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The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Ruined Government, Enriched Themselves, and Beggared the Nationby Thomas Frank
Golconda on the Potomac
The richest county in America isnt in Silicon Valley or some sugarland preserve of Houstons oil kings; it is Loudoun County, Virginia, a fast-growing suburb of Washington, D.C., that is known for swollen suburban homes and white rail fences of the kind that denote “horse country.” The second richest county is Fairfax, Virginia, the next suburb over from Loudoun; the third, sixth, and seventh richest counties are also suburbs of the capital.1 The Washington area has six different Mortons steakhouses to choose from, seven BMW dealerships,2 six Ritz-Carlton installations, 3 three luxury lifestyle magazines, and a Capital Beltway that is essentially an all-hours Mercedes speedway. There are malcontents all over America with a ready explanation for why this is so: Washington is rich because those overpaid federal bureaucrats are battening on the hard work of people like us, gorging themselves on the bounty that the IRS extracts out of the vast heartland. In blog and barbershop alike they rail against big government like its 1979, moaning about meddling feds and cursing the income tax as a crime against nature.
As a way of explaining the stratospheric prosperity of Washington today, however, this old, familiar plaint makes as much sense as attributing the price of stocks to the coming and going of sunspots. After all, it isnt FTC paper pushers who buy the six-thousand-square-foot “estate homes” of Loudoun County, and even the highest-ranking members of Congress drool to behold the fine cars and the vacation chateaus of the people sent to lobby them by, say, the pharmaceutical industry.
The reason our barbershop grumblers dont get it is that their myths dont account for the swarming, thriving fauna that populates the capital today. Conservative Washington is, by and large, unknown territory. The private offices to which it has delegated the nations public business are not included on the tourists map. Its monuments are not marked. Its operations are not well understood outside the city. But Washingtons newfound opulence gives us our first clue as to what those operations entail.
Washington is a strange place under any circumstances. If you happen to come here from the urban Midwest, as I did, the city seems alien and hopelessly unreal. The blue-collar workers who make up a good portion of the population elsewhere in America are a minority in Washington, with lawyers outnumbering machinists, to choose one example, by a factor of twenty-seven to one. There are few rusting factories or empty warehouses in Washingtonand few busy factories or well-stocked warehouses either. The largest manufacturing outfit in town, at least as of the early 1980s, was the Government Printing Of.ce.4 The neighborhood taverns one finds on nearly every street corner in Chicago are almost completely absent, as are the three-.flats that house much of that midwestern metropolis.
While the capital has desperately poor people in abundance, members of the political class have almost no reason to mingle with them. If you stay within the boundaries of the federal colony, you will meet only people like your tidy white-collar self: college graduates wearing ID badges and speaking correct American English. In one residential neighborhood I visited, a full 50 percent of the adult population possess advanced degrees.
The city is a perfect realization of the upper-bracket dream of a white-collar universe, where economies run on the information juggling of the “creative class” and where manufacturing is something done by .filthy brutes in far-off lands. In the hard-hit heartland this fantasy seems so risible as to not require attention. In Washington and its suburbs, howeverwhere there are hundreds of corporate offices but little manufacturingit is thought to be such an apt description of reality, such a pearly pearl of wisdom, that the citys big thinkers return to it again and again. The malls and offices and housing developments of northern Virginia so overwhelmed Joel Garreau, the man on the “cultural revolution” beat at the Washington Post, that in describing them he slipped into the past-tense profundo: the regions “privateenterprise, high-information, high-education, post-Industrial Revolution economy,” he raved in 1991, “made it a model of what American urban areas would be in the twenty-.first century.”5
Washington has boomed before, and its even been proclaimed a model for the world beforemost famously during the thirties and forties, when the federal government looked like the savior of the nation and maybe even of the planet. The city was occupied then by an army of “New Dealers” who were talented, idealistic about the possibilities of government, and youngfar younger than the gray old gentlemen who had previously run the place. Today we naturally think of Washington as a young persons town, thanks to all the fresh-faced interns and aides and paralegals who fill its offices. But in the thirties this was a novel development, made possible by the stock market crash and the Depression, which closed other doors and utterly destroyed the traditional American faith in limited government and benevolent business.
Disabused of the old myths, and unable to get a job, the class of 1933 went to Washington instead of Wall Street. They lived in group houses, drank hard, and threw themselves into building the new regulatory state. Its not a calling that anyone associates with glamour anymore, but excitement and high patriotism are constant themes in the literature of the New Deal period. One account from 1935, for example, described the citys “mood of adventure, the exhilaration of exciting living which the humblest office-holders share with the Brain Trust [the presidents close advisers] as co-workers in the great experimental laboratory set up in their city.”6
The stories of that period always seemed to follow the same pattern: how the bright young man arrived in the city, fresh from law school, where he was put to work immediately on business of the utmost urgency; how he went for days without sleep; how he marveled at the awesome abilities of the people the administration had brought to Washington. I know of none in which the young man came to Washington to get rich. When the New Dealers grew older, of course, they found ample opportunity to pile up the coin, often by guiding business interests through the bureaucracies that they themselves had created.7 But in those early years, when business had failed so spectacularly and when the country looked desperately toWashington for relief, public service became the object of a sort of cult.8
Liberalism was something strong and bold in those days, and making government work was at the very heart of it. This was the period when the United States developed a first-rate bureaucracy, and the famous law professor Felix Frankfurter attributed its appearance to the epochal migration of idealistic youth to the capital (a movement for which Frankfurter was partially responsible). “The ablest of themin striking contrast to what was true thirty years agoare eager for service in government,” he wrote in 1936. “They find satisfaction in work which aims at the public good and which presents problems that challenge the best ability and courage of man.”9
Like all historical myths, the legend of the capable and selfless New Dealer is surely overdrawn. Even so
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History and Social Science » American Studies » Culture Wars