Sunday, December 24, 2006

Merry Christmas to All

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

On Deployment...

The People's Republic of Pittsburgh regrets to announce that the Admiral has deployed, along with the rest of his battle group, to an undisclosed location. He may be checking in from time to time through satellite uplink, and may even post a few comments if the mood strikes him. But he makes no promises.

The Admiral anticipates his return to homeport on or about the first of January. Until then, he extends his fondest wishes for a Merry Christmas to you all.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

I Just Don't Get the U.S. Senate

From today's New York Times comes yet another article about the recurringly bizarre spectacle that we use to obtain the Senate's "advice and consent" in the appointment of Federal judges. This time, the storm is swirling around Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), who is also (why does this not surprise me) considering a run for the presidency in 2008. According to today's article, Sen. Brownback has been single-handedly blocking the nomination of Janet Neff, a 61-year-old state judge from Michigan who has been put forward for a spot on Federal District Court.

What did Ms. Neff do to incur the wrath of Sen. Brownback? She attended a wedding. More specifically, she attended the wedding of a young lady who had grown up as Ms. Neff's next door neighbor and who was a long-time friend of Ms. Neff's own children. Well, actually it wasn't really a wedding. Not legally, at least. It was really more like a commitment ceremony, since the event involved not just one but two brides. And even though it was held in Massachusetts, the ceremony took place before same-sex marriage was available there.

Now think about this situation for a second. Let's say you got an invitation to the wedding (commitment ceremony, civil union, whatever) of your neighbor's daughter. You had known the family for 26 years. You had watched this young woman grow up from the time she was a little girl, and had become "... so close that the woman was, in effect, a part of [your] family and was like a big sister to [your] own daughters." Even if you detested the idea of same-sex marriage, just what kind of heartless bastard would you have to be to refuse this invitation on that basis alone?

And yet, if you harbor any ambitions for a high-level federal post of any kind, I guess you would have act like a complete asshole and turn your back on this woman and her family. Because, until recently, Sen. Brownback had successfully managed to block this nomination due simply to Ms. Neff's presence at this ceremony. He said that he felt that her mere attendance at a gay "wedding" made her unfit to rule on similar cases, since it "... raised serious questions about her impartiality..." on this issue.

One wonders about what this logic implies about all of the other judges out there who have only ever attended heterosexual weddings. Can they really be impartial? What about those who have attended Jewish weddings? Shouldn't they recuse themselves from any of those knotty cases about whether a menorah must be shown alongside of a nativity scene?

I have to confess that I've never really understood the U.S. Senate. I've read the Constitution, and it seems to describe the Senate in terms that I can easily understand. But it's the things that aren't in the Constitution -- things that really carry no real weight of law at all -- that seem to make the Senate what it is. All of those arcane rules and traditions that just don't seem to make a great deal of sense for a democratic body.

In this case, I just don't get how a single senator can block a "... nomination [that] was included in a package of more than a dozen nominees whose confirmation had been agreed upon by both Democrats and Republicans". But Mr. Brownback didn't like this one nominee, and his objections alone were enough to hold up the entire roster of nominees. Part of the answer, I suppose, is that Sen. Brownback holds a seat on the Judiciary Committee, and thus is in a prime position to pull this kind of stunt. But still, I've served on various committees in my lifetime, and none of those ground to a standstill simply because a single member wanted to vote "no". We moved forward, took our votes, recorded the objections, and that was the end of things.

In the end, Sen. Brownback gave in and allowed all of these nominations to proceed. He did try, at the last minute, to make Ms. Neff promise to recuse herself from any gay marriage cases. But even that effort failed when various experts pointed out that the Senate has never put that kind of a restriction on any other judicial nominee in its history. I suppose that democracy kind of won out in the end, but it still seems like the Senate rules made that victory far more difficult than it should have been.

Concert Preparation in the Post-Gazette

The Post-Gazette's Andrew Druckenbrod provides an excellent and all-to-rare service to us all in today's paper. It was good enough when I read it in the print version of the paper this morning, but the online version is even better. The article gives the reader a fairly decent introduction to Handel's Messiah, which will be performed this weekend by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh. In the online version, the article comes complete with sound clips that you can listen to.

It would be nice if the Post-Gazette would provide similar preparation article for all of the Symphony's concerts, instead of doing only after-the-fact reviews. I often encounter reviews of performances (especially by smaller and lesser-known ensembles) that I would have loved to have seen, but didn't know about beforehand. It's nice to know that they did a good job; it would have been even nicer to have been there to see them do it.

More to the point, most people don't really know enough about making music -- even famous pieces such as the Messiah -- to really appreciate how incredibly impressive our local Pittsburgh musicians truly are. Most of us played plenty of sports as kids, so we have some perspective and can recognize talent when we see it. But very few of us these days have ever tried to play an instrument of any kind, and so it's hard to understand just how difficult good music is to make.

Live music, and especially live classical music, is so much more fun when you walk in with even a bit of exposure to the works you are about to hear. The Post-Gazette is really doing a wonderful thing here by talking up this week's concerts before they happen, and giving people some background about the Messiah that they can carry with them into Heinz Hall. Take advantage of this rare opportunity while you can. And let's hope that there might be a few more articles like this one in the future.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Pennsylvania's Pervasive Public Pensions Problem

Starting yesterday, and continuing through Thursday, both the Post-Gazette and the Tribune-Review are running a series of stories on the looming crisis in Pennsylvania's public pensions. The series is being written by Associated Press reporter Mark Scolforo.

The basic nature of the problem here is simple enough. In 2001, just as the dot-com stock market bubble was disappearing, the Pennsylvania state legislature and Republican Governor Tom Ridge agreed to boost pensions for most public workers by at least 25 percent (50 percent for the legislators themselves). At the time, those who were pushing for these increases argued that the stock market would continue to rise at the same pace forever, and that no additional tax money would be needed to cover these larger pensions.

This decision was met with howls of protest. Not by those of us who would be stuck with the bill if the stock market somehow failed to live up to the hype (who could have seen that coming?), but by the tiny minority of other public workers who were somehow left out of the deal. So, after "... a protest rally that drew thousands to the Capitol, lawmakers and Gov. Mark Schweiker granted them a cost-of-living increase at an estimated cost of $1.7 billion".

So what happened next? Well, for one thing, the stock market tanked. That certainly wasn't a good omen for us taxpayers, but the story got even worse. Normally, those government entities who would soon be writing these pension checks -- the school districts and the state government itself -- would be expected to begin paying additional money into the pension funds immediately, to cover the increased payments that they knew would be coming in the not-so-distant future. But that would have cause a huge amount of fiscal pain across the entire state, since the money would need to come from somewhere. So, as the Sunday installment of the series reports:

[I]n 2003, as the state government and hundreds of school districts were about to be hit with a big increase in their mandatory pension payments, the Legislature and [Governor Ed] Rendell struck a deal to postpone paying the lion's share for a decade.

That eased short-term budget pressures but has deprived the pension funds of money they could have invested during the recent market run-up.

Not much has been done since. A bill to require the state and school districts to increase pension payments in advance of 2012 passed the House this year but died in the Senate.
Let's translate all of this into plain and easy-to-understand terms. They were spineless enough to give all public employees a huge pension increase, but then lacked the backbone necessary to look the rest of us in the eye and ask for the money to pay for it. That's probably because they know where we would have told them to stick their pension increase if they had asked us.

The thing is, as bad and as misguided as this pension increase turned out to be, not squirreling the money away to pay for it is even worse. Instead of having those funds for a decade or more before the baby boomers retire -- a decade which could have been used to invest that money and grow it a bit before it would be needed -- they are now going to come to us in 2012 and ask us to pay the whole amount.

Right now, the taxpayers are ponying up less than $1 billion per year to fund these pensions, amounting to about $80 per person state-wide. In 2002, this figure will jump to more than $3 billion and will stay there for decades. It almost goes without saying that there is no magic bullet in government funding. The extra money needed to pay for these increases can only come by cutting services, raising taxes, or both.

One thing that apparently can not happen, however, is a reduction in the payments promised by these pensions. According to the Sunday article, "... the state constitution bars curtailing pension benefits for current or retired state employees and teachers...". Frankly, I can't find any specific language in the State Constitution which bars such a reduction, but it may be buried in the case law somewhere.

Indeed, constitutional protection of these pensions simply has to be a reality, based on this quote from the first article in theseries:
"Sooner or later they're going to have to bite the bullet," said Arthur H. Schwartz, president of the 16,000-member Pennsylvania Association of Retired State Employees. "If they want to, they can cut back, reduce government, reduce waste. Maybe we don't need 96,000 state employees. Maybe we don't need a lot of things."
Just the fact that there exists an organization known as the "Pennsylvania Association of Retired State Employees" tells you that these people have significant political clout. And the statement by their president clearly shows that they believe their funding stream to be all but untouchable.

Obviously, Mr. Schwartz and his members are convinced that the primary reason that the Commonwealth exists today is to pay retiree benefits. Everything else -- building roads, teaching school children, keeping prisons safe and secure, and even paying current state employees -- is secondary to that goal. Only the firmest belief in total constitutional protection could give Mr. Schwartz the balls necessary to say this kind of thing to the rest of us.

For years, Mr. Schwartz and his organization argue, we needed all of those government services. We needed a large state payroll, because we were were the ones who were getting those paychecks. We needed strong funding for the public schools, because many of us were teachers and also because our own children were the ones attending those schools at the time. We needed decent highways so that we could get to our vacation homes on the Jersey Shore. We needed police protection to keep those "city people" out of our middle class suburban townships.

But now that we've retired -- now that many of us have moved to Arizona and Florida -- well, the rest of you can go screw yourselves. You will just have to find the money and pay us; you don't need decent schools, you don't need decent roads, you don't need secure prisons, and you certainly don't need so many state workers now that we aren't filling those jobs anymore. The only thing you need to do is to honor your "obligation" to fund our pensions, even if they are far, far in excess of any retirement payments you poor bastards are ever likely to see. Pay up!

And note that we haven't even touched upon the most costly issue of them all, namely the health benefits that nearly all state retirees enjoy. These costs are already a big factor in the Port Authority's budget problems, and they will soon be a drag on the wallets of taxpayers state-wide.

Paying for the pension and health benefits of state retirees would be much more palatable if the rest of us enjoyed similar perks. But we don't. Private companies no longer offer defined-benefit pensions, which pay out a fixed amount every month for the rest of a retiree's lifetime. Cost-of-living increases in private pensions are all but unheard of. And a huge number of working Pennsylvanians -- those who aren't retired -- have no health insurance at all. It's very hard for most of us to understand why we should pay higher taxes and see a reduction in vital governmental services in order to fund such gold-plated benefits for people who no longer work for us.

What does the future hold here? Will 2012 bring with it a large rise in state and municipal taxes? A reduction is government services? A constitutional amendment allowing for a reduction in public pensions? Or will the state government kick this can even further down the street, ignoring the problem once again and placing an even larger burden on the next generation of taxpayers?

I don't have a crystal ball; I can't see into the future. But clearly, there are natural limits to some things. Tax rates can increase to the point where some people will demand an end to the constitutional protection of state pension benefits, and others will simply move out of state. Services can be reduced to the point where even formerly decent public school districts are no longer able to provide a decent education.

It may be important to remember that Pennsylvania is especially cursed by it's geography. Our largest cities sit very close to the state boundaries, making it easy for workers to keep their current jobs while escaping from the Commonwealth's tax rolls. Technology also makes it possible for many workers to live far away while working for Pennsylvania employers. There are limits here, and many of us have the means of escape. If sacrifices must be made, then our state and municipal retirees should be willing to join the rest of us in making them.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Unpromising Consequences of the Pittsburgh Promise

I was out of town and away from the keyboard when the Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Superintendent of Schools Mark Roosevelt made their big announcement about the currently-unfunded "Pittsburgh Promise" college scholarship idea. The basic notion here mirrors a program currently offered in Kalamazoo Michigan, which pays the college tuition of all students who graduate from the local public school system. As stated in the Post-Gazette, "if a student goes to the district's public schools, from kindergarten through graduation, the program will pay their entire tuition and fees at any public university or community college in Michigan". Those who have receive less than the full 13 years (but no less than 4) of education from the public schools receive less money. Those who attend the schools for less than 4 years apparently receive no tuition assistance at all.

At first blush, it seems hard to argue with such a fantastically generous program. Indeed, a number of sources that I respect, such as The Burgher seem genuinely overjoyed at the prospect. One might complain, with good reason, that this plan is still unfunded. It might not have been the best idea to announce it without any funding sources lined up. And it might not even get off the ground if sufficient funding cannot be found.

One might also cast a skeptical glance at some of the details of the Kalamazoo program, which is offered to all graduates regardless of class rank, test scores, or grade point average. It could be argued that it rewards mediocrity, which is precisely the opposite of what is needed to reform most public school districts, and especially Pittsburgh's.

But still, it seems like such a fantastic way to revitalize the city. Existing middle-class families will stay here rather than move out to higher-quality suburban districts. Suburbanites, seeing this as something that could save them tens of thousands of dollars, could even be attracted to move into the city limits. It would be a very big lure.

But despite its obvious advantages, my very first reaction to this program was to see it as an enormous and impending disaster. Full disclosure is in order here. My family, like thousands of other Pittsburgh families, has elected to send our children to a private school. In part, our decision was based on concerns about the quality of public eduction, although the public elementary school for our part of the city is thought to be excellent. Many, perhaps even most of our neighbors send their children there.

But mostly, our choice came from a desire to give our children a Catholic education. My wife was educated in Catholic schools, and that is what she wanted for our children. And we simply wanted our children to learn in an environment where our faith would be a key part of their experience.

There can be no doubt that this plan, if it is executed using the Kalamazoo model, will destroy many of the private educational options within the City of Pittsburgh. I would imagine that the high-end institutions, such as Winchester-Thurston, the Ellis School, and Shadyside Academy would largely survive intact, albeit with a slightly smaller enrollment and (perhaps) a reduction in tuition. But the small parish schools and many of the mid-level options would almost certainly be forced to close their doors. Bob O'Connor's beloved St. Rosalia parish, for example, would almost certainly lose its K-8 program. Mayor Ravenstahl's alma mater, North Catholic High School, which was already thought to be considering a move to Cranberry, would also disappear.

Such developments would obviously be bad for my family. Not only are we likely to see our own school disappear, but our children would transfer into the public schools too late to receive a full K-12 education. Thus they would not be eligible to receive the full tuition benefit offered through the Pittsburgh Promise.

Apart from my personal concerns, there are also likely to be some disadvantages to the city as a whole. For example, the city would need to provide educational services to the many children who would transfer in from private schools. At the moment, these kids and their families are pure gravy to the Pittsburgh Public Schools. Their parents pay (rather high) taxes to support the school district, but require only minimal expenditures in return.

And yet, I resisted saying anything negative about the Pittsburgh Promise. Most people see the words "private school" and think of the high-end institutions where even kindergarten tuition can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, and most of the families are extraordinarily well-off. It would be hard to muster much sympathy for these kids, when the Pittsburgh Promise could provide such enormous benefits to other children who would otherwise really struggle (or even fail) to pay for college. Besides, I do have my own horse in this race, and part of my reaction is likely to be based on pure self-interest.

But then I encountered this excellent post by P. V. Poplicola over at the Burgh Report. I am not the only one to have these kinds of concerns about the Pittsburgh Promise. And to be perfectly honest, his "Open Letter to Luke Ravensthal, Mayor of the City of Pittsburgh" puts the case far more eloquently than I ever could.

For example, Mr. Popicola points out, as I did above, that the Pittsburgh Promise will cause many private schools to simply fail and close their doors forever. But the damage would go further than that:

... worse yet than the threat to our private schools, is the inevitable degradation of the quality of public education that would result from the loss of private schooling expenditures. When parents choose the public schools over the private schools because of your program, they no longer pay for their children's education twice. Now, rather than merely paying school taxes and receiving nothing in exchange, the public education system will bear the weight of educating children who currently are taught in private schools at their parents' expense. Because there is no connection between school taxes and enrollment, this rush of students into the public system brought on by your largesse inevitably means one of two outcomes: either a decline in expenditure per student or an increase in school taxes.

One of the stated ambitions of your proposal is to increase interest in the Pittsburgh area by making our public schools more appealing than those in other cities. On first blush, this proposal would seem to have that effect. But if the quality of education falls because the available resources per pupil falls, the reputation of our schools will suffer. If we attempt to maintain expenditure per pupil by increasing taxes, we will have contributed further to one of the reasons most frequently cited for driving people away from Pittsburgh: our already onerous tax burden. Whether it be a decline in quality or an increase in taxes, the after-effects of your program will badly chill whatever increased interest free college tuition may have engendered in those considering Pittsburgh as a place to raise their families.
In the initial euphoria surrounding the announcement of the Pittsburgh Promise, I thought of many things. I worried about the little school that my children attend. I worried about the effects on my family. I worried about having to pull my children out of classrooms where they have formed strong and important friendships with children who do not live in the city limits. But I have to say that I didn't extend my thinking to considering how this plan might affect the tax base and instructional quality of the public school system.

P. V. Poplicola makes some very good points here. To some extent, there may be some broadening of the the tax base if wealthier families move into the district from the suburbs. But there is plenty of housing stock in the city, and thus it seems unlikely that any in-migration resulting from the Pittsburgh Promise will have an enormous affect on taxable property values (which in any case are currently frozen at the 2002 assessment levels). Since a large portion of the public school funding comes from property taxes, where will the money come from to educate these new arrivals, let alone those who are forced out of their private schools?

Mr. Popicola then goes on to uncover some potentially negative consequences to even those who one would be "helped" the most by the Pittsburgh Promise:

Even if one accepts that there are structural consequences to your program that will damage the city collectively, surely the individual souls going off to college are better for this program's existence, are they not?

Sadly no, Mayor Ravenstahl, the children are the ones who suffer most. According to a study conducted by the Rand Corporation, the quality of education in the Pittsburgh public school system is markedly below the Pennsylvania average. As of 2003, only 39% of our public school children passed a basic test of math proficiency tailored to their grade level and only 46% showed basic proficiency in reading. As noted above, the increased burden your program places on the public school system would mean either a decrease in dollars available per student or a decrease in tax base because of flight from increased taxes to off-set the decline. As a result of this drop in available resources per student, not only would Pittsburgh schools continue to score below the state average, but our scores would actually fall. Because of the effects of your program, our young graduates would find themselves, on average, less prepared for the rigors of their college studies and thus more likely to fail.

Furthermore, the proposed program disproportionately favors those demographic cohorts least in need of assistance in financing their education. The same Rand study says that African American students drop out of Pittsburgh schools at an alarming, horrifying 39% rate. This rate, an embarrassment to our city, is well above the rate at which white students drop out. Furthermore, countless studies show that there is a link between poverty and the high school drop out rate. Because it is impossible to give a free college education to a student who does not graduate from high school, a disproportionate share of grants from your program will go to white, affluent students. The result, then, is a shift of available resources away from our neediest students, toward those students who are least in need of our help.
That was yet another point that I had not considered, and it is one well worth thinking about. This program would be great for families whose kids were destined to go to college anyway. Any shortfall in the public schools' educational quality could be (partially) corrected through summer learning programs and parent-funded tutoring during the school year. But for those who would form the first generation of their families to attend college, it would likely leave them even less prepared than they would be without the Pittsburgh Promise.

To a certain extent, however, this argument is weakened by the simple fact that all of these future college students would be freed from the burden of paying tuition. As such, they would not be forced to work outside jobs to meet these financial obligations and would have more time to devote to their studies. Still, P. V. Policola has a good point. It's very difficult (perhaps even impossible) to study hard enough to pass elementary college-level calculus when you haven't been provided with a strong understanding of ninth-grade algebra.

The thing about the Pittsburgh Promise is that, as good as it sounds at first, it -- like all public policy decisions -- will have unintended consequences. Usually, these kinds of effects are not given any thought at all prior to starting up a program like this one. But they really are worth thinking about.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Even More Taxpayer-Financed Campaigning

Yesterday's mail contained a very interesting delivery. As a city resident, this is the time of year when we usually await – but do not often receive – our trash pickup and recycling calendars from the city government. These multi-colored calendars tell us when we should expect our regular trash pickup, when to set out the recycling, and when the city will be collecting bulky items. While they cover an entire calendar year, the city has often failed to get them sent until late January or early February.

In the past, these calendars haven't exactly been works of art. They've just been your basic, 12-month calendar with the collection days highlighted in various colors. A sample calendar for the current year can be found here, at least until the city decides to take it down at the end of the year. As you can see, they are pretty basic in graphical style, but they were more than adequate to get the job done.

So yesteday, we received a new garbage-collection mailing from the city. Not the actual calendar, but an oversized postcard. In fact, this thing is seriously oversized at 11 full inches wide and 4 inches tall. On one side, highlighed in big bold letters on a red background, it screams "New GARBAGE collection day". On the other side, with the same highlighting, it screams "Your GARBAGE COLLECTION DAY may have CHANGED". Clearly, with it's unusual size, bright red highlighting, and big bold ALL CAP lettering, this is a city mailing that one should pay close attention to.

Of course, it also contains one other thing on both sides of the card. You might have already guessed what appears there:

By the way, if you look very carefully at the image, you can see that our mayor has his tumbs stuck down into the waistband of his pants. Kinda makes you wonder where he puts them when he isn't being photgraphed, doesn't it? Note to self; pack hand sanitizer when attending any Ravenstahl campaign events, to be used post-handshake.

In addition to the image itself, the front of the postcard also lists "LUKE RAVENSTAHL/MAYOR" in big bold letters on a bright purple background. This extra notice must be there just in case we had forgotten who he is, or hadn't noticed the black-on-gold notice within either of the two "REDD UP" graphics at the tops of both sides of the card. The biggest message being sent here, in case you missed it, is that the Mayor of the City of Pittsburgh is Luke Ravenstahl. That's LUKE RAVENSTAHL, everybody, king of the ALL CAPS TYPEFACE!

Oh, but the really interesting thing about this mailing is that, at least here in my neighborhood, our garbage collection day did not change. Despite the boldfaced warnings that we really needed to pay close attention, garbage collection will still be on Wednesdays next year, just like it has been for the last two years. So the only relevant announcement for us is that city will be moving from a once-per-month pickup of bulky items to picking up a smaller number of bulk items every single week. That's nice to know, but they could have just told us the same thing when they get around to sending us our regular calendars in a few months.

Anyone want to bet that these caledars, when they finally arrive, also feature the Ravenstahl "REDD UP" graphic, so that his image will be magnetically afixed to every refrigerator in the city for the entire year? That would be, of course, the entire election year.

There probably are people in other parts of the city who will see their regular garbage collection day change at the first of the year. These people definitely need to be told what their new day will be be. To handle this notification, the city could have sent a regular-sized postcard to only those homes in the affected areas. That would have saved a bundle on printing and postage costs. It also would have been a far more sensible and efficient method to distribute this news to the people who were affected by these changes.

But it clearly would not have been the most sensible and efficient method to distribute campaign literature less than two weeks after the Mayor announced his candidacy. And quite obviously, that's precisely what these mailings were intended to be. Taxpayer-financed pictures of Master Ravenstahl are popping up everywhere you look, and at least some of us are wondering about the political motivations that are behind it all.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Apologies

The People's Republic of Pittsburgh wishes to express its embarrasment at going more than 24 hours without a post. A thick fog prevented the Admiral from getting home from his latest business trip until just a few moments ago. More commentary -- both thoughful and thoughtless -- will be coming in the near future.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

R.I.P. Peter Boyle

Actor Peter Boyle has died at the age of 71. One of my very first movie memories was his performance in Young Frankenstein, and I probably watched that movie no less than a dozen times during my college years alone. He was a fantastic talent and will be greatly missed.

Dressed up like a million-dollar trooper,
Trying mighty hard to look like Gary Cooper;
SUPER DOOPER!

Is The "Fix" In for Ravenstahl?

As if we needed more proof that the establishment is lining up behind Luke Ravenstahl's election in 2007, the Post-Gazette finally got around to taking Master Ravenstahl to the woodshed over the entire Regan-McNeilly affair. It's nearly two weeks since Dennis Regan resigned. It's been nearly a week since Catherine McNeilly was punished. The Burghosphere and some radio outlets have been buzzing about it during this entire period. And yet, the Post-Gazette found far better things to editorialize about until now -- including such front-burner local issues as installing anti-drunk driving technology in every new car and the feasibility of constructing a permanent lunar base. While they have been so busy thinking about the future of the automobile and gazing at the moon, they have stayed strangely silent about the most significant issue facing the city at the moment.

So why today, of all days? Probably because they wanted to wait until they could run a separate puff piece on the front page that would minimize any ill effects that their editorial might have on Master Ravenstahl's election campaign. So, while the Post-Gazette castigates the Mayor's "lame ethics", and notes that he has caused "a bad smell that [he] will have to answer for as he campaigns for election", they bury those comments on page B-6 in the back of local section.

On the front page, meanwhile, they surround Master Ravenstahl's name with a host of sweet-smelling buzz words, including "affordable", "fun", "smart", and (my personal favorite) "merrymaking". The headline proclaims that these are the things that our Mayor "envisions" will come to pass here in Pittsburgh under his leadership, while the article itself allows Master Ravenstahl to claim that "... he has gone beyond being a steward for the late Bob O'Connor, and offers a distinct vision for the city's future."

Pardon me if I am underwhelmed the Post-Gazette's bold editorializing here.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Homework Assignment; Deconstructing the Post-Gazette

It's just one little article by the Post-Gazette's Rich Lord, but it contains so many points for discussion. And it even provides the very first homework that I can assign to you, all six of my readers.

The Pittsburgh Parking Authority is taking measures to secure the $5 million that flows into parking meters annually, even as its employees continue to take complaints of theft and intimidation to the district attorney.

Ten months after it spent $45,000 on surveillance, tracking and interviews of its employees in a fruitless effort to find evidence of theft, the authority has nonetheless decided it can do more to protect its money.
I am shocked, SHOCKED that any city agency would spend that kind of money and have nothing to show for it, aren't you?
"More security procedures will be implemented and additional ones will always be looked at," said acting Executive Director Dave Onorato.
Your homework assignment for tonight; describe, in 25 words or less, how Dave Onorato got his job as "acting Executive Director" of the Pittsburgh Parking Authority.
Employees, though, say there's one thing the authority hasn't done: exonerate them, five months after one collector hurled what they call false theft accusations at others in front of City Council.

That omission "affects the morale of employees," said Shawn Beck, union steward for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2719, which represents some 50 meter enforcement, repair and collections workers. Low morale, in turn, "impedes the ability of the authority to collect money."
Low morale somehow "impedes the ability" of the collection workers to pull coins out of the meters? These people have to haul tons of coins around the city in both the baking heat of summer and the sub-freezing days of winter. I would never expect them to ever have anything but low morale.
Responding to internal accusations of employee theft, the authority in January retained Victory Security of Carnegie. The authority had law firm Klett Rooney Lieber & Schorling contract with the security company, so it could shield the investigation from public document laws.
You just gotta be kidding me here. They passed the investigation through private law firm -- who no doubt took a cut of the fee for themselves, thus raising the overall cost to the taxpayers -- just so they didn't have to comply with any public disclosure laws? What, falling back on the age-old and apparently ironclad excuse that this was a "personnel matter" wasn't good enough? What is up with this pathological fear of public disclosure? We keep paying for investigation after investigation around here, but we are never allowed even the slightest peak behind the curtain. How in the hell could public disclosure of any documents from this investigation -- which, quite frankly, nobody was ever likely to have examined -- be worth several thousand dollars in additional legal fees? This story is getting really old, people!
Victory Security's invoices, which the authority released, were paid by Klett Rooney, which was reimbursed by the authority. They show that the firm used four investigators per day to follow collectors for four weeks. Global positioning system, or GPS, devices were installed in collection vehicles.

"The investigation did show no evidence of theft occurring in the collections department," said Mr. Onorato.

The authority considered involving police against one employee, but in the end just gave written warnings to collectors who were found to stray from their assigned areas.
Oh right, the police. That would be the people whom the public are already paying to do investigations like this one. Good idea here! We musn't involve the police when we can pay extra money for private security officers (hired through a middleman) to do this kind of work for them.
In July, collector Robert A. Davis told council, during its public comment period, that colleagues have taken meter keys and left meters unlocked. He also went to District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.'s office, and was interviewed by investigator Dennis Logan, assigned to look into the theft allegations.
So in other words, the thefts (if there we any) were not taking place while the collectors were on the clock and doing their rounds. Instead, the thieves were stealing keys or leaving meters unlocked so that they could get to the money after their shifts were over. Given the nature of the accusation, what was the point in paying four private security guards to follow the collectors while they were doing their daily rounds in their city-owned, GPS-equiped vehicles? That's not when the thefts were happening!
On Nov. 20, Mr. Beck [the union steward] and former authority employee Robert Santucci went to the district attorney's office and said that the investigation was biased, intimidating some employees while ignoring allegations against Mr. Davis. ... "My concern is that I have a number of employees, as a direct result of the investigation, who are working in a hostile work environment," said Mr. Beck. "I want to know if [the authority] is allowed to use public money to engage in a political witch hunt" that he said targeted some employees and supervisors while failing to scrutinize others.
You know, Mr. Beck, I could almost buy into your whole "witch hunt" thing if you hadn't opened with that tired old union steward bullshit about there being a "hostile work environment". Of course there's a hostile work environment. Anytime you have low-wage people working with decent amounts of cash in a job that defies any kind of ongoing supervision, there's going to be some theft, and some accusations about theft. And occasionally, there are even going to be some investigations of theft. It's part of the very nature of the job here. Get used to it.
[Mr. Onorato said he is] taking steps to reduce the possibility that some of the millions of quarters flowing into his system are filched. For instance, coin collectors now carry cell phones with GPS tracking devices, allowing the authority to monitor their whereabouts as they tap meters. ... It is replacing the locks and coin cups in meters, while reducing its reliance on the coin-operated devices by shifting to multi-space meters. The multi-space meters take cash and credit cards and include software that tracks the money collected -- something coin-operated meters don't do.
This kind of technology, of course, will also reduce the number of pain-in-the-ass coin collectors that the Parking Authority will have to employ. After hearing from their union steward in this article, you can understand why the Parking Authority would find that kind of work-force reduction pretty attractive.

Such a minor little article, and yet so illustrative of Pittsburgh. I love it!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Cutters, Outsourcing, and Idiocy

Two excellent articles appeared this weekend in both the Washington Post and the New York Times (a free subscription may be required for the Times article). Both articles detail the enormous problems that the United States Coast Guard (USCG) is having in making some long-needed upgrades to their fleet. Then today -- for those of you who have either home delivery of the New York Times or a subscription to their TimesSelect web service -- Times columnist Paul Krugman went and wrote an Op-Ed piece that discusses the relationship between these shipbuilding efforts, the outsourcing of governmental functions, and one simply staggering waste of our tax dollars.

Prior to 9/11 and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Coast Guard was (in peacetime, anyway) part of the Treasury Department. As you might imagine, the day-to-day missions of the Coast Guard -- search, rescue, coastal patrol, intediction, et cetera -- were never a really good fit with the core missions of the Treasury Department as a whole.

The 9/11 attacks shifted the focus onto the Coast Guard's security functions, and also resulted in them moving out of Treasury and into the Department of Homeland Security. Suddenly, there was money for things like shipbuilding, in amounts that could only have been dreamed about in the pre-9/11 days. And to be sure, the USCG was (and still is) in desperate need of new cutters and upgrades to their existing ones. Not only do they have an increased national security workload, but their existing fleet is getting rather old and tired.

The only catch here is that the Coast Guard now needs to work within the rules of that great corporate feeding trough called the Department of Homeland Security. The result is something called "Deepwater", a 25-year modernization program that -- when taken as a whole -- constitutes the Coast Guard's largest contract ever. The name "Deepwater" could not have been better chosen, because it has certainly landed the USCG and those of us who fund it in both very hot water and very deep shit.

Deepwater is one massive shipbuilding program. The plan calls for 91 new or massively refurbished blue-water ships and 124 small boats, which may be more than even the Navy is likely to procure over the same period of time. All of this is taking place within the Department of Homeland Security, which has no experience building ocean-going vessels outside of the Coast Guard itself. And the Coast Guard is -- or so it was believed -- too small of an organization to manage such a massive project all on its own.

The solution was one of the dumbest ideas I have ever seen. The Washington Post describes the situation this way:

The primary contractors, Bethesda-based Lockheed and Northrop Grumman of Los Angeles, have been given unusual authority to run the program through Integrated Coast Guard Systems, according to several government reports. The companies make many of the important decisions, including which ships and aircraft are needed and which subcontractors will design and build them, according to GAO and inspector general reports.

In August, the Homeland Security inspector general reported that... the Coast Guard had "limited influence" over some contractor decisions.
Personally, I find the Post's description of the situation overly generous. The New York Times was probably a bit closer to the mark in their article:

... instead of managing the project itself, the Coast Guard hired Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, two of the nation’s largest military contractors, to plan, supervise and deliver the new vessels and helicopters.

Many retired Coast Guard officials, former company executives and government auditors fault that privatization model, saying it allowed the contractors at times to put their interests ahead of the Guard’s.

“This is the fleecing of America,” said Anthony D’Armiento, a systems engineer who has worked for Northrop and the Coast Guard on the project. “It is the worst contract arrangement I’ve seen in all my 20 plus years in naval engineering.”
In basic, everyday terms, the federal government outsourced every last thing about this project -- including the key "big picture" decisions about what the government would and would not pay for -- to the very people who were profiting from the contract in the first place. The foxes were put in charge of the hen house, and the results were hardly surprising, as descibed by the Times; "... the contractors failed to fulfill their obligation to make sure the government got the best price, frequently steering work to their subsidiaries or business partners instead of competitors, according to government auditors and people affiliated with the program."

The list of incredible screw-ups from Deepwater just go on and on and on. I couldn't begin to list them all. Here's just a small sample:

Part of the program called for taking all 49 of the USCG's 110-foot patrol boats, cutting them open, and sliding in a new 13-foot section to increase their overall length to 123 feet. After putting 8 boats through this process (at a cost of $11 million apiece), the Coast Guard discovered that the ships could not handle even moderately-heavy seas. After one of these boats developed a six-inch crack in its deck and a buckled hull, the Coast Guard put all of them on "restrictive duty" that prohibited them from operating in seas higher than eight feet. Then, just last month, they found new structural problems, resulting in all eight boats being pulled out of service completely.

Another aspect of the program is the construction on an entirely new class of 147-foot cutter called the "Fast Response Cutter". The Times describes what happened here far better than I ever could:

The hull was to be built from glass-reinforced plastic, known as a composite, something never tried on a large American military ship.

While acknowledging that it might cost much more to build the 58 planned cutters with composite hulls instead of steel, Northrop and Lockheed claimed the boats would last longer and require less maintenance, saving money over the long run.

Coast Guard engineers... were doubtful that Northrop’s design would work, citing concerns about weight, hull shape and fuel consumption. The Coast Guard also found inconsistencies in the cost data Northrop used to justify the new hull.

One former Northrop executive said the company was pushing the plan not because it was in the best interest of the Coast Guard, but because Northrop had just spent $64 million to turn its shipyard in Gulfport, Miss., into the country’s first large-scale composite hull manufacturing plant for military ships.

“It was a pure business decision,” said the former executive, who disagreed with the plan and would speak only anonymously for fear of retribution. “And it was the wrong one.”

That became clear when a scale model of the Fast Response Cutter was placed in a tank of water — and flunked the test. After three years and $38 million, Northrop Grumman’s plan was suspended.
Another new class of ship to come out of Deepwater was the 425-foot National Security Cutter. One of those was finally delivered last month at a cost $564 million, despite years of warnings from naval engineers that it too had structural flaws. And now it too is stuck dockside while the Coast Guard tries to figure out the modifications needed to make it seaworthy. Meanwhile, a second cutter of the same class is being built with the same original plans, since it is "too late" in the process to make any changes.

These are the big screw-ups, but there are others. The radios placed in small, open boats were not waterproof, making them useless in heavy seas. An order of eight small, inflatable boats (according to the Times article) cost an extra half-million dollars because the purchase was passed through four layers of contractors. My favorite disaster, however, is an electronics suite that the Coast Guard says it never wanted or ordered, but which is nevertheless being installed on every National Security Cutter. The Coast Guard's plan, after each new cutter is delivered, is to sail it to another location and have the unnecessary electronics ripped out there.

There are a huge number of reasons why things have spun this far out of control, including the raw lobbying power of the main defense contractors and all the Fairy God Congressmembers whose districts are getting a piece of the action. But the central theme comes down to this absurd notion of taking jobs that have traditionally been performed by members of the armed services and handing these functions over to for-profit corporations.

On the face of things, the Deepwater project seems similar to our idiotic use of civilian truck drivers to deliver ammunition in a war zone. Or to hiring civilian food service workers to cook meals for our troops in Iraq. But, as dumb as those decisions are, Deepwater is far worse. In this case, we've actually hired for-profit companies to make the very decisions which determine what we are going to purchase from them and how much we are going to pay.

Stunning. Simply stunning. And I really don't have any good ideas how to put a stop to it. The Paul Krugman Op-Ed piece is similary devoid of any good ideas, apart from expressing hope that the new Democratic congress will "let the subpoenas fly" in investigating this and other disasters of governmental outsourcing. But it's really far too late for that. By the time that first subpoena takes wing, we will already have spent billions of dollars on ships that are incapable of going to sea, and have no other option than to spend millions more to give them that capability.

The Coast Guard is, to my mind, the most noble of our armed services. Even in peacetime, they put themselves at grave risk on a daily basis. They alone volunteer go out into weather that no knowledgeable sailor would ever willingly place themselves. We owe it to them to provide them with the ships needed to do handle such conditions, and we are failing them miserably.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Cool Picture, But What's Up with the Computers?

This is one of the coolest news photographs of recent memory, showing the Space Shuttle Discovery's launch this evening.

Very cool photograph, indeed. But I also noticed in the news a few days ago some discussion of the current launch window, and the reasons why the shuttle launch needed to happen fairly soon. It seems that the shuttle's computer system, which was designed 30 years ago, is incapable of dealing with that annual celebration known as New Year's Eve. Just like the much-feared "Y2K" problem featured computers which couldn't handle the changeover from one century to the next, our most-advanced space craft cannot handle the changeover from one year to the next.

Were the shuttle to find itself in orbit on New Year's Eve, the entire computer system would need to be rebooted while in space. Even if the reboot went off without a hitch, the shuttle would still face "... a period without navigation updates or vehicle control". Which, to put it mildly, hardly seems like an ideal situation.

With tonight's launch, it looks like crew of Discovery will return from their 12-day mission with more than enough time to spare, allowing them to attend the first-ever raising of "The Future of Pittsburgh" during our First Night festivities. I bet they can't wait.

Now if someone could please explain to me why the Space Shuttles are being controlled with computers that are less advanced than the Commodore 64 -- or even the Atari 2600 game system -- that I had back in early 1980s... well, I still wouldn't be a very happy taxpayer.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Carnegie-Mellon Professor Wins Major Criminology Prize

Here is a story that you never saw reported in any of the local media when it was announced at the end of October. Professor Al Blumstein of Carnegie-Mellon University has been awarded the 2007 Stockholm Prize in Criminology. He will share the prize with Professor Terrie E. Moffitt from the University of London.

This is, in essence, criminology's equivalent of a Nobel Prize or the Fields Medal in mathematics. It is awarded in Stockholm's City Hall, the same venue where the Nobel Peace Prize is presented. The Stockholm Prize includes a cash award of 1 million Swedish Kronor, equivalent to roughly $145,000 in U.S. currency.

According to the prize announcement, Professor Blumstein

... has made a major contribution to the research into criminal careers. He is being recognized for his analyses of variations in the frequency of offending in the careers of active criminals in US jurisdictions. His research has had a global impact on justice polices and practices, as well as on the rapid growth in the influence of developmental and life-course criminology.
I often focus on the negative aspects of Pittsburgh, and so it's a nice relief to talk about something that all of us can be very proud of. Congratulations to Al and his family!

Connections with Dennis Regan Push Yet Another Mayor into Rank Stupidity

The story all over the Burghoshere -- Burgh Report, 2PJs -- this morning (and also in stories by the Post-Gazette's Rich Lord and Ed Blazina and the Tribune-Review's Jeremy Boren and Jill King Greenwood) is that Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration has demoted Pittsburgh Police Commander Catherine McNeilly. Effective immediately, Ms. McNeilly has been reduced in rank to Lieutenant and assigned to a desk position in the Warrants section of the Municipal Court building. I guess Master Ravenstahl (and his teachers) believe that to be a nice out-of-the way spot to hide her until the storm blows over. She will also lose about $10,000 per year from her pay.

I can only urge Ms. McNeilly, in the strongest terms possible, to sue. Sue, sue, sue, sue, sue!

I say that even though I usually have a knee-jerk reaction against using the civil courts to address these kinds of matters, and despite the fact that city can ill-afford both the legal fees and any monetary judgement awarded to Ms. McNeilly as a result of such a lawsuit. But when a public official like Master Ravenstahl behaves with such transparent stupidity and is completely blind to any thing approaching common sense, then the courts seem to be the only recourse.

Let's get all the events straight in our minds. First, our late mayor, Bob O'Connor appoints his friend, Dennis Regan, to be a kind of general advisor in his administration. That was a stupid decision, because Mr. Regan had absolutely no governmental experience of any kind, but a chief executive has the leeway to appoint any advisors he or she feels most comfortable with. It crossed the line from merely stupid to incredible rank stupidity when Mayor O'Connor got sick and Mr. Regan took over the mayor's position in everything but name. Mr. Regan's actions during this time, the clear result of trusting the untrustworthy with too much power, have already been documented in an earlier post.

Once young Master Ravenstahl was sworn in, Mr. Regan somehow managed to cast his Svengali-like influence over our new mayor, and the stupidity began growing at a geometric rate. First, there was the idiotic decision to appoint this failed businessman as our (of all things) Director of Public Safety, a position that he was clearly unqualified for. In response, Ms. McNeilly saved us all by sharing the details of Mr. Regan's interference in a police disciplinary matter with some members of City Council. Note that she didn't contact the media, hold a press conference, or even leak the files to a few reporter friends of hers. She simply gave City Council the information they needed to evaluate Master Ravenstahl's ridiculous choice for Director of Public Safety.

For that, at least in my eyes, she is to be commended.

And then came the stupidity of the last week. First Master Ravenstahl somehow ignored the obvious and decided that Mr. Regan had done nothing wrong. And now he turns around and decides that it was instead Ms. McNeilly who was guilty of misconduct, even though it would appear that she is protected from retaliation by the state's whistle-blower statutes.

That's it. Stick a fork in the idea the Master Luke Ravenstahl is qualified to be Mayor of Pittsburgh, because that idea is dead and gone. It's not because he's too young; it's because he is too stupid. He has no ideas of his own. He is a pawn in the hands of more experienced political operatives from the city's ancient Democratic machine. He lacks the courage to admit that he made a gross error in appointing Mr. Regan as Public Saftey Director, when the mistake is so glaringly obvious. He is punishing Ms. McNeilly for revealing him to be the fool that the truly is. And he is stupid enough to believe that he will get away with it.

Let's hope William Peduto is smart enough to both beat Master Ravenstahl in the forthcoming primary and to run the city on his own once he enters office. Ideally, of course, we would instead be able to elect a Mayor from outside the Democratic Party. But since that will never happen, Mr. Peduto is at least a better choice than the rank stupidity that we have right now.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Choral Concert This Sunday

The St. Paul Cathedral Choir will join with the Crystal Strings this Sunday to present "Music of Advent and Christmas". The concert will begin at 3:00 PM, and will take place (obviously) at St. Paul Cathedral in Oakland. The choir will perform works by Paul Manz, Franz Biebl, Martin Shaw, David Willcocks, Harold Darke, Carl Schalk, and John Rutter. And if you are in a singing mood yourself, you can join in on traditional carols such as "O Come, O Come Emmanuel", "Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming", "Good Christian Friends, Rejoice!", and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing".

The work by Paul Manz has already been discussed in an earlier post. The Biebl "Ave Maria" is a stunningly beautiful piece of music. The arrangement of "Joy To the World!" by Pittsburgh's own David Willcocks is just enormously powerful. And Rutter's "Christmas Lullaby" is probably my all-time favorite; a recording of it by the Cambridge Singers was the spark which led me back to choral singing after many years away from it.

The concert is free and open to the public. A free-will offering will be taken to benefit the choir's forthcoming tour in Ireland.

Sigh!

According to Rich Lord's story in the Post-Gazette, yet another Pittsburgh City Council member is going out of her way to embarrass the rest of us:

Pittsburgh Councilwoman Twanda Carlisle faces action by a credit card company over an unpaid $4,325 bill.

In an action filed last week, Capital One Bank of Syosset, N.Y., alleges that Ms. Carlisle has "willfully failed and/or refused to pay the balance due" on a card that now carries a 25.9 percent interest rate. An arbitration hearing is set for March 6.
It's not like we aren't paying her enough! And clearly, the woman has had other problems paying her bills; credit card interest rates are insane, of course, but 25.9% is high even for them. The rates only climb that high when the issuers have next-to-no confidence that you are going to pay them what you owe.

Now that DeFazio is officially gone, it looks like Twanda Carlisle will be taking his spot on my "Top 10 List of Pittsburgh Public Officials who make me Cringe With Embarassement".

Brain is Hurting!

It's been about a month since the election now, and I've had some time to sit down and really digest some of the details about what happened. Something didn't seem quite right when I first looked at the returns, but I wanted to wait a while until the numbers became a bit more firm. After looking at the still-unofficial 2006 returns on the State's website, I find a paradox that my brain simply can't begin to fathom. It looks like a decent number of people -- possibly as many as 60,000 or so -- voted for the victorious Ed Rendell as Governor, and yet then turned around and voted for the enormously unpopular Rick Santorum as U.S. Senator.

How in the hell can those two choices co-exist within the brain of any one person? It's like matter and anti-matter, for crying out loud!

Here are the numbers as they stand now. Voting in the governor's race was, for whatever reason, slightly more popular than casting a vote for the U.S. Senate. A total of 15,836 more votes were cast in the gubernatorial election than in the senate race. So, even if disdain for Republicans affected both Santorum and Lynn Swann equally, one would have expected Swann to receive a few more votes than Santorum, simply because Swann's contest with Ed Rendell attracted a larger number of voters.

But it didn't happen that way. Both of the Republicans lost big, but Rick Santorum still managed to secure 60,972 more votes than Lynn Swann. That's not a huge number, by any means; it amounts to all of 1.5% of the votes cast for governor. Moreover, there's no way to do a true cross-tabulation of individual voters across the two races; some of this difference will stem from voters who cast ballots in one race but not in the other. But even when one makes some allowances for that, it still looks like between 50 and 60 thousand people split their vote between Rendell and Santorum.

I really don't get it. If Ed Rendell is your man in Harrisburg, that's fine. You think he's great, you agree with most of his policies, and you like want him to be governor for four more years. So how do you then turn around and vote for Rick Santorum, who is about as non-Rendell as anyone can be? On the other side of the coin, if you were happy with Santorum, were down with his family values, and wanted to see him return to the U.S. Senate, that's O.K. too. That's why we have elections, so that you can express your choice. But how can you possibly square your support of Rick Santorum with the policies and behavior of Ed Rendell. It just doesn't make sense!

After thinking about it for a while now, I can come up with only three explanations for these numbers, two of which absolutely sicken me.

The one non-disgusting (but still kind of disturbing) explanation centers on Republican voters in and around Philadelphia. Ed Rendell has a (mostly) solid reputation in that part of the state as someone who did a fairly good job as Philly's mayor. But Bob Casey isn't from around there, and thus didn't enjoy the same degree of regional support. So maybe there really were people who consciously cast their votes both Santorum (because they usually vote for the Republican) and Rendell (because he's from their area and has a good regional reputation). These kinds of votes are at least partially understandable, even if they are glaringly illogical when you consider the completely contrary policy positions of their two selected candidates.

The second explanation is simply the raw power of incumbency. Name recognition can carry a great deal of weight with those voters who know almost nothing else about the candidates. The only odd thing here is that the voters here had to go out of their way to cast a Rendell-Santorum split ticket. Unlike party-line voters, they couldn't just push one big "Incumbent" button on the voting machine, and instead had to drill down a bit into the individual races to vote this way. That's not the way that I would normally expect uniformed voters to behave, since most of them take the path of least resistance and vote a straight party line. But there probably were a small number of them.

The third, most disturbing, and least-discussed explanation for this particular voting patterns is (of course) simple racism. Although some mean-spirited folks have tried to claim otherwise, the fact remains is that Lynn Swann is black. I have no doubt at all that there are voters out there -- Republicans in this case, but they exist in the Democratic party as well -- who simply couldn't ever bring themselves to cast a vote for a black man. If racism is behind some of these votes, it must be an especially virulent and vile strain. After all, it caused these particular voters to completely abandon any semblance of logic and select the polar opposites of Ed Rendell and Rick Santorum.

In the end, all three of these explanations played some role in creating this small number of Rendell-Santorum voters. There may even be some reasons that I haven't come up with, such as confusion when using the new touch-screen machines. But I keep coming back to racism as the most viable explanation. I truly hope that racism wasn't the prime mover driving this particular voting pattern, and yet I fear that it was behind a good deal of it.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

A Merger That Should Have Already Been

This morning's Post-Gazette contains a very small blurb about a radical idea in Allegheny County government. There is actually some discussion of merging some of the many police departments which haunt this patch of Western Pennsylvania.

Republicans on Allegheny County Council will introduce a proposed ordinance today to merge the Port Authority and Housing Authority police departments with the county police force.

"It's an idea whose time has come," said Councilman Dave Fawcett, one of the sponsors.
Actually, it's idea whose time arrived somewhere in the mid-1980s (if not even earlier), but which somehow has escaped any notice until now.

Let's define some of the players here. First of all, there is the County Police Department, which might have the most worthless web site in all of law enforcement. About the only place where most of us are likely to encounter a County Police officer is at Pittsburgh International Airport, where they provide security. In addition, they have a presence at the Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin and patrol our large regional parks (although I've never personally seen them there). They also provide the detectives who investigate any major crimes that occur within the many small jurisdictions across the county (i.e., those that have no detectives on their own police forces). As Pennsylvania police departments go, the County Police are pretty large, with room for 240 sworn officers in their ranks (although the most recent Uniform Crime Report data from the FBI shows an active strength of just 187 officers).

The Housing Authority Police who are part of this proposed merger are, presumably, those who work for Allegheny County Housing Authority. They should not be confused with the City of Pittsburgh Housing Authority Police, although such confusion would obviously be completely understandable. It was the city's Housing Authority which employed police officer John Charmo, who so famously shot a man to death to death in the Armstrong Tunnel, and who eventually pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter. The county's Housing Authority Police seems to be rather small, and I frankly hadn't even been aware that it even existed until I saw the news of the proposed merger this morning. It is so small, in fact, that one wonders why it wasn't merged into the County Police long ago.

The Port Authority Police are far more visible to most of us, despite having a rather limited jurisdiction. We see their cars parked near bus and T stops downtown, see them driving on the busways, and see the officers themselves on our busses (very occasionally) and trolley cars (a bit more frequently). Given that they work for a quasi-governmental organization like the Port Authority, I wasn't aware that the County Council had authority over these police officers. But if the Port Authority Police Department ultimately answers to the Allegheny County government, then one must wonder -- once again -- why it wasn't combined with the County Police long before now.

From what I can tell after looking into it this morning, it looks like a single government entity -- Allegheny County, all by itself -- is running no less than three separate police departments. The total goes up to four if you count the investigators who work directly for the District Attorney. It goes up to five if you count the Sheriff's Department, which may also end up merging with the County Police after the May 2007 elections. One government. Three (or four, or five, maybe even more) police departments. And they are only now thinking about eliminating all this duplicated effort?

Clearly, the merger makes sense. But the fact that things ever got to this state speaks volumes about the problems our region is facing. The County Government's mistake in allowing so many different police departments under its roof is mirrored many times over by the hundreds of tiny little municipalities which infest the county as a whole.

The County web site lists 118 different police agencies operating within Allegheny County, from the State Police, to the City of Pittsburgh Police, to the Norfolk-Southern Railway Police. Even that number is low, however, since their list is obviously missing a number of university police departments. Just within Oakland and Squirrel Hill alone, one can find the Carnegie-Mellon, Chatham, and Carlow police departments, all of which are absent from the county's list. There are probably other colleges and universities within the county lines which have their own sworn police officers, but which aren't being counted as separate police departments.

Their list also doesn't even include two of the three agencies that are part of the proposed merger (the Port Authority and County Housing Authority departments are missing). The City Housing Authority's police department, despite all of its noteriety, is also not listed, and the City of Pittsburgh's Public School Police Department (yes, there is one) is similarly absent. The real number of police departments operating within Allegheny County is probably somewhere close to 130.

Is it just me, or does anyone else find it disturbing that it's almost impossible to even get an accurate count of how many different police departments exist within the county?

But whatever the number may be, the fact is that we have a simply enormous number of police departments. Paraphrasing a bit from a Brian O'Neil column that I read in the P-G many years ago, we have enough police chiefs in Allegheny County alone to field a 14-team softball league every summer, and still have room for bench depth. If the police departments of Allegheny County are roughly similar to those across Pennsylvania as a whole, then the median department has all of 8 sworn police officers, and more than 35% of them consist of 5 or fewer officers.

The degree of inefficiency here is simply staggering. All these different police chiefs. All these different computer systems. All these different uniforms. All these different patrol cars, with all these different purchasing arrangements, fuel contracts, and maintenance procedures to support them. The list goes on and on, and we keep putting up with it (and paying for it) year after year.

What would make the most sense, of course, is to merge all (or at least nearly all) of the police departments in the country into a single agency. The City of Pittsburgh would probably need to keep their own police force as a separate entity, but the rest of the county could be more than adequately covered by a single police department. It works fine in states such as Maryland and Virginia, and it would work just fine here.

Installing such a system, however, would involve an almost unimaginable series of battles, every last one of which would need to be won in order to achieve victory. Even a single failure, anywhere along a very long chain of decision points, would cripple the entire effort. State law would need to be changed. A county-wide tax structure would need to be imposed. Recalcitrant municipalities that didn't want to give up their own police would need to be forced into a cost structure which made such an option painful, but not totally impossible. Hiring decisions would need to be made about all the police officers who are currently employed with all these different departments. Demotions would be inevitable, some existing officers would not be offered positions with the county, and entire departments (those which have less stringent hiring standards and who have skimped on training) could find themselves out of work.

A massive merger like this would have so many powerful enemies. It would be incredibly unpopular. And yet it is exactly the sort of thing that has to happen if we are to have anything approaching viability (let alone vitality) in our region.

Monday, December 4, 2006

And What a Fight it Was!

As Mellon CEO Robert Kelly tells the story, he did his best to convince the good people at Bank of New York -- the people who were negotiating to purchase his company -- to use Pittsburgh as the headquarters of their combined new company. I'm sure that it was a real knock-down-drag out fight by Mr. Kelly, but he came up short in the end.

What a load of complete bullshit! There was no fight, no argument, no disagreement, and probably no discussion of any kind regarding using Pittsburgh as the corporate headquarters. The new company is going to called "Bank Of New York Mellon Corporation", which would be one hell of a strange name for any Pittsburgh-based company. If there was any discussion of Pittsburgh whatsoever during the negotiations, I imagine it took place at the urinals during a break in the discussions. The exact transcript was probably something like this:

Mr. Kelly: (moaning with relief) Ahhhhhhhhhhhh! Man, I guess I drank too much coffee on that flight from Pittsburgh this morning!

BoNY CEO Thomas A. Renyi: Well, at least you won't have to make that flight much more.

Mr. Kelly: (chuckles) Nope, and I can't say that I'll miss it. Hey, speaking of Pittsburgh, I'll bet this deal is really going to hurt them once all the dust settles.

Mr. Renyi: (distracted) Huh? Say, did you ever wonder what they make these urinal cakes out of? I mean, why are they even in there?

The biggest winner in this entire deal, of course, is Mr. Kelly himself. After being passed over for CEO when he was the CFO of Wachovia, he landed in Pittsburgh as CEO of Mellon. Now he will be on his way to New York -- escaping the provinces of both Charlotte and Pittsburgh -- to be CEO of an financial behemoth that far exceeds the size of his old employer. Indeed, he will be about as close to the pinnacle of the financial industry as anyone could ever dream of. Given everything that this deal gives him, does anyone really believe that he fought all that hard for Pittsburgh, a city where he as lived for less than a year?

I can't fault you for being self-interested, Mr. Kelly. But please, if you are going to lie to us, at least try to be a little bit less obvious about it.

This Can't Be Good News

As reported early this morning in the Post-Gazette and Tribune-Review, Mellon Financial Corporation has announced that it is being purchased by Bank of New York. Anyone want to make any bets about where the combined new company, to be called "Bank of New York Mellon Corporation" will have its corporate Headquarters? This certainly won't be a good development for Western Pennsylvania. Along with the thousands of people who work directly for Mellon, there are a huge number of companies and people here in Pittsburgh who provide services to the jolly green giant.

We'll have to wait for all the details to shake out, of course, but job losses seem inescapable from this deal. I say this despite the laughable claims by Mellon CEO Robert P. Kelly, who (according to the Post-Gazette's story),

vowed that... Mellon will continue to be highly involved in the region and could even see employment grow by several thousand over time as a result of the merger.

'Pittsburgh will continue to be home to several key business units, which will become even larger in the combined organization,' Mr. Kelly said, adding that he envisions Pittsburgh being 'a center of excellence for technology, operations and administration. Our goal is to create 1,000 to 2,000 new jobs in Pittsburgh as a result of this transaction, and continue to add jobs here as the combined company grows.'
Let's not insult anyone's intelligence here, Mr. Kelly. All of the Mellon executives are moving to New York. All of the legal work is moving to the New York. All of the accounting, auditing, and financial reporting is moving to New York. There may very well be some functions that remain here in Pittsburgh, and there will continue to be Mellon workers (and some members of their supporting cast) employed here. But all of the high-end stuff is gone. And that's a very, very big loss for our region.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Good News, Smothered in a Light Bullshit Sauce

There is at least something to smile about in Pittsburgh this evening. Dennis Regan has finally resigned from city government, and is no longer being handed our tax dollars to sit at home and watch "The View". The only thing that tempers my joy at this development is that is has been accompanied by this nonsensical claim by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl that his investigation found "... no conclusive evidence that [Mr. Regan] committed any wrongdoing."

My respect for Mr. Ravenstahl is beginning to drop precipitously every freaking time he opens his mouth.

My guess is that the Mayor's statement is factually correct in a strict semantic sense, depending on how one defines the terms "conclusive" and "wrongdoing". But it has been clearly obvious ever since former mayor Bob O'Connor first appointed Mr. Regan that he was a fish out of water in city government. He had zero experience going in, was handed a hefty amount of power in a very short period of time, became our mayor-in-everything-but-name during Mr. O'Connor's illness, and continued to wield considerable influence during the first few weeks of the Ravenstahl administration. Almost anyone in that situation, having been handed so much power and influence without the benefit of any real experience, would slip up from time to time and use that power for personal benefit. It's actually pretty understandable, especially once Mayor O'Connor got sick and wasn't available to provide the guidance and oversight that would have helped check any selfish impulses.

This was yet another one of those situations where a simple apology, a recusal from any further participation in the disciplinary proceedings against Mr. Regan's defacto brother-in-law (Detective Francis Rende), and a vow to learn from these mistakes would have worked far better than the usual indignant denials. Such an approach might not have saved Mr. Regan's bacon; his credentials were pretty shaky to begin with, his role in the firing of Chief of Staff B.J. Leber, Solicitor Susan Malie, and Finance Director Paul Leger cast real doubts about his judgement, and his appointment by Mayor Ravenstahl as Public Safety Director was so ridiculously unsupportable that it cast Mr. Regan in a very harsh spotlight of public scrutiny. But it might have softened the widespread public condemnation a little bit. And it certainly would have helped prop up Mayor Ravenstahl's credibility by sparing him the necessity of supporting Mr. Regan's unsupportable conduct.

Speaking of our mayor, this a crucial time for him. He appears to be in the midst of a downward spiral, and will need to take some bold actions to get out of it. Mr. Regan's resignation removes one more unqualified crony from city government; Mayor Ravenstahl would be well served to get rid of any others who are still hanging on. It's also time for the mayor to seize on some genuinely new ideas of his own instead of simply rehashing the same old tired slogans from the O'Connor administration.

There still is time for Luke Ravenstahl to use youthful idealism and enthusiasm to push through some real improvements in city government. But if the past 3 months are any indication, that kind of dynamic leadership seems very unlikely to reveal itself.

Does This Mean They Get Hazardous Duty Pay?

Security officials at Phoenix's Sky Harbor airport, home base of my favorite Pittsburgh near-monopoly, U.S. Airways, will be the first in the nation to try out backscatter x-ray machines as part of the passenger screening process. These machines use low level x-rays to see through clothing. Solid objects that are being hidden underneath the passengers' clothing -- including guns, bombs, drugs, and toothpaste containers that exceed 4 ounces in capacity -- will be clearly visible. As a bonus, the screeners will finally get to achieve the dream of every 11-year-old boy and see what people look like naked beneath their clothes! After all those years of false promises from those x-ray glasses advertisements in magazines, the real thing is finally in reach.

Just how detailed are these pictures? Not bad. I mean sure, it's not centerfold-quality by any means, but there certainly is very little mystery once someone steps up to the backscatter machine. The images are clear enough to keep both Beavis and Butthead entertained for at least the next decade, if not more:

After the machines are tested out in Phoenix, they will be expanded to other airports as part of a pilot program. Eventually, they may end up in airports across the country, including such teaming transportation hubs as Venango County's Franklin Regional airport and Latrobe's Arnold Palmer airport. Trust me, I've seen the poor bored bastards who work as screeners at these airports. If anyone ever deserved access to this kind of technology, just to add some marginal degree of interest to an oppressively monotonous workday, it's these guys.

Oddly enough, and despite my libertarian bent, I don't really have any visceral reaction against the use of these machines. The current screening process, after all, already requires me to remove so much of what I'm wearing that backscatter x-ray machines will make very little difference. But I am enormously worried about the mental and occular health of those assigned to work the backscatter machines once they arrive in our region.

It's not that have don't have attractive and beautiful, even totally hot, people here in Pittsburgh. We do pretty well in that department, at least as well as other cities. But the rest of us -- the large majority who do not fall into that those categories -- are hardly the stuff of anybody's dreams. Is there anyone, for example, who really wants to see Darlene Harris naked? And when it comes to the truly disgusting, the ones who require seatbelt extenders on the airplane and who are sometimes asked to purchase an additional seat to accomodate their girth, Pittsburgh seems to have a nearly inexhaustible supply.

I've been in countless screening lines at Pittsburgh International, and I've seen what the screeners there will have to work with. Just a few hours on the backscatter machine at our airport would be enough to make even the most hardened nervous system shut down any signals coming from visual stimuli and trigger a compassionate case of hysterical blindness. I just hope that the TSA does what it can to protect their employees.

An even more worrying aspect of the TSA's plans for using these machines is that they don't seem likely to produce any real increase in security. The TSA seems so overwhelmingly concerned about privacy issues that most of the benefits that could come from using backscatter technology are being erased. For example, the machines will only be used as a tool in "secondary screening", meaning that we will still need to go through all the painful rituals of the current "primary screening" procedure, removing our belts, shoes, jackets, coats, sweaters, and sweatshits. Even then, the small minority of passengers who are selected for "secondary screening" will have the option of getting a pat-down search instead of a session at the backscatter machine.

To further protect our privacy, the TSA is taking pains to install these devices away from other passengers. So if you are selected for secondary screening, you will have to walk to some remote part of the screening area for your backscatter x-ray. Since that walk (there and back) will just waste more of your time, opting for a "then and there" pat-down search will probably make far more sense.

Even if you do decide to walk over to the backscatter machine, the TSA's procedures dictate that the screener who is there with you will not be able to see any of the images. Instead, they will be transmitted to a remote office where a different screener can view them. So, assuming that they detect anything really dangerous, such as a 4.2 oz. gel deodorant, the two screeners will have to engage is some kind of bizarre back-and-forth conversation about where the offending article is being hidden. Ultimately, the screener who took you to the backscatter machine will have to do a "pat-down" search anyway to locate and confiscate it.

Given these procedures, what's the point? It sounds like backscatter x-ray could be really useful in so many ways, but the way that the TSA is employing it is just plain stupid. They have spent untold millions developing these machines. Then millions more on figuring out who to blur out the naughty bits of the images to protect our prudish fear of being seen naked. Then they will shell out even more our our tax money to purchase, deliver, and install these devices, along with a bunch more for training.

At the end of the day, the only benefits seem to be a few less pat-down searches of those who have been selected for "secondary screening". And even that may not be much of a benefit. If a single screener can do a pat-down search in 30 seconds or so, how is it cost-effective to spend 20 seconds walking the passenger over to the distant machine, another 10-15 seconds getting them set up in front of it, then involve two screeners in (I'm guessing here) a 30-second scanning process while the two TSA people talk back and forth, followed by another 20-second walk back to the main part of the security area?

Look, if they are going to spend all of those tax dollars and develop a machine that many people believe to be at least a marginal invasion of privacy, they least they can do is employ it in such a way that it will actually do some good. If backscatter x-rays are going to be used, then I want them used like the subway-station scanners in Arnold Schwarzenegger's movie about Mars, Total Recall. Scan every single person with it as they walk by, eliminating the need for us to strip down for primary screening. That will at least save us all a bit of time, and may even (although I have my doubts) make us a bit more safe in the air.