Income tax issue echoes the West's history

Some come West looking for a new place to settle. Others want freedom to make a buck as readily as possible.

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Google's operations are centered in Silicon Valley, seen here in a 2007 photo, but Seattle now has some of the company's employees.

Some come West looking for a new place to settle. Others want freedom to make a buck as readily as possible.

I haven’t made up my mind yet on Initiative 1098, the initiative to create a state income tax on higher-income taxpayers. So I was interested to hear the arguments of initiative opponent Matt McIlwain at a Crosscut writers and editors meeting.

At one point McIlwain, a leading spokesman for the opposition and a part of the Madrona Venture capital firm, noted that Google now has upward of 1,000 employees here in the area. “If 1098 passes, said McIlwain, “many would leave” rather than find themselves saddled with a new tax.

His remark brought to mind the observation made by the best writer on the American West, Wallace Stegner. Stegner said that there are two kinds of people who moved west. They were the “boomers” and the “stickers.” The boomers came west to make a quick buck — to extract what they could from the land and move on. The boomers didn’t care much about how they got their bucks or about the wreckage they left behind.

The stickers are, obvious I guess, those who stay. They stick around to scratch out a life, build a town, put up schools and churches, and make a community. The stickers are committed to a place that becomes theirs, and they become its, their fates bound up together.

As I say, I’m not sure that 1098 is good idea or good legislation or if I will vote for or against it. But I get tired of the game of trying to make it work for the latest version of the boomers, those spawned by the knowledge and information economy. The idea is that the boomers will kick out economic growth for the rest of us, and that should be sufficient incentive not to ruffle their feathers with something like a state income tax. The fancy way to put it is that such a tax “diminishes our competitive advantage.” I suppose that’s true.

The other day my wife and I saw the new movie, “The Social Network,” about the brilliant but one-dimensional young people who created Facebook. Afterward, my wife said, “The scary thing is that people like that are the ones who are shaping our society.” The boomers. Her observation was similar to that of the director of the film, Aaron Sorkin, who has been quoted as saying of the people who created Facebook, “It’s a group of in one way or another, socially dysfunctional people who created the world's great social-networking site.”

I’m sure the new economy is doing wonderful things for us, but it seems to be creating a class of people, even a world view, that is the latest incarnation of Stegner’s boomers. Their project and their wealth is what it’s all about. It’s altogether too important and too absorbing to pay much attention to the kind of society they are living in and to the particular place where they happen to be living.

In the movie, various characters are described at different points as “wired in,” which means they are so deep in the world of programming that they can’t see or hear anything or anyone else. At a climactic point in "The Social Network," the once best friend of Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg rips off Zuckerberg's earphones and slams his laptop on the desk trying to get Zuckerberg’s attention.

Maybe 1098 for all its faults is a little like that. The stickers are trying to get the boomers to listen, to notice that there’s a society, a community out there. That simply getting up and moving to the next place with a, “Better competitive advantage” may not be the answer, even for them.

One of the most intriguing new books I’ve read recently, one that won’t be on the stands in the airport bookstores, is titled, “The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture.” The author, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, notes that, “Staying, we all know, is not the norm in our mobile culture. A great deal of money is spent each day to create desires in each of us that can never be fulfilled. I suspect that much of our restlessness is a return on this investment. Mobility has a large marketing budget.”

But, and this is the book’s argument, “Stability’s wisdom insists that spiritual growth depends on human beings rooting ourselves in a place on earth with other creatures.” Being ever on the move has worked, sort of, for us for a long time. Maybe it’s not going to work anymore.

So I worry about a community that is constantly under threat, as all are, from big businesses and wealthy boomers saying, in effect, “If you don’t do what we want, we will leave and take the golden goose with us.” I not only worry about us stickers. I worry about the boomers, too. I think Wilson-Hartgrove is right. We need some stability. Maybe now we need more of what the stickers have to teach us.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.