What’s wrong with DC? How is it that the array of government and our duly elected representatives can be so disconnected from the reality of the majority of American lives? After spending another several days in the national capitol region, I am reminded of at least one of the reasons. DC is nothing like the rest of America. It is a frighteningly distorted fairytale land, and I am convinced that anyone who spends much time there will eventually lose touch with the realities facing most of America.
The fact of the matter is that people are influenced by their environment in ways they are largely unconscious of. I have lived in enough places and worked in enough different environments that I have seen the impact local culture and environment have had on my personality, outlook, expectations, and perceptions. I have been perhaps fortunate that those experiences have been diverse and have constantly challenged biases and prejudices in ways that have forced me to adopt a more critical view of the messaging (overt and otherwise) that has been working to shape my opinion. What I see in DC is a self insulating and perpetuating micro-climate that is distinct from what life is like in the vast majority of America and inexorably shapes the perceptions of those who live there.
I recently saw a report claiming that Democrats in the District make up 75% of the population, unaffiliated 16%, and republicans 6%. Regardless of your political affiliation, you have to admit that DC is far from representative of the broader population. About the only places where political affiliations are this polarized are deep inner cities where the population has become addicted to government largess and a few extreme rural areas where a small pocket of right-wing conservatives are the only humans within an entire voting district. This severe polarization, however, is not even a significant part of why DC should have figured prominently in Lewis Carrol’s tales. Every time I have the misfortune of traveling there, I add experiences and anecdotes to my mental library chronicling the fantasy land that is DC.
My hotel receipt from my recent trip is a decent place to start. The room cost me $239.00/night at a discount rate from a nation-wide hotel chain. I can rent the same category of room almost anywhere else in the united states (other screwed-up megalopolises like LA and NY excepted) for around $120.00/night, and many places for around $90.00. There are no extra amenities to justify the extra cost, and in fact, the hotel was in need of a refresh compared to a similar property in the same chain I stayed at in Omaha recently (incidentally for $110/night). For the extra $119.00/night, I got the privilege of walking half a mile to a metro station in a humid 90 degrees, city lights shining through my less than blackout curtains, traffic, noise, limited cable channels, and slow Internet service.
This enhanced cost of living is not just for the transients. A friend purchased a home on the outskirts of the NCR almost ten years ago for over $600,000. For that price he got a three hour commute to a modest home on a postage-stamp of land tightly controlled by the HOA. Eight years later, I built my dream-home on 5+ acres for well under half that amount. In their mind, I am the crazy one.
This disparity seems lost on most who live in the NCR much above the poverty line. Those with a family seem to think it normal to spend ten thousand or more dollars on a mortgage or lease each month while parking their Mercedes, Jaguar, BMW, or Cadillac SUV in a rented stall that costs them nearly as much as my mortgage. The thought of not spending hundreds of dollars a month on each of the five or so extra-curricular activities for each of their 1.5 kids (if they have any) is heresy. And as for the thought of putting them in public school, well… that is for “other people’s kids.”
For those too young to start a family (under 40, or maybe 50), a home and kids is unthinkable. Extraordinarily expensive and crowded apartment high-rises are interspersed between large office buildings housing major defense contractors, consulting firms and think-tanks. Things as simple as a functioning kitchen are tough to find, and functionally unnecessary because most food is prepared in a restaurant, usually with some fancy name and/or pretentious decor. Life for this crowd revolves around work and play in search of “self actualization.”
Consider another take on the demographics. I see in the District a relatively small set of very distinct and disconnected populations, only a few of which are statistically significant outside of the national capitol region (NCR)… First, and most visibly, there are the government employees. These people depend on the government for their paycheck which is quite large and well protected when taken in context. This group has a vested interest in perpetuating and expanding the roles and responsibilities of the government and in expanding the benefits accrued to those who “serve.” In the NCR, these employees fall into two primary categories… The young and ambitious, and the old and powerful. The young and ambitious want to be old and powerful, so they spend their days coddling and reinforcing opinions of the old and powerful. The old and powerful spend their days doing “brain work” by loudly proclaiming the opinions that have been given them by one or more of the other power-broker classes (the young and ambitious or the rich and connected). They all live lifestyles that would be unrecognizable to almost anyone from the “flyover states.”
The daily uniform for men in this class consists of expensive suits or designer shirts and ties. Clothing that appears functional is a clear indicator that one is either a tourist or one of the various categories of servile underclasses. A man-purse is a mandatory accessory for the young variety as is a hairdo and general demeanor that is sufficiently androgynous to avoid offending people of any sexual persuasion. Women among the young and ambitious are generally skinny, pretty, wear skirts above the knee (often well above the knee), tight tops that expose substantial cleavage or otherwise draw attention to their frequently augmented breasts and are generally in their 20s or 30s. The old and powerful women are rarely seen, but are hardened, wear pant suits, and are either chauffeured in or occasionally drive expensive luxury cars. Middle-aged women seen in public are often tourists or under-class.
The most powerful class in DC though is not the collection of government employees. It is the rich and connected, many of whom are at the disposal of large corporations dependent on government largess, and the remainder largely paid by the rich and powerful to use their connections to develop and propagate legal justifications or politically correct explanations that obfuscate the true nature of government actions. Many of the latter are graduated from the old and powerful or pulled from the most ambitious and successful of the young who collected contacts and networks before switching to selling that information to the highest bidder.
The rich and connected are in a unique position. They have at their disposal and routinely exploit information that can be used for or against those who are in positions of power. They reward desired behavior with insights that, strangely enough, almost universally add to the personal wealth of the powerful or their close connections. They use their access to media to manipulate messages and agendas. Behavior that is disruptive is punished through leaks, disinformation campaigns, “spin,” ostracism, or other thuggish tactics. Even the perception of the potential for punishment, coupled with the rewards of compliance, is more than adequate in almost all cases to silence real debate and discussion. As a result of long years of participation, many of the old and powerful have also worked their way into the rich and influential category. This is the pinnacle of DC success, and the real reason behind many of the decisions made.
Unfortunately, simply shutting down discussion and debate is not an option because there must appear to be two sides to each debate. Representatives need to have materials for reelection campaigns. To satisfy this need, spurious topics with important sounding and politically hot undercurrents are brought to the forefront to occupy the media and distract constituents while the old and powerful collude with the rich and influential behind the scenes to line their pockets and solidify or deepen their personal influence and wealth.
A short walk down any of the major streets will highlight another oddity. Unlike other major cities that are built around one or more industries that have a requirement to produce something to survive, DC is founded squarely on the one and only organization that doesn’t need to produce tangible results, please shareholders in any real sense, and can “solve” its problems by giving itself more power, money, and influence. Because of this, corporations in the city do not produce tangible products for end consumers. Every major company with the resources to dedicate has an office in the NCR with the express intent of influencing governmental decisions in their favor so they can “bring home the bacon.” Street after street is filled with offices for corporations like Lockheed, Boeing, Textron, Bell Labs, Raytheon, CACI, SAIC, and on, and on, and on. Nowhere else in the world will you find such a concentration of ‘nonproductive’ employees.
This would make no business sense if the bureaucracy functioned in a fair and impartial manner. However, big corporations don’t get and stay big by doing things that didn’t make business sense. There is a form of unvoiced and notionally legal quid-pro-quo that keeps these offices gainfully employed. Money translates into access, and access shapes policy which drives spending – constituents be damned.
If I sound somewhat cynical of our government, I am. The miracle of it is that it works at all. Throughout history, representative governments have collapsed when they became seriously corrupt and focused on purchasing votes through government programs. Given the current state of things, I’m surprised we haven’t already gone over the edge. Perhaps there is just enough of truth and honesty in our public servants (or at least fear of an informed public) to keep things from completely going off of the rails. Then again, maybe we’re on the track and headed for the cliff with a full head of steam but just haven’t felt the rails fall out from under us yet.