America reaches a tipping point as Washington becomes its heart and soul

Summary:  All bow down to our Versailles-on-the-Potomac!

I recommend reading in full this powerful and prophetic essay, “Height of Power: As other American fiefdoms fade, Washington looms larger than ever“, Joel Kotkin, Washington Post, 25 January 2009.  It describes a likely result of the current downturn, a climax to trends that date back to WWI.  This article has been reposted around the Internet, for good reason.  (Hat tip to Instapundit)

Kotkin describes the process of centralization, but not the likely results.  Centralization means rigidity, less adaptability, slow growth, concentration of wealth and income, and probably even lower social mobility — as loss of regional autonomy means fewer opportunities outside the capital.  And vs. other developed nations our social mobility is already low and inequality high (see here and here).

About the author

Kotkin is Presidential Fellow and director of the Urban Futures Program at Chapman University. He is author of seven books including the best-selling The City:A Global History (Modern Library:2006). He speaks and consults to business, government and professional groups throughout the world. He is also affiliated with the Praxis Strategy Group, the New America Foundation and the Center for an Urban Future. He is finishing a new book on the American future. (source; it also provides a listing of his other articles)

Excerpt (section headings were added)

Washington’s history one part of the American mosaic

For more than two centuries, it has been a wannabe among the great world capitals. But now, Washington is finally ready for its close-up.

No longer a jumped-up Canberra or, worse, Sacramento, it seems about to emerge as Pyongyang on the Potomac, the undisputed center of national power and influence. As a new president takes over the White House, the United States’ capacity for centralization has arguably never been greater. But it’s neither Barack Obama’s charm nor his intentions that are driving the centrifocal process that’s concentrating authority in the capital city. It’s the unprecedented collapse of rival centers of power.

This is most obvious in economic affairs, an area in which the nation’s great regions have previously enjoyed significant autonomy. But already the dukes of Wall Street and Detroit have submitted their papers to Washington for vassalage. Soon many other industries, from high-tech to agriculture and energy, will become subject to a Kremlin full of special czars. Even the most haughty boyar may have to genuflect to official orthodoxy on everything from social equity to sanctioned science.

At the same time, the notion of decentralized political power – the linchpin of federalism – is unraveling. Today, once proudly independent – even defiant – states, counties and cities sit on the verge of insolvency. New York and California, two megastates, face record deficits. From California to the Carolinas, local potentates with no power to print their own money will be forced to kiss Washington’s ring.

… To foreigners, this concentration of power might seem the quintessence of normalcy. As the sociologist E. Digby Baltzell wrote in 1964, elites have dominated and shaped the world’s great cosmopolitan centers – from Athens to Rome to Baghdad – throughout history. In modern times, capital cities such as London, Paris, Moscow, Berlin and Tokyo have not only ruled their countries but have also largely defined them. In all these countries (with the exception of Germany, which was divided during the Cold War), publishing, media, the arts and corporate and political power are all concentrated in the same place. Paris is the undisputed global face of France just as London is of Great Britain or Tokyo is of Japan.

… {Washington’s} lowly status stemmed, to some extent, from what the historian James Sterling Young has defined as the “anti-power” ethos of early Americans. The revolutionary generation and its successors loathed the confluence of power and wealth that defined 19th-century London or Paris. A muddy outpost in the woods seemed more appropriate to republican ideals.

Even as other American cities, such as New York and Baltimore, expanded rapidly, Washington grew slowly, at a rate well below the national average. Bold predictions that the city would boast a population of 160,000 by the 1830s fell far short. Instead, it had barely reached 45,000 people, including more than 6,000 slaves. It remained eerily bereft of all the things that make cities vital – thriving commerce, a busy port, decent eateries and distinguished shops. Visiting the city in 1842, Charles Dickens marveled at a city of “spacious avenues that begin in nothing and lead nowhere.”

To some observers, such as Alexis de Tocqueville, Washington’s relative decrepitude reflected one of the glories of the young republic. The fact that the country had “no metropolis” that dominated it from the center struck the young noble, on his visit to America in the early 1830s, as “one of the first causes of the maintenance of Republican institutions.”

Born-again as the center of the American tapestry

… It would take enormous misfortune – the Depression – to provide Washington with its first great growth spurt. As the business empires of New York, Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland buckled and the New Deal took control of the economy, power shifted decisively to the capital. This expansion of influence continued with the onset of World War II and then during the Cold War.

The ensuing rise of the military and domestic bureaucracies transformed Washington from a small provincial city into a major metropolitan area. The greater economic shift from a predominantly manufacturing to a high-tech, information-centered economy also played to Washington’s strengths. In his groundbreaking 1973 book The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, the sociologist Daniel Bell predicted that the country’s prevailing “business civilization” would inevitably become dominated by the government bureaucracy. Corporations would eventually look to Washington’s lead for regulatory standards, to sponsor research and make critical science-related decisions.

In the past half-century, this confluence of technology and bureaucracy has transformed Washington and its surrounding suburbs into the most dynamic large metropolitan economy in the Northeast. Between 1950 and 1996, the region’s population expanded by roughly 150 percent, three or more times faster than other cities along the Boston-Washington corridor.

By the mid-1970s, Washington and its environs had also emerged as the richest region in the country. Since then, it has remained at or near the top of metropolitan areas in terms of both per capita income and level of education. Despite deplorable concentrations of poverty, particularly in the city proper, the region’s average household incomes remain the highest in the country – nearly 50% above the national average. The percentage of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher, nearly 42%, surpasses even such brainy-seeming places as greater Boston, Seattle and Minneapolis.

The contrast between Washington and most of the United States has gradually become more pronounced. In good times and in bad, lawyers, lobbyists and other government retainers have continued to enrich themselves even as the Midwest industrial-belt cities have cratered and most others struggled to survive. “The vision of generations of liberals,” admitted the New Republic in the mid-1970s, “has created a prosperous and preposterous city whose population is completely isolated from the people they represent and immune from the problems they are supposed to solve.”

In today’s crisis, the Washington area remains somewhat aloof, with the second-lowest unemployment rate among major metropolitan areas of more than 1 million. (Only Oklahoma City, largely insulated from both the financial and housing bubbles, is doing better, although collapsing energy prices could threaten its prosperity.) The rate of job growth, although slower, is still among the highest in the country, and unemployment is below the national average.

Newly crowned as the heart and soul of America

This disparity will grow in the coming years, as rival regions reel from the recession. Many once-powerful places are already losing their independence and allure. Wall Street, formerly the seat of privatized power, has been reduced to supplicant status. The fate of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “luxury city” will be determined not in deals with London, Dubai or Shanghai but by the U.S. Treasury. Similarly, the vast auto economy of the upper Midwest will take direction from congressional appropriations and whoever is named the new “car czar.”

This loss of power in the provinces will broaden in scope during the coming months. Even proud Texas has lost its unique political influence. Its energy barons will now be forced to do the bidding of the lawmakers and regulators, instead of carrying them in their hip pockets.

… All this is bad news for much of America, but it should mean great business for many residents of greater Washington. Sudden interest in District pied-a-terres among investment bankers, venture capitalists, energy potentates and their hired help could do a lot to restore the battered condominium market. Office buildings in the District and surrounding environs can now expect a new rush of tenants, both from the private sector and the soon-to-be expanding federal bureaucracies.

The transfer of cultural power to Washington will also accelerate. After all, Washington is more than ever where the action is.

… Over time, those of us in the provinces may grow to resent all this, seeing in Washington’s ascendancy something obtrusive, oppressive and contrary to the national ethos. But don’t expect Washingtonians to care much. They’ll be too busy running the country, when not chortling all the way to the bank.


Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Previous situation reports about the economy:

  1. Forecasts – Why wait? Read tomorrow’s news … today! (part I), 11 July 2006
  2. The Future of America – Why wait? Read tomorrow’s news … today! (part 2), 17 July 2008
  3. Forecasts – Why wait? Read tomorrow’s news … today! (part 3), 17 July 2006
  4. Forecasts – Why wait? Read tomorrow’s news … today! (part 4), 17 July 2006
  5. A soft despotism for America?, 22 July 2008
  6. Can Americans pull together? If not, why not?, 29 July 2008
  7. The World’s biggest mess, 22 August 2008
  8. Dr. Gulliver explains why America has become so fearful of the future, 23 October 2008
  9. A sad picture of America, but important for us to understand, 3 November 2008
  10. Quote of the day, by P. J. O’Rouke, 19 December 2008
  11. Does this economic crisis make the State stronger – or is it another step in the decline of the state?, 16 January 2009

45 thoughts on “America reaches a tipping point as Washington becomes its heart and soul”

  1. With all due respects, this is twaddle. The federal government, aka Washington, lacks the authority to raise taxes and literally is living on borrowed time.

    As for Washington’s cosmopolitan luster, during WWI, the question was asked, “How are you going to keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen gay Paris?” If and when the question is asked, “How are you going to keep them down on the farm, after they’ve seen DC?” this article will make sense.

    Otherwise, as stated, it is twaddle.
    FM replies: I do not understand the nature of your objection (“twaddle” means zip to me, rebuttal-wise). The centralizing effect of government explansion during the New Deal and WWII are unquestionable, and increased the relative importance of DC — as seen in the economic stats the author cites. This downturn will probably have a similar effect, with similar results.

    Also, in what sense does the federal government “lacks the authority to raise taxes”? That seems both constitutionally wrong and likely to be proved wrong in the next decade.

  2. The centralization of power in Washington is a pretty undeniable trend, as it’s being going on at least since the Civil War. And everyone thinks the trends of the present will continue forever. However, the world-wide economic crisis may not necessarily work out well for Washington. What will happen if Washington takes the reins of economic power, and fails conspicuously? We may be standing at a great divide in history, when many trends will turn out to have been just temporary, after all. Centralized state power, American world ascendancy, and globalism, to name just a few.

  3. Very intelligent ‘twaddle’ because it skips through too many key – and fascinating – points.

    For example: the main reason Washington never became a bona fide thriving metropolis etc. is because it wasn’t really a ‘city’, rather a town. It is hard to define the difference except legally; but basically a town is a 1-2 (i.e. limited) industry conglomeration whereas a city is something which has developed into a regional – or even pan-regional and/or national – hub where trade, government, culture, markets etc. turn into a dynamo of sorts (and in decadent phases, a vortex) but still based on some sort of primal geographical dynamism (port, crossroads,barrier etc.) from which it mushroomed in the first place.

    Centralisation has indeed been inexorably marching forward since the Civil War, and indeed has occurred in every great societal agglomeration throughout history in all social systems, East and West. Washington is getting more potent today simply because over-centralisation has finally begun to deplete the regions/States. That is what centralisation does essentially, takes from the ground to empower the upper (derivative and dependent) floors.

    But truly being only a town without its own self-sustaining (i.e. non-derivative) dynamism, and if indeed it is true that America’s truly dynamic cities are seriously slumping as the author intimates (which I suspect will soon prove not to be the case), then as such Washington is doomed because ultimately a central entity depends upon the vibrancy of the regions it is representing – or in our case nowadays – bilking.

    When Kings of yore overtaxed over-burdened, momentum-challenged populations to fund endless crusades, things like guillotines got invented. So it has always been, and so it will continue as long as we don’t freeze or boil from extreme climate change of course!

  4. “In all these countries (with the exception of Germany, which was divided during the Cold War), publishing, media, the arts and corporate and political power are all concentrated in the same place”

    Yes, all those countries but America. Washington has never been the center of media, the arts or corporate power. As Erasmus notes, Washington is just where the agents/lobbyists of those sectors gather.

    Wall Street didn’t beg for help; it raped an all-too willing government.

    The writer’s basic error is in thinking political power resides in Washington rather than in corporate headquarters throughout the country. The state and its officials are merely agents of corporate power, dismissable at will.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I am impressed; you can write a comment dealing with what the author actually said. Based on this comment, I expected your rebuttal to be irrelevant to anything he actually said.

    Also: This is written in the wrong tense.

    “Wall Street didn’t beg for help; it raped an all-too willing government.”

    The details of English grammer are too complex for me, but I believe you should use the “present perfect” tense — an action started in the past but not yet completed. As in “Wall Street is raping an all-too willing government.” The rumors of the Obama Administration setting up a “bad bank” indicates that they will continue the Bush Administration’s policies in both war (Afghanistan) and domestic policy (giving our money to plutocrats).

  5. FM: “I do not understand the nature of your objection”

    The nature of my objection is that – while Washington now is attempting to solve many problems; it lacks the ability to do so. That New York and Detroit are doing poorly does not mean that Washington is doing well.

    Also, in what sense does the federal government “lacks the authority to raise taxes”? That seems both constitutionally wrong and likely to be proved wrong in the next decade.

    It lacks the authority in the very obvious, very well known, and frequently discussed sense that politicians are unwilling to levy such taxes.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Thank you, that is very clear. I agree about “solving problems”. But the author discusses “gathering power”. The former is often a cover or pretext for the latter.

    As for taxes, I suspect you are wrong. Taxes probably will go up (at least for the “rich”) as our government’s ability to borrow cheaply eventually ends. For more on this see section #5 in “A situation report about the global economy, as the flames break thru the firewalls“.

  6. To elucidate my prior posting. FM cites Washington’s growth since WWII (as well as the Depression) to support his position. I note that we, like, actually won WWII. That sort of thing makes a difference.
    Fabius Maximus replies: What was “my position”? I try to avoid talking about good/bad and just discuss consequences. Everything has a price.

    I suspect that the long-term centralization of power results far more from the New Deal than WWII. The Great Depression was largely a result of public policy errors (see here for details). The New Deal itself was a series of policy errors (our economy was one of the worst among developed nations as a result of these errors). That sort of thing makes a difference.

  7. Federalism, it appears, is dead. Washington, a town whose only product is hot air, is expanding rapidly, accelerating into a future that seems to hold little promise of returning the rights of governance and political power to the states, and even individual municipalities. I’d hope for a return to the power of the individual, but that seems naive at best in these times. People toss around politically-correct terms like “empowerment” but this is nothing but a canard. America is much less free than ever before in its history. We enjoy a certain level of comfort – I almost said prosperity but that does not apply these days – but we have traded many of our most basic freedoms for it.

    If we had sense, and we don’t seem to anymore, we’d push as much decision-making as possible from Washington to the states, and from there, to local communities, and if possible into the hands of individuals. We’d leave the federal government to tend to those things individuals, private institutions, and smaller units of government cannot. Washington bureaucrats, no matter how well-intentioned (and to call government actions well-intentioned is optimistic, to say the least), cannot hope to govern at such far remove from those they claim to represent.

    A free man prefers as little government as possible, but if it must exist, better it be close to him, so that it can seen and heard, and kept in check as much as possible. Of course, these ideas mark me as a hopelessly out-of-date dinosaur, but a guy can always dream, right?
    Fabius Maximus replies: DC is not about “hot air.” At the very least it is about power. And, as Orwell explained in 1984, to some people “The purpose of power is power.”

  8. This article goes against the theory of 4GW. It proposes a state getting stronger instead of weaker. Then again, perhaps a stronger, more aggressive United States government will produce a 4GW reaction: more Timothy McVeighs in the future.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Not necessarily. First, the decline of the state theory is conceptually distinct from 4GW theory — although usually linked together, they need not be so.

    More importantly, this article does not necessarily show that the State is strong. To see why please read “Does this economic crisis make the State stronger – or is it another step in the decline of the state?

  9. “DC is not about ‘hot air.'” Explain global warming.

    “At the very least it is about power.” Alternative energy?

    “And, as Orwell explained in 1984, to some people ‘The purpose of power is power.'” The Great and POwerful Wizard of Oz has spoken.

    I’m sorry, FM, nothing personal but it is impossible to take this subject seriously. I am a great deal more concerned about those drug gangs down in Mexico, which – to my knowledge – have yet to secure lobbyists on K St.
    Fabius Maximus replies: No apology needed. The future is the unknown country, and we all see it differently!

  10. Pingback: Instapundit » Blog Archive » FABIUS MAXIMUS: All bow down to our Versailles-on-the-Potomac!…

  11. When small men begin to cast big shadows, it means that the sun is about to set.

    — Lin Yutang
    (1895 – 1976, a Chinese writer and translator). The source of the quote is, per Wikiquote, Hard-to-Solve Cryptograms (2001) by Derrick Niederman, p. 96).

  12. Oh dear. Have you ever been to D.C? Other than the government compounds, you could easily be in Haiti. These people are eating their young for protein. You need to get out more. I suggest that you spend a year in Texas (not Dallas). It will begin the healing process.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Have you ever been to the “ring city” around Paris? Much like Washington. What is your point?

    “These people are eating their young for protein.”

    That is a delusional over-statement. Other than folks in deep drug addiction, poverty in America is nothing remotely like 3rd world poverty.

  13. As we become prosperous, we credit our own efforts for our success — but blame others for our setbacks. In fact, both success & failure is a combination of our efforts and the environment.

    The ethic of blaming others for any problems leads to the desire for ‘justice’ — and a strong king like figure to remove the other-caused problem and often to punish the other.

    In the mortgage mess, the real problem is so many millions of buyers/ investors/ speculators, who were betting on rising house prices, and their bets failed. Just like over-paid fat cat bankers, they want somebody else to pay for their mistakes.

    As long as politicians promise to pay for the voters’ mistakes, and voters accept this 1/3 truth (less than half, but not completely false), the centralization of power in DC will continue.

    Great post.

  14. Yeah, but you miss this main issue. This is probably great for the value of my Arlington, VA house.

  15. Several things unrelated to The Great Depression made this scenario possible.

    1) Since the founding, The House of Representatives has been charged with authoring all tax and budgetary legislation. Today that is the domain of the House Ways and Means Committee. Congress was consciously and deliberately given the power to raise revenue; in a limited fashion.

    2) That limited fashion got chucked; thanks to the populist demogaugery of William Jennings Bryan. Without him, we still may have eventually gotten the income tax, but there were strong preventative measures in the original draft of the Constitution that he helped blow right through in his fight for the 16th Amendment. Income derived from real property was originally considered, in and of itself, property. Taxation thereof was originally construed to run afoul of the 5th Amendment.

    3) The impact of #2 was that the state could now cart larger and larger chunks of wealth from the provinces, into the capital. It was the failure to retain constitutional property safeguards, while modernizing the collection of revenue to meet the demands of the times, that led to the agglomeration of centralized power. The Great Depression was just a cigarrette butt, tossed out the window, into a thicket of abundant, dry tinder.

  16. Washington will grow as the rest of the great cities shrink because Washington can simply decree its growth, unlike the other power centers, which have to earn their prosperity. Further, as government addresses each passing crisis by increasing its influence, the other power centers (whether state and local governments, large corporations, or business and industry groups) will come to see their own salvation as depending on their ability to influence Washington, thus accelerating the process.

    This doesn’t have to end badly, though it does have to end. It could be an impressive but badly designed building falls apart when it gets too top heavy, but it could also be the swing of a pendulum that will swing back when enough people decide it’s gone too far.

  17. Kotkin is on to something. And having lived in New York and Washington, one thing I have noticed is that, over the years, while corporate heaquarters were leaving New York, they were trickling into DC (by which I mean the metropolitan region), and DC has also seen, due to the internet, a substantial new high-tech industry centered on Dulles and I-270. I think this was in part to be near the center of political power, and in part because the areas are nice (the poor pockets are much smaller than, say in New York), until recently inexpensive compared to other parts of the Northeast, and at least competitive with major regional business centers like Dallas or Atlanta. As someone said, “20 years ago, I never met an investment banker, private equity manager or venture capitalist in Mclean. Now they are all over the place.” It is not just a one-industry town any more. Increasingly, it is a business center in its own right, not just a political one. Still not an arts and media center (24 hours news channels notwithstanding), but that is both a bug and a feature.

  18. D.C.’s power is like our presence in central Eurasia,unsustainable in the medium and long term,perhaps even in the short term.Too many ticks,not enough dog.

    Both parties have now staked their futures on a roll of the stimulus dice. If the economy comes roaring back,the Dems are set for at least a generation as a near one party state(Obama may hope to do to the GOP what Blair did to the Tories). If the economy doesn’t roar back,the GOP will endlessly remind The People that Obama and the Dems were more interested in political payoffs than saving the country(the Chicago way).

    Add the many people who behaved responsibly living in states with constitutionally balanced budgets who are/will get screwed AND that 60% or more of the people opposed this bill…ouch.

    My bet? The GOP will win by default if they don’t implode/fragment further,the Dems have lumbered themselves with an egocentric light weight who lacks experience of domestic,economic and foreign policy and a militantly partisan far left leadership. John Conyers demanding political show trials can be dismissed as a crank,but the Speaker expressing her interest? Nothing will turn our cold civil war into hot one faster than this idiotic idea.

  19. The mistake of the post is the use of “Washington” the city as a metaphor for a feared “growth of federal power.” Pete, getting the point, very intelligently argues against such a growth of federal power, while I, taking the metaphor literally, noted that Washington the city is nothing like Paris or London or Rome.

    But the hackneyed theme of the dangerous growth of federal power is only a smokescreen for such specific conservative agendas as lower taxes, reduced social programs, reduced regulation of business, etc. And it obscures the truth that federal power is only what private capital delegates to it. The real abuse of federal power is not its scope but it’s ability to tax the ordinary citizen for programs that chiefly benefit the rich.

  20. Rome was very similar to Washington in that it never developed as a center of industry or trade. It was always a city of consumption, and its only economy was as the seat of the imperial government. Taxes flowed in, spending flowed out. The architecture of many of Washington’s most improtant government buildings was self-consciously copied from the architecture of imperial Rome, and Washington resembles imperial Rome more and more every day. With more than 50% of our citizens and residents now paying no income taxes, our leaders are creating a Roman-style proletariat that will be led by bread, circuses, and the tormenting of believing Jews and Christians.

  21. There are 3,077 counties in the US. Of the top 10 richest (0.32%), 7 surround DC. Guess that “hackneyed theme of the dangerous growth of federal power” ain’t so hackneyed after all, huh, “Seneca”?
    Fabius Maximus replies: Let’s keep this civil, please. Reasonable people can disagree about these things.

  22. Fabius writes: “All bow down to our Versailles-on-the-Potomac!”

    Bah. “Pyongyang-on-the-Potomac” is more like it. (No, I didn’t coin the phrase, and I can’t remember who did.)

    Knight-of-the-Mind has the right idea, but I’d lay the blame at the feet of the Seventeenth Amendment, which deprived the States of their voice AS POLITICAL ENTITIES in Congress.

    One can only hope that as the years and decades pass, people (red-staters particularly, as blue-staters generally aren’t reproducing themselves) begin to see the virtues of de-centralization.
    My two cents’ worth…..

    Hale Adams, Pikesville, People’s Democratic Republic of Maryland
    Fabius Maximus replies: Comparing the US to North Korea is absurd. Delusional, like a hang-nail to teminal cancer.

  23. “As long as we continue the futility of narcotics Prohibition, the Mexican drug gangs might as well have lobbyists on K Street.”

    Hmmm. Interesting. The alternative hypothesis, of course, is that federal power is itself some sort of narcotic.

  24. A bit of hyperbole to suggest that DC is only now becoming viewed as a base of power or anything other than a wannabe. But the author must do something to sell a book among dozens of others pertaining to our nation’s capital.

    I think I’ll save myself a few dollars and go buy the new Coulter book from the local used book store instead. That way I will at least have some fuel for the fireplace.

  25. “The purpose of power is power.” “Pyongyang-on-the-Potomac”

    I began to understand the situation when I finally realized that North Korea is not a failed socialist state, but (in the view of its leadership) a fully successful one.

    It doesn’t really matter if things like nationalizing health care actually delivers better health care. The real function is to deliver power.

  26. It’s time to decentralize the Federal government. Move the Department of Agriculture to Omaha, the Department of the Interior to Denver, the Department of Energy to Houston, the Department of the Treasury to New York, the Department of Commerce to Long Beach, CA, and other departments to suitable locations. DOD and State probably should stay, but parcel all the others out.

  27. Fabius, I’m not sure I buy the whole thesis, and here’s why: Of the declining states you mention specifically, several of them (to name: California, Michigan, New York) are declining speficially because of their own mini-experiments with central planning. No, all of California didn’t pick up and move to Sacramento, but nearly all important decisions about California industry (exempting the entertainment industry) are made there. Same goes for Michigan: in setting up the “car czar”, Washington isn’t really creating a new role; it’s taking a role away from the Michagan governor’s office. Washington has lost some important battles against the states lately, particulary on things like the over-broad definition of interstate commerce. I think a taste of central planning will produce an overwhelming backlash in a few years.

  28. I recently received an email from someone who had read the same Kotkin article:

    “How many angry people, near and abroad, are devising plans to create a large radioactive lake where Washington DC currently sits? Not nearly as many as will be making such plans next year. The road of hubristic excess leads to disaster. Obama and Pelosi should take heed.”

    It is an observation similar to those made by a few of your own commenters. Many set out to be all powerful potentates. Few are able to keep their heads (literally and figuratively).
    Fabius Maximus replies: OK, what is the answer? How many? And how many of them have any serious capability to acquire or build an atomic bomb? How likely is this danger vs. the many other threats we face?

    For more about this, see “We are so vulnerable to so many things. What is the best response?” (30 December 2008).

  29. 90% of the money for the war in Iraq was spent within a 100 mile radius of Washington. The same will be true of the bailout. LBJ institutionalized the New Deal with the Great Society which, other than the very important civil rights initiatives he promoted after blocking them for two decades in the Senate, which has been a disaster for governance in America. Will the relentless centralization be reversed? Seems unlikely and this does not bode well for a country which is spending down its freedom capital. At some point it will run out and it will be an empire,including Canada and Mexico too. Reversing this relentless centralization is going to be a part of a populist outburst in America over the next 30 years. Opposition to it will claim its racist, primitive etc. Indeed it might have elements of these attached to it but it will be a struggling effort to redefine America as a place that does not live from Washington which has demonstrated that its writ to provide America prosperity and security has run its course.

  30. We need to begin the long term plan to break apart Washington and spread the government across the country. Taking Cabinets and moving them out to other states would be the first step.

    Why does Education, Homeland Security, Agriculture, and the Interior need to be in Washington?

    Especially in a day and age when remote communications is so easy and secure, while the threats to D.C. have never been greater. A terrorist dirty bomb or nuclear explosion would decapitate the government, not just the top officials, but whole bureaucracies that grow merely because of their proximity to the White House and Capitol.

    Break these departments up, spread them across the country, and think seriously about creating a second capitol somewhere in the West/Midwest.

  31. To extend this Versailles theme a little more, notice too how the “stimulus” bill includes billions to refurbish federal buildings – $7 billion according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. Surely if it’s so important to spend money on virtually anything in order to stimulate the economy, then sending homeowners the money to fix up their homes would be just as worthwhile. Yet somehow such spending only is provided to secure the greater glory of our capital and those who work there. I do take pride in the visual appearance of our nation’s capital, but enough is enough.

    Don’t forget too an additional $600 million, necessary so that our potentates can be driven around in new cars….

    This bill is a travesty – fight back!

  32. Those who live in DC should remember one little historical fact: for a long time “all roads led to Rome.” However, in the end, even Rome was sacked by the barbarians and thereafter declined into a shadow of its former self. See “Procopius of Caesarea: Alaric’s Sack of Rome, 410 CE

    So what do you suppose will happen if the barbarians take control of the Beltway?
    Fabius Maximus replies: American will never fall to barbarian invasion, IMO. We’re more likely to breed them ourselves (somebody once said that “no nation is more than one generation from barbarism”), and have their leaders voted into office.

  33. “…think seriously about creating a second capitol somewhere in the Midwest.”

    Why? I understand your thesis of decentralizing, and I think I need to give it some thought. As a purely academic exercise, really – I don’t see any chance of such a thing being enacted. The suggestion of a second capitol, however, flies in the face of everything else you suggested. Two problems I see off the cuff – one is that it fails to significantly reduce the physical threat – on the contrary, you have to split your defensive resources to cover two potential targets. As Pudd’n-head Wilson said, “A fool says, put not thine eggs in one basket. A wise man says, put thine eggs in one basket and watch that basket!” Second, you have the same problem that came up with the discussion of a binary executive during the creation of the Constitution. Read the Federalist papers (can’t remember off the top of my head which ones) and the dangers of two leaders dividing the same power. Even if one capitol has certain branches and the other has the rest, the two wwill compete. It will add a new level of complexity to a political system that is already hazardously arcane to most citizens – and even some politicians. I am curious about the idea of decentralizing the national government (accompanied of course by a return of power to state and local authorities), but this idea does not seem at all advantageous. Oyster out.

  34. Yes all roads lead to Rome. The only thing we must remember is that change is constant and even the U.S. is subject to it. Hopefully we can adapt to it which is something Rome couldn’t do. So take that history fact and run with it!

  35. Seneca, if I understand aright, I agree with the thrust of yr #20. But it brought up the thought: yes, perhaps it is the corporatocracy that is really ruling the roost so we should be careful not to confuse government centralisation with ‘socialism’. But then also the thought: it really doesn’t matter what it’s called or how it’s sold, centralisation always ends up in the same place: tyranny.

    I expect the next major move will be a thrust to consolidate the international banking sector somehow. They who control the money control everything else. Unless more of us take Star Trek more seriously and realise that it might actually be possible to move beyond money. Now THAT would be a Great Leap Forward.

  36. Re #21 on Rome: Am no historian or expert but I suspect you will find that Rome was originally a very dynamic city (if small by our standards today). Very well sited. In the days before mechanised and mass transit, a small city with dynamic rural areas surrounding – which it certainly had – with thriving, highly skilled tradesmen, architects, decorators, servants etc. etc. knit together a multilayered, diverse fabric, pretty much as diverse as city life can get and probably more so than most American so-called ‘cities’ today.

    Especially in those more geographically static situations of yore, elaborate class structures substitute internal vertical complexity for our globalised horizontal complexity today. Different classes create goods and services for each other, a sort of cultural equivalence of money velocity – which also translates into the same. We are so from appreciating class/order distinctions these days that it is hard to even imagine societies in which it is one of the key engines of cultural and civic dynamism. I suspect Rome was quite dynamic. It must have been otherwise it couldn’t have lasted for basically a thousand years before the ‘Fall of the Empire’. And it’s STILL a great city if you ever have the chance to live there a while as I did once.

  37. The WP article is not entirely correct: Berlin never dominated Germany as Paris and London dominate France and Britain. Germany (and Italy) were politcally divided well into the modern era, and each has multiple centers of power. Russia IS dominated by Moscow – despite the fact that Peter the Great moved the capital to a new city for 200 years. India, OTOH, has Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, Hyderabad, and Bangalore, all more important than New Delhi. Peking does not substantially outweigh Shanghai, Hong Kong, or Chungking.

    Also: FM’s reference to Versailles is mistaken. Versailles was never the dominant city of France, it was a relatively small specialty town which lost its point when the king stopped living there.

    I do think that FM is right: the recent event show unprecendented subordination of finance and industry to the political center. The Federal government now _owns_ large chunks of major “private” institutions, and can dictate arrangements. In the short term, there is “regulatory capture” as privileged elements in the private sector buys the obedience of the state sector. But in the long term, the state sector has the ultimate authority and can coerce the private sector.

    Wall Street and the banks may have gotten some money from Washington, but on terms that leave them permanently beholden – like the restaurant owner in the movie _Wiseguys_ who takes on a Mob guy as a partner.
    Fabius Maximus replies: You are being too literal. The analogy is to the the Versailles — home of Lous XIV, the Sun King, absolute ruler of France. Not the bourgeois suburb of Paris.

  38. FM,

    Thank you for your great on target commentary, and the article. I missed it, as you know, that is my area of study personnel management and organizational effectiveness.


  39. “There are 3,077 counties in the US. Of the top 10 richest (0.32%), 7 surround DC. Guess that “hackneyed theme of the dangerous growth of federal power” ain’t so hackneyed after all, huh, “Seneca” (Manifold)

    You’re saying that federal workers’ salaries are higher than private industry’s? The average first-year Wall St worker’s bonus last year was ten times the President’s salary. For business, government work is considered onerous — a leave of absence and a necessary sacrifice.

    the lobbyists, who probably make up the largest percentage of the wealth surrounding DC, don’t work for the government, they work for business.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Unlike most of Seneca’s comments, this looks wrong.

    “average first-year Wall St worker’s bonus last year was 10 times the President’s salary.”

    Most people working on Wall Street are clerks (broadly defined). Operations and administrative workers. They neither receive lavish salaries or large bonuses. A tiny tiny fraction got a bonus 10x that of the President. That’s like saying every actor gets paid like Tom Cruise.

    “the lobbyists, who probably make up the largest percentage of the wealth surrounding DC”

    I don’t have data, but I suggest that lobbyists comprise a small fraction of the population “surrounding DC” in terms of number of workers, income, or wealth. There are too few of them; few have large incomes, and very few have much wealth.

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