Seattle’s geek influx seems to be causing a “disturbance in the force.” The New York Times’ Timothy Egan worries that Amazon has become “a large foreign presence growing inside us.” At risk, old-timers say, is Seattle’s very identity as a culturally rich, economically diverse city.
Such concerns have merit. Heavy hiring by Seattle tech companies has driven up apartment and commercial-property rents, shutting down small businesses and forcing middle-income residents to move out of the city. The new arrivals — many of whom are white males earning far above the median income — are less likely to go to plays, volunteer for nonprofits or engage in activities that strengthen the civic life of the city.
Even so, is this tech boom really such a bad thing?
Would Seattle have been better off without the Klondike Gold Rush that brought tens of thousands of prospectors to the region? That boom caused plenty of disruption. But it also ended a long period of economic decline and created the wealth to support such civic projects as the Lake Washington Ship Canal and the city park system.
Each new tech job creates employment in other sectors, such as marketing, banking, law and construction. That’s important. With Boeing beginning to shrink its Puget Sound workforce after years of expansion, we need jobs to employ our residents and to cover the city’s insatiable appetite for spending on social services.
And while tech companies should be criticized when they deploy sophisticated tax-evasion schemes and avoid involvement in the community, their commitment to the region often increases with time. For two decades, Bill Gates and Paul Allen were far too busy building Microsoft to get involved in their community. Today, they are the leading philanthropists in the region. And Microsoft matches every hour that an employee volunteers for a nonprofit with a $25 donation, making Microsoft employees popular among nonprofit organizations.
Amazon, now 22 years old and headquartered downtown, is just beginning to step up to its responsibilities. CEO Jeff Bezos has made contributions to the Museum of Industry and History and the University of Washington, and his company recently announced that it is working with Mary’s Place, a Seattle nonprofit, to turn an unused building into a temporary shelter for the homeless.
Now how can we channel some of that wealth to help strengthen the region’s transportation infrastructure, build more affordable housing and improve an educational system that’s among the worst in the country?