The URA’s ‘industrial policy’

The URA’s ‘industrial policy’

Hubris and ignorance long have been the top two enemies of sound public policy. Sadly, tragically, they have joined forces in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh (URA) will re-acquire the Centre Heldman Plaza, site of the late (and heavily publicly subsidized) Shop ‘n Save grocery store and other defunct businesses, for $1.6 million.

R. Daniel Lavelle, the Pittsburgh city councilman who represents the Hill and a member of the URA board, told the Post-Gazette (in the newspaper’s words) that “without public intervention, the property – which is in mortgage foreclosure – could be sold to a private interest, giving the community little or no input into what happens to it.”

He’s got to be kidding. The URA has to be kidding.

Just to show how confused the councilor really is, the P-G, noting that the site is a particularly prominent tract on Centre Avenue, Lavelle insists any reuse must be of “the highest and best value.”

But that’s not for government to decide by diktat; that’s for the marketplace to decide. To claim that government can command a highest and best value is a bad joke, as the failed grocery store and plaza prove.

The URA says it is “working to determine the best path forward for the property.” Never mind that when government steadfastly believes it can pick a winner, it usually picks a loser, one heavily subsidized on the backs of taxpayers.

It’s about as an unsound a public policy as there is. And it smells of something akin to “industrial policy,” albeit writ small but still on a citywide scale.

As George Mason University economics professor Don Boudreaux oftentimes notes:

“(I)ndustrial policy – by turning over to government officials the task of coming up with creative entrepreneurial ideas, and giving these officials the power to veto ideas from the private sector entrepreneurs – reduces the supply of good ideas.”

A+ Schools, the education advocacy group in Pittsburgh, touts that it has found the Holy Grail of bettering abysmal student performance in Pittsburgh Public Schools – better attendance.

Never mind that the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy has been documenting that nexus for years.

A+ Schools details how a number of district schools have slashed absenteeism and significantly improved test scores. The group is urging other district schools to emulate the successes.

Great. Wonderful. It’s a no-brainer, of course. But the real question is why it takes outside groups to document solutions that already should have been shared within the district.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (