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Washington state needs Jobs, Steve Jobs

The cover of the new book about Steve Jobs.

Next week’s election feels like a plodder. It’s hard to get enthusiastic about anything, even the important stuff. 

The Seattle City Council races are heavily favored toward the incumbents, who ideologically are a colorless lot. We’ve got “maturity” but also groupthink. I’m reminded of Emmett Watson’s critique of the city councils of the ’50s and ’60s. “Taken singly, they were decent, upstanding people. Put together as a governing body of Seattle they…had a bad effect on each other, like too many maple bars stuck together in a single bag.”

The race is so dull, political junkies are already focused on the mayor’s race in 2013.

The statewide initiatives are likewise disturbing as they are mainly about how much money Costco will make selling booze (I-1183), or which Bellevue real estate mogul will make out if rail is or is not built to the Eastside (I-1125). Will downtown Bellevue thrive in the coming years by remaining de-railed and car-centric, or will the advantage swing to transit-oriented development in the Bel-Red corridor? The outcome is significant, but the deep pockets driving the race with little but self-interest and checkbooks are as depressing as they are effective at defining the policy debate with little consideration for public merit.

The most interesting political dramas are taking place away from, I was going to say the voting booth, but that’s now anachronistic. Away from the ballpoint pen on your kitchen table? 

First, there’s a European economic crisis that looks like the financial equivalent of World War I, about to drag us all in, and potentially down. Here at home, the Occupy movement continues to keep the general moral argument for fairness alive, but permanent demonstrations too easily become part of the background. Still, there has been an impact on re-shaping the national debate for 2012 toward fairness, the good side of “class war.”

In Olympia, the question is what to do about the budget and the new, massive revenue shortfall (up to $2 billion) that must be faced. We are experiencing a failure of Olympian technocratic leadership. Gov. Chris Gregoire is completely at sea and is talking about raising revenues way, way too late in the process — a fee here or a tax bump there — maybe.

She could have been doing this all along. Better, she could have been leading, shaping a vision of the future that gets outside the box — a fairer tax system that is less regressive, less shaped by special interest tax breaks, and less reliant on an odious B&O that hurts business. Her listless support of the income tax initiative was a lost opportunity.

The death-by-a-thousand-cuts approach is too grim. What state politics needs is a Steve Jobs who, now that he’s dead, can be used as a metaphor or example for anything. In this case, you can either follow the death spiral path of incremental retreat or you can reinvent your way out of a problem. Do we really want to see Seattle in a race to the bottom for jobs with South Carolina? Can the Apple State instead become the Apple of states, committed to a functional, sleek, beautiful future that is user-friendly? We’ve long tried the prestige model. We’re on the path to abandoning that now. But you can both pare down and get better, if you have some vision and focus, if you innovate.

Both of next year’s gubernatorial candidates could seize this mantle. Jay Inslee has been a champion of such thinking by being way ahead of the curve with his New Apollo Project concept. McKenna is a conservative who believes in investment in higher-ed and seems open to out-of-the-box thinking.

Will either of them show us a way out? Can we craft a state government that’s lean, affordable, and effective? Good ideas will have to come from a broader spectrum than party bases or big business. Seattle State Rep. Reuven Carlyle has argued that this is about more than new programs, but “a new attitude” in how government and business work together. It’s about acting more cooperatively, and more courageously.

The Dow Constantine-Fred Jarrett model of dealing with King County is encouraging — a Democrat and one-time Republican working on solving systemic issues. Who would be most effective doing that statewide? Inslee or McKenna? Someone else, who could be a factor for independent voters? Yes, ideological basics matter, but conventional thinking is not going to get us back on track.

If anyone tries, they’ll have to paint a picture as opposed to staying lost in the tules of policy details and slashing line items. Steve Jobs communicated his passion in his products, but he also gave you a glimpse of the kind of world the future was supposed to be: an inspiring place. We deserve no less.

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