Putting Politics Aside – We have a Republic to Save


Pima County Is to Prosperity What N. Korea Is to Democracy

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The county’s 13-point Prosperity Initiative won’t reduce the poverty that it and the City of Tucson have caused.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors recently passed a 13-point Prosperity Initiative to increase prosperity and reduce poverty and its effects in metro Tucson. The initiative calls for the county to work with the City of Tucson and the small and essentially powerless surrounding suburbs.

I should be delighted at the news. When my wife and I moved to Tucson six years ago for family reasons from metro Phoenix, I was appalled by the metropolis’ poverty, rundown conditions, high crime, under-performing K-12 schools, and apparent aversion to high-wage industry. With the help of a local radio host, I formed a nonpartisan group with the objective of recommending ways to increase prosperity and reduce poverty.Silly me. I had underestimated the forces wanting to maintain the status quo and had overestimated my abilities. The overestimation came from my success as an activist and columnist in metro Phoenix, and, before that, my success on the Jersey side of metro New York, where I was honored by a major newspaper on its Sunday front page as a Community Service Volunteer of the Year. If I could bring about change in the tough, corrupt, and highly populated metropolis of New York, my foolish thinking went, I could certainly do the same in a metropolis of 1.08 million people.

Overcoming the Mafia in New Jersey is easier than overcoming the hidebound establishment in metro Tucson, where the City of Tucson and Pima County have a political and jurisdictional monopoly covering over 88 percent of the metropolis and thus don’t face any political or municipal competition of note. Making the situation worse, over a third of metro Tucson is the unincorporated county, including the wealthiest part known as the Foothills.

The unincorporated third is an amorphous blob without a center, a defining character, or the public amenities and services that only an incorporated municipality can provide. In the roughly 30 square miles of the Foothills, for example, there is not one public park, community center, or ball field, other than ball fields at local schools. However, there is an abundance of crumbling streets, lousy landscaping of public rights-of-way, illegal and tacky signage, and litter and trash.Regarding litter, my wife and I pick up litter at our advanced ages on our daily five-mile walks, because the county doesn’t pick it up. Likewise, in a reflection of a lack of civic pride, litter is also not picked up by owners of properties that front major streets, including businesses, gated communities, resorts, and exclusive golf courses, especially those patronized by snowbirds who don’t care about the larger community. Thank goodness that some civic-minded groups try to compensate for the slackers.

Naturally, the situation is far worse in the many high-poverty areas of the metropolis, especially the high-poverty areas of the City of Tucson, which has a poverty rate of twice the national average, as well as all of the human misery, crime, and homelessness that come with poverty.

This tragedy has been inflicted for decades on the metropolis by the establishment, not necessarily out of any meanness, maliciousness, or selfishness, although, as I have documented elsewhere, the public-sector part of the establishment is well-off relative to the typical Tucson household. The causes are hubris, the aforementioned political monopoly, and a provincialism that blinds the establishment to how the metropolis compares to other Sunbelt metropolises and how it appears to visiting corporate executives from other parts of the country.

I’m just as guilty of being blind to reality. I’ve written scores of policy papers showing how Tucson compares to other cities on key measures and aesthetics, not realizing that the local establishment doesn’t want to know. Judging by attitudes, policies, and results, the establishment seems to want Tucson to be an impoverished backwater like Albuquerque instead of a dynamic economy like Phoenix or a rising economy like San Antonio.

Speaking of San Antonio, long ago I lived for five years in a barrio of the Alamo City. The progress that the city has made since then is admirable and puts Tucson to shame.

Likewise, corporations are making a staggering amount of capital investments in metro Phoenix. In the semiconductor industry alone, a European semiconductor company just announced the building of a $300 million research facility in Scottsdale. The week before, another semiconductor company announced a $2 billion facility in Peoria. And last year, the Intel Corporation and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company made separate announcements about the building of new fabs in metro Phoenix, for a total investment between them of approximately $20 billion.

By contrast, recent Tucson business news was about Starbucks opening a location in downtown Tucson.

With respect to downtown, it remains to be seen whether the ongoing redevelopment of downtown Tucson will attract high-wage businesses to the metropolis instead of low-wage restaurants, bars, and coffee shops. It has been seen, though, that the downtown redevelopment district squandered approximately $200 million years ago at the start and had to be rescued by the state. Based on the median household income in the City of Tucson, the $200 million is equal to the yearly income of about 4,000 families. Squandering the income of 4,000 families doesn’t seem like a good way of increasing prosperity and reducing poverty.

To be fair, Tucson is affected by demographics and immigration largely outside of its control. But so are San Antonio and Phoenix. All three have large populations of Latino migrants, a high percentage of whom lag in skills and education, as was the case for my immigrant Italian grandparents and my working-class parents. But it is a truism that the more vibrant the local economy, the more opportunities for advancement. It follows, then, that Tucson lags behind the other two cities in opportunities.

That’s also true for graduates of the Tucson-based University of Arizona. There aren’t many opportunities for them in Tucson.

This situation is exacerbated by the University of Arizona being a laggard in spinning off new businesses and industries in Tucson, although it is a research institution. Arizona State University in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe is not a research institution, per se, but has contributed a lot more to the Phoenix economy.

To make matters worse, the University of Arizona is having a financial crisis due to mismanagement and a university president who doesn’t seem to have the vision or the political and organizational skills of the president of ASU.

In any event, Pima County’s Prosperity Initiative doesn’t mention any of these points. Instead, speaking in generalities, platitudes, and clichés, it describes a typical smorgasbord of progressive wishes, some of which are at cross-purposes. For example, one wish is to increase housing availability and affordability, but another is to make it more difficult for landlords to evict tenants, which would work as a disincentive for the building of rental units.

See for yourself. Here’s a link to the initiative:

Warning: Don’t read it if you’re allergic to pabulum.

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