It’s October, 2023. Pencils down, West Coast Progressives. How’s it going?
By that I mean, how are the programs and policies you advocate actually doing, by outcome metrics? Which results make you proudest?
Because, that’s how you rolled for 5+ years in advocating these programs. “Studies show that…” and “We know what works…” and “Evidence-based approaches…” and much, much more.
But, despite lots of promises and years of investment, it’s hard to think of many — or even any — significantly improved outcomes for public safety, education, addiction, health and urban ecology that actually came from Progressive policy implementations in the past decade in major West Coast cities.
When pressed, you often explain that the lack of progress is because these investments were not at the scale or commitment levels you would like to see. You want to see much, much more.
But hang on. What about directionality?
We’ve implemented several of your proposals more than enough to at least get a sense of the DIRECTION when implemented in the field. Do we need COMPLETE answers to be able to make an evaluation of whether something is working or not? NO. We will never have perfect, complete information. So, let’s focus on directionality since 2010 in West Coast cities (Seattle, Portland, San Francisco) in the years since trying some of these policies. Have things deteriorated, or are they improving? By a little, or a lot?
How many programs do you know of that miraculously turn the corner from demonstrated negative effects on society to overwhelmingly positive effects when scaled up by 10x or 100x? How many programs do you know that work poorly at small scale but very well at large scale?
An alternate hypothesis: Maybe ideal-condition lab modeling doesn’t imply results in the real-world will be positive. Maybe the ideas at the heart of some of these programs are fundamentally at odds with real-world human behavior and expectations.
We Need to Measure Outcomes, Not Just Inputs
Too often, politicians only tout inputs, like dollars spent, service providers hired, or programs initiated. We need to shift our focus to outcomes.
There’s a decision-making loop called Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA.) Its key steps are:
Since 2010, the municipal governments of Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, and Vancouver BC have observed problems and have ACTED. The primary action taken from 2010 to 2023, has been to spin up Progressive programs and enact Progressive regulations.
More than a decade into it, we can and should measure outcomes. We’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars. We’ve altered city ordinances, laws and regulations. We’ve elected far more Progressive municipal court judges and prosecutors. We’ve raised taxes considerably. We’ve implemented well-intentioned policies like Harm Reduction, Needle Exchange/Giveaway, Housing First, Diversion from Incarceration, Decriminalization, we’ve loosened Encampment Enforcement laws, loosened Police Pursuit laws, and much more.
At a high-level, in West Coast cities enacting these policies, disorder increased from 2010-2023. Across the west coast, homelessness, overdoses, encampment fires, homicides, retail theft, car thefts and more “livability measures” — all went in the wrong direction. In some cities, dramatically so.
If you are not focused on observing, publishing and evaluating clear empirical outcomes for all stakeholders, after years of actually trying some of the things you’ve wanted, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that you don’t actually care about improving them.
It is COMPLETELY FINE to report outcomes, and acknowledge they aren’t working as we’d all hoped. That’s part of sound government. But you’re not even doing that. You’re way too focused on shaming people for not blindly hopping aboard. You’re repeatedly labeling programs “evidence-based,” yet not actually citing what empirical (i.e., real-world, not lab-modeled or predicted) evidence you’re speaking of. It’s like you hope no one ever asks.
One of the great things about progressivism is that it’s a font of new ideas. And I’m all for trying new ideas, but you’ve got to be willing to MEASURE if they are actually improving things, and ADJUST or even END if they are not.
Public Education? Literacy? Math Scores? Addiction? Homelessness? Public safety? Which outcomes are giving you confidence that we are very much on the right track?
Bike Lanes, Pedestrianization
Let’s start with the good, and where I’m right there with you: Transit.
I think bike lane buildout, road diet and pedestrianization efforts (e.g., Pike Place Market) are arguably positive. So let’s stipulate that in the “win” column right off the bat, though some others might quibble.
Personally, I love seeing Pike Place Market pedestrianized, and hope it becomes permanent. Added density in some areas of our city is also a net positive, as the best way to combat expensive housing is to have more housing. More people are using Seattle’s new bike lanes. It’s a greener, healthier way to get around. Anecdotally, I’m loving some of these new protected bike lanes.
Lest we get too far ahead of ourselves and declare conclusive victory, unfortunately, the data doesn’t quite back up the hope that dedicated lanes would decrease bike deaths, which is the most important measure of all, I’d argue. Per-capita bicycle deaths continued to climb in 2022, despite many millions of dollars spent on bike lanes and even a new 20mph speed limit imposed on many arterials.
But after hundreds of millions of dollars, that’s where the positive story ends. The list is long:
1. Drug Decriminalization
Oregon tried it, by passing Measure 110 in 2020. Today, a majority of Oregonians want to repeal it. 54% think it increased homelessness, and a plurality said it made Oregon less safe.
What’s the best empirical case for drug decriminalization? Where has it worked well for the law-abiding public and public safety overall?
2. Housing First
Housing First: The intuition of this program makes sense at first blush, but it turns out the data doesn’t seem to support it.
California’s Project Roomkey is a good example:
3. Public Education
Seattle Public Schools closed for in-person learning longer than just about any other district in the world. It wasn’t moderates who did this. It wasn’t conservatives. It was Progressives (and many center-left Democrats, who silently went along.) How’s it going? Was that a good idea?
“Whole Language” literacy programs
Progressive schools of Education trumpeted “Whole Language” as a great new way to teach, and some academic studies in labs suggested it might be a better approach vs. traditional phonics-based instruction. Here, we can conclusively declare a winner: Phonics.
4. Defund the Police
Unquestionably a disaster in terms of outcomes. Seattle’s police response time has suffered, homicides will hit a 30 year high in 2023, violence and property crimes have increased, and SPD staff levels are way below appropriate levels. Boston, a city comparable in size to Seattle, has more than double the officers. While Boston had 2,144 in 2022, Seattle currently has just 940.
Unquestionably a disaster. King County’s overdose deaths will hit another record this year. Chart as of September 14, 2023:
6. Encampment fires
Seattle’s Fire Department is more burdened than ever, responding to 1,538 encampment fire calls in 2022. That’s more than 4 each day, on average. Unsafe for people and wildlife, and terrible for the environment.
7. Car Thefts
Car thefts are at a record high in the Seattle-Bellevue-Tacoma metro area. 83 cars are stolen every day here, on average, according to the Puget Sound Auto Theft Task Force. Progressives have argued that a major reason why car thefts are so high is that Kia Motors and Hyundai make their vehicles too easy to steal.
Yet in South Korea, the home of both Kia Motors and Hyundai, the car theft rate is 1/256th of the rate that it is in the Seattle area.
8. Store Closures
Store closures in the downtown core of San Francisco, Portland and Seattle are among the most immediately visible outcomes from the collection of Progressive policies (which include extended lockdown and restrictions during COVID, an explicit policy choice.) But these will have knock-on effects of lower city revenue and vibrancy. It’s a negative feedback loop.
Progressives often argue that we have had “austerity” for so long, how can we even measure these efforts?
The fact is that Washington State’s tax revenues have soared in the past decade. Washington State hauled in $33 billion in tax revenues for fiscal 2022, an 11% increase from the prior year, double the $16 billion from fiscal 2012, a decade prior. When inflation and population adjusted, that’s about a 28% real per-person increase. So which State services have gotten 28% for you since 2012? Healthcare? Mental health services? Homelessness? Public safety? Public Education? Transportation?
Likewise, Seattle’s budget continues to climb, year by year, faster than our combined inflation and population rates:
Who Actually Has the Moral High Ground?
I’ve been name-called by Progressives for having moderate viewpoints on pretty much every one of the issues above.
What OUTCOMES do you think give you the right to declare the moral high ground? Are your policies… working? Are they net helping, or harming?
I think it’s also time for liberals in particular to realize that Liberalism and Progressivism are not the same thing.
In fact, 2020’s Progressivism is fundamentally illiberal, on foundational matters like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, bodily autonomy, women’s rights, the security/freedom tradeoff, the scope of government authority, color-blindness vs. identitarianism, and more. You see Bill Maher wrestle with this conflict again and again. 2020’s Progressivism has little in common with Liberalism, the more you examine it.
Liberals, it’s OK — even important, today — to reclaim “liberal,” and admit you’re not a hard-left Progressive.
The Essence of Learning
We need to normalize publicly updating prior assumptions in the face of evidence. That’s the essence of learning.
I admire people who have a willingness to come forward and say “hey, this isn’t working.” Or even better, “I was wrong.” I have no ill-will for truly well-intentioned people who thought Progressivism/leftism was the right thing to do. But… can you look at the results? If you cannot list any results that are actually WORKING, what does that say to you?
Let me close with this. Here’s a place where I was wrong: Ten years ago, I thought dedicated bike lanes and road diets would probably be a net negative, worsening traffic and small business retail health (less parking.) I wasn’t adamant about it, but I was very skeptical.
And so far, at least — this was not at all the disaster some forecast. There have even been some nice livability improvements. Pedestrianization has many benefits and I really hope Pike Place makes this permanent, even expands it. I also think light rail, though a very expensive project, is pretty great (but needs fare enforcement and a generous formalized low income plan.)
So now it’s your turn. How about you, Progressives? Do any of you want to say, “Based on outcomes so far, it’s looking like I was wrong about _______________?”