Don’t wait on the federal government to get anything done, advises Bruce Katz, author and urban policy scholar at the Brookings Institution, and don’t base your economy on it either.
Katz told members of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Wednesday at the group’s annual meeting that the federal government’s inaction on the economy, infrastructure needs, transportation and immigration reform required local leaders to step up and address those issues on their own.
With officials including Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett and Fairfax County Board Chairman Sharon Bulova in attendance, Katz argued that: “The federal government, for all intensive purposes, has left the building.”
“It’s better to understand that if they do anything that’s smart and strategic, well that’s just like luck. So what’s really important for the people and places that drive this country, that power this country because of their economic assets, is to come together and do grand things,” Katz said.
There is reason for both concern and optimism in the Washington region now that the federal government has begun cutting back, Katz said. He pointed to other metropolitan areas that have taken advantage of economic downturns or congressional stasis to collaborate on regional projects like transportation improvements or manufacturing initiatives.
One example, a regional transit network in Denver, probably felt like old news to the Washington-area folks, who created the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) 46 years ago.
But Katz, who lives in Arlington, said that with federal job losses it’s time to identify another “game changer” for the region’s economy the way Metro has been.
Among his insights:
On where Washington’s economy is today:
“I think the radical shift in what the federal government does is a real challenge for this region. And what you all have done together I think has been around smart place-making, smart transportation decisions, smart environmental sustainability.”
On identifying what the region is best at:
“I think what you’ve got to do together with the business sector is look out 10 or 15 or 20 years and say in what sectors of this economy, domestic and global, are we going to basically be in the upper tier? Could be cyber. Could be health-related because of NIH. Some institutions remain here at the national level and obviously have a lot of their investments here.”
On moving past reliance on federal jobs:
“I think this question about your economic function is really the essential question. Because for a long time I don’t think you really had to answer for that. You were the nation’s capital. You were the leader of the free world. There’s a lot of people who come here because of that. But that doesn’t produce the kind of quality jobs that pay decent wages and decent benefits.”
On what is required of the education system:
“This is really what it comes down to: high schools, community colleges, other skill intermediaries, so you can get a steady supply of workers moving into some of the these advanced industries, advanced clusters, advanced companies. That’s the way you move the region forward.”
On economic inequity:
“We have a mismatch between wages and prices for an increasing number of people in the region. So what do you want to do? You want to increase wages and you want to decrease prices. That’s all, at the end of the day, that matters. How do you increase wages? You know there has just been this action around the minimum wage — this is going to rip across the United States.”
On what to beyond raising the minimum wage:
“Even raising the minimum wage will not be sufficient in a region like this. So we have to supplement it through the Earned Income Tax Credit, through affordable health care, through access to affordable housing, right? This is what essentially is going to have to happen.”
On preparing workers for high-skilled jobs:
“I would say the bigger issue in the United States and in this region is. . .what portion of your workers, and I’m not talking about the people with graduate degrees, even a BA, I’m talking about people with high school degrees or community college, what portion of those workers can go into industries, companies and clusters where the wages are essentially double the minimum wage? Those jobs are out there but they require a certain kind of skill and a different kind of focus on education. It’s not teach to test, it’s skill to work.”
On becoming more than a government town:
“As you look across what makes Washington special, I think over time — and frankly it’s not that long a time — it’s not going to be the fact that it’s the seat of government in the United States or because of our power in the world, you know the World Bank and these other players, it’s this other non-governmental role, this set of institutions and other intermediaries that really are this powerful asset.”
Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz