The Value of Nothing

This post isn’t strictly about eye care or China. It’s about money and development, in the second most economically depressed city in the U.S. But because Chester and China sound strikingly similar (coincidence?), and because “money” and “development” were on the minds of many people I spoke to in China, I write with the assumption that there’s something relevant to be learned here.

Chester 101 was a new kind of experience for me. It was the first time I began to get a glimpse of the infamous “economically depressed city” of PA. It was the first time I took a bus tour of a city where I felt like I learned something. But perhaps more significantly, it was the first time I witnessed activists and a member of an economic development authority sit on the same panel (civilly).

This last one was an interesting twist to the activists-bashing-government-and-big-business environment that I had grown so accustomed to at Swarthmore. And it was refreshing to see the other side, to hear about how tax-break incentives and deals with large corporations, traditionally dismissed as corruption by Swatties, might be the best thing for a city with very few other choices. As unpleasant an aftertaste it leaves, it should at the very least bring in two very needed rewards: jobs and consumers. It’s long-term thinking, I thought, and I was almost convinced for most of the trip.

Almost, because during the final minutes of the panel two questions suddenly popped up in my head.

First: Given Mr. T’s repeated assertions that lack of tax money was at the root of the city’s problems, are there not incentives other than tax-exemptions that might have been used to entice business investors?

Second: Sure a casino can bring jobs and revenue to a city…but what social value does a casino create?

Reading Dr. Wallace’s article later makes things a little clearer to me. “Studies show that economic opportunity and quality of life is generally undermined by gambling development,” Dr. Wallace writes. And it’s not just the casino. The waste industry brings in jobs too, but along with rodent infestations, toxic air emissions, and an increased risk of cancer. A soccer stadium may run the risk of creating a “destination” for spectators who never travel into the heart of Chester at all.

I say may, because I’m no economist and I can’t make sweeping, accusatory statements about the long term effects of any of these structures. Plus, it’s important to consider the position the government officials and developers were in before apportioning blame. Perhaps there were few options other than a casino and a soccer stadium that wanted to invest in Chester at the time. And I’m still unsure as to how Ms. G’s list of victories against waste industry development in Chester is an example of NIAB (“not in anyone’s backyard”) over NIMB (“not in my backyard”). They’re all questions that I’m hoping to gain insight into as the semester progresses.

But one thing’s for sure; we need to consider the long-term impact of our decisions, and not just in terms of dollars either. I’ve picked up an interested book recently, The Value of Nothing by Raj Patel. In it, he argues that economists too often think only in terms of dollars and cents, without considering the costs of the impacts of their decisions. He argues that the costs of a hamburger are as high as $200 when you factor in the ecological and social costs (I’m looking forward to reading about that calculation). Maybe through this kind of lens, we can begin to understand the real costs of a casino, a soccer stadium, and countless waste processing systems to an already economically distressed city such as Chester.


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