Hobbits vs. Hobbes

Why Seattle isn't ready for the big, bad world.

A RECENT STORY in The Washington Post (Nov. 9, and reprinted in The Seattle Times Nov. 11) pointed out that Seattle is benefiting from "brain gain" instead of "brain drain." The Post's local correspondent, Blaine Harden, looked at census data and compared Seattle with that Emerald City of the Midwest, Cleveland. He provided empirical evidence that Seattle is the betteras in smartercity. How ignominious that such proof warrants front-page treatment. Once a burg of world-class pretensions, the Pacific Rim's Athens, Seattle is now viewed as a bit more respectable than a rust-belt has-been.

Except for that extraordinary scoop, the story's main effect will be to feed the city's ever-insecure sense of self. (See the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Nov. 23 editorial extolling the virtues of that enviable brainpower.) Let's face it: We've been on a serious ego diet since Jean Godden went into politics and stopped writing her Times column. That dried up our most reliable fount of civic self-flattery: Stop the presses! Seattle's been voted America's sixth-most-livable city again!

While the Post story suggested that smart, young, college-educated entrepreneurs were flocking to town, it also contained the tidbit that these demographically desirable hotshots were staying, even if they'd lost their jobs. Which suggests to me that they're less ambitious than the story makes them out to be. It's also nothing new: Except in a few areas, Seattle isn't the best choice for claw-your-way-to-the-Ring-of-Power types. The city tends to attract bright people searching for an ineffable "quality of life" that has less to do with founding a startup than leaving time for life. Remember that "Old Settler" song Ivar Haglund used to sing that says the real Northwest pioneer came here to escape the world's shams, like ambition? Great-grandpa was the original slacker.

I THINK THE POST missed this year's most important Seattle trend, which wasn't an influx of smart kids, but the outflow of screwups.

A year ago, I wondered what it took to get fired in this town ("Regime Change Begins at Home," Nov. 6, 2002). To my surprise and delight, in 2003, the citizens revolted against the more flamboyant mediocrities. They sacked the school superintendent, the head of City Light, the head of our public TV station, three School Board incumbents, three City Council incumbents, an incumbent Port of Seattle commissioner, the president of the University of Washington, and a partridge in a pear tree.

So, in addition to brain gain, we're cutting our losses with lamebrain drain. Not that we'll see dramatic improvement, as the bungled school superintendent search reminds us. But we can at least fulfill that first part of Mossback's modified Hippocratic oath: "Do no more harm." At least until the new guys get warmed up.

The other thing the Post story ignored is the growing trend, covered in this issue by Nina Shapiro (see "XPorting Tech Jobs," p. 14), of the outsourcing of some of our best jobs. During the 1990s, we reassured ourselves that the fading timber, fishing, agriculture, and even aerospace industries we once relied on were easily replaced with smarter, virtual businesses. We could cope with the loss of salmon because people were willing to pay for ideas.

Look at the Microsoft phenomenon: The world's richest man, Bill Gates, created and dominated the software industry by virtue of his homegrown brain. The Washington Apple Commission went out of business, timber workers were retrained as "knowledge" workers at community colleges, and Boeing moved to Chicago (sorry, Cleveland!). No matter: With Starbucks' marketing savvy and Microsoft's monopoly, we'd be OK. The world itself was now our giant oyster. From our place on the Pacific Rim, we were free to roam the globe, flourishing our imagination and crowing about free trade.

But like that of a straw through a mummy's nose, that giant sucking sound you now hear is a new kind of brain drain. Big corporationseven very profitable onesare exporting smart-people jobs to India, Russia, China, and Japan, countries, by golly, with a lot of smart people who will work cheap. That seamless, wireless, virtual world has come back to bite our butts. Seattle has no monopoly on intelligence or livability, we now know. And our general populace is no match for the heartless marauders of the Darwinian global market who are dog-eat-dogging out there. For Seattleites, it's a cage match: Hobbits versus Hobbes.

IF ALL THE SMART people are moving to Seattle, I don't see any evidence of it. I see politicians and business leaders still gushing the same rhetoric that keeps us hooked on the boom-and-bust cycle we've been in for years. They want to tie up our tax money in real-estate projects for the rich. They want to compete globally, without really understanding the globe, or even our little piece of it. They want to "grow" us out of recession by constructing the next bubblebiotechbecause it fits the fantasy that we're somehow smart, superior beings who know best how to reshape the species. The Silicon Forest can soon be transformed into Frankenstein's Forest.

How smart is that?


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