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Originally published Wednesday, July 27, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Seattle's charms can't hold the young and the restless

My wife's grandfather, who belongs to the "Greatest Generation," was born in Iowa. He survived the Depression, fought in Europe during World...

Special to The Times

MY wife's grandfather, who belongs to the "Greatest Generation," was born in Iowa. He survived the Depression, fought in Europe during World War II, raised a family and worked his way up from a paper carrier to retire as a senior executive at a major regional newspaper. He still lives in Iowa, only a drive away from where he began long ago.

In contrast, his granddaughter and I have lived in four different states in the 11 years since we met, all in different corners of the country. We have been in Seattle for only four years, and we are moving again.

My wife and I are not unique in this regard. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, those in the 25- to 39-year-old group are "highly mobile" and account for a third of those who move within five years. Those with college degrees are also more nomadic than those without.

Seattle has a mild climate, beautiful nature and civil residents, a rare combination for a major urban area for those who have experienced blighted East Coast cities and decaying Rust Belt towns. Seattle is high on fashionable ethnic restaurants and other urban attractions and low on violent crime and grimy ghettos.

Naturally, Seattle attracts the young and educated. The Census Bureau data show that the Greater Seattle area is in the top 10 among metro urban areas in attracting such people. Seattle's popularity is corroborated by a personal anecdote — our mover is completely booked for relocations to Seattle, but is wide open for relocations away from it.

So why would we move? To paraphrase Thomas Frank, what's the matter with Seattle?

First, there is education. Oddly for a prosperous area, Seattle has underperforming schools. Even private schools are hardly first-class. In East Asia and the East Coast where I grew up, it is common to find people driving beat-up cars, but sending children to top-notch private and public magnet schools. Seattle's traffic is awash in luxury cars, yet area schools lag in quality.

Then there is the surprising insularity of Seattleites. Despite the image as a vibrant, multiethnic port city and an air of cultural sophistication, Seattleites are remarkably blasé about the world outside their "perfect" bubble. I have heard authoritative declarations, often from those who have not lived elsewhere, that Seattle is the best place to live in the world.

In Iowa, I was often asked whether I was adopted. In Seattle, too many people asked whether I emigrated from "North Korea or South Korea." Seattle may be a world-class city, but it is hardly a worldly city.

Finally, there is politics. Seattle is alienating for conservatives. Of course, that's natural for a city with an overwhelming majority of liberal Democrats. But my concern is for something more than simple partisan discontent.

Many of today's urban centers popular with the coveted young, educated population — such as Austin, Texas, Fairfax, Va., and Tucson, Ariz. — are "blue" cities in "red" states, and thus subject to the purple phenomenon. There is more clash of ideas, more debate. Their suburbs offer "red" stability and respect for private property within an easy reach of eclectic "blue" urban lifestyles.

This political — and policy — competitiveness is important, because incumbents in one-party-dominated areas, whether Republican or Democrat, invariably develop an unhealthy sense of power and collusive relationships with other institutional players. They become less attuned to ordinary citizens. This is a recipe for incompetence and corruption.

Seattle was once subject to the purple phenomenon, too, but the bungled 2004 election and the monorail mess offer a taste of what can happen in a political monopoly. Republicans have long been uncompetitive in the city, of course, but now the political muscle of the city and the surrounding county is such that the state is increasingly less purple, less able to balance Seattle.

There are real costs to a political monopoly. The area is losing the edge in attracting new businesses and jobs. Incumbents who are safe are less reluctant to levy new taxes. There are indeed plans for more taxes, and a state income tax may not be far away. Yet, there is no sight of tort reform or medical-malpractice-liability reform (even California has one). No wonder the area is bleeding doctors with high-risk specialties.

Americans are no longer bound to their families and the land like my wife's grandfather was. With the proliferation of e-mail (yes, grandpa is on the Internet), low-cost airline tickets (making it inexpensive to visit family) and a bewildering array of new concept housing developments (that offer a great lifestyle, not just a job), city councils are finding that smug self-satisfaction as "the best place to live" based on past reputations is no longer enough to attract an educated and tax-generating, but fickle population.

Seattle has had a charmed life. Surely, that will not end abruptly. But Seattle's charms will not continue forever without careful, competitive management — a difficult task in a political monopoly.

James J. Na is a senior fellow in foreign policy at Discovery Institute (www.discovery.org) and runs "Guns and Butter Blog" (gunsandbutter.blogspot.com). He can be reached at jamesjna@hotmail.com and will continue to write for The Seattle Times from his new home in Northern Virginia.

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