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July 19, 2013 at 7:36 AM

Should Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn take credit for economic recovery?

Mayor Mike McGinn

Mayor Mike McGinn

On the campaign trail, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn often cites the city’s surging economy: unemployment below 5 percent, construction investments ballooning to pre-Recession levels, cruise ship boardings at record levels and the exponential growth in South Lake Union.

“In case you haven’t noticed, our local economy has rebounded,” he said last month.

True. But how much credit, or blame goes to the guy at the top?

Not much, according to University of Washington professors Robert Plotnick, an economist, and UW-Bothell business school dean Sandeep Krishnamurthy, to whom I posed the question. Neither has contributed to a mayoral candidate.

“Its tough enough for a president and Congress who have levers for the whole economy,” said Robert Plotnick, an economist. “When you get down to a city, the economic forces are so beyond your control.”

A mayor, for example, has no control over international trade, such as Boeing plane sales, or the global economy. They can’t do deficit spending. “In the short run, you’re kind of stuck,” said Plotnick.

But he and Krishnamurthy agreed that a mayor can have a longer-term economic impact, both positive and negative. Plotnick says mayors can set the right mix of local zoning, ensure infrastructure maintenance and can use the mayoral bully pulpit to influence education policy, especially in Olympia.

South Lake Union

South Lake Union

South Lake Union is good example of long-term pay-off. Greg Nickels’ administration zoned for taller buildings, aided construction of the Westlake street car and built a power substation. He saw Microsoft, PATH, the UW and Amazon begin to move in, but it was McGinn who has benefited.

Krishnamurthy zeroed in on business-friendly policies, particularly for retail, as a catalyst for local investment. He ticked off street safety in the downtown core, parking rates, one-stop customer  service for business owners.

You know where this is heading: “Nationally, I don’t know if you ask people nationally if Seattle is a biz friendly environment,  I don’t know you’re really going to get a ringing endorsement,” he said. But he credits Seattle for a feeling of city vibrancy, which the mayor can contribute to as “cheerleader in chief, marketer in chief, evangelist in chief.”

Mayors – all of them, not just this one – swing in the macro-economic winds. If they lay claim to boom years, consider if they’d take blame for a recession. That was The Seattle Times’ editorial board’s take in endorsing Ed Murray. The Stranger reached (surprise!) an opposite conclusion, giving McGinn credit for boom times in re-endorsing him.

McGinn’s statements reminded me of the last Presidential election, when Mitt Romney tried to pin blame for the slow economic recovery on Obama. The federal government, after all, has his hands on the levers of interest rates, stimulus spending (via deficit spending) and even limited control of gas prices (if the strategic oil reserve is tapped). But even the President sways in the wind when it comes to really controlling the economy. Obama’s chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, Austan Goolsbee, summed it up on NPR’s Marketplace:

I think the world vests too much power, certainly in the president, probably in Washington in general for its influence on the economy, because most all of the economy has nothing to do with the government.


Comments | Topics: mike mcginn


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