The Fallout

Four months after the abrupt repeal of the Employee Hours Tax, subsequent developments are underscoring just how hard it will be for local governments to find money to seriously address our region’s affordable housing and homelessness crises.

It’s been four months since Seattle City Council, in apparent violation of the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, abruptly decided behind closed doors to repeal the compromise Employee Hours Tax (EHT) it had unanimously passed only a month before. Since then, a lot has happened on the homelessness front locally – almost none of it positive, from the standpoints of saving lives or getting people off Seattle’s streets.

Instead, a succession of developments have underscored the disingenuousness of EHT opponents, and the lack, even in a booming local economy, of any real political prospects for meaningful solutions. Partly, this is a matter of political will. Nobody likes being screamed at on the job, and every elected official, no matter where they stood on the EHT debate, seems traumatized by the rancor that the EHT debate stirred up. Yet the coming debate over Mayor Durkan’s proposed 2019-2020 budget – aspects of which seem deeply regressive on the city’s approach to homelessness – is all but certain to whip up similar rancor. Trust is in short supply on all sides of the issue.

Two lawsuits filed against the city for allegedly violating the Open Public Meetings Act have turned up texts between Mayor Durkan, her office, key political allies, and every city council member except Kshama Sawant on the weekend before the council’s hastily called special meeting on Tuesday, June 12 to repeal the EHT. Aside from showing a return to the Bad Old Days of Seattle politics, when allies had easy access to the mayor and important decisions were often made behind closed doors and then presented to the public as a fait accompli, the catalyst for the repeal appears to have been private polling done on a repeal initiative which was then being qualified for the November ballot. The polling – which has still never been released publicly – reportedly showed not only overwhelming public opposition to the EHT, but that the opposition was unlikely to change over time.

The texts show Durkan’s and council members’ frustration and fatigue with the issue, which was first proposed as part of last fall’s budget proposals. They found themselves caught between a noisy public demand that the city start acting with appropriate urgency for what has now been an official state of emergency, with an ever-increasing death toll, for three years; and major local business leaders who simply don’t want to be taxed. The EHT debate marked the first time in the city’s decades-long, deeply paternalistic approach to homelessness – long been predicated on the assumption that homeless people are on the street because of bad personal choices rather than systemic problems – that the city has acknowledged that the dramatic shortage of affordable housing is directly linked to increasing homelessness.

“There is No Plan B”

The problem that city leaders face is that building housing is expensive. A Chamber of Commerce-commissioned study earlier this year concluded that “without dramatically increasing the region’s supply of affordable housing options, solving the region’s homelessness crisis is all but impossible,” and estimated that it would cost over $400 million a year, for the next several years, just to create the affordable housing capacity that could house our county’s current homeless population. Meanwhile, the city has few politically feasible alternatives for finding such money.

The lessons of city council’s abrupt EHT capitulation are many and sobering, and extended far beyond homelessness. Seattle has had a 20-year commitment to ambitious population growth targets (density!) that have more than been met; but concomitant investments in essentials like utilities, schools, transportation, affordable housing, and social services haven’t come close to keeping pace. City leaders pushed a downtown tunnel plan that was billions of dollars more expensive than other Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement alternatives; They also chose to spend billions more each on waterfront development, Mercer Mess beautification and other South Lake Union amenities; another $1.7 billion (and counting) on convention center expansion, and still more on a streetcar system nobody asked for and few are using.

While those and other pricey real estate schemes got funded, utilities are aging, traffic is frequently gridlocked, road and bridge repairs are backlogged by up to two decades, schools and buses are overflowing, and on, and on. Homelessness isn’t a sympathetic issue for much of the public; it’s easy to demagogue against as a spending priority, and Seattle business leaders (and their Seattle Times stenographers) were happy to oblige. As a consequence, one of the unfortunate side effects of the EHT repeal, and the campaign of public disinformation that helped fuel it, is the apparent legitimization, complete with local hate radio cheerleaders, of anti-homeless hate groups.

Cities routinely use economic boom times to invest in those kinds of basic, big-ticket projects – made even bigger, in Seattle’s case, by its past planning failures. Instead, city leaders have now effectively given Amazon and other big businesses effective veto power over paying for any of them, and allowed a vocal anti-tax contingent to further delegitimize attempts to raise new revenue. The feds and state aren’t helping any time soon. With a state ban on personal or corporate income taxes, the city is forced to rely on regressive sales, property, and B&O taxes for much of its revenue, and has already raised those as much as it’s politically feasible to do.

Lost in the EHT debate is that the hours tax or something similar was about the only tool Seattle had left that could pay for a major new initiative. Now that option appears dead, too. As councilmember Teresa Mosqueda presciently noted in her “no” vote on the EHT repeal, “There Is No Plan B.”

“Doing Something”

Leaders like Mayor Durkan are under enormous pressure to “do something” about homelessness, without the resources or the political support to do the one thing that would clearly help: build affordable housing. The past four months has been a firehose of supposed developments, noisily touted as somehow making a difference in the battle against homelessness,

One of the most common mantras of EHT opponents last spring – most notably by King County Executive Dow Constantine – was that we needed a “regional approach” that was somehow being undermined by Seattle’s EHT proposal. The regional initiative on homelessness is called One Table. It met once this summer and appears to not be doing anything of note.

Shortly after the repeal, Mayor Durkan also unveiled an “Innovation Advisory Council,” which included many of the tech companies that mobilized against the tax. This group is supposed to offer suggestions for improving the city’s real-time data coordination on availability of shelter, or something. The IAC recently met for the first time; the corporate representatives attending clearly had no background at all in homelessness, and little awareness of the daily struggles of life on the streets. The prospects that this group of people is somehow magically going to come up with solutions that have thus far escaped service providers, experts, and the homeless themselves seems… fanciful. But it’s another initiative that Durkan can now point to as “doing something.”

And then there’s the mayor’s proposed 55.9 billion biennial budget for 2019-2020, which city council is now considering. The mayor’s office touted the budget as pouring $3 million in new resources into the battle against homelessness. But a closer look suggests that some of Durkan’s priorities are seriously counter-productive.

Chief among these: for the second year in a row, themyor’s proposal cuts out completely funding for SHARE/WHEEL, the organization that contracts with the city to provide most of its emergency shelter. Last year, city council had to step in to restore funding for the year. This year, SHARE/WHEEL and its allies will need to fight that battle all over again – a drain on critical time and resources.

The heart of the conflict is a clash of missions. For the second year, the HSD, the city department that oversees homelessness policy, is prioritizing shelters with a proven track record of placing its clients in permanent affordable housing. Of course, since our city doesn’t have any affordable housing, this requires games with definitions to demonstrate “progress.” For example, a homeless person given a three- to nine-month voucher for market rate housing is considered “permanently housed” by the city; there is no follow-up to find out whether, after the vouchers expire and our now-permanently-housed person must come up with $2,000 or more in rent each month, they are actually able to do so, with or without the help of a case manager.

By contrast, “emergency shelter” has a simpler, less ambitious mission: to get people off the streets and into shelter each night. In winter, this can literally be a matter of life and death. Already this year, the King County Medical Examiners’ Office has tallied over 150 deaths of people with no permanent housing..We’re only a few weeks away from the first freezing nights of winter.

A Public Health Disaster

Last ,month, the King County Board of Health unanimously approved a resolution calling homelessness a “public health disaster” and urging local governments to do “whatever is necessary” to get people indoors during the coming cold months. That, presumably, would not include planning to dismantle much of Seattle’s existing emergency shelter network. An outbreak of HIV infections among homeless people in North seattle has also recently been discovered, underscoring the public health concerns of homelessness. Meanwhile, a stalled plan to set up safe injection sites as a response to the opioid abuse epidemic received another blow last month, as the Trump administration indicated it would aggressively try to prosecute backers of a similar facility proposed in Philadelphia.

Durkan’s budget is also proposing funding another expansion of the city’s”Navigation Teams,” the workers who try to place homeless people (especially those about to be swept) in shelter. The proposal would increase the full time staff of the Teams from 22 to about 30. A recent City Auditor’s report could draw no clear conclusions on the efficacy of the teams, owing to the city’s poorly organized data collection – but did recommend several changes in how team members are trained, including adding trauma training – a seemingly obvious step for anyone who has spent significant time among the homeless. The lack of data on the Navigation Teams’ efficacy – even as the program continues to expand – underscores how seemingly random the city’s “data-driven” approach to homelessness has been. emergency shelters are being de-funded – for not meeting arbitrary goals they’re not designed to meet – yet the Navigation Teams seem to not be held to any such standard. And, inexplicably, Durkan’s budget proposal dramatically cuts funding for prevention of homelessness (e.g., emergency rent assistance), from $43 million to only $19 million. Why?

Durkan’s budget proposal does have a bit of good news – a long-overdue, $250,000 line item to help accommodate the roughly one-third of local homeless people living in their vehicles. After a disastrous attempt to set up a safe lot in Ballard two years ago, the city has had literally no policy – other than ticketing and towing, a vehicular version of the record numbers of sweeps of unsanctioned homeless encampments the Durkan administration continues to pursue.

The budget proposal now moves to city council, whose first public hearing on the budget and proposals for amending i9t will be on Tuesday, Oct. 23, at 5:30 PM in City Council Chambers, Seattle City Hall, 600 4th Ave.

2018 Primary Election Endorsements: Vote While You Can

It’s become a summer tradition in Seattle. In about the middle of July, people receive a primary election ballot in the mail, turn to each other, and say: “There’s an election?”

This year is particularly vexing, because for most voters in Seattle, this year’s primary election races are pretty dull. There are some huge congressional and state legislative races – in the suburbs.

You can still influence the outcomes you care most about, whether or not they’re on your own ballot, by donating and/or volunteering. But there’s a broader and more critical reason for getting involved in this election: Because you still can.

What’s become clearer and clearer this year is that Donald Trump, like his handler, Vladimir Putin, is committed to tearing down our country’s democratic structures and replacing them with an authoritarian regime featuring himself (and maybe, in a few years, his kids…). What this vision does not include is any elections that offer meaningful choices to ordinary citizens.

The appeal to getting involved in local political issues is that they’ve always been determined at a level where ordinary people can still have an impact. As Seattle gets bigger and wealthier, that seems like it’s becoming less true. But much of what’s undermining accountability to ordinary citizens by our local political leaders is happening at the national level; a political party whose decades-long commitment to voter suppression, gerrymandering, and unlimited corporate financing of elections has led, inevitably, to a reactionary Supreme Court and a president who thinks his personal interests (and wealth) should take precedence over – well, everything. Including fair elections and the rule of law, but excluding Mr. Putin.

Want to piss off Trump? Then vote. And get your friends to vote. And their friends. Get so many people to vote that the fucking Russians can’t possibly hide what the American people – and the people of our state and city – demand.

So what should we demand? I’m here – again – to help. And as has been true for each of the 23 (!) years I’ve been passing on my election recommendations, the usual caveats apply: this is one opinion. Take it for what it’s worth, which is, well, one opinion. Do your own research.

Remember, this is a top-two primary, meaning that the top two vote-getters proceed to the general election in November.

And be sure to return your ballot by Tuesday, August 7, but don’t think for a second the job of changing the world, or even our city, will be over when you do. Social change comes from below. Voting becomes most useful when people have already organized, not when the people and policies we empower are approved. Get out and make yourself heard all the time, not just by mailing in a piece of paper.

As for which lines to fill in the bubbles for…


US Senator: Maria Cantwell
US House of Reps. #1: Suzan DelBene
US House of Reps. #7: Pramila Jayapal
US House of Reps. #8: Jason Rittereiser
US House of Reps. #9: Sarah Smith
State LD #30 Senate: Claire Wilson
State LD #32 Senate: Maralyn Chase
Stae LD #32 House: Chris Roberts
State LD #34 Senate: Sofia Aragon
NE Electoral Dist. Court, Pos.1: Marcus Naylor
King County Prop. One: No
South King County Fire & Rescue Prop. 1: Yes


U.S. Senator: It’s a measure of how anemic the “talent” pool of our state’s Republican Party is that for its two biggest races this year, it’s trotting out has-beens who, combined, have never held elected office despite running for office a half-dozen times. In this race, that means former Seattle chuckle-buddy news icon Susan Hutchison, who memorably tried to cash in that good will in 2009 by running for King County Executive (against a then-youngish Dow Constantine) and trying to claim she was “independent,” because, then as now, being a Republican in a county-wide race was toxic. She lost, and lost again, and so now she’s chair of the state Republican Party. In that capacity, she suggested herself for this race, because otherwise the Republicans standard-bearer against Cantwell likely would have been Joey “Patriot Prayer” Gibson, who is, among many other things, possibly the most confused white nationalist neo-fascist in America – and that’s saying a lot.

Doesn’t matter. Cantwell’s going to win by 30 points anyway. She’s not the best Democratic Senator, or the worst, which means the job is hers until she decides she doesn’t want it or Trump disbands Congress, whichever comes first. Maria Cantwell.

U.S. House of Representatives, Dist. #1: While Suzan DelBene isn’t the worst Democrat in Congress, either, she’s well below the median for such things: a “moderate” Microsoft millionaire who bought her way into Congress – against more progressive opponents – and has done nothing to speak of in her four terms since. However, she has no serious opposition on her left this year, and in this of ALL years, you should know not to even consider voting for anyone with a “prefers Republican,” “prefers GOP” (the chickenshit version), or “prefers throwing kids in cages” after his, or occasionally her, name. They could be the second coming of whichever deity you prefer,.and if they’d vote for a Republican to replace Paul Ryan as House Majority leader, it invalidates whatever other good works or miracles they have in mind. So, sadly, DelBene it is. Suzan DelBene.

U.S. House of Representatives, Dist. #7: Note to long-term Seattleites who were in diapers the last time anyone other than Jim McDermott was Seattle’s congressperson: This is why so many of us wanted McDermott, nice guy though he was, to STFU and retire a decade ago. This is what a truly progressive Congressional representative looks and acts like. I supported Pramila Jayapal warily two years ago, my distrust tempered largely due to her brief Olympia career and higher upside than her opponents. She’s more than fulfilled that upside. Jayapal has gotten more done on more different issues in two years than DelBene has in eight, or McDermott did in 30. Now that our Racist-in-Chief is making daily headlines by scapegoating the people Jayapal fought for for decades before running for office, she is kicking ass and freeing prisoners. Finally, Seattle has a congressional representative we can be proud of. Pramila Jayapal.

U.S. House of Representatives, Dist. #8: Not much is at stake in this race, other than, oh, I dunno, the future of the world and stuff.

Specifically, after seven terms and far too many years, former King County Sheriff Dave Reichert is retiring as a Republican congressman serving eastern King County and Kittitas County. In 2012, state Republicans protected Reichert from the changing demographics of the Eastside by adding Kittitas County to the district – but this year, even that may not be enough. Ellensburg and Cle Elum just can’t compete with the many tens of thousands of new, Democratic-leaning voters the Eastside has added in recent years.

Democrats need to win a net of 24 seats currently held by Republicans to take back the House of Representatives. To say that having the Democrats win back at least one house of Congress dramatically increases the chance that we can save American democracy is, sadly, not so much hyperbole any longer. Another two years of Republicans running everything in DC and who knows which of us will be on the official Enemies of the People list by 2020. Vote now, so that we can vote later. The stakes in an American election have never been higher than they will be this November – and that includes the presidential election of 1860.

Every national list of possible Democratic pickups includes WA-08 – and if Dems can’t take our Eastside district despite its surging urban (and Democratic-leaning) population growth, it likely won’t win back the House or Senate come November, either. And on a host of issues, from federal funding for social and education priorities to seattle’s sanctuary city status to ICE depredations and supercharging racism and bigotry, what’s going on back there in the Era of Trump has a huge impact here.

The Republican opponent for Reichert’s seat in November will be that other retread: Dino Rossi, who nearly won the governorship in 2004 (and still thinks he did) by pretending to be a lot more moderate than the frothing, Trump-adoring self he’s fessing up to as the 2018 Rossi. And Rossi 4.0, despite having already lost three statewide gubernatorial and US Senate campaigns, can still draw on nearly unlimited money, and the love of fellow Trump fetishists everywhere. So the paramount task for our eastern and southern suburban neighbors in this primary is to pick, among the three significant Democratic candidates, the one with the best chance of beating Rossi, and thereby helping neutralize Trump and preserve our options for life, liberty, and a 2020 ballot.

Those three candidates are Shannon Hader, a public health director from Auburn; Jason Rittereiser, a former deputy King County prosecutor from Ellensburg; and Kim Schrier, a Sammamish pediatrician. Each has their fans. Schrier, the pediatrician, has gotten important endorsements from labor and women’s groups and is the early favorite. She’s also allegedly the most progressive of the three, in a district that has never elected a Democrat in its 38-year history, which is probably why she’s keeping her public campaigning as benign, unspecific, and feel-good as possible. In other words, she plays well with the Democratic base, but not necesarily the district at large, AND she’s following Hillary Clinton’s “keep it safe” frontrunner election strategy.

Hader, by contrast, is a thoughtful progressive – maybe too thoughtful, as in, the “why don’t my elaborately detailed policy papers beat your glib bumper sticker lies?” trap progressives too often fall into in political campaigns, especially with first-time candidates. And her wonkery is paired with the least charisma of the three, which also doesn’t bode well for November.

Any of the three, if elected, would be great in Congress – but I’m going with Rittereiser as having the best shot at getting there. He has roots on both sides of the mountains, and so would seem to have the best chance of also connecting with rural WA-08 voters sick of Trump’s act. I’m not normally fond of former prosecutors, but this district voted for a narcissistic (and somewhat dense) cop in Reichert seven times, so there’s that. Plus, Rittereiser also showed resourcefulness, and got a lot of national media coverage, a few weeks back by convincing his Seattle-based law firm to offer pro bono representation to any federal workers thinking of refusing to carry out Trump’s horrifying border separation policies. He says the firm got over 30 such inquiries. A Democratic Congress could make all of this nonsense go away. Jason Rittereiser.

U.S. House of Representatives, Dist. #9: Once upon a time – in 1990 – Adam Smith was a dynamic young politician. That year, he was elected to the state senate at age 25, becoming at the time the youngest state senator in the country. Six years later, he was elected to Congress.

He’s been there ever since. This year, he’s seeking his 12th two-year term in a district that has completely changed under him. What was once a bucolic suburban/exurban district where Smith could carve out a comfortable career representing Boeing and Fort Lewis is now the state’s only minority-majority congressional district, covering south King and parts of Pierce Counties. Smith, a hawkish Democrat who’s risen over the years to become the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, hasn’t faced a serious challenge in years. But now he’s got one, in a district he no longer fits.

His challenger, Sarah Smith, is being compared by a lot of observers to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the young Bronx firebrand who in June upset powerful incumbent Democrat Joe Crowley (who is white) in an almost entirely Latino and Black district. The parallels aren’t exact, but Smith’s politics are similar enough to Ocasio-Cortez that it will be fascinating, and telling, to see how she does in a district that doesn’t even remotely resemble the one Adam Smith, like Joe Crowley, was first elected in.

Locally, Pramila Jayapal has shown what we can get when we replace stale, establishment white guys. Let’s try it. Sarah Smith.

Selected State Legislative Races: As usual, most Seattle races are unopposed incumbents or non-competitive races. But there are a few interesting ones – again, mostly in the burbs:

State Senate, LD #30: As with the congressional races to replace Reichert (and Adam Smith), for the state legislature most of the interesting action is in the ‘burbs. Federal Way is one of those suburbs whose demographics have changed a lot in recent years, with a large influx of immigrants and other non-whites fleeing Seattle rents. Inexplicably, they are still represented in the state senate by Mark Miloscia, one of the most obnoxious of Olympia’s Republicans. (Yes, that’s a high bar.) You may remember this homophobic, anti-abortion culture warrior from his PR stunts in Belltown last summer bashing The Big City for trying to house the homeless. Yeah, that guy. Belltown still has a faint sulfuric odor from his visit.

Happily, for the first time in ages Miloscia has drawn a strong opponent: Claire Wilson, a former teacher who is Federal Way’s school board director. Wilson represents Democrats’ best chance for buttressing the slim one-vote margin by which Democrats took back control of the state senate in 2016, breaking years of Republican-backed gridlock in Olympia. The legislature always needs more education advocates, As a bonus, she’d also be removing one of the legislature’s most malignant members. Vote for her twice if you can. Claire Wilson.

State Senate, LD #32: Over the past two decades, two things have been constants in local politics: 1) Seattle’s legislative districts are dominated by Democrats; 2) Of those Democrats, the ones in North Seattle and Shoreline’s Legislative District 32 are always at war with each other.

The basic split is between corporate centrists and progressives. In the ’90s it was remnants of the Rainbow Coalition at war with Clinton supporters. Now, it’s Bernie Sanders fans against…uh, Clinton supporters. The song remains the same.

In this race, the war features incumbent Senator Maralyn Chase. She’s abrasive and fearless and one of the few members of Seattle’s legislative delegation – the safest and most left-leaning Democratic districts in the state – who’s progressive AF. None of that will ever do. The corporate wing’s challenger, Shoreline deputy mayor Jesse Saloman, has, remarkably, raised more money than Chase; he fully has establishment Dems in his corner. Nuff said. Maralyn Chase.

State House, LD #32, Pos. #2: Same song, new verse. Corporatist Ruth Kagi is (mercifully) retiring. Seeking to replace her are Chris Roberts and Lauren Davis. Davis is a Gates Foundation alum with the most money and the endorsements of Kagi and the same establishment roster that’s backing Saloman. Roberts, a former Shoreline mayor and city councilman, has the backing of Chase and the progressives. See the pattern here? Chris Roberts.

State Senate, LD #34: A half dozen Democrats are seeking to replace the retiring Sharon Nelson. The frontrunner is centrist Shannon Braddock, last seen in 2015 losing her Chamber-backed bid for Seattle City Council to Lisa Herbold by the narrowest of margins, despite outspending Herbold by a 3-1 margin.

Who’s the best of the outspent candidates this time? I’m going with Sofia Aragon, a nurse who is also on the board of the Low Income Housing Institute. She promises to be a strong advocate for public health, affordable housing, and homelessness issues that don’t get nearly enough attention in Olympia. Sofia Aragon.

Northeast Electoral District Court, Pos.1: Of the three choices, one clearly stands out as having the most appropriate experience and the most progressive endorsements: Marcus Naylor


King County Proposition One: King County wants to renew an existing levy for an automated law enforcement fingerprinting system. Beyond the recurring issues with the King County Sheriff’s Officeand its officers (which includes transit police) – or the county’s willingness to fund programs like this while refusing to spend more than the absolute minimum on our homelessness crisis – this would normally be a pretty benign measure. However, it’s more than just a renewal. Tucked into the tiny print is funding as well for facial recognition software. SPD already has this software, but putting it on busses, which all have cameras already, would a major upgrade for the local survellance state. Always read the tiny print. No.

South King County Fire & Rescue Proposition 1: This would increase property tax funding for fire & emergency services. Need any evidence why this is a good idea? Have you tried breathing outdoors lately? Yes

[Author’s note: For decades, despite chronic financial and health pressures, I’ve dedicated myself to activism and to reporting and commentary from and for those of us fighting for our rightful place in a city that is increasingly turning its back on many of us. If you find my reporting and commentary valuable – and would like to see me spending more time doing this and less time stressing over how I can pay for food, rent, and medical care – please consider donating whatever you can to help support my work. The PayPal button is on the lower right on’s home page. Many thanks for your help! – Geov Parrish]

The Oligarch Project

The Trump Administration’s drive to undermine American and other Western democracies and embrace Putin’s Russia is a critical piece of an even larger, and more horrifying, blueprint for establishing a neo-fascist global oligarchy. So far, it’s working.

Mainstream American punditry this week is predictably mystified and outraged by Donald Trump’s pilgrimage to a one-on-one meeting with Soviet spymaster Vladimir Putin and its disastrous aftermath. That was fresh off Trump doing his best to undermine NATO (especially the regimes of the conservative British and German prime ministers, Theresa May and Angela Merkel), and with new indictments last week of 12 Russian intelligence officials for their roles in helping throw the American 2016 presidential election to Trump. These things simply aren’t done; you can practically hear the clucking of disapproval. Even some Republicans are invoking the kinds of thoughts and prayers usually reserved for mass shootings, in the shared hope it will all go back to normal next week.

That’s not going to happen. And however outraged our political and media elites claim to be, they aren’t nearly outraged enough.

Literally everything Donald Trump has done, both as a presidential candidate and now as president, has been consistent with his actions of the past two weeks. It’s all in service to the same specific vision he’s consistently been working toward. That vision is now shared by almost all of the U.S. Republican Party, whose specific issue preferences have always been secondary to their foundational purpose of advancing the interests of the very wealthy. And with local variations, it is a vision being advanced with steadily greater effectiveness by far-right elements in most of the world’s major democracies.

Russia isn’t the only country with oligarchs, or with people who’ve realized that it’s much easier to win on the world’s economic playing fields if you simply buy the fields and rig the games.

The rich are always trying to get richer, of course. What makes this different is the scale of their attack on the rest of us. And to explain that requires a bit of context.

A Brief History of Power and Greed

Except for Antarctica, literally every square inch of land on our planet is claimed by one of the world’s 200 or so countries. This is a relatively recent development. The European nation-state, the standard by which the world has now been divided and sub-divided, is only a few centuries old. Before that, much of the world had only informal borders, or none at all; “nations” were defined by common language and culture, and the expanse of land that nation could control varied wildly over the centuries. Russians, for example, have never controlled much of the known world – but Mongols have.

Similarly, the idea that national rulers – before or after the advent of the European nation-state – should be accountable to those they govern is also a recent invention. It is, in fact, the single reason why the American Revolution, with its then-unthinkably radical declaration that “all men are created equal,” was so globally significant. A decade later, the same sensibilities informed the far more central French Revolution. World Wars One and Two can be understood as a failed attempt by anti-democratic regimes, then in a minority, to reassert their power and relevance. Instead, democracies’ victories spread the the appeal of self-determination, resulting first in the independence of colonial India and then, within the next two decades, the collapse of western colonial rule.

The end of colonialism wasn’t the end, though – it was just a tactical shift, from direct to indirect control of colonized countries. Western economies that had grown wealthy and powerful from centuries of colonial theft found that they could continue their wealth extraction with less local unrest by paying off authoritarian local leaders to do their bidding. Post-war international institutions like the IMF and World Bank ensured that even nominally democratic former colonies continued the export most of their wealth to new York, London, and Paris. Ideology aside, this became much of the logic behind the Cold War. American-backed dictators, fortified with American weapons, helped ensure that many of the world’s largest and most ubiquitous companies were American.

Everybody Wants to Rule the World

Two major developments have sparked another, more radical tactical shift by these Masters of the Universe: the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the rise of computing power and the Internet.

If the logic of colonial wealth-building was to use pliant, authoritarian political leaders to extract wealth that rightfully belongs to the state and its people (think of the mineral resources of Africa, or Middle Eastern oil), the collapse of the USSR in 1989 and its shift to a market economy presented an opportunity for such pillage on an unprecedented scale. Literally everything in the old USSR, from stores to industries to land, belonged to the state, and it was all suddenly up for grabs.

Russian organized crime, which never went away under communist rule, was quick to take advantage. The nominally democratic administrations of Boris Yeltsin and then Vladimir Putin were fueled by it. Putin then consolidated power, discarding democracy in the process, by using his office to enrich favored (and often mob-linked) businessmen and destroying their rivals. The Russian people, of course, were left poorer than ever – and either mollified by nationalist appeals or crushed if they objected to it all.

As this new wealth was consolidated in the ’90s, it presented a problem: the new Russian tycoons wanted their wealth to be in a stable currency, not the anemic ruble. This created an unprecedented demand for ways to launder what had become trillions of dollars in ill-gotten wealth. The ’90s also saw the rise of the political power of international banking. In the US alone, deregulation efforts that began under Reagan and continued with Clinton helped the financial sector grow from ten percent of the American economy to over 40 percent in just a few years. Something similar happened in the UK under Thatcher and Blair.

At the same time, multilateral trade agreements like NAFTA and the World Trade Organization cemented the ability of companies and capital to move freely across international borders while ordinary people could not. This set up a global economic race to the bottom for workers, but it could have been even worse. One of the forgotten triumphs of Seattle activists shutting down a major WTO meeting in 1999 was that the lead agenda item for the so-called “Seattle Round” of trade negotiations was a proposal called the Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI), which would have removed all remaining restrictions on the international movement of money. The MAI was doomed after the Seattle debacle and was never enacted. If it had, all of today’s elaborate money laundering schemes, involving countries with friendly laws like Cyprus, Panama, and the UK (and many of its Commonwealth colonies), would be unnecessary.

As is, there are enough such money havens for the very wealthy – the leaking in recent years of the Panama Papers and then the Paradise Papers detailed the seamy side of how this all works – that the money laundering eventually found its way into “legitimate” banks (c.f. Deutsche Bank) or real assets, especially property. In the U.S., Russian money dominates the nicer neighborhoods of South Florida; Hong Kong money similarly built much of modern Vancouver B.C. “The City” – the London equivalent of Wall Street – became one of the world’s biggest financial centers because UK laws doesn’t ask many questions about where the money comes from. And electronic transfers makes it easy, in seconds, to move wealth through a half-dozen or more shell companies in countries where tracing those companies’ true owners is nearly impossible.

Donald Trump has made this network a central focus of his business for years. He sold hugely overpriced condos to Russian and other gangsters in New York, Florida, Panama, and much of Central Asia, among other places. His post-bankruptcies credit was terrible, but Deutsche Bank was willing to lend him unlimited amounts of dirty money. Several of Trump’s billionaire Cabinet members also worked in these circles; and, of course, former campaign chair Paul Manafort worked directly with and for these oligarchs. Little wonder that tens of millions of dollars, from both Russia and the Middle East, were allegedly funneled illegally into Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Inevitably, some of this money also travels the rest of the world in search of elections that can bring to power leaders and parties who are willing to deregulate their countries’ banks. These are almost always conservative or far-right leaders who are willing, just like old colonial times, to keep the rabble in like if they doth protest too much.

Russians aren’t the only protagonists. The Chinese are quieter but bigger players. The U.S. exports this billionaire class as well as being a target of it; familiar conservative kingmakers like the Koch Brothers, Rupert Murdoch, Sheldon Adelson, and Robert Mercer all have international political portfolios.

How We Learn To Stop Worrying and Love the Jackboot

This billionaire class has steadily been coalescing into a single movement that owes allegiance to no country, and that no one country is in a position to corral. Its focal point is now Vladimir Putin’s Russia. China’s elites are richer and just as active, but it’s Moscow, led by a former KGB officer, that has been willing to turn all of this into a specific plan that will increase Russia’s economic an geopolitical power at the expense of everyone else.

In most of the countries where this project is underway – from the eastern and Ventral European countries already under neo-fascist rule (Poland, Hungary, Austria, and now Italy) to the European countries where this movement has grown dramatically stronger (the UK, France, Greece, Germany) to developing countries where democratically elected strongmen are consolidating power (Turkey, Philippines) to countries whose existing authoritarian rule is helping bankroll the project (Russia, some elements in China, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States), the project of looting individual individual countries is invariably being sold to its unwitting citizens as some form of nationalism. “Make America Great Again,” with its underpinnings of xenophobia and racism, is in this sense fairly typical. The Brexit “Leave” campaign, also heavily financed by Russia, had similar themes.

The appeal of these nationalist movements is undeniable. Technology, environmental damage, and human-caused pillaging are already changing the lives of people globally at a pace unprecedented in human history. The economic insecurity wrought in most countries by neo-liberal and “free trade” policies has amounted to an elaborate, global race to the bottom for most of the world’s seven billion people, and an enormous wealth transfer to those at the very top. One economic estimate is that there’s only enough global wealth to create work that can support five billion of us – meaning that in a global cash economy, two billion “surplus” people will always be willing to work for less rather than not work at all. And as wealth continues to be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, that “surplus” population invariably grows in both numbers and desperation. That’s not even factoring in the coming, catastrophic environmental changes, for which the global rich are busy building very exclusive arks while their expertly crafted nationalist propaganda ensures that there’s always some population of “others” to blame – immigrants or racial or religious minorities, for example. Divide and conquer becomes even more effective when software can track, divide, and delude all seven billion of us with terrifying precision. And the rise of the Internet has enabled propaganda, not just repression, to work on a scale never before possible.

As more and more people are left behind, the appeal to some of governments that can “get things done” and promise stability and a return to past glories isn’t surprising. It’s a cynical PR campaign, for which Donald Trump, who built his personal fortune on marketing, empty promises, and lies, has – as he noted about his meeting with Putin – been preparing all his life.

The irony is that the goal of these movements is the exact opposite of nationalist – it’s to extract wealth from a country, especially its public sectors, and transfer it to a global class of super-rich that can and does move its resources and wealth, instantly and often, with no regard to national boundaries except to avoid the inconveniences of taxation and regulation. The more that governments controlling major economies can be aligned with this vision, the less likely that these elites will need to bother with outposts like Panama, Cayman Islands, or Cyprus. Borders are a control mechanism for the little people.

Trump is not nearly smart or ruthless enough to think up this vision. But as a media celebrity, lifelong con artist, and insatiable narcissist, he is a near-perfect person to try to sell an Americanized variation of it to a credulous, indifferent, or brainwashed public.

The Plan to Destroy the World’s Democracies
our lives in the balance.

In Russia there is no functional difference between the government, the ruling party, organized crime, and a class of billionaire oligarchs who got their wealth the old-fashioned way: they stole it, in most cases with Vladimir Putin’s help. By some accounts Putin himself is now one of the world’s richest men as a result.

That’s what Donald Trump admires when he’s fellating Putin, and that’s the future he wants for the United States.

How Trump Sells Authoritarian Rule

Donald Trump has been lying so long, and with such success, that he does it reflexively. But his easily lampooned self-aggrandizements obscure a larger fact: he’s really good at it. As with any long con, Trump doesn’t need to convince everyone – only his targets. He sells his lies through sheer repetition. twitter lets him bypass media gatekeepers and his avowed enemy, fact-checking. When repeating his lie is no longer a viable option, he’ll say the exact opposite thing with complete confidence.

It’s worked so well so far that roughly a third of Americans see Trump as the leader of their tribe and their protection against the “others”; they’ll believe him before they’ll believe their own lying eyes. Another third either become numbed by the tsunami of bullshit and tune out, or hesitate because they want to believe the President of the United States. That’s all Trump needs for his purposes. All of his outrageous statements and policies are meant to address his base, and numb everyone else, because all he needs is a noisy minority to obstruct and confuse and distort matters enough that by the time he’s overseen the looting of American wealth and its redistrbution upwards, the gutting of the public sphere, and martial law canceling the 2020 elections, it’ll either be too late or, ideally for him, we’ll welcome it.

What Trump is doing is fairly consistent with 20 years of Republican tactics, which have been all about getting and exercising power, usually on behalf of priorities that are deeply unpopular with most Americans. Largely, they’ve succeeded, with Culture War distractions, undermining accountability to voters (voter suppression, gerrymandering, etc.) and by simply lying about what they’re doing. Democrats, stuck in an obsolete paradigm of bipartisan comity, keep bringing logic and words to a knife fight. Republicans bring knives. Trump’s bringing guns.

If Trump is to be removed from office – and the only other option in play here is the looting of America and the loss of our personal freedoms and American democracy, flawed as it is – at least some congressional Republicans will need to agree that Trump has to go. Instead, even through all the controversies and outrages, he’s tightened his control over their party. For any kind of meaningful number of Republicans to agree he has to go, they need to fear the blowback from sticking with him more than they fear angering not just Trump’s base, but the American oligarchs they mostly rely on for funding (and now global ones as well – Trump hsn’t been the only beneficiary of dirty money). Trump as an individual needs to become so toxic that he’s endangering the careers of anyone defending him.

Fortunately, that can be arranged.

There’s More of Us, and We’re Not Dead Yet

In only a year and a half, something like 20 percent of Americans have participated in at least one anti-Trump protest. That’s a remarkable level of public engagement and popular anger already – but it means nothing if it doesn’t translate to the ballot box in November.

Trump, Putin, and their allies and benefactors can be beaten. There’s millions more of us, and we can make this country ungovernable if we so choose. But the more realistic, and less dangerous, path is to vote Democrats into power in Congress this fall, which can at least stall Trump’s agenda until a more comprehensive reckoning takes place.

That won’t be easily. Republicans have already heavily tilted elections in their direction by limiting the franchise, gerrymandering, and other voter suppression tactics – and those are the states where Democrats need to flip many of their seats. Add to that this year a sophisticated Russian cyberattack, already underway, that will likely reach to the level of threatening the basic integrity of vote tabulation.

It will take a massive voter repudiation to overcome all that – with enough of a margin that there can be no serious question about the legitimacy of the vote. And there’s still plenty of time for things to get worse between now and November if we’re not noisy and vigilant and organized.

It can be done. It must be done. Now is not the time to complain about lamely centrist, corporatized Democratic candidates. Candidates for Congress will cast only one vote that truly matters, from which all other possible votes flow, and it will be the first one of their term: for leader of the House or Senate. The choices before us are frequently flawed flawed Democrats or fascism. There are no other options.

In countries like Russia, Turkey, or the Philippines, post-Cold War democratic norms were never very strong to begin with, and have now utterly collapsed. That is not the situation in the United States.

As susceptible as the US, and especially the Republican Party, is to corporate rule and nativist, authoritarian initiatives, there are a number of potentially fatal flaws in Team Trump’s bid to end American democracy – or at minimum, to distort it so badly that the notion of accountability to voters is a sham. As with Trump’s depredations, we are also seeing these flaws unfold in real time: his intellect (or lack thereof), his absurd narcissism, his extreme lack of self-awareness that inevitably means he overreaches. and thee are tens of millions of Americans who could not care less about progressive arguments, but would give their lives to protect what they see as America’s freedoms. Soft-pedaling the danger of Trump and his allies does nobody any favors.

As a would-be authoritarian leader, Trump is cunning and sociopathic enough, but he’s not very bright, he’s impulsive, and he’s narcissistic to the point of self-destructive comedy. When modern American voters decide they want a president “just like me,” whether it’s Reagan, Dubya, or now Trump, what they mostly apparently mean is that they want someone who at least seems to be just as racist, incurious, and bone-stupid as they are.

With Trump, it’s no act. In only a year and a half, he’s burned through countless senior officials who describe him in terms like “fucking moron” and “semi-literate.” A truly smart sociopath could follow Trump’s blueprint with devastating results – but perhaps the voters wouldn’t like him enough to create the kind of opening Trump has seized.

In any event, Donald Trump’s greatest assets in selling his authoritarian policies – his ability to lie endlessly, his “authentic” anger and personal viciousness, his endless repetition of the same carefully crafted phrases, all operating in an alternative, self-contained universe of history and facts – are also his greatest vulnerabilities. He inspires blind loyalty for some, but repugnance for many others.

A better would-be American despot would be smarter and more personable, but we’ll worry about such a leader later. We’ve got to get rid of the one we have now.

In that task, we’ll also be acting on behalf of the planet and of billions of its people, who don’t want to see the world’s largest military (including countless nukes) and a huge economy being pillaged by an orange-tinged Putin Lite. Get in the streets and stay there; give your time and money to Democratic candidates with a good chance of unseating congressional Republicans. Any issue you care about will be exponentially worse, soon, if Trump and his party stay in power.

Organize and vote like it’s our last election. If we do, Trump and his masters can be stopped. If we don’t, there might not be another chance.

The Clear and Present Danger

Today Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative whose occasional swing vote has sort of moderated the Roberts Court. announced his retirement, to take effect next month. His announcement is timed to ensure a conservative replacement can be confirmed before Democrats have a chance to retake the Senate.

Republicans will rush to confirm the most extreme nominee Trump can find. Probably someone who’s a legal “analyst” on Fox News. John Yoo (the Bush-era author of the paper that legally justified torture) might like the gig. Maybe one of the very fine people who rallied in Charlottesville has a law degree.

For the foreseeable future the US Supreme Court will be a solid 5-4 majority for the most reactionary rulings imaginable. Of the four reactionary justices who will be joined by Trump’s new nominee – Roberts, Alito, Thomas, and Gorsuch – Gorsuch is 51, Thomas is 70, and Alito and Roberts are in their early 60s. None will be replaced any time soon.

The only hope now for saving our democracy – given how much damage to it Trump and his lockstep Republicans have already inflicted in only 18 months – lies with retaking one or both houses of Congress. To do so in 2018, they already will need to overcome legalized gerrymandering, voter suppression, unthinkable amounts of corporate and foreign money, and online meddling from Russia and, by now, likely China, North Korea, and the Middle East as well.

By 2020, Trump can cancel elections under one or another pretext; Fox News will applaud (of course); the SCOTUS will uphold it as representing a clear and present danger to the Dear Leader and his designated replacement, Ivanka; and Congressional Republicans, along with favored donors for what elections remain, will become unimaginably wealthy oligarchs. If Democrats or other political opponents are too critical (think of the fawning adulation Trump requires at his Cabinet meetings), they’ll be jailed or killed.

Lest you think this is absurd hyperbole, that was pretty much exactly Putin’s formula for consolidating power in the fledgling, Yeltsin-era democracy of Russia. We don’t have Russia’s political history or norms, but Trump doesn’t need them. He’s got Putin to tell him what to do next.

I said at the time that the Senate Republican refusal, for a solid year, to even consider an Obama SCOTUS nominee in 2016 – and the Democrats under Obama not making that unprecedented tactic a fight to the death, and then not making the Gorsuch nomination a bigger deal afterwards – fucked us over for a generation. But even I didn’t imagine that a decades-long reactionary SCOTUS majority could be an instrument in the demise of the US Constitution as we know it. There is nothing magical about America’s political culture that innoculates us from the sort of authoritarian kleptocracy that has run much of Latin America, Africa, and Asia in my lifetime.

This year’s midterms matter more than ever. Forget your tired cliches of both parties being the same, Democrats being corporate sellouts or war criminals (both true), or “lesser of two evils is still evil” rhetoric (also true). Time’s up. Hillary Clinton was awful, and Chuck Schumer still is. But as imperfect as they can be, no Democrat is looking to start the Fourth Reich. Democrats are, in very practical and immediate terms (like letting the rule of law have a crack at him), the only ones who can stop Trump politically.

Otherwise, start planning to make this country ungovernable – and soon, before the police state really does take hold and even that becomes impossible. There’s two things we know from those dictatorships in Latin America, Africa, and Asia: Even without the modern technology available to Trump, they’re really hard to get rid of; and doing so usually only comes after the loss of uncountable lives.

Kennedy’s retirement, and the power Trump will gain by naming an obedient replacement, is a stark reminder that time for avoiding that fate is running out.

How to Get Away With Fascism

Between the G6, the Singapore summit, and now the abomination unfolding on the Mexican border, the last two weeks have brought into far sharper focus what has been apparent since 2015: that Donald Trump’s vision for America is an authoritarian dictatorship, with him as the Great Leader for life.

The term “fascism” derives from the Italian “fascismo,” the Benito Mussolini movement which wed authoritarian governance with corporate-designed policies. For my entire adult life, dating to Ronald Reagan, elements of the left have called (mostly Republican) US leaders and policies fascist. In the Mussolini sense of corporate rule, the term has largely been accurate. For that matter, Amazon’s recent repeal of Seattle’s Employee Hours Tax meets that definition as well.

But what is now happening in Donald Trump’s presidency more closely tracks with the much more notorious 20th Century example of fascism.

“First, they came for immigrant babies, and I did not speak out, for I was not an immigrant baby…”

Only ten days ago, Donald Trump spurned and ridiculed the democratically leaders of what have traditionally been America’s closest allies. He went directly from that to a “summit” with perhaps the world’s single worst domestic human rights abuser, and spent the rest of the week singing that dictator’s praises – as he routinely does with bloodthirsty despots, who he invariably expresses admiration for.

The contrast between those two events underscored what Trump is clearly pining to do: replace the long-standing global political and economic dominance of Western democracies with a new global regime, dominated by the world’s three biggest authoritarian dictatorships: China, Russia, and the Trump-led United States.

Now, the literal kidnapping and disappearing of children and babies from their parents – parents who in many cases were trying to follow the proper legal steps for applying for political asylum, and themselves did nothing illegal – has been dragged out of the shadows and into the glare of world-wide outrage. And it just keeps getting worse.

Tonight, there have been three new developments: an AP report that the government is scrambling to establish what it is calls “tender age shelters” – a particularly nasty euphemism for baby prisons; a Capitol Hill meeting in which Trump reportedly told outraged lawmakers that he would stop his policy only if his wall is built; and multiple reports that officials in the Trump White House are delighted with the outrage they have intentionally provoked, in the belief that not only Trump’s base, but a majority of Americans share their racist obsession with using the most barbaric imaginable tactics against their randomly selected, brown-skinned victims. That even with the near-certainty that many of these parents will never see their children again, and that some of those kids will die as a result, a majority of Americans share their belief that such lives are meaningless.

How is this any different from the attitudes that prompted Hitler to target Jews, or Rwanda’s Hutus to massacre the Tutsi?

In these and so many other historical examples, authoritarian leaders justified their absolute power by whipping up the fear and anger of their supporters against a minority. There is little doubt that Donald Trump wants absolute power, chafes at our government’s limits on it (whether in Congress, the courts, media, the Mueller investigation, or the streets), and has been moving as quickly as he can since his inauguration to tear down existing democratic institutions and norms.

Remember, on the eve of the 2016 election, when polls had Clinton in the lead and Trump was telling his followers that the election was “rigged”? (Turns out it was, but that’s not what he meant.) There’s every reason now to fear that if Trump is impeached or simply loses (or thinks he might lose) the 2020 election, he won’t go. That’s what aspiring dictatorships do.

This wholly intentional controversy is a critical moment because it represents more than simply another instance of Trump’s steady efforts to destroy norms, push at the bounds of law and decency, and see what he can get away with. This is a policy, not law; it can be stopped, in our political system, by either Congress or the courts.

Congress, of course, is controlled by a Republican Party now wholly dominated by Trump. His congressional allies have, so far, almost always defended him, through outrage after scandal after crime. And Trump has, with the help of those congressional allies, been packing the federal courts with far-right ideological zealots at an unprecedented pace. The longer this goes on, the less likely it becomes that courts will rule against even the most horrifying Trump actions.

An ACLU lawsuit in San Diego will be the first court ruling on Trump’s border separation policy; and numerous local elected officials are taking actions to distance themselves from that policy. These are important steps, as are the countless rallies, direct actions, and other events springing up by the hour now as an expression of popular rage. But the plain fact is that nothing can truly stop Trump from these and further outrages except his removal from office. Trump and his literal and figurative crime family want this policy, and the outrage it has provoked. They’re almost certainly taking notes for future, hoped-for purges. As morally and legally repellent as Trump’s policy is, the need to resist it goes far beyond ending its specific abuses.

This month has been, for many Americans, the first time that Donald Trump’s dreams for an openly fascist, authoritarian government have come into sharp enough relief to break through lifetimes of denial that such a thing would even be possible. But it is. Understanding what Trump is truly about goes against our indoctrination, pretty much from the cradle, in American exceptionalism and in the the permanence and moral superiority of American democracy. As recently as a decade ago, there was widespread national disbelief that our government would torture people – and that was on foreign soil. Now, our government is instituting widespread, intentional, widespread torture and child abuse in ordinary American cities.

There’s nothing unique about human nature in America that immunizes us against the worst things human beings can do to each other.

What happens next matters a lot – not just for the sake of immigrants and their families, but for the future of the US as a flawed but basically free society. If a majority of Americans can now see where this road leads, but still can’t or won’t stop that train from running on time, we are in deep trouble – collectively and as individuals.

Now is not the time to tweet your dismay or shout at a windowless building or set up circular firing squads. Now is the time to unify and resist – and to keep resisting, in ways both creative and ordinary, through truth-telling and organizing and building alternative institutions, in elections and on the streets, until Donald Trump and his fascist enablers are driven far, far away from any positions of power.

The longer we wait, the harder it will be to succeed.

The Turning Point

The Seattle City Council’s abrupt decision to repeal the Employee Hours Tax leaves Seattle with no coherent plan to address the homelessness crisis – or any other urgent issue

On Tuesday, June 12, at about 2:30 PM, the window for progressive policy change in Seattle politics slammed shut.

To be sure, it may be forced open again from time to time on particular issues. The grass rots activism that has forced a string of progressive policy changes in recent years still exists. But as people and wealth pour into Seattle, the dominance of money in local politics has now reasserted itself, a demographic pendulum swing I’ve been warning about for years. /but I didn’t anticipate that it would be boosted further by a reactionary anti-tax backlash that Seattle’s biggest businesses have now legitimized in their campaign to repeal the Employee Hours Tax.

This new reality will impact not just homelessness, but every issue that needs money to address it. Seattle politics has been dominated by local corporate power throughout most of its history. But the money and power now involved is unprecedented – as is the toxicity, fueled by social media and the era of Trump, that poisoned the EHT saga.

The Repeal

There are two, and only two, primary reasons why a Seattle City Council majority secretly hatched a plan to repeal the Employee Hours Tax, and then passed it less than 24 hours after making it public. Those reasons both rhyme with the word “Damazon.”

Less than a day after Mayor Durkan signed a business-approved compromise EHT bill last month, local big businesses reversed themselves and announced that they were opposed to the new law. By weeks’ end, they had launched a referendum to repeal it.

That effort had less than a month to gather 17,632 valid signatures (by June 15) to qualify for November’s ballot. After last weekend, organizer claimed that they had over 47,000.

Perhaps more importantly, polling released last weekend showed what Councilmember Lisa Herbold called “overwhelming public support” for the repeal. Most immediately, that polling is what led Herbold and two other co-sponsors of the EHT bill, CMs Mike O’Brien and Lorena Gonzalez, to agree to the repeal. The repeal of a bill passed unanimously less than a month ago was ensured.

As CM Kshama Sawant pointed out, such polling by itself doesn’t mean much this early; the repeal referendum hadn’t even qualified for the ballot yet, and the anti-repeal campaign wasn’t even set to launch in earnest until next week. Sawant also noted that even if the anti-repeal campaign lost, it would still lay important groundwork, in public education and networking, to build stronger support for whatever came next.

But left unspoken in the council’s repeal meeting was the corporate money the repeal referendum would draw. Financial filings are incomplete, but show that the referendum had already raised at least $379,067 for its signature-gathering, with far more in support pledged by Amazon, Starbucks, Kroger, and other major employers. Ballot measures have no donation limits; the potential millions such companies could spend on an already-popular repeal effort is why council members decided the referendum vote was both inevitable and unwinnable.

The second major reason for the council vote, rhyming with “Jamazon,” is next year’s council elections. If business interests failed to repeal the EHT by ballot, the obvious next step would be to replace the council members who supported it with ones who would repeal it. Herbold, O’Brien, and Sawant all face re-election next year, and they’re all vulnerable. Herbold won her West Seattle district by literally dozens of votes in 2015, in a campaign in which she was outspent 3-1 by her business-friendly opponent. For years, O’Brien has been despised by the angrier anti-homeless neighborhood activists in Ballard and Magnolia. And Sawant’s 2015 Capitol Hill district race shattered previous records, with nearly a million dollars raised overall.

This is no longer even 2015. Just in the last three years, Seattle has added over 50,000 residents and untold wealth. Between individual donations and third party PACs, Jenny Durkan’s successful mayoral run last year raised a staggering $1.9 million – including a $350,000 PAC donation from Amazon that more than paid off in the EHT fight.

Other businesses, noting Amazon’s successful investment, will be even more willing to buy candidate loyalty in 2019. The effort to unseat Sawant alone – in a district that has now become one of Seattle’s wealthiest – will likely top one million dollars, and the neighborhood zealots targeting O’Brien figure to have powerful new allies as well. Both O’Brien and Herbold have hundreds of thousands of reasons not to make themselves further targets by refusing to support a seemingly inevitable EHT repeal. The days of successful shoestring campaigns for city council are gone forever.


The lessons of city council’s abrupt EHT capitulation are many and sobering, and extend far beyond homelessness. Seattle’s 20-year failure to plan for its ambitious population growth targets (density!) have more than been met, but concomitant investments in essentials like utilities, schools, transportation, affordable housing, and social services haven’t come close to keeping pace. City leaders pushed a downtown tunnel plan that was billions of dollars more expensive than other Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement alternatives; They also chose to spend billions more each on waterfront development, Mercer Mess beautification and other South Lake Union amenities; another $1.7 on convention center expansion, and still more on a streetcar system nobody asked for and few are using. While those and other pricey real estate schemes got funded, utilities are aging, traffic is frequently gridlocked, road and bridge repairs are backlogged by two decades, schools and buses are overflowing, and on, and on.

Cities routinely use economic boom times to invest in those kinds of basic, big-ticket projects – made even bigger, in Seattle’s case, by its past planning failures. Instead, city leaders have now effectively given Amazon and other big businesses effective veto power over paying for any of them, and allowed a vocal anti-tax contingent to further delegitimize attempts to raise new revenue. The feds and state aren’t helping any time soon. With a state ban on personal or corporate income taxes, the city is forced to rely on regressive sales, property, and B&O taxes for much of its revenue, and has already raised those as much as it’s politically feasible to do. Lost in the EHT debate is that the hours tax or something similar was about the only tool Seattle had left that could pay for a major new initiative. Now that option appears dead, too.

Meanwhile, there will be an enormous and critically needed families and education levy on this fall’s ballot, as well as several other potential ballot measures. All of those campaigns just got much harder due to big property tax increases this year and the anti-tax framing used to repeal the EHT. Future ballot measures are going to be impacted heavily as well. After the EHT repeal, Seattle’s civic leaders literally have no idea how our growing city will pay for its needs.

“There Is No Plan B”

That includes dealing with affordable housing and homelessness crises that affect everyone who pays residential property taxes, everyone who rents, and everyone who can’t afford housing at all. As Herbold and others noted in the meeting where the EHT was repealed, “There is no Plan B.” After the sudden jettisoning of nearly a year of advocacy and work by thousands of people, homeless advocates and their elected allies must start over.

Convincing the city to devote significant resources and help to any marginalized class of people is always going to be a tough sell. It’s even harder in a city that’s also rapidly getting richer, whiter, and more male. In this environment, and in the era of Trumpian self-interest, “it’s the right thing to do” by itself is not a winning argument; it falls on too many indifferent ears among the privileged majority. Even in liberal Seattle, while every corporate EHT opponent took pains to emphasize how much they care about the homeless, they still weren’t willing to help.

Beyond all of that, at every step in the EHT saga, proponents were out-messaged and out-strategized. The framing of the tax as benefiting the (largely unsympathetic) homeless, rather than what the money would buy (affordable housing, social services) was one messaging problem; the popular name “head tax” a second; and its reframing as a tax issue, a third. The business community put out an enormous amount of misinformation in fighting the EHT, and anti-homeless residents pitched in with a lot of frothing ignorance; little of that was effectively addressed by EHT backers. city leaders have wasted a lot of money over the years (anyone remember the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness?), but the city has also done some things right and helped save a lot of lives through past programs. That record was never seriously defended, and the improvements reflected in EHT spending plans rarely touted.

And the business community had plans, backup plans, and backups to their backup plans at every point. Proponents…didn’t. Appealing to altruism got the EHT passed, but wasn’t enough to save it. There was no Plan B.

Money Talks, Homeless People Die

In the mere two and a half hours it took city council to negate a year’s work, there was about a one in 32 chance that a homeless person would die in Seattle. Those odds are getting worse, not better, with every month that passes.

In the aftermath of repeal, Mayor Durkan is talking about the regional One Table initiative, which hasn’t done anything at all during the two and a half years of Seattle’s so-called “state of emergency” on homelessness. Those other cities and counties are just as limited in their potential revenue sources as Seattle, with even less political will.

Homeless advocates are already analyzing lessons from the EHT fight and planning how to regroup, but the simple fact is that only government has the resources to fund the kind of comprehensive response needed. Private philanthropy helps, but it’s capricious and not coordinated among different funders. Nonprofits are essential but can only do so much. It will always come back to government. Social justice activists will also organize for ballot measures and next year’s elections, and they’re still a significant force in Seattle. But the playing field just got a lot less level.

And still, people are dying.

What’s Next for Homelessness and the Head Tax?

After nine months of meetings, hearings, and headlines, an Employee Hours Tax to help fund affordable housing and homelessness services has finally passed – and raised even more questions for the future.

On Monday, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed a last-minute compromise on Employee Hours Tax (EHT) legislation, also commonly called a head tax. The exhaustion and relief was explicit Monday in many of the councilmembers’ comments. But for both elected officials and for the business leaders and community activists who squared off over the issue, there is no resolution. Not really. There is only the next phase of a series of vexing problems with no easy answers.

The compromise legislation is designed to raise about $47 million a year for the next five years, with the revenue dedicated to building permanent affordable housing and expanding homelessness services. That’s less than the $75 million a year that would have been raised when the bill passed through committee last week – and much less than the $150 million a year in new revenue urged by last winter’s Progressive Revenue Task Force – but more than the Amazon-approved $40 million in Mayor Durkan’s last-minute alternative plan. And it’s far more than the $25 million in annual revenue that last fall’s failed EHT package was intended to raise.

Similarly, the 66 percent of that $47 million in annual revenue intended for affordable housing construction (about $32 million) is less than the 75 percent of $75 million (about $57 million) in the original package, but far more than the $10 million a year that Durkan wanted.

However, the city’s estimate that the final bill will fund 591 new housing units over five years assumes a per-unit cost of about $270,000 – significantly lower than past construction estimates of over $300,000 a unit. Given that Seattle real estate prices continue to explode, over five years that target of 591 units may not be realistic. And while every new unit helps, a business-funded study released earlier this month estimated that King County overall would need to spend $410 million on new housing each year just to house those who were homeless here in January 2017 – and even then it would take seven years to catch up with the backlog.

When the January 2018 one-night estimate of our county’s homeless is released later this month, it likely will be at least ten percent higher than last year. Unless the growth in homelessness slows over the next five years, that means hundreds of millions of dollars in additional revenue, beyond the $410 million per year estimate, will need to be found for still more affordable housing. And that’s just to house the homeless. Such units will also be heavily in demand from poorer and working class residents who are currently housed but who are also being squeezed out of Seattle’s private housing market.

Everything Counts In Large Amounts

Such good news/bad news dichotomies abound in considering where Seattle can or will go next on these issues. Seattle’s new EHT is the largest such tax ever passed in the U.S. In part, that’s because many jurisdictions use payroll taxes instead to accomplish the same revenue goals, but it still means that in the end, the council and even Mayor Durkan stood up to a business lobby that did not want this tax at all – in a city that is now far more reliant on a single employer than any other large city in the country.

That business opposition has not gone away. After the vote, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce issued a statement decrying the compromise. So did Amazon. The obedient Seattle Times editorial board urged a citizen initiative to overturn the tax – a plan that would work better if Medina residents could vote in Seattle elections. But if such an initiative can get on to this fall’s ballot – and while they would need to get 17,632 signatures by June 15, there are plenty of people in Seattle who would sign such an initiative just because they despise the homeless – there is no limit to the amount of money that anyone can contribute to an initiative campaign. That’s how, for example, an attempt to ban plastic bags a few years back was killed single-handedly by the chemical industry and other interest groups.

Beyond that, the elections next year for Seattle’s seven districted council seats offer business interests another, perhaps easier opportunity to control 2020’s city council in a way that would make repeal a likelihood and an initiative unnecessary. More on that below.

For companies like Amazon, which took the unusual step of threatening to pull jobs out of Seattle if the original bill had passed, the $20 million a year the original proposal would have cost them was never the point. The point was to avoid setting a precedent that other jurisdictions might emulate, especially as Amazon conducts a noisy public search for a city that will give it the most tax incentives to locate its second headquarters there. Amazon failed to prevent this precedent. In the end, even Mayor Durkan, with her anemic last-minute proposal, stood up to Amazon and got them to give their reluctant approval. Likely those were difficult conversations, in which Durkan had to explain to some Amazon government affairs executive that political realities required that Seattle act on its crises, and that businesses like Amazon would have to pay something.

The Fight to Repeal the Head Tax, Again

But whether they’ll need to pay for it much beyond 2019 is an open question. In January 2020, Seattle’s seven district city council representatives will be sworn in for a new four-year term. Only four council members opposed the original EHT proposal this spring – and three of them (Bruce Harrell, Debora Juarez, and Rob Johnson) arguably represent what are now the three most liberal of the seven districts. Moreover, it’s being widely speculated that both Harrell and the fourth opponent, Sally Bagshaw, will not seek re-election.

The converse, however, is also true: three of the five EHT supporters on council are also up for re-election, and all are vulnerable. Kshama Sawant’s 2015 re-election campaign against Pamela Banks turned into the most expensive council race in Seattle history, and even more business and third-party money will nbe spent to unseat her next year. Budget Committee chair Lisa Herbold – who also spearheaded last fall’s failed EHT proposal – won her seat against a business-oriented opponent in 2015 by literally dozens of votes. And anti-homeless activists have been baying for Mike O’Brien’s head for years, and may have new business allies in 2019.

Amazon gave a record $350,000 in independent money for Jenny Durkan’s 2017 victory. Her one veto threat last week, and the compromise that resulted, will save Amazon $7 million in 2019 alone – a two thousand percent return on investment in just the first year of the tax. That successful investment didn’t go unnoticed. Even if Harrell is replaced by a more progressive council member in the south end – which seems likely at this early point – if Juarez and Johnson are safe, and either Bagshaw or another business-oriented candidate holds the downtown seat, defeating two out of the three pro-tax incumbents up for another term (Herbold, Sawant, and/or O’Brien) would give the business lobby enough votes to repeal the tax. They have enough money to dominate all of these races, if they choose to do so.

And we’ve been here before. The city turned to a head tax rather than a more equitable payroll tax because implementation would be easier and cheaper. The systems to collect it are still in place from Seattle’s last experience with a head tax, in 2007-10. That history got remarkably little attention during the past year’s debate in part because of how the tax ended: Backed by new developer money, a largely unknown pro-density environmentalist named Mike McGinn campaigned for mayor in 2009 promising to repeal the head tax as an impediment to fighting climate change. That claim hasn’t aged well, but after McGinn was elected, he made head tax repeal one of his first items of business. Approaching 2019’s elections, that ancient history suddenly becomes quite relevant.

Awash in new wealth, Seattle’s local elections next year are going to shatter all previous records for fundraising – and the just concluded head tax debate will be back with a vengeance.

The Bills Come Due

That’s doubly unfortunate because it’s likely to eclipse an even bigger problem over the coming year: the failure of at least the last four elected mayors and two decades’ worth of developer-friendly city councils to adequately plan for Seattle’s explosive population growth. While nobody in 1998 could have known that Amazon would become a global juggernaut, a coalition of developers and climate change-obsessed environmentalists have successfully pushed a develop-at-any-cost approach to increased population and density that ignored existing neighborhood plans. It concentrated development near arterials but left many single-family home neighborhoods nearly untouched.

The unintended impacts included building new market-rate housing on land made available through the destruction of affordable housing Seattle now desperately needs. But while city leaders underwrote development and funded expensive real estate development schemes and civic amenities (the Mercer Mess, streetcars, the downtown tunnel and waterfront development, convention center expansion, etc.), they failed to fund numerous infrastructure improvements that were needed to absorb so many new residents. That includes not just affordable housing, but transportation (including badly backlogged maintenance projects), public transit, sewage and utilities, public school capacity, and much, much more. Homelessness and housing were simply the focus new because that’s the crisis that already has a death toll. But it isn’t be the only crisis.

After 20 years of misplaced priorities, the bills are coming due. The businesses that city leaders have encouraged while heavily taxing everyone else are the only serious remaining source of money that our city can turn to in order to address a whole series of urgent issues. That funding was already going to be a tough sell, with taxpayers reasonably asking why city leaders should be trusted to collect still more taxes when they’ve gotten it so wrong in the past. That argument already surfaced with objections to the head tax based on that crisis having worsened despite past funding increases. Now, those objections are also fuel for business interests who, between Amazon’s successful extortion and the unprecedented money that put Durkan into office, also have a political road map for how to stop any effort to tax them further.

How to Spend the New Tax

Most immediately, as part of its annual budget process the city council and mayor will need to decide this fall how, exactly, to spend the new revenue. That will also be contentious.

As a companion to the new legislation, city council also passed a resolution outlining its priorities for spending the new revenue. But that resolution isn’t just non-binding; its numbers were hashed out behind closed doors over one weekend, with no study or public input, and are likely to be challenged this fall on several fronts.

The most obvious is the reduction in the compromise proposal, both as a percentage and in absolute terms, in the amount of money dedicated to new affordable public housing construction. A lot of people will push to see that component reprioritized. They’ll face resistance. Mayor Durkan has continually pushed to move dollars away from housing and into homeless services for reasons that are unclear, given that the sole focus of the city’s current “Pathways Home” approach to homelessness is to steer people into affordable housing that does not, as yet, exist. And as noted above, the goals for this section of the spending resolution seem unrealistically optimistic – as well as still falling far short of the need.

There will also be several activist-led fights over the services portion. Durkan has already indicated that she wants that money to go primarily into expansion of existing programs, many of which service providers and advocates have been decrying for years. For starters, there’s the dramatic escalation in homeless encampment sweeps in recent years – a homelessness “service” which cost the city over $10 million last year alone and which has continued apace under Mayor Durkan.

Beyond that, Durkan wants to spend much of the money on expansion of Navigation Teams – which connect individuals to case managers and services, but not, usually, to housing – and a private market voucher program that most advocates seem to regard as not only ineffective, but somewhere between a brief respite and a cruel fraud for those seeking to escape homelessness. Increased spending for all of those programs will face opposition. Beyond that, there’s also the noisy band of residents who seem to loathe spending money of any kind on the homeless. They’ll be around, too.

Meanwhile, Back in Reality…

While wrangling over this tax has droned on, and more fighting over both the tax and how its revenues will be spent seems inevitable, the problems the EHT proposal was meant to address keep worsening. The King County Medical Examiner is now recording, on average, almost four homeless deaths a week so far in 2018, a pace that would shatter last year’s record. The release later this month of last January’s “one night count” is also likely to not only set another new record, but chronicle the spread of increased homelessness into every corner of King County.

Rent increases have slowed a bit in recent months, but an average Seattle apartment still rents for close to $2000 a month. With the standard measure of affordability being 30 percent of income, that means affording even a basic apartment in our city requires a household income of around $80,000 a year. If you’re, say, retired, disabled, or otherwise on a fixed income, or working one or more low-wage jobs – as many homeless individuals are – a case manager can’t bridge that chasm. Activists are sure to push a variety of non-EHT reforms this year to help reign those costs in, from more relocation assistance to protection of remaining affordable housing and increased “in lieu of” fees for new housing to (gasp) rent control.

We’ve learned several important things from the EHT debate so far. One is that even the political power of Amazon can be overcome – for now – if the need is urgent enough and the demands for it are loud and disruptive enough. Another is that while this victory was important, it does not nearly meet the scale of the need, and it may not be possible to pass anything that can meet the scale of the need.

But the two most important takeaways are that, one, the battle to overturn this tax – or divert its revenues to other needs – is ongoing. It’s not over. And secondly, as competing interests continue to block more comprehensive solutions, people keep dying on Seattle’s streets. Every week.

Durkan’s Alternative Head Tax Proposal: Details and Analysis

What you need to know about the competing plans.


Durkan’s plan:

* Is timed to kill the existing proposal, and delay any solution.

* Is even more grossly inadequate to the scale of the problem.

* Abandons any serious effort to build additional badly needed permanently affordable housing.

* Puts more money into homelessness programs that only help a small segment of the homeless population.

* Rewards Amazon’s extortion, and gives companies like Amazon effective veto power over what our city does on any issue.


Both plans raise money based on the number of employee hours worked in Seattle each year by the top three percent of the city’s companies, based on gross revenues of at least $20 million. Durkan’s plan would charge about $250 per full-time employee per year; the existing plan charges about $500. Annual revenue would be under $40 million rather than $75 million.

Durkan’s plan eliminates the proposed 2021 shift to an equivalent, more traditional payroll tax. Instead, the head tax would continue, but then end after 2023.

Durkan’s plan also shifts spending. The previous plan dedicated about $50 million to building permanent affordable housing; $20 million to homeless services; and the rest to administration. Under Durkan’s plan, homeless service funding from the tax would increase from $20 million to about $28 million, but the affordable housing component would be reduced by four-fifths, from $50 million a year to only $8 million.


1. A report released yesterday estimated that King County needed to add 14,000 new affordable homes just to address 2017’s homelessness – let alone any future increases. The previous plan was an inadequate but important step in starting to address this shortfall. On this point, Durkan’s head tax plan moves from being inadequate to being nearly irrelevant. It would build about 24 housing units a year, or about 120 over the course of its entire five-year existence.

2. Durkan has already said that she wants to see head tax revenues for services funneled into the city’s existing “Pathways Home” programs, particularly its Navigation Teams and a private rental market voucher program. The Navigation Teams are meant to connect homeless individuals with a case manager and support programs that, if completed successfully, essentially allow the person to apply to get on waiting lists or for vouchers. Since most waiting lists are frozen or years long, this usually would mean the vouchers, in which people are given three- to nine-month rent support and then left to fend for themselves and counted as “permanently housed.”

Under Durkan, the city this year tried to defund most of the city’s existing emergency shelter network, on the grounds that they did not require guests to become part of this program. The city council blocked this attempt, which would have literally left thousands of people with nowhere to go while they wait for affordable housing that does not, as yet, exist.

The Navigation Team approach is far more comprehensive per person, but also far more expensive per person. Given the lack of overall additional revenues, this necessarily means helping far fewer homeless people.

At best, the city’s approach is to focus service on those individuals whose homelessness issues are personal and can be “fixed” or managed – substance abuse, mental health, etc. – while deemphasizing structural economic reasons (e.g., rent in Seattle is hella expensive). It presumes that people can easily afford a $2000/month private rental unit once their vouchers expire, since the personal problems which led them to become homeless will have been resolved. And some homeless individuals do fit that description. But most don’t – the issues are economic, or a complex mix, or not easily resolved in a few months.

That’s at best. At worst, Durkan is doubling down on an approach that amounts to corporate welfare to landlords, while abandoning most homeless people to fend for themselves.

3. Durkan’s plan would raise only a quarter of the revenue originally recommended by last winter’s Progressive Revenue Task Force, the most representative public body so far to consider the issue – and the task force acknowledged that its $150 million per year recommendation was inadequate to the scale of the problem. Durkan’s $38 million a year and 24 new homes a year isn’t a bad joke – but it’s close.

4. Durkan’s plan extends for five years one of the major problems with the existing proposal: its reliance on gross revenues, making no distinction between industries with large profit margins and those with notoriously thin ones.

5. Due to past decisions, the city doesn’t have any obvious constituencies other than its wealthier businesses from which it can raise significant additional revenue. But the scale of Durkan’s proposal appears to be a response not to the need or to any long-term plan, but to appease Amazon and other big business opponents of the original proposal. There are reports this evening that Amazon has said it would lift its freeze on two major downtown developments if Durkan’s plan passes.

6. Unlike the existing plan, which was developed over eight months and countless meetings and public hearings, Durkan’s plan was developed secretly behind closed doors “working with people across the city” who she has not yet named.


Durkan’s plan is supported by the four pro-business city council members who have opposed the existing head tax plan, including CM Sally Bagshaw, who chairs the committee considering the existing proposal. That proposal is co-sponsored by four council members and supported by a fifth, Kshama Sawant.

Friday morning, May 11, Bagshaw’s committee meets at 9:30 AM for what was expected to be a final committee vote on the existing plan. A full council vote on that plan is scheduled for the next business day, Monday, May 14.

The existing plan has the five votes to pass but is opposed by the committee chair and does not have the six votes needed to override what would now be a certain veto by Durkan.

At minimum, the timing of the release of Durkan’s plan is designed to maximally delay any final decision. Bagshaw is likely to call to postpone any vote pending new hearings and studies on the competing proposal – even though it clearly does not have the votes to pass council. Neither side has a clear path to its proposal becoming law now. Serious lobbying will start to either find a middle ground or (more likely) try to peel off at least one of the sponsors of the existing plan, with the explanation that “it’s the best that we can do.”

Durkan’s announcement delays badly needed additional revenues of any sort for a crisis that is now in its third year as a formally declared city emergency, and that is now literally killing people in our city each week. And the fact that Durkan’s plan is based not on need but on appeasing our city’s largest employers sets a terrible precedent. If her last-minute proposal ends up carrying the day, the City of Seattle is giving companies like Amazon effective veto power over city laws and policies. Is that the city, and government, we want?

Let’s Call Amazon’s Bluff

Amazon says they’ll halt new office projects if Seattle enacts an employee head tax. Good.

The debate over a proposed Employee Head Tax (EHT) on our city’s largest employers, with revenue dedicated to affordable housing aand homelessness services, is coming to a head. After eight months of debate, the Seattle City Council is scrambling to meet a self-imposed mid-May deadline for trying to pass the proposal, with a final vote currently scheduled for Monday, May 14.

In the face of civic activists demanding long-overdue major action on Seattle’s critical affordable housing and homelessness crises – and packing council meetings to press their demands – five of the nine council members have said that they support the current bill. At least one of those council members must change their minds to kill or significantly weaken the bill. That effort, already in full force, was turbocharged this past week by Amazon’s freeze of two new office facilities downtown, suggesting it would “rethink” further Amazon expansion in Seattle if the new tax passes.

Ordinarily, this alone would be enough to kill the bill. A notorious Seattle Times headline last year – “Thanks to Amazon, Seattle is now America’s Biggest Company Town” – wasn’t wrong, but politically and economically, it missed the larger context. Seattle has always been a company town. Before Amazon, it was Microsoft; before Microsoft, Boeing; and before Boeing, a century ago, Weyerhaueser, and before that, servicing the Yukon Gold Rush. The history of Seattle has largely been shaped by its political leaders giving the boom economy of the day whatever it wanted. Amazon is just the latest and biggest company whose displeasure is, for a certain type of Seattle politician, unthinkable.

Most recently, political obsequiousness has basically created our city’s twin crises in affordable housing and homelessness – crises so extreme that this tax might just pass anyway.

And it should. Seattle should call Amazon’s bluff.

The Opposition

It’s impossible to understand why our city should defy what is now by far its largest employer – Amazon already has 20 percent of Seattle’s office space – without understanding the literal bankruptcy of tax opponents’ arguments. These fall into two broad categories: the people objecting to such a tax being collected, and those objecting to what it’s being spent on.

In terms of its purpose, homeless advocates and social service providers have expressed serious concerns about how Mayor Durkan has said she wants to direct any EHT revenues, particularly the portion that would go to services. Durkan wants to funnel that money to Seattle’s badly flawed “Housing First” approach, in which emergency shelter, transitional shelter, and support services are defunded in favor of forcing the homeless to sign up for waiting lists for affordable housing units that don’t exist, and sweeping the unsanctioned encampments that spring up in lieu of organized ones. For example, Durkan wants to put more money into the “Navigation Teams” that help refer homeless people into resources. Yet despite official claims that thousands of local homeless were housed in 2017, the Navigation Teams successfully referred exactly one homeless person into permanent affordable housing. One.

The bulk of the new EHT money would go not to services or shelter, but to building badly needed permanently affordable housing – but even funding that is halved from the $150 million EHT recommendation of the task force city council created after last fall’s failed EHT bill. And the task force acknowledged that its recommendation would only put a dent in the need for tens of thousands of new affordable units.

Meanwhile, while even that inadequate level of housing is being built, where are homeless people supposed to live? Defunding shelter and services only forces more people onto the street – making their path out of homelessness far more grueling and difficult, and in some cases deadly. Seattle set a record for homeless deaths in 2016, and again in 2017, and is well on its way to a new record in 2018, with dozens having already been lost. With any other group of people, that would be an international scandal. For Seattle’s homeless, it’s just another number.

Despite those problems, advocates for the homeless unanimously support the current EHT proposal, figuring that the fight over how revenues are first spent is less immediately important than establishing a long-tern, dedicated revenue source for addressing the issue. But Seattle has plenty of people who object to any public money being spent to help our city’s most vulnerable residents.

That Trumpian impulse was on full display at a Ballard town hall meeting on the EHT proposal this past Wednesday. The panel format, hosted by EHT bill co-sponsor CM Mike O’Brien, never happened, shouted down by a loud, abusive, ill-informed mob that spewed hate at every speaker not in their tribe and that drowned out with denials anyone who patiently tried to present simple facts on the issue. It was so bad that the notorious Alex Tsimerman, an abusive, obscenity-spewing nutcase whose unhinged rants have routinely gotten him banned from city council meetings, was one of the more lucid speakers.

The Ballard fiasco was a stark reminder that, contrary to the placid belief of many Seattle liberals, the ignorance, hatred and fear that, with Russian help, propelled Donald Trump to the presidency isn’t strictly a red state phenomenon. There’s plenty of such residents here, and plenty of demagogues (like KIRO-FM’s execrable Dori Monson) willing to transform even legitimate concerns into vehicles for punching down. Regardless of how the head tax fight plays out, that contingent will surely produce candidates running against the bill’s sponsors next year. If any of them gain traction, the big business opponents of the tax will face a difficult choice.

As is, the Tsimmerman contingent is a de facto ally in the anti-EHT fight with our city’s economic giants. In testimony to city council, local business leaders have taken pains to emphasize how much they love the poors, and how much they already have done to help them. (Such claims from a Vulcan executive drew spontaneous, derisive laughter from an otherwise polite pro-tax audience.) But corporate help, those leaders cautioned, can’t come through taxation and publicly accountable programs, because…..uh, reasons. Essentially, the position is: we’re notwilling to make less money, so if we’re taxed by this we’ll have to cut expenses elsewhere – by either cutting jobs or relocating to a place, any place, that doesn’t have this tax.

But companies don’t create new jobs because they’re generous and have the spare money for it. They do so because they need those jobs to meet the demand for what they sell, or as an investment to create that demand. A job is created when, and only when, a company thinks the expense of it will be more than offset by the money that position helps earn. An EHT that amounts to about $500 a year for a full-time employee, for Seattle’s largest employers, is not a serious hit – as demonstrated by the lack of difficulty such employers have had absorbing much more costly minimum wage increases across the country despite identical arguments.

But for a company like Safeway or Kroger or Amazon, with not just national but global employee bases, the cost of a Seattle tax isn’t the point – it’s the precedent that tax would set for all those other jurisdictions.

A recent study put the annualized global median income for an Amazon employee at $28,000 a year, far lower (and more likely to contribute to homelessness) than the $110,000 median income for Seattle Amazon employees. But those figures imply far more than a reason for Amazon to extort our city. Amazon owns Seattle now; it doesn’t need a good reason to extort us. That’s how company towns work. The companies are inevitably going to leave. Sooner or later, Amazon executives will look at that $110,000 figure and start “rethinking” it.

For reference, Seattle’s previous company “owners” haven’t gotten any smaller – they’ve just deemphasized our region. Microsoft has lost much of its tech dominance to Google, Facebook, and others, but it still has enough lucrative global monopolies to be a hugely profitable company. But for a couple of decades it has quietly been putting more and more of its resources into lower-wage countries like India.

Seattle’s previous owner, Boeing, was and remains a high-profile extortionist of our local and state governments. A 2013 Olympia special session of our state legislature, held in three days with no public notice or input, had as its sole purpose responding to a Boeing threat by approving the biggest single package of state tax breaks in US history, worth $8.7 billion. But Boeing has bled jobs from our state anyway, mostly to lower-wage, non-union states. Similarly, Boeing’s 2001 move to Chicago wasn’t because Seattle was untenable; it was because Seattle could not come close to matching Chicago’s offer of huge incentives and tax breaks. And even Weyerhaueser, a century on, remains one of the world’s largest owners of privately held timberland. Most of it just isn’t in the Pacific Northwest now.

In the race to the bottom, someplace else is always cheaper. And as a global empire, Amazon has no more home town loyalty than Boeing or Microsoft or Weyerhaueser. To pretend otherwise is naive.

Amazon’s current rapid expansion in Seattle won’t last. At some point, it will conclude that those $110,000 a year jobs can be performed more cheaply elsewhere. If it’s not the EHT, some other pretext will be used to justify it/

The other lesson of those past dominating companies is that despite the initial panic, Seattle is doing just fine with their reduced footprints. We’ve somehow still got the best local economy in the country. If Amazon pulls back, our city has a very good track record of replacing those jobs with other, likely better jobs.

The Social Contract

Meanwhile, Seattle literally cannot keep growing like this. Twenty years ago, Seattle was a national center for the dot-com boom. Since the height of that boom, though, our city has added more than a fifth of its population, growing from 563,374 in the 2000 Census (and 513,269 in 1990) to an estimated 704,352 in 2016 – all with making virtually no significant infrastructure investments to accommodate all of that growth.

Certainly, Seattle’s revenues have grown along with that population and job growth. Where has the money gone? Some of it to expand existing amenities such as parks and libraries, to be sure. But many of its biggest-ticket items have been real estate schemes disguised as infrastructure – the Mercer Mess, streetcars, the downtown tunnel.

Though light rail is finally being built out – years after many mostly smaller U.S. cities (e.g., Portland, Salt Lake City) started their systems – Seattle still only has one line with 16 stations, with the next expansion – three more stops on the same line – not due to open until 2021. Seattle’s busses and schools are bursting at the seams. Traffic gridlock remains a constant, and as one neighborhood after another gets terraformed – 27 major neighborhood upzones are in the pipeline – parking spaces will become mythological. Our garbage and sewage systems are beyond their capacities. And, of course, our social services are wholly inadequate to the demand as Seattle’s gap between rich and poor widens.

Seattle, like a handful of other cities (including Portland and Vancouver B.C.), has pioneered a new political and ideological alliance to justify its rapid growth this century: the need for urban density in response to climate change became an environmental justification for real estate development at any cost. In Seattle, this meant that 20-year neighborhood plans, carefully developed with resident input, were simply ignored under the mayorships of Nickels, McGinn, Murray, and now Durkan. When neighborhood councils strongly objected, the city just stopped funding the councils. When commercial and residential property values (and rental and lease rates) skyrocketed as a result, the city doubled down, in the Randian (and idiotic) belief that more extremely expensive new housing would somehow be a solution for the loss of existing affordable housing stock.

In short, many of Seattle’s growth problems can be traced directly to city leaders’ past, decades-long failure to plan to address the consequences of future growth. Even now, in the EHT debate, the city’s Housing Now fiction that thousands of homeless are being housed each year is apparently preventing leaders like Mayor Durkan from acknowledging that at least until new public housing comes on line, still-exploding housing costs inevitably mean that we need to plan for even more homelessness in coming years. (Conveniently, while this year’s “one night count” was taken in January, its sure-to-be-a-new-record results aren’t set to be released until the end of this month, after the EHT vote.) Perpetually ignoring today’s problem has required, for decades, that they not be anticipated as even bigger future problems.

Fixing those problems won’t be easy. Seattle’s options for funding solutions are limited. Thanks largely to its lack of an income tax, our state has the most regressive tax system in the country, and a study released last month showed Seattle to have the most regressive taxes in the state. Lowe and middle class taxpayers in Seattle are already maxxed out.

The city tried to address this last year by passing a high earners’ income tax, but that measure is on hold pending court challenges. That leaves local big businesses as the only remaining stakeholders financially capable of absorbing a major initiative. The only alternative is increased property or sales taxes that will, essentially, tax the poor to help the poor. It’s a complete negation of the social contract that liberals in particular are supposed to hold dear.

That social contact – the basis for the “commonwealth” language beloved by this country’s founders – is the centuries-old notion that justifies modern government. It holds that we, as individuals in a society, surrender some of our rights in order that other, larger rights might be protected. A corollary is the inverse: that we do better as a society when we each do better individually. An injury to one is an injury to all.

No one bill can solve the many problems brought on by Seattle’s poorly planned growth. Housing and homelessness are only a part of what’s gone wrong – though they’re arguably the most urgent part, the part with an ongoing death toll. And the EHT bill is an important step, but only one step, in addressing these crises. But if even this proposal can’t be passed – after eight months of negotiation, for a tax Seattle has already had – how will anything else succeed?

Does Seattle, as a city, want to honor its social contract? Or does it want to adapt to climate change by becoming a comfortable ark for the wealthy, floating on ever-rising sea levels while everyone else drowns?

When Amazon issued its threat, EHT bill co-sponsors issued a statement insisting that the debate over their bill wasn’t about Amazon. Of course, it is, at least for that certain type of owned politician Seattle has always had.

But in a broader view, the co-sponsors are right. Honoring our social contract – before the path to arkdom becomes irreversible – is more important than what any one company, no matter how large, chooses to do. And setting precedents isn’t just an Amazon concern. If Seattle stands up to its corporate overlord, that statement of priorities will resonate far and wide.

Seattle should call Amazon’s bluff. The city council should pass the EHT proposal without weakening it, and Mayor Durkan should sign it.

The alternative future, in which the debate is over which and how many of us are disposable, looks a lot like that town hall mob in Ballard.

Initial Thoughts on Tonight’s Attack on Syria

So…we’re bombing Syria *right* *now*.

Some very initial observations:

1) Of course Assad is a monster, and has been for his entire reign. He’s also used chemical weapons (by my rough estimate) at least a half-dozen times in recent years. And the US has spent the last decade in the region fighting Assad’s primary enemy (ISIS), and thus helping to keep him in power. And other parties in the conflict have also allegedly used chemical weapons at times.

2) After reporting last week that Trump told his military leaders he wanted all US troops out of Syria, we have today. Now the reports have Trump having wanted a more expansive response than his military leaders advised. This is a deeply incoherent response, in a war zone with multiple parties whose complexity on the ground has stymied even policymakers who knew what they were doing.

3) Trump, of course, has no idea what he’s doing, and that’s even less likely during a week when he has by all accounts been melting down over the raids on Michael Cohen, James Comey’s new book, and all manner of other Russia investigation developments.Trump’s past MO is to trot out a massive distraction when the news isn’t going his way. That would be the worst possible reason for this attack.

4) Initial reports are of explosions in Damascus (the capitol and second-largest city in Syria). It’s not clear what the targets are, or whether they include civilian areas. Based on past US actions, that seems likely.

5) It took John Bolton exactly nine days to get one of his two favored wars. North Korea is the other, and Kim Jong-un is set to meet with South Korean President Moon two weeks from today. Just sayin’.

6) Trump, in his speech tonight, emphasized that this would not be an indefinite engagement. Past announcements of such US attacks ALWAYS include this reassurance. Sometimes it’s even true.

7) Trump also called out “tyranny everywhere,” which is laughable given his bromance not just with Putin, but Turkish President Erdogan (whose military recently launched an offensive in northern Syria against the Kurds, who are our only actual non-Israeli ally in the conflict) and neo-fascists from the Philippines to Poland and Latin America.

8) Trump called out Russian support for Assad, which marks, so far as I’m aware, the first time he’s personally criticized the Putin regime in three years. That includes when Russia used a chemical weapon on British soil. Putin is not going to ignore this.

Earlier today McClatchy reported that Robert Mueller’s team has evidence supporting one of the last major unproven allegations in the Steele Dossier, the charge that Cohen met with Russian contacts in Prague as a go-between between the Putin government and Trump’s campaign in 2016. If Russia has a pee tape, I hope we’ll see it soon.

Better that than a fresh world war.

UPDATE: James Mattis just announced that the initial bombing operation is over, and any further response depends on Assad’s response. Fingers crossed.