Building a springboard to the Next Seattle

The region needs a jolt, which comes from daring strategic thinking to take us past the recession and to transcend our political impasses. A suggestion: tap the game-changers in our midst.
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The Bellevue skyline.

The region needs a jolt, which comes from daring strategic thinking to take us past the recession and to transcend our political impasses. A suggestion: tap the game-changers in our midst.

The following essay is adapted from a speech delivered August 25th to Seattle's Downtown Rotary.

A year and a half ago, President Obama was searching for a catch phrase for his struggling administration. He came up with 'ꀜA New Foundation.'ꀝ That tagline that didn'ꀙt survive presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin'ꀙs jibe that 'ꀜA New Foundation'ꀝ sounded more like a woman'ꀙs girdle. It'ꀙs not easy to find a firm foundation for a new politics when things are changing so fast. But let'ꀙs give it a try, here in the Seattle region.

In the coming election, I sense that voters will groan a lot but opt for only a moderate dosage of change. They will be hedging their bets by opting for divided government, as a way to force the polarized parties to work together. Divided or coalition governments seem to be the cure-du-jour these days, as in Britain. It'ꀙs a clumsy way of groping toward the pragmatic center, where most of the voters are but where parties and their activists and biggest donors are not. Bipartisan Barack will reappear.

What voters really want, but can'ꀙt seem to get, is a politics that solves big problems, from the center, and in a pragmatic way that gives something significant to both sides and avoids sterile partisanship. Not a lot of that in this state, but here'ꀙs a promising tale from Idaho. Keith Allred is a former Harvard professor and political independent who founded a Boise nonprofit called Common Interest, which seeks bipartisan consensus on big state issues. The Democratic Party recruited Allred as a gubernatorial candidate, to run against Gov. Butch Otter. Guess who'ꀙs raised more money, who has the momentum, and who'ꀙs getting Republicans to defect to his side? And who'ꀙs our Keith Allred in this state, or, as I'ꀙd prefer to call him or her, Allpurple?

As for this state, I don'ꀙt see much relief soon from our current bitter political partisanship, at least until 2012. Gov. Gregoire is weary from the battle and a little lame-ducky, since most expect she won'ꀙt seek a third term. The key political figure in our state remains Speaker Frank Chopp, who assembled a wide majority in the House by recruiting candidates loyal to him and who could win in suburban and swing districts, often by taking pot shots at Seattle. Those suburban moderate Democrats are now in danger, given the rising Republican tide and much better opponents. However, when these centrist Chopp Democrats lose and exit the Democratic House Caucus, the remaining Democrats will be from true-blue districts, making compromise all the harder. Unless, of course, the Republicans take control of the House. Presto: divided government.

A year ago, probably many (including me) would have felt that Seattle politics was very stable. Mayor Greg Nickels had put together a traditional political coalition of developers, unions, big business interests, municipal employees, and environmentalists, leaving only neighborhood groups and deep-greens on the outs. Then suddenly, voters gave the two-term mayor a pink slip, as he finished third in the primary to two unknowns.

What happened? Nickels was an inside mayor, liked at city hall and good in deal-making but not well connected with the public. Another factor was Obama'ꀙs campaign a year before, which drew many young people into politics and trained them in the new, social-media aspects of highly targeted politics. Many flocked to the Mike McGinn campaign, and then on into his administration, which retains the feeling of a youthful crusade, cheerfully defying their unbelieving elders.

'ꀜAuthenticity'ꀝ is a key value for these young voters, who are deeply cynical about conventional politics and super-quick at detecting phoniness. Accordingly, Mayor Mike dresses casually, hangs out with young crowds at the Crocodile, and does seemingly outrageous things like dissing Steve Ballmer or ignoring the protocol for state-of-the city addresses. These things send powerful messages of insurgency and genuineness.

McGinn, more than most politicians around here, grasps that Seattle has changed dramatically in the last 10-15 years, becoming a McGinn kind of town. Seattle had been, during the long Cold War boom that greatly favored the region and its economy, a classic "city of the last move." People moved here in mid-career, psychologically considering Seattle a place to settle down, to join civic organizations, to get involved in local schools. They were the ones who took the legendary fork on the Oregon Trail west — the one leading to farmland, not gold fields. And they built, particularly in the 1970s and 80s, an admirably civic-minded culture, what I call Civic Seattle.

Well, Seattle is now a classic "city of the first move." As they do with New York and San Francisco and LA, restless young people move here right out of college. They want to hang out in a cool city with lots of starter jobs and other young people and nightlife. Psychologically, they are not really intending to stay so much as to get launched. Last-move cities build solid middle class neighborhoods, jobs, and institutions. First-move cities draw an irreverent, disruptive, geeky 'ꀜcreative class.'ꀝ They are the footloose foot soldiers of an innovation economy.

And that'ꀙs produced the major fault line in our region and our politics: the tension between an Innovation Economy and a somewhat dispirited Civic Seattle. Bridging this gap is the challenge and opportunity of the day. That'ꀙs my theme in this essay.

Thanks largely to Microsoft, this region massively put its eggs in the new economy and the young workforce it requires. The transformation has been especially dramatic and swift in Seattle. Only a generation ago, we were the most middle-class large city in America. Now we are a city with a disproportionately high number of well-educated, young, detached newcomers. We are San Francisco.

Here are a few figures to demonstrate how extreme a case Seattle has become, how far the pendulum has swung.

  • Our average household size is now 2.08, well below the national average of 2.61 and lower even than San Francisco'ꀙs (2.24).
  • The percentage of families with kids is 19 percent, while the national average is 31and San Francisco'ꀙs is 18.
  • The percentage of non-family or unmarried households is 55 percent, compared to the national average of 33 percent.
  • 53 percent of Seattle adults have a college degree, highest in the nation and 20 points above the national average of 33 percent.
  • Lastly, 31 percent of the Seattle population has lived in the city for five years or less; only Austin, Texas has a higher number, and it'ꀙs 32 percent.

Welcome to the Next Seattle. Smart, unmoored, mobile, young, liberal in politics. (Interestingly, the demographic portrait of towns surrounding Seattle is very close to the national norms.) So, Civic Seattle, picture a speeding bicyclist passing you as you sit in your Lexus SUV at a long red light. And maybe giving you the finger.

Such rapid demographic change has finally caught up with our slow-to-change political order. Suddenly coming to power, this new elite finds the fading regime too fond of cars, too slow in addressing climate change, too cozy with established ways of doing things. As one friend in the McGinn shop enjoys telling me, I'ꀙm Microsoft. Mayor Mike'ꀙs Apple.

In short, Mayor McGinn is no fluke. And his politics,as well as McGinn himself, are likely here to stay. These politics are impatient, oppositional, anti-suburban, deep green. They have only the slightest ties to unions, to big vested interests like the University of Washington or Microsoftor city hall and its rule-bound workers. Just as previous insurgencies used the Pike Place Market and the Commons and the R.H. Thomson Expressway as wedge issues in assuming power and as organizational tools to rally the young troops, so this rising counter-elite uses the deep-bore waterfront tunnel as a big fat symbol of auto-worshipping old-think.

Our version of evolution is more like punctuated equilibrium, where we jump to a new plateau rather suddenly.

A critical question is whether the McGinn insurgency will have staying power, or whether it will provoke a return to the political consensus Seattle has enjoyed since 1970. I'ꀙm pretty fond of that old order, having chronicled it and cheered it on for decades. Develop the arts, make a major research university, build a lively downtown, create fine urban neighborhoods to hold the middle class, cherish diversity, rescue old buildings like Town Hall, and keep plugging away at reforming our schools and building transit.

It'ꀙs a good record, but viewed by this Next Seattle, it'ꀙs not good enough, not contemporary enough. Where'ꀙs the extensive rail transit? Where'ꀙs the global leadership to a post-carbon economy? Where are the switched-on schools? Where'ꀙs the living arts scene, as opposed to a museumized culture? Why, above all, such complacency?

The key issue around which this new politics turns is climate change, and what we can do about it locally and in our daily lives. To its credit, this new political order doesn't want to keep biding its time, accepting tiny gains. Consider, for instance, the longtime goal of Civic Seattle to stop sprawl and build up a high-interaction, culturally rich downtown. The record is not very good. The Downtown Seattle Association recently reported that Seattle has lost 30,000 jobs in the past decade, 21,000 of them from the core city. We are very late in building rail transit, maybe too late. Or look at this measure, the percentage of all jobs in a region more than 10 miles outside of the central business district. Of the 45 largest American cities, Seattle (56 percent outside 10 miles) comes in 10th worst.

As I read Seattle history in the last 75 years, we tend to get stuck in inertia, to rest on our oars. And then along comes a jolt that pushes us forward dramatically. Our version of evolution is more like punctuated equilibrium, where we jump to a new plateau rather suddenly. One example was the World'ꀙs Fair in 1962, which announced that Seattle was a city of consequence. Another was Jim Ellis'ꀙ Forward Thrust campaign, first announced to the Rotary Club, which found a way to solve some of our regional problems with a better-funded, more modern government. Another jolt was the rise of the new economy, led by Microsoft and the Eastside.

What can provide this jolt this time? I don'ꀙt think Seattle'ꀙs political leadership can do it, since the city has become such an outlier compared to the rest of the region. (Seattle is now out of the closet, one friend jokes. It'ꀙs now "Seattle in Full.") But I do think the brainpower of the innovation economy in the region and the state can do it.

Not that they listen to me, but I would encourage a group of the boldest and the brightest spontaneously to form a diverse and relatively small task force to draft a breakthrough strategic plan for the region. They would figure out good ways of collecting public suggestions and off-the-wall ideas, as well as new ways of engaging the public. Members should not be civic elders, or those with a political or other narrow agenda; and there should be a few foreign-born entrepreneurs, the real drivers of the Innovation Economy. You want people who know how to think strategically and radically about major issues and problems. The folks who have taught the world how to read books a new way, how to address global health problems with enough scale to make a difference, and how to build, and then rebuild, a world of coffee shops. Game-changers. People like Bill Gates, or Lee Hood, or Nathan Myhrvold, or Jim Sinegal.

Rather than creating a broad-based committee of all the vested interests, and watching the results come out very mild and incremental, first release a game-changing report — and then watch what happens as the various interests cope with it. But at least get trenchant, long-view thinking out there. Maybe some politicians will take parts of it and run with it, putting it further into the public arena.

Here are some of the big issues this group should consider and solve:

1. Taxes. We have an inequitable and unstable system of state taxes that seriously underfunds our schools, our universities, our cities, and infrastructure. (Thanks, Tim Eyman.) Part of understanding this challenge is looking at our public pension liabilities unblinkingly, as only a few other states have had the courage to do.

2. Boeing. The company is drifting away, and surely we need to have some kind of accommodation. The next jetliner, the replacement for the 737 and 757, is unlikely to be built here. Boeing now has nobody from this state on its board. Uh, can we talk? We need to figure out a new paradigm for supporting a major research university, since the state legislature just isn'ꀙt willing to do so.

3. Trade and Asia. Our ports are facing serious threats from Canada and the wider Panama Canal, and we don'ꀙt have ways of solving the roads and rail infrastructure bottlenecks. China is the enormous opportunity of the next decades, so how can we orient our trade that way? One opportunity is joint ventures in green technology and advanced-technology urban systems, where China is becoming a leader. And when do we open UW/Shanghai?

4. Biotech, global health, and the UW. One of Mayor Nickels'ꀙ major feats was enabling the UW, with Vulcan, to build a research campus in South Lake Union, in effect our Stanford Research Park. The two campuses need to be connected by the streetcar and bike lanes, and made into an enlarged University District with special zoning. This district can also be a community for global health and humanitarian organizations, anchored by the Gates Foundation. And we need to figure out a new paradigm for supporting a major research university, since the state legislature just isn'ꀙt willing to do so.

5. Tapping the philanthropic wealth. This great wealth is now mostly going to global causes and other cities. If you make a local idea compelling enough, like the Sculpture Park, you can hold more of this philanthropic wealth in the region, but that means raising the bar, lifting our game, and revitalizing nonprofit boards and leadership, most of whom set their sights too low.

6. Post-carbon-economy technology. The whole state ought to be brought into this opportunity, with ways to incubate new ideas and provide public-sector markets to give these startups early revenue. Pick a few other target cities for such investment, such as Bellingham, Olympia, Vancouver, and Richland.

7. Global positioning. This region plays in the global marketplace and is dependent on its ability to draw high-talent, high-ambition individuals here. So where is our Aspen Institute or our Montreal International Jazz Festival or our Amsterdam Documentary Film Festival to mark us out at the very top of something?

8. Talent-importing and retaining. The major asset of the region is its ability to attract high-powered talent, drawn here by the good living and the opportunities for significant work at companies performing on a global stage, with compensation to match. How do we spread a magnetic field across the state and create some new hot-spots for post-recession companies? Does the fact that Boston has 14,000 foreign students at its colleges tell you something about competitiveness?

Maybe the panel would fall to bickering, or only come up with dazzling answers in just a few areas. Maybe a suspicious public would feel patronized, or resent the suggestions of an elite group. I say take the chance. Such an undertaking would get the innovation economy into the civic game, at last, making them focus on the place where they live. If you're so smart, let's see your best stuff!

Would we get a 'ꀜnew foundation'ꀝ? Well, we already have a terrific foundation in this region — a diversified, globalized, contemporary economy built on knowledge, innovation, and a caring citizenry. We don'ꀙt need a new foundation. We need a way to aim higher. We need a New Springboard.   

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