Monday, March 26, 2007

Mayor! (Huh!) What is one good for?

I spent all weekend trying to come up with an answer to Prof. Madison's assertion over here that

the who's in / who's out / who's playing by the rules / who's not details of Grant Street are largely irrelevant to the future of Pittsburgh as an economically viable community.
To a large extent this is fairly true, and the recent proliferation of Pittsburgh Political blogs seems to be akin to such hobbies as Fantasy Football or Dungeons and Dragons.* Pittsburgh politics in my opinion is just an agreeable pastime, or, more accurately a disagreeable pastime. To blatantly steal from Mark Twain, politics is a good conversation spoiled.

But Prof. Mike has a good point: as strange as it may sound, the Mayor of Pittsburgh is basically irrelevant to the survival of the Pittsburgh Region.

But why?

Well, first, unlike the polis of ancient Greece,** the job of the Mayor of a metropolitan city is not to rightly guide its citizenry towards Aristotelian civic virtue. The immediate benefit is that you neve have to ever see Luke in a toga. Nowadays, more practically (and relevant to today) I would say that the Mayor's job involves (a) being the chief advocate of the City, (b) providing for its public safety, (c) distributing services, (d) managing its accounts and employees, and (e) enforcing regulations and collecting fees (including taxes).

This is a fairly broad job description, but it encompasses the fire bureau, city parks, police, building inspection, finance, real estate, etc. etc. etc. Very little of it, however, has to do with Economic Development, per se. In fact, one of the most important items tied to economic development (I would argue), the school system, is not even under the mayor's purview.

[The URA, HACP, and SEA, I would argue, can and do provide economic development services, but only so far as they can provide land and financing. They cannot create, let's say, a biotech or IT cluster on their own. Moreover, the Mayor can only encourage these Authorities to push policies and projects and, even then, only within the City of Pittsburgh and potentially at the expense of other parts of the Region. But that's another discussion.]

So what *can* the Mayor do to encourage Economic Development in the Region? Well, he can provide Land, low taxes, easier regulations, some services (including development grants), and so forth. This, however, is deceptive.

See, in my opinion, the real economic development struggle is between Regions. If Cleveland had gotten Westinghouse instead of Cranberry, it would have been a net loss for the Pittsburgh Region. A move from one end of Allegheny County to its outskirts is a break even situation. While I am a big supporter of agglomeration economics, however, I doubt the Pittsburgh Mayor's Office did or could have done anything about this move. The real competition was the potential loss of Big W to anywhere else in the country, not to Cranberry.

My point is this: because of the fragmentary nature of the Pittsburgh Region, the Mayor of Pittsburgh is only one of many players in the Economic Development world. Those players that have the potential to provide opportunities for real, sustainable economic growth work off of Grant Street. Pittsburgh can't grow if the Commonwealth business taxes are too high or if talent isn't being churned out of the universities, for example. Aside from going to other people and begging/encouraging/crying, there is little the Mayor can do to affect these groups. Even still, the Mayor of Pittsburgh is elected to work for the benefit of the City of Pittsburgh, not necessarily the benefit of Aspinwall.

In a sense, the Mayor can always make things worse: high crime, high local taxes, high debt, etc. all make us look bad, but the opposite won't necessarily attract anyone to the Region. More likely, it'll just attract from within the Region, breaking even again.

So while the Mayor might be good for something, in such a fragmented system where the real opportunities to attract sustainable growth exist ourside his control, it doesn't seem like he's good for much.***

* You dealt my Peduto 30 points of damage!
*** And that's before you take into consideration the oversight boards, the State legislature, city-council, the controller, and everyone else with their hands in the pot.

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