Take me down to the parasite city
Have you seen the latest jobs report? Major buzzkill: creeping unemployment, anemic growth, and the recovery's totally stalled.
But not here: The District is booming! "Washington may have the healthiest economy of any major metropolitan area in the country," says New York Times D.C. bureau chief David Leonhardt in Sunday's Gray Lady. "You can actually see the prosperity"!
Yes we can! Construction cranes dominate the downtown skyline, and your average homeless guy can barely grab a stretch of sidewalk before yet another boutique store pops up to bounce his bedroll.
True, if you venture outside the Death Star's orbit to visit the colonies for Thanksgiving or Christmas, you'll see a lot of boarded-up storefronts. You might even feel a twinge of shame when Matt Drudge feeds you headlines like "D.C. Leads List of Most Shopaholic Cities in America."
Whatever: Guilt is for losers! The main lesson the rest of the country should take from the capital's prosperity is, per Leonhardt, that "education matters."
D.C.'s "high-skill" economy boasts more college degrees than any other major metropolitan area in America. "If you wanted to imagine what the economy might look like if the country were much better educated," Leonhardt writes, "you can look at Washington."
Hey, you people out there in flyover country: We're eating your lunch because we're "smarter" than you! Hit the books, rubes: We built this!
Even so, I found it a bit unsettling last fall to read that "Beltway Earnings Make U.S. Capital Richer Than Silicon Valley," as the Bloomberg News headline put it. After all, Silicon Valley "creates" wealth, while we -- smart as we are -- mostly shuffle it around.
Key factors identified in the Bloomberg report include massive defense contracts, "federal employees whose compensation averages more than $126,000," "the nation's greatest concentration of lawyers," and record-high lobbying expenditures. "Wall Street has moved to K Street," comments Barbara Lang, head of the DC Chamber of Commerce.
The District is "not exactly the nation's entrepreneurial capital," the Washington Post's Steven Pearlstein observes. "Other than goods and services sold to government, only 12 percent of the region's output is sold to people and businesses outside the region, a number that has fallen in recent years."
To be fair, Leonhardt acknowledges that some of the District's prosperity comes from leeching off "economic value created by someone else." But what Leonhardt concedes in one paragraph, he takes away in the next: One of the main reasons "Washington's good times are not all -- or even mostly -- about rent-seeking," he argues, is that D.C. gobbled up "more stimulus dollars per capita than any state." Come again?
D.C.'s boomtimes show that "a Keynesian response to an economic crisis really can make a difference," Leonhardt insists. Yes, and if everyone got more than their fair share of the fixed pie of federal boodle, then all the municipalities could be above average.
Leonhardt has a point about the economic value of education. But it's one thing to use brainpower to build new products. and another thing entirely when it's employed to redistribute wealth that other smart people have created. D.C.'s burgeoning Mensa Mecca is built on the latter impulse: Take me down to Parasite City, where the kids are smart and the girls are pretty.
Amtrak takes me home a couple of times a year along the Northeast Corridor, and I'm always puzzled by that big sign that shows up just outside New Jersey's capital: "Trenton Makes, the World Takes." Makes what, exactly?
But I'd support putting up a similar sign over the approach to Washington's Union Station: "The Country Makes, D.C. Takes." We could probably get stimulus dollars for that.
Examiner Columnist Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of "The Cult of the Presidency."