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Anything Except Taxes?

So last week Cornell hosted a panel discussion regarding a seminal topic here at MetaEzra: Upstate New York's brain drain. And it's something that hits closer to home more than ever, seeing as how I just relocated from uber-young and educated Boston back home to rusty, graying Buffalo.

Granted, I wasn't at the forum, but judging from the news articles stemming out of the event, I can say this -- I am completely surprised, if not infuriated, by the omission of a word that should be very prevalent in any such discussion: taxes.

Apparently, discussants saw it fit to discuss the role of such niceties as recreational activities, a clean environment, good housing, and, apparently (bizarrely) 'sprawl' in attracting young professionals. And they also lamented the lack of a growing job market. But they never pinpointed New York State's high-tax, high-regulation environment as the number one factor leading to Upstate New York's brain drain.

It's no secret that New York State has some of the highest taxes in the country. (For instance, see this Urban Institute report from last year that I was a co-author on, which finds that New York State has both the highest level of state and local taxing and spending in the country.) Combine this with the worse regulatory environment for businesses to operate in, antiquated labor laws, and Stalinist governmental agencies with no accountability; it should be no surprise that young professionals are leaving the area in droves. After all, the businesses that depend on these professionals for their labor can't afford to do business in the state when it is so much cheaper to conduct business in Boston or Charlotte or Atlanta or Austin—even after accounting for the higher cost of living in those locales.

All too often, pundits will point to the area's weather or withering industrial base to blame Upstate's woes on. But these are red herrings when compared to high costs of taxes and regulatory compliance that New York State places upon Upstate. Chicago and Minneapolis both have harsher winters and hotter, drier summers than Upstate, but that doesn't preclude their economies and populations from growing. Meanwhile, both Pittsburgh and Cleveland have suffered far worse manufacturing job losses than Upstate, and while both aren't exactly doing well compared to the rest of the nation, they are still growing and aren't losing population and jobs like the Upstate metros of Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse.

At the crux of the issue, Upstate is really hamstrung by Downstate politics and policies by anything else. Long Island and Westchester—representing some of the richest areas of the country—may be able to afford the high tax levels and gluttonous public labor unions. But the Upstate cities—which have some of the highest rates of poverty in the country—are most certainly not. Ideally, Upstate would be a separate state, much more akin to Ohio or Wisconsin, than a part of the Downstate behemoth. And if statehood isn’t possible, than at least a separate jurisdictional and administrative district, complete with independent levy rates and regulatory laws.

Granted, taxes and regulations aren't the only things that need to change in order to get Upstate off of life support. Effective public sector investment in education, research, and technology, much like the Center's For Excellence, combined with good infrastructure investments also play a role. But right now, tax and regulatory changes are paramount.

Most disappointingly, the Upstate/Downstate divide is really something that Cornell is singularly poised to inform the debate on. As an Upstate institution with innumerable Downstate roots, it should be leveraging its position as the land grant institution to the state of New York and helping to set the policy debate in Albany and county legislatures across the ‘Burned Over District’. But for the time being, Cornell’s institutional priorities seem entrenched: continue to coddle the wealth and influence of the East Coast and increasingly develop the University’s international connections while giving lip service to Upstate’s woes without attempting to fundamentally address the problem—a problem that the University should be narrowly focused on due to its land grant status.

But I suppose the University doesn’t want to bite that hand that feeds it. So instead it is happy to trot out state government-funded panel discussions about the need to have recreational opportunities to attract young professionals.

I plan on writing more about this topic in the future, especially as it relates to Cornell’s land grant colleges and its fledging social sciences and public policy programs. But I encourage your thoughts on this matter.

N.B. I also wanted to revisit Susan Christopherson’s absolutely nonsensical suggestion that Upstate needs amenities like suburban-style tract housing to attract young professionals.

Firstly, shouldn't we be focusing on the issue of jobs and taxes to keep people here, and then we might have to worry about providing adequate housing to a college-educated workforce.

But secondly, I don’t know if she has visited the suburbs of Buffalo, Rochester, or Syracuse (or hell, Lansing) recently, but if there is one thing Upstate has, its fantastic, affordable, sprawl. A newly built 3,000 square foot house on an acre of land that would cost you over a million dollars in New Jersey goes for $300,000 in Amherst or Fairport New York. Housing quality and affordability is greater in Upstate New York than most any other metropolitan areas of the country.

Finally, the overwhelming trend for the last twenty years among young, educated professionals has been a return to cities and urban living through a fantastic process of gentrification. Across the country, from Baltimore to Philly, Chicago to Portland, young professionals are choosing to live in dynamic, dense, urban areas, and not the sprawling, homogeneous landscape of suburbs and tract housing. And if its one thing that Upstate cities have enough of, its beautiful old Victorian houses in urban neighborhoods that are just waiting for some yuppie love. But sadly, right now, we're demolishing a lot of them in Buffalo.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on November 06, 2007 (#)

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