As you wake up this morning and open your Sunday paper - or, more likely, check your mobile phone for news updates - rest assured that your city is in good hands. One hundred miles up the turnpike, your elected officials, business leaders, lobbyists, enablers, and media mavens are waking, bleary-eyed, after the weekend party-a-thon that is Pennsylvania Society.
It's been going on since 1899, this swanky soiree of our state's power elite, in which the same few hundred usual suspects shuttle from one Waldorf-Astoria ballroom to another, from the Cozen O'Connor to the Duane Morris parties. I attend most years, and will inevitably run into Comcast executive vice president David L. Cohen, who attends every party. Two years ago, he pulled out his phone and showed me his schedule: 30-plus parties in two days. Merely looking at his schedule made me want to go to my hotel room and crash.
Last year, at the height of the Occupy Movement, I wrote about how the Pennsylvania Society seemed particularly icky. After all, the weekend tradition started so Pennsylvania steel, coal, and oil magnates could meet behind closed doors to anoint their political candidates. At a time when the haves are farther than they've ever been from the have-nots, and for a city long cursed with a purely transactional political culture, such insiderism feels precisely wrong. But many of those I've spoken to talk of the weekend's egalitarianism.
"There's no gatekeeper," says highly connected developer Seth Shapiro. "If you're someone who can't afford to pay top dollar to go to a fund-raiser to have your voice heard, you can put on a suit and sit in the lobby of the Waldorf and have access to everyone from the governor on down." I've seen it happen: Nonprofit heads and citizen activists have it out with mayors and state reps amid all the high-falutin' hoopla.
But the main reason to go - besides the partying and the shopping - is so power players can schmooze with other muckety-mucks. When I ask lawyer and political fund-raiser Alan Kessler why he goes every year, he sighs. "I ask myself that every year," he says. "In the end, it's a great opportunity in one setting - right there in the Waldorf lobby - to have a lot of the conversations I need to have, conversations I'd otherwise be chasing people around to have."
Still, then-Gov. Ed Rendell was right when he posited that the event - and its $20 million to $40 million in economic impact - should be moved to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, in alternating years. "Ed reasoned, Why not keep that money in-state?" says Rendell donor Kessler. Alas, it's an idea that went nowhere owing to the force of "tradition."
And I guess that's what bugs me about the society. We should be open to remaking every tradition if we're serious about remaking ourselves. We're a city whose politics are transactional, not transformative. We do deals, not ideas. (Remember the heady days of 2007, when many of us thought we were getting a transformational, idea-driven mayor? Instead, we met the new boss. Same as the old boss.)
If we were driven by a culture of ideas, maybe our chief form of economic development wouldn't be gaming, the crack cocaine of the deal-making politico addicted to the short-term fix. Maybe we wouldn't have had five straight years of growth-inhibiting tax increases. Maybe we would have tried some cutting-edge school reforms - such as expanding Alejandro Gac-Artigas' promising summer reading program in select charters, an idea that hasn't been embraced by the plodding, bureaucratic Philadelphia School District - so that more than 23 percent of our residents would hold college degrees, a statistic that should frighten us and spur us to action.
I've been writing about young "disrupters" like Gac-Artigas - people in our midst who are driven by new ways of doing old things. They, and their spirit of asking questions and questioning answers, are precisely what are missing from the society weekend. Oh, sure, there's the Lenfest-sponsored Power Shift party - a group of young professionals, including some friends of mine, who are preparing to take the reins of civic leadership. But that's networking, not reforming.
Here's what I propose:
Next year, amid all the parties, how about one two-hour forum on ideas that can move this city and state forward, featuring young (in spirit, if not in body) disrupters?
Kessler, the ultimate insider, says such an idea might go over well, with one caveat. "The Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association does do a seminar, often having to do with old or existing ideas," he says. "You're talking about getting some new voices and new ideas before people. That could work. But, remember, people bring their spouses to the weekend and they like to go out and experience New York, maybe see a show. Will they attend a forum on ideas?"
I don't know. But last week, before leaving for New York, I attended DreamIt Ventures Demo Day at World Cafe Live, in which a bunch of twentysomething entrepreneurs presented their innovative start-ups to a roomful of potential investors. With the unveiling of virtually each idea, I berated myself: "Why didn't I think of that?"
The DreamIt kids who made me feel so unimaginative were not at the society event; their ideas are not sought by our political and civic elite. Wouldn't it be cool to unleash on our political and business realm the kind of thinking that makes us say to ourselves: "Hmmm. I never thought of that"?
appears regularly in Currents. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.