Ready to get real yet?

We're still in the denial stage over local hard times, dining on our acres of clams.
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A famous billboard in 1971

We're still in the denial stage over local hard times, dining on our acres of clams.

As we go through the stages of loss in this recession, are we at the point of making some hard choices yet? There is some flailing about and gnashing of teeth — tossing out a Seattle mayor, getting King County out of the animal-shelter business. A lame-duck county executive might feel free to speak some hard truths. But not real change, not a sober recognition of how we are going to live within much tighter budgets.

Some big changes are being forced on us — not the same thing as getting ahead of the curve and controlling the changes. After decades of enduring an uneconomical model, two of our papers (The P-I and the Eastside Journal) stopped being print dailies. But, so far, no interesting mergers or even talks of creative solutions. Examples might be a merger of struggling KING-FM with a public-radio station, or the folding together of one or more of our once-fat lifestyle magazines or alternative weeklies.

Likewise, there is a general air of fatalism and martyrdom about the cutting of state funding for public universities and colleges. But it's mostly holding hands as the ships go down. Some good ideas for dealing with the new economic realities are: creating a full four-year college at Everett or more combined programs with colleges like Central Washington and community colleges like Edmonds, where four-year degrees can be earned more economically with time spent on both campuses and with shared faculty.

Our arts groups are slowly losing altitude, but few will even admit distress (unlike in other cities). A few merger talks among theaters went the usual nowhere. A plan for generous public funding for the region's arts organizations, modeled on Denver, got no traction in the past legislature and has virtually no public visibility. It's hang on, pray, and preserve your proud independence.

Boeing is pretty clearly going to migrate many jobs to South Carolina, and the civic response resembles the reluctant, don't-really-want-to response of the locals to the departing Sonics. Well, not quite. There is talk of creating an aerospace cluster, with many more companies than Boeing, along the lines of the Montreal approach (with several plane-makers). But there's not enough momentum to invent the post-Boeing economy, whether that's clean tech or China-based or smart-economy.

Lastly, there's local government, the last to get the word that cuts to benefits and staffing levels are required. Some reality is breaking through. The big-spending politics of Mayor Nickels are finally under closer scrutiny, and the government-employees-first approach of King County is running up against political revolt and deficits that can no longer be finessed. But where is talk of, say, abolishing King County and giving its services to Seattle and a consortium of cities, as in San Francisco? Where is talk of seizing the crisis and finally putting some truly regional government ideas on the table? Here, too, there is an encouraging exception: drawing closer ties between the ports of Tacoma and Seattle, faced with declining business and much stiffer West Coast competition.

Why so few turnaround artists? I suggest two reasons. Seattle's entrepreneurial culture has always been better at starting things than seeing them through difficulties, or making them truly good by maturing them. Second reason is the culture enshrined in Ivar's old song, "Acres of Clams." When times get tough, the tough don't get going. They take time off and live off the abundant snacks lying on the beaches. No need to fix things. Just wait for the good times to come again.

No longer the slave of ambition

I laugh at the world and its shams

As I think of my pleasant condition

Surrounded by acres of clams.


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