Tough Love for Pittsburgh

In today's Post-Gazette, local architect Dan Rothschild volunteers a "Love Your City" solution to Pittsburgh's fiscal woes: Everyone who doesn't live in the city but works there or plays there or perhaps just drives through once in a while should just chip in an extra $500 or so. Voluntarily. Because it's the right thing to do. "Participation would revolve around optimism, connectivity, regionalism and civic-mindedness." And, he admits, guilt at being reminded of getting something for nothing.

As an actual proposal, this is fantasy, so I don't think that it is offered seriously. Out in Mt. Lebanon, Dan is known as a man of clarity and reason as well as imagination, so I'll write off the specifics of his notion as idealism in support of something else. Pittsburgh is many things, but it is hardly filled with large-scale or even modest-scale optimism, connectivity, regionalism, and civic-mindedness.

But what else?

Think of the city of Pittsburgh as a very large not-for-profit (in fact, that's what it is), and think of the challenge that any not-for-profit has: How can it and should it raise money to fund its operations?

Let us set aside for the moment the idea that the not-for-profit might scale back its operations or run its operations more efficiently or rationally, all in order to reduce its expenses. That's an important theme, but not part of this post.

Cities, of course, are not ordinary not-for-profits; they have the power to tax and to impose other kinds of user fees (parking revenue and building permits, for example) that produce involuntary revenue, or at least implicitly "bargained-for" revenue. If you live in the city, then you've submitted to the bargain of its coercive authority; if you want a service from the city, then you have to pay for it.

What Dan Rothschild is getting at, however, is the kind of fundraising that ordinary not-for-profits do have to think about: Getting people to wake up in the morning and say to themselves, "Yes, in fact I will give a bunch of money to the cause, rather than blowing it on rent or food or health care." The City of Pittsburgh may not actually take that approach, but metaphorically that is part of the city's challenge: How do you get people -- residents and especially non-residents -- voluntarily to sign up for the cause? Maybe Pittsburgh really does want to get voluntarily "tax" payments from non-residents; Pittsburgh certainly does want both residents and non-residents to invest their *time* in service to the city and its communities; and at the least the city of Pittsburgh wants everyone to invest their psychic energy in the *idea* of Pittsburgh. That last bit obviously has few if any short-term concrete payoffs, and perhaps few long-term concrete payoffs, but it is in the mix -- even if it sounds either like a cat chasing its tail, or like an emergent property of a complex system. I.e., useless. Yet seemingly useless issues sometimes drive very large questions.

So, here is a large question: How does a not-for-profit tap the energy (cash and time) that it wants and needs?

First: The not-for-profit actually has to have a vision, and that vision has to engage people at an emotional level. A vision or ... an idea of itself, that is, what it wants to be. And that vision has to prompt passion. That combination is difficult enough for a typical not-for-profit; it is an almost insuperable problem for an entire city. But that's where the giving equation has to start. For people who have long-time family commitments to Pittsburgh, that is, for true Pittsburghers, that passion is much easier to come by; for people like me, who moved here as adults and like the place a lot, passion comes in bits and pieces. But passion alone isn't enough; passion has to be connected to a view of the future. (Lots of Pittsburghers have passionate connections to the Pittsburgh of the past; fewer have passionate connections to a Pittsburgh of their future.) Dan Rothschild will never persuade me that a "something for nothing" guilt trip will lead me to write an extra $500 check to the city of Pittsburgh. There is a chance, however, that I'll be inspired to give (give something, if not necessary cash) by a vision of what Pittsburgh can become.

Second: The not-for-profit has to convince people that their investment not only won't be wasted (that's important, but again, not enough), but also that their investment will make a difference. There are no guarantees, here; there are only expectations, hopes, and measured risks. If I'm going to take some of my rent money, or food money, or health care money (or entertainment money, or gifts for the nieces and nephews money) and hand it off to a stranger, I want to know that the money is going to actually have help achieve the vision that I believe in. That impact may or may not involve getting something personal in return. It's about achieving the vision, and being personally involved in achieving the vision. It's about a story being told, and being part of that story. And in Pittsburgh? Like Dan, I live in Mt. Lebanon, a place that prides itself on top-quality governance. Like Dan, I take the view that my elected officials in Mt. Lebanon (mostly the school board, but in many contexts the commission, too) have completely and utterly abused the public's confidence. Does Pittsburgh have a better record of fiscal prudence than the wastrels of the South Hills? I don't think so.

Think about local public radio: Economists have wondered for a long time about why people give money to local public radio stations, when they can listen to the broadcasts for free. Do they give because they get t-shirts and coffee mugs? Mostly, no; the coffee mug is almost always worth far less than the contribution. Do they give because they feel guilty about listening and not paying for the product? Mostly, no; people can listen to commercial radio for free, too, and commercial television, and few people feel guilty about not sending money to the local broadcaster and not buying the products featured in the commercials. Mostly, people give to local public radio (and to National Public Radio) because they believe in the mission. Do you want public radio to exist and do whatever it is you think that public radio is doing and should do? Do you think that your contribution will help make that vision a continued reality? Then give. And those people do.

What you get back, if the chapters of the story are aligned correctly, is important, too; it can be a virtuous circle of good feeling and good works. Can Pittsburgh borrow this concept? Is Dan Rothschild really saying that to love the city of Pittsburgh, the city has to give us all -- not just the natives -- reasons to love?

Maybe. The person who figures out how to pull this off, of course, deserves to be the next mayor. And chief cook. And bottle washer.


5 Responses to "Tough Love for Pittsburgh"

Stephen Gross said... 8/06/2010 7:40 PM

Food for thought: Remember "no taxation without representation"? If payments to a city--voluntary or otherwise--are taxation, then shouldn't non-residents get a vote in the city's elections? Maybe a few at-large seats could be created to represent commuter interests?

I don't think it's that far-fetched an idea. In return for contributions to the city's coffers, residents get a greater stake in the life of the city.

kejad said... 8/06/2010 7:41 PM

Love this. I, too, moved here. I have an idea of what the city could be, but I don't think it's shared by everyone here. (I think the most common vision would include a return to manufacturing and Pirates winning ball games, i.e. a vision of the past.) My biggest problem is your second consideration, though. Even with a vision, I am highly skeptical that my money would be responsibly used.

...And, by the way, I donate to public radio stations in two places I used to live and to YEP because I believe they do an good job of serving their communities. (Sorry, DUQ: rebroadcasting national shows and offering some token news blurbs doesn't provide the local coverage I expect from a real public radio station.)

The Wiz said... 8/06/2010 11:04 PM

The idea of writing a check to the city coffers is not a very attractive idea. A major part of the repulsion is that "the city" is a vague and amorphous entity. Along with reputation of waste and abuse.

When one makes a charitable donation, it is to a cause they can identify with. And it is usually to a cause that can be demonstrably effective.

Perhaps the city can identify specific units within the municipality that one could donate to. Perhaps set up separate funds for police, museums, litter clean up, cycling paths, libraries or any of the hundreds of things a city government does. Then people could feel that they are contributing to what they feel is most important to them and they should be able to see definable results from their largess.

The problem is that governments like to play shell games with monies. If the current budget for police activities is %50,000,000 and ten million is donated, the tendency of a typical government would be to take ten million out of the police budget to use elsewhere. (That is why tolling I80 was such a bad idea).

If one could devise a system that any donations would be assured of being above and beyond standard budgeting for a specific activity, than people may be interested in helping out.

Tom Moertel said... 8/07/2010 6:35 PM

To donate money to the City, I would have to believe that the money would buy some kind of meaningful improvement. But I'm more inclined to believe that, given more money, our City's leaders would spend it wastefully. Cynics might say that the money would even reinforce bad habits.

The City's problem, after all, isn't that it has too little money but too much wasteful spending. Pumping more money into the City would only allow its leaders to delay solving the real problem.

Now, I might warm up to the idea if there were some way to buy meaningful reform with my donation. If, say, the City were forced not just to balance its budget but to match each donation with a permanent budget reduction of an equal amount, I might be inclined to donate away.

Until then, however, I think I'll invest my money where it's more likely to do some good.


Anonymous said... 8/08/2010 8:09 PM

The City doesn't care about it's residents which is why they leave and eventually refuse to give anything. Ask any City resident that needed services. Police? Yeah right. Unless you are being murdered don't bother. Street paving or parks? Nope. Need someone in the Mayors office to respond to you? Forget about it. Now, if some big developer or union wants something.....different story. Residents aren't important, despite the fact they are the single most important factor in the budget.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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