Economic Unfairness and NWPA

The following is the text from my July 27, 2020 Digital Town Hall on Economic Unfairness:

There’s a phrase I use often in explaining the core of my campaign: “We live the stories we tell and the stories people tell about us.”

I’m a writer by training, and a teacher of writing and literature, so it comes as no surprise that I believe in the power of story. But tonight I want to emphasize how much the stories that circulate in and within our lives dictate how we see the world around us, and how those stories have tremendous impact on the legislation and economy that our elected officials value and champion.

What we don’t talk about enough, however, is how persistent stories lock us into a rough economic reality. 

I mean, we have pride in our region, and rightly so, as the birthplace of the zipper, and as a place with a tremendous capacity of tool and die shops, and a long heritage in farming, and one of the oldest Colleges in the United States. But we also understand that times have been tough here for a long time. We need to talk more about how our economic condition — that of struggle and of precocity -— has been built by certain expectations of story, and how those conditions continue to prevail very much because legislators and career-politicians are perfectly happy with the status quo that keeps us exactly where we are. Which is broke.

This is what we need to recognize:

  1. 13-and-a-half percent of the residents of Crawford County live below the poverty line…and that is also higher than the Commonwealth average;
  2. 24% of the residents of Meadville live below the poverty line…and that is twice the Commonwealth average
  3. Crawford County ranks 56th out of 67 PA counties in per capita income, and 43rd in poverty. Erie County fares better, but is still very much in the middle of the pack.

When you look at each of these benchmarks, you see that the real story of ur region is one of perpetual economic difficulty. We are not prospering, and many of our neighbors are struggling to pay their bills, afford visits to their doctors, put food on the table, and find jobs that pay fair, sustainable, livable wages.

And it’s not getting better. If you’re lucky enough to have healthcare from your employer, for example, you know your cost share keeps going up, even as your income does not. You know our schools are suffering from perpetual funding problems. You know our infrastructure — roads, sewers, bridges — is rough.

And while you might hear from career politicians that we can’t possibly raise wages, because that would hurt “the economy,” and that schools just aren’t budgeting the right way, and that public investment isn’t worthwhile, we also know that our municipalities are struggling with depressed tax bases, and our schools are not over-funded, and that it is very hard to raise a family on the kind of wages often on offer around here. For example, hourly-wage workers have to take overtime to make ends meet: some workers have to toil 60 or 70 hours a week to make the money of a fairly-paid full-time job. And you also have to consider yourself lucky to have that job, because so many of our neighbors are also out of work.

One of the worst dynamics of the economic story we live is that so many Pennsylvanians are being exploited for their labor, and then they’re asked to be grateful for that.

I grew up in Indiana County, born in 1975 as the coal mines that had been the industrial center of that town were shutting down. Still, the frequent refrain from so many politicians during my childhood — and even now — is to campaign on “bringing back coal” or some other variation of an imaginary faith in a long-gone “good old days” that, truth be told, also came with a large measure of black lung, and crushed limbs, and an ethos that considers the bodies of miners as tools to be spent and discarded, not as people who deserve the right to live prosperous, safe, and satisfying lives. We are told over and over again that if we give ourselves to industry, they will pay us a wage…almost enough to live on.

Politicians who spun those stories won elections, and still do, because they pitch what so many want to hear: that we will be rewarded for our hard work. The mines stayed closed, of course. Or a couple re-opened as low-wage non-union mines, and miners took those bad jobs because they had no other options. More recently, I saw the Marcellus boom back at home and up here, and it brought some jobs for a bit, but mostly it brought wealth to wealthy people, with many of the drilling jobs given to workers brought in from out of state anyway. Then wellhead prices crashed from overproduction, so the work disappeared for even the lucky few that had it, and the promised economic benefit to our stores, our schools, our communities, well that also vanished.

This is the history of our region. Since pretty much forever, every promised boom has come with a bust, and the only people getting wealthy on the booms are, well, not us. Remember when Oil City and Titusville were some of the wealthiest places in America? Remember what happened when the oil boom ended?

You would think, then, that these persistent cycles of economic struggle would inspire politicians to seek new solutions to persistent problems. Instead, we see the Commonwealth voting to give an estimated $1.5 billion tax break to build an ethylene cracker plant in the Ohio Valley, which would lead to something like 600 estimated permanent jobs after construction. And just this month, the legislatures overwhelmingly passed a new $670 million tax break deal to lure even more petrochemical plants to Pennsylvania…for another estimated 800 permanent jobs

That’s $2 billion dollars for 1400 jobs. Or about $1.5 million dollars in tax relief for each job. That doesn’t seem like a good deal, for workers, or tax payers. Ed. note: correction from the video

Here’s another part most politicians don’t like to talk about: when you start adding up the economic costs of things like pollution clean-up and additional healthcare costs, fossil fuel development is not profitable. It is only profitable for the companies that run the plants because we pay for it, in the form of tax breaks, in tax dollars spent cleaning up pollution, and in the increased health care premiums and copays we cough up.

So why do we see this happening? Because it’s the story of the economy:

  1. That fossil energy extraction is the only thing that can change the fortunes of our region, even though we’ve seen time and again that it does not, for most people who live in a place where fossil resources are the backbone of an economy.
  2. That people like us who live in the industrial portions of the state exist only to grow the wealth of corporations.

What I have never, ever understood, and what I am literally running for office against, is politicians who claim to be representing their communities by voting for, supporting, and championing bad deals like this. But that, too, is the long story of our region: career politicians are fine with the status quo, even when it harms the people in the area, because they are not affected by the status quo. And it is a lot more work standing up against exploitation than it is collecting a paycheck that is four times the per capita income of Crawford County and enjoying your state-sponsored healthcare, and tax-funded retirement fund.

One more number: $4.5 million. That’s the estimated total cost of a representative’s tax-payer—funded salary, his staff’s salaries, all of their benefits, travel costs, and office leases for a person who has been in office since, say, 2008. That’s a lot of money. I would ask: what have Crawford and Erie County seen in return for that investment? And I don’t mean pork barrel jobs — because that’s just another unethical way to run an economy. I mean, what kind of actual support of a new economy have we seen?

56th in per capita income. 43rd in poverty. That’s what we have seen.

What I would like to see is a reinvestment in workers, as people, and not just as profit lines on a spreadsheet. I would like to see an economy focused on our lives instead of our profit potential. And I would like to see a recognition that the bad choices we are always given are not the only choices possible. 

This is where I see tremendous possibility in green industrial development.

Look, we are good at making stuff in Northwestern PA. We have the shops. And whether we’re making stuff for gas wells or windmills, we can make it. And I would much rather see us invest in industries that will be sustainable for our economy and our environment, than to see state tax breaks go to companies that are simply looking for markets to subsidize their business models. These gas production deals we’re seeing? They are nothing more than corporate welfare, using our tax dollars to secure their profits.

Let’s think differently about gas production, too. Because, there’s no way around it: these deals are done. Gas will have to flow to support the tax investment. But what if we levied a renewable energy R&D requirement on all gas production. Just spitball it at, say, 20% of revenues. Say we made it so that chunk of change had to be invested in green R&D…either by the gas company itself or as a tax paid into a statewide fund for R&D. This could be a way to actually use natural gas as a real bridge fuel, not just a bridge as in how we’ll make money until we can’t, which is what we’re seeing right now, but as a bridge that provides the energy we do, indeed, need to heat our homes but also uses the economic power of that energy to rapidly develop the new tech that can provide that energy in a sustainable way. The bonus part: our area industry can be retooled to support that new economic growth.

I’ll add, in brief, that we could choose, also, to invest in different sorts of economic growth: sustainable small-scale agriculture has a great head start here. We should invest in growth there, in getting more young and more diverse new farmers onto the land. 

The arts economy in the U.S. is an $800 billion dollar industry, bigger than construction, transportation, and mining. In PA alone, there are more than 100,000 jobs supported by the arts. Imagine a city like Meadville, for example, with beautiful old, TLC-ready low-cost housing stock that young artists could renovate and use to make new homes and a new economy? Imagine more arts development in Erie County, and how the lake can be an inspiration for beauty and meaningfulness?

Budgets tell you who a Commonwealth care about. What we choose to invest our money in is really just another story. 

I’m running for office because we need bolder, smarter vision to speak for the people of Northwestern PA. We don’t have to accept tired political inaction and call it a day. We deserve better than reps who literally run on a legacy of doing very little. 

Why can’t we think differently about what counts as an economy? Why can’t we fight to develop these new sectors and invest in those? We have foundations for this kind of development in our District, and we can do more if we commit to a different, more sustaining vision of who we can be.

Disrupting the rigged economy that makes us suffer, and that is used to make us blame each other for our designed suffering, is the umbrella of my campaign. In other Town Halls, I’ll talk in more detail about the three planks of my platform: healthcare, education, and environmental conservation. Working toward economic fairness is at the heart of all three of these: Healthcare reform gives us a way to keep more dollars in workers’ pockets and let them choose more easily where they want to work, or if they want to start their own businesses. Education, from pre-K through high school and college and ongoing worker education and training gives people the tools to shape their working lives, and earn enough money to support their families and live good lives. Environmental conservation saves money and keeps us healthier, because pollution is expensive, and so is sickeness. Plus, in Northwestern PA so many of us have a shared love for our woods and waters, whether as hunters, hikers, fishers, boaters, joggers, photographers, or people who just enjoy living in a quiet, clean part of the country. 

It’s time to stop forcing all of to make a choice between living well and having a job. That’s really no choice at all. It’s extortion.

We keep being fed the same story over and over, and in politics part of the story is that somehow a party is more important than the actions of people representing that party, or representing us. I don’t care about your party, and I hope you don’t care about mine. I’m running for office because I care about us, about this part of the country that my children will always call home, and because I have spent my life in western Pennsylvania seeing bad politics worsen our difficult economic condition. 

We can do better. We have to. And we will.

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