Seattle’s Slumping Economy And Our Slumping Response

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The Seattle Times’ excellent business columnist, Jon Talton, has a wide-ranging discussion of our local economy, which he says was heading for a downturn before the coronavirus stall-out. Indeed, the headwinds are uncommonly strong and aligned: Boeing in trouble, China trade curtailed, Amazon migrating outward, downtown looting, the retail sector and tourism knocked for a loop, Seattle’s dysfunctional and business-bashing politics. Not only that, but the West Seattle Bridge is falling down.

To this I would add a fine local specialty–complacency. Seattle, as when Boeing was riding high, puts off economic planning to let the good times roll. The fact that this region rode out the 2008 housing bust relatively well added to the complacency. But the main factor was amazin’ Amazon’s growth and related technology investments in jobs, housing, and adjacent high-end retail. Compounding the complacency syndrome is the expectation that all will be well once a vaccine arrives and some of the fluff in our local economy is combed out.

Talton himself suffers from the syndrome, writing: “The much-deadlier 1918 influenza didn’t stop the trends that were at work before the pandemic hit, including rising urbanization. And in America, the great flu was followed by one of the greatest economic booms in history.” (And Crash.) He quotes the famously ambivalent density-guru, Richard Florida, who contends that super-city downtowns like Seattle’s will not be crippled, but instead rid themselves of too many office towers and chain stores. Beams sunny Florida:

“Chain stores were a huge part of the gentrification & dullification of NYC. … Good riddance. And get on with rebuilding the city & the metro region around 15-minute neighborhoods, in the city, in the suburbs, where people can work closer to where they live & shorten commutes.” Oh, that!

Such wishfulness is part of our ingrained psychology: All will be well, soon, so just dine off our Acres of Clams. Maybe so, but doesn’t it make more sense to have a plan for economic growth — diversified and more equitable? At which point another regional liability shows its head. We don’t really have a potent, respected economic-development agency spanning the metropolitan region and making hard choices. As is typical, we have a series of small ones, each protecting its turf and staff.

Our preferred course is more conferences (keynoted by Richard Florida) and crossed fingers.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Do you see any prospect for creation of “a potent, respected economic-development agency spanning the metropolitan region and making hard choices”?

  2. Challenge Seattle, headed by Chris Gregoire and consisting of top CEOs in the region, has eyed the creation of a potent regional agency, but I gather that has been shelved due to the pandemic. Given all the protected small agencies, creating a big one would be a tough task. The weak one is the Puget Sound Council of Governments.

  3. I, too, am intrigued by the notion of “a potent, respected economic-development agency spanning the metropolitan region and making hard choices”.

    In theory, the cities and counties which comprise the Puget Sound Regional Council’s Economic Development Board could give it more authority over them. (See https://www.psrc.org/board/economic-development-district-board). The PSRC is already comprised of elected representatives from jurisdictions from around the Puget Sound. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the PSRC’s current charter seems to be “Receive federal funding – then pass it through to member cities, counties and other jurisdictions based on an agreed upon revenue sharing formula.”

    If the role of the PSRC were expanded, what would you have it do?

    1) Manage an open government/auditing initiative which rates government agencies based on: a) the quality of the decision-making information they provide the public, and b) on their success collaborating with other agencies to deliver government services – including an economic stimulus plan?
    2) Earmark federal funds for investments in more secure Internet Services, telecom services, and utilities? Earmark federal funds to locate Internet trunk lines in “bedroom communities” so that banks, investment houses, and call centers in the Puget Sound area can hire people who work where they live, and/or commute to work only two times a week, thus reducing vehicular emissions – and extending the life of our roads and bridges?
    3) Earmark federal funds to help unemployed people (including new graduates, older workers, non-violent offenders, and former drug addicts) find work from home apprenticeships in the Puget Sound area?
    4) Cooperate with other regions in Washington State (for example, the Southwest Washington Regional Council of Governments) to create rail lines which link electronics manufacturing zones outside of our densely populated Puget Sound region – to the Puget Sound area – where they will tested based on rigorous national security standards before they are shipped to their final destination?

    Should voters empower the staff of their regional economic agency to:

    1) Draft (and lobby for) tax policies?
    2) Draft (and lobby for) new enforcement strategies for policing? Alternatively, should that task continue to be the province of our region’s City Attorneys, County Prosecutors – and, of course, our State Attorney General?
    3) Earmark federal funds for the creation of a court system at the state or federal level which ordinary people can afford to use: one which gives consumers, workers and small to medium business owners an affordable venue to sue – and allows them to sue a government agency, a national corporation, or an international corporation for damages of $10,000 or less (think “small claims court”)?

    NOTE Correct me if I’m wrong, but would a court which does this require the backing of the US Government and a multi-lateral trade agreement?

    Instead, should a regional economic development agency limit itself to economic stimulus policies which are more local in focus? For example, should a regional economic development agency:

    1) Relax residential zoning in member jurisdictions so that micro businesses like food trucks and electronic testing agencies can operate in residential neighborhoods?
    2) Create manufacturing zones for “essential products” for example, communications devices, drugs, chemicals, and air filters?
    3) Earmark federal funds for increased water and air quality monitoring in those same manufacturing zones?

    As you know, not ALL investments translate directly to a significant economic stimulus. Does that mean that a regional economic agency should forgo the opportunity to seek grants from philanthropies which fund and prototype:

    1) New transportation modes?
    2) A new prosecution and sentence enforcement model for people who engage in white collar crime, property destruction, or burglary?
    3) A new sanitation and garbage pickup services for homeless encampments?

    Should a regional economic agency ALSO seek federal funding to fairly compensate local landlords for lost rent – in a scenario where their city, county, or state elected state officials suddenly declared that landlords were no longer allowed to evict tenants for failure to pay rent?

    Alternatively, should a regional economic agency pressure elected representatives and government agencies at the state, national, and multi-national level to create economic stimulus policies which WILL stimulate and secure our economy – i.e., the requirement to manufacture 20% of essential goods and services in the US – thus ensuring that we have the expertise to scale up domestic production in the event of a war or pandemic?

  4. Thanks for all those good ideas! The PSRC is pretty much crippled from making hard decisions by the nature of its board. In any economic strategy there are winners and losers, but the PSRC board would fight any pain to a member. Usually, the development agency is appointed by business and some local leaders. There is no real regional government here, but instead dozens of independent fiefdoms. Each time there’s an economic crisis, efforts are made to do a real plan, but by the time a plan is produced (after endless consultations), the economy is usually on the upswing. As someone said, the regional economic policy is to wait for a lot of inventions to come out of local garages during each slump. It’s worked so far!

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