What's Tony Thinking

More Problem-Solvers, Not Purists


Senator John McCain has been quoted recently to the effect that Congress needs “more problem-solvers, not purists.” He added that Senators these days are more concerned about winning than solutions to vexing problems.

Not only Washington, D.C.

I would say something similar about Seattle, and our City Council.

In the last several years a solid core of problem-solvers (Richard Conlin, Tim Burgess, Sally Clark, Tom Rasmussen) has been replaced by purists. The purist-in-chief is Kshama Sawant. Others in that camp include Lisa Herbold, Lorena Gonzalez, Mike O’Brien and possibly Teresa Mosqueda. Of the problem-solvers core of several years ago, only Sally Bagshaw remains.

Now things are getting hot around the Council’s proposed “employee head tax.” Yesterday Sawant got a dose of her own medicine when she was shouted down by construction workers at a downtown event. It is a tactic she routinely employs in City Council meetings, as members of her Socialist Party shout down those who disagree with her.

The idea of the head-tax is to provide more money for programs for the homeless. It’s unfortunate that this is the issue around which the city is coming to loggerheads. It lends to casting things as the rich versus the poor. There’s enough truth in that to make it believable, but not enough truth in it to make for good decision-making. Besides, the real issue for Seattle is the diminished middle.

As regards taxation, the chicken that is coming home to roost here is the shamefully regressive tax system of the State of Washington. Acknowledging that this (no income or capital gains tax) is a major part of the problem, the head-tax on employees is a bad solution — and not just because Amazon doesn’t like it. It seems more motivated by resentment than clear-thinking.

What’s the old saw about “hard cases make bad law”? The current hard case is the rapid growth of Amazon and how it has contributed to growing pains in Seattle. So, “let’s get those rich bastards.” To build policy around that is foolish and will prove counterproductive.

But, to return to the McCain axiom — “problem-solvers not purists.” What’s wrong with purists?

Just to be clear, we aren’t talking about personal rectitude here. Here as in Washington D. C. the purists are ideological purists.

Which can be quite compelling. It does away with irritating ambiguity and offers, instead, complete clarity. Ideologues, of whatever variety, believe they have the total truth concerning the proper ordering of society and need listen to no other voices. They know what is right. All that remains is to do it.

Ideologues often couch their appeals in quite high-sounding terms and claims — “Make America Great Again,” “Housing is a Human Right.” But beneath the slogans, theirs is really a project of absolutizing power, while delegitimating any who disagree.

It’s ironic, but not surprising, that we have this happening on both the right and the left at the same time. That old line about the danger of becoming what you despise.

The purists of all stripes make grand claims. Problem-solvers are more modest. They do not claim to have the total truth or all the answers. They recognize truth and insight from different positions and perspectives. The hope for progress not perfection.

Earlier this week I wrote about theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s continuing influence. Niebuhr argued that the best we can hope for in the realm of politics and civil society is “proximate, not perfect, justice.” We don’t know what the latter looks like and efforts to enact it may result in new and greater injustice (think Soviet Union, Communist China). Proximate justice seeks improvement, a greater degree of justice, knowing we shall not in this life attain perfect justice.

I’m concerned that the people of Seattle haven’t been paying attention, and may not realize just how far the City Council has drifted in the direction of purists. This way lies dysfunction, which Seattle doesn’t need at this juncture.

Homelessness is a very tough, complex problem. I thought it was mistake a dozen or so years ago, to proclaim the “Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness.” As laudable as that goal is, it created unrealistic expectations.

We must address this issue, and we have. Frankly Seattle has, in many respects, done a pretty good job in addressing homelessness, at least until the most recent surges in population growth and housing prices. We need to do better than we are as the attached thoughtful article argues.  But making progress will be impeded by purists. We need more problem-solvers.





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