Harrell seems to like data in theory but not in practice.
Harrell seems to like data in theory but not in practice. LESTER BLACK

Anyone who has heard Bruce Harrell speak in public in the last few months knows that he constantly talks about following the data. Seattle centrists gobble this up. They yearn for dashboards and data-driven decisions, and they make vague demands for “accountability.”

But this technocratic-sounding rhetoric is just a kind of virtue signaling. It’s also complete bullshit. Many of Harrell’s positions directly reject the data and expert consensus. Let’s review a few.

Harrell Wants to Fix Homelessness Without an Increase in Taxes

Harrell plans to spend at least 50% of $120 million in rescue plan money from the feds, add a few million more from the general fund, follow the “Compassion Seattle” plan, leverage private resources, and make donations to nonprofits tax deductible.

The data don’t do much for this case. Let’s start with the obvious: We already leverage private resources, and gifts to plenty of major homelessness nonprofits in the area are already tax deductible. So most of his plan is already happening, to little avail.

But here’s where the data get downright mean to Harrell’s plan. Ever heard of McKinsey? They’re a prestigious consulting agency that whispers in the ear of most every G20 government, Fortune 500 company, top university, and world-renowned nonprofit out there. They are basically the not-so-secret Illuminati. Staffed primarily by people with graduate degrees from Ivy League universities, they follow the data, even when it takes them off a moral cliff.

Say what you will about McKinsey, but they are the colossus atop the technocratic mountain. Luckily for us, but unluckily for Harrell, McKinsey studied our homelessness problem in King County. They showed that just to address the bare-ass minimum of the problem, we need to spend $4.5 billion to $11 billion, or $450 million to $1.1 billion a year. In their words, “To put it another way, ending homelessness in King County would require spending three to five times the approximately $260 million currently spent locally on homelessness and ELI [extremely low income] housing in the region.” Harrell’s got a plan for maybe $80 million to $120 million, almost all of which is a one-time thing. Ouch.

Harrell’s math doesn’t even cover the cost of his plan for relatively cheap congregate shelters, which are just giant rooms full of beds. This kind of shelter runs about $50,000 in construction costs per bed, not counting land, which you may have noticed is expensive here. Even if we can set aside the space for shelters, $80 million only pays for 1,600 beds. At our last point-in-time count, we had 5,521 people unsheltered, with 11,751 homeless, and about 30,000 people requesting services during the year.

Then there are continuing costs to consider. Moving someone through the shelter system and into actual housing costs $14,000. This is because annual operating costs per bed average from $15,000 to $25,000, depending on whether additional social services are on offer. Given that Harrell embraces behavioral health support in shelters, and that these numbers are national and out-of-date, even $25,000 may be optimistic.

Building space for 1,600 beds in open rooms leaves most of the people out in the cold, and it still costs an additional $40 million a year to operate. So he plans to build far too little and doesn’t have a plan to fund even that. Building 5,500 congregate shelter beds to cover everyone would cost $275 million (again, assuming we set aside land) and create $138 million a year in operating costs, and all those people would still be homeless, just out of sight and shunted away to a shelter.

More importantly, housing first is the approach to homelessness the data supports, and shelters are not housing first. They are too often sobriety-first, which is literally the opposite of housing first. They frequently separate you from your stuff, pets, and family, and so people frequently refuse to sleep in them. They can also present safety concerns and exacerbate existing trauma. Nor do they attract much of the “leverage” Harrell touts, since people don’t pay any rent. Harrell’s answer to these details is magical math and maybe even criminal punishment for people who won’t move into these hostile environments. Not data.

Harrell’s Housing Plans Are Just as Retrograde

Harrell's housing plans are even more of a middle finger to the data. He talks about economic growth and increased access to opportunities for the poor and for BIPOC, but he opposes anything that threatens the single-family-home aristocracy in the middle of the biggest city in Northwestern North America.

He seems unable to follow the data-driven path here. I can help: the overwhelming policy consensus on the center right, center left, technocratic left, of the Democratic Socialists, and among economists is that single-family zoning, particularly in high-talent urban agglomerations such as Seattle, strangles economic growth, hurts minorities, and shuts millions of BIPOC children out of neighborhoods where they otherwise thrive.

It turns out that this blinkered love for big houses with picket fences far away from poor people locks millions of BIPOC families into intergenerational poverty. Despite the Seattle centrists’ claim that they represent the Democratic mainstream, and that progressives are just a bunch of radicals, their defense of the suburban form in so much of Seattle directly contradicts the Biden White House, for the love of god.

Harrell does make an exception for multifamily buildings along arterials. But the data doesn’t help him much there, either. Life alongside such roads drastically increases childhood diseases such as asthma, and it exposes kids to roads that are way more likely to kill pedestrians in a collision. Given what the data say about horrifically high death rates for Black children, totally preventable asthma-related mortality rates for poor and minority people, and the perilous frequency of pedestrian deaths for Black and Hispanic citizens, it sure doesn’t seem like the data led him to support street sewers for renters and leafy enclaves for aristocrats.

Harrell Also Seems to Like Roads

His support of the Bertha boondoggle shines brightly here. While he couldn’t have known that the big boring machine would get stuck, he could have paid attention to a half-century of economists explaining that increases in freeway capacity don’t fix traffic.

But has Harrell learned his lesson? I know of no statement that suggests it, and he wouldn’t offer one when I contacted his campaign.

He does say he wants to fund repairs for three big, expensive car bridges that overwhelmingly favor drivers, and whose costs will swamp everything else. If you doubt this support will turn into theft from active transportation, see the recent raid on biking and walking funding led by pretend-Democrat Alex Pedersen, over and against SDOT’s recommendations. (Pedersen endorsed Harrell, by the way.)

While I’ll readily admit these bridges need repair, Harrell doesn't speak with urgency about the need to hand over right-of-way to other types of transport, which would amount to actual prioritization. This is because Harrell is largely aligned with our state-level centrists, who spend like drunken sailors on highway expansions, and who act like impecunious penny-pinchers if someone says “bus” or “bike.”

While he says walking and transit are a higher priority than driving, his plans do not indicate this. Sure, he wants to speed up light rail and expand dedicated bus lanes, but he's short on details. He also thinks we "should review, expand, and connect" the city's Stay Healthy Streets Plan, which sounds nice, but, again, only if the money comes from the right place.

He also wants to “continue investing in safe sidewalks and bike lanes.” But we have 11,000 blocks without a sidewalk, and we are building them at a pace of 25 blocks a year. If this is the kind of continued investment he wants, I wouldn’t call that a data-driven approach to prioritizing pedestrians. His campaign also refused to comment on this matter.

Making Cops Sign a Pledge Is Not a Data-Driven Approach

Finally, let’s talk about public safety. Harrell’s rigorous answer to crime? First, he wants to make officers watch the video of George Floyd’s murder. I guess if it were scientifically shown to change behavior, then we could expect some major national improvements in systemic racism on the horizon considering that the video was watched 1.4 billion times in just the first twelve days after it was posted.

Harrell also will make officers sign a pledge not to be racist. Given the 80% failure rate of, say, New Year’s Resolutions, and given that these pledges aren’t even voluntary, that’s not a particularly promising policy either. But maybe I missed the meta-analysis in Nature on the powerful effect of signing pledges?

Harrell also talks about a mandate to end bias in policing. What a delightfully utopian idea. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could mandate the end of bias? Given that the Seattle Police Department has remained under the consent decree for a decade now because of biased policing, such a mandate doesn’t sound particularly promising. And on any case, despite a great deal of research on the topic, there is no clear evidence that the implicit bias training we use now affects behavior.

His other big idea is ... wait for it ... a data dashboard that will reveal who the courts, the landlords, and the cops treat with bias. Of course, social scientists have been presenting us this data for decades: we know exactly who suffers from bias in these systems.

An actual data-driven approach to public safety is complicated, of course. All else equal, adding police officers cuts violent crime, except in cities with the most Black residents. But this says nothing about whether this is the most efficient or effective way to prevent violence. Nor does it offer a comparison between approaches that are less laden with racial subjugation, and less prone to violating people’s basic rights.

And yet all my centrist friends seem to think his approach of adding a bunch more officers is the sure-fire way to make us all safer. After all, isn’t defunding the police responsible for the crime spike?

The data don’t show that, either. Violent crime is up in cities that have taken steps toward defunding. But it is also up in those that have held funding steady. In fact, it’s up in those that have increased it, too.

Here in Washington, Spokane’s murder rate jumped by far more than Seattle’s from 2019 to 2020. And despite our tragic increase in murders, Seattle’s overall violent crime rate was actually down. Property crime barely ticked up from its 26-year low in 2019. Defunding is as in-line with the data as doubling down and increasing the number of officers. As Professor of Criminology Ronald Wight notes, there is no evidence that a shift from policing to mental health funding will increase murder rates. According to Wight, “What we have is anecdotes.”

This is, of course, not surprising given that the social scientists who research this, and really anyone who has ever paid much attention to the data, knows that the causes of crime are many-layered. But Harrell and the wanna-feel-smart fanboy-CEOs that back his campaign are apparently too busy consulting their inner-ids to think about these kinds of details. They don’t want data or information or insight or science. They want more police. Now. And Harrell wants to give them that.

To be fair to Harrell, no one is truly data-driven. It’s more or less impossible at the philosophical level, because information doesn’t live in a moral vacuum. We have to decide what a good society should look like. We have to select data, interpret it, and make ethical decisions that trade off various benefits and harms. And this reasoning is largely driven by gut reactions, which are themselves shaped by cognitive biases and the influence of social groups. Of course, if Harrell and his backers knew the science, they’d know this.

So can a candidate legitimately claim to “follow the data?” Sure. It’s a reasonable claim if you identify where you want to go and use the best information and research to get there. It’s just that Harrell is doing the opposite. It seems instead that he and his supporters are all about the feels.