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So why does the economy have to grow, exactly? A Seattle question for the ages

In the 1950s, a booster group formed to grow Seattle's economy and market the city to the world. It called itself “Greater Seattle.”

But then, as now, not everyone thought skyrocketing economic growth was a wonderful thing. So the mock group “Lesser Seattle” was created with the opposite goal: to advertise to the world how crappy (and rainy) it is here in Seattle.

Once again, Seattle's economy is booming. Housing prices have roughly doubled since 2012, shooting up faster than most salaries.

This led KUOW listener Jenny Buron to wonder: "Why exactly does the economy have to grow?"

Turns out, Seattleites have searched for answers to that question for decades.

Starting in the late 1950s, Emmett Watson wrote hundreds of columns about the satirical group Lesser Seattle.

"We have this incredibly inequitable economy — an economy that really shovels all of the fruits of the whole economy, growth or not — to the top 10 percent and most of it to the top 1 percent.” Marilyn Watkins, Economic Opportunity Institute

Watson proposed a fake "committee on rain," for example, to promote the area's gloomy weather so people would never even want to visit.

Californians were among Watson's biggest targets. Many had moved here in the 1970s and 1980s, and Seattleites blamed them for rising housing prices. In his columns, Watson called them “Californicators.” 

Watson’s work was funny, but it also had a serious edge, said columnist Knute Berger.

Berger writes for Crosscut with a skeptical eye toward growth that is reminiscent of Emmett Watson himself.

"There was a kind of culture in Seattle that looked down on showy wealth, fancy cars, and big houses,” Berger said. 

Lesser Seattle tapped into reader’s yearnings to keep Seattle affordable for the lower middle class. 

But Watson's wit acted also as a balm that eased anxiety about the transition to a new kind of city with world-class ambition and wealth.

Today, the alternative dream of a lower-middle-class Seattle is all but dead.

The median home price in Seattle is now over $700,000, and in 2017, the median income for a family with kids over 18 shot up to over $160,000. 

That brings us back to listener Jenny Buron's original question. "Why exactly does the economy have to grow?" 

The question is personal for Buron. Her family of four lives in Renton where they moved in 2011 because “it’s close to Seattle but the housing is more affordable.”

She's not crazy about what she sees as the consequences of economic growth and wonders why it's touted as a good thing.

There are roughly two schools of thought on the question of economic growth. On one side, Seattleite Deric Gruen.

Gruen has worked with a group at University of Washington called "Rethinking Prosperity." 

He and others say economic growth itself is not sustainable in human or environmental terms. 

“It’s been accepted orthodoxy that the only way to run an economy is to grow it, without actually considering what we're after,” Gruen said.

But is there an alternative to economic growth?

Gruen says yes. He sees evidence in small examples like tool-lending libraries and community gardens.

He also points to cities like Barcelona where elected officials now question the value of tourism, even though it's key to their economy. 

According to Gruen, people in those cities are saying: “Maybe we don't need more [tourism] because it's actually creating more harm than good for our residents."

But Gruen wants to go much further. He believes zero economic growth is the only sustainable path for people and the planet. 

On the other side of this debate: nearly all economists.

The worry is that a zero growth economy would cause some industries to collapse, kill jobs, shrink tax revenues, and that, in turn, would make it harder to pay for things like parks, schools, and libraries. 

Marilyn Watkins with the Economic Opportunity Institute, a liberal think tank based here in Seattle, says most economists would admit there are plenty of problems with growth.

In Seattle right now, “We can't afford houses anymore, and our kids can't afford houses,” Watkins said.

But she doesn’t believe growth itself is the problem. For her, inequity is the issue.

"We have this incredibly inequitable economy — an economy that really shovels all of the fruits of the whole economy, growth or not — to the top 10 percent and most of it to the top 1 percent,” Watkins said.

Watkins also believes you would need a big brother state to enforce a no-growth economy.

For her part, Jenny Buron just wishes policy-makers would slow down, and value the region we have now. She compared that to her grandmother’s take on always needing new clothes.  

"What's wrong with the sweater you already have?" 

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