Housing Complex

Boomtown Redux

The feds must've planted those.

We've heard it again and again and again: D.C. is awash in riches as the rest of the country suffers, and it's because of the bloated federal government that's leeching off all the poor suckers outside the Beltway. Real Clear Politics is the latest to jump on the bandwagon, with a post earlier this week headlined, "When Will America Burst D.C.'s Bubble?"

"Eighteen Starbucks shops can be found in the three-mile walk from DuPont Circle to the U.S. Capitol," the post begins. "Not one of them had a line less than seven people deep on a recent Wednesday afternoon.

"Twenty-one construction sites filled with workers on girders and cranes towering over whole city blocks can be found on the same walk.

"Commerce bursts from every angle of this city: small businesses packed with shoppers, hair salons charging more than the monthly mortgage payment on my first house for a cut-and-blow-dry, and main as well as side streets clogged with traffic."

Where to begin? There are parts of downtown Manhattan where you can find 20 Starbucks in a single square mile. Surely, then, New York is a much worse leech than D.C.

How about construction? According to a recent Forbes survey, New York, Houston, and Dallas have the most construction starts of any cities in the country. Get those damn Texans off the federal teat!

And streets clogged with traffic? Surely, here D.C. can't be beat. Well according to the latest survey, we have been—by eight American cities. Los Angeles and Honolulu must really be sucking down those taxpayer dollars.

But no, the wealth and bustle and caffeination of other cities is due to their hard work and homegrown industry. In D.C., as we well know, no degree of prosperity could possibly be accomplished without a hand deep in the federal coffers. Industries like New York's finance and Houston's oil are clean as a whistle, while having the government in town is an eternal sin.

"It's only a matter of time," the author writes, "before the rest of America's complaints will burst Washington's bubble."

Keep on complaining! We'll see how it works out for you.

Update: The post's author, Salena Zito, gets in touch to clarify that by "bubble," she doesn't mean "economically unsustainable bubble," but rather "bubble that insulates people from reality." That's an unusual use of the "bursting bubble" metaphor—a phrase she invokes in both the headline and the body text—but I'll take her at her word. As for her apparent dig at D.C. in the line,"Washington's obsession is with social and cultural issues that drive bigger wedges between Us and Them," she explains, "it's because DC keeps on focusing on social issues, while outside DC the economy is flat, they want to hear about jobs." Thanks for following up, Salena.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • Colin

    Does anyone really think that increased spending by the federal government -- the number one employer in town -- has not benefited DC? If not, what is the point of this post?

  • Well

    Too bad federal government spending has been actually decreasing and not increasing...got another theory?

  • tim

    Yeah, but to some extent those cities have to work to keep their industries. The finance industry could (and in many cases) has left NYC for cheaper locations or go overseas (London). Most jobs in DC are here be because they absolutely have to be here (government, think tanks, lobbyist, news bureaus). There are some non-govt related private sector jobs. But, most are in MD/VA.

    Take Google as an example. It has a huge office to attract top teach talent that wants to live in NYC. The office is not merely a sales office, but is the 2nd largest development center outside Silicon Valley. The DC office by contrast is basically a small lobby shop and government contracting office.

  • Colin

    Um, not sure what you are talking about.


    In constant 2005 dollars, the feds are projected to spend $3.086 trillion in 2013. While down from $3.173 trillion in 2009 -- a reduction of 2.4% -- that's still up over $500 billion since 2007 (a 20% hike).

    So yeah, the feds -- despite recent slight declines -- are still spending hundreds of billions more than they were just a few years ago.

  • DC

    The problem with the logic of most of the whine-fests is that they come from the people that cheer in when the government shifts its spending to contractors. They want to demonize the middle class federal worker because they've got a picture in their heads of what exactly that worker looks like. But the immense growth and wealth of DC, particularly in NoVa comes from contractors and people paid by contractors to keep the contracts flowing.

    Once these jackasses start talking about, say, SAIC and not that generic "federal government" etc. then I'll take them seriously. Until then, it's just red meat often thrown to people who are net takers (or at least live in states that are) from the Feds.

  • mizark

    While I see where these types of articles are coming from, they continue to frustrate me. What are we supposed to do? Move the State Department to Cleveland in the interest of fairness?

  • Colin

    "The problem with the logic of most of the whine-fests is that they come from the people that cheer in when the government shifts its spending to contractors."

    Hmm, I most articles I have read criticizing the DC boom complain about spending full stop. Haven't seen any caveats for contractors. Perhaps you have?

    "What are we supposed to do?"

    Stop spending so much maybe?

  • tim

    At: mizark. That might not actually be a bad idea. Much of the State Department is probably too important to move out of DC. But, there are lots of back office goverment jobs that could easily be done in lower cost locations. Similar to NYC. Keep the high level decision makers in DC/Manhattan and move the back office stuff to lower cost regions (Iowa,Kansas).

  • Neil

    I moved here from North Carolina because I knew that the DC region had a strong economy and was more insulated from recessions, because most of the labor force was not dependent on cylical industries. I worked hard to get a good education to make myself marketable in the highly competitive DC job market. I'm not sure what's stopping those whining and complaining from making similar moves, if they think DC has it so good. I also suspect that most of the complainers are found in states that receive more in federal outlays than they contribute in federal taxes.

  • Janson

    If we granted the wish, and through vicious austerity turned DC into Detroit, I'll wager that not only would it not help any other region - it would hurt them. While the benefits to the nation and the world from, for example, the medical research conducted here is obviously positive in its own right, it's probably not nearly as important as the (newly minted) dollars being added to the national economy. Separately, it's ironic that DC pays more federal taxes than it receives, unlike much of the US.

    While it's a well-documented psychological pattern to prefer lowering the material comfort of others, even when it deepens one's own losses, the whole point of education is to counteract those uncivilized urges.

  • AWalkerInTheCity

    there were times when fed employment grew, and DC declined. the turnabout is part of an urban revival at the expense of at least some suburbs. Its parallel to changes in NY, SF, and even chicago and philly.

    But RCP isnt interested in urban revival - it suits them to identify the district with with the fed govt.

    "it's because DC keeps on focusing on social issues, while outside DC the economy is flat, they want to hear about jobs."

    whats disgusting about a dig like that is that its mostly pols from the rest of country who focus on social issues. DC here is code not for the actual residents of DC, or the DC area, or even the subset of them who are actual fed employees, but for congressmen, none of whom are citizens of DC, and only a few of whom are citizens of the DC area (and I daresay most of the congressmen from MD and NoVa are not interested in focusing on wedge issues)

  • Kate

    @Tim - actually a huge number of the back office jobs have been moved out of DC. For instance lots of the payroll processing is in Louisnana. The Census Buearu has call centers and processing facilities all over the place. There might be more than can be done, but it's not like the idea hasn't occured to anyone.

  • http://distcurm.blogspot.com/ IMGoph

    I have a hard time taking the article seriously if the author can't even get the first geographic location spelled correctly.

  • smgreene67

    For those who believe that the federal government is the largest employer in the region, it is not. The largest employers are the universities and the hospitals.

    I detect a bit of jealousy from the people who write these articles. Do they want us to be more like TX? It has a low employment rate but most of the jobs are for low education, low skilled workers.