G.L.Piggy [at] gmail.com
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I came to the article below through Andrew Sullivan. Matt Yglesias fumbles through the course of this as well.
If I start linking more often to Sullivan’s blog it’s because I’ve only just now put him on my RSS feed after the hoopla over his new venture. So I’m familiarizing myself with his blog and seeing what all the fuss has been about. In this case, I see that, because he doesn’t like the tone of it, Sullivan has hen-pecked an interesting article about the roots of Washington D.C.’s recent economic success.
Other than that, what Annie Lowrey (wife of D.C. wonk, Ezra Klein) writes about the growth of D.C. being a function of the growth of government doesn’t seem controversial:
The growth has arrived in something like concentric circles. Increased government spending has bumped up the region’s human capital, drawing other businesses, from technology to medicine to hospitality. Restaurants and bars and yoga studios have cropped up to feed and clothe and stretch all those workers, and people like Jim Abdo have been there to provide the population — which grew by 650,000 between 2000 and 2010 — with two-bedrooms with Wolf ranges.
How Washington managed this transformation, however, is not a story that the rest of the country might want to hear, because we largely financed it. As the size of the federal budget has ballooned over the past decade, more and more of that money has remained in the District. “We get about 15 cents of every procurement dollar spent by the federal government,” says Stephen Fuller, a professor of public policy at George Mason University and an expert on the region. “There’s great dependence there.” And with dependence comes fragility. About 40 percent of the regional economy, Fuller says, relies on federal spending.
There’s something unsavory about having a capital city doing outrageously well while the rest of the country is limping along — especially when its economy is premised in part on capturing wealth rather than creating it.
Insofar as she’s comparing the postwar era, Lowrey pins the region’s growth on Reagan and the massive deregulation that increased lobbying efforts by private companies seeking government contracts. She also points out that Clinton sought to restructure government and succeeded in winnowing the federal payroll even as agencies’ budgets increased. And then September 11 occurred and the Department of Homeland Security was created. Even without looking at statistics, it feels like we’ve begun swinging back towards the central hub. Even the Reagan years were a hub-centered pushback against the very same hub. Hubbiness was solidified. As a side note, I know several libertarian think-tank employees who work/live in the D.C. area. Their anti-government positions are dependent on the government too.
In the piece, Lowrey called D.C. “unstylish” and Sullivan responded:
Seriously, could you get any more contemptuous of the nation’s capital, one of the most pleasant, modern and livable cities in America. Unless you’re such a fucking snob you write paragraphs like that one. Makes me want to go back – just to stick it to Annie Lowrey, and her insufferable condescension.
I’m definitely behind the curve in realizing Sullivan’s lack of reading comprehension and his tendency to miss the bigger picture. I’ve heard that he does this though. Lowrey’s point is that if D.C. is “one of the most pleasant, modern and livable cities in America” it is because the rest of the nation has been paying for it. She quotes Cato’s David Boaz stumbling over words trying to criticize the amenities of the city. Boaz complains that there is too much construction. While he is really unable to complain about his immediate surroundings, he makes the point that it is an illusion. Thus the name of the article “Washington’s Financial Boom Funded by You”. Little of that growth is organic to D.C. Its mere existence – its structure and its very culture – are founded on I.O.U.’s to the American (and many non-American) people.
Then we have Yglesias who pushes back against Lowrey’s argument by citing the D.C.’s population relative to the rest of the country over the course of the past century. What? He has a chart, but that’s a pointless metric. Yglesias focuses entirely on population when what we’re really talking about is the overall rising standards of living in the region.
In terms of per capita income growth between 2000 and 2010, D.C. ranked third among metro areas. First place is Baltimore whose growth, according to New Geography, is due in part to D.C.’s growth. Plenty of D.C. residents are leaving the area because they can’t afford to live there anymore. Except they’re leaving by Greyhound while the new citizens are coming via moving truck.