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Antony Davies & James Harrigan: Let's keep Pittsburgh livable & affordable

| Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018, 8:30 a.m.

The Economist magazine’s Intelligence Unit recently ranked Pittsburgh as the second most livable city in the United States. The Economist ranks cities based on crime, availability of health care, climate, corruption, sporting and cultural events, shopping, education and transportation. Pittsburgh, the comeback kid of American cities, earned this recognition after decades of hard work.

The city lost 85,000 jobs when its economy collapsed in the 1980s. With no government bailouts, it was up to Pittsburghers to figure out how to pull themselves back up. What emerged were vibrant financial services, education, research and health care industries. And as those industries grew, so did tourism and the cultural scene. The result, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, was that Pittsburgh’s economy became so strong that the metropolitan area recovered from the Great Recession a full two years before the rest of the country.

If livability were the only important factor, everyone would have penthouse condos in Manhattan. But cost of living matters at least as much — something The Economist, strangely, overlooked. If we consider the cost of living, Pittsburgh looks better still. According to the Census Bureau, the cost of living in Pittsburgh is almost 10 percent lower than the average for U.S. metropolitan areas, and a whopping 45 percent lower than the cost of living in Honolulu, which The Economist ranked first in the U.S. for livability. Had the experts considered cost of living, Pittsburgh may well have ranked first in the country.

And there’s a lesson for our friends in Harrisburg. Pittsburgh is the commonwealth’s jewel. For now anyway. According to the Tax Foundation, our combined state and local tax burdens are 15th highest in the country. Our state tax on gasoline is the highest and more than double the average among the 50 states. And that doesn’t count the turnpike tolls that have risen every year for the past 11 years. Our business tax rates are the second highest in the country. We have the 16th highest state sales tax rate, the 12th highest property taxes, and the 11th highest personal income tax rates. And all of that isn’t counting additional state taxes on cigarettes, vape products, Netflix, cable TV and over-the-counter drugs, to name just a few.

Pittsburgh is the second most livable city in the country, and possibly the first if one considers cost of living. But that distinction can disappear in a heartbeat. All it takes is another batch of politicians who are more adept at profligate spending and wanton taxing than they are at prudent management. If Pittsburgh can achieve what it has despite Harrisburg’s heavy tax burden, imagine what it could achieve with fiscally responsible politicians at the helm.

Over the past decades, Pittsburgh has become such a great place to live, work and raise families that people across the country and around the world are starting to notice. It became so because Pittsburgh is the perfect combination of livable and affordable. To keep it livable, Pittsburghers only need to keep doing what they’ve been doing. To keep it affordable, politicians need to stop doing what they’ve been doing.

Antony Davies is an associate professor of economics at Duquesne University. James Harrigan teaches in the department of Political Economy and Moral Science at the University of Arizona. They host the weekly podcast Words & Numbers.

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