Fantasy makes for a poor Philly economic strategy

I had the privilege the other day of a moderating a debate for the Eighth District Council race up in Northwest Philadelphia.   And a substantive, civil event it was.

A lot of the questions, drafted by voters who’d attended WHYY/NewsWorks forums earlier this spring, were about jobs, about retail mix and about political wheeling and dealing around development projects.

The candidates, hands on hearts, promised the packed house at the gorgeous First Presbyterian Church in Germantown that they would listen primarily to the community’s desires about economic projects, not to some connected developer who’s free with his checkbook at election time.

This was a big applause line. And of course, on one level, it’s absolutely right.  Government aid for development should go to the best ideas, not to the person who greases the most palms.

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But on another level this notion it is flawed. So I wished there’d been time for a follow-up question.

Here it is: “But what if what the community wants is impractical? What if the community says it wants a Neiman Marcus at the corner of Germantown and Chelten? What if it wants old-fashioned industrial plants, full of the kind of jobs that have fled overseas and just aren’t coming back?  “

What if the community does not understand much about capital, about Economics 101? That, in my experience, is often the case with many activists in Philly neighborhoods. I’m not blaming folks for being skeptics of capitalism.

For any Philadelphian under the age of 50, globalizing economic trends have not treated their home city kindly in their lifetimes.  And local corruption has often favored businesses that tried to pawn the social costs of their profit-seeking off on neighbors.

 Still, this lack of familiarity with how wealth really gets built leads Philadelphians, and the people they elect, into a lot of naïve fantasies.

 With the pols, there’s another factor. Most like to think they’re good at the art of the deal. That’s the sign of power, right, being in the room when the deal goes down?

But the evidence is in and it’s overwhelming: Politicians really are not good at picking between winners and losers in business investment.

The thing is, capital can go wherever the hell it wants. If you’ve got to cut a sweetheart deal to get capital to invest in you, you’re already in trouble.   What smart capital, the kind your really want to attract, most wants is a place with good schools churning out able workers, with safe streets, solid infrastructure, reliable services.

That’s the unglamorous, vital blocking and tackling of good governance. That’s where elected officials should put their energy, not sweet-talking capital into investing where it’s reluctant. Those kinds of deals attract mostly scammers or idiots.

I yearn for my city to be run by people who understand that. Wish I’d heard more signs of hope Wednesday night.





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