hard to believe any of it at all would exist without those efforts.

I have said it before and will say it again... it's just a token of recognition, but let's rename the Hot Metal Bridge (or at least it's bike/ped twin some prefer) for Tom Murphy.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

G20 thoughts and more

More G20 suggestions being sought. Here's one. Pirates are playing while our foreign visitors will be in town. I'm sure the Secret Service would love not having thousands hundreds of baseball attendees going in and out of PNC park during that time. Gotta be enough logistical problems as it is. It is Pirate baseball in September; just conceding the game could be an option. But is there any reason the game can't be held at the home field of the Washington Wild Things? Maybe Altoona or Johnstown. It would be a big event. Attendance might wind up being higher than it would here. Ignoring what the Pirates record will be by then, any sane person will want to avoid Downtown and environs the whole time the G20 folks are here.

It's really really goodbye to St. Francis. I thought we said goodbye long ago.

Pittsburgh property for sale on ebay? No link yet, but see this weeks City Paper just out.

Metro crash in DC prompts story here about how unlikely ti would be here. I believe that for the T, but I also remember the head-on East Busway crash in 1996.

Jason Altmire is pushing rail between Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Not a big surprise when you look at his district. What gets me is that Detroit is falling apart, yet even they are way past the talk about it stage and are adding commuter rail between Detroit and Ann Arbor. Nobody anywhere is mentioning PatTrain. Seriously thought, why is nobody really thinking about any form of transit between Pittsburgh (the city) and Cranberry? Anybody have old maps of commuter rails lines that used to run in Pittsburgh. We should map those out more formally.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

bad air again

The AP is reporting that EPA will report tomorrow that two local census tracts are among 600 with concentrations of air pollutants that put them at a much greater risk of contracting cancer. The two census tracts are 492700, in Clairton, and tract 499300, in Glassport. Those two tracts are here:


Just say no to pie charts - Act 47 version

Most are tuned out to the machinations of the current debate over the City of Pittsburgh's municipal budget. In particular the debates over the proposed 5 year Act 47 plan. Even if you are not so concerned with the city budget directly, this all has lots of implications across the state and for other cities into the future.

Without much more comment than that. In lots of ways these graphics speak for themselves. This is the current 2009 budget of the City of Pittsburgh expressed with the help of IBM's Manyeyes site. You can click either of the graphics to get the full interactive version of each.

2009 City of Pittsburgh Budget Expenditures

2009 City of Pittsburgh Budget Revenues


Follow those stories

City schools enrollment again in the news.. I put up a plot of the time series for city school enrollment in the past. One problem there is that I am told some of those past numbers (pre 2000 or so) may be somewhat mythical which may explain the curious shift in trend all of a sudden around then.

The story I caught that I thought came from Melbourne's The Age, but was really sourced from the UK's Daily Telegraph... looking at population loss and vacancy issues seems to be fodder for Toland's piece today. If you are interested, here is an old map of population density in Pittsburgh. A larger PDF version is there if you click on it.


and then there are the hotels. You realize this G20 thing isn't going to be so easy when you read today about the work stoppage at the Hilton Hotel Downtown. Anyone know which delegations were slated to be staying there? Anybody have time to go through and update us on the great Pittsburgh hotel mystery. I still want to know if those 4 hotels in (or near) East Liberty are still progressing. I know folks have been relocated to make way for the one I am most curious about, the Hotel Indigo announced that is going right in the heart of East Liberty.. but I have not noticed any construction yet. According to the original press release construction was supposed to start last year and the hotel was supposed to open by the 4th quarter of this year.


Monday, June 22, 2009

The UnStadium UnAuthority

or I suppose I should say the now leader-less UnStadium UnAuthority. The City's web page on the Stadium Authority says Sophie is still on the board although it says her term expired earlier in the year. Maybe she can be reappointed and put in charge?

First off, one has to ask why the Stadium Authority still exists. The stadia in town are all under the purview of the Sports and Exhibition Authority. (answer = debt)

Begs the question of why the Stadium Authority exists in the first place. The full answer is here in its bureaucratic best:

Proposal for the Redevelopment of Redevelopment Area # 16 in the Twenty First and Twenty Second Wards in the City of Pittsburgh, County of Allegheny, Pennsylvania.

I'd like ADB to beat those semantics.

Complete with an image from our paleo-future:

Look at that image and tell me we what it looks like? and I forgot Mike found a color version of that picture.

The introduction of that proposal has a summary that goes like this:

With the completion of the new Stadium, Pittsburgh will reassert its position of leadership among the foremost urban centers of the nation. Its image of having developed a renaissance program will be enhanced and the community will be the owner of one of the few new modern sports centers in the country. The recreational needs of the area residents will be fulfilled. The local economy will be stimulated. The Stadium Project is important to future renewal activities in the North Side, Downtown and in Oakland. It is important in the construction of a new interstate expressway system providing connections from West Virginia to Erie. It is important to the thousands of Downtown workers who need parking relief. In summary, the Stadium Project will be another major step forward in the comprehensive development of the City and the Pittsburgh region.

That was 4 stadia ago.


City-County Consolidation again

City-County Consolidation is percolating through the news again. See Sunday's oped, but also the complementary news article focused on an interview with Jim Roddey.

Not a comment on Grant and Terry's piece at all, but the very best editorial on the topic to ever appear in the local media was this from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1929 when the region came closest to ever implementing a pseudo merger of city and county. Really it was more of an editorial cartoon, but whatever you call it.. this type of graphic will never be repeated:

The little cannon in the parapets were a bit gratuitous.

Written more than a few years ago, so not a comment on recent machinations at all, but my own past thoughts on: Why Regionalism is So hard.

The news article quotes Jim Roddey as saying 2003 was when he first suggested consolidating some city and county services. That has been an active focus of work for a lot longer than that. Some of the best work looking at city county service consolidation came more than a decade ago (getting old I just realized... closer to two decades than one) from my friend and now retired colleague Jim Deangelis. A summary of just some of his work is here and here. Read those and tell me we don't continue recreating the wheel here.


Sunday, June 21, 2009

The G(20)reat Redd Up

It just seems to me that some of the G20 hype is getting a little carried away. These are the leaders of 20 nations who will be here for a very short time... and I for one hope they spend most of their time here focusing on solving the world's problems. Everyone who expects the itinerant foreign potentate to be dropping in for a Primanti's sandwich is going to be really disappointed.

Now there are these folks coming with them. The number being bantered about of several thousand media and hangers-on is a bit mind boggling. I think back to the Democratic Primary last spring when Pittsburgh was the focus of some minor media attention beyond the rivers. That was honestly a bit crazy even though Pittsburgh was only one locale in the state as a whole. That and the media buzz was spread out over a longer period heading into that election. Remember even PBS came in and set up shop for a week. There were foreign media stories then as well from the handful of foreign media folks that dropped in around that time. (check out what was put out just for the primary by: Le Monde, or German Public Radio, for example). The idea of magnifying the number of foreign media in town all at once by several orders of magnitude is just a bit daunting to contemplate. As we all know, this is really one big small town and I just wonder if there are enough 'Pittsburgh Stories' to go around.

So there is work to do. If we just clean up the place it will all have been worth it. If it does get us to all work together the long term benefit will go beyond even the media tsunami that is coming.

My one really earnest suggestion to everyone... when you get a call from someone with that Swedish accent, call them back! and please please no jokes about the Swedish Chef, they won't get it. The greatest fear I have to all of this is probably best summarized by Potter a couple weeks back (see his last para). If Potter thought that one little incident was noteworthy at all, imagine what a foreign reporter will write if she observes anything remotely similar... or the calamity that will result if they themselves are treated that way.

That and if you bump into a tall guy in a grey suit and something in his ear that does not look like he is from around here... no jokes about guns ok.


Saturday, June 20, 2009

inside Carrie Furnace

Rustwire goes inside Carrie Funace.. They don't seem to have any pictures of the guerilla art. Is it still in there? Everyone should take the tour there when available.

I have often mentioned the contrast between what we have done for that site and Germany's Landscape Park and the ever greater Emscher Park IBA exhibition. The US will never come close to having anything like the Route IndustrieKultur in Germany.

More on Landscape Park: http://www.landschaftspark.de/en/home/index.php


Friday, June 19, 2009

Detroit without cars no longer hypothetical

Forget trying to explain it. Just 9 years ago the Detroit region had over 400K manufacturing jobs. Data out today puts it at 185K as of May. The worst losses in just the last couple years and few believe the worst is over with even now. Ow!


follow those stories

And so I thought there would be weeks of assessment blogging to be done... not just yet it seems. My take is that Judge Wettick, now being at this more than a solid decade, looks for a completely clear field before dealing with the county on any of this. Thus the news that no action is going to take place from his court until the supreme court rules on the county's appeal to stay their order for 6 months in order to give the state time to reform the system. So he is either cocking the trigger, or he is just tired of all of this.

I am not quite sure there is any sign any action on assessments is even percolating in Harrisburg, but you never know. If you think about it, it ought not to matter legally, but practically it could impact what remedy is imposed locally, or on any individual county. But given the budgetary woes in Harrisburg that are only going to be getting worse (I'll note the unemployment news out today below), it's hard to see the state looking to do anything meaninful addressing assessments. For now the Supreme Court ruling only directly and immediately impacts Allegheny County. Other states could clearly be impacted by the precedent down the road.. potentially soon. But when it comes to immediacy, few legislators are going to want to muck with the assessment system in their home areas if they do not have to.


Lawrenceville w/o Iron City...... as I said, the question now becomes what happens on that purpose-built site. Somebody help me out. I was mentioning this to someone the other day, but my memory failed me. There used to be a soda bottler in lower Bloomfield. Anyone remember the name? I say the Lawrenceville hype may have reached a near saturation point for the time being. Maybe they can take advantage of the new it-ness of Polish Hill. Redevelopment of the brewery could be called the Polish Hill Annex or something.


The Allegheny Conference has a report out saying Pittsburgh is the top energy industry region for the future. Some of us have said that earlier, though we have been talking about it long before that and long before energy prices spiked.


and the PA unemployment rate is up to 8.2%. Bad all around. Will see our regional numbers in a few weeks. I can't decide it there will at least be a temporary casino-related blip in local employment numbers in coming months. Not in the next numbers most likely, but it will be soon if it happens. But if you want to see pain, the Michigan headline today is that Michigan's unemployment rate is over 14%. As historically bad Pennsylvania's unemployment is, could it be in some coming months that it eventually comes in at half of Michigan's? I don't think that has ever been true. The tag section in that blurb is what scares me because for the auto sector as it is for Michigan: "State hasn't hit bottom yet".

That story has a great interactive chart on the story in Michigan worth playing with directly via the link there. But the image itself is scary:


Thursday, June 18, 2009


It's Assessment Day. Unless the aftereffects of the rain disrupts things of course. Fate will probably drag this out a little bit longer.

I could go back further of course for some root causes.. but from a legal perspective this day became inevitable in January 1996. What is Larry Dunn up to these days anyway? Last we heard from from the one-time county-commissioner was that he was going to run for City Controller. As a Democrat I believe.

And for a bit of irony that only a few of us notice. The Act 47 plan being debated all while assessments are hitting the news cycle is fascinating (ok, fascinating to me). The original Act 47 plan had this little trick that virtually nobody noticed. You can go look this up if you do not believe me. One of the biggest financial innovations introduced in the original Act 47 plan was to take advantage a loophole in the law that let municipalities reap windfall revenue gains every time there is a mass reassessment of property. At the very moment the original Act 47 plan was being crafted the extant plan at the county level for reassessments was to do a mass assessment every 3 years. That plan didn't last long, but that was the state of things 5 years ago. At the time state law limited municipalities from reaping too much windfall revenue gains as property values typically get reassessed upwards. the loophole was that a windfall gain was allowed but limited to 10%. So guess what? The Act 47 plan assumed that every 3 years the property tax revenues would jump by 10%. Really. It would be funny if it were not so sad. The further irony is that at the very time the original Act 47 plan was being prepared, then County Controller and candidate for County Executive Dan O. was fighting to keep municipalities from reaping any windfall revenue gains from the reassessments. So the Act 47 plan was assuming the city would not just routinely but as a matter of policy ignore Dan O. into the future. You would point out how pathological that all was, but nobody would care much. Just too much in the fine print given how big the other problems were with the whole plan. Now I can bore the wonkerati via the internet with stories like that.

Of course that was not to happen. Neither the reassessments happened and I believe state law has been tightened to not allow the 10% windfall gain so they can't try it again. I am sure they would if they could. You can balance lots of budgets in the future that way.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Maybe I was wrong in my pessimism about steel demand not being part of the equation about US Steel. NYT covers some uptick in steel demand. But even with that per the article, steel demand 40% below pre-recession levels. Moody's is still pessimistic on the outlook for the steel industry as a whole.

Still.. the bigger perspective is just how little steel industry coverage there is in local media. None of that has a local byline does it?


Those darn election computers - Iran

Way way beyond the knitting. But to keep things in perspective the Guardian's running coverage of events in Iran is posting this item right now:

11am: The man who leaked the real election results from the Interior Ministry - the ones showing Ahmadinejad coming third - was killed in a suspicious car accident, according to unconfirmed reports, writes Saeed Kamali Dehghan in Tehran.

"Mohammad Asgari, who was responsible for the security of the IT
network in Iran's interior ministry, was killed yesterday in Tehran. Asgari had reportedly leaked results that showed the elections were rigged by government use of new software to alter the votes from the provinces. Asgari was said to have leaked information that showed Mousavi had won almost 19 million votes, and should therefore be president. "

We will try to get more details later.


A little ahead of ourselves

I really can't quite say what this means... but at the rate this is going the recently announced web site covering the G20 visit to Pittsburgh: https://www.pittsburghg20.org , is going to be far more elaborate than the actual G20 web site: http://www.g20.org. Compare and contrast the two websites.

The new site asks for suggestions about the G20 event. I am not quite sure what kind of suggestions they want. Since they asked though, I say someone should cobble together some funding and get Christo here quick. Tell them Mount Washington is theirs to do with as they please. I'm serious, just imagine what they might come up with. I'm sure they're too occupied to do anything anytime soon, but even after the G20 folks move on and we have a publicity hangover it could be a project for someone to take up.

update: It looks like Christo does not take proposals, nor even accepts payments. In fact he says: "one way to make sure a specific project does not happen is to propose it to them". So I hope nobody mailed them this post yet. The fallback suggestion: Somebody invite Spencer Tunick to Pittsburgh.

We also may need to temporarily go back to the spelling of Pittsburg without the 'h'. Then the branding could be PittsburG20.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

To asphalt or not to asphalt

No, I do not think this means all that much other than for the symbolism of it all.

Consider that the original Act 47 Plan required the City to sell it’s asphalt plant. (page 151, page 163 per the pdf numbering). Now the new Act 47 (page 210, page 219 per the pdf numbering) plan being debated (for lack of a better verb) says the city should “fully analyze the costs and benefits associated with a new asphalt plant”.

Semantics, but would you ever want to less-than-fully analyze something like that. Makes you wonder where else the costs and benefits were not 'fully' analyzed in the first Act 47 plan.


Education Burgh

Educational attainment is in the news.

Readers here have heard this from me innumerable times before. One of the most misunderstood metrics about Pittsburgh, however defined, is how 'educated' we are locally. You have to keep in mind two different observations. When most folks compare aggregate data on educational attainment they often create a metric that measures the number of folks who have achieved certain degrees for the population age 25 and above. Makes sense for the most part. Some folks are still studying past age 25 fo sure, but by looking at age 25 and over you generally catch the terminal education of most folks.

For most regions this will not make much difference, but now remember that we are an old region correct. Really old, like outlier old. Well, that means we have a disproportionate number of an older generation. That older generation grew up in an era where folks did not achieve anywhere near the same level of educational attainment we do today, by far. The proportion of folks going to graduate school, getting a bachelors degree, or even getting a high school degree were all much lower than today. So if you are say 70 today, the age cohort we really have a disproportionate number of folks locally.... That means you were graduating from high school in the mid to late 1950's. Literally a different era.

How big a difference does it make. In 2000 the region was roughly 18% age 65 and over. But the education metric is typically based on the population age25 and over. In 2000, over a quarter of the region's population age 25 and over were age 65 and over. That is a lot.

So for Pittsburgh, looking broadly at the population age 25 and over you are mixing up both that older generation and younger folks in a way that does not give you a great picture of educational attainment, but more reflects the age of the population. I argue all the time that such a metric says little about how well we are doing in recent decades and either educating the population, or as the argument usually goes, on how we are doing at both attracting and retaining folks with higher education. You need to look closer to make any statements about that. It's an obvious issue, but one that people don't think about I think because for most regions it just isn't an issue.

This was the argument I think that finally convinced one Economist reporter years ago that all the PR chaff he had heard was more than fluff. Remember: How Now Brown Town.

So.. taking that all into account. How educated is Pittsburgh. I say you want to look at narrow age slices of the population to begin to answer that question. Something I put together long ago and reflects the Census 2000 data now 9 years old. Take a look at what you get when you compare the educational attainment of those age 25-34 across the 50 largest metro regions in the country. and something I will stipulate up front is reflective of how small the city of Pittsburgh is within the region (although that observation cuts many ways when it comes to policy and is at least somewhat true of other cities as well... but hold that thought) take a look at similar benchmarks of just for the City of Pittsburgh.

Again, that is all data reflective of 9 years ago. There really isn't data with enough precision out there to say how those rankings have changed since then, but I would be surprised if we went down. What you see are some curious things. The region ranks pretty high on these.
But the city of Pittsburgh ranks really high. The proportion of population with a graduate degree is highest in 1) Wash DC, 2) Boston, 3) San Francisco and 4) Pittsburgh. I'd argue that the Washington, DC metric is a really artificial comparison due to the concentration of federal jobs there.

The 4 cities which have higher proportions of high school degree attainment are Virginia Beach, Colorado Springs and Honolulu. Virgina Beach and Honolulu I suspect are reflective of larger military populations which in 2000 had seen a decade of very high enlistment standards following the end of the cold war. Basically it was awfully hard if not impossible some years to get into the military during the 1990's without a high school degree. So you can make the case that among the current residents of the city Pittsburgh, we are close to being the most educated places in the nation.

Finally, just to anticipate how this arugment goes. This isn't even saying that our older generation was less educated than typical, quite the opposite. If you do a comparison of educational attainment just among our older generation and compare them to similar age cohorts elsewhere we rank higher than we do when compared to that 25 and over metric that lumps. Again, it all comes down to how the overall patterns of educational attainment have shifted in the last 50 years and the distortion I would call what happens when you don't take that into account.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Jobs Watch: Steel and Displacement

Both Trib and PG are running the AP version of a story on how US Steel is bringing back workers at their Hamilton, ON plant. A sign of a rebound in global steel demand? Does not look that way.

Unaddressed, though clearly between the lines in that story is what does it say about jobs at Edgar Thompson? Story clearly points to the explanation that the Canadian jobs are coming back due to statutory issues in Ontario that might force US Steel to make payments to laid off workers. Yet global steel demand is still on life support as best I can tell. Until now it looks like US Steel had been consolidating work at Edgar Thompson even as it closed or ramped down it's operations most everywhere else in North America. Kind of all inevitably leads to the conclusion that there will be Edgar Thompson jobs directly impacted by that decision.

But hey, when are the bulk of those casino hires starting up?

What do I find interesting on top of all of that. Both major papers in town are relying on wire service coverage for news about US Steel. Though I am sure they both may have more coverage from their own folks to follow up.


Wettick Watch - tick tock

I just thought this might be useful in coming weeks. The next assessment hearing is in a few days. I have put a link to the county's assessment case docket there on the right. Just click through the first screen that pops up and you will get all the history filed with the Prothonotary .

If you really want to try and understand the assessment mess here in Allegheny County. You really have to start with another one of the reports that was only done in the past. You just don't see anything as thorough as this anymore. See what is known as the Jaffur's Report from the 1970's (warning, large file). I got that directly from Mr. Jaffurs almost a decade ago since it has otherwise been forgotten about. I had occasionally tried to get reporters to give him a call on assessment topics, but to little avail. Unfortunately he passed away last fall I just realized. One could argue he was more important to the history of property assessments in the county than even Larry Dunn was at spurring change. But it is a long story to connect those dots. Whenever I get around to writing that paper on the history of assessments in Allegheny County.. not soon.


Sunday, June 14, 2009

Burgh fans way downriver

Ok, this does it. Pittsburgh now has fans deep into Mississippi.


and without additional comment, but two headlines today from Cleveland worth a scan:

Cleveland manufacturing companies seek to shift to biomedical industry


National City's final days outlined in court documents


Saturday, June 13, 2009

Commonwealth Views

The bigger Commonwealth that is.

Only the brief mention in passing about Pittsburgh, but the Financial Times deconstructs all those livability surveys and comes up with its own informal list.

but not all of the foreign press has gotten the memo on the new Pittsburgh. Australia's the age has a section in an article today that goes:

Most are former industrial cities in the "rust belt" of the Midwest and north-east. They include Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Memphis.

In Detroit, shattered by the woes of the US car industry, there are already plans to split the city into small urban centres separated by countryside.

"The real question is not whether these cities shrink … but whether we let it happen in a destructive or sustainable way," said Mr Kildee. "Decline is a fact of life in Flint. Resisting it is like resisting gravity."

Somebody send Reg Henry after them to set the record straight.


Hockey Metrics

Stanley Cup.... G20.... Stanley Cup.... G20..... Good thing we don't have to choose between them.

From the Vancouver Sun:

Finally, the NHL has someone other than the 1971 Montreal Canadiens to talk about coming back from being down 2-0 after losing the first two games on the road. Someone other than the ‘71 Habs who won Game 7 on the road after the home team won each of the first six. Someone other than Al MacNeil who took over in mid-season as a rookie coach and won the Stanley Cup, because the Penguins and Dan Bylsma have now joined them in the annals.


Friday, June 12, 2009

Pittsburgh as Corporate Model?

Even computer geeks may not remember Nortel Networks in its heyday. But check out this article written about how Nortel has been describing itself (proudly) as being like Pittsburgh. Granted it was at a meeting in Pittsburgh so it fit a theme I'm sure. But still, how long has it been since corporate America could conceivably look to Pittsburgh as a role model in any context.

This is all getting a tad bit ridiculous. It's going to be an interesting ride by the time September comes around.

But here is something a bit gloomier. Although there was a note that Delta is adding one flight between Pittsburgh and Atlanta; the bigger story is how Delta is cutting back routes overall according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. even some new international routes only recently started. I just looked and the prices of that Pittsburgh to Paris route are pretty cheap though most of the summer. Thus it makes news as it did today that Howard Hanna is buying 100 seats on the flight.

Thinking of Atlanta. Just curious what is up with former PG reporter Dan F. down there. Looks like his gig at the WSJ is giving him some national TV exposure.

Continuing the stream of conscience. Dan's beat I think regularly included coverage of the Allegheny Conference. News today is of some personnel cuts. Can't say that was not obvious in coming.



I posted recently about a house for sale on Ebay in Garfield

According to Ebay, it looks like the seller accepted a bid half of the asking price and the parcel sold for $2,500. Still a big % above the $700 the owner bought the parcel for from HUD it looks like. But with incidental costs and taxes paid along the way it's hard to see how this was a money making operation. The question becomes then whether the new owner is just another speculator or someone looking to make an investment.

It may seem trivial, but a whole lot of policy is wrapped up in that one little sale. Foreclosures, assessments, vacancy and abatements and at the end of the day the competitiveness of the city as a place where people want to live.


Act 47 and the law of unintended consequences - Part II

Trying to make sense of all that is going on with the Act 47 5-year plan being debated Downtown? It all is much much simpler than any of the details would imply. The nexus of city finances and the future of the city of Pittsburgh all comes down to this paper from a few years ago:

Local Revenue Hills: Evidence from Four U.S. Cities. by Andrew F. Haughwout, Robert P. Inman, Steven Craig, and Thomas Luce. NBER Working Paper No. 9686. May 2003

The fundamental question that has to be answered is: where is the City of Pittsburgh right now on its 'Revenue Hill'? Then where will it be if any local tax goes up? Any tax that is with the probable exception of the parking tax which seems to have an unsatiated demand.


Thursday, June 11, 2009

Iron City w/o the City

(news) Somebody has to ask. Did they ever pay their water bill? Over the years the unpaid water bills have added up to $millions drained away from PWSA revenues. Literally. Though some of it took the long route to the sewer.

Seriously. Did any of the forgiveness on the unpaid water bills include any clawback provision if, as will be the case, they move away?

and what do do with a former brewery? A really big brew-pub?

update: Just looking at the news trail on this to answer my own question. Just last fall there is this PG news story about how the PWSA wouldn't exercise their rights on the property even though the company had not lived up to its end of a deal involving the debt foregiveness:

The brewing firm's plan obliges it to undertake $4 million in capital improvements as condition for the write-down of its $1.5 million debt to the authority. A mortgage gives the authority the power to seize property if it feels the brewer isn't making improvements by certain dates.

Authority Executive Director Michael Kenney said that not all of the contemplated improvements to the boilers and kegging line are done, but modernizations have occurred, so the authority won't trigger a default.

But the kicker line is:

"They got the end result in a different manner," he said.

They got to the end result they wanted. But the city didn't! I now understand the bond deal better. I love the vague term 'modernizations'. Obviously not any modernization worth enough to not abandon. I wonder if that term applies to any capital purchases that will be resold?


Act 47 and the immutable law of unintended consequences

OK. I admit it. I tried to watch the city council deliberations on the Act 47 plan. Don't ask me to explain what was going on. Even if I could explain it (I can't), there were so many sub-plots to everything going on that it would take forever to even try. By the time it would take to go through it you would wind up more confused than you started. Then just to prove how screwey it all was there was this moment when Joe King was passing little notes to Bill P. in the middle of it all. I felt like I was watching the old Star Trek episode where the transporter malfunctioned and the crew was beamed to an alternate universe where everything was backwards.

So forget the big picture, but there is one thing I've had in my head. Think Act 47 has been a success? Maybe it has been, but it's not so straightforward to figure out. Here is something to consider. The figure below shows the trends for monthly benefit expenditures from the city's 3 major pension funds. The red mark is for the latest number I have seen quoted in the news and these numbers all exclude administrative expenses which collectively add another $2-3 million annually to that. The important point as you look at this is to ask yourself: when did Act 47 kick in and what effect has it had on pension costs?

What I think this shows is one of the unaccounted for costs of the original Act 47 plan that nobody talks about publicly. Future wages and pensions were clearly impacted by the plan and city workers made the rational retirement decisions that you would expect. Lots of workers retired much earlier (noticably both fire and police workers) than they otherwise would have. Those early retirements had real costs that make the savings touted by the Act 47 process less than what they may appear.

The induced retirements hit the city budget and the pension funds in 4 different ways I figure. The graph above is only for one of those impacts resulting from retirees drawing their retirement pay years earlier than they would have on their own. Thus the pension funds' cash depletes much faster than had been anticipated. Second order effects are important as well. Those same retirees would have actually been paying into the system if they had kept working. Not having those contributions add to the pension funds' current cash woes. It gets worse. The city now receives less state funding for the pension system because the formula used to determine how much the city gets is based on the number of active workers. Once retired, the lower head count of city workers directly lowered the amount of subsidy the city gets from the state forcing the city to make up the difference from general funds. And finally, as has been noted in the news, once the drawdown of personnel took place there were personnel shortages that necessitated costly overtime expenditures in recent years that again hits the city budget directly. I wonder if anyone has tried to systematically add up all of those costs?

So you may consider the Act 47 either a success or just unavoidable. But when calculating the benefit of the first 5-year plan you really need to base that assessment on a full accounting. None of the costs above are calculated as part of the overall 'success' of Act 47. As with all cost-benefit analyses.. If you only look at the benefit, most every project looks stupendous. Those pesky costs, especially the ones that are not always easy to measure, are part of the equation.

Couple all of that with what the PG compiled yesterday on personnel numbers relevant to the police bureau. The day earlier a long-awaited study of the city's personnel system came out and among the findings was the little nugget that the city police are paid significantly less than their suburban brethren. Ask yourself the first question about whether you would rather be a suburban police officer or a city one? It looks like the badge-drain from the city police bureau has already begun.

Couple all of that with the number compiled by the PG that 530 of 880 city police officers are eligible to retire in the next 5 years. Honestly that is one of the scarier city finance numbers I have seen in some time. Especially given how low the police pension system is funded right now. If this new Act 47 plan induces again higher than anticipated retirements the result can only be greater acceleration of the cash burn from the system. If folks retire faster, then all the future liability calculations are really going to become obsolete.

You might think police may not retire en masse, but they are rational folks. If they earn their retirement and see the writing on the wall then why continue working for the city? Retire, take retirement check and then take an even higher paying suburban job. Plenty of their brethren are doing it already so there is no reason to think they will not do it in the future.

Not the same circumstances, but it has happened before. Slow population growth in the city of Pittsburgh had minimized hiring for a couple decades heading into the early 1990's. As a result the police force in the city had mostly aged in place resulting in a period when a large proportion of the police force retired around the same time. Is that the future being foreshadowed by all of this? And what does it mean to city finances, yet alone public safety if the force loses its most experienced folks. Ironically a lot of them I suspect are the folks who all came onto the force around the same time in the early 1990s. It all ties together one way or another.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009



transit elsewhere

Mostly passing on some thoughts from the Transportationist.

One is some info on what Washington, DC is doing to improve the information their bus stop information. I say what a good idea, maybe something we want to look into here. But then I realize, down in DC they are looking to improve on they way they present information at bus stops. What information is currently presented at bus stops here? Hmm.

Some may just hope for trash-free stops.

There is even a whole study down there looking at bus stop information. Just imagine. You can start with a blank canvas here.

Just for fun: Bus stop of the future.

and up the Pike Ohio is itself looking for high speed rail $$$ from Washington. Still nobody talks about using some of those dollars to maybe connect parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Why?


Tuesday, June 09, 2009

ever more livable?

To go with the G20 theme... everything is related to G20 don't you know? I'm not spending $250 for the full report, but news accounts say Pittsburgh ranks 29th among regions globally in a new report put out by the Economist Intelligence Unit. So it's not 29th just among US places, but 29th compared to places around the world. I'm not quite sure how many US regions ranked high at all. Might not be many. Here is what the WSJ Numbers Guy said about the ranking two years ago when we aparently ranked 26th and were tied with Cleveland?? Go figure that. So we have actually moved down a bit??

Reminds me of another old comment here. Pittsburgh has a funny place in the history of livability surveys. Yes, someone will someday write a 'history of livability surveys' at this rate.

The first time Pittsburgh came out on top of the (then Rand-McNally) Places Rated Almanac based on 'livability'..... When was that? 1985 of course. So somehow in the midst of the worst economic decline for a major American region in the peacetime history of the US, we were somehow the best place to live, work and play. That made so much sense that it prompted Professor of Psychology Geoff Loftus of Washington University to write an article in Psychology Today in 1985 about how screwed up the ranking system must have been*. Basically he explained how survey based ordinal rankings of preferences really added diminishing information beyond the top picks. Pittsburgh didn't really come out on top in 1985 because it excelled in any one category, it was sort of moderately ok across the board. Thus, according to Professor Loftus, the Pittsburgh #1 ranking was really an artifact of over-interpretation of the data. Just one contrarian voice? Maybe, but it turns out that the Places Rated publisher David Savageau was so taken by Professor Loftus' critique of the system that he brought him onboard and became co-author of the almanac in 1996.

* Loftus, G.R. (1985). Say it ain't Pittsburgh. Psychology Today, June, pp. 8-10.


The single most important data in Pittsburgh

I once asked here what the Steelers season ticket list looks like. I wish I had kept the original letter I received from the Steelers when I first sent my name in. If I remember it, it was something politely paraphrased as: give up all hope of seeing anything in your lifetime.

The Steelers are now sending out a bit of information on their waiting list. They are just now up to folks on the list as of April of 1995. That does not say anything at all about when someone will get tickets. No reason at all to believe there is a year of movement on the list each year. Might be more, but I suspect less. But hey, it's better than if it said 1973.

Note the contrast with the current situation in Cincinnati . The Bungles are looking for a few good fans to keep us from buying their unbought tickets. According to that article they have season tickets available now, no need to wait until the next millenium. There is a great line in that article from the Cincinnati Post: "if the Bengals don’t sell the tickets, the Steelers fans will snap them up".


more Swaps Gone Sour

Think the story of the PWSA's bond is bad? Read the details on how a school district on the other side of the state got into a similar pickle. A Pittsburgh firm mentioned in the story as connected to that deal. Some funny, but sad lines in that. Reminds me again of the Bloomberg editorial that pretty much sums up the whole mess everywhere, but with a lot of incidence in Pennsylvania: Magic, Mumbo-Jumbo Were Used to Sell Muniland Swaps.

The PWSA as some may have noticed is doing all sorts of temporary financial manuevers to deal with their situation in the hopes of finding a more permanent solution down the road. The problem is that interest rates are now going up dramatically, which is not good for anyone trying to refi debt. That situation may be going from bad to worse. Realize that the period when the financial markets were completely off-kilter has mostly passed. Plenty of activity in the muni bond market these days. So if they are still not trying to refi debt it is not because they can't. Lenders are out there. They probably just can't afford it at current rates. Where rates go in the future I dunno. But some certainly think they will be going up more and more. Time may not be helping at all.

and little noticed was a news item last week about yet another bond problem, this time at the Airport. It's different in that in this case the Airport Authority is described as 'victim'. See the Trib last week: Allegheny County Airport Authority subpoenaed in bid-rigging probe. A story that has hit the Port Authority as well. Anyone else in town impacted?

and just some more footnotes on municipal finance in town. Go read Fester on what the G20 visit could mean to police pensions in Pittsburgh.


Monday, June 08, 2009

Altijd Overal Pittsburgh


Having nothing to do with G20 at all, the Dutch came to Pittsburgh and were smart enough to talk to the oracle. See Mike M. on Dutch Public Television via Pittsblog.


What does it mean.

What does it mean that a) LR has been certified as the winner of the Republican nomination and b) what could the impact be that he has accepted said nomination.

I dunno. I count 2,697 R lever pullers in the Desantis/Ravenstahl race. As most know, I don't buy the argument many make explicitly or implicitly that voters are not thinking when they pull the party lever (as it was of course before the new computers... it's just a another button now). So I don't buy the thought that most of those votes are going to support LR, unless that is their intent. No real reason to argue over that, we have in the making a great natural experiment to see how the two races compare. One time the lever gave you one candidate, the next time it gives you the guy who was the opponent. It's an almost perfect control. Will LR get the Republican lever pullers that Desantis got last time, and which made up a sizable part of his votes... or do those people change behavior based on the different circumstances. I bet there is a paper to write on those results when they come out. I'm serious.

What I find amazing about the news today on who got what write in votes... why didn't Acklin get any measured votes. Trib version lists the vote count in order as Ravenstahl (607), Wander (189), and that Dowd and Robinson between them had 203 votes. Why no count for Acklin? Seems like it would take some concerted effort to get less than any Democrat did as a Republican write in. Seems that random behavior alone would make that result a bit improbable. Just curious is all.

update. For those who asked... the data for both sides looks like the following which is an update from the raw pre-certified data that night I went into some of this in an old blog post. But data I have says that

Desantis: Total votes- 24,025, Straight ticket R votes- 2,697 . So around 11% of MD votes were straight ticket R votes.

Ravenstahl: Total votes - 43,557, Straight ticket D votes - 21.923. So around 50% of votes LR got were straight ticket D voters.

For those reconciling those numbers with my recent calculus/taxonomy of the Pittsburgh voter... keep in mind the lever pullers are split between two groups I broke out. Both the African American voters and the Democrats Uber Alles group included, but were not limited to lever pullers. Roughly 32% of all votes cast were straight ticket votes which puts in perspective the challenge for an independent. Without a chunk of pretty loyal D voters you lose almost before election day begins. The example of Dick Caliguiri is out there of course. But keep in mind that the late Dick Caliguiri had been the endorsed candidate for mayor over then incumbent Pete Flaherty at one point in the past. So he had some real support within the party base that an 'outside' I would never have. It also would make an interesting history piece as both Pat D. and Kevin A. have invoked Pete Flaherty in their bids for Mayor. Yet the example that Kevin A. at least must hope for is really Flaherty's rival Dick Caliguiri victory. Such is Pittsburgh politics.

Putting the math another way. Even discounting stray votes for minor parties or write ins.. With 32.4% D level pullers... the nominated D only need 26% of the remaining votes. You have to keep in mind that there are plenty of pretty loyal D's in the city who do not pull the lever at all, but vote much as if they did. That 26% includes them as well.


Diaspora Speaks

Thanks to all who mentioned it. Someone send Diasporan Howard Fineman of Newsweek a keg of Iron City or something for his latest look back at his hometown:

What Pittsburgh (Don’t Laugh) Can Teach Obama
Struggling cities like Detroit could learn a lot from the Pennsylvania city's rebirth.

Random thought, but I wonder how many former Pittsburgh journalists there are out there beyond the burgh. I know I talk to several. I further wonder how many there would be if we had had a major J-school here in town over the decades. (not a dis to the many programs that are here). But I actually asked the question once of why there was not a J-school here at Pitt and if it had ever been contemplated. There was a clear answer. Not being a center of the national media industry it never made much sense to invest in starting up a school focused on media.

I wonder if Fineman ever checks in here?


Sunday, June 07, 2009

Cyberwarfare near and far

Remember the passing newsoid about the 'cybersquatter' who snatched up ravenstahl.com. I was just looking at the domain ravenstahl.com and it no longer has anything untoward on it. Not sure how long that has been true for. Did someone finally cough up the ransom price to buy the domain? The whois listing does not tell much. I wonder what they had to pay for it? If they did of course.

You know... I got confused, but it's a different story. The past news was about lukeravenstahl.com not ravenstahl.com. But the former does seem to have been bought by someone and is being used in a less than positive way. Not sure how long that has been going on, but it has some new blog-like content starting in April. I just noticed it. Same question though, I wonder what someone paid for the domain if it isn't owned by the original 'domain speculator' any longer.

Which brings up another post from the past here, but also in news stories about how folks were battling over the Luke Ravenstahl Wikipedia entry. The Wiki entry on LR seems to have mostly settled down. I just noticed there is a Pat D. entry on Wikipedia. Unless I missed it I can't find an entry for Dok Harris, but there is a Wikipedia entry for Kevin A. already. Not so surprising, but it is fun to look at who generated the content. Lots of entry from one author who has no other contributions other than on that one page. Is that really is the only thing he or she has written? Probably does not rise to the level of sockpupetry per se, but if Wikipedia worked as intended and you could see everyone's full content it would be interesting. But there is a curious thing noted in the history. It appears the whole entry was deleted by one of those Wiki powers that be soon after it was created. My interpretation of the wiki comment is that it looks like the Acklin expert generated a page before he announced for mayor and the Wiki editor deleted it for lacking significance. Note the tag given including him among "American Activists". Well then.

Enough fun with trivialities. Cyberwarfare is becoming a big thing. The Air Force had a plan to create a new cyber-warfare command somewhere in the US, but put those plans on hold last fall and a newer scaled down version in Texas looks to be likely. With cyberwarfare in the news more and more, the larger plan might show up again . That post has a quote that the new command would need 2-4 thousand people working for it. Wonder where would be a good place for something like that? or maybe just some big part of it? Might be something to whisper in Obama's ear while he is here. But stay away from the guy with the briefcase standing nearby.


Stu Says

Stu is everywhere. Not only a long one on one interview on CNN, there is also a leading quote in the New York Times both on the state of the national economy.

More on the Detroit/Pittsburgh competition off the ice from the AP: Pittsburgh, Detroit can learn much from each other. And MH points out that the Onion has the only possible explanation for the Penguins' performance yesterday.


Saturday, June 06, 2009

Bringing LST 325 to Pittsburgh

D-Day is an appropriate day to mention again another one of my (as yet unsuccessful) crusades to bring LST-325 from Evansville, Indiana to Pittsburgh. For a visit, not trying to steal it. I'm pretty unsuccessful with my crusades by and large. But this one I wish I could really make happen.

LST 325 is a refurbished World War II Landing Ship Tank (LST) that has a home down the Ohio River in Evansville, Indiana. It regularly makes visits to other ports along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. No reason it can not make it up the Ohio for a visit. Assuming the locks and dams make it into the future.

Pittsburgh during World War II became a major shipbuilding enterprise. Firms like American Bridge and Dravo converted themselves into shipyards and produced hundreds of these LST's, even Destroyer Escorts and all sorts of smaller vessels. LST's would form the backbone of amphibious operations from D-Day to all of the operations in the Pacific. I bet there still are among us a lot of the workers who built those ships. Time is fleeting though. Imagine giving a lot of our parents the opportunity to see the product of their work now 60+ years ago. It's a story about Pittsburgh in World War II, but also a story of women in the workforce. The iconic Rosie the Riveter was here as much as anywhere else in the nation.

The picture here is the launching of LST-750 launched in Pittsburgh on May 30, 1944 from the Dravo Shipyard. LST-750 would have a long glorious career and be sunk just 6 months later at the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Of course getting that to happen is not the simplest. Need some bigger sponsors than just me of course. Money to bring the ship here is not cheap. I think the whole Pgh250 thing displaced any resources for things like this for several years. That and the bias in a lot of that against our industrial past made it hard to get traction. Now resources are bad all around so I am not sure there is anything going to happen in the immediate future. And the ships sailing schedule gets filled up into the future.


Friday, June 05, 2009

Up and down addendum: real estate.

Headline today: RealSTATS: Home sales in Pittsburgh region drop 20 percent

OK, but in that article it also says:

"The region's median price for the month of April was up 3.4 percent, however..."

That says up. It really does. OK. Sales low. Bad for some, especially agents. But increasing prices despite continuing record declines elsewhere. Some say there is even more bad news in real estate yet to come. But seriously, how many metro regions are seeing year over year real estate value increases right now. Every single region tracked by Case Shiller is down year over year. Some by only a little over 5%, but some down as much as 30%. Phoenix was brought up in comments on the previous post. Phoenix real estate values down 53% from their peak just a couple years ago. Imagine having just bought a moderate valued McMansion and seeing it depreciate like that.

Lots of things impacting sales. Beyond the sheer turmoil in the credit markets between this time last year and now, I am just betting you have the problem of folks unable to sell homes elsewhere hindering their ability to buy places here just in the normal course of migration each year. It would be a great study to look into that. All we really know thus far is that migration rates seem to be lower as the result of the recession.


Up, down and all around

Some days even my head spins. These are the news stories on the same exact news, literally the same exact datapoints released by the state in just this one press release reporting April's labor force information for the region. Keep in mind that that one press release is the sole source of data behind each of the following headlines:

One PBT version yesterday said:

Pittsburgh unemployment rate falls to 6.9 percent

The Trib headline earlier in the week says:

Unemployment rate in Pittsburgh region inches to 7.3 percent

Up? Down? Are they looking at different numbers? Nope, see above for source. The PG version parsed a bit:

County April jobless rate falls

and even the earlier PBT version of the story lead with a different spin on the data:
Unemployment rate falls in Allegheny, Beaver counties.

County? Region? Some counties? Again, this is all reporting on the same monthly report. All the versions are true of course, but you would never be able to tell what the story was if you just read the headlines. Numbers out show the region's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate went up a tenth of a percentage point, while the comparable unemployment rates in Allegheny and Beaver counties are down. The more recent PBT headline is the oddest to a degree. Reporting the unadjusted number is fine, but you want to be careful about what it means. I think it is literally always the case that the unadjusted unemployment rate falls between March and April in Pittsburgh as the cold recedes and employment in things like construction picks up. Literally every year it happens, so you need to take that into account when discussing what it means.

Whatever you want to call ground truth for the region, the nation went up 4 tenths of a percent between March and April. (update: and I forgot today we learn May numbers, up another half percentage point) Given the GM news, hard to see that national trend not continuing some more. But the local unemployment rate has been below the national level for 30 months now. The 1.6 point difference between the two is the largest the local unemployment rate has been below the national rate since June of 1975. The local unemployment rate was below the nation's during most of the recession of the early 1990's, but the most the two trends diverged was 8/10ths of a percentage point for one month. If the divergence now goes beyond 2.0 percentage points (which may well be soon, see update above) it will be the most in the current data we all use going back to 1969.

But for those who do not read much past the headline, different folks will come away with different stories depending on which version they saw. Truth is.. all of these tenth of a point changes could easily be revised by next month and well within what counts as sample error in these numbers. If you parse more than you should, the current unemployment rate went up to 7.27%, so the 7.3% is rounding. But to suggest that means anything is much like all of this this monthly parsing of the data. At best it's overinterpretation.

For the longer term trend there is my (google-enhanced) rust belt watch. Even non-Rust-Belt Charlotte has tipped over 12% unemployment. Even once envied Portland has one of the biggest jumps in unemployment around. Charlotte still is amazing to me in that it was exactly 10 years ago it had a unbelievable 2.2% unemployment rate.

I also found this sentence in the PG version a bit curious:
Manufacturing, which lost 100 jobs in the production of nondurable goods in April, lost a total of 7,700 jobs since the same month last year and is at its lowest level of employment since 1990. (emphasis added)
Since 1990? This is one of those cases that the data source reports back to 1990 for some technical reasons, but there is nothing important about 1990 in the manufacturing trends. It just happens to be the time series easiest to look at. But manufacturing employment is clearly the lowest here since when? the 1950's. That 90K number for manufacturing employment was once nearly 400K. Ponder that some.

If there is an unreported story anywhere in the latest numbers. One of the more remarkable numbers being reported is that unemployment just for City of Pittsburgh residents is being shown at 6.2%. So not just below the rest of the county and region, but more than two percentage points below the nation. The unemployment rate in the City of Detroit for comparison is currently measured at 22.8%, not just marginally above, but several times higher than that for the nation, almost 4 times that for Pittsburgh. There is an unreported story.


Thursday, June 04, 2009

to Paris

Just some fun with numbers

I've already been musing over the economics of the new Delta flight to Paris. The Trib had a story yesterday with details on the contract with Delta Airlines over the how much revenue they are guaranteed on their new Pittsburgh to Paris flight. The deal is not based on seats as I figured it couldn’t be.. but on revenue. Delta has a claim for cash if revenue coming in below $64,706 per flight. USAToday said in the past the new flight from Pittsburgh will be a 757. I have no idea how accurate this is, but SeatGuru tells me a 757-200 has 24 first class and 162 economy seats.

Airfare setting is a black box. Case studies in price discrimination are written about how airlines change fares all the time to maximize revenue as best they can. The seat next to you can cost twice as much of half as much as you paid depending on when you bought it and other factors. Thus you can’t ever extrapolate from any one fare. All that being said, I pointed out that I was able to get $530 RT fares to Paris in this flight for large chunks of the summer. So $265 each way. If all 162 economy seats are sold at that low price it still gets you to $43K. What the first class seats could go for I have no idea, but many know that most first class seats are really filled by upgrades using FF miles or other perk programs. A real full fare ticket could be a lot more, but at $1000 on average per segment (which would be $2K RT) for the remaining seats it generates another $24Kfor a total of $67K.

Yes, I know the whole airfare process is lot more complex than that. But I am surprised a bit. Fares as low as I got I thought would have to trigger some of the clawback provisions Delta had negotiated. Not necessarily it seems. So even with all those really lowball assumptions the minimum revenue threshold is met. Since I am sure a lot if not most seats are sold above that low price, the revenue is safely above the threshold. If the seats are sold that is. The next question is whether the low fares are really indicative they are having problems filling the seats which would not be surprising given the state of the airline industry these days.

If the market were tighter and fares were more like last summer there wouldn’t any possible risk to meeting the threshold, I guess the question comes down to how off-season holds up more than anything else. Peak summer season normally pushes fares and the number of passengers up. Remember, the USAirways flights to Europe started only as seasonal flights to match seasonal demand (was there a subsidy involved? I really don't recall either way). Only later, and really just for a brief time when you consider the long run, were there ever full-year European flights out of Pittsburgh. So how those seats get filled in November, and at what prices will be the real question. I wonder a bit if the guarantee to Delta is calculated per flight, or on average over the year or any longer period. Could make a big difference if you think about it.

But I will report how filled the flight is next month.


Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Will there be a fall election?

Hey look, the assessment hearing is delayed. No reason given. Leaves time to talk about other things.

News around is that the Acklin for Mayor campaign kicks off today in Shadyside. It’s a better venue than the Pennsylvanian I guess, but still I wonder what gets into people’s head. Shadyside as a venue for a challenger in this race is only going to result in preaching to the choir. I don’t understand why challengers don’t start their campaigns with events in Esplen, Lincoln Place or Northview Heights. Many don’t even realize those places are city neighborhoods, neighborhoods filled with lots of supervoters. A hundred or even a thousand folks who show up in Shadyside are likely votes a challenger has no matter what. Showing up in neighborhoods that rarely see mayoral candidates could actually sway some votes. Make a statement and start a campaign in Fairywood. Also a city neighborhood!

Anyway, it’s a common discussion I hear of late as to whether these challengers have any chance at all. Certainly if both run in the fall there is no possibility whatsoever of an upset of any kind. Even with one main challenger it would be awfully difficult to defeat a nominated, and incumbent no less, Democrat for mayor. The question is does difficult mean impossible. Here is how I see city voting adding up. Some of this comes from semi-defensible data, some of it is quite honestly my educated guess. But if you had to break down the major voting patterns in a fall election in the city it goes like this.

The Registered Republicans – 20% of the vote

The thing about registered republicans in the city is that you have to be kind of hard core to remain registered as a Republican. You pretty much give up your right to vote in the primaries when most all city races are determined. This group will never vote for a D under almost any circumstance. The big mystery is whether they vote for an R under any circumstance or whether an Independent in one form or another will suffice.

The ABL crowd. – 15% of the vote

Of course the Republicans are sort of an ABL crowd, but in reality they want to support anyone who is not a D. This group I call the D’s who are pretty opposed to LR no matter whether he is running in the primary or in the general. I think if you take the 20% R vote out of the 37% Desantis got in the 2007 general you pretty much scope out this group. Since this is a mobile/younger crowd I will cut it down from 17% to 15% based on migration and fading memories, but I bet at least 15% is at least starting from a point of not voting for LR. You could argue over a couple points around that.

The AABL crowd – 5%

This gets tougher to pin a number on. But this is also where it at least starts to get interesting. The Almost ABL crowd I define as those Democrats who are generally inclined to against LR, but will never ever vote for a Republican. While I am pretty confident in the size of the first two groups, this group is hardest to pin down. How that 27% for Dowd in the primary is split between this groups and the ABL group is the question. If the ABL crowd is 15% in the fall, that equates to 20% in the primary. Net that from the 27% and you get 7%. Call it a range of 0-10%. Say 5% for a SWAG, but clearly with error bounds on either side of that. The big question for them is whether that 5% would consider voting for an Independent in the race even though they would normally not vote for an R.

The African American Vote – 30%

To be clear. The African American vote is consistently a D vote in general elections and you have to have a strong reason to think it will not be the case this fall. Many R candidates in recent years have received zero or virtually zero AA support. If that is the case this time around, then the result will be the same as previous results no matter. I think it’s kind of a myth that AA voters don’t turn out as much as others. Even if that is true in general, the fall shows they will come out to vote if they want to. So 25-30% of the vote depending on turnout.


The Democrats Uber Alles – 30%

Separate from the AA vote just for discussion, these are the remainder of the folks who either literally pull the D lever in general elections or vote pretty much the same as if they did. If the AA vote is more like 25% this could group may be more like 35. Where either falls in that range depends mostly on the scale of AA turnout which is more variable than turnout in this group.

Add it all up and what do you get? Just MHO again. To repeat, all of this all becomes a non-issue if there are multiple candidates in the race. Even if a third candidate gets 5% of the vote what is marginally conceivable as a close race becomes pretty near a mathematical impossibility. If you believe my math above which I am sure many will dispute. The Republican and ABL vote currently gets you to 35% no matter who is running. For sake of conjecture, if the AABL crowd is in play only because the challengers are not running as R’s, though that remains to be seen. So it’s not a given but for sake of argument that could get you to say 40%. That might be better than any challenger has come in memory, but it would still be a blowout by most criteria. Assuming the core non-Black Democratic vote is not going to budge much… that means the remaining 10% would have to come from that 30% of the electorate that are African American. A challenger who gets a third of the African American vote would at least make this a competitive race. The problem is that while a third sounds like an attainable number for a challenger, even one that loses… it has most often been the case that the AA vote in a general election votes 95% or more one way or another. How that could play out I leave for others to conjecture for now.

The uber-cynical side wonders if the multiple candidates jumping into the fall race are really there to help ensure a LR win. I don’t doubt that Harris and Acklin both have sincere desires to be mayor. Where you see my cynicism play out is in their support. It will be interesting to see where their big money comes from. I all but guarantee you that if they both remain in the race someone supporting LR will make sure some resources flow to whomever appears the weakest of the other candidates to ensure a greater split among their potential votes.

Some things I don’t even try to quantify in because I just can’t. Parsing out the split within the Republican party in town here could have an impact. In some ways this is the last bastion of moderate Republicans which don’t get along with more conservative R’s. That lack of unity could play out in turnout or organized support for any one candidate. It seems thus far that Acklin is getting the de facto R support. Another factor is the Democratic version of party infighting. I think some folks who might support either Acklin or Harris if that vote were held in a vacuum are nonetheless threatened either of them would displace their preferred candidates. So some (I didn’t say all ok?, I don’t even say most, but they are clearly some out there) hard core Dowdites or Pedutoheads would prefer a LR victory at the end of the day even though they would never admit it in public. Cynical? You bet, but if you are not cynical analyzing politics you are not analyzing politics. How big a factor that is or could be I just can’t begin to put a number on. If it adds to splitting the votes among challengers it could be a big factor.

Finally the complete mystery is the Franco factor. Does it impact the lever-pullers in any way at all. Even a couple percentage points among the Democrats Uber Alles group above would mean less is needed to be gained elsewhere. Whether even a couple points is conceivable I really don’t know. I need to go back and look at the Swann governor results a little more for clues. My guess is that I really doubt there is much pure ‘Steeler’ factor, but Franco isn’t Lynn Swann at least in how involved he has remained in local things. How many years has Franco been the public face of LIHEAP around town? I’d love to see any polling on how much folks associate him with that program. All in it’s a long way from the fall.