Glimmers of Hope?

 
 

 

The Sunday Seattle Times offers a page full of graphs to support a rather grim view of the state's economic future. But that pessimistic view isn't necessarily supported by the graphs on the page. Economics is all about trends, and if you look at the trendlines over the past year, conditions look substantially brighter. We are clearly beginning to emerge from that deep hole in which the financial crisis buried us.

  1. Leading economic indicators for Washington have climbed to 116.3 by September, up solidly from 110.3 a year ago, suggesting we should expect slow but steady economic growth ahead.
  2. There are 4.27 online adds for every 100 workers in our labor force. That's up about 30% from 3.26 jobs per 100 workers a year ago. Maybe not enough to quickly bring down state unemployment which remains stubbornly high at 9 percent. But unemployment in the state is significantly lower than that national rate of 9.6%. And the jobs available are much higher than the 2.79 average for the nation as a whole.
  3. Boeing employment has been on a steady climb since hitting a bottom in May. Recent increases are small, but with the new 787 beginning delivery in the first quarter of 2011 and the 747-8 soon afterward, hiring should start to pick up.  
  4. The purchasing managers' index is 59.2, up solidly from 52.6 a year ago, and substantially higher than 54.4 for the nation as a whole..
  5. Retail sales showed a year-to-year gain of 4.2% compared to a 6% decline the year before.
  6. Cargo volumes at the Port of Seattle were up about 20 percent.

The stubbornly persistent bad news is in housinig, where sales are down and inventories remain high. Housing problems are likely to plague us for a long time. But even here there is a glimmer of hope. Net new drivers licenses granted, which tends to be a good proxy for migration into the state, shot up to 12,100 in September, nearly twice the level of last September. New arrivals in the state help to create new demand for all that excess housing we built during the boom years.

Virgin on Business: Celebrating Boeing and the Interstate

Virgin on Business: Celebrating Boeing and the Interstate

If nothing else, significant anniversaries give us reason to pause and ponder.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Round-number-anniversary stories are an overused tool in the journalism workshop, maybe because they’re still helpful in pausing to assess where we are, how we got here and where we’re going.

In the case of two such round-number anniversaries being marked this year, those questions about where we’ve been and where we’re going have literal application because they pertain to two hugely significant developments in transportation, both important to this region, although only one is closely identified with it.

This year, Boeing celebrates the 100th anniversary of its founding and the interstate highway system marks 60 years since its official launch.

It is possible to overstate the significance to Seattle of Bill Boeing’s venture into aviation. It’s not true that without Boeing there wouldn’t be a Seattle, at least one that anyone would have heard of. Seattle was already someplace by 1916, thanks to the port and the railroads — the earlier contributions of two other modes of transport to Seattle’s creation — and events like the Klondike gold rush. Boeing didn’t emerge as the world’s preeminent commercial-aerospace company until well into its middle age.

But would the Seattle region have grown to the size it is and the importance it claims without being one of the world’s centers of aerospace design and production? Would it have developed the tech industries it thrives upon today without the foundation Boeing laid? Would it be a home to a thick portfolio of nationally significant companies? That’s highly debatable and quite doubtful.

As for where we’re going, wherever it is, we’ll likely get there by plane for a long time hence. For all the talk of hyperloops and other technologies, the airplane is still a remarkably efficient, productive and safe method of getting people and stuff from one place to another. There may be revolutions in design, materials and propulsion to rival the transition from propeller to jet, but short of teleportation, the airplane’s place in transportation is secure.

Much less secure are Boeing’s and Seattle’s places in that future. A lot of airplane-building rivals have come and gone in 100 years, and more are coming. It would be nice for both if Boeing and Seattle were still relevant to the discussion of the aerospace industry when the 200th anniversary of Boeing’s founding occurs. 

Meanwhile, the interstate highway system gets little love and a lot of abuse these days, credited with urban demolition, suburban sprawl and desecration of the countryside, not to mention the intangible crime of encouraging Americans to race to their destinations while ignoring the joys and sights of the journey.

Some of the blame is earned; much of it is silly. For people and things, the destination usually matters more than the journey. The interstates rendered the destination possible by making the journey faster and safer, even more enjoyable. And lamentations about not seeing or appreciating the country when viewed from the interstate are sometimes wrong. Take the drive on I-82 between Ellensburg and Yakima, or on I-90 just west of Snoqualmie summit, and try not to be impressed by either the scenery or the engineering feats.

Your cargo, however, is not on a sightseeing trip. It has places to be and work to do, which underscores the massive contribution the interstate system has made as an incredibly powerful economic engine. The modern American supply chain is a wondrous thing; it doesn’t happen without a network of limited-access divided highways, which, by the way, took a lot of traffic off city streets and rural roads, improving life for many.

Unloved as Interstates 5, 90 and 405 are for their congestion, noise, unsightliness, etc., and as expensive as it’s going to be to expand, rebuild and maintain them, give them credit for making urban life possible.  

Monthly columnist Bill Virgin is the founder and owner of Northwest Newsletter Group, which publishes Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News.