The city of Philadelphia is more important in world history than Thebes, Beijing, Rome, and Toronto. Too often, people have limited the understanding of the first great city of North America by comparing it to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, and San Francisco. Jenna Wolfe completely ignored the city in her report on Independence Day celebrations in the United States for the Today Show last week. At this morning’s meeting for the Greater Philadelphia Economy League, the audience laughed knowingly about the city’s relative place within the northeastern corridor. I started to ask a question about how could the assembled leaders of industry, media, and education articulate their perception of Philadelphia’s importance. Their answers to other questions about the strategies to regain world recognition spoke even more eloquently since I decided not to voice my concerns. Everyone in the region needs to recognize that we are experiencing a ‘phase transition’ – a pivotal moment – where our actions and sacrifices will dictate the success of the entire region for at least the next thirty years.
The Economy League surveyed over 500 regional leaders over the last three months to determine the organizational and corporate priorities for greater Philadelphia. While most of the meeting focused on the top ten priorities and different ways to achieve them, I studied the bottom ten items on the list. My particular concerns focused on the final three future headlines — ‘Philadelphia as a leader in generating patents per-capita for five consecutive years’; ‘Voter participation in the region tops 90%’; and ‘Philadelphia ranks as one of the 10 best restaurant destinations in the world.’ While patents per-capita and dining tourism have their own importance in the formula for the city’s growth, I think they can be folded into the existing priority structure more easily than the second item. Among hundreds of Philadelphia’s elite, *voting* held virtually no value as a measure of the city’s growth. In a nation where hundreds of millions of people are stifled by the redundancy of local and county government structures, especially in the northeast and the midwest, political involvement cannot be an afterthought. While hucksters on television, cable, and the internet tell you that ‘big government’ is the problem, I assert that ‘small government’ has crippled the function of the republic.
Almost as troubling were the seven other factors that received little attention from this sustained examination of Philadelphia’s present and future. Less than 10 percent of these leaders identified the following headlines as important for the city over the next two decades: “The Region Leads the Nation in Lowest Per-Capita Energy Use”; “Philadelphia Turns Aging Population Problems into Opportunities”; “Philadelphia Dramatically Reduces Metropolitan Income Disparities”; “Region Provides Maximum Accessibility to Parks and Open Space”; “Philadelphia’s Venture Capital Per-Capita Trails only Boston and San Francisco”; and “Region’s Airport Traffice Doubles, Ranks Fourth Nationally”. The points on energy use, open space, and airport traffic all coincide with higher priorities about the region’s economy and its improvement. Neglecting the importance of the relationship between venture capital and an aging population misses an enormous strategic recognition that is crucial to both Philadelphia and the nation emerging from the current recession with greater momentum. It is precisely the healthier, vibrant population over age 70 that possesses both the financial and cultural resources to inspire innovation among our rising leadership cadre (ages 15-35). Even more crucial, however, is the importance of reducing the income disparities within the region. I work on that issue (and wealth inequalities) every day. The growth of the private sector by 2025 will rely on entrepreneurship from places like Camden, Wilmington, Chester, Norristown, Coatesville, West Philadelphia, and Bensalem in the global market place. Across divisions of generation, social class, national origin, religion, and race, our national survival depends on people in places like greater Philadelphia coming together in ways our grandparents could not have imagined.
One issue near the top of the priority list was governance. This term is a codeword for taxation. In the Economy League’s audience, there is a recognition that taxes are necessary for the maintenance of the region’s physical infrastructure and the development of our human and social capital. The shortsighted and divisive battles over municipal property taxes, school funding, and state subsidies cannot continue. The state and federal governments need expanded revenue sources to address the current crises over essential institutions like schools, fire departments, police departments, water/sewer treatment, and planning commissions. The rhetoric of ‘starving the beast’ in public life has nearly destroyed our Constitutional mandate to maintain the common good. Now is the time for precisely the opposite strategy. Develop simpler guidelines of state and municipal taxation throughout the region, minimize local property and sales taxes, and the resulting financial windfall and ease of doing business will create a bounty of new home owners and business owners for the Philadelphia region, Pennsylvania, and the entire United States.