Page 2 of 2   <      

The Height of Power

Washington's status improved only marginally in the next century, even as other brilliant centers of power, culture and commerce emerged on the Eastern Seaboard and then across the Midwest and West. The rapid rise of New York was challenged in quick succession by the even more sudden emergence of Chicago in the industrial Midwest and San Francisco on the Gold Rush coast of California. Washington was surely the nerve center of politics, but commerce, culture and the vast majority of the media chose to concentrate elsewhere.

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 percent above the national average. The percentage of adults with a bachelor's degree or higher, nearly 42 percent, 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.

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.

Even industries that are well plugged in to the new Obama regime -- such as venture capital and alternative energy -- are facing financial ruin from the downturn in both markets and energy prices. To win new funding and subsidies for their next bubble, they'll increasingly rely not on their ballyhooed cleverness but on their pull with the White House, Congress and the new science apparat, under the green-oriented Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Obama's neo-Malthusian pick for White House science adviser, physicist John Holdren.

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. Media outlets have already been shifting out of New York and other cities -- the Atlantic Monthly moved from Boston to Washington in recent years, and USA Today, National Public Radio and XM Radio are headquartered in or near the capital. A city that, according to one 19th-century account, had a cuisine consisting largely of "hog and hominy grits" now boasts world-class restaurants, draws top-line chefs to its food scene and will continue to develop into a serious epicurean center. The area already ranks third in film and television production, largely because of a thriving news and documentary business, as embodied in the National Geographic, the Public Broadcasting Service and the Discovery Channel.

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.

joel@newgeography.com

Joel Kotkin, a presidential fellow at Chapman University and the author of "The City: A Global History," is finishing a book on the American future.


<       2

© 2009 The Washington Post Company