Callaghan: Like it or not, Seattle a big driver of state's economy

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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photoPeter Callaghan covers the state Legislature for The News Tribune in Tacoma. Blog: thenewstribune.com/politics; or Twitter: @CallaghanPeter. Reach him at peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.com.

When he was the director of the Washington State Association of Counties, Gary Lowe was one of my go-to guys for perspective on how things worked in the state Legislature … and why. Lowe was just cynical enough to be realistic about the failings of the process and just idealistic enough to keep trying.

What explains, I asked him, the political hostility between Seattle and the rest of the state?

"I've often said the very best justification for the Legislature is for the 38 counties to get together and decide how the wealth in King County can be distributed to benefit the rest of the state," Lowe said.

Before you call Joe the Plumber and rally against this socialistic wealth redistribution, consider this: The wealth in King County isn't entirely the product of King County, or even Seattle. In any regional economy, the big city is as often the collector of tax revenue as the generator.

If that is the case, any "redistribution" isn't charity but a rational act. Not so rational, though, that donor county rhetoric doesn't regularly resurface.

"That's a political argument and a special-interest argument," Chang Mook Sohn, the state's former top economist, once said of this county-by-county competition. Modern economies are too complex for such measurements, even though legislatures live by them.

Regional conflicts

The regional conflicts are playing out again this year as Seattleites combat what they see as bullying by the rest of the state. Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat used the alpha-dog-as-underdog narrative as fuel for a satirical column Sunday in which he imagined national and state Republicans eating their anti-Seattle words and being forced to conclude that whatever Seattle is doing must be working. The King-Snohomish counties unemployment rate, after all, is now 5.9 percent, while the rate for the rest of the state is at 8.7 percent. So rather than complain about "Seattle-centric" politics and liberal policies such as the city's mandatory sick-leave ordinance, perhaps critics should be spreading them to less-successful parts of the state.

It's a fun piece — biting, clever and only a bit condescending. And despite a personal policy against debating satire, several aspects deserve more discussion. First, Seattle's current economic boom could as easily be happening in spite of political decision-making as because of it. Hiring spurts at Microsoft, Amazon and (until recently) Boeing aren't due to the sick-leave policy or any other city ordinance, though being a place they want to locate (again, perhaps with the exception of Boeing) is attributable to cultural, educational and environmental choices made over decades. Instead, national and international trends are fueling Seattle's hiring and construction boomlet.

One suggested conclusion though is spot-on — if incomplete: What happens in downtown Seattle is important to the whole region. Seattle isn't so much our economic engine as it is the fireplace. When the flame goes down, as it did during the Great Recession, those of us farthest away get cold first. As it gets turned up again, the heat takes longer to reach the rest of the region — but when it does, it is always welcomed.

This analysis, however, needs to go a step further. Seattle is at the center of a regional economy that would not be nearly as robust if there were walls at the county lines and a fence at Snoqualmie Pass. That all roads — literally — lead to Seattle is a good thing for that city, despite the burdens that arrive along the same paths.

I suppose it is too much to hope that this perennial debate go away. Politics recognizes, even depends upon, such battles as who pays more and who gets more. Politics is consumed by city boundaries and legislative district lines. Economies, however, are boundary blind -- more interested in bottom lines than county lines. Still, if the current economic trends out of Seattle and King counties produce an increase in state tax revenue, the other 38 counties will be more than happy to decide how to spend it.