Housing Complex

Boomtown Brats

The New York TimesRoss Douthat looks at D.C.’s new high-rises and sees “a city running on exploitation,” the wealth of which “is ultimately extracted from taxpayers more than it is earned.” In the paper’s Sunday magazine, Annie Lowrey takes readers on a tour of “Washington’s Economic Boom, Financed by You.” Fox News’ Sean Hannity calls it a “pyramid scheme” and asks, “What is Washington producing except record debts?” Hannity’s guest Peter Schweizer describes D.C. as “a town of Maserati dealerships, fine wines, luxurious homes, and luxurious shops.” Real Clear Politics’ Salena Zito gapes at all the Starbucks and construction sites and concludes that Washingtonians are living in a “bubble.” The Wall Street Journal is the latest to get in on the action, reporting last week that D.C.’s boom is “buoyed [by] two forces specific to the capital city: a surge of federal contractors and a rising tide of government spending.”

Never mind that federal spending as a percentage of gross domestic product is barely higher than in the 1980s and early 1990s, when D.C. was in notoriously rough shape, or that the nearest Maserati dealerships, according to the company website, are in Sterling, Va., and Germantown, Md. The national media seem obsessed these days with pinning every element of D.C.’s recent success on a bloated federal government and the poor taxpayer who’s been screwed into subsidizing the District’s luxuries.

This conventional wisdom misses a big part of the story. Actually, it misses pretty much the entire story.

Of course the federal government has a huge presence in the District. It’s the city’s largest employer by far, and its presence also accounts for many of the lawyers, lobbyists, contractors, and reporters in town. It is, without a doubt, D.C.’s big industry.

But finance is New York’s big industry, and you don’t see New York being demonized for its reliance on the bankers whom your federal tax dollars bailed out for $700 billion. Fossil fuels are Houston’s big industry, and you don’t see Houston getting slammed for the $7 billion a year we taxpayers are spending to subsidize oil and gas companies.

Instead, there’s a peculiar obsession with D.C.’s reliance on the federal government, especially now that D.C.’s economy is growing nicely. Which is odd, because we’re becoming less dependent on the feds than ever.

* * *

Over the past year, federal-government employment in the District shrank by 2.2 percent, while private-sector employment grew by 2.5 percent, according to the latest trends report from the Office of the Chief Financial Officer. A separate study from the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University finds that federal government employment accounts for 27.7 percent of D.C. jobs, down from 31.8 percent in 1990 and 28.4 percent in 2000. (For the metropolitan area, it’s at 12.1 percent, down from 15.5 percent in 1990 and 12.3 percent in 2000.)

“The share of the federal government as an employer, that percentage, which is below 30 now, it continues to steadily creep down,” says Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning. “We love the federal government, but our future is a much more diverse economy.”

Federal-bloat theorists will argue that a shrinking federal government simply means more jobs getting contracted out, leading fed-driven growth to continue apace. But what sectors of the D.C. economy are actually growing the fastest in terms of employment? From 2007 to 2012, according to the OCFO report, of the city’s large sectors, food service took the prize, growing by 24.3 percent, followed by health (17 percent) and education (16.1 percent). In that time, federal government employment increased by 7.9 percent.

“If you look at where the growth is coming, it’s health care, it’s universities, it’s hotels, it’s technology,” says David Zipper, the director of business development and strategy in the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. “These are not sectors where the federal government is outsourcing or contracting. You can’t contract out to a restaurant.”

You can contract out, say, defense and international security services, and Defense Department contracts jumped after 9/11 (though they started declining after 2008). But the region’s defense contractors are concentrated in the suburbs, highlighting the conflation of D.C., the city, and D.C., the region, prevalent among national pundits who like to treat the Northrop Grumman employees who live and work in Fairfax County and the cranes and Starbucks they scoff at in the District as simple cause and effect. (Many of these cranes are building on valuable lots that had sat vacant for years or decades because there was no money in the city that’s allegedly sucking the rest of the country dry.) These contracts also don’t explain why D.C.’s recent population growth has outpaced the region’s, or why sectors like health, education, and hospitality are booming in the District.

So what accounts for the boom in these homegrown industries? A lot of it has to do with demographics. According to the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, an increasing share of the people who work in D.C. are choosing to live in D.C. That’s partly due to safety—homicides were down 82 percent last year from their 1991 peak—and partly due to food, drink, and entertainment options, and to good planning. It helps explain why the city is gaining about 1,100 residents each month, and why, at a time when big cities around the country are growing, D.C. is adding population faster than nearly all of them.

Zipper points out that these new residents are “predominantly young professionals, who have disposable income to spend at restaurants and go shopping with.” Since most of them don’t have families, they’re also more willing to take jobs with long hours and low pay at places like nonprofits and tech startups.

The tech sector doesn’t yet account for a significant percentage of D.C.’s workforce, but its dramatic growth is indicative of the city’s shift from dependence on the feds to local industry, leading Mayor Vince Gray to set an ambitious (and maybe unrealistic) goal of becoming the largest tech center on the East Coast within five years. Peter Corbett, CEO of the tech marketing firm iStrategyLabs and the unofficial dean of the D.C. tech scene, marvels at the maturation of D.C. tech since he moved here nine years ago.

“The super early days would be 20 of us sitting in a Caribou Coffee talking about social APIs,” Corbett recalls. “That was like 2006.” The next year, Corbett’s tech happy hours grew to 100 people, then about 800 in 2008, and 2,200 people at a meetup in early 2009.

Companies are increasingly attracted to D.C. because of its highly educated population, which is in turn drawn to the city by jobs, quality of life, and the dozens of colleges and universities that are based or have secondary campuses in the District. (It’s not, as some critics seem to suggest, as if the people who just happen to live in D.C. have suddenly won the regional economic development lottery and are benefiting randomly from the recent boom.) Tregoning points to a counterintuitive statistic to demonstrate D.C.’s strength: The District has a higher concentration of college debt than any state. That highlights, she says, both the high education level in D.C. and the city’s great transportation network—because it’s so easy to get around without a car, transportation costs are low, people with debt are attracted to D.C., and the District has a lower rate of college debt default than every state but North Dakota.

None of this has much to do with the ebbs and flows of federal government spending. Sure, the city relies on the government just as any city relies on its principal industry, but that reliance, if anything, is shrinking as the city’s economy grows. The Hannitys and Douthats of the world may have chosen this moment to attack the District because of D.C.’s current economic success, especially in contrast to the economy most of the rest of the country has been living through. But from the perspective of dependence on the federal government, they’re making their argument at the wrong time.

“Why would you pick now to be hating on Washington?” Tregoning asks. “You’re late to the party by decades.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Comments

  1. #1

    Even with state boundaries getting in the way, the city and the region are functionally the same thing. If DC was an island with 600,000 people in it, there wouldn't be any talk of "boomtown" to begin with. It's only because it sits at the core of a region of 5.5 million (8 million if you count Greater Baltimore) that it even merits a negative mention from the Ross Douthats and Sean Hannitys of the world.

    The issue isn't that these columnists lump in a Maserati dealership in Germantown with DC (even if the cool kids in DC would never associate with Germantown), but that they ignore/misunderstand the social diversity and economic versatility of DC and the region as a whole.

  2. #2

    Excellent post. Thanks for looking into the facts of the situation. It won't change the ideologues' view of DC, but does help with family members who might listen to reason.

  3. #3

    How can you just ignore lobbying growth? This makes the whole article pointless. Massive spending of private resources for public benifits is a completely relevant part of the argument. Overall lobbying expenditures rose to over $3.5 billion in 2010, a 130% increase from 1998. And that's just the disclosed amounts. It's down a bit, but barely. This is who is eating all the expencive food. Not young professionals working at non profits.

    Health care is going up everywhere. Nothing special about DC's growth.

    Who do you think all those tech compnies are contracting with. As far non-gov related tech goes, heard of Living social? That went well.

  4. #4

    Thanks, Aaron, a solid rebuttal to some very specious arguments put out there by people paid to write, but not actually report. Sadly, the river of bullshit will continue to flow from the Hannitys, Douthats, and the like because they're paid to write and talk. There's no need to be right when your only job is to opine.

  5. #5

    Very insightful post. The most balanced I've read on the subject and perhaps the best I've read on this blog. There is a virtuous cycle of money that used to be spread mostly among the burbs now increasingly concentrated in an increasingly desirable city core. The Federal government may have always underpinned the regional economy, but the media you cited are missing (or intentionally ignoring) the real story.

  6. #6

    From this blog post, "an increasing share of the people who work in D.C. are choosing to live in D.C. That’s partly due to safety—homicides were down 82 percent last year from their 1991 peak—and partly due to food, drink, and entertainment options, and to good planning."

    GOOD PLANNING? For real?

    How come no planning agencies are taking a serious look at the pipes and utilities under ground that is supposed to support all this development. Bus lines are being cut when the population is growing?!? Street cars were bought, rails were put in, and now they are trying to figure out how to power this new pretty form of transportation. That's the extent of planning in the District.

    And none of this development is being looked at in the context that the ice at the top of the planet is melting. Fukushima is boiling over. And storms are growing.

    What we are seeing get built is the same pre-fab Chinese made 2 inch thick basic architectural design, with some "green" elements thrown in.

    None of this is sustainable.

    And, there's an obvious class divide here... clearly this article is focusing on NW DC. I mean... what about the poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment across the river. How can all of this "planning" and development ignore that.

    Amazing. What PR spin... what an American Dream... makes sense we are in the Nation's Capital. Tregoning bases nothing on science. Smart growth... for real?

    Get real.

  7. #7

    DC is simply reinflating to what it would have been if it wasn't for the unchecked and glorified violence from the black community in the 80's and 90's. Pro-tip: stop hitting you spouses and children and you're kids will turn out better.

    New Yorkers are just upset when they're not the center of the world's attention.

  8. AWalkerInTheCity
    #8

    As economists like Paul Krugman have pointed out, total govt spending has actually decreased during the great recession.

    So how does someone make the case about a huge predatory govt? What better way than to look at DC and greater DC, cherry picking as needed (Maserati dealerships in the far suburbs, construction cranes in NoMa, whatever)

  9. #9

    I find it unbelievable that a writer from New York would complain about public largesse in DC following the massive bank bailouts that occurred up and down wall street. Really?

  10. #10

    That WSJ article was particularly infuriating, because it was written in the residential real estate section and focused largely on the hot for-sale market over the past one year, when government and contracting have both very publicly shrunk.

    The largest subsidy to the oil & gas industry? Not tax breaks by a long mile; it's the lack of a price/tax on carbon, which lets them dump their waste into everyone's air for free. Big finance's big subsidies similarly aren't quantifiable: absurdly cheap money, gaping wealth inequality, and the the implicit "too big to fail" guarantee result in huge, productivity sucking transfers of wealth from the rest of us to NYC.

    Lobbying expenditures have grown, but amount to less than 1% of a $433B regional economy. Yes, it probably has an outsized contribution to the top end of the market.

    Over the long term, this region has certainly benefitted from good planning, e.g., Metro, transit oriented development, trails along rivers and streams, almost no freeways tearing apart the city, steering downtown office growth east rather than letting it take over Dupont, etc.

  11. #11

    "As economists like Paul Krugman have pointed out, total govt spending has actually decreased during the great recession."

    Total government spending is irrelevant given that this discussion is about the federal government. What state governments spend is irrelevant to DC.

    "I find it unbelievable that a writer from New York would complain about public largesse in DC following the massive bank bailouts that occurred up and down wall street. Really?"

    Annie Lowrey doesn't live in NYC, she lives here. She's Ezra Klein's wife.

  12. #12

    I love the blame placed on DC. It must be our non-voting member of Congress stuffing every bill with pork going straight to DC. Eleanor Holmes Norton is the best.

    If you want to ruin our economy stop electing jackoffs susceptible to lobbying. It's not our fault, it's YOUR congressman's fault

  13. #13

    @ dan reed! --
    As long as I have no representation in Congress, DC is NOT the same thing as the region, functionally or any other way.

  14. #14

    As long as I have no representation in Congress, DC is NOT the same thing as the region, functionally or any other way.

    Yep, especially given the last half-century of regional policies that helped the suburbs skim all the cream while confining all the negative externalities to the urban core.

    Given the partitioned nature of regional government, it's something of a zero sum game.

  15. #15

    blah blah blah DC v. NYC blah blah blah

  16. #16

    Hannity may be an insuferable gas bag but you aren't doing anyone any favors by ignoring the clear evidence of DC's recent and growing benefit from the Federal Gov. Yes…those of you who ignore the issue like to fall back on the fact that DC is the seat of the federal government, seemingly ignoring the fact that it has been for more than 200 years, yet the sheer volume of spending occurring now trumps anything in the history of the city, including (inflation adjusted) the spending during WWII.

    People really don't understand, is the volume of federal procurement dollars pumped into the local economy. Federal procurement, it sounds innocuous but Uncle Sam spends 80 billion a year in the DCMSA on procurement alone, not salaries/wages, but service contracts. Thats up from ~30 billion in 2001.More than half a trillion procurement dollars has been spent in the DC area since Bush took office. This is on top of the 35 billion in salaries the feds pay every year in the DCMSA.

    Total Federal Spending in the MSA has nearly tripled in a decade, from ~65 billion a year to 170 billion. Let that sit in for a second and think about it. In the past 11 years, federal spending in the DC economy increased by ~105 billion per year. And people wonder why there has been a massive housing boom and retail expansion of companies looking to capitalize on that money. Yep…nothing to see here folks.

    While the MSA is large, Baltimore to Richmond, the lionshare of the procurement it is spent in Montgomery County, Fairfax, Arlington and Loudoun County. This 80 billion isn't spent on planes and tanks, but "services". 80 billion a year spent on DC Region specific contracting, a large percentage of it the ridiculous "support services" junk the Feds should be embarrassed to spend money on. Spending millions a year hiring 20 to 30 something’s to literally take meeting notes and assemble PowerPoint slide decks.

    Here is the summary folks. Uncle Sam has spent more than 1 trillion dollars in the DC Metro area in the past 11 years in combined salaries and procurement, most of it spent in a 50 mile radius of the Washington Monument. It is unsustainable and history shows us that DC has in the past and will in the future sustain painful cutbacks, the one that’s coming more painful than any in history because of the size of this spending bubble.

    Here is is, the overwhelming bulk of the Districts growth and subsequent surpluses the past decade have been due to the enormous increase, in both real and percentage terms of Federal spending in the DC metro area.

    The District of Columbia's piece of the MSA's total federal spending pie went from 28.2 billion in 2000, to 61.9 in 2010. Increase of 120%

    The Districts GDP in 2010 was 105 billion. This is up 6% from 2009 and up 14% since 2007. The US GDP during that same period rose on 4%.

    During the years of 2000-2008, the District of Columbia GDP grew at an annual rate of 6.5% in nominal terms and in real terms the economy grew by 3.1%

    Federal spending in District of Columbia in 2000 was 28.2 billion. District GDP in 2000 was 75 billion. Federal spending accounted for 37% of the Districts economy in 2000.

    Federal spending in District of Columbia in 2010 was 61.9 billion. District GDP in 2010 was 105 billion. Federal spending accounted for 58% of the Districts economy in 2010.

    Facts are hard to fight. It doesn't get any clearer than this. Federal spending as a proportion of the District economy grew by 57% in that ten year period.

    Finally, if reams of census and BLS data is unconvincing, you can take it right from Gandhi's own mouth, and I quote

    Federal spending accounted for 37% of the Districts economy in 2000. It accounted for 58% in 2010.

  17. #17

    2% of the federal budget goes to DC, what's the big deal? Obviously as the SEAT of FEDERAL GOVERNMENT and being a relateivly modest city, federal employment/spending constitutes a significant portion of the local economy is federal government.

  18. #18

    Alan,

    The District of COlumbia's piece of the pie was 28 billion per year in 2000.

    It was 62 billion per year in 2010. Obviously you can see the difference, and this was during the worst recession since the great depression, spread among a relatively small city of 630K residents.

    Federal spending in the District proper increased 57% per year in a decade.

  19. Calvin H. Gurley
    #19

    And now, comes GURLEY

    @fuge…I totally agree with you on the planning points are just ignorant. Our Council know of no other ways to generate city revenue than to hold a gun against the heads of D.C. residents - speed and red light cameras, surplus fees on cell phone and utilities bills; while allowing downtown businesses to not pay billions (recordation taxes) on refinancing their downtown properties.

    @Anon…federal spending/contracts benefits the suburbs of D.C. Northern Virginia’s housing boom. Wealthy business persons and staff are not buying homes in D.C.

    @Chris lobbying points – lobbying money only benefits the elected officials and their staff who work and legislate in the U.S. Capitol. The only piece of this pie that D.C. is receiving is retail and restaurant sale taxes.

    Calvin H. Gurley

  20. Calvin H. Gurley
    #20

    D.C. is facing a housing bubble…the same spike or the quick rising of prices for homes is what caused the last housing bubble the U.S. is still trying to get out of.

    Our insipid Council lacks the foresight and business acumen to bring the best commerce to the city that will relieve the citizen’s burden to fund government’s excesses and indiscretions with higher taxes.

    What level of thinking goes into creating a billion dollar H Street Trolley Car system when the Gaylord/National Harbor is stealing more than 50% of the D.C. Convention Center’s business? The National Spelling Bee contest is being held at National Harbor as of right now.

    County Executive (Prin. Geo, Md) Wayne Curry was brilliant in his Gaylord/National Harbor Project and now the MGM Hotel/Casino will bring in all from Virginia, Maryland and D.C. to spend a weekend spree at the National Harbor. Disney is re-visiting it role/plan at the Gaylord. Water ferries, family entertainment, Las Vegas casino gaming, stage showsm, restaurants ...a scenic view of the Virginia, Maryland and District coastal waterway of the Potomac River.

    Brace yourself D.C., the Verizon Center, Adams Morgan, NoMo, H Street Corridor will be ghost towns or will suffer financially when the Gaylord-National Harbor and MGM Grand Hotel/Casino and Disney reach their peak.

    And, the best that the Mayor and this dead brain Council can compete with is a Trolley Car? Folks, the Council and this Mayor are forever pointing the gun at you (their cash cow) to continue to rob you with speed and red light cameras, increasing your property rates and charging surplus fees on your cell phone and utilities bills.

    The Council lack the business savvy to exploit the TOURIST TRADE or what this city is known for and which could provide a steady supply of revenue – relieving the tax burden on D.C. residents to operate this free spending and no purpose for spending Council.

    Wake up Trusting Citizens

    Calvin H. Gurley

  21. #21

    National Harbor? Please. PG County will screw that up - the only thing proven is that they will bring their citizens to that place and turn it into a dump within 5 years. Every time they build something nice in PG County, the citizens of that lovely county can be counted on to trash it. It will become the Atlantic City of Maryland.

  22. #22

    Typical DC BS: PG County screwed up the day they laid the foundations for National Harbor. My former employer had a satellite office there - National Harbor itself isn't so bad, but lack of access to the Metro or any sort of public transportation completely ruins it.

  23. #23

    Aaron,

    As the data show, DC is actually MORE dependant on the Federal Government now than at any time before. I am not sure how you can say the dependance on Uncle Sam is diminishing when nearly 60% of DC's GDP is fed specfic, up from 28% a decade ago.

    Yes, the number of federal employees is down, but contracting (via procurement) has never been higher.

    Please research this stuff before putting it out there illustrating you haven't done the basest amount of research.

  24. #24

    "As far non-gov related tech goes, heard of Living social? That went well."

    Living Social is still doing well, Chris M, they own several buildings downtown, including in the red hot Penn Quarter. Even if their sales dropped 50% next year, they could cash out with their real estate alone and golden parachute out the storm.

  25. #25

    When things weren't going so well in DC, these asshats and blowhards said it was just more proof that we were incapable of self-government.

    Now that things are going well in DC, these same asshats and blowhards are saying that it's not because we're doing things right, but because we're leeches or some shit like that.

    Well, Hannity and those other clowns can take some advice from their hero, our former Vice President, and go perform an impossible act on themselves.

  26. #26

    "Pro-tip: stop hitting you spouses and children and you're kids will turn out better."

    Pro tip for name: proofread.

    You really think domestic abuse is somehow magically limited to the black community? Or that it was the sole - or even a major - reason why DC was economically depressed in the 1980s? You live in a racist fantasy world.

  27. #27

    The legacy of "contracting out". Fed employment went down but the contracts to privates shot up during Bush and stayed up under Obama.

    DC was better when the feds did everything themselves instead of contracting to expensive privates. We've become a city of overpaid consultants.

  28. #28

    This reads like an article from Sim City 2000. In other words... I LOVE IT!

  29. #29

    Everyone here is getting awfully defense about the Hannity-type jokers working hard to de-fund the national government. Given that we're a town run by well-educated folks largely dependent on government funding, I understand. What I don't quite understand, however, is why you're taking it to heart on a local city paper comment section - this isn't likely to do all that much to "silence" the hawks or those who listen to their swill. There surely has to be a more productive outlet for this well-reasoned indignation.

    Oh, and while the federal government may indeed go through cyclical contractions, who do you think feels most of the pain - the highly-educated power elite in and around DC, or, the significantly less-educated and relatively powerless citizens living in states away from the two coasts? I wouldn't worry too much about the DC housing market - it will be fine. (Where's the mention of all that foreign development money coming into the region?)

    There are indeed greater issues on the table here than the well-being of DC, and I'm not so sure that this is the best forum for working them out.

  30. #30

    The "significantly less-educated" living in states away from the two coasts - if that were not sick making enough - are hardly "relatively powerless," most especially compared to "highly-educated power elite" in DC. Have you forgotten the representation situation? Those idiots in flyover country you refer to are pretty damn capable of organizing on issues near and dear to their hearts whenever they feel the situation warrants, whereas the powerelite of DC don't organize and even if they did, it would not do much good as there is no outlet.

  31. #31

    Aaron falls in line with David Alpert who instructs that there is no connection between DC and the capital of the country. It's sheer idiocy.

  32. #32

    Fuge - you got it right.

  33. #33

    I do find it interesting that two of the major growth industries in DC - health and education - are growing due to bad health and education policy. Both industries peddle extremely expensive goods to captive audiences and are encouraged to inflate their prices because of policy. I'm not sure I'd be proud to point out that my city is becoming increasingly reliant on these inefficient, outdated industries.

  34. #34

    How exactly are healthcare and education outdated industries?

  35. #35

    It is time to move the nation's Capital again, this time to Oklahoma and use the FEMA trailers left over after Katrina to house the 1% of federal employees we would need to start fresh. I'm sure there are plenty of vacant lots where Congress could park its trailer along with the four remaining federal agencies after the "downsizing" exercise to balance the budget. DC is full of overpaid and underworked elites who are totally out of touch with a country where the average pay is less than half of the average bureaucrat shuffling paper all day long in between coffee breaks. Give the land back to Maryland and let the State make money by turning the Capitol into another gambling casino

  36. #36

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  37. #37

    D.C. IS NOT SUCCESSFUL. Right now as I read your site there is an ad to the right that says 1 in 3 children in D.C. will go to bed hungry tonight. Only some people are succeeded in D.C. and they are taking advantage of the others because we are going in a wild and uncontro9lled fashion. This maserati is going to crash and burn because there is no plan for growth and no one is driving

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