Pittsburgh’s ‘Great Chimera,’ revisited

Pittsburgh’s ‘Great Chimera,’ revisited

I crib, liberally, from myself today from a June 2020 At Large column. It is done so in furtherance of a sad new adage: The more things stay the same, the more they don’t change.An old reading companion of this scrivener long has been Jane Jacobs’ landmark treatise on “The Economy of Cities.” It found its way yet again to my hearthside chair this past week. First published in 1969, it opened on the premise of Herodotus, the great Greek historian who had the audacity to pen histories only after thoroughly investigating them:

“I will (tell) the story as I go along of small cities no less than of great. Most of those which were great once are small today; and those which in my own lifetime have grown to greatness were small enough in the old days.”

Jacobs quickly sets forth the premise that it is only after the untruth of ideas taken for so long as an article of faith has been exposed, “it becomes apparent how pervasive and insidious their influence has been.”

The City of Pittsburgh long has resembled that remark and continues to draw from a deep well of the insidious.

Consider the deleteriousness of one-party mayoral rule for nearly a century and Democrat dominance of City Council. The paucity of critical thinking is at a critical mass that threatens the legitimacy of republican governance.

As of late, one councilor wants to ban single-use plastic bags — if not anything that is used once then pitched. And every member of the council is about to be hauled into court for the secretive nature of how a revised, but still self-dealing, 6.3 percent pay raise was passed. That, after it had to eat public crow over first giving itself a city charter-violating 22 percent-plus raise.

Think of the pervasive mindset, shown to be mistaken by the preponderance of reality, that only government can and should provide “public services” such as water delivery and refuse collection, among others. Given its continued utter failure at snow removal, that “public service” should be put out to private bids.

Think of a public-school system whose performance continues to deteriorate with repeated lip-service strategic plans to instill a “culture of excellence and achievement” that only has led to a culture of worthlessness and failure.

And think of a policy in the district that neutered the disciplinary process to allow an explosion of violence in the schools. One student even was gunned down on a school bus outside his school in broad daylight.

Think of the myriad attempts to tax our way to prosperity by transferring our wealth to those who should have no claim to it, or by transferring our governance to the unelected unaccountable.

Then there is the parade of politically controlled “independent” authorities, paced by the Port and Airport authorities, that constantly appear to live in a haze of dysfunction and the glow of over-compensation as they defile fundamental economics with the hubris that the economy can be commanded.

Just recently bids sure to contain public money were made to host the national political conventions in Pittsburgh. Thus far, the Republicans have declined. Officials still haven’t revealed how much of your money they threw at the parties. And the usual suspects (some of whom who should be sorely embarrassed for their participation) yet again promised pie-in-the-sky “economic benefits,” the scale of which history shows do not exist.

In the same vein, think of repeated taxpayer-funded “economic development” schemes that, when they fail (and they invariably do to varying degrees), and with pitiful accountability, require “just one more” primer for the pump “to guarantee their success.”

It’s like constantly having to push the rubber primer injector plug on a push lawn mower to keep it running. Oh, it will continue to run but not long after the latest push (to end all pushes, supposedly), the engine sputters to a stop. And all that attention to priming leaves the grass uncut.

That was the experience in Great Depression-era Pittsburgh and many other cities as government interventions sadly combined to prolong that economic crisis.

And, lest we forget, the damaging effects of organized labor, whose fetid legacy lives on in Pittsburgh, embraced, if not guaranteed, by government. Too often, they work hand in hand to not merely cable-tie economic progress but to mock it.

Think of the latest federal edict, roundly embraced in Pittsburgh, that overtly discriminates against nonunion contractors on federal projects and, by extension, inflates the cost of public projects and invites more and more union corruption.

Think of all these machinations and the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars confiscated to enable them, then think of this fact: Pittsburgh laggard “economic growth” remains the poster child for predictably failed and near-constant government interventions.

Our bill of particulars could go on and on. Call it still The Great Chimera – “progress” having no objective reality.

There was much somber talk from government types (in the city and in Allegheny County) that, yes, the coronavirus pandemic would finally force those usual suspects to change the way they do business.

But as we begin to emerge from the pandemic’s throes, we see none of that. In fact, we are observing more bad government business as usual than ever before.

And as we’ve sadly recounted many times, and noted frequently in history, a public despoiled of a great deal of its wealth from sophist scheme after sophist scheme should not hold out much hope.

For as Jane Jacobs reminded, “artificial symptoms of prosperity or a ‘good image’ do not revitalize a city, but only explicit economic growth processes for which there are no substitutes.”

If those explicit growth processes are continually perverted by government-knows-best overlording – or, worse, by the kind of basic economic ignorance that spawns government intervention — in pursuit of social re-engineering, there can be no growth.

Pittsburgh remains a textbook case for that.

Reasonable people — thinking people — indeed would have thought that history, coupled with the economic blow delivered by the coronavirus pandemic, would finally force government to change the way it does business.

But it won’t. For as Jacobs also said in 1969:

“Pittsburgh is a good illustration” of a place where “so many irrelevant things have been tried … so ambitiously.”

And nothing will stop those in government who so ardently believe that getting out of the way is an obscenity not to be abided. At least not without a DNA transplant.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).