‘Sober-acting pols … drunk with hubris’
Two years ago, I offered up a retrospective of one of my all-time-favorite, go-back-to books for summertime – Jane Jacobs’ seminal treatise on “The Economy of Cities.”
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 continues to be rife with such examples.
Consider the insidiousness – that long has sparked shaking heads among thinking people – of one-party mayoral rule for nearly a century and Democrat dominance of City Council.
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.
Think of a public-school system whose performance continues to deteriorate despite so-many-year plans after so-many-year plans to instill a “culture of excellence and achievement.”
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.
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.
That was the experience in Great Depression-era Pittsburgh and many other cities as government interventions sadly combined to prolong the economic crisis.
And, lest we forget, the deleterious effects of organized labor, whose fetid legacy lives on in Pittsburgh, embraced, if not guaranteed, by government. Too often, they work in hand in hand to not merely cable-tie economic progress but to mock it.
Our list herein, by the way, is truncated only to allow for reading in one sitting. But you get the picture. Call it The Great Chimera.
Now, there has been much sober talk from government types (in the city and in Allegheny County) that, yes, the coronavirus pandemic will finally force them to change the way they do business.
But, if anything, it’s business as what we’ll call “bad usual.” Here are but two examples just in the past two years:
First, the City of Pittsburgh has codified in legislation “affordable housing” rules that, in practice, will create less housing at higher prices. That issue now is the subject of a lawsuit.
Second, the Port Authority has “rebranded” itself as Pittsburgh Regional Transit. But it appears that it just might be an underhanded attempt to horn in on – and likely destroy — the far more efficient transit options offered by adjoining counties and grab even more public subsidies. Real reform? Thwarted yet again, it would appear.
As has been frequently noted by others, 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 regulation – or, worse, by basic economic ignorance — in pursuit of social re-engineering, there can be no growth. Pittsburgh is a textbook case for that.
Indeed, that history, coupled with the economic blow delivered by the coronavirus pandemic, should finally force government to change the way it does business.
But it won’t. It doubles-, triples- and quadruples-down on bad public policies. Sober-acting pols continue to be drunk with hubris. As Jacobs also said in 1969:
“Pittsburgh is a good illustration” of a place where “so many irrelevant things have been tried … so ambitiously.”
It still is.
And nothing will stop those in government who so ardently believe that getting out of the way is no option. At least not without a DNA transplant.
Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (email@example.com).