Ron Davis originally published a version of this article on his substack, Rondezvous.

When Seattle’s new Council President, Sara Nelson, decided to lay out her agenda in a recent Seattle Times op-ed, the Editorial Board gleefully obliged. In this piece, as elsewhere, Nelson says she wants “good governance.” 

But unfortunately, her foray into “good governance” starts with publishing this piece in a paper that pretends to have a real editorial board, rather than a PR team whose primary function is to cut taxes for Seattle Times owner Frank Blethen and his rich buddies.

Transparency and a press that holds politicians accountable are hallmarks of good governance. Getting the newspaper of record to feign neutrality but actually act as Nelson’s communications team is not. Not exactly knocking it out of the park so far.

But Nelson is just getting warmed up. 

Wait, Who Is the Ideologue Here? 

In the op-ed, she says her plan for good governance means the council can no longer be “ideologically driven.” She cites such ideological driven-ness as the reason “businesses are ceasing operations or leaving town.”

Never mind that employment is up almost 40,000 jobs since 2016, an era in which the council trended progressive. Never mind that the only major area of employment retrenchment in the last three years in Seattle was administrative jobs. These jobs were, according to Gene Balk (an actual reporter with actual integrity!) particularly likely to move outside the city due to remote work. Never mind that our share of tech workers is ever higher and now the highest in the country. Or that Seattle still has the most momentum for tech and other high skill job growth. Never mind that decades of research shows that lower taxes on the rich do not grow the economy and instead only increase inequality. Neither do they drive millionaires to migrate, as local tech billionaire Nick Hanauer recently reminded us. And they have “no detectable impact on startup activity,” according to the Federal Reserve

An ideologue is someone who ignores evidence in favor of pet theories. So who’s the ideologue here? How is embracing ideology and projecting your weaknesses onto others good governance? 

Now, look, we do have business problems, particularly when it comes to downtown retail. But this issue is primarily driven by reduced foot traffic downtown as more residents work in their homes, plus high costs of commercial rent and street crime–not the taxes. 

Nelson and her ilk like to pretend that Seattle is the only expensive, tech-heavy central city that has these problems, which is ridiculous. The Seattle City Council isn’t the primary source of those issues–a global pandemic that killed millions and market and structural forces are. We can and should address these–say, with a vacancy tax on empty storefronts to lower prices–but of course Nelson’s commercial real estate bosses won’t allow for that. 


And in terms of addressing the mayhem on our streets–we have clear evidence about how to do that, too, but Nelson is not interested in that evidence. As an example, when experts testified before council on what actually produces results when it comes to opiate addiction, Nelson put in airpods.

That’s good governance in action?

In a similar vein, Nelson also says she’ll focus on “faster progress on homelessness and public safety,” but she refuses to do what every expert says works related to homelessness and drugs. This recalcitrance includes her unwillingness to support funding for enough affordable housing to actually tackle homelessness. McKinsey, the world’s foremost business consultancy, laid out how to actually do that, but Nelson appears to be wedded to the same kind of magical math that has failed us again and again. In fact, Nelson implies elsewhere that massive cuts are on the horizon. 

Special Interests for Me but Not for Thee

In the op-ed, Nelson continues, “Under my leadership, this council won’t externalize our policymaking authority… Instead of catering to special interests, we’ll focus on mission-critical work that’s responsive to our constituents.”

Shortly thereafter, without a hint of irony, she cites a poll from the richest and probably most powerful special interest group in the region, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.

And mere days later, the lobbyist whose life-partner runs that same Chamber–and who organized and drove much of the PAC fundraising that bought the Seattle election–told the big money donors that buying the election earned them the right to tell the council what to do. Hypocrisy and buying votes are not good governance.

Economic Illiteracy 

Last, she mentions “getting our fiscal house in order.” She claims that “we must break our reliance on new revenue (taxes) to pay our bills. That’s an unsustainable fix for the wrong problem. The real problem is spending.” Then she cites the fact that spending has increased faster than inflation and population. 

These claims evince a sophomoric understanding of the way governments function, and her failure to learn this during her years working for the council amount to economic malpractice. All labor- and land-intensive industries–both public and private–have higher cost inflation than the average inflation rate because you can’t automate people (at least not yet, anyway) and the amount of land can’t increase.

As a result, government economists generally agree that measuring revenue as a percentage of the economy is the better way to measure whether spending is sustainable. To illustrate this point, imagine getting a big raise or a new job, and then over a few years your income doubles but you buy a new house and your kids start daycare and your spending increases 70%. Let’s say you have a financial planner who says, “Your spending increase is financially unsustainable.” You ask why he thinks so, and he says, “The number of people in your family didn’t go up 70%. Inflation isn’t up 70%. So you can’t afford it.” He’s your financial planner, remember, so he knows how much your income has gone up. If that happened, you’d fire him for being financially illiterate. (Watch out, though—he might run for office.)

And guess what, folks? According to Dick Conway, one of the leading local empirical economists (that’s an economist that measures stuff), spending as a share of our economy has gone down in Washington and in Seattle over the last ten years! Usually, when economies get richer they choose to be more generous. We got richer, and we chose to be a touch less generous. 

But Sara Nelson won’t be happy until we resurrect tea party economics and the ghost of former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan has hacked apart basic services for all the undeserving poor. 

So, just in her op-ed about good governance, we’ve got conflicts of interest, crony favoritism, disdain for expertise, dishonesty, and basic economic and policy illiteracy. 

And it’s still January. It’s gonna be a bumpy ride!