Wednesday, August 17, 2022
Aug. 17, 2022

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Jayne: Our economy is looking up

By , Columbian Opinion Page Editor

The view is expansive, revealing so much more than Lake Union to the north and mountains in the distance to the east.

Gazing out the windows of a 25th-floor hotel room in Seattle last week, one could count six tower cranes in the immediate vicinity. And, at the risk of reading too much into it, one could distill several lessons about the American economy.

Now, you might not care about tower cranes, those steel contraptions that reach 200 feet into the air at construction sites. You might think they are little more than a nuisance when you are trying to drive on city streets and finding lanes blocked. Or you might avoid driving on city streets altogether; can’t blame you for that.

But according to people who know about these things, the presence of tower cranes is meaningful. As The New York Times wrote in 2019: “To determine the health of the economy, you could scrutinize the minutes of Federal Reserve meetings, pore over the latest economic data and scour trade publications. Or you could simply look up.”

For major cities, tower cranes are considered an economic indicator. They show where big construction is taking place, and where the jobs and the residences of the near future will be. Cranes, after all, are not needed to construct a fast-food restaurant; they are used for tall buildings that allow a city to metaphorically grow up (and literally grow upward), creating office buildings that someday will employ hundreds or thousands of people.

The Waterfront Vancouver development is one example, with cranes being a constant presence along the Columbia River for the past several years.

Because of that, Phoenix-based construction-management firm Rider Levett Bucknall does a biannual count of tower cranes in major cities. And in recent years, Seattle routinely has placed near the top of American cities in the number of cranes, often at No. 1.

Which brings us to the first lesson about the American economy. We were told a couple years ago that Seattle is dying. Homelessness and petty crime were killing the city, according to a breathless TV report.

For a dying city, Seattle seems pretty lively. In 2019, Business Insider ranked the city as having the third-best economy among the nation’s 30 largest metropolises. This year, the Milken Institute ranked it in Tier 1 of its “best-performing cities.” Countless other rankings and reports have routinely lauded Seattle’s growth management and its booming economy.

The same can be said for the state as a whole. This year, U.S. News and World Report said Washington has the fourth-best economy and overall is the best state to live in (it was No. 1 overall in 2019, as well).

When it comes to the economy, it would be naïve to suggest that Seattle is not the engine that powers Washington; the metro area has more than half the state’s population. What happens there does, indeed, matter to us.

Which brings us to the second lesson. Contrary to popular conservative dogma, cities and states are not being run into the ground by decades of Democratic leadership. The top five states in the economic rankings — Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Washington and Massachusetts — are a mix of red and blue states. It seems that smart leadership is more important than political gospel, regardless of what you hear on cable news.

Yet while Seattle continues to boom economically, it also has a serious homeless problem. An area that has two of the world’s four richest people — Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates are worth a combined $303 billion, according to Forbes — can’t figure out a way to keep people from sleeping on sidewalks or in their cars. As of 1:30 p.m. Friday, Bezos’ wealth had increased $1.1 billion that day.

That is what people are talking about when they bring up inequality. It’s not about fomenting class warfare; it is about adjusting a skewed system.

All of which might seem like a lot to get from a glance out the window. But it’s amazing what you can see when you open your eyes.

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