An Inflammatory Comparison; A Call for Action

28 Feb

Quick – name a place that’s endured 50 years of stagnation and decline; a place from which people flee on a daily basis; a place where the economy is in shambles, and people are ridiculously cynical.

If you guessed Cuba, you’d be right.

I am loath to compare Western New York to an overbaked Leninist-Stalinist basket case, but in many ways it’s apt. So you’ll forgive me this plunge into a sort of reductio ad Stalinum, but reading through this particular article about the younger generation’s frustration with the indignities of everyday Cuban life, I was struck by the many comparisons to WNY.

Now, of course, we don’t have a brutal self-important dictator, nor do we have a completely planned economy, and we do allow freedom of speech, assembly, religion, press, and other basic human rights that Stalinists loath. Naturally, the analogy is, therefore, fatally flawed.

But, consider this quote:

“Our defining characteristic is cynicism. But that’s a double-edged sword. It protects you from crushing disappointment, but it paralyzes you from doing anything.”

Cynicism is rampant throughout Western New York, and I readily admit that I have become one of the cynics. Frankly, people are too busy working to create the kind of mass movement needed to really change anything here in WNY or in Albany. In Cuba, they have time. They also have gulags.

While the children of Buffalo, Cheektowaga, and Wheatfield chase jobs and a better existence in places like Charlotte, Orlando, Phoenix, Boston, and New York, the children of Cuba flee, as well:

…millions of young Cubans want the regime to cut the rhetoric and make tangible improvements in their lives. Many have given up hope: from October 2005 through September 2007, an estimated 77,000 Cubans fled to the United States, the biggest exodus since the Mariel boatlift of 1980, when 125,000 Cubans escaped to Florida in six months. “Young people are very fed up with the situation,” says Julia Núñez Pacheco, the wife of jailed independent journalist Adolfo Fernández Sainz. “Many are escaping, either by hurling themselves into the sea on a raft or arranging a marriage of convenience with foreigners.”

(Lack of hope + lack of opportunity + opportunity elsewhere + frustration)(political stasis + baby steps + out of touch leaders and legislatures) = exodus.

Except in Buffalo, you need only fill up a U-Haul. In Cuba, you need to find a boat and leave secretly, risking your life.

Oh, we’ve tried to change. We’ve (perhaps misguidedly) supported politicians, with our fingers firmly crossed, who promised fundamental change which would help lift upstate and western New York out of a decades-long doldrums. But consider this quote:

Raúl Castro has only himself to blame for their undisguised impatience. Within weeks of stepping in for his bedridden older brother, he urged Cubans to blow the whistle on government corruption and to find new solutions for the country’s many problems. Cuba’s young could hardly have agreed more: sweeping changes were overdue. And what happened next? Nothing.

Sounds painfully familiar.

The answer? I don’t think it lies with more government “job creation” programs, nor does it lie with the opposite end of the spectrum, with some sort of unyielding extreme libertarian ideological theorizing. It lies with victories big and small. It starts with people impressing upon their political leaders that they expect and demand fundamental change. While I often mock the SimCity-style “planning” that many espouse when it comes to Buffalo’s physical development, SimCity frankly teaches one some very basic lessons. There is a threshold at which taxation and regulation create decline. When your light industrial zones start to crumble, and property values plummet in your dense residential districts, you have to take some drastic measures. Ultimately, your city grows when you find a decent mix of taxation and spending, neither of which can be too extreme.

Yet after half a century, we still haven’t learned the lessons that a silly computer game can teach.

This region stumbles along on handouts and hope, living like it’s still 1958. Efforts to reduce the size of government, or to create regional government run headlong into political fiefdoms, and other forms of turf-protection. Yes, we’re all for it in the abstract, so long as it doesn’t affect ______ in any meaningful way.

Perhaps it’s time to take a page from the Senecas’ playbook. We don’t have to block the Thruway and burn tires on it, but we upstate New York holdout taxpayers really ought to consider some sort of mass movement to wake up New York governments and entities that hold us back economically.

The Unshackle Upstate effort is all well and good, but it’s a top-down approach supported by business entities like the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, which is very good at lecturing people about good governance, while happily collecting IDA and Empire Zone welfare handouts.

In Cuba,

No one took to the streets last week to test the limits of the regime’s forbearance. “You’re starting to see more and more examples of dissidence, but they are still not very organized or united,” says prominent human-rights activist Laura Pollán, 60, whose husband has been jailed since 2003. Still, change is coming…

Is change coming? Is anyone hearing the vast, silent majority of upstate citizens who love their homes and their hometowns, but are frustrated with continuing, rapid decline of this post-industrial region?

I’ve toyed with the idea of a million-taxpayer march on Albany before, but I’ve been too preoccupied with life to do anything about it. Imagine thousands of people (maybe a million is over-reaching) traveling to Albany to demand that Albany enact a five or ten-point action plan to help guide upstate out of its economic doldrums and lay the foundation for growth.

What would you include on that list? Would you go?

21 Responses to “An Inflammatory Comparison; A Call for Action”

  1. hank February 28, 2008 at 10:03 am #

    Thoughtfully and Well written Alan.

    I think I’d come up from Buffalo South for something like that.

    This is something for Expats to think about. Something like “Fix the mess so we can return to the state/ city (area) we love”.

    Sure, I like the mild winters, and the hot summers, and the proximity to Myrtle Beach and the redneck paradise of Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge.

    but I’d rather be nearer to my mother in her declining years, better able to care for her. re-uniting with my relatives left in the area I’ve not seen for many years. I’d put up with Buffalo winters for that.

    You’re right Alan—it’s 1958 in a 2008 world. Government is the biggest employer in the area. everythings crumbling and the people are taxed to death. Sounds like East Germany, and starting to look like it too.

  2. Rob February 28, 2008 at 10:16 am #

    My initial reaction is: this is the best post you’ve ever written (that I’ve read). And sign me up for the march on Albany.

  3. Buffalo Blood Donor February 28, 2008 at 12:11 pm #

    I was just in Albany a couple weeks ago, lobbying my legislators (one of these days I’ll write about it). My observation about lobbying in Albany, and the related act of protesting: There is no good place to congregate.

    Actually, there is no good place to park, either. Between the way the state Capitol is built and the extra protections placed since 9/11, It is likely that most marchers would have to start their march from Schenectady!

    I’ll be one of them.

    Great article.


  4. Christopher Smith February 28, 2008 at 12:23 pm #

    Hmmm…where to begin? The problem with efforts like this is at the laws of NY are so byzantine and complex (tax rates have been modified 30 times in less than a decade, for example) that we are left with vague proclamations of what we need to have done. Are vagaries about change enough? If so, from a high level, perhaps we could reduce the corporate and personal tax burdens and make New York competitive with every other state in America? Perhaps we could cut some bureaucracy and streamline delivery of services to achieve cost savings? Perhaps we could reform the way Albany conducts business, implement performance budgeting, conduct open audits of state agencies, and increase transparency?

    To break it down…

    Non-partisan redistricting reform – There is a reason incumbents win 97% of elections in this state.

    Term limits – Typically I am not a fan, but in New York State, term limits for State Assemblymen and State Senators makes a hell of a lot of sense

    Transparency and reform of FOIL laws – All documents online, searchable databases of member items, political donations, committee minutes, etc. Everything that happens in an official government office will be recorded, broadcast, printed, and made searchable.

    Abolition of state authorities

    Elimination of the corporate franchise tax for upstate businesses.

    Statewide private sector incentives for the development of green and alternative energy

    30% reduction across the board in personal and corporate income tax accompanied with a massive reduction in state spending spearheaded by a collaborative effort between a citizens budget panel and the state legislature. A line by line examination of the state budget and discovery of ways to reduce costs.

    Place all school districts under the direct control of the existing municipality.

    I could keep going, but I think that’s a good start…

  5. steve February 28, 2008 at 12:24 pm #

    Great article, BP, worthy of comment and debate.

    My initial two-cents:

    1. As part of the message to state government, remind them that “upstate” is not one place or one thing. Buffalo is as different from Albany as it is Brooklyn. Most of the few “upstate” solutions that have been floated around are one-size-fits-all ending up as one-size-fits-none.

    2. Also remind state government that so many of the barriers to regional cooperation, consolidation, efficiency, and so on, exist within state government. Included among them are archaic rules on such matters, unfunded mandates, and incentive programs that seem to encourage regional competition instead of cooperation.

    My two cents are up.

  6. Stan P February 28, 2008 at 12:43 pm #

    I’m in.

    I like everything Chris Smith says (why don’t you run for office).

  7. Mike February 28, 2008 at 2:38 pm #

    Please admit it Hank, you just want to be closer to your mom because you miss all the free meals.

  8. Mike Miller February 28, 2008 at 2:45 pm #

    Great article, Alan!

    I believe that the only way New York State will thrive is for New York City to secede from the state and become its own district, like D.C. Then, we could also give the new district all of our Albany government and elect one of our own. I don’t think it will ever be completely fair to the rest of the state unless we get rid of the moneysuck that is N.Y.C.

  9. Dan February 28, 2008 at 3:19 pm #

    Reminds me of this article, which was difficult to forget the first time I read it:

    Buffalo – Havana
    A Tale of Two Cities
    By Michael I. Niman, Blue Dog Press,
    May 17th, 2001

    A quote:

    ” Both cities have Diasporas. There are Buffalo theme bars throughout the Sunbelt catering to this city’s expatriates from Charlotte to Houston. They’ve left, but their hearts are till here. They’re nostalgic. They eat wings and watch Bills games. Havana too has a Diaspora. Cuban ex-pats are scattered throughout the U.S. and Spain. They eat at Cuban restaurants, practice Santeria and listen to Cuban music. Like those who left Buffalo, some are economic refugees looking for condos, credit cards and SUVs. Others are political refugees from across the Cuban political landscape. Many of the displaced Cubans and Buffalonians hope to one day return home.

    Both cities suffered great capitol flight. Cuba’s wealth took off to Miami shortly after the 1959 revolution, helping to establish that city as the business capitol of Latin America. At the same time Buffalo’s wealth started drifting north and south, to ‘burbs like Amherst and Orchard Park where building booms have sucked the city’s tax base dry. The success of both Miami and Amherst is directly tied to the poverty in Havana and Buffalo. Havana is only now recovering with an influx of European Union investment. Buffalo’s day is yet to come, with the city still having to use corporate welfare as bait to bribe businesses to stay.

    There are no Fortune 500 companies headquartered in either city. That’s part of our charm.

    Both cities remember, for better or for worse, a grander past. For us it will always be 1901 – the undisputed heyday of Buffalo – the Pan American Exposition. For Havana it was the boom days of the 1500s, the 1600s, the 1700s, the 1800s and finally the Mafia hey days of the 1950s when decedent American tourists flocked to Havana casinos and whorehouses. “

  10. Ben McD February 28, 2008 at 3:30 pm #

    ” And sign me up for the march on Albany.”

    I’d rather march on Buffalo. The problems of the city, and region, can be boiled down to one common belief held by most WNYers, and that is the government is there to take from your fellow citizens and give to yourself while keeping them from doing the same to you.

  11. Mike Walsh February 28, 2008 at 3:34 pm #

    We’ve been talking about this for the last several years. There’s plenty of proposals right here:

  12. Timothy Domst February 28, 2008 at 6:00 pm #

    Michael Niman wants to act like the vampiric suburbs stalked in during the night to suck Buffalo dry, the fact is that the combined tax burden of the area hit Buffalo harder than Amherst, both would grow from lower taxes. I am amazed at his gall to say that “Both cities suffered great capitol [sic] flight.” He says that this wealth flying away is a bad thing, but of course isn’t willing to admit that our government’s huge payroll is the cause. He needs to make up some fantasy about how building in Orchard Park did it. The payrolls for the unions that he would support (from what I gather from his columns) with a knee-jerk are what stole the tax base.

    (last paragraph)

    To a lesser extent the voting public around here are just the same, for example Sam Hoyt keeps getting reelected, what will he ever do to change the status quo? No one will stand up to the firemen’s union, I guess voters are too easily led by billboards and 9/11. Firemen all over the country are just as brave, but other cities seem to do as well with 2/3 as many per capita as Buffalo, and their houses are just as old.

    Click to access 04_04.pdf

    (page 6)

    The cops worked with Masiello, and did the sky fall? Practically every private sector worker takes a pay cut to stay here, but every time a government contract talk starts the negotiators spew crap like “We need to pay high wages and benefits to attract the best talent”, when people are lining up for miles to get the jobs.

    I think the best idea is to start with what Chris Smith said, the Freedom of Information Laws need to be changed so the reporters can start digging and we can get rid of our two dictators, Sheldon Silver and Joe Bruno. I have faith that people would get rid of them if we all clearly saw how committee control, authorities, etc. run the state.

  13. Pauldub February 28, 2008 at 6:16 pm #

    I’ll go. Hell, I’ll drive.

  14. jesse February 29, 2008 at 9:30 am #

    “Cynicism is rampant throughout Western New York, and I readily admit that I have become one of the cynics.”

    Then stop.

    I’ll go. Pick a date. Hopefully in July when it’s warm. 🙂

  15. hank February 29, 2008 at 10:25 am #

    Mike Said
    Please admit it Hank, you just want to be closer to your mom because you miss all the free meals.

    Yeah, I’ve been gone 33 years and all I miss are the Free Meals.

    Mike–grow the fuck up. Don’t characterize others by what YOU do.

  16. Edgard February 29, 2008 at 1:16 pm #

    Why do western New Yorkers keep returning the same old doing nothing hacks to public office?

  17. NYCO February 29, 2008 at 2:02 pm #

    Alan, it is an interesting idea but you must make it into something that a politician locked in Albany’s three-way struggle could make hay out of, or else it would just be another goo-goo march ignored by the media for the most part.

    You would have to make it something one of the players can seize upon for his agenda. Which of the three men do you think?

    Anyhow, as long as you’re in a fighting mood, if you have time to watch video, check this out from Post-Standard columnist Sean Kirst, he’s a WNY-er and although this bit is about architecture, it is a good rallying cry. (You need to wait a few minutes until the introducer guy gets done speaking. Sean is the one with the rolled up shirt sleeves.)

  18. NYCO February 29, 2008 at 2:03 pm #

    The link would help. 🙂

  19. Adirondack Almanack February 29, 2008 at 3:22 pm #

    I’m not sure how the “we’re being held down by others” argument is really helpful. The problem is not some amorphous political cabal, it’s the folks all around us who keep reelecting the same fools, who watch the Super Bowl every year but have never been to a town meeting (let alone county or state).

    The problem is throughout the country – there will be no solution in Upstate New York, until something shifts across America that makes people feel threatened for their livelihoods enough to act. In the meantime, Americans will continue to think they are the smartest, fastest, tallest, cleanest, and best governed people in the world.

    The answer is to talk to the people beside you and try and persuade them that they should take their head out of the sand, stop thinking that they are somehow special individualist, and demand that they take part in the political life of their communities and the nation in a meaningful and THOUGHTFUL way.

  20. TheRover March 2, 2008 at 2:10 pm #

    Excellent piece Allen. My thoughts exactly, where do I sign up? Should we bring the pitchforks and pikes? The tar and feathers? (the late 1700’s were so cool)

    And Mr Chris Smith, you run for governor, you get my vote!


  1. Other people's blogs : NYCO’s Blog - March 1, 2008

    […] compares upstate New York to Cuba (whereas I would have compared it to Soviet […]

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