In “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus,” Dr. Frankenstein justified his creation as for the good of humanity. Instead, arrogance drove him to make his destructive monster.
Similarly, the modern progressive project sees itself as able to cure humankind’s ills, to set society’s wrongs right—so long as it has enough of other people’s money backing a well-staffed regulatory technocracy and the power to unperson dissenters with the willing assistance of the cultural elite.
Seattle is ground zero for progressive experiments—a laboratory churning out well-intentioned cures that, when unleashed on the real world, become fantastic grotesques.
Seattle’s recent contributions to the liberal virosphere include a $15 an hour minimum wage (which caused businesses to cut payrolls, reduce hours, lay people off and has cost the people it was intended to help $125 a month in lost wages); mandatory paid sick leave (which will likely double down on the wreckage of the $15 minimum wage ordinance); a deadly passenger train crash (that some blame on the lack of automated safety equipment in the rush to meet a federal funding deadline for a sexy new higher speed rail route); and now an employee head tax on companies to raise $48 million annually to address a rising homeless population of almost 12,000 people in a city of 714,000.
On Monday, May 14, the Seattle City Council voted 9-to-0 to charge every business generating more than $20 million in annual gross revenues $275 per full-time worker. The new revenue would go towards constructing affordable housing and emergency homeless shelters. Seattle’s Mayor implored Amazon, Starbucks and other businesses to help solve a problem they helped create.
Come again? How did Starbucks make people homeless by revolutionizing retail demand for delicious caffeinated beverages? How did Amazon exacerbate the homeless “crisis” by employing some 45,000 people, paying many of them quite well?
Starbucks Senior Vice President John Kelley shot back at Seattle’s elected representatives, noting the lack of programmatic reform or accountability, saying, “If they (the City of Seattle) cannot provide a warm meal and safe bed to a five-year-old child, no one believes they will be able to make housing affordable or address opiate addiction.”
Meanwhile, Amazon openly questioned whether it should continue plans to build a new 17-story building to accommodate more staff near its Seattle headquarters. Amazon executive Drew Herdener called the city council’s approach “hostile” and warned that they have been forced “to question our growth here.” Adding, “The city does not have a revenue problem — it has a spending efficiency problem.”
Even the trade unions, which, unlike government employee unions, only thrive when the private sector thrives, were uneasy. John Boufford, Drywall Finishers Local 364’s Business Representative expressed concern about the council’s actions, saying that Amazon provides good jobs for thousands of people, “They’re driving the economic engine. I’m confused about why the city of Seattle is fostering an adversarial relationship with businesses in this city.”
Rather than laying the blame for the homeless epidemic at the feet of Seattle employers, city government should first look in a mirror.
According to a study out of the University of Washington (in the heart of Seattle), the average cost of a house was inflated 45 percent by excessive government regulation in 2006. Of the 47 major metropolitan areas ranked in the Wharton Residential Land Use Regulation Index, Seattle had the 5th-most-burdensome regulatory regime. Of the 50 states, Wharton ranked Washington 7th-worst, behind Hawaii and five Northeastern states.
In a natural economy driven by market forces, rising employment would result in an increased demand for housing which would cause developers to risk their capital to build more supply. Government interference in the process result in higher development fees, the use of environmental rules as an excuse to extract costly concessions from builders, permitting delays, and frequently, the abandonment of the project.
But, the problem of homelessness in America is all too frequently not a problem of available low-cost housing, rather, it’s a problem of mental illness, drug addiction, and broken families.
Government programs and regulations and welfare policies that act to discourage employment and job creation, family cohesion, and voluntary associations and religious charity, all play a role in the damaged fabric of American life.
Progressive political “solutions” to these longstanding frailties of human nature are usually the creation of complex organizations replete with esoteric formulae and dense pages of regulations. They have the advantage of being at the same time indecipherable, unaccountable, and conferring the appearance of having “done something” on their proponents.
Political conservatives, in contrast, simply ask to dismantle failed programs, trusting in people to do better by their family and neighbors than a bureaucrat with a rule book.
In the wake of Seattle’s vote one thing is certain: other cities will rush to copy its head tax for the homeless.
This commentary was originally featured in Forbes on May 16, 2018.