Laughing During 'Gran Torino'

Recently, I saw Clint Eastwood’s extraordinary new film, 'Gran Torino' in Hollywood. Set in a declining Detroit neighborhood, the movie chronicles the unlikely relationship retired auto worker Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) forges with his new Hmong neighbors.

Walt is cranky, surly, and bigoted while still possessing a certain rough-edged charm. His dialogue is laced with racist terms and stereotypes that would mandate a lengthy “sensitivity training” seminar if he came of age in a different era.

And yet, the audience laughed and laughed loud. Here, in one of the nation’s most multi-ethnic cities with a history of racial tension, blacks, whites, Asians and Latinos were chuckling as Walt bemoaned “gook food” and cringed at his neighbor’s ways. Twenty years ago, Walt’s language would have appeared less ironic, perhaps being interpreted as a sign of how a sizeable percentage of white Americans viewed minorities. To laugh at Walt then would appear to be laughing with him rather than at him.

But in 2009 America, on the cusp of a black president arriving in the White House, a character like Walt feels safely anachronistic – his views seem fringe like. What seemed funny to the audience is that people like Walt still exist. What is so satisfying about 'Gran Torino' is how it eschews political correctness and decides to speak to an audience that it figures will laugh at Walt rather than with him. It assumes that Americans watching the film are smart and tolerant enough to get the joke. And they do.

I’d be curious to know how audiences reacted to the movie across the country.

Calling Pittsburgh Depression-proof is a Journalistic Felony

A guest-post from Bill Steigerwald in Pittsburgh:

If the New York Times went to Berlin in 1936 to write a story about how that city was "Depression-proof," would it forget to mention that Germany was being run by a bunch of Nazis? If it went to Pyongyang tomorrow would it go ape over that city’s tidy orderliness without noting that North Korea was a totalitarian hellhole? If the Times bureau in Moscow reported on wheat production in Ukraine in 1933, would it overlook the government-designed famine that was killing - oops, sorry, let's not go there.

Seriously, is it too much to ask for a little Journalism 101 from America’s Rag of Record?

On Wednesday the Times, following a similarly lame piece of Chamber of Commerce journalism done by the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Nov. 23, did a glowing Page 1 story ("For Pittsburgh, There's Life After Steel" by David Streitfeld) about the Pittsburgh region's alleged imperviousness to the national recession.

You see, cities that have pioneered deindustrialization, shed huge chunks of population and shifted to service economies that run on curing sick people, college kids and government bureaucrats, as the former Steel City basically does, are now recession-proof, the rationalizing goes, because they’ve essentially been in low-grade recessions for decades.

Anyway, the Times – like the Plain Dealer and the parade of other national media that periodically traipses to this great town to gawk and glorify Pittsburgh’s many natural and man-made assets – forgot to tell its trusting readers that the city of Pittsburgh (where the Steelers and young Mayor Luke Ravenstahl play) is bankrupt and essentially in state receivership.

Nor did the Times note that Pittsburgh’s ever-dwindling, ever-aging, relatively poor and under-educated population (down in the city to 310,000 from 650,000 about 50 years) is subjected to crippling high taxes and deprived of basic city services like reliable snow-plowing.

Nor did it note that Pittsburgh's city schools spend more than $20,000 per student per year yet are hemorrhaging students annually.

Nor did it note that the city has wasted scores of millions of tax dollars on failed Downtown retail redevelopment schemes, subsidized professional sports stadia and a series of mass-transit boondoggles like our under publicized “Tunnel to Nowhere,” a 1.2-mile, $435-plus-million light-rail tunnel under the Allegheny River.

It's tragic enough that the Times’ national editors think that an over-taxed, chronically mismanaged city that has been deindustrialized, depopulated and abused by its political rulers for 70 years is favorably situated to deal with recession.

But to not devote one paragraph to the shameful failings and idiocies of Pittsburgh's public sector is a journalistic felony. Somebody please show the Times' editors how to Google the word "Potemkin."


How Much do they Really Drive in Houston?

Our friend Tory Gattis pointed out yesterday at Houston Strategies that conventional wisdom (and the US DoT Federal Highway Administration) are wrong. Quoting a recent report by New Geography contributor Wendell Cox:

In fact, this data is incorrect. The FHWA 2006 data indicates that the Houston urban area has a population of 2,801,000. According to the United States Bureau of the Census, the population of the Houston urban area was 4,353,000 in 2006.... Actually Houston’s driving is about average: If the urban area population is corrected to agree with the Bureau of the Census data, per capita driving in the Houston area is slightly below the national average for large urban areas. Houston would rank 19th out of 38 urban areas, with daily per capita driving of 23.2 miles, compared to the national average of 23.9 miles.

Even if you're not interested in Houston or that potential gaffe, check out Wendell's report for a table of per capita vehicle miles driven for 38 urbanized areas over 1,000,000 population.

Skepticism Towards Congestion Pricing in San Francisco

If there’s one place in America most likely to adopt congestion pricing, you would think it would be San Francisco. The combination of affluence, deep-seated environmentalism and a tradition of progressive politics would lend itself to adopting the program. But even residents there are skeptical.

Congestion pricing is the practice of charging commuters a fee for driving through a congested downtown area during peak commute times. In San Francisco, they are discussing a payment of between 50 cents and $5 to be assessed to drivers who commute between 6–9 a.m. and 3–6 p.m. The argument is that by doing so, you reduce congestion and raise public coffers to be poured into public transportation. In London, traffic was reduced 21% and public transit increased 36% when congestion pricing was adopted (it’s also been adopted in Singapore and Stockholm).

But SF is no London when it comes to public transportation. Anyone who has ever stuffed themselves into a city bus headed for points westward after work knows it is not nearly as reliable or as comfortable as “the tube.” It seems like there would have to be a rise in the standards of public transportation there to really make it effective – and money for that would not be available for some time given California’s budget circumstances.

Case-Shiller Index, Housing Price Correction Continues

Today's latest release of the Standard and Poor's Case-Shiller Housing Price Index indicates a continued price free fall across the board. Hyper-inflated markets such as Miami, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, San Diego, and Las Vegas continue to come back to earth. Check out the chart.

Even Charlotte, Denver, Dallas, and Atlanta, which seemed to be holding their own after never seeing a huge price escalation, seem to be sliding again since July. Cleveland seems to have stabilized, but Detroit continues its drop into a black hole. Home prices in Detroit have fallen to almost 14% below levels in early 2000.

Follow this link for a bigger version of the chart.

State Budget Woes

A new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities highlights the increasingly precarious fiscal situation faced by state governments confronting the ongoing economic downturn. According to CBPP, "at least 44 states faced or are facing shortfalls in their budgets for this and/or next year, and severe fiscal problems are highly likely to continue into the following year as well."

The scope of these emerging deficits varies greatly. Mississippi currently has a budget deficit of around $33 million, which "could reach as high as $70 million-$80 million by the end of the fiscal year." On the high end of the spectrum, California faces the daunting prospect of a $15 Billion deficit for the fiscal year ending June 30, with the potential for "another $25-billion-plus for the next fiscal year," if nothing is done to bring the shortfall under control.

The process of bringing budgets into balance should be the source of much political turmoil over the next year. In Minnesota, which has a predicted two-year deficit of $6 Billion, legislators are beginning to spar over the potential tax increases and budget cuts. On Dec. 26, Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced $271 million in "emergency cuts," with a large share coming from aid payments to local governments. Legally required to have a balanced budget, as are many states, legislative leaders in Minnesota face the prospect of a challenge "so ugly that a special summer session will be needed to finish the budget." In New York, which faces the "largest deficit in state history," Governor David Patterson recently presented an "austerity budget," calling for cuts in state aid to local governments, education funding, and property tax rebate programs. Looking at all potential options to fill the gap, Patterson has also "appointed a commission to look into leasing state assets," including bridges, roads, and parks. The privatization of state assets and infrastructure as a means to raise funds is also being considered in Minnesota and Massachusetts, which faces a FY2009 deficit of over $2 billion.

With states potentially facing a combined deficit of $350 billion through FY2011, the pressure to make difficult policy decisions is sure to increase, as are requests for outside aid. Already, there are calls for the federal government to step into the fray, with governments across the nation "lining up to ask President-elect Barack Obama and the new Congress for hundreds of billions of dollars to plug holes in their budgets". Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio, facing a two-year deficit of $7.3 billion, is "preparing a pitch for three chunks of money," to be delivered to the states to support education, infrastructure, and aid to the poor. CBPP also argues that there is a need for federal assistance, in order to "lessen the extent to which states take pro-cyclical actions that can further harm the economy." Facing an increasingly challenging economic situation which may limit the options at their disposal, it appears that states will look to the incoming Obama administration to find ways to stop "the bleeding."


Railcars as Economic Indicators

With the nation locked in the firm grips of recession, one indicator of our country’s import demand and manufacturing capacity is being stockpiled in Montana. Just south of Great Falls, along the Missouri River, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway Co. is stockpiling flatbed container cars – a lot of flatbed cars. By some accounts, there are about 1,500 railcars, or 1.5 percent of the North American flatbed fleet and roughly 5 percent of the BNSF fleet, parked between Great Falls and Helena suggesting that Americans are buying and importing less from foreign manufacturers and manufacturing less for foreign consumption. If and when they are brought back into rotation will depend on freight demand – driven by American consumption.

Infrasystems Build 21st Century Economies

Infrastructure investment has been a key driver of economic development throughout American history. In our country’s earliest days, the building of canals and turnpikes, followed by construction of railroads, greatly catalyzed expansion and development. Later, investment in electricity and telephone networks facilitated the development of vast expanses of the American landscape. More recently, the national interstate highway system and now the continuing build-out of broadband telecommunications networks have democratized the geography of business endeavors that were once confined to large metropolitan centers.

Highways, airports, harbors, utility distribution systems, railways, water and sewer systems, and communications networks remain critical elements in economic development. But in today’s globally competitive, net-centric economy a great advantage will accrue to regions and industries that develop sophisticated "infrasystems” including such innovation infrastructure such as university and lab facilities, technology and training centers, export processing facilities, and research parks.

These infrasystems – integrating facilities, technology and advanced socio-technical capabilities – have emerged as key drivers of innovation and the locus of future higher-value industries and higher-paying jobs.

Infrasystems differ by region. For some communities they can be constructed around a key asset such as a local hospital, equipped with medical technology and operated by a highly skilled staff of health care professionals. For a place like Wenatchee, Washington where Internet giant Yahoo decided to locate a data center, the key infrasystems asset lay in a highly aggressive economic development community and low cost, clean energy.

Wenatchee represents a classic success story for an infrasystems approach. They took many of the right steps including a $12 million investment by the Port of Chelan County and others in the Confluence Technology Center, a state‐of‐the art facility built specifically to attract information technology companies to the area. Another factor in this success is $50 million investment by the Chelan County Public Utility District (PUD) in laying fiber‐optic cable to homes and businesses.

If our infrastructure policy and financing debate is going to center around miles of paved road, number of bridges or even the number of construction jobs – certainly all worthy objectives – we could still miss the key target of creating long-term employment and making our country, and regions, more competitive. Advanced infrasystems represent the cutting edge economic tool of the 21st Century.

Auto Bailout: Follow the Money to House Votes

This probably won't shock you, but MapLight is reporting today that those House of Representatives members voting for the auto bailout received 65% more in campaign contributions from the auto industry than did those who voted against:

House Democrats voted overwhelmingly in favor of this bill, 205 voting Yes and 20 voting No (11 not voting). Democrats voting Yes received an average of $74,846 each, about 19% more than those voting No, who received an average of $63,140.

House Republicans were somewhat more divided on this bill, 32 voting Yes and 150 voting No (16 not voting). Republicans voting Yes received an average of $69,323 each, 63% more than those voting No, who received an average of $42,598.

MapLight charted a similar situation with the financial industry bailout.

The Recession Hits the Plains

On Monday, Creighton University's Economic Forecasting Group released the latest installment of the Mid-America Economic Survey. The survey of supply managers in nine plains states has been conducted monthly since 1994 to "produce leading economic indicators of the Mid-America economy." The survey provides a snapshot of economic activity in the states of Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Dakota.

For November, the economic picture was less than positive. The survey's primary index hit a second straight all-time low in November, recording a score of 37.8. Any score below 50 "indicates a contracting economy over the next six to eight months." Only one state surveyed, North Dakota, showed a growing economy, with an index reading of 55.7, down from both September and October.

Employment prospects in the area were also negative, with the region showing "job losses for the tenth time in the past 11 months." This led to a "very weak" November employment index figure of 39.0, down from 49.7 in October, another record low. Creighton economics professor Ernie Goss, a member of the forecast group, expects "regional job losses to mount in the months ahead with rapidly rising unemployment rates for most states." According to Goss, the area is "now in a recession and I expect it to rival the recession of 1981-82 in terms of joblessness and job losses."

Echoing such findings today, the Federal Reserve released the latest edition of the Summary of Commentary on Current Economic Conditions, more commonly referred to as the Beige Book. According to the report, "overall economic activity weakened across all Federal Reserve Districts," with declines in retail sales, manufacturing activity, and housing prices being reported in nearly all districts. On the plains, the Minneapolis and Kansas City Fed districts both reported weaker overall economic activity.

Hopes for a quick rebound are subdued. According to the Kansas City Fed, their "business contacts expressed little optimism about economic activity going forward." The Mid-America survey reports that economic optimism "captured by the confidence index, slipped to another record low of 22.4" in November. While pockets of strength such as North Dakota remain, communities across the plains now face the prospect of a significant economic downturn.