Time to whip out "it's the economy, stupid" campaign sticker
Now that the primary is over and the Seattle mayor's race is running full out, it's time for the candidates to begin a more serious discussion and debate about the economy.
Special to The Seattle Times
Now that the primary is over and the Seattle mayor’s race is running full out, it’s time for the candidates to begin a more serious discussion and debate about the economy.
It’s true that Seattle is one of the go-go cities as the nation recovers from the Panic of 2008. Unemployment is low. Most major companies are doing well. The city seems, on the surface at least, to have barely broken stride from the failure of Washington Mutual. Such a bust would have been catastrophic for many cities.
By a raft a measures, Seattle is booming. For example, a recent report by the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto ranked Seattle No. 2 of 61 global cities for talent, technology, tolerance, amenities and quality of place. Seattle is No. 2 for growth in wages from 2009 to 2012.
But beware self-satisfaction. Seattle entered the recession with good bones that had taken decades to strengthen. It benefits from an unusually diverse economy that is beyond the work of any one mayor and stretches across a metropolitan area. And we have been very lucky, especially with the recession-defying Amazon South Lake Union headquarters and Boeing.
But, as one longtime business leader told me last week, “When was the last time you heard a mayor or council member give a speech about Boeing?”
Indeed, we and our mayoral candidates Mike McGinn and Ed Murray should be running scared, and not only because Boeing is increasing employment and brain centers in South Carolina, Southern California and elsewhere while tapering off jobs in the Puget Sound region.
In a slow-growth world, nations, states and metro areas are competing for a limited set of high-quality assets. Faster, better and smarter applies to cities as well as companies.
Economist Robert Gordon argues that the big leaps such as electrification and the internal-combustion engine are largely over. America will face a much tougher future, especially as it fails to invest adequately in education, infrastructure and research.
Moreover, in a heavily financialized economy, panics of the one seen in the late 2000s will recur. Technological disruption will increase, causing more losers than winners among cities.
Here are a few things I’d like to hear the mayoral candidates discuss:
• What is Seattle’s economic strategy? The current good times are not guaranteed to continue. The city needs a comprehensive plan to identify its competitive advantages and clusters where it will be a world-class competitor, and to ensure the policies to support them.
Who are our chief competitors? Where are we vulnerable? What are the best practices we must employ? Fighting for better pay for minimum-wage workers is a worthy issue. It is not a credible economic strategy.
• How does the mayor effectively fit into a chain of leadership on the economy? That means working with federal, state, suburban and county officials, as well as business owners, labor leaders and university presidents. No mayor can do it alone. He or she can produce costly stumbles.
• Don’t forget the maritime industry. The mayor must work with the Port of Seattle and the entire logistics sector to keep and grow this critical source of jobs and export revenues. Canada has done an especially good job of this, in Vancouver and also Prince Rupert. Tacoma cares about its seaport. Seattle? This deep-water port that other cities would kill for is taken for granted.
That’s a huge risk as competition grows, shipping patterns change and fisheries come under environmental pressure. Is the wider Panama Canal and Southeast ports getting federal Harbor Maintenance Tax money to take our business the mayor’s problem? You bet.
“I’d like to see political leaders at all levels,” said Capt. Michael Moore, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association. “It’s not just the port, but the entire goods-movement sector. They need to speak about it more so people understand its importance.”
• Talk to business, be responsive and seek new companies. In a new report, “How to Make a City Great,” the consulting outfit McKinsey writes: “Cities can help attract companies and organizations to their chosen clusters by holding regular conversations with industry leaders; forging connections between businesses, investors, and talent; and organizing road shows and conferences.”
• Transportation is critical. A denser Seattle will need all modes of transportation. It also must ensure freight corridors so goods can move in the most efficient manner.
• Downtown is the heart of the economy and a sustainable city. While crime risks being overstated, it is a problem and must be addressed. Social services are too clustered downtown. Street civility is not what it should be. Without a healthy downtown, Seattle can’t generate the money from offices, retail and tourism to support its other neighborhoods. Also, suburban cities will happily cherry-pick Seattle’s assets.
I’d also love to know the last book each candidate read on cities, whether from Jane Jacobs or James Howard Kunstler.
Finally, I am skeptical of this “downtown business establishment” meme that is trotted out as a boogeyman. While there may be developers, employers and other interests whose agendas come together, they as often collide. Many are worldwide players. And they can take their money and jobs elsewhere.
When I worked in Charlotte, N.C., in the 1990s, there was a real business establishment: two money center banks and Duke Energy. City Hall saluted and did as it was told. Even that is largely gone.
In Seattle, it has been dead for even longer. There is no cabal pulling strings amid the cigar smoke of a room at the Rainier Club.
Political leaders may not seem to matter in a city with a robust economy. Until they do. Such a moment is now.
You may reach Jon Talton at firstname.lastname@example.org
About Jon Talton
Jon Talton comments on economic trends and turning points, putting them into context with people, place and the environment in the Pacific Northwest