Author Archives: geovlp@earthlink.net

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 Vladimir Putin – fresh off 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 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.

It’s no particular mystery. And they aren’t nearly outraged enough.

The Plot to Destroy the World’s Democracies

Literally everything Donald Trump has done, both as a presidential candidate and now as president, has worked in service of a specific vision. It is a vision 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 wealthy. And with local variations, it is a vision being advanced with steadily greater effectiveness in most of the world’s democracies.

For as long as humans have organized themselves, there has been a competition for resources between those who have little and those who have plenty and want more. Here as elsewhere, democracy has sought to stabilize this balance, and throughout our history, goals that advance the common good and goals that make the rich richer have been in near-constant conflict. The Gilded Age begat The New Deal begat The Reagan Revolution; earlier, this country fought a terrifyingly brutal civil war over abolition of the economic institution of slavery.

Mostly through an accident of geography, these domestic American dramas have rarely been much influenced by outside forces. That era is over. The current push from the very rich to expand their wealth and power further is global in scope. What Donald Trump is trying to do in the US is what Vladimir Putin already did in Russia, on behalf of the same people: end his country’s experiment in democracy in all but name, consolidate power to himself, and use that power to loot his country’s public resources and give them to global elites. While skimming quite a bit for himself on the side.

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 sell the Americanized variation of it to a credulous public.

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 – but 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. 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. 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 weaponss 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: the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the rise of computing power and the Internet.

How We Learn To Stop Worrying and Love the Jackboot

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, Greece, and now Italy) to the Western European countries where this movement has grown dramatically stronger (the UK, France, Germany) to developing countries where democratically elected strongmen are consolidating power (Turkey, Philippines) to countries whose existing authoritarian rule is helping bankroll the poject (Russia, 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 appeal of these nationalist movements is undeniable. Technology is changing the lives of people at a pace unprecedented in human history. The economic insecurity wrought in most countries by neoliberal and “free trade” policies has amounted to an elaborate, global race to the bottom for most of the world’s seven billion people. One economic estimate is that there’s only enough global wealth to create work than 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 rises. That’s not even factoring in the coming, catastrophic environmental changes, for which the global rich are busy building very exclusive arks.

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 the 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.

How Trump Sells Authoritarian Rule

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

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 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:

1) 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 phrases, all operating in an alternative universe of history and facts epistiological

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.

Handcuffed

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.

BRIEF TALKING POINTS

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.

DETAILS

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.


ANALYSIS

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.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT

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.

Congestive Failure

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s announcement that she wants the city to come up with a plan for “congestion pricing,” to toll surface streets in downtown and South Lake Union, is only the latest in a growing tradition of city policies that are meant to sound and feel good, but that are deeply delusional and throw Seattle’s working poor under the bus – in this case, literally.

As with many of these policies, the general goal of Durkan’s edict sounds laudable – to get more people out of their cars and using public transit, thereby reducing the carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. As Durkan notes, the last four mayors have been trying to reduce Seattle’s carbon output, but it has remained basically stable over that time. That doesn’t mean past efforts have failed – on a per capita basis, they’ve had impressive success. But explosive population growth, both in the city and in our region, has offset the per capita reductions. Durkan wants more.

Okay – but at what cost, and to what benefit? Seattle’s contribution to national carbon emissions, let alone global ones, is miniscule. In absolute terms, reducing it by ten percent – which would be a lot, given that Seattle’s population growth isn’t expected to slow any time soon – just doesn’t matter much. It does allow Seattleites to feel smug about ourselves, and it would help to shame a somnambulant federal government, if Republicans were capable of shame. But by itself, it won’t do much to actually slow down climate change.

Seattle is even unlikely to influence other American cities, several of whom have already considered and rejected congestion pricing. Most famously, New York City has had several such proposals to toll access to Manhattan in the last decade. No US city has actually enacted such a plan. The best-known examples of congestion pricing are European: Stockholm, Milan, and especially London, the first major city to implement it.

But as we should have learned with bicycles, homelessness, and any number of other issues, Seattle is not Europe. Our geography (especially the sprawl) is different. Our levels of poverty and our social safety net programs (such as they are) are different. Even our hills are something that regularly cited bike-friendly models like Copenhagen and Amsterdam don’t have.

In this case, cities like London can use congestion pricing to reduce car usage because they have a well-established public transportation system that people can and do use instead – especially rail, which takes people off the streets entirely and is more carbon-friendly than buses.

For example, Greater London, with 14 million people, has not only a robust passenger rail network, but its subway system – The London Underground, or The Tube – has 11 lines, 270 stations, 250 miles of track, and 1.3 billion passengers annually. Metropolitan Seattle, including Pierce and Snohomish Counties, has a quarter of London’s population – but Link Light Rail has only one Seattle line, with 16 stations, 20 miles of track, and 23 million passengers annually. That’s less than two percent of London’s ridership, or eight percent of its per capita ridership. And, of course, Link light rail’s one line doesn’t even serve most King County neighborhoods, with the next expansion – the relatively modest four mile extension from UW to Northgate – not due to open until 2021, the same year Durkan wants congestion pricing to start. Assuming no delays, the first stations on a second, Eastside line will open in 2023.

Metro buses are also a problematic option to replace car usage. Every year recently has seen record ridership, but for years Metro funding hasn’t kept up with demand. Voters approved a record $930 million transportation levy in 2015, but the city is quietly getting ready to announce reductions in the projects that levy was meant to fund, due both to escalating costs and the predictable loss of federal funding under the Trump Administration. Some projects will be hit harder than others – particularly the projects, like the proposed seven new Rapid Ride lines, that were expecting to rely heavily on federal funding. Without those new lines, bus options won’t be much better in 2021 than they are now, with central city routes already frequently at capacity during precisely the same hours as the vehicle gridlock that congestion pricing will supposedly address.

At this point, congestion pricing resembles nothing so much as Seattle’s current approach to homelessness, which is to dismantle most emergency shelters and social support services in favor of funneling the homeless into permanent affordable housing that does not exist, at least not in anywhere near the amount needed to meet the demand. A similar dynamic awaits those who decide to turn to public transportation rather than paying to drive downtown. After decades of political leaders using transportation money to fund vanity projects and real estate development schemes, Seattle doesn’t have the public transit infrastructure a city our size should have – let alone one that can accommodate our projected future growth, let alone our ambition to, uniquely among US cities, get people out of their cars.

And beyond all of that, congestion pricing, like so many of Seattle’s other revenue sources, is extremely regressive. Someone who can afford a downtown condo or rental won’t even notice downtown tolling – but someone who works downtown but has been forced out to Kent, Lake City, or some other outpost in search of slightly less outrageous housing costs faces a light rail system that’s irrelevant and a bus system that’s frequently packed in rush hours but doesn’t even serve many areas well on nights or weekends. What are they supposed to do? If they’re driving because, like in most American cities but unlike the rest of the world, there are no practical alternatives, it doesn’t make sense to force them out of their cars until those alternatives are in place. Having to choose between increased driving costs and, say, rent or food seems pointlessly cruel – but people in that situation are precisely the ones who will be impacted by most variations on the type of plan Durkan wants.

But, as with the homeless waiting in vain for alternatives, the city’s policies doesn’t really much care about the working poor. Instead, Seattle simply hopes they’ll go away, in this case in service of a largely symbolic goal. It hasn’t worked with the homeless, and it won’t with this, either. It will simply place more burdens and misery on the lives of people far removed from the eco-friendly confines of City Hall. Most good Seattle liberals would be mortified by the comparison, but there’s something positively Trumpian about city leaders that make policy decisions based on the city they imagine, rather than the one that actually exists.

The Arc of the Moral Universe is Long, and Retractable

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., first used the quote “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” in 1958. The quote itself dates back to 19th Century abolitionists. Now, in the 21st Century, it is once again in doubt.

This week’s 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., inevitably is provoking a fair amount of “How Far Have We Come?” and “How Far We Have Come!” commentary. But more disturbing, for our nation and the world, is where the most prominent facets of Dr. King’s moral universe – racial and economic justice and Gandhian nonviolence – are going. Many of the signs are not good.

In commemorating the anniversary, the New York Times today included a front-page photo of the Lorraine Motel, the inner city motel where King was shot and killed. What the Times article didn’t mention was what has happened to the Lorraine itself and the area around it. City leaders used the Lorraine to site a new National Civil Rights Museum, which in turn has been used, despite community protests, to gentrify the surrounding neighborhood and drive out its historically poor, black residents.

In other words, a city seeking to turn an awful historical event into tourist dollars – and that only this decade, after years of community pressure, took down its Confederate statues – is monetizing Dr. King’s death for real estate developers. It’s s grim twist to the sort of economic displacement going on in central city areas across the US, leading to chronic shortages in affordable housing – and record levels of homelessness – among the people Dr. King championed most.

This is not an isolated development. On issue after issue, a half-century after a white supremacist shot and killed Dr. King (probably, as a Memphis jury later decided, as part of a broader conspiracy), King’s greatest achievements are being rolled back, from voting rights to economic opportunity to basic economic and public health indices.

The process began the same year Dr. King died, when Richard Nixon used his now-infamous “Southern Strategy” to win the presidency. The white supremacism Nixon appealed to has since steadily grown in power, to the point where it is now the unifying ideology of a political party that controls not only all three branches of the federal government, but 31 of 50 state governments and the vast majority of our country’s non-urban counties. Democrats have the upper hand in only four states not on the Western or Eastern seaboards – Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota, and New Mexico, all of which have large urban centers that control their states. Everywhere else, the corrosive influence of white supremacism has given the lie to the belief that King’s legacy is secure.

To be sure, there have been periods of pushback, most recently in Barack Obama’s election and the explosive growth of the Black Lives Matter movement. But it’s a measure of how much we’ve lost that the #BLM movement – a movement launched during Obama’s presidency – explicitly branded itself around black peoples’ right even to exist.

The triumph of Obama’s election led directly to the presidency of Donald Trump, a living embodiment of the rejection of Dr. King’s legacy who first rose to political prominence with the explicitly racist birther conspiracy. Control of federal law enforcement now rests with the neo-confederate Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, a man whose federal judicial nomination was rejected – one of only two such rejections in US history – because his overt racism was, in the Reagan era, too much even for the Republicans of the day. Now such racism is Republican orthodoxy, voter suppression and racist gerrymandering are the norm in Republican states, and the Voting Rights Act is dead.

The good news is that while Republicans have seized power, a majority of our country’s people, and the majority of its wealth, are in its cities, which generally reject that Republican orthodoxy. But even as Democrats are poised to make major gains in this year’s elections, it’s essential that they campaign not just against the general train wreck of the Trump Presidency, but explicitly against the hatred, fear, and bigotry that propelled it to power. Dr. King’s other legacy was his championing of Gandhian nonviolence – an ethos diametrically opposed to the bitterness and hatred that now dominates all facets of American politics across the ideological spectrum.

Democrats need to be explicitly rejecting not just racism and the policies it has spawned as a cornerstone of their campaign efforts. They also need to make clear that they care about all Americans, including poor and middle class whites being ripped off by Trump’s oligarchy. Otherwise, the politics of division will simply be America’s politics – the final rejection of King’s moral universe. And the groundwork for more white supremacist gains in the future will be securely in place.

That ethic of universal dignity and love is what made Dr. King a figure of global inspiration. It is now also in retreat in much of the world, a victim of predatory global capitalism, the rise in influence of anti-democratic kleptocracies like China and Russia, and the battle for resources made scarcer by population growth and climate change.

In the end, King’s vision is not only morally just, but may be the key to our survival as a species. That arc, his legacy, and human survival are by no means guaranteed.