America needs ugly jobs; Pennsylvania should provide them

Date: June 6, 2011

My father is a businessman, and a fairly successful one. If that sentence conjures in your mind images of crystalline skyscrapers and Italian suits, you are mistaken. In my lifetime, I don\’t believe Dad ever worked in a building taller than four stories. He wore a lot of plaid. He was based at various times in his career out of East Butler, Cheswick, and Greenville, PA (a borough in Mercer County that makes East Butler and Cheswick seem ritzy). Among his many business trips, yes, he\’s seen China a couple of times, but the majority have been business-class hauls to places like Anniston, Alabama, and Ciudad Juarez—which is pretty much the worst city on the continent.

Dad is on my mind today because Shell Oil has announced that it plans to get in on the Marcellus game by building a “cracking” plant somewhere in the Appalachian region, the location remaining undecided. The finer points of the cracking process amount to a bunch of chemistry mumbo jumbo, but essentially cracking is a factory-sized endeavor that turns hydrocarbons into products other than fuel. I read about it this morning and I thought about one day, maybe ten years ago, standing in a vast and level parking lot in Greenville filled with American-made cars, looking up at Dad\’s economically-built cubic office building (three stories), then looking out at his sweeping view of absolutely nothing, when he said to me, “It\’s not pretty, but businesses like this are what make the world go.”

With those words in mind, Allegheny County should be in a ruthless bidding war to bring Shell here immediately. Pennsylvania should be in on it, too. There ought to be no limit to the tax incentives that we dangle in front of Shell. Otherwise, don\’t be surprised if the corporation chooses West Virginia or puts down its roots where everyone else seems to lately: North Carolina.

American political discourse has been dominated in recent years by entreaties to the middle class. Unions complain, correctly, that labor is practically dead in this country and that most semi-skilled and gray-collar careers are heading the same direction. Business interests counter—again, correctly—that taxes and union regulations hit the middle class the hardest and their jobs to other jurisdictions. Not everyone can be a doctor or a lawyer—or a dancer, or a musician, or the proprietor of a charming boutique—and the day may be coming that the American economy will be able to offer nothing for our millions of work-a-day types to do.

Meanwhile, amid this crisis, three of Allegheny County\’s brownfields have been turned into strip malls. Those sites have gone from making things to merely moving them. And while none of the three are doing disastrously badly, none of them can be said to be rousing successes. For instance, a walk through the Southside Works confirms that it is both beautiful and urbane, so long as you don\’t slow down to count the vacant storefronts. The problem is obvious: no new wealth is coming into the economy to replace the old wealth that was once created on those very sites.

When people—well, politicians—talk about economic development, they talk about projects like PNC\’s latest tower: things that are pretty, shiny, sexy, triumphant, imperial, and nowadays, green. What they fail to grasp is that even The Great PNC is not an especially good wealth-creator. PNC is a bank, and although banking in the modern world has become dizzyingly complex, banks are still just a place to keep your money while you\’re not spending it on crap at the Southside Works.

Real economic growth takes place when something useful is born that did not previously exist. The more necessary the product is and the better it makes American life, the more “real” the growth is. Lately, American ingenuity is still creating new products, but their long-term value is suspect. Social media inventions and new financial concepts only represent real economic growth to the extent that they streamline the business of other, more durable development. The remainder of their values is ethereal.

Dad is right, of course. Steel wealth was real wealth. We as Pittsburghers were never proud of the black cloud that hung over our city, but that was what American needed from us at the time. And in the process, that ugly smoke put a lot of us through college and paid for a lot of braces. Times have changed, but not as much as our politicians would have us believe. Creating wealth is still ugly business; it requires digging something, burning something, extracting something or building something. And these arduous processes still have to take place in big tinny factories that Architectural Digest wants nothing to do with.

That\’s why the Marcellus Shale is such a vital opportunity for the region. With the craft of building things now irreversibly dumbed down to assembly-line work and shipped off to the Second World, natural resources is fast becoming America\’s last wealth-creator and last working-class industry. To bring a cracking plant to the region would further intensify Western Pennsylvania\’s renewed importance to the country. Walk around your house and count the things that are made of polyethylene. Better bring a notepad with you, because the list gets long.

There would be poetic irony in bringing Shell to Pittsburgh. I\’m reminded of a scene early in The Graduate, when a stodgy old white man took Ben aside and said, “One word: plastics.” The movie premiered in 1968, at precisely the time that the steel industry was teetering. We didn\’t heed the call then, and we suffered a thirty-year economic downturn. So here\’s our second chance. One word, Pittsburgh: Plastics. The business isn\’t sexy and the process isn\’t pretty, but it\’s another thing “that makes the world go.” Let\’s make it ours.
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Joe Price
Attorney Joe Price is a seasoned Trial Lawyer serving Northeast, Central and Southeast Pennsylvania for the past forty (40) years. He has handled serious personal injury cases in courts throughout the Federal system including New Jersey and New York. Attorney Price is A.V. Rated by Martindale Hubble. He is Board Certified in Civil Practice by the National Board of Trial Advocacy since 1996.