EDC breakfast takes us back to past

Chapel Hill Herald, Saturday, March 26, 2005

Last week I felt as if I'd climbed into Dr. Emmett Brown's souped-up DeLorean and ridden with Michael J. Fox's Marty McFly character back to 1985. The occasion was the annual State of the Local Economy Breakfast sponsored by the Orange County Economic Development Commission.

With a few exceptions, the report, as presented by EDC Director Dianne Reid, was a mundane and conventional affair. Despite stalwart efforts by past board members like Bob Hall, Mark Marcoplos and Bill Strom, the EDC seems to have missed out on the progressive trends that can be seen elsewhere in Orange County.

The event had its moments, however brief: celebrating the success of the recycling program, applauding open space preservation and lamenting the shrinking availability of modest-cost housing.

But, all in all, the presentation (56 slides in around 45 minutes) had little relevance to the lives of Orange County's working stiffs and much relevance to the business leaders who, along with a bevy of elected officials and government staffers, were on hand for the event.

Perhaps that's why the EDC shows little interest in the attendance of average citizens. The event ran from 7:30 to 9:30 on a Tuesday morning and cost $25 to attend. Most of us are priced out in terms of both time and money. The $25 does include breakfast, pretty much a scaled-down version of the platter you can get at Carr-boro's Country Junction for $2.49. [Note: the EDC did drop the charge without hesitation when I asked if I could forgo the Carolina Club's fine dining.]

Part of the problem with the report is its reliance on a long series of trends and comparisons expressed as averages and percents.

Averages draw our attention from extremes of either success or failure and toward an often-murky middle. Chart after chart of isolated numbers discouraged attendees from connecting the dots across issues. More importantly, it is difficult to translate these figures into an actual reflection of the well-being of Orange County residents and the ecosystem they inhabit.

We were told that our average retail wage is $410 per week but none of those workers seemed to be in attendance.

We were shown graphs indicating a persistent rise in welfare cases over the past six years but no one spoke for the poor.

We were reminded about our bad air quality but there was no indication of the rising costs associated with asthma and other respiratory ailments.

Coincidentally, the annual grants of the Strowd Roses Foundation were reported the same day as the State of the Local Economy Breakfast. The list of the 14 recipient organizations exemplifies much of what is lacking in the EDC report.

Strowd Roses gave funds to several projects oriented toward the Hispanic community, a growing presence in Orange County that goes unnoticed in the EDC report.

The foundation is providing support to several day-care programs, one of the most pressing economic challenges for many families, and again, one that passes beneath the radar of the EDC.

Several arts programs were also recognized with grants. The arts today are widely understood as a key factor in the success of urban areas and are a major focus of local government. Yet, the EDC report has nothing to say about them.

Both Chapel Hill and Carrboro anticipate exciting, controversial developments in their respective downtowns. These, too, fail to find a place among the onslaught of statistics that comprise the EDC report. Nor does the recent 10-year commitment to end homelessness garner a mention.

There's a lot that the EDC could do to improve its report and make it more relevant to the day-to-day lives of average citizens. For one thing, the bulk of the slides can be left in the hand-out. A much shorter presentation can explain the most important trends.

The process should then be humanized, involving the actual people who are factors in the economy. An evening or weekend event with free admission would allow participation by a broader cross-section of the community.

And the EDC should be engaged in outreach to achieve that diversity. The idea that the involvement of business-people alone is sufficient to charting our economic development is an idea whose time has passed.

The EDC can work with community agencies, neighborhood associations, environmental organizations, women's groups, minority organizations, labor unions and more.

All of these are engaged in work that is just as germane to the state of the local economy as "tax base and development activity" (the section of the presentation with the greatest number of slides).

A sustainable society is characterized by broad participation and inclusiveness.

If Orange County is to be a leader in sustainable economics, the EDC's annual report, in form, content and process, should embody that diverse inclusivity.



Mark Marcoplos provides a perspective on the affordable housing aspect of the EDC report in today's CH News.

Mark offers, "I know the solution to the affordable-housing dilemma. The problem will always be with us if we keep implementing a variety of small, patchwork strategies based on subsidization. The simple fix is to pay people enough to be able to afford a house."

The problem with his "simple fix" is that it ignores the fundamendal laws of economics that even people in Chapel Hill can't wish away.

Fred, I assume you refer to the “fundamental law” which states that the rich will use their economic power to maintain and further entrench economic inequality. That's a law which was made to be broken.

That's one, but there's another that deals with an increase in income and the resulting effect.

If the govt set a price floor on gasoline of $4/gallon, would anyone argue that that people wouldn't use less gasoline? of course not. well if govt sets a floor on the price of labor doesn't it also follow that business would just use less labor?

Dan, can you tell me more about this "fundamental law" whereby the rich man keep the poor man down so that he can remain rich? I don't recall that from my economics studies. However, one thing I *do* recall is that the economy is not a zero-sum game--every dollar that I earn is not a dollar out of someone else's pocket.

Mr Coleman, inequality is not in and of itself bad. It is where the bottom comparison is and what the growth rates in income are that matter. Also, it is NOT a zero-sum game. "Winners" and "losers" are not at odds in economics. Just as it would be laughable to hamstring an Olympic runner just because you and I can't run as fast, it would indicate of a lack of education and forethought on the subject to *automatically, and without examining any specifics at all* assume that someone is being oppressed or exploited. Do you honestly believe that the well-off have nothing better to do than to go after the little guy? No, they are simply looking after their own interests just like that same little guy. Those interests may coinside, they may not. It entirely depends on the situation.

I'm sure the brevity of and lack of clear explaination in your post is what misled me to think that was your stance.

"An ounce of enterprise is worth a pound of privilege."
-Frederic Marvin, poet and clergyman

The US has about the worst income equality among advanced industrialized nations. Only Singapore is worse. The ratio of CEO pay to average worker pay stands at 107:1. In 1989, it was 56:1.(Economic Policy Institute)

The US government is committed to making it worse. The Democrats proposed a tepid increase in minimum wage that would fall short in real dollars of the 1968 level. The Republicans insisted on far less than that. If the minimum wage had risen at the same rate as executive pay over the last three decades, it would stand at nearly $41 an hour. Two of Bush' top priorities have involved transfers of wealth to the rich: through massive tax cuts and through privatization of social security funds.

Wage inequality has a real impact on people's lives. It correlates with lack of access to healthcare and higher rates of infant mortality. One study offers this item: "Death rates in the most economically divided metropolitan areas--such as Pine Bluff, Ark., an Mobile, Ala.--are sharply higher than the national annual average of 850 deaths per 100,000 people. The increase in mortality--an extra 140 deaths per 100,000 people--is equivalent to the combined loss of life from lung cancer, diabetes, motor vehicle accidents, HIV, infection, suicide and homicide during 1995."

Given that Mark M raised this issue in regard to housing, you might want to revisit the thread Housing and Homeless Program Targeted for Cuts. Reagan's Director of OMB, David Stockman explained 20 years ago how right-wing tax cuts were aimed at eviscerating social programs. Bush seeks to far outdo Reagan on that score and it has a real impact on our community by simultaneously increasing wealth inequality and decreasing services available to offset its impact.

"yada yada yada"
-Jerry Seinfeld, comedian and rich guy

I don't think blaming the President for lack of affordable housing is really going to advance this debate.

However, I would like to point out that I did not say poverty was not a problem. Merely that income inequality is not a problem per se. To throw out that it correlates with lack of health care is misleading. I have a paper weight on my desk, and I have never had a heart attack. By following up on your implications, my paper weight must have magic powers to prevent heart disease.

Poverty is a problem. Poverty, not income inequality, contributes lack of healthcare and higher death rates. I would imagine that as a college student I have significantly lower income than you do, but does that mean that you are somehow harming me or that you have an obligation to pay for my housing or my food? I'd appreciate it very much, but you do not. I have enough to eat, somewhere to live, political freedoms, and access to essential medical services. You owe me little else as a fellow human being.

If you still feel as though that income gap between us is somehow destroying the world, you can make me an offer on my paper weight.

Chris--I agree with you that poverty is the problem we should be focusing on. "One of the difficulties with measuring the cost of poverty, as well as other matters related to human well-being and quality of life, is that economic and social policy have historically developed on different tracks, without recognizing how interdependent they are." "Many activities may contribute to economic growth but not to well-being. Many other activities contribute to well-being but do not show up as valuable to the economy. For example, the market economy grows when people buy illegal drugs or guns or when we have to clean up after human-caused disasters that result in permanent damage to the environment. But are we better off? On the other hand, socially valuable activities such as raising children, caring for relatives and friends when they are sick and keeping homes and communities clean and safe do not count in GDP if they are not done for pay. This is an enormous problem because the market cannot survive without household and volunteer work."

I hope the new Center for the Study of Poverty at the Law School helps us better understand both the economic and the human costs of poverty in North Carolina. Did you know that Orange County has a higher rate of poverty (14.1) than Durham (13.4)?

You can't focus effectively on poverty without understanding why millions of working people are poor. A major factor is that the lion's share of the value of productivity growth is gobbled up by those at the top.

A look at the major European economies will readily show that decreased inequality of income is compatible with a high standard of living for all and with a much higher level of social goods than is enjoyed in the US today (and with a robust democracy).

Dan, do you consider the 12% unemployment in Germany and the 10% employment in France a "social good"?

I guess it is easier to have decreased inequality of income if everyone is unemployed and on the dole...

I don't disagree. But salary isn't the only factor in determining poverty. Given the way businesses work, raising the minimum wage just means taking away from those in the middle income brackets since we know that the wealthy will not take a loss. Greed is definitely a factor in the creation of poverty.

I believe everyone should make a living wage, but I'm not sure raising the minimum wage is the best way of achieving that goal. For one thing, a living wage can't be generalized across the state since cost of living is a community-based equation. A living wage in Chapel Hill for a family of 4 in Chapel Hill/Carrboro would be about $40,000 (my rough guess) when you factor in the cost of housing, transportation, food, insurance, education, etc. So raising the state or federal minimum wage still won't ensure that the housekeepers, groundskeepers, and child care workers who work in this area will actually be able to live in the community where they work.

Terri, I don't think Mark was referring particularly to raising the minimum wage in his comment. I brought in the minimum wage as an example of how political forces resist wage increases. So, if you think everyone should get a livable wage, how would you achieve it?

By the way, in 2004, the "housing wage" for Orange County was $15.31/hour.

why do you assume that everyone wants to live in the community in which they work? And why do you assume that if someone works in one community and lives in another community, that necessarily means they can't afford to live in the community in which they work? I work in Durham and live in Chapel Hill. Does that mean I can't afford to live in Durham?

You are also ignoring the fact that consumers like to get the maximum value out of their dollars. So while I might be able to afford a 2 br-1bath house in Chapel Hill that costs $150,000, that same $150,000 could buy me a 4 br 2 bath house in Hillsborough. If I'm trying to maximize my dollars, I'm going for the Hillsborough house. That doesn't mean I can't afford to live in Chapel Hill, that means that housing in Hillsborough is a better deal for me.

Mark wrote "We need to acknowledge the real problem. A lot of people are not getting paid enough to be able to afford a house....we need to acknowledge that a person who works should be able to afford a house. We need to value that work and pay them enough." Chris commented that poverty is the issue not wages since wages applies to all workers, including high school and college students who have parents supporting them.

The NC Justice Center makes some good recommendations that include but go beyond the wage issue:

Bill--did you mean to imply that the solution to the high cost of housing in Chapel Hill/Carrboro is for the town to take land out of public ownership (parks, greenways, etc.) in order to make more property available for development? Interesting idea. I didn't notice the housing costs being this high before developers shined their lights our way.


I read your letter to the CH News today & must ask the multi-billion dollar question that the lower-taxes bunch has yet to answer. Maybe you can do it.

How do you justify over half of our national taxes going to military expenditures, forcing local governments to raise taxes to meet basic human needs? You low-tax guys moan & groan about raising the wages of a bus driver or paying for watershed protection but you never met a military expenditure you didn't like. How many local services could be supplied with the cost of just one $900,000 tomahawk missile, of which hundreds were rained down on Baghdad in the night of "shock & awe"? How about the discredited missile defense system boondoggle?

A little consistency would go a long way.


Raytheon sells cruise missile by the dozens.

They are ~ $1 Billion for 13. They throw in one for Saddam for FREE!

Also little kids have bake sales where I'm from.


Yes Mark, it really will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.


I had a feeling you'd be stumped.

Mark, can you provide the support for your conclusion that over half of our national taxes goes to military expenditures? Are you including the cost of retirees, payments to veterans, and debt servicing related to military expenditures in that?

Can you tell us what cuts in tax-funded programs forced local governments to raise their taxes to meet basic human needs? Is this across the board or North Carolina specific? Also, is meeting "basic human needs" a federal, state or local obligation, or is it a mix?

Such statements such as yours are easy to make but can they be supported?

The breakdown of the federal budget along the lines that Mark describes is available from War Resisters League here

Yes, I'm very familiar with the WRL budget "analysis," but that still doesn't answer the questions that I raised.

BTW, is their "estimate" of 48% for "military expenditures" over half of the budget?

Note also how they deal with the debt issue: "Analysts differ on how much of the debt stems from the military; other groups estimate 50% to 60%. We use 80% because we believe if there had been no military spending most (if not all) of the national debt would have been eliminated." Now that's a real stretch, even for WRL!

Mark, please tell me that OWASA doesn't do its economic analysis like what you are willing to accept in this situation.


The only thing that stumped me was the bizareness of your reply--why defense spending has anything to do with the problems Chapel Hill has wrought on itself is beyond me.

But, I'll bite anyway. I favor defense spending because if a $900,000 missile will save the lives of 500 or 1000 american soldier, I'll take that investment every time. Now you may not think that saving the lives of "people who decided to become killers" (your words) may not be worth it, but I do. 3200 Marines died in the first 18 hours of Iwo Jima--compare that to 1500 lives lost in 2 years of fighting in Iraq.

As for local governments raising taxes to "meet basic human needs"--I guess it depends of the definition of "basic human needs". I don't consider free bus rides a basic human need. I don't consider $400,000 for art a basic human needs. Or to use your wording, "How many local services could be supplied with the cost of just $400,000 of public art?"


Community Guidelines

By using this site, you agree to our community guidelines. Inappropriate or disruptive behavior will result in moderation or eviction.


Content license

By contributing to OrangePolitics, you agree to license your contributions under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.

Creative Commons License

Zircon - This is a contributing Drupal Theme
Design by WeebPal.