Sunday, February 15, 2009

Required Reading . . .

The Year of Magical Thinking by Bruce Fisher in Artvoice is a "must read" for anyone trying to figure out what is wrong with Upstate New York. He talks about Buffalo, but much applies here as well. An excerpt . . .
Two scholars with Buffalo connections are among the observers who have compared Buffalo and other Upstate New York communities to the Third World. ... [They] have each taken a look at the local ownership of the big commercial and industrial institutions here and found that, mainly, there isn’t a lot of local ownership. They concluded that we are set up to export our capital. We’re like a Third World region: Whatever profit is derived from our work is exported to where the owners live, not kept here. . . .

I don’t know anybody who has done the study, but I would venture that the region’s tipping point came in about 1970, which is about when Upstate New York’s population growth stopped. . . .

Ever since then, whatever prosperity the Upstate cities have enjoyed has been built on the twin illusions of rapid suburbanization and the transfer-in of Washington and Albany money via SUNY campuses and make-work projects. Sprawl gave this community the illusion of growth, but sprawl is not growth: The same number of people who lived here in 1970 live here today, but occupy 76 percent more land area. (Cornell’s Rolf Pendall did the definitive studies showing that, as bad as sprawl is in Buffalo, it’s even worse in the rest of Upstate.) We still have astoundingly high rates of new-housing construction, but there is far more supply than demand, and that gives us the illusion that our economy is still cooking along. To keep this illusion going, our political structure here is dominated by the developers, construction firms, construction unions, and banks that all depend upon producing more and more inventory for the same number of people, and that also depend upon massive ongoing infusions of public money to build new infrastructure—and infrastructure that is arguably too large for our needs, even as the pieces of it that the region truly needs (especially sewers) go under-tended.

Folks know that something isn’t quite kosher. . . .
I am not sure how significant the role of corporate colonialism is in Upstate's condition, although it would be hard to deny that export of wealth through "big box" retailers, and export of decision making away from local financial institutions, are bad things. In the past we learned that when companies get too big, the monopolies that result become inefficient and can pretty much do as they please. Government's response used to be anti-trust legislation. We seem to have gotten away from that these days, allowed for a spate of mergers, and now have organizations "too big to fail" about to wreck our economy. This is a national level issue . . . and unfortunately we seem to be going in the wrong direction with the bailouts, because we are encouraging more "bigness".

The technological advance of the automobile made possible the "sprawl" that Mr. Fisher complains of . . . And it is New York's system of local government (which predates the auto) that exacerbated the problem and turned it into a bad thing. The wealthy class could live in a fancy neighborhood and take advantage of all that the city had to offer, but when that neighborhood became developed on the other side of the municipal boundary, their wealth became unavailable to be taxed for the good of the general population. The lower suburban taxes fueled more "sprawl" by encouraging more people to leave the city -- leaving fewer behind in the cities to support a massive infrastructure. That raised taxes there and created a "feed back" loop of sorts. Municipal boundaries need to be redrawn to reflect those regions where people live, work, and shop primarily within. This is a state level issue.

Upstate's demise, however, seems to come from something more fundamental. The 1970 "tipping point" mentioned for population marks the first census following reapportionment of the NY Legislature . . . which meant that New York State from then on would be ruled from the perspective of heavily urbanized, densely populated, dominated by the financial services industry, Downstate, minimizing consideration of the urban - rural, manufacturing - agriculture mixes found Upstate.

Key to working out effective policy is to ensure that all interests are heard and accounted for. New York State's founding fathers designed a system that would do just that . . . a system that worked brilliantly until it was cast aside more than 40 years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court in a slap at State Sovereignty.

That decision needs to be revisited.

1 comment:

Small Biz Man said...

Good article Strikeslip.
No doubt that much needs to change.

Unfortunately, much of the population left here, works for government-medical/non-profits-financial institutions-big box stores or contractors-subcontractors that do work for them. If you don't believe me, just drive around on an official government holiday like "Presidents Day". I worked like most small businesses did, and traffic at 7:30 was light like on a weekend. Every year sees fewer and fewer manufacturing,high technology or small business jobs. The erosion and selling to the highest bidder, of our local manufacturing base, was one of the main catalysts for the disintegration of the Upstate economy. Our government was built on an economy of strong locally owned manufacturing companies. Companies whose owners lived in the very cities, towns and villages where their companies operated. Our population has failed to insist that government adapt to economic conditions starting from the 70's (when Sperry closed) on.We place to much trust that one or two politicians will "do the right thing".

LOCAL small businesses like mine keep getting eaten alive by all the taxes,high operating costs, direct competition from entities like BOCES and "non-profits", not to mention the crappiest economy and business conditions I've navigated my business through in 25years.

I hate to use this over-used analogy, but we in Upstate have become nothing but old bleating sheep. Sheep that graze on whatever our sheep-herders cast our way. Now, if we could get even half of the sheep to read a newspaper, much less a piece like this one, we bleating sheep might become hungry wolves, and mavbe have a fighting chance.