Alexa, fix Seattle

Amazon Echo

Can the Amazon Echo solve all of Seattle's problems?

Seattle has a lot of problems, but nothing technology won’t fix, right?

Amazon has transformed the city. The company’s founder, Jeff Bezos, is now the richest man in the world. We don’t lack for resources or innovations.

One of those Amazon innovations is the Echo, a device that is the new household servant. A member of my family recently set up the Echo in their home and now politely can get a lot of things simply by asking Echo’s internal spirit, named Alexa, to do things. She answers questions, tells jokes, serves up music, shops for you, and will soon be running the house.

What Seattle needs is a giant civic Alexa to fix this place on voice command.

Take homelessness. On the day after Thanksgiving, Amazon stock shot up and Bezos made over $2.4 billion in a single day. His net worth is now upwards of $100 billion, more than Bill Gates.

The week before I’d been to a talk where David Wertheimer of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was talking about the foundation’s local giving. (Full disclosure: The Gates Foundation is one of Crosscut’s funders). He has worked on addressing homelessness in Seattle, and he said the problem could be solved for the price of a new bomber. I’m not sure what kind of bomber, but a single B-2 stealth bomber has a $2.1 billion price tag. That’s Bezos’ Black Friday money — with a few hundred million to spare!

I suspect housing the homeless in King County would cost a great deal less, although crafting a larger safety net would get pricey. But if we want to hit the “refresh button” on relations with Amazon, that’s one way to do it. Amazon is part of the problem, driving up rents. It could be the solution. Alexa, solve homelessness!

I know, it’s easy to spend another person’s fortune, and billionaires’ pocketbooks are especially tempting Velcro for our fantasies. But they can do enormous good. The Gates Foundation is the largest foundation in the world, tackling health problems that once seemed intractable.

Paul Allen, my favorite billionaire spender who loves sports, rock n’ roll, yachts, brain science and deep-sea exploration, has weighed in to civic benefit from time to time, like saving the Seahawks from moving to LA. That wasn’t charity, but it did Seattle a load of good (in this 12's opinion).

And there is no shortage of earnings ahead. If nothing else, the new Republican tax legislation promises to be a windfall for the 1 percent. The rich will get richer.

Seattle has a lot of other things that need help. The tax burden on Seattleites will only get heavier with property tax assessments slated to rise sharply in February.

If Bezos could craft a civic-focused Echo, here are some of the things I would ask Alexa to do:

Alexa, retrofit Seattle! So we don’t face massive loss of life from our brick buildings in the coming megaquake. But also so that we don’t lose historic structures whose owners can’t afford to upgrade their properties.

Alexa, finish regional light rail faster!

Alexa, lid I-5 through downtown. Heal the wounds of the big ditch, tie neighborhoods together again, and create more space for growth and public amenities. It also might well be profitable in terms of the boost for business and tax base. Oh, and repair I-5 while you’re at it.

Alexa, pace growth so that its portions are more digestible.

Alexa, fix Seattle public schools and the terrible disparities in education and outcomes. Fully fund education. Invest more heavily in early childhood education and supporting immigrant communities.

Alexa, please build a cohesive dedicated, separated system of bike lanes so cyclists aren’t taken out by car doors and have the same rights and freedom of movement as motorized vehicles.

Alexa, save Puget Sound’s orcas and salmon. Close down the salmon farms in our waters.

Alexa, get us better planning so that our streets aren’t choked with barriers and detours. Even our detours have detours! It’s madness out there, mobility-wise.

Alexa, ask Bezos to purchase The Seattle Times and make the investments and improvements that have so improved The Washington Post since he purchased it. Buy it before the Koch brothers do.

Alexa, don’t let Bakeman’s close. Not all city landmarks are, you know, landmarks. Bakeman’s restaurant is unique: good cheap food cafeteria-style — the mainstay is fresh roasted turkey sandwiches — feeding public employees, politicians and journalists for nearly 50 years. After The Dog House closed, our consolation was, well, we still had Bakeman’s! If you want to save part of Seattle’s soul, here’s a way to do it with some of the sofa money left over after Bezos’ $2 billion day.

The to-do list, I admit, is close to endless. But we have the technology and the money to make a good start.

Alexa, convince Bezos this is a good idea!


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.