Humor Sauce: Baby Steps

Babysteps 1

by Mike Primavera

I enjoy people watching. As a writer, it’s my job to observe people (or at least that’s what I say when I get caught looking), and one of my favorite places to “observe” is in Downtown Seattle on the corner of 3rd & Pike. This place is not only an intersection, but a nexus of all walks of life. From there I can see ridiculously dressed tourist on their way to Pike Place Market to have their minds blown by a guy throwing a fish; or frustrated commuters impatiently refreshing their phones in hopes that the bus won’t be 25 minutes late (it will be); or a schizophrenic homeless man yelling at the pigeons because he’s the only one who can hear the song they’re all bobbing their heads to – you know, all types of folks.

While watching these people I generally make it a point to not actually interact with any of them. The biggest obstacles are panhandlers, lonely old people, and those awful people holding clipboards. I don’t care if you have a petition to send me on a date with Scarlett Johansson, if you are standing outside of a store holding a clipboard you are a ghost to me. But the other day something happened that caught me completely off guard. Something I couldn’t ignore. An old man walked up to me, looked me right in the eyes and said, “Jesus loves you”.

Now, I’m an atheist, but I have no hate in my heart for Jesus. He seemed like a pretty solid dude. He was friendly, helpful, he made his own wine; what’s not to like? So why did what this old man said to me make me so uncomfortable? My first reaction, and go to defense mechanism when someone makes me uncomfortable, is sarcasm. “Wait, what do you mean Jesus loves me? Did he say something to you? OMG I’m freaking out right now tell me his exact words.”

Of course, I didn’t say a word of that. I couldn’t. This sweet old man just said “Jesus loves you” with a sincerity that shook the very foundation of my atheist beliefs. A foundation 10 grueling years of catholic school had hardened into a surface I could walk confidently upon, until that moment. I spent the rest of the day thinking about that old man, and eventually, I figured out what was bugging me.

I spend a lot of time on that corner watching people, but when I do, I observe with a certain cynicism and over all contempt for human beings. I don’t hate these people, but I look for flaws in them that can be spun into jokes. It’s pretty much how I’ve lived my whole life. So when this old man said “Jesus loves you”, it was like he was calling me out in the nicest possible way. Like he was saying, “Hey, you’re being the opposite of Jesus right now.” I was bothered by what he said because he made me turn that cynicism and contempt onto myself, and I was less than thrilled with what I saw.

I still don’t believe in a higher power. I believe we are all responsible for our own destiny, but I also believe that is no excuse to be a jerk. Sure, in my mind there’s no magical man in the clouds holding me responsible for the things I say and do, but that’s all the more reason for me to police myself. I still watch people on the corner of 3rd & Pike, but now I try and do so with a more optimistic outlook. I don’t just look for the bad, but also the good, and do you know what I’ve noticed? I haven’t seen one good thing happen on that corner. It’s a bad place and those people are awful. I should find an easier intersection to be optimistic on and work my way up. Baby steps.

Michael Primavera is a Seattle based humorist whose collection of comic musings can be found at twitter.com/primawesome

Civic Salvos

by Young Han

The national discussion on wealth disparity and social mobility has taken center-stage in recent months.  In line with the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” address (http://www.npr.org/2014/01/04/259646707/fifty-years-later-did-the-u-s-win-the-war-on-poverty), as well as the success of avowedly progressive-to-radical political candidates in recent years (http://www.governing.com/topics/politics/gov-video-mayor-inauguration-speeches.html), mainstream publications such as the New York Times have begun to report on the problem of escalating inequality with increasing gusto.  Some of the more thought-provoking (if not fear-engendering) findings of this reporting, at least to a Seattleite such as myself, have come out of the city of San Francisco.  Even with its storied progressive history and reputation for inclusiveness, the city has undergone the same economic changes affecting the rest of the country, if it has not led them.  And, from the steady stream of recent reports, it appears that even the identity of the city may be on the line.

 

San Francisco, perhaps more than any other city in the US, represents what the new information economy may look like.  The city, much like Seattle, has a highly educated population and a substantial proportion of its workers in the technical or managerial professions.  Companies like Adobe, Twitter, and Wells Fargo call it home, while others such as Apple and Google are headquartered nearby. When business or political elites talk about the economic future of America, particularly in discussions about “free” trade or international competition, this is what they envision to be the ideal outcome.  As the logic of globalization leads industrial production (and traditional working-class jobs) out of the country, workers will move into engineering, biotech and finance jobs—well paying, intellectually-satisfying and hierarchical flat.  This is, fundamentally, the idea of comparative advantage.

 

San Francisco shows that it doesn’t exactly work that way.  The narrative found in both official statistics and media reports is less one of a New Economy lifting all boats than that of growing conflict and displacement (http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/1/7/classes-clash-assanfranciscansblametechforrisingrents.html).  Sound familiar?  While the latest boom for technology companies, to use one stark example, has given the city an enviably low unemployment rate, filled its public coffers, and created tens of thousands of jobs paying over $100,000 per year, it has also led to median monthly rents of over $3,400, a triple-digit increase in the rate of evictions, and pages of anecdotes regarding unprecedented levels of status consumption (http://www.npr.org/2013/12/03/247531636/as-rent-soars-longtime-san-francisco-tenants-fight-to-stay).  It is now possible, for instance, to pay $8 for two slices of toast and $2,400 a year to hobnob in a private nightclub.  Together, these facts have led many to ask how people employed in traditional middle-class occupations, entrepreneurs without venture financing, activists, and artists can still manage to relate to the new San Francisco, much less call it home.

 

More recently, anxieties related to the dramatic changes have led to no small degree of ugliness.  Protests against private buses provided by Silicon Valley employers to ferry high-tech workers from their homes in San Francisco have served as a lighting rod for frustration, however misdirected.  For many, these buses represent a further enclosure of public services into private hands.  The buses represent both a failure to invest in transportation accessible to all, but also, given their use of congested public bus stops without remuneration, a kind of noblesse oblige.  A few activists have taken to blockading the buses and sometimes even vandalizing them.  The class war, however, has certainly not been one-sided.  Rants by notable members of the tech community, in particular, have recently lit up the blogosphere.  One equated people in the “lower part of society” with animals and suggested they ought to know their place when they strayed outside their own poor or working-class neighborhoods (http://valleywag.gawker.com/happy-holidays-startup-ceo-complains-sf-is-full-of-hum-1481067192).

 

As a Seattleite, these developments concern me as the dynamics in play in San Francisco exist here, as well as across the country.  Within the city of Seattle, increased demand for housing by those with the means to pay premium rents have raised the median price of a studio, over the past two years, by between $306 and $434 in its core neighborhoods (http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2021673014_rentincreasesxml.html).  At the same time, workers who provide essential services, such as healthcare support and custodial services, typically earn less $15 an hour (http://livingwage.mit.edu/places/5303363000).  This is 20% less than the minimum wage in 1968 (http://www.epi.org/publication/lagging-minimum-wage-reason-americans-wages/) had it been indexed for productivity and inflation.  It is certainly not a rate of pay conducive to either saving money, paying for more education, or getting new skills.  As a city that prides itself on its progressive politics and a commitment to inclusion, we must ask whether we too may become a place that primarily edifies the well-to-do, one whose service-sector attendants live physically outside its boundaries or marginally inside it.

Ultimately, this question is about values, but more importantly, it is a question about policy.  It is less productive to blame specific companies, sectors, or individuals for responding to incentives than criticizing the perverse political and economic context that created them. The success of companies that hire employees with technical skills has brought great benefits and it is absolutely essential for well-diversified economy.  After all, after deindustrialization and massive structural changes in the economy, Seattle doesn’t look like St. Louis or Detroit.  We are in a position of relative strength.  At the same time, the economic dynamics that have transformed San Francisco, and threaten to do the same here in Seattle, are not natural or inevitable outcomes.  Policies regarding taxation, money, and who controls knowledge and culture have redistributed political and economic power upward.  We need to understand this and ask if this is what we want.

Young Han is a Columbia City resident interested in economic history and the economics of technological change as well as an advocate for cooperative development, and expanding economic democracy

Getting Educated on Education

by Marilyn Watkins

As divided as Americans seem to be about the role of government, we’re pretty united around the notion that quality public education should be accessible to all. Businesses and our economy can’t operate without an educated workforce – and educated customers. Democracy itself depends on citizens who can reason and understand the issues they vote on.

Our state constitution says it is the paramount duty of state government to provide amply for the education of all children in the state. But state funding now doesn’t cover the basics of the K-12 system, let alone the early learning and higher education necessary to assure that all kids are equipped to succeed in the 21st century. Two years ago, the State Supreme Court ruled in the McCleary decision that the state was failing in its constitutional duty.

The problem is not that the average Washington resident is contributing too few tax dollars to adequately support education. It’s that the average Microsoft millionaire, his wealthy neighbors, and corporate shareholders are contributing way too little.

Washington has ambitious goals to increase student achievement, including funding full-day kindergarten, reducing class size, and increasing hours and requirements in high school. Those things all cost money. Last year, the legislature allocated an additional $1 billion to K-12 in the two-year budget . But that was after four years of recession-driven cuts, when school funding got slashed along with everything else. Now the Court has decreed we need to fund school improvements more quickly.

Of course, the real issue isn’t what the court says, it’s our kids. It’s our responsibility as the grownups to provide them with the tools for a promising future.

Governor Inslee has proposed raising more money for K-12 by closing some tax breaks, including those enjoyed by oil companies, the bottled water industry, and out-of-state residents. But closing tax breaks won’t come close to raising enough money. Funding education reform can’t come out of the rest of the state budget either, which was cut to the bone during the recession, and includes the early learning, higher education, and social services that also need to be expanded if we are serious about giving every child real opportunity.

Washington’s problems in funding education began long before the recession and McCleary. Back in 1992, we ranked 17th among the states nationally in per pupil funding. By 2012 we were down to 30th. If we measure level of school support against the personal income of state residents, we’re 44th.

Washington is falling behind because we depend on sales taxes for half our state budget. We tax most heavily the people who have to spend all their income – those who can least afford it. Rich people buy more expensive stuff, but they don’t spend most of their money. On top of that, over the last several decades, our economy has shifted away from the stuff we tax and onto services which we generally don’t tax.

Plus big corporations like Microsoft and Boeing keep demanding more tax breaks at the same time they complain the state isn’t investing enough in education and infrastructure.

Almost every other state has a state income tax that assures that rich people pay their fair share for the benefits of living in a society where they could acquire their wealth and enjoy it.

Until we start requiring the wealthiest to pay their fair share of taxes, we won’t be able to fund the education system our kids deserve.

Here’s a 3-step path to funding the education we should have by 2018:

  1. 2014 – Pass the Governor’s package of tax break closures.

  2. 2015 – Pass a capital gains tax that excludes primary residences and retirement savings (this means it will mostly be paid by the wealthiest).

  3. 2017 – Pass a progressive state income tax while lowering the sales tax, with the increased revenue devoted to education, from preschool through higher education.

Getting our fractured legislature to agree to even closing tax breaks this year will be tough. Right now most legislators believe that they can’t adequately fund education no matter what the constitution and courts say, because voters won’t support changing our state tax system.

Earlier this month, voters across the region approved a host of local school levies, agreeing again to raise their own taxes to invest more in their community schools. We do want a great education system for all our kids. It’s time to give our legislators the tools to fund it.

Marilyn Watkins is policy director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, a nonpartisan policy center  focused on building and economy that works for everyone.

Reportage, Culture & Commentary From The Most Eclectic Place on Earth