Many progressive cities outperform their red counterparts, but Mayor Jenny Durkan's agenda faces some tough obstacles.
One of the most important lines in Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s State of the City address Tuesday was far down in the speech: “But these boom times won’t last and our current spending isn’t sustainable under our current projections. Unfortunately, deficit is on the horizon.” I wish it had been higher in the address. Indeed, I wish another speech could have been given.
Because Seattle can’t print money, this would mean budget cuts. The city treasury has benefited handsomely from the post-recession construction boom. That can’t last, and even a modest slowdown will be felt.
More dangerous is the risk of a national recession, caused by asset bubbles, receding financial regulation and-or a trade war. This is already one of the longest expansions on record.
Another challenge, which she acknowledged, was Donald Trump. The first Gotham native in the White House since Theodore Roosevelt has advanced a shockingly anti-city agenda, including savage cuts to transit and other vital urban programs.
These will be the backbeats, and headwinds, to the self-described “impatient mayor” and her ambitious agenda. She vowed to “build a more affordable Seattle,” provide free community college for all high-school graduates and free transit passes for high-schoolers, put up more low-income housing and address “growing economic disparities, and homelessness.”
I suppose this is the kind of speech demanded by the progressive political machine that now dominates city politics. It wasn’t a bad speech. Many of the goals are laudable. Paying for the freebies long-term might be a challenge, but Seattleites have shown a willingness to tax themselves.
Nor is progressivism at odds with a thriving city. Almost all cities have mayors that lean center-left by today’s standards, and the most successful cities in America have a long history of progressive, if usually pragmatic, leadership.
But maybe there’s a stealth economic State of the City speech. It couldn’t risk being a target of social-media outrage culture, hence stealth. But it would acknowledge a few facts.
For example, Seattle is incredibly fortunate in having a diverse, strong private sector, including Amazon. The city’s elected leaders need to be engaging with these job engines (one such meeting did take place recently) far more than they have in recent years. It’s this prosperity that allowed Seattle to experiment with such measures as the $15-an-hour minimum wage.
Every place in America wants our assets. What are we doing to retain and enhance them? We take them for granted at our peril.
For example, many of our challenges are national or even global in scope. This is particularly true of rising inequality. Inclusive growth, where more people benefited from a growing economy, was common in America from the 1940s through much of the 1970s. Inequality has been growing worse since then.
The effective responses, including higher tax rates on the wealthy and vigorous antitrust enforcement, must come from the Other Washington.
Until then, cities can only do so much — and they should be mindful of killing their golden geese through excessive local taxes. After years of declining, homelessness is rising again nationwide. Seattle doesn’t have people living on the street because it has a booming economy.
For example, City Hall can do little to build a more affordable Seattle. It can’t institute wage-and-price controls (which were a disaster nationally when done by the Nixon administration).
True, the city can permit more housing of all types, even sweeping aside the objections of (taxpaying) NIMBYs. It can build a limited amount of “affordable housing” for the low income.
But the city consists of only 84 square miles. With an abundance of high-skilled, high-paying jobs, more people arriving and only so much land, the law of basic supply and demand is unforgiving.
For example, not everybody can or should live here. I know this is anathema to many local progressives, but it’s a reality.
If you’ve fallen on hard times, have limited skills and want to get back on your feet, this is the last place you should come. Same thing if you’re starting out and lack higher-end skills or specific trades training.
Mobility was once commonplace in America and played a big role in helping people find ladders up. It’s much less so now. Although the reasons behind that are complex, it’s irresponsible to promise an independent future for anyone who shows up here.
Maybe this stealth speech could also lay down a challenge for the public and private sectors to work together in creating “port of entry” jobs to the digital economy (the phrase is from urban scholar Richard Florida). Getting low-skilled people into the advanced economy is one of our great challenges, and Seattle might craft some best practices.
But back to the real speech and the warning about unsustainable spending.
I’m suspicious of any pol who promises to run government “like a business,” and thankfully Durkan didn’t do so. The two are fundamentally different, addressing different needs. But it’s not too much to ask for government to be run responsibly. The Seattle boom has allowed for enormous city spending and, no doubt, cloaked some worst practices.
Warren Buffett famously said of investors, “You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.” The same applies for cities.