Seattle faces the question of how much left-leaning policy toward business the golden goose can handle.
As I’ve been warning for nearly 10 years, cities around the world want to take our economic assets. Even some on the Eastside would love to see the city stumble and help those suburbs regain their ascendancy.
The big exclamation point came when Amazon announced on Sept. 7 that it would build a second headquarters, “to be a full equal” of Seattle. Scores of cities are competing for the jobs-and-investment prize of the decade.
Yet the reaction of the city’s political leaders ranged from lethargic to misinformed and even demagogic.
After a great ride, has Seattle reached a tipping point? For years, political leadership was secondary to the city’s many assets, business and civic leaders, and deep-pocket stewards. But the time always arrives where political leadership is indispensable.
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On the day of Amazon’s shocker, disgraced Mayor Ed Murray put out a news release saying, “My office will immediately begin conversations with Amazon around their needs with today’s announcement and the company’s long-term plans for Seattle.”
I’ve never lived in a city where the mayor didn’t have regular, ongoing meetings with top employers. This has grown only more important as major industries have consolidated, leaving many cities behind. But apparently this is not even on the do-list at Seattle City Hall, much less a priority.
Both mayoral candidates and a majority on City Council depict Seattle as a city full of “crises.” In their blue way, they echo President Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric of cities as “hellholes.”
Both are wrong. Seattle is one of the most successful and fortunate cities in America, and not only by standard business and economic measures.
For example, a gold-standard report on sustainable and equitable growth gave metro Seattle high marks overall and decent ones throughout, even though all American metros have a long way to go.
A Bloomberg survey of census data last year showed that while Miami was the most unequal big city in America, Seattle didn’t even make the top list.
Housing prices and rent are expensive in the city, but it’s not among the most expensive nationally. This is largely a result of simple supply and demand in an attractive city of 84 square miles.
It is not a sinister conspiracy of a developer cabal, getting a free ride on the backs of working people. Indeed, the cabal is building apartments at a fast rate, an enviable contrast to the Bay Area, and providing plenty of jobs to working people.
Developers also pay several kinds of fees and taxes. Last year, construction companies in Seattle paid $466 million in just the sales tax related to putting up buildings. Free ride? Hardly.
Seattle has a large population of people in the complicated set of circumstances called “homeless.” It’s happened as the national homeless population has been going down but is not unusual for a generous, tolerant city.
This is another crisis the left seems to blame on the city’s thriving economy and private sector. In reality, that economic boom allows for huge sums to be thrown at the problem. Questionable policies from City Hall likely make some of it worse.
I have yet to see a serious discussion of the city’s economic future by the mayoral candidates, beyond the boilerplate about affordability and inequality. No sense that City Hall has limited sway over national issues; that responses to major issues are often found in regional partnerships; that Seattle is incredibly blessed with a vibrant downtown and private sector.
On her website, Cary Moon promises, “Only one day a week on my calendar will be available to big businesses. The others will be reserved for citizens, small businesses, and community groups.”
Despite an elite education (University of Michigan, Penn), Moon doesn’t seem to comprehend the essential interconnected relationship here. All her favored groups benefit from big companies. The prosperity those giants bring even made possible the success, so far, of the $15 minimum wage.
Both Moon and Jenny Durkan promise assorted “workers bills of rights.”
Neither has appeared concerned by Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce Maud Daudon’s comment to this newspaper that Amazon’s HQ2 announcement “should come as no surprise, as the city has continued to implement policies that create an environment that is at best unfriendly, and at worst outright hostile toward the needs of our largest employers.”
Sure, she heads the Chamber of Commerce. But it’s the most progressive chamber in the nation and represents, you know, commerce.
Maybe the city can continue to get away with it.
San Francisco and Los Angeles have enacted progressive laws and rules for years. Yet they continue to be economic powerhouses, typically far surpassing “low tax-light regulation” locales.
How do they get away with it?
Many reasons come to mind, including spectacular settings and the tolerant atmosphere that urban scholar Richard Florida rightly says attracts talented people.
But some caution is in order in the California comparison.
San Francisco and L.A. get away with it, thanks to other people’s money: the oversexed tech sector in the Bay Area, and durable old assets (entertainment, aerospace) along with foreign capital in Southern California. L.A. became a safe haven especially after the 1997 Asian financial panic.
Also, don’t forget California’s “X Factor” — why it consistently places high in economic performance despite coming in low on lists of “great places to do business.”
It boasts three public university systems along with private institutions comprising a massive educational infrastructure. Some are among the finest schools in the world. But higher ed is so ubiquitous, high quality at relatively low cost, that it’s available to almost anyone.
Seattle doesn’t have the same heavy lifting power.
With Murray’s crash, the radicalization of City Council and the depressing lack of choice between the candidates for mayor, this will be a memorable year politically. What it means for the economy is troubling. This is especially true if someday Amazon chooses one headquarters and it’s not Seattle.
We’re all trying to get through a time of change, polarization and complexity. A little humility and willingness to reflect and reach out would go far, especially from our elected leaders.
Homeowners, landlords and ordinary taxpayers aren’t class enemies. They deserve a responsive political leadership on such seemingly mundane and bourgeois issues as crime, traffic, accountability on the budget and quality of life.
Most small businesses depend on larger ones for their lifeblood. They deserve to be heard and understood at City Hall, too. Doing so doesn’t betray social justice. Indeed, an open mind and heart are essential to it.