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The Morning Grumpy – 12/21/12

21 Dec

All the news, views, and filtered excellence fit to consume during your morning grumpy.

1. As other regional economies collapsed under the weight of the Great Recession, Buffalo was uniquely positioned as a “steady as she goes” option for many Americans. The Western New York economy does not boom when other areas boom, nor does it bottom out when other areas decline. Years upon years of economic data from the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Census Bureau back up that claim.

As I wrote in 2010, if Buffalo were blessed with a nimble and aggressive mayor who engaged the civic, business, academic, and non-profit communities, we could have taken advantage of America’s broad-based economic weakness and positioned our community as a soft landing in a bad economy.

I think the trend lines in this document are telling and can serve as a precursor to a larger discussion about our regional strategic priorities and how we can best position Buffalo for the coming new economy.  We see that the bust is still hitting Florida, California, and the entire Southeast and Southwest especially hard.  We see that many areas around the Great Lakes and Midwest are relatively stable.  Is our predictability and stability an asset?

If we had a big picture Mayor or County Executive, we might be chewing on the data and building a strategy focused on how to best position ourselves for growth.  Unfortunately, we’re (as usual) mired in petty political battles and barking at who gets to eat the last crumbs on the table.

If we had a proactive business community or regional development authority, we might be putting together a list of priorities to capitalize on weakness in other regions of the country rather than simply seeking public funding for pet projects.

We did nothing of the sort. We fought over who would be the leader of the Erie County Democratic Community and talked a lot about buildings. So, we have that going for us, which is nice. And now, the window of opportunity is quickly closing. According to the latest Metro Monitor report from The Brookings Institution, the bust cities of the recession have regained steam and Buffalo has fallen to the back of the pack, yet again.

The recovery has proceeded more slowly in the Northeast where many metro areas had relatively minor recessions when compared with faster-recovering markets. As a result, they are closer to pre-recession levels of jobs, output, and home prices than many harder hit places.

Buffalo is now ranked 83rd out of the top 100 metro areas in job growth, 96th out of 100 in Unemployment rate (4th worst), and 66th out of 100 in regional GDP.  Just two years ago, we we were the 3rd fastest growing regional economy in America, primarily due to the negative growth rates of other areas, but we’ve quickly lost that edge.

So, how do we fix this? Can our regional economy be turned around? Will a “billion” dollars of money sent from Albany magically turn us around? Probably not. Our problem is culture, misguided leaders, incompetent elected officials and selfish/protectionist business and foundational communities. When the Buffalo Billion rolls in, do we have the best people in place to administer the money and pick winners and losers? Our track record says no.

How do we capitalize on the remaining period of general economic weakness and make sure that we begin a period of slow growth rather than continue our decades long state of stasis/decline?  When do we stop focusing on the minimal out-migration of knowledge from our regional economy and instead focus on in-migration of highly educated people?  We’ve held steady through the past two recessions fairly well. Rather than just surviving, how do we capitalize?

As Brian Castner wrote in 2011.

The Federal Reserve’s Buffalo office report on the matter says we do not suffer from an overly large brain drain, but an insufficient brain gain. In every metro, even booming places like Austin and (until recently) Charlotte, some young people leave. In this regard, Buffalo is like everywhere else – it sends its young off to seek greener pastures. But unlike other cities, we don’t do well attracting the nation’s youth, and experience a minimal brain gain.

Anecdotal evidence alone says Buffalo is still not doing well in providing that ultimate carrot to youth: quality jobs. Buffalo has far more intellectual capital than monetary, and this imbalance shows itself in a surge of citizen’s groups, demands for open mic nights for development projects, ironic winter festivals and the Buffalo Expat Network. In cities with the opposite problem, everyone is too busy working and making money to care about much of anything. Young people that do find jobs here are often under-employed, as greying middle managers are stuck in mid-salary positions with mid-salary responsibilities. With a plethora of back office work and few leadership positions available, the Buffalo corporate ladder looks more like a step-stool with not many places to go. As a friend of mine, a University of Chicago trained economist who worked for Citi in Amherst, once said: “If the work is important, it’s not being done here.” He has since moved on himself.

A shortage of quality jobs leads to nepotism and connections completely overwhelming qualifications – if you are an outsider, a recent transplant, and not “from here,” or from the “old neighborhood” in some places still, you have little chance of even hearing about jobs, much less securing them. The City of Good Neighbors culture is friendly to its own and suspicious of others coming to take the few remaining scraps.

This culture changes when jobs are readily available, and enough new blood is regularly arriving to soften old perceptions or break down networks built from grade school. Until Buffalo moves from the “loss” to the “gain” column in these demographics reports, I will be unconvinced we have truly turned a corner.

If I were Mayor, I would start by identifying our differentiators and marketing ourselves to the people and businesses of those regions.  I’d continue to align our public policy, planning documents and zoning code to capitalize on national opportunities and assemble a team of technocratic tacticians (who come from successfully planned cities) who can help us design and execute an economic development strategy. I’d lean on the local University talent to help build a blueprint for success with measurable goals over five years.

After all, complex problems do not always require complex solutions.

If we prioritize, identify action items, separate them from eventualities and focus on attainable, measurable, incremental goals, we can start inching towards competence. Or, we can just hope that Howard Zemsky and the other top-down planners working on the Buffalo “Billion” project are better than the last group chosen by the political elite.

2. Instead of that Mayan nonsense that was custom-crafted for the inbred and/or gullible, here are some realistic doomsday scenarios.

NASA expects that roughly every 100 years, an asteroid larger than 55 yards wide will strike. The impact could cause local catastrophes like massive floods, destruction of entire cities and agricultural collapse. Around once every few 100,000 years, chunks of rock more than three-fifths of a mile wide — the equivalent of about 12 New York City blocks — could come tumbling through the atmosphere causing much more serious problems, on a global scale. Acid rain would kill crops, debris would shield Earth from sunlight, and firestorms would ensue, according to NASA’s Near Earth Object Program.

Merry Christmas!

3. Should you change your password?

We comb the depths of the internet to find email and password data sets that have been hacked, leaked or compromised. We aggregate this data so that you can easily check whether your email addresses and passwords have been included in any of these breaches.

The answer to the question is usually a yes. Regularly change your passwords (I change mine every three months) and include numbers, letters (no actual words), and special characters. Also, don’t “daisy chain” your passwords by using the same one for your bank account, email, and other personal sites. Is it a pain in the ass? Yes. However, it provides a modicum of security until we figure out how not to use passwords anymore.

4. Jason Kottke linked to a a remarkable book published in 2007, called Armed America: Portraits of Gun Owners in Their Homes.

Cassidy traveled over 20,000 miles, crisscrossing the country to meet with gun owners in their homes. Cassidy’s photo essays create a powerful, thought provoking and sometimes startling view of gun ownership in the U.S. These “everyman” portraits, and the accompanying views of gun owners, fashion a riveting and provocative hardcover book.

Paul: My family had guns the whole time I was a kid. then i went off and joined the army and went away and come back. I have guns now largely for the same reason I have fire extinguishers in the house and spare tires in the car. I’m a self reliant kind of guy. and there could come a time when I need to protect my family and I’m a self reliant kind of guy.

Beth: I have one for self protection. I was raised to never rely on anyone else to protect me or watch my back. It took me a year to pick out one that I liked.

A fascinating look at American gun culture.

5. Doomsday preppers, not President Obama’s people, evidently.

How do doomsday preppers feel about the re-election of Barack Obama? At the Self-Reliance Expo in Mesa, Arizona earlier this fall, purveyors of Candwiches and underground shelters viewed a second term as both catastrophe and opportunity: “There’s a lot of people I talk to who say, ‘Depending on what happens in the election, I’m going to buy some body armor,'”  Derek Williams, president of the Salt Lake City-based  Amendment II told us. The company’s children’s tactical vest costs $499. “If the economy falls apart, people don’t have food. People who are looking for food, they’re gonna have their guns with them. People want body armor so they can protect themselves.”

Americans are insane.

Fact Of The Day: An asteroid is on course to pass in between the earth in the moon and has a chance to hit satellites and possibly even Earth itself in February 2013

Quote Of The Day: “We will forever be victims of the time delay between information around us, and our capacity to receive it.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson

Christmas Song Of The Day: “Santa Claus Goes Straight To The Ghetto” – Snoop

Song Of The Day: “Jesus and Tequila” – Minutemen

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