I'm often a pitchfork waver, someone quick to get upset about the excesses of the wealthy. I occasionally contribute items to Crosscut under the headline "Rich Jerk Watch." Which brings me to this week's brouhaha over a possible Rep. Jim McDermott earmark for the Rainier Club to help renovate part of their building. The whole thing blew up in McDermott's face like an exploding fat-cat's cigar.
Just about everyone thinks it's a bad idea. Why spend money on a bunch of rich private club members in the middle of the Great Recession? Where's the fairness at a time of huge deficits and painful state, county, and city budget cuts? We're cutting schools and even purposefully driving low income people off of basic health care. Why help people with more than their fair share? Let the club's members pay for it.
The Seattle Weekly's Mike Seely opines that it was a "ridiculous request" and that McDermott made matters worse by comparing the Rainier Club's project to other local non-profits, like the African-American Museum or SAM. Sunny Jim definitely didn't handle it well — supporting the request, drawing poor comparisons, then essentially pulling the rug out from under it. Seely's right about the bad PR moves.
The Seattle Times thinks it's a bad idea and says McDermott needs to "get real." This is the same Seattle Times, by the way, that won a state tax-break for itself this year, when the state needs every penny of revenue for public services. The privately owned Times, of course, is in financial trouble and its rich owners needed help.
The Times' Danny Westneat makes sense in his column when he laments the earmarker's defense:
What bugs me is McDermott's shrug. Everybody does it. It's OK, line up at the federal trough. Rich, poor, private, public — it doesn't matter. We all go for the bailout. Why not you, too? I wonder how we'll ever dig ourselves out of our financial hole if this is the attitude of the folks writing the budget.
The problem isn't the Rainier Club or Jim McDermott, it's systemic.
First of all, modern Seattle has been built by federal earmarks and largesse, and we used to be proud of the fact. Two of Central Puget Sound's biggest industries and employers are aerospace and the military. The military alone is responsible for over 100,000 jobs. We used to brag about the federal pork that poured in, obtained by Senators Warren G. Magnuson and Henry "Scoop" Jackson. It built the UW into a major research university and medical center, it transformed the city by funding a world's fair, it built bridges, and highways. It made us prosperous, some of us so prosperous they could join the Rainier Club (including my grandfather).
The "everyone does it" argument isn't so much a defense of earmarks but a statement of reality — a reality that we choose to encourage and exploit on a daily basis. Locally, the city is planning a major "fix" on Mercer Street, which was touted as a "shovel ready" stimulus project, but even the city acknowledges it won't solve so-called "Mercer Mess" congestion. It's mostly to help one particular rich local developer, Paul Allen.
Our state's tax code is rife with favoritism for big business, whose execs are the types who join the Rainier Club. B&O and sales tax dodges have long been arranged for Boeing and Microsoft. The Legislature has been a push-over for tax breaks and exemptions for many big businesses and industries in the state, while an unfair burden falls on small businesses. The Legislature believes in engineering prosperity, even if it means giving tax-breaks to the haves.
State leaders are already discussing how to keep Boeing here again. They were given billions in tax breaks and subsidies to keep the 787 assembly here, but what about the next production line or a new generation of jets after that? There is bipartisan support for doing whatever it takes to keep them here. Few politicians, and not much of the citizenry, have opposed giving Boeing what it wants, even while it practices a kind of serial extortion racket on the taxpayers. As Southern states are vying for Boeing's business, Washington is engaging in a race to the bottom.
And look at the competition between Seattle and Tacoma for the wealthy Frank Russell Investments, a Tacoma company looking to relocate, or for a better deal to stay. It's going to cost the citizens in some city. Tax breaks for Russell are among the lures the cities have been dangling.
And then there's the whole federal bailout, which, perhaps of necessity in a crisis, is role modeling (and subsidizing) all kinds of bad government and private sector behavior. Giving public money to Wall Street and the auto industry is repulsive, but so is the funding of so many projects in the name of economic stimulus. Many highway and infrastructure projects are being driven by the needs of big, private corporations. Boeing has been a big behind-the-scenes booster of the multi-billion-dollar bored tunnel under downtown Seattle. Microsoft, a company that has created more millionaires than any other, has demanded a bigger highway 520 for its employees. Think-small, sustainability advocates have been run over in the name of boosting an economy that already benefits the rich more than the rest of us.
In light of this, you can't blame the Rainier Club for asking. It's nothing in comparison to what government does for the private sector everyday to benefit wealthy corporations and people.
As pork goes, the Rainier Club's request is comparatively modest. The Club is looking for some help to help restore and maintain a city landmark that's deteriorating. The building has historic value and its health is a visible benefit. The downtown block it sits on is home to a major, exciting preservation project already (the rebirth of the old First United Methodist Church sanctuary), one of the best preservation success stories of the last couple of years.
The federal government frequently makes grants and, yes, earmarks for preservation projects. It's true that it's an exclusive and private club, but couldn't McDermott have negotiated for some additional public access or benefits in exchange for putting the request forward? What about periodically opening the Club to the public? Or how about turning that valet area into a place where the public can park their bikes?
I wouldn't put the Rainier Club's request at the head of the line. Based on what I know, I wouldn't support it. Club members are going to have to dig deeper into their own pocketbooks. But the request hardly seems out of line in the context of how business and government scratch each others' backs. In that sense McDermott is correct. The larger picture is, as Danny Westneat suggests, the real question. It's not just earmarks, it's the whole system. It's easy to be outraged by symbols — I often am. And they're important politically. But the real outrage is that we're not outraged more often about stuff that matters more.