WTIA CEO: Time for the tech community to speak up

Guest Opinion: The industry needs to stop pretending that effective policy will materialize on its own and start actively participating in its creation.
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Guest Opinion: The industry needs to stop pretending that effective policy will materialize on its own and start actively participating in its creation.

Editor's Note: Michael wrote this piece as part of Crosscut's first Community Idea Lab, a new kind of journalism aimed at solving local problems. Our first order of business: How can we use Seattle's tech boom as an asset to create an equitable and integrated city?

The tech industry is obsessed with creating new products. We live or die based on the ability to develop and attract the best talent. And we operate in a vivid world of crushing competition infused with dreams of ecstatic innovation.

Time to wake up.

We blithely rely on a platform of roads, bridges, bike lanes and public transportion that allows 250,000 Washingtonians to move from work, to school, to the movies, to the mall, or back home. We assume our education system develops the new employees required to fill the 25,000 jobs created in this state each year. And we rarely think about the communication infrastructure that governs if, when, and how our data and services connect to billions of customers and suppliers.

Each core system — transportation, education, and communication — is highly regulated by government and already inadequate to meet our needs. It often takes two hours to ride a bus 10 miles from UW to West Seattle; we rank 46th among states in the nation for high school students moving on to college; and the vast majority of rural communities are stuck with DSL at 1/10 the speed of urban internet access — that is if they have any broadband at all.

Meanwhile, federal, state and local government officials are manipulated by powerful and seasoned political organizations that snub the tech industry. The teachers' unions have the upper hand in education policy. Most of the surface transportation policy is centralized in the federal government. Regional and local public transit is mired in a tangled web of unions, commissions and agencies. And the cable companies are battling telcos to run the table in communication policy.

The tech industry is an idiot savant in their midst — unable to express a compelling argument for public investment or prioritization of resources, while building the powerful economic engine that supports our state and nation in the 21st century.

It is high time that we become eloquent. It is high time we take action. We must demand our tax contributions benefit everyone in the state — not merely the special interests of a few factions. Entrepreneurs in our state start paying B&O taxes on gross receipts long before they ever make a profit. This is thanks to an 80 year old tax system phased out long ago by smarter states. Yet in spite of the significant contributions to state coffers, entrepreneurs are routinely ignored by state and local legislators on funding priorities.

We must demand priority funding for roads, buses, ferries, bike lanes and bridges. We must demand broadband be accessible in Klickitat and Okanagan, not just in King County. We must demand Computer Science education be offered in all our schools to produce the talent critical for the future of our economy.

We must require our political leaders to compete with New York, St Louis and Austin to help attract top talent to the region. And we must inform every government official that our challenge is a global effort. We compete with Canada, China, Israel and many other assertive nations for the talent and capital to build a vibrant tech industry.

The tech entrepreneurs of Washington state created the PC industry, the online game industry, streaming audio and video, cloud computing, online retailing and the wireless industry. While we build our next generation of great products and companies, we must now become active in the political process to ensure our public education, transportation and communication systems allow the next generation to stand on our shoulders.

Don't complain at the bar about politicians. Vote, meet with legislators, and engage in policy debate. Loudly — and eloquently — demand the infrastructure we need.

We have a voice. Let’s use it.


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