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Warren, 30,000 jobs, and the state of politics


OK, I’ll join the muttering about Lovely Warren’s claim about creating or maintaining 30,000 jobs. Warren’s been including that statistic in her list of first-term accomplishments, and she’s come under attack for it, not only from her Democratic opponents but also from the media.

I have to say, I watched Warren’s State of the City speech and read the entire 7000-word transcript, and I didn’t even notice her mention of 30,000 jobs. (She did indeed cite them.) She’s also been touting it in her campaign.

I just hadn’t noticed it. The reason, I guess: everybody throws around these kinds of numbers. All politicians do, and they’re usually meaningless.

Andrew Cuomo is a master at this. Monroe County’s Industrial Development Agency does it. And everybody includes the same little parenthetical aside: these are jobs “created or retained.” You know: new jobs… or jobs that a company says it would have eliminated or moved out of town or something if government hadn’t given it what it wanted.

Tourism groups, festival sponsors, and arts group do this kind of thing, too, talking about how much money their efforts or their events generate for the local economy. They don’t know what the real number is, of course. They use some sort of national base line: “With every person who buys an event ticket, you can assume an additional X dollars will be spent, on a hotel room, at restaurants, for gifts to take home….” So event sponsors multiply X by Y and they get… zillions of dollars!

Years ago, there was a big convention of teenage religious groups in Rochester, and officials were tossing out enormous numbers, boasting about how many dollars the convention was pumping into the Rochester economy. Where’d the numbers come from? National convention stats.

This was a group of not particularly affluent kids, more likely to be dining on pizza delivered to the convention center than eating out at a downtown restaurant. And very likely sharing their hotel room with a bunch of other kids. Not your average convention-goers. And certainly nothing like convention-goers in, say, New York, Chicago, or San Francisco.

These kinds of figures are so irrelevant that I don’t pay attention to them. Until they are relevant.

And in this case, they are.

Warren’s running for re-election. Like anybody in her position, she should talk about what she has accomplished that warrants keeping her in office. That includes job creation. And frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of jobs has grown during the last four years.

Every once in a while, we get a press release about a new start-up locating in the city, or a tech company moving in from the suburbs. Nothing huge, but they’re important. There’s also been a reasonable amount of construction work: filling in the Inner Loop, building the new downtown housing, completing College Town, creating the new marina in Charlotte. Those are real jobs — not permanent ones, but real.

So we have seen new jobs. And we haven’t seen the kind of enormous layoffs of the past at places like Kodak.

The problem is, when questioned about her 30,000-jobs claim, Warren couldn’t back it up. She should have been able to, or she shouldn’t have used it. This is a particular problem for Warren, whose opponents insist that she isn’t trustworthy.

But there’s another problem, for which everybody — politicians and the voting public — shares blame. We want things to be simple. We don’t want to consider current news as a part of a much longer cycle.

For instance: the Warren administration has played a role in the development spurt that’s happening downtown. She didn’t create it. Credit for that goes to previous administrations, dating back many, many years. And credit goes not only to public officials but also to neighborhood groups, to small businesses, to business groups, to the developers themselves.

But the Warren administration deserves credit, too. When she took office, there was a lot of concern about whether she would turn her back on downtown, whether developers would continue to have faith in downtown. Apparently many of them have.

There’s a similar problem with the crime rate, which has also become a point of contention in the mayoral campaign.

In her State of the City speech, Warren said that the rate of violent crime is down. Jim Sheppard’s response: “zero credibility.” Who’s right? Both, kinda. Sorta.

Some crime — the number of shootings, for instance — was down in 2016. Some crime is up. One of the most troubling statistics, though, is that the city’s homicide rate — the number of homicides as a percentage of the population — is up. The city’s population has shrunk. And the rate of homicides relative to that population has been increasing. In fact, it has been increasing for 50 years.

As RIT’s Center for Public Safety Initiatives said in a recent report: “The uniformity of the trend means that no city administration or associated law enforcement agency has fared better or worse, and there is no justified criticism of one more than another.”

It’s good that we want facts. And we should get real facts, not alternative facts. But a lot of times, a single fact, for one year— or four years, even — doesn’t give us the whole story.

Crime in Rochester is complicated. Development is complicated. Poverty and education and tax incentives: complicated. But voters don’t want anything to be complicated. So political candidates keep things simple. Doesn’t fit into a TV soundbite or on two lines of a glossy direct-mail campaign piece? Then forget about it.

I could rant about TV’s abysmal news programs or the idiocy of conducting an exercise in democracy by direct mail, TV ads, and robocalls. But the fact is, voters want their news in soundbites and bullet points.

This year’s city elections offer a chance for serious discussions about our problems. I’d like to think candidates and voters are smart enough to advantage of it. We’ll see.