Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Mayor and his wife

I am not, in any sense, a Pittsburgh insider. All the stuff I know is public knowledge, unless I happen to be in the wrong place at the right time and find something out inadvertently. So along with the rest of us I heard that the Mayor and his wife have separated.

First let me express my sympathy. Every member of my family has gone through divorce in one form or another, most in multiple contexts. It is a fact of modern life but no less painful for that, maybe a bit more so. I feel particularly bad for Mrs. Ravenstahl, who will be facing at least a period of being a single mother, which is always difficult.

But second, although I have (as I said above) no special knowledge, I can’t help but feel there is more to this. When Marty Griffin asked Mayor Ravenstahl about infidelity, the Mayor’s answer gave me a sense of déjà vu. “Erin and I have made a decision ... we're not going to sit here and answer questions and rumors ... Those things have been out there for some time. We have agreed to deal with this in a very personal way and will continue to do that”. Obviously that statement was edited for the PG, but it still brought up my memory of the very first time I saw the Mayor caught in a lie. That was when the Mayor was asked about the 2005 Halloween Steelers game, when he denied there having been an incident, using the same sorts of phrasing as this recent quote. John McIntire subsequently broke the story of the handcuffing on his blog, and it was clear the Mayor had essentially lied to us.

The line the Ravenstahl’s are taking about their separation is that Erin is uncomfortable with being in the public eye. Mayor Ravenstahl says he considered not running for re-election, which might well piss off Pat Dowd. Now, I don’t know anything about the Ravenstahl’s private lifem or their personalities. Either he or she could be saints or hellions, wonderful or intolerable to live with. I can’t really assume anything, and yet, I suspect that Erin Ravenstahl has kicked Luke out. And I have trouble believing that her primary motivation was because she was tired or unhappy about being in the public eye. If the statements of the Chief of Police a couple of summers ago about how the Mayor works from six in the morning to after two in the morning are to be believed, the Mayor might be working too hard (although frankly I doubt it). Past that, I won’t speculate about what the Mayor’s particular misdeeds might be. But if Erin Ravenstahl is anywhere near as sweet as she has appeared in the rare interviews I have seen, and considering their one year old, I would have to say I am disappointed that the Mayor could let things get to this point. Presumably there have been discussions between the two of them. Assuming the Mayor is the one making mistakes here, assuming that he has failed to do something(s) that she wanted him to, what does it say to us about how we can trust the Mayor that he was unable to make his marriage work? If what he said to Erin was unable to convince her to continue their marriage, what should we think about Luke Ravenstahl as Mayor?

Monday, November 23, 2009

So I read Jack Kelly's column yesterday, and I think to myself, he's sort of got a point, but he really does miss the big picture, doesn't he. On the sort of got a point, if a public trial of (and I am going to mess up this name) Khalid Sheik Mohammed does reveal classified intelligence of our on going pursuit of terrorists, that would be a bad thing. Mind you, that bad thing is weighed against our having an open trial of one the major people in the 9/11 plot, the most major one we have since we couldn’t get Osama bin Laden. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

Of course, revealing the intelligence would only be bad in the sense of tipping our hand to a criminal organization. After all, what sort of threat is Al Qaeda? Is it a threat to our very existence? It is a terrorist organization, not a foreign state. They have committed horrible acts, yet it seems difficult to say we are at war with them. And in fact the Bush administration really kind of exploited that point, saying the people we captured had neither the rights afforded prisoners of war nor the rights we extend to criminals. There is the messy issue of extending US rights to foreign nationals, which I don’t have the time to discuss in full. Let me just say that I think the only reason not to extend rights to prisoners is if those prisoners will exploit those right to do great harm to the US. Which brings us back to the question of what sort of threat Al Qaeda is.

There was recently a piece in an English newspaper about how when American’s protested the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Islamic radicals reconsidered their radicalism. If American citizens believed in American principles, and acted accordingly, maybe hurting the US was not such a good idea (Glenn Greenwald addressed this). Which brings me back to the public trial. Kelly wants to tell us that Obama’s motivation for having the trial is to punish George Bush, to put him in a bad light. I can understand that statement, but I think that Obama’s real motivation is to bring some law and order into the picture. I’m not saying that Obama is doing this to make Islamic radicals reconsider, although I sure he will not mind if they do. I think Obama wants the trials for the same reasons that make the radicals reconsider, to adhere to American principles.

Kelly occasionally goes on about how Obama doesn’t believe in American Exceptionalism. I am not sure what that means exactly, I think Kelly and other conservatives think it means we can throw our weight around (the world), I guess because we are “good guys” or maybe just the biggest kid on the block (or both). But what makes us the good guys is that we do try to protect rights and be fair. This public trial is a way to do both.

Our history is full of instances where we were less than fair, and often pretty bad. We have had no gas chambers, but we did have slavery, internment camps, at least one instance of a government run medical experiment on African Americans (involving I believe syphilis). We have to admit those mistakes, especially if we want to claim to advocate for democracy, freedom and rights of people. We have been drifting, at least, away from those ideas (even as we loudly push them on others), and a public trial will be a good symbol of our adherence to them. If it makes George Bush look bad, well, he did that to himself.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


So, are we foe or agin taxing college students to help cover the City’s budget? I mean, if Ravenstahl proposed it …

No, seriously, I think everyone would agree that the universities are one of the three groups of big not for profits in town. The other two groups would be hospitals like UPMC and West Penn Allegheny, and health insurance companies like UPMC and Highmark. Now, I know that historically Universities are these sort of shabby institutions chronically short of money, making do and getting by on a shoestring. Sort of.

In fact Pitt is a big, big research institution, with lots of Federal and some private money. CMU is also pretty big on research, allow not having such a direct connection to a medical school and medical center, CMU doesn’t have the bioscience thing going as much. Plus Pitt has picked up a billion in donations, and has nationally ranked sports teams (CMU has not mastered the art of fully tapping rich nerds apparently, nor does Ultimate Frisbee get the TV time it so richly deserves). So we can all agree there is money there, but some ask, what is fair? Bram asks whether it is fair to ask CMU students for $400 when commuters are only asked for $52? Chris Potter suggests that students are easy to tax because they don’t vote, except for Obama (at least once). And keg night (NO, I MADE THAT UP).

There is another question of whether we can levy taxes ourselves. Apparently there is an act that says we can (522? Or is that a State route?), although others say no. I think the prudent thing to do while we are still in Act 47 status is not to poke the State Legislature in the eye.

So what is fair with regard to students, and what about the other not for profits? I think we should charge students a fee, not a tax. No one says the City can't impose fees, it is only limited to taxes. Since fee implies a flat amount, I would suggest $52 a year, just like those commuters (and us City residents who work in the City). Maybe those institutions who charge less than $12,000 a year tuition should be exempt (even as people who make less than $12,000 a year are exempt from the municipal services tax). I’m looking at you, CCAC.

Since that won’t get Ravenstahl his 15 mil a year extra, we should also levy a $52 a year fee on health insurance policies written. That should help UPMC and Highmark to decide what to do with tens of millions in “excess revenue”. And finally let us levy a $1 a night fee on hospital beds occupied. The logic there: the $52 a year commuter fee is one dollar a week. for a year. Charging by the week for hospital beds is not really practical, so I suggest by the night. Perhaps for long term care facilities (nursing homes or rehab facilities) the $1 per week of occupancy would be more appropriate. Altogether it might get close to the 15 mil.

That’s my suggestion. What’s your stance? (flashing on Allstate)

Institutional memory

So my first blog post was in June of 2006. I wanted to write about foreign relations and maybe a bit of economics. I didn't really start paying attention to local politics until January of '07, when the story about the Mayor, as a councilman, having been handcuffed at a Steelers game came out (thank you, John McIntire).

So I think I have a fair grasp of the history of the last forty years of foreign relations, a decent grasp of the last forty years of economics, and I have been following Pittsburgh politics for almost four years. Before that, I caught the big stuff but little else (Sophie Masloff! Tom Murphy!). I don’t know much more than the broad outline of the history of County property assessments. I know the values are used for a few different tax types, although I don’t know which little municipalities use which taxes. Well, I know all the school districts use property taxes, and Pittsburgh (and of course the County) for sure also taxes property. Past that, I know what I see when people bring in their tax forms to be prepared (most of the people I prepare taxes for don’t own, or if they do own they are no longer paying a mortgage, so they are not going to itemize … don’t worry if you don’t understand that).

So I don’t fully grasp the historical implications of Judge Wettick’s ruling on County assessments. There was some sort of three part division of the County tried back in the Seventies, which Judge Pappadakis overturned? Nor do I grasp the full tax implications here. There is some sort of different treatments of municipal and school district taxes as opposed to the County property tax? Not knowing, I can’t comment intelligently on other people’s criticism of Wettick’s ruling, except perhaps to ask what else we should do.

I will say I stand by my statements of what I see as the wisdom in Wettick’s ruling. It accomplishes two things, it gives the County a little time to get better at this as it goes, and it allows the County to devise subdivisions that could group the richest properties into one group (and they have to group Pittsburgh in one group). So the County could wait until the third year to assess the richest properties, and the fourth to assess massive Pittsburgh. I still think of Chris Briem’s suggestion that some properties in some City neighborhoods should be negatively valued (you would have to pay people to live there), implying the current residents are largely trapped. I will venture to say there are suburban municipalities which have at least neighborhoods where this is true also (Braddock perhaps, and/or Rankin?).

The County will never assess properties as having negative value, but their assessments may be quite low. With that Homestead exemption thingie (which I also don’t understand terribly well), there is a tax floor (which might be $15,000) for County tax purposes under which people pay no County property tax. So the County has an incentive to assess no property under $16,000, no matter how small, rundown or lousy the neighborhood is. The City would be perfectly happy with that, although the residents in poor neighborhoods might not.

Of course that won’t happen. What is likely to happen is the County will appeal the Judge’s ruling, and possibly some of the homeowners who brought the original suit will too. I don’t see higher courts overturning the Judge’s ruling, though. Whatever the flaws of Wettick’s ruling, historical or in terms of fairness, the County was prepared to put off doing anything about assessments indefinitely. And that is truly unfair.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Mayor's budget

I have sort of mastered Twitter, in terms of being able to send tweets from my phone, and far more important to me, being able to receive tweets on my phone. I am following Bill Peduto's Reform Pittsburgh Now, Pat Dowd and Bob Mayo (I guess I should follow Jon Delano as well).

Bob Mayo was at today’s Council session where the Mayor presented his budget for next year (funny how it follows the election, instead of coming before it). Mayo tweeted furiously from this session. He wondered right away about the money being raised from local universities. Is it a fee or a tax (and he asked us if we know why that matters)? The Mayor is using the word tax, which brings up the question whether we are permitted to levy this tax (the legislature strictly controls what cities are allowed to tax). So there is the possibility of a lawsuit or an act of the State Legislature in our future. The Mayor also talked about the $200 from parking garage, lot and meter leases. I don’t know if he acknowledged existing parking authority debt, or what. Finally, he said if the budget goes through, he will ask the Governor to lift our Act 47 status.

(grunt noise)

It never fails, the Mayor wins a victory and feels he can take dangerous new steps. Now, I happen to work for a University, but I don’t think we will be too hurt by this. However, I do wonder where charges for UPMC and Highmark are in this. I think that they should share the pain (and personally I would leave the rest of the non-profits alone, I think they are struggling enough particularly right now).

If we drop out of Act 47, the public safety unions will again be able to use arbitration, which may hurt the City majorly down the road. Now, I will wait and see the analysis of others before I push the panic button over balloon debt payments or increased health care costs. But keep those in mind.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

This election

I swear this is my first stop on the internet, after cruising past my homepage (the NYTimes, traitor that I am to Pittsburgh). I haven’t looked at Null Space yet this morning, but I can guess what Chris Briem is saying: lower than even expected turnout. Last night I commented on 2PJ’s how the Mayor is vulnerable because of how close the race was. And it was closer than in 2007, but the real story is those voters who either a) really wanted Acklin or Harris to win and voted, b) were discouraged by Acklin/Harris’s prospects and stayed home, c) wanted Ravenstahl and/or the straight Democratic/Republican ticket to win and voted, d) thought Ravenstahl was a shoe in and stayed home or e) didn’t care and stayed home

We have little or no way of finding out why the vast majority of registered voters stayed home. Occam’s Razor suggests that voters either didn’t think the Mayor was going to lose, or that they don’t like the Mayor but not so much as to bother to vote when they think it won’t matter. Either way bodes ill for Pittsburgh, especially for a town that has as many older citizens as we do, percentage-wise. They are supposed to have higher participation rates.

So once again local political bloggers and other interested parties can grumble that if Pittsburghers really knew how Ravenstahl behaves, at least a bare majority would vote against him. In other words, politics as usual.

Now to go read Null Space.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The persistance of memory: the coffins and the salute

The 2 Political Junkies (Dayvoe in particular) had a post on the President’s traveling to Dover Air Force base to greet the coffins of fallen soldiers and DEA agents coming from Afghanistan. The post primarily covered Liz Cheney’s reaction. She suggested that President Bush had done the same thing “without the cameras”. There is, of course, a photograph of President Obama saluting as a coffin is brought off the plane.

A conservative commenter of that post expressed (in a most sardonic manner) the view that the President was simply using the image of a slain soldier as a campaign tool. Now, I will pause here to say that conservatives have, since the inauguration of President Obama, engaged in the worst kind of political opportunism. They have suddenly become the defenders of Medicare after Reagan predicted it would be the lever to lead us into socialism and after the years of Republicans holding up Medicare as the quintessential example of big government that Democrats are supposed to be so enamored of. And now for a conservative to say it is self-serving and distasteful for President Obama to honor the men and women who have died serving their country on his watch, and to be disrespectful as he says it is a clear sign that some Republicans will not be happy until the United States is a dictatorship.

But I wanted to look at a couple of other issues. First, the President did take reporters, who had cameras, with him. How should we feel about that? Second, it turns out that for the last eighteen years there has been a Pentagon ban on photographing the arrival of fallen soldiers back to the United States. I know the ban has been broken occasionally, but there it was. Now, I guess conservatives are re-writing history and saying Bush did go to some, or even one, of these flights to greet the caskets. I don’t believe that’s true. But we can also point out that the first President Bush must have consented to or at least failed to over turn this ban, that then Clinton and later George W also did not overturn this ban. Given Clinton’s interesting relationship with foreign policy, failure in Somalia, failure to act in Rwanda, some success in Croatia and Kosovo and also in the Middle East, I am not surprised that the consummate politician did not want the American people to see negative images. I am not surprised by George W either.

Only one of the families of the eighteen slain consented to allow photographs of the coffin of their loved one. This is being spun as reflecting decisions made long ago, before the families knew the President would be in attendance (indeed, since as far as I know George W was never in attendance, I don’t believe the families would have been told this was a possibility). But one photograph is all you need, to demonstrate this President is affected by the impact of his decisions or to show this President is a self serving weasel. I think it is impossible to say which, but it is, as far as most of know, something different than what George W did.

Obama is pictured saluting. I remember hearing that President Reagan asked, as his first inauguration parade, whether it was appropriate for a President to salute troops as they passed. Apparently then he was told it was not, that a person not in uniform particularly without a uniform cap, should place their hand on the chest; and that was what Reagan did.

But the NYTimes carried an essay by a former marine, who related a different Reagan story, that the Marine commandant told the President (evidently later) that he could salute anyone he wished. Since then President’s have saluted people at will. The writer did note that Obama’s salute had absolutely correct form.

I am still a bit ambivalent about a President who does not follow the military convention, and chooses to salute. I am a bit ambivalent about a President who has never served who is saluting, and I don’t like the implication that he ought to get a pass for not knowing the rules because he has never served. I think that a President who is a lawyer, whose credentials for his job are partly based on what an educated lawyer he is, ought to know better.

But even for all the shit Obama is getting now for having gone to Dover Air Force base (no doubt partly caused by conservatives own embarrassment that George W never went), I suspect it would have been more if Obama had stood next to soldiers saluting and Obama had merely put his hand on his heart. Sometimes you need to do the corny and incorrect thing.

In all, I am proud that Obama went to Dover Air Force base, and saluted the soldiers who died on his watch. I have come to think our Afghanistan occupation is as futile the invasion and occupation of Iraq was, and the best we can hope for is to leave Afghanistan with some stability, but I think having some symbolic moments along the way is not a bad thing. After all, those soldiers volunteered with the best of intentions, even if the politicians who they worked for did have them.