Friday, September 01, 2006

More On How F**ked Up Upstate NY Is - And Why It Hurts Downstate

The Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester had a rarely lucid article on Upstate New York's problems. I disagree with a lot of the points made, and the politics, but the overall jest of it should really sound the alarm in stoic Albany. The article ("Spitzer shining light on upstate solutions, not just woes," March 27, 2006) was written by Joseph Morelle, a state assemblyman. He cites some alarming statistics:
  • Since the 1990 census, upstate's growth rate has been slower than that in all but two states. In fact, the state that was once first in population will rank fourth in the 2010 census, continuing the trend that has eroded New York's representative clout in the U.S. Congress since 1940.
  • Upstate has seen 25 percent of its young people between ages 20 and 34 leave, taking their economic potential.
  • More than one-third of upstate manufacturing jobs have disappeared in the past 15 years.
  • Really, Upstate has been in decline for over a generation, but it really was noticed in the 1990s when other parts of the country recovered from the same decline (industrial stagnation) while Upstate didn't. Consider that a century ago Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse were all prosperous, wealthy cities. Today, they barely keep their heads above water. Buffalo lost half its population since 1950, most of that loss occurred after 1970.

    I've always taken interest in Upstate's condition. I don't feel too connected to it, having never lived there, even though my family migrated down from there sometime in the mid-20th century.

    It's interesting from a socioeconomic perspective to understand just what's going so wrong with it. As a region, it could be doing very well. Even today, Upstate has relatively high incomes, skilled labor, decent infrastructure, and despite the myths, the weather far from the worst in the United States. On the other hand, the industry it once depended on has dried up, the Erie Canal is no longer an economic engine, and the region never really had a distinct cultural identity to fall back on.

    Meanwhile, New York State's government does nothing but look out for the interests of New York State's government employees, from the legislators on down. Costs are kept high, education is poor, growth stays stagnant, and the status quo continues to thrive. Children growing up in Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, or Utica have no hope of landing really good jobs after high school, even if their parents are lucky enough to retain one. They don't have the options, like perhaps even their fathers had, of going to work in a big factory and taking home a union pay.

    As Morelle says, Upstate's losing population, and that hurts New York State.
    Regardless of how upstate is described, the implications of our circumstances reach well beyond Schenectady. We do not have downstate's population or national profile, but clearly what happens here affects the health of the entire state. Our population losses slow the state's overall growth to a crawl, which means we lose ranking and political representation at the national level in relation to faster-growing states such as Florida, Texas and California.
    That's a rather important tie-in, and Florida will soon become the third largest state. If current trends continue, New York State is going to fall to fourth in population behind a muggy, penis-shaped hurricane magnet. If it doesn't happen by 2010, it will happen by 2020.

    This does hurt Downstate. As reactionary states like Texas, Florida, and, yes, even California, gain political representation in the House of Representatives, it happens at a cost to our representation. While New York City and its suburbs do fairly well economically, and even manage to attract new residents (primarily through immigration), it's barely enough to replace the losses downstate. Furthermore, New York City is, contrary to popular perception, propping up Upstate with transfer payments. In that regard, a healthy Upstate that can sustain itself means more money for us to spend on our own concerns, such as education, fighting poverty, and modernizing our infrastructure.

    So what are Upstate's economic strengths? I can't really think of many. There are some excellent colleges and universities: the Rochester Institute of Technology, Buffalo State, Syracuse University, Cornell University, just to name a few. And while industrial and transportation infrastructure does exist, there's little to produce industrially and little to import or export.

    Morelle heralds Attorney-General Elliot Spitzer as the economic savior of the region.
    ...Mr. Spitzer's economic program rests on a five-pillared approach:

  • Reduce the cost of doing business: Cut property taxes and reduce the costs of health care and workers' compensation.
  • Support cities: Revitalize urban downtowns and rural communities burdened by layoffs and the decline of schools and neighborhoods that follow.
  • Focus on small business with strategies designed to help the small-business sector, where so many jobs will be created, especially for women, minorities and immigrants.
  • Infrastructure investment: Renew the commitment to improve and modernize our transportation, energy and telecommunications capacities.
  • Innovation and emerging technologies: Identify and aid the growth of strategic industries. This last point particularly impacts Rochester, a city whose optical and imaging industries enriched our community in the 20th century, and where emergent photonic, biotechnology and fuel cell firms are building the foundations for similar prosperity in the 21st century.
  • That's all nice, but it's coming about a generation too late. Upon reflection, one really has to wonder where New York was in the 1960s when the space program and computer revolution were happening. Had Albany been thinking, Silicon Valley could easily have been in the Hudson Valley, and New York City could easily have enjoyed the 1990s benefits of Sand Hill Road's venture capital industry. Early 20th century high tech firms were already located in New York State, and many are still here, including IBM. When the state saw the Erie Canal dying, and technology rising on the west coast, it should have done what it could to encourage relocation to the Erie Canal zone.

    Today, New York State does have the chance to make a grab at the infant biomedical and biotech industries, if it wakes up fast. Many of the ingredients necessary to induce research and development exist in New York State—again, right along the former routes of the Erie Canal and New York Central Railroad, the corridors where the vast majority of the state's population still lives from New York City to Buffalo. Among those ingredients:
    • an educated, literate, and diverse workforce
    • virgin land to attract inexpensive, yet environmentally sustainable, development
    • world-class universities, from NYU and Columbia to Buffalo State
    • the cultural and economic clout of New York City to attract bright minds from around the world
    It doesn't seem to me that economic success needs to depend on the many of the factors cited in the success of other states. We do, however, need to find creative approaches to dealing with problems that have plagued New York since its pre-industrial infancy. While unions certainly may have a place in the economy, we need to find a way from keeping them from becoming slow, anti-progressive bohemoths; the same goes for many of the super-firms we give tax breaks to on Wall Street, or those rare tech giants that still exist upstate. If we're going to continue to have our bureaucracy and transfer payments, they should be contingent on productivity.

    This probably means requiring those who live on public money to work, if they're able to—and this is something that unions should, in all fairness, not be allowed to interfere with. Those who do work while receiving public benefits should be expected to learn a marketable skill in the process.

    We talk about term limits for our elected officials, but it's unelected officials who in many ways affect how people live and work more than elected officails. People who work for the government should have term limits. Since obviously experience is needed in many higher-level jobs, those who are qualified should be promoted if a position is available. Those who have spent a certain number of years working a job should be required to step aside and make room for another qualified applicant who can bring new ideas to the table. Those who are unable to be promoted in their fields should be expected to find a new line of work elsewhere, even if it means a different public service position or a private sector position—they should be prepared to train for and compete for a given public service job to demonstrate they're the best candidate. Only in compelling circumstances should somebody in a public service job be allowed to have more than a fixed number of terms.

    We should also try to unite our elected officials to craft coherent policy. If possible, a state law should be enacted to require members of our delegation in the House of Representatives and Senate to be compelled to publicly testify about what they're doing in Congress to improve New York's economic health and to see to it that the state is getting fair treatment from the federal government. Those who refuse to comply should be prohibited from appearing on ballots for re-election.

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