In Seattle, where I have spent most of my life, I often walk around a lake near where I live — Green Lake, which is bordered by a strip of public park. It is the most popular park in the city, hosting walkers, runners, skaters, and bicyclists on the paved path around the water. In this urban idyll a coven of campers lives year-round in RVs and tents or, in good weather, sleeps in the open on the ground. If I drive to the University of Washington, I go past another encampment near the freeway exit. Under an overpass by the University Bridge is a rag-and-cardboard hovel surrounded by stolen Safeway carts and piles of garbage.
We didn’t have this when I was growing up here in the 1960s, or many years afterward. Then you could see alcoholics in downtown Seattle, where they sat on park benches and drank. We called them bums. They were male, and mostly white or Native American. They lived in missions and flophouses. They didn’t pitch tents under overpasses and in city parks, because the city didn’t allow it. Legally it still doesn’t, but legality alone doesn’t matter. Seattle does allow it, which is why people do it.
Seattle’s unemployment rate is close to 3%, which is as low as it ever gets. There is plenty of work.
The mix looks different now. I see modern nylon tents, some of them with bicycles parked next to them, or discarded office chairs. Many of the homeless have electronic devices to play music.
The situation is not at all like the famous picture from the 1930s of the “Hooverville” of squatter shacks with the pointed top of the Smith Tower in the background. That was a time of social emergency, of 20 or 30% unemployment. Today the city is booming. Seattle’s unemployment rate is close to 3%, which is as low as it ever gets. There is plenty of work. As I write, within one block of my house are two “Help Wanted” signs on restaurants. Within five blocks are several building sites where work has been repeatedly stopped, probably because of the shortage of labor.
Nor is the problem that Seattle is nasty to the homeless. Quite the contrary. I refer to The Hungry American, a book self-published 2004 by Tom McDevitt, an Idaho doctor who went slumming as his retirement project. Of all the cities in which he practiced being a bum — Pocatello, Salt Lake, Phoenix, San Francisco, New York, and Seattle — my city was the most generous. But in none of those cities, he said, did the homeless starve. The hunger he saw in the Sad Sacks around him “was not of the belly kind, but the gnawing hunger for tobacco, alcohol, drugs and relief for a tortured mind,” he wrote. “In America people are homeless because either consciously or subconsciously they want to be homeless.”
To Seattle progressives this is a cold, insensitive, reactionary, and racist point of view. Their view was correctly expressed in the Seattle Times last November by Adrienne Quinn, who earned $188,662 in 2017 as director of the King County (Seattle) Department of Community and Human Services.
When I see people living in tents on the shores of Green Lake, living out of rat’s-nest cars and RVs within a mile of my house, am I really to believe that it is not their fault?
“Homelessness is a symptom of failures in the child-welfare system, racism, wage inequity, the failure to adequately fund mental-health and addiction services, and skyrocketing housing costs,” she wrote. “Not being able to find an apartment for less than $2,000 a month, or being put on waitlists for housing or treatment, or living in foster homes as a child are not individual failings; they are societal failings.”
I have a relative who is adopting two boys from foster care. Before being in foster care they were living on the street and eating out of dumpsters. Their plight was terrible. But it was the fault of individuals, not “society.” The individuals at fault were their parents, who were heroin addicts.
When I see people — white men, mostly — living in tents on the shores of Green Lake, living out of rat’s-nest cars and RVs within a mile of my house, am I really to believe that it is not their fault? The other day I asked one of the Green Lake maintenance men about the camper that has been parked all winter in lower Woodland Park, a few hundred feet from the sign that says, “No Camping.”
“We can’t do anything about that,” he said. “They send social workers to talk to those guys.” The social workers’ job is to convince the homeless to use social services.
The Seattle Times has a special team funded by outside donors — Starbucks, the Seattle Mariners, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and others — that writes about nothing but the homeless. Recently the Times had a story about the death on April 5 of Sabrina Tate, 27, who had been living out of a camper in a city-sanctioned homeless parking lot the politicians called a “safe zone.”
Economically, Seattle is a stunningly successful city.
Sabrina Tate was from Spokane, a city less transformed by entrepreneurial capitalism than Seattle. She got into the drug lifestyle as a teenager, after her parents divorced, and she eventually moved to the Pacific Northwest’s big city. She became a heroin addict and was for some years. In February she had gone back to Spokane and seen her mother, who was alarmed that Sabrina’s legs were swollen and infected as a side effect of drug use. Her mother offered to take her to the hospital to treat her legs and kick the heroin, but Sabrina insisted on returning to the “safe zone” and her camper, where shortly thereafter she was found dead on the floor.
Her parents got back together long enough to come to Seattle to see where their daughter had lived and died. They had never seen it. Inside Sabrina’s RV, wrote Times reporter Vianna Davila
The place was trashed. Flies buzzed around rotted food. There was hardly any room on the floor, though investigators told them that’s where her body was found. Much of the floor was covered with wet clothes, possibly the result of a leak in the roof. This looked nothing like the picture she had painted for them.
Her parents may never know if this was how Sabrina lived. They were told by police that the RV was quickly ransacked after her death.
The Times reporter recorded the reaction of Sabrina’s father, Tommi Tate. “I’m furious,” he said. Furious with his addict daughter? Furious with himself? Of course not. He was furious with the government.
“This kind of stuff shouldn’t happen and it doesn’t need to happen, and it’s only going to stop if people quit looking the other way and if our governments really, truly care,” he said. “Shame on Seattle.”
Shame on Seattle?
Reading that, I wanted to say, “Hey! You're her father. Where wereyou? It wasn’t the government's job to care about your daughter; it was yours. And at age 27, it was hers, and had been for some time. She made years and years of bad choices to get where she was. It had nothing to do with whether public employees ‘really, truly cared.’”
The median price of a single-family house in Seattle has jumped to $800,000. The median rent on a one-bedroom apartment is pushing $2,000.
This story spoke strongly to me, because I have a son the same age as the dead girl. The difference is, he is healthy and has a career and a home. Why is that? Is it because the city employees here really, truly cared for him?
Enough stupid questions.
Economically, Seattle is a stunningly successful city. Recalling the city I knew as a kid back in the early 1960s, I remember the brick buildings downtown, most of them, like the Smith Tower, built in a burst of investment in the second and third decades of the century. That old downtown has been buried in a forest of glass-and-steel skyscrapers, the latest of which are being built for Amazon. For most of my life, the city population was stuck between 525,000 and 550,000. Suddenly it’s at 700,000. Including Seattle, King County’s population is now 2.1 million.
Among the state’s 39 counties, King County, the largest in population, has the highest average per-capita personal income. Seattle’s figure is $40,868, more than 40% above the U.S. average. King County is the home to Boeing’s commercial airplane division, Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, Costco and Nordstrom. It is the home of Jeff Bezos, Paul Allen, and Bill Gates.
To the disappointment to the Democrats who run state government in Olympia, Washington does not have a state income tax.
The median price of a single-family house in Seattle has jumped to $800,000. The median rent on a one-bedroom apartment is pushing $2,000. Part of this is because of Seattle’s restrictive zoning code and King County’s growth-management policy, and the Left mostly ignores this, but the commercial growth is the most important reason.
Politically, King County is the most leftwing county in the state. Here’s the picture from 2016, in which Hillary Clinton easily carried the state of Washington. Statewide, Donald Trump took 37% of the vote. In King County, he got 21%. In Seattle, he got 9%. Since the 1980s, Seattle has been a one-party town. To be identified as a Republican in this city is instant political death.
But we do have a communist on the city council.
Am I “red-baiting?” I suppose so. Councilwoman Kshama Sawant calls herself a socialist and says she’s for democracy. But she has identified herself as a member of Socialist Alternative, which the Internet tells me is a Trotskyist organization — meaning Leon Trotsky, former chief commissar of the Red Army. Sawant’s campaign manager told me she was a Marxist, and in listening to her when she first ran for office, I judged that he was correct. She came out for nationalizing Boeing, for example. If all that doesn’t justify the c-word, then I withdraw it. Sawant is pretty far left, though. She voted against Seattle’s famous $15-an-hour minimum wage law because it wasn’t strong enough.
The rest of Seattle’s city council is all deeply Progressive. And given the view around here of the “root causes” of people sleeping in the park, there should be no surprise at the solution the council has reached.
Raise taxes on business.
Seattle is not a low-tax city. We have a property tax that hits most homeowners between $5,000 and $10,000 a year, and a retail sales tax at the nose-bleeding level of 10.1%. (Buy a car here, and feel the pain.) We have a tax on soda pop and a tax on disposable grocery bags. But to the disappointment to the Democrats who run state government in Olympia, Washington does not have a state income tax. The people voted for one in 1932, but the Washington Supreme Court threw it out, and statewide voters have since rejected it four times. Seattle has tried to impose a city income tax, and has been blocked in the courts.
This is a tax on employment to fund non-employment.
Now to the matter at hand, the head tax. This is how Seattle’s ruling class — its political ruling class — proposes to raise the $75 million it wants for the homeless: a 26-cent-an-hour tax on payrolls of companies with at least $20 million in annual gross sales.
Work out the math. Twenty-six cents an hour is more than $500 per employee per year. This is a tax on employment to fund non-employment. And the only employers obliged to pay it would be the for-profit companies. As I read it, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would not have to pay, nor would Seattle’s big multimillion-dollar medical groups — Swedish, Virginia Mason, and Kaiser Permanente Washington — nor would Recreational Equipment Inc., a membership cooperative. Neither Boeing nor Microsoft nor (except one store) Costco Wholesale would have to pay, because they are not actually based in the city. But Nordstrom and Starbucks would have to pay, as would Amazon, which put itself right where Seattle progressives wanted, near the light-rail line at the north end of downtown. Amazon would be nailed for some $20 million a year.
And CEO Jeff Bezos, who has Amazon looking for a second headquarters city already, doesn’t want Amazon to pay. Amazon has announced that it is suspending planning for its next Seattle skyscraper, and that if the head tax is passed, it will build somewhere else.
The push for a head tax has not gone unchallenged. An opposition now coalesces.
I haven’t heard anyone say the company doesn’t mean it. The leaders of the Aerospace Machinists did say that a decade ago when Boeing threatened to open an assembly line for the 787 jet transport in South Carolina unless it got a ten-year no-strike agreement in the labor contract. The union guys didn’t believe the company. They rejected the concessions — and Boeing opened the line in South Carolina, just as it said. People in Seattle also remember when Boeing moved its corporate headquarters to Chicago.
They believe Bezos’ threat.
And the Left’s attitude toward this? Katie Herzog, writer for The Stranger, Seattle’s left-wing entertainment weekly, quotes Bezos on The Stranger’s blog saying that he wants to put his personal billions into space travel. Confusing Bezos’s personal money with Amazon’s corporate money, she writes:
“WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK, JEFF BEZOS??? THE ONLY WAY TO SPEND YOUR MONEY IS SENDING IT TO SPACE???? Please, excuse me for a moment while I go burn my Prime membership. (Just kidding. I use my dad's.) Here's one way Bezos, who has yet to make any significant philanthropic mark on the world, could spend his 130 billion dollars: PAY THE FUCKING HEAD TAX.”
I hear people who are angry — and almost all of them are Democrats.
Socialist Councilwoman Sawant, Herzog writes, should lock Bezos in a room and convince him to “get his shining head out of his ass and start using his wealth to help people other than himself.”
That is the Seattle Left in full, in its ideas and its manners.
The push for a head tax has not gone unchallenged. An opposition now coalesces. It includes the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce and other business groups long accustomed to the political culture called Seattle Nice. It includes the Seattle Times editorial page, which is urging Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan to veto it. (Durkan, whom the Times supported for mayor, was Obama’s US Attorney here.) And when our socialist councilwoman and her groupies held a protest in front of Amazon’s new skyscraper, they faced a counterprotest of union ironworkers — the proletarians who would lose the chance to build Amazon’s new skyscraper.
The final vote is not scheduled until May 14. But whatever happens, much good has come of this. I hear people who are angry — and almost all of them are Democrats. Maybe Seattle will develop a two-party system — not a Republican-and-Democrat system, but some kind of opposition, some kind of choice. If it does, I will vote for whoever carries its flag.