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Originally published January 10, 2014 at 8:05 PM | Page modified January 11, 2014 at 10:20 PM

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Seattle Nice, it’s time to talk about fairness

Inequality is at levels not seen since the 1920s, or even the Gilded Age, and it is growing worse. Opportunity for most Americans is shrinking. Most wages have not kept up with productivity. We need to have this conversation even if it violates Seattle Nice.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Ed Murray and Kshama Sawant represent the poles that will be driving the economic conversation in Seattle for the next few years, at least from City Hall.

They aren’t equal poles: Murray has more power and the bully pulpit of a strong mayor.

But Sawant, as the first socialist on council in modern times, has attracted international attention. She may be only one vote but she will not be the typical council member interested in Seattle process, getting the trash collected and filling potholes.

We got a taste last week when each was sworn in.

Murray talked about the city being “heirs to a great and special, progressive legacy,” and said all the right things about tolerance, inclusiveness and caring for the less fortunate.

But he also promised “to seek new ways to partner with our business community, so that we remain among the most economically competitive cities in the world.”

Sawant took the oath of office, raised a fist and issued a call to battle.

“This city has made glittering fortunes for the super wealthy and for the major corporations that dominate Seattle’s landscape,” she said. “At the same time, the lives of working people, the unemployed and the poor grow more difficult by the day. The cost of housing skyrockets, and education and health care become inaccessible.”

She spoke of the shameful “reality of international capitalism,” called Wall Street “highway robbers,” and condemned Republicans, Democrats and high-paid chief executives.

“We have the obscene spectacle of the average corporate CEO getting $7,000 an hour, while the lowest-paid workers are called presumptuous in their demand for just $15.”

Fasten your seat belts and make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their full upright and locked position, Jet City.

A skeptic would be tempted to say that the decisions by Amazon, Starbucks, Nordstrom and a multitude of other companies, entrepreneurs and investors are far more important to the local economy than the deliberations at City Hall.

For all its progressive mien, Seattle is a business city. It is not Boulder, Colo., Portland or Vermont — home of socialist/independent Sen. Bernie Sanders. The celebrated Seattle General Strike of 1919 was a failure for labor.

A cynic might conclude Seattle can safely indulge in leftish rhetoric and gestures without doing much damage to itself.

After all, it is one of the most prosperous and successful cities in America, as well as a big beneficiary of the national back-to-the-city trend by companies and young workers.

But this is to miss the serious issues represented by Sawant, as well as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. We need to have this conversation even if it violates Seattle Nice.

Inequality is at levels not seen since the 1920s, or even the Gilded Age, and it is growing worse. Opportunity for most Americans is shrinking. Most wages have not kept up with productivity.

While millions of baby boomers face a retirement crisis, younger workers are carrying unprecedented college-loan burdens and making less than their age group did 30 years ago.

Meanwhile, in 2012 the top 10 percent took the largest share of national income on record. Multinational companies can set state against state in job auctions, seeking the highest bidder’s corporate welfare.

But how can this be addressed at the municipal level?

Scholars at the Brookings Institution have written about how cities and states can take the lead in an era of a gridlocked Washington, D.C.

This is a worthy aspiration but more difficult in practice. Remove the Puget Sound region from Washington state, and it’s Idaho politically. The Legislature has proved hostile to Seattle and urban issues.

The reality is that the hollowing out of the middle class and increasing pressure on the working poor have come from more than 40 years of policies driven by big-business interests. Their goal was the repeal of the New Deal, Great Society and liberalism even undertaken by the Nixon administration.

It has been class warfare from above, and highly successful.

Recovering the equity our society enjoyed for decades will require tackling tax rates and avoidance, trade, antitrust, financialization, offshoring of jobs, destruction of pensions, cuts to education and infrastructure and incentives for destructive mergers and industry consolidation.

No new progressive movement has the chops to do this, at least not yet. Occupy Wall Street fizzled. Many working Americans tilt solidly right and consider the market-based Obamacare, a huge boon for the insurance industry, to be tyrannical socialism.

In Seattle, a $15 minimum wage might be a start. Venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, hardly a pinko, says it would encourage a “virtuous cycle” where workers have more to spend. It is Sawant’s signature issue.

On the other hand, star restaurateur Tom Douglas says such a policy would have made it impossible for him to start his businesses.

Murray supports the higher wage but rightly wants to study the unintended negative consequences. My prediction: The wage will be raised, but not to $15.

It would be a start.

Healthy capitalism and social justice aren’t enemies. They reinforce each other. Seattle’s businesses are not the enemy. They enable us to be far better off than most American cities.

So from City Hall, the yardstick for successful policies will be creative versus destructive, to paraphrase Steve Jobs.

If Seattle proves to be a laboratory to reinforce all this, America will pay attention.

You may reach Jon Talton at

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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


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