Tchaikovsky Sounds Funny: Book Review: "Back to Prosperity"

Is this where I put in key words such as sex, lesbians, vampires, Christopher Lloyd and others things to which this blog do not pertain, but by putting them here, I may get hits from all the Christoper Lloyd lesbian vampire fans (and you know who you are)? This is the primarily humorous and occasionally rambling writings of Leon Tchaikovsky, humor writer. Enjoy.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Book Review: "Back to Prosperity"

Tchaikovsky Sounds Funny

Students of the flow of information through government (and we know your identity, both of you) will find this book from the Brookings Institution a fascinating aspect of such study. It offers little, new research that has not already been publicized by such groups such as the Penn State Data Center and other academic and planning organizations. Yet, since the Brookings Institution is a nationally respected think tank that has compiled all this data into a warning for the rest of the nation not to follow the path Pennsylvania has taken, it has received much public attention. The press and public have been blind to what academia was warning, yet now one book has gotten their attention. What will be interesting for perhaps at least a majority of the two people following the flow of information through government will be to see whether and how the legislature and the administrative branches of Pennsylvania’s government react.

"Back to Prosperity" may not be as thrilling as a "back to" movie starring Michael J. Fox, yet it is every bit as chilling as this is reality. This book warns that Pennsylvania government has acted as the fabled Nero, watching with inactivity while the state decays. The book provides data and explanations outlining how Pennsylvania, unlike the rest of the nation, has failed to keep up with the rest of the nation in economic growth. It is now left in a position where much of its resources have left and, unless it pulls through this mess, faces the problem of having to depend upon a poor and aging tax base to support the remains of a poor and aging state.

While the book describes the problem, its failing is in describing why we reached this point. The politics of the situation is not described, although many of us understand what has happened. We are basically a socially conservative state with the second most fragmented government system in the nation, as we are the state with the second largest number of local government entities. Each local government unit strives to protect itself without regard for its effect on its region. In most of the rest of the nation, regional decay was prevented as large geographic areas learned, or were forced by state government, to work in cooperation. Instead, Pennsylvanians saw that each local government was rewarded. Republican Governors watched in sympathy with Republican legislative majorities as economic development and transportation funds were distributed, not according to what was best for the state as a whole, but according to what maintained the statewide political dynamic. This is not to say the issue is a partisan one. Republican leaders such as Rudy Giuliani in New York, Bill Hudnut in Indianapolis, and Richard Riordan in Los Angeles worked to resolve and prevent many of the problems Pennsylvania has. Pennsylvania leaders failed to provide similar foresight and actions.

Pennsylvania is the state the third slowest in population growth. We have the highest out-migration of young people. In particular, college educated young who would add the most to our economic future. Pennsylvania has an unusually large number of its workers in low income employment. 61% of Pennsylvanians work in jobs that pay $27,000 or less annually, compared to 50.5% nationwide. Further, even our highest skill employment tends to pay less than the same jobs in other states (for instance, Pennsylvania health care workers on average earn $1,500 less annually than the same jobs pay elsewhere). This lack of opportunity, along with decaying cities where our young go to college, is not attracting our college educated young to remain in Pennsylvania. We are the state behind only Florida with the second largest portion of its population over age 65. We thus are a state with a disproportionate share of social ills and a lesser ability to use its present resources to improve itself.

Ironically, despite our slow population growth, we are the sixth largest state in acres of land developed. The number of households increased by 6.3% while the population increased by 3.4%. Three fourths of these new homes were built in the outer suburbs and in creating new suburbs in rural areas. One third of the area urbanized within Pennsylvania was created within the last 15 years. Meanwhile, people are abandoning our cities and inner suburbs, where populations declined. This creates what the report calls "a vicious cycle" where the cities and inner suburbs lose its tax base while increasing its social burdens, creating more rapid decay which in turn drives away more young and higher income people that could contribute to stopping this decay. Meanwhile, we are developing new areas that increase the public costs, as new sewers, water systems, schools, more state police, and roads need to be created for this migration into outer suburbs and rural areas. Prime agricultural land is lost, which creates other long term problems. This is being accomplished with the knowledge, indeed requires the approval, of government decisions. The residential development away from job opportunities similarly fails to attract young people. Pennsylvania is thus caught in a cycle towards continual deterioration.

Our cities are under a serious threat. Pittsburgh is undergoing what this report claims is the worst sprawl in the nation. One fourth of Philadelphia blocks have at least one abandoned house on them, which is a critical danger sign as a single abandoned house can, within a few years, create significant abandonment within the entire block. Philadelphia already has 29,000 abandoned buildings and 30,000 abandoned lots.

As "Back to Prosperity" notes, Pennsylvania is one of the weakest planning states. We need a bolder long term vision for our state. The report argues we need to direct our state spending on statewide goals and to direct our efforts towards urban redevelopment and regional cooperation. We should require local zoning to conform to regional comprehensive plans. Comprehensive plans should have legal meaning, opposed to current law where they are only advisory. We should develop a program to attract immigrants, such as in Baltimore where it helps immigrants to locate and assist in the revitalization of troubled neighborhoods. Highway, state police, water, and sewer development needs to be coordinated with the statewide land use vision. Pennsylvania needs to invest in community redevelopment and in state and local governance over land use decisions, attracting businesses with high wages. Pennsylvania needs to develop state and regional governance over land use decisions and should require local and county governments to operate within state goals. Loans, capital, and tax incentives need to be set to allow greater brownfields redevelopment. Laws need to allow swifter resolution of abandoned properties. A statewide building code needs to be adopted and existing older home improvements and historic preservation efforts need to be encouraged. These are some of this reports’ recommendations. It will be interesting to see how much, if any, of this is adopted in the near future. It is interesting to note that Rep. Bob Freeman’s Elm Street program was provided with no funding for this fiscal year.

Numerous people were consulted in the preparation of "Back to Prosperity", including Rep. Mike Sturla and Eric Randolph from Rep. Dwight Evan’s staff. It is good to see this report sought out such expert talent. This is a must read for people interested in current state policies. If you contact the Brookings Institution at, the report should be mailed free to legislative offices.


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