Weekend essay: A matriarch’s grace

“Courage” is the word that came to mind with the news that Bush family matriarch Barbara Bush had died Tuesday at the age of 92. That, after she had chosen home “comfort care” over a hospital or hospice stay as her congestive heart failure neared its natural end.

But 18 years ago, in the hall of a Philadelphia hotel, it was the words “gracious deportment,” and “downright funny” that came to mind.

It was nearly two decades ago, in the summer of 2000, that I met Mrs. Bush during the Republican National Convention. I was there in my role as the director of editorial pages at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. She was in her role as the mother of presumptive Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush and, of course, the wife of former President George H.W. Bush.

And it was quite the assemblage on that hotel floor. At one end of hall, directly across from my room, was David Eisenhower, grandson of Dwight Eisenhower. Camp David, the presidential retreat, was named for him. His wife, Julie, was one of President Nixon’s daughters.

At the other end of the hall was John Street, then in the first year of his first term as mayor of the City of Brotherly Love. In between, initially unbeknownst to me, was one of the president-to-be’s family members.

Early one morning, freshly showered and wrapped in only a towel, I put on a pot of coffee and then peered through the door’s peephole to make sure the coast was clear to retrieve a nice stack of free newspapers on the other side.

The coast appeared to be clear. And cracking the door open with the safety lock still on, that clear-coast assessment appeared to be confirmed. Closing the door and taking the safety lock off, I quickly reopened it to retrieve that treasure trove of morning reading.

But just as I bent down to pick up the morning papers, there was that sense of somebody else being in the hallway. And there was.

Two or three doors down the hallway to the right, Barbara Bush was about to knock on a door room. With that signature bemused face, she turned my way.

“Oh, sorry,” I said sheepishly, startled and struggling to keep the towel in place.

“Don’t worry,” she said, with that hearty, motherly laugh, as she was about to enter the room. “I’ve seen worse than that!”

Later that day, deep in the belly of what then was called the First Union Center, Mrs. Bush and I were about to pass one another. “Do I look away?” I thought to myself. “Do I keep my head down?”

At the last second, I decided to deal with my continued embarrassment with dignity. As she approached, and I was about to nod a “Hello,” she beat me to the punch — with a wink and a smile. A nod and a chuckle and we each continued on our way.

Wrote Charles Churchill in 1761’s “The Rosciad”:

“What’s a fine person, or a beauteous face, unless deportment gives them decent grace?”

That “deportment” of “decent grace” in life, and that “courage” as a life well lived approached its nadir, was Barbara Bush. We all would do well to aspire to her example.

Rest in peace, Mrs. Bush.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

The ‘rule of capture’ question

By most accounts, shale gas and oil production are going gangbusters.

To wit, national shale oil production is expected to increase by 125,000 barrels per day to 7 million barrels. That’s the fourth-consecutive monthly increase, says the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

It also reports national shale gas production is expected to increase to 66.9 billion cubic feet per day in May, the highest on record and a billion cubic feet per day higher than the April forecast. That includes record high production in the Appalachian region.

And while pipeline capacity to carry it all remains a critical issue – stalled in many places by envirocrats — producers might have a new headache to deal with – a reinterpretation of an old law from the courts.

Pennsylvania Superior Court, in what could be a landmark ruling should it be sustained, unplugged the long-standing “rule of capture” axiom.

As CourthouseDirect.com details it, the rule of capture is rooted in English common law. “Under the law, the first person to ‘capture’ a certain resource has rightful ownership to it.”

“(W)hen oil or gas that was previously ‘roaming’ under the ground is captured, it becomes the property of the captor.”  And, “just because oil or gas is present under the ground of somebody’s property does not mean it’s his or her property,” the website notes.

“For example, if a neighbor drills into his own land to obtain oil, and the oil comes into his well from a reservoir on your land, the oil becomes his property.”

Now, “that does not give him the right to drill on your land,” CourthouseDirect.com reminds, “but he has no liability if the oil his well produces came from your land.”

But under “rule of capture,” there is recourse – drill your own well to capture “your” oil and gas.

But in an interesting – some might call “novel”; others might call “nonsensical” – Pennsylvania case (Briggs v. Southwestern Energy) out of Susquehanna County, the Superior Court held that gas and oil trapped in shale rock does not naturally move from one place to another in a pool.

Without hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to release it, the court held that the shale gas and oil would stay in place. The lawsuit alleges that the act of fracking on one property extended to the complainants property and, thus, was an act of “trespassing.” Others might call it theft.

Said the court: “In light of the distinctions between hydraulic fracturing and conventional drilling, we conclude that the rule of capture does not preclude liability for trespass due to hydraulic fracturing.”

So, is the Briggs family entitled to compensation for Southwestern Energy extracting its gas without a lease? Superior Court says that’s up to a lower court to decide.

As Marcellus Drilling News sees it, the decision “could greatly restrict, even stop, Marcellus drilling in the Keystone State.”

All this said, to a reasonable rule of law constructionist, “rule of capture,” no matter its English common law base, indeed sounds a lot like a license to trespass, if not steal.

If you are the owner of a property, and if you own the mineral rights to the property you own, what “right” does a competing interest have to the mineral wealth of your land?

And that should matter not whether it is a conventional gas or oil well or fracked shale gas and oil wells. Given the high-tech methods that have made modern fracking the revolution it is, surely there is a way to take steps to not “trespass”onto unleased property.

Should that lower court, on remand, award Family Briggs compensation, you can bet this case will be appealed the state Supreme Court. And given the proliferation of fracking nationwide, this case very well could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

But the bottom line should remain this: Private property is sacrosanct and the foundation of our American republic. And, again, surely in this modern age, there is a way to balance the procurement of an abundant natural resource without violating republican ideals.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

Around the public policy horn

Wow. That’s the best way to describe two of the recently released details of Pittsburgh Public Schools’ new three-year contract with its unionized teachers. And that’s not a good “wow.”

The district and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers averted a strike when they reached a tentative contract in February. Last week, the teachers and other district employees approved the pact. The school board will take it up on Wednesday. Its rubber stamp appears to be a fait accompli.

But given the long and gross dysfunction of the district and its well-documented failings, the tax-paying public should be outraged over contract terms that defy rational thinking.

To wit, the new pact eliminates performance-based pay. The union won the day by calling the 8-year-old standard — determined by principal observations, student test scores and overall school performance — to be, in the words of a Tribune-Review story, “unfair, inconsistent and ineffective.”

Pittsburgh Public Schools will revert to what might as well be called “The Drone System” – a 12-step pay-raise regimen based primarily on seniority.

Then there’s a capitulation to the union involving teachers’ assignments. Again, from the Trib:

“(T)he district will be able to make 35 involuntary assignments a year to meet shifting school needs, so long as officials follow certain guidelines.

“Among them: No teacher may be involuntarily assigned more than once in five years, and no more than three teachers from the same school may be involuntarily reassigned in the same year.”

Who runs Pittsburgh Public Schools again? Certainly it appears that it’s not so much the district – but the union. And that should strike most thinking people as exactly backwards.

That this contract runs for three years (versus what seems to have become the standard five years for public school teachers) is of small consolation.

And that taxpayers – the public that pays for these things – are allowed to be privy to such contracts only after they are essentially signed, sealed and delivered certainly adds insult to the opaque racket that long has been public school teacher contracts.

Sayeth Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald, after yet another group chided government’s continuing refusal to say how deeply it will allow Amazon to pick the public’s pocket for the “privilege” of locating a new headquarters here:

“If this region is chosen, any and all public incentives will go through a very public process during which residents may have every opportunity to weigh in.”

Just before local government types apply that big rubber stamp.

Taking the tax-paying public for common rubes is not a very becoming way to govern, now is it.

Writes Nick Kyriazi, in a Post-Gazette letter to the editor regarding calls for government to intervene in Pennsylvania’s struggling dairy industry:

“(I)f there is less market demand … perhaps the state should just buy all the milk produced by the dairy industry in Pennsylvania and give it away to the general public. …

“And if people won’t take it for free, the state can just pour it down the drain, because nothing is more important than keeping people in the same jobs even if there is no use for their products or services anymore.

“Perhaps if the state had been as alert back in the 1920s, it could have intervened in the private market when the services of blacksmiths were being impacted by the advent of the automobile and we could have saved the jobs of hundreds of horseshoers who could have continued producing horseshoes to this day.”

Well put, sir – well put.

A certain governor of a certain state running a certain advertisement for a certain reason make two incorrect statements:

First, this governor claims that Pennsylvania does not tax shale gas producers.

But it does, and it’s known euphemistically as an “impact fee.”

Second, this governor claims, as a justification to seek a second tax – a “severance” or “extraction” tax – that the shale gas below us “belongs to all of us.”

If he’s referring to “state”-owned lands, yes.

But if he’s talking about private land, then the right of property is a dead and rotting letter. Shale gas, as with any other mineral, belongs to property owners who hold the mineral rights to that property.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

Weekend essay: A precious moment

I knew not their names. Nor did I necessarily want to. Perhaps I feared too much information somehow would diminish the evocative moment to which I bore witness several years ago.

For years I waved to, and smiled at, the elderly man of Asian descent who lived just over the hill. When the weather permitted, he loved to take walks. The woman I assumed to be his wife often joined him.

Sometimes we passed on opposite sides of the street as I walked one of the dogs of the day. Other times I’d see him as he meticulously tended to his trellis garden on the side of his home.

The pair never spoke. From the vigor of his wave and broadness of his smile, I doubt they knew English. But no proficiency in a specific spoken language is needed when one has mastered the universal language of a happy and sincere greeting.

It was near dusk one night when the pair crested the hill above their house and turned down the cross-street. Yet again, big waves and wide smiles. And then, the precious moment:

As the dog paused to investigate the scent of some recently passed deer, I watched the couple, a few feet apart and side by side, walk down the brick street. Their heads were bowed and their respective hands were clasped behind their backs. They spoke not a word to each other.

The remnants of the glowing sunset framed this contemplative trek in the perfect light — two people as one.

In an era in which we too often, as a poet once said, “view life as a bridge of groans across a stream of tears,” this was a most endearing moment — one that reaffirms how wonderful life can be with another.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

Consider this …

“(T)he machinery of state government” must come to the aid of a Pennsylvania dairy industry struggling to survive, a Post-Gazette editorial urged.

“The state should oversee efforts to find new buyers and keep the farms operating, making use of the incentives routinely offered to attract new companies to Pennsylvania,” the P-G opined.

But neither should be an acceptable function of the state.

Continued the editorial:

“The state should work to make dairy operations and other agricultural enterprises more stable and competitive so that they are able to embrace technology, operate more efficiently, diversify into new markets and weather market forces outside their control.”

But none of those things is a function of “The State,” either.

Consider this:

It is “The State” itself that has done so much to destabilize the dairy industry and make it uncompetitive. Think of “price floors” that, in actuality, subsidize the over-production of milk that begets a glut that beget depressed prices that beget continual calls for subsidies.

Another government intervention? The only purpose that would serve would be to cover up the lie of the last failed intervention. Such failure, of course, is pre-determined by basic economics. Sadly, government never seems to learn this lesson.

The far better thing for Pennsylvania milk producers would be to have “the machinery of government” (that some so pine for to help it) dismantled. For government “beneficence” truly is an oxymoron.

The marketplace is speaking, quite loudly. It’s long past time for Pennsylvania government – and dairy farmers — to listen to what it’s shouting.

A Tribune-Review editorial makes the excellent – but long forgotten point – regarding those ever-rising tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and a lawsuit by a group of truckers claiming the state’s Act 44 is patently illegal.

The 2007 law allows the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to shake down the Turnpike Commission for billions of dollars over 50 years to fund PennDOT projects, some of the highest dubiety.

To cover the shakedown payments, the Turnpike Commission is in the midst of a program of regular annual toll hikes.

But as the Trib reminds, federal law expressly prohibits such transfers. That point was made crystal clear in 2010 when the commonwealth sought to toll Interstate 80 across Pennsylvania’s northern tier.

Simply put, highway toll money can be spent only on the toll road from which it is collected.

Consider this:

If this same behavior were employed in non-government sectors, the state Attorney General’s Office, if not the U.S. Justice Department, would be charging such “actors” with a litany of crimes.

As Greater Pittsburgh’s population continues to slide, another P-G editorial urges “real outreach” to reverse the trend. But there’s an elephant in the editorial, so to speak.

While the editorial touts the efforts of The Pittsburgh Promise to attract Latino immigrants to the city, it neither dissects the many problems of a scholarship program that dumbs-down the concept of rigor – loosey-goosey academic standards are not a recipe for excellence –nor broaches the many manifest failings of Pittsburgh Public Schools.

“Pittsburgh should run recruitment campaigns in the 20 or 30 biggest U.S. metro areas,” the editorial concludes. “If the city has jobs, people should hear about them. It’s time to start renting more billboards.”

But consider this:

A far better, and long overdue step, would be for the city to look inward after looking in the mirror and stop putting new shades of lipstick on the pig – and that elephant.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).


A Port Authority object lesson

There’s a mass-transit object lesson out of Seattle that the Port Authority of Allegheny County can ill afford to ignore. That is, if it chooses to ignore another mass-transit object lesson right in its own backyard.

Word out of Seattle is that Mayor Jenny Durkan has ordered a delay of as long as six months on a project expanding the Emerald City’s downtown streetcar system because of multimillion-dollar fail in estimating the cost to run the expanded line.

An internal memo obtained by The Seattle Times revealed that while the Seattle Department of Transportation projected an operating cost of $16 million annually once the system opens in 2020 – think labor costs for operating and maintenance — King County Metro, which will run these new trolleys, says the actual cost will be more like $24 million.

That’s 50 percent higher for a 1.2-mile line that initially was projected to cost $177 million to build but now is – as Gomer Pyle might have said, “Suh-PRIZE, suh-PRIZE!” – expected to cost $200 million (and counting, one can only suppose).

The kicker is that the lower amount was used to secure federal funding for the expansion and to gain Seattle City Council approval.

All this comes after a number of the city council members also questioned what they considered to be overly rosy ridership projections.

Of course, this all brings back to mind the Port Authority’s North Shore Connector, that light-rail line built from the Golden Triangle and underneath the Allegheny River to serve North Shore destinations.

You may recall that project came in wildly over budget and severely truncated. Do remember, the original project also was to have a “spine line” to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

As one commentator at the time noted, it was more than intellectually dishonest to claim the connector came in on or close to budget when a critical part of the project was lopped off – without a commensurate cost drop.

All of this brings to mind the Port Authority’s latest mass-transit project – the Bus Rapid Transit Project, or BRT, slated to connect downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland using the reconfigured Forbes and Fifth avenues corridor.

One lane would be reserved for electric buses with a lane each for bicycles and vehicular traffic, the Post-Gazette reported.

The $195.5 million project — of which local officials hope $97.8 million would be covered by federal tax dollars –is deemed as critical for better connecting the two business, retail and academic centers and reducing travel times.

Which, given these lane configurations, poses an interesting question: Will the effort enhance travel times or impede them?

As an astute P-G letter writer noted last week, existing transit times already are between 8 and 12 minutes between Oakland and Downtown. And as noted another writer last month:

“If the BRT plan goes ahead, we need feedback to hold the Port Authority accountable for how many people are using it to travel only between Downtown and Oakland.”

Which, apparently, still never has happened with the North Shore Connector.

And one can only wonder if it would happen with a 20-mile light-rail line to Pittsburgh International Airport, which once again is being discussed publicly (though an authority spokesman says “it’s not something we are actively working on”).

Indeed, the Port Authority can learn much from the unfolding mass-transit mess in Seattle. But it also should be able to learn much from its own messy history.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

Weekend essay: Delaying spring

The early morning sky is deceiving as the fresh April day announces itself.

As the first orange of the rising sun crests the horizon, illuminating a group of well-defined thunderheads, a wide and natural brush appears to have painted a tall and broad mountain range.

It’s a fleeting mirage as the growing glow reveals the reality — the orange has turned decidedly reddish; urban “sailors” soon will take warning and cover.

A “passage” time is upon us once again. Just as Labor Day mentally signals the beginning of fall and Memorial Day signals the beginning of summer, this first post-Easter weekend signals more than the obvious resurrection. Or at least it is supposed to.

Just as the urge to nest and cocoon comes not long after Labor Day, fueled by the first hints of foreboding northwest winds, the urge to fully step out and explore comes with the sun and the warmth Memorial Day typically, hopefully, features.

But it is this weekend after an early Easter that, if we are lucky, also brings more regular southwest breezes, carrying the promise of sweeter air and vivid rainbows, real and metaphorical.

While we won’t be so lucky this weekend – yes, more late snow is in the forecast — let’s hope the moderating, milder week-ahead forecast is something resembling accurate.

The red skies now have churned into a storm-hue purple. A bona fide gale has whipped up, heralding yet another cold front. In the distance, there’s a sense of a streaking fog that’s, in reality, a rapidly moving rain sheet.

It arrives much as does a bucket of water being discarded. And with it, reinforcing the fear that spring might never arrive.

Makeshift “ports”— a bus stop shelter here, a building entryway there, an underpass anywhere – harbor those caught by surprise (or at least feigning surprise to mask their umbrella-less dilemma).

But as quickly as they roiled in, the showers are spent. There’s no rainbow this morning. And the exhaust of a passing bus masks any sweetness that would have been the consolation prize.

Flecks of snow replace the rain. And the operative phrase over the next few days will continue to be “Put another log on the fire, honey; it’s still cold outside.”

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).


More notes on the state of things

The hand-wringing only is intensifying in some Pennsylvania dairy circles as more milk retailers are cancelling their contracts with commonwealth milk producers.

One of the latest cancellations come from Dean Foods of Dallas. The Post-Gazette reports that, effective May 31, it will end milk contracts with more than 100 farms in eight states, 42 of which are here in the Keystone State.

A variety of reasons are cited, the most popular being that a new Walmart milk-processing facility near Fort Wayne, Ind., eliminated the need for a Dean Foods processing complex.

But a few salient facts get lost in such a blame game.

Not only has milk consumption in the United States been trending lower for years, too much milk continues to be produced.

And why might that be, class? Well, Pennsylvania, for one, controls the price of dairy products with price floors, guaranteeing producers a minimum price for their product.

While supporters argue such floors are necessary to guarantee producers the income needed to maintain their dairy herds and guarantee the availability of milk, it has the perverse – and wholly predictable – result of encouraging over-production, which only exacerbates the glut of milk.

Consider it another backfire from “beneficent” government.

The outrage over an eye-popping bonus for Allegheny Airport Authority CEO Christina Cassotis is growing.

She was awarded a $146,000 bonus for 2017 – on top of her base salary of $325,000 and other perks. That’s a 45 percent bonus.

But the real kicker here is that not only was there no public discussion or vote on the bonus, the authority’s board allowed its chairman alone to determine the size of the whopping payout.

As the P-G editorialized on Monday:

“If board members can’t be bothered to involve themselves in important matters like executive compensation, and be transparent with the public in the process, they should resign so their seats can be filled by those willing to do the work properly.”

An authority spokesman attempted to deflect from the board’s opaqueness by noting that neither Cassotis’ salary nor her bonus and other perks come from “taxpayer” dollars. But as this scrivener noted in a March 26 posting, the P-G reminds that because Cassotis is employed by a public authority, her remuneration is “public money.”

All that said, another authority rationalization does not hold water. That would be the argument that because the board delegated this matter to its chairman, there was no need for public discussion or a public vote.

A public authority. Doing the public’s business. With public money. That, by definition, is a public matter. Let the sunshine in.

Any other reading of the situation suggest the Allegheny County Airport Authority was trying to keep Cassotis’ massive bonus as under wraps as possible. But the authority’s transparency-mocking actions have come back to slap it. As should be the case. For sound public policy demands openness.

Edinboro University, one of Pennsylvania’s State System schools, is looking for its seventh president in 11 years. That, following the sudden resignation of H. Fred Walker.

Walker’s downfall appears to have followed his – GASP! – speaking truth to educratic dysfunction.

After all, he had the audacity to propose cuts to a bloated unionized faculty for a declining enrollment, a poor freshman retention rate and declining admission standards to match.

To the latter point, witness a 2014 acceptance rate above 99 percent.

Walker minced no words in attempting to right Edinboro’s listing ship and tack a new course. Faculty and students alike were said to be “offended.”

But what’s far more offensive is that those who have the temerity to attempt to do what they were hired for can be routed from their jobs for doing so.

An administrative law judge for the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission has recommended that PUC regulators deny a request by Laurel Pipe Line Co. to reverse the flow direction of the western part of a major fuel pipeline.

The company argues the reversal would allow for the transfer of cheaper Midwest fuels, gasoline included, to Western Pennsylvania. But Giant Eagle and Sheetz, among others, argue the reversal would limit choice in supply and stand to raise, not lower, fuels costs.

Said Judge Eranda Vero: “On balancing the utility’s loss with the hardship on the public, I find that the inconvenience and hardships that arise from the proposed reversal outweigh the loss experienced by Laurel.”

The full PUC can follow, modify or reject the judge’s finding.

But this ruling smacks of protectionism that is not supported by the economic facts. As an Allegheny Institute analysis concluded last summer (Policy Brief Vol. 17, No. 24):

“Allowing reversal of the Laurel Pipeline would in effect be forcing East Coast refineries to become more cost-competitive” — which would be a “good thing for everyone in the long run.”

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).


Weekend essay: Into the wood


The sun is shining but it is a bracing and wind-whipped afternoon on this mountaintop outpost as “The Wood Project” commences.

The first order of business is to begin working from the perimeter into the thicket of an old wood long in the tooth, long neglected and long strangled by great vines.

Just to see what is what, that is.

Out comes the tall, manual, pole saw to remove “low hangers” from a half-dozen or so sugar maples. It’s tough cutting, not because the blade is dull but because the limbs are saturated – with rising sap.

Once cut, that watery nectar runs out of the remaining stumps like a badly leaking facet; all creatures great and small will love it.

It’s easy to see this wood is in critical condition, in dire need of a heavy thinning and replanting. And, that low entrance canopy removed, it’s also evident the scope of the project is far greater than first imagined.

Scores of trees, diseased and or wind-toppled, lie on the wood bed. And at least half the trees that are standing are in perilous shape. Some are broken off 50 feet in the air. And some of those fallen timbers are lodged in the high forks of other trees.

Still other trees have been nearly disemboweled by colonies of bugs that have been prosecuting a sustained invasion with little resistance for years. Save, that is, for the sizeable population of pileated woodpeckers, which feed as gleefully as they do freely on those pests, giving this wood a prehistoric feel, in sound and in sight.

(And speaking of sound and sight, there’s a bobcat in this wood. His call was heard this very day, carried by the stiff breezes magnified by a shallow ravine. Normally nocturnal, he has yet to show himself but covered scat affirms the tenant. There could be a brood of kits to come.)

Many others trees on this tract have been strangled by a prodigious crop of great vines, some as thick in diameter as motorcycle tires. Shockingly, some of those vines, acting as large natural cranes, are the only support for many of the trees they’ve killed.

Thus, this de-foresting job will take more than a bit of engineering prowess. What will be felled first? And in what direction? And if one entangled tree is cut, how many more might fall like dominos? Much of the felling will require rope assistance. After all, safety is a paramount concern.

This will not be a job that takes a few weeks. Years could be the more appropriate time-frame.

That’s the challenging news from the Jones Mountain Wood. The good news is that there should be enough timber to feed the coming stone fireplace for years.

And the better news is that far more trees will be needed to replenish this wood. Which will allow for a greater variety of species. Which should translate into a more diverse wood. Which will create a far better and balanced eco-system.

For as Emerson so adroitly reminded, “Nature hates monopolies.”

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).


Catching up on the news …

The Pittsburgh Downtown Community Development Corp. “is working with the city, developers, landlords and other stakeholders to create an ‘urban village’ filled with cafes, bookstores, boutiques and other shops – in addition to restaurants,” the Post-Gazette reports.

The idea, nonprofit corporation executive director John Valentine says, is “to build a shopping district that is not the same as a mall.”

One part of the group’s plan is novel if not noble. It involves private assessments on Downtown businesses that would serve as something of an insurance fund to cover any lease defaults. Say a small business goes under and can’t honor its lease, money from the fund would be used to pay the lease until a new tenant can be found.

It’s unclear whether any public subsidies would be sought as “seed money” to begin this fund, to be set at $100,000. But, that said, the public has no business underwriting what should be a purely private effort.

But even then, there’s an overriding problem with this proposal – the idea that such a “village” can be successfully planned to begin with. “Central planning,” be it proposed by a private group or by a government entity, seldom works.

While the word “organic” is horribly cliché, it’s appropriate for this discussion. To wit, the resounding and long-running success of the South Side (excluding the SouthSide Works), Strip District and Bloomfield, among others neighborhoods, came not from any central plan but private businesses developing on their own — each private business complementing other private businesses.

That is, the proverbial butchers, bakers and candlestick makers came into being on their own, based on demand – not because of some central planning “vision” that usually turns out to be myopic.

And that said, “churn,” the ebb and flow of some businesses coming and going, is part of the natural order of things. Central planning interventionism is a market perversion sure to harm the entire “village.”

It was in 2015 that the City of Pittsburgh passed an ordinance making it mandatory for landlords to participant in the federal Section 8 housing vouchers program.

But on March 13, the Tribune-Review reports, an Allegheny County Common Pleas judge ruled that the ordinance is invalid and unenforceable because the city’s home rule charter prevents such regulation of private business.

And never mind that Section 8 housing is supposed to be a voluntary program.

The ordinance was challenged two years ago by the Apartment Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh.

The same judge, by the way, Joseph James, employed a like rational in overturning two other Pittsburgh ordinances. One mandated training for security guards. The other mandated that private businesses provide paid sick leave.

Both of those latter rulings have been appealed. Past being prologue, expect the latest court ruling to be appealed as well. But it’s pretty clear what the rule of law is on all three matters.

The Associated Press wonders if a little-known provision in the new federal tax bill will have a financial effect on professional sports teams that bolster their income mightily from luxury suites.

Heretofore, businesses entertaining potential and existing clients could deduct 50 percent of that expense from their taxes. The new tax bill eliminated that deduction.

So, will that result in less corporate schmoozing? The jury’s still out on that one. But if it does, and it results in less income for say, the Pittsburgh Pirates, Steelers and Penguins, how might those already heavily publicly subsidized sports franchises attempt to make up the money?

Stay tuned. Or, given that the fallback position might well be an ugly caricature of market economics – such as attempting to raid public coffers to make up the difference — perhaps stay “tooned,” as in cartoonish, might be the better phrase.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).