Tuesday, October 9, 2012

DC Is a Mega-Village

It's tops politically.

And according to the Wall Street Journal, it's tops when it comes to making a living, too.

Turns out, working in or around our nation's capital likely means you've got a good job and you're earning a good salary.  DC workers, on average, make the most money.  Not working stiffs in New York City, America's financial capital, or Chicago, or Houston, or San Francisco - all generally considered more obvious bastions of free-market capitalism.

So much for the right-wing pundits who scoff at "it takes a village."

After all, it's not like the defense contractors, lawyers, and lobbyists who populate the District are there for its climate, which can be suffocatingly humid in the summer, and downright blustery in the winter.  The scenery along the Virginia - Maryland border is nice enough, if you like the way suburban sprawl eats into the forests and farmland for which people supposedly move away from the inner city.  And it's not like the elegance of Washington DC itself has anything but its iconic status in world affairs to camouflage its crime-ridden, poorly-run, and politically disenfranchised personality.

No, for years, Washington has been creeping up the salary scale because of what it provides the purportedly free markets:  access.  Access to the men and women who craft the legislation that funnels tax dollars to businesses of all types, from finance and computer science to law, education, healthcare, law enforcement, and hotels and restaurants.  And what is a hallmark of village life?  Interpersonal access, right?

It's popularly assumed that DC is a company town, with our federal government being the company.  However, only 1 in 6 workers in the greater metropolitan area are employed by you and me, although out of a total workforce numbering over 2.3 million souls, that still represents a stunningly large taxpayer-funded amount.  The rest work for all of those companies who feed at the trough of government subsidies, contracts, and grants.  Yes, joke if you like about President Obama's ill-delivered line about "you didn't build that," but many companies in America today do turn a profit at least in part due to good old Uncle Sam.

Salaries in Washington, DC are living proof.

You and I, after all, own part of the world's largest procurement operation, otherwise known as the United States government.  Our tax dollars collectively purchase more stuff than any other single entity on the planet.  Think about it:  we purchase guns, cars, computers, trees, hydroelectric dams, paper, soft drinks, airports, pretzels, nuclear power stations, lawn mowers, coffee cups, scissors, and the occasional Majority World election.

Who wouldn't want to be located in close proximity to such a cash cow?  It's like all of the corporations who grovel at the feet of Wal-Mart in po-dunk, Arkansas.  Wal-Mart's buyers are like federal bureaucrats - they don't come to us when they're doing the buying.

And it's not just for-profit businesses that have their hands out in Washington.  Hundreds of non-profits have their headquarters in DC, hoping to siphon off some of our political influence (or lack of it) and tax dollars for their budgets and programs.  All of these companies, charities, think tanks, and even diplomatic organizations want legislators to notice them and think their objectives are legitimate ways to spend other peoples' money.

Granted, many of these non-profits get their funding not from the US Treasury, but from their earnest supporters who pay them to advocate on their behalf.  But still, who on Capitol Hill would listen to a poorly-dressed schmuck who drives a ratty old car and can only afford a dilapidated walk-up in one of DC's notorious 'hoods?  And if you were the schmuck who had to hob-nob with politicians and woo them to your point of view for a living, would you stoop that low for a pittance of a salary?  Maybe if you wholeheartedly believed that your cause was imminently just - but how many of those causes are out there, and how many people who view their own salary so altruistically?

So the gravy train that is Washington's personal employment economics keeps chugging along, helped every few years by people like Republican George W. Bush, who willfully bloated the size of our federal government's payroll with "jobs for the boys," as they call political patronage in Great Britain.  Only Bush shrouded his patronage with two wars in which preventing another 9/11 provided blanket amnesty for much of his unfunded spending.

Still, perhaps it's a bit disingenuous for us to draw too many correlations between Washington, DC being tops in American salaries and the fact that our federal government is headquartered there.  During periods of recession, while the phenomenon of offshoring is ravaging corporate workforces across the country, doesn't it make sense to go for the only goose laying golden eggs that, because of its geopolitical raison d'ĂȘtre, can't go anywhere else?  Hopefully, this village - that's apparently sustaining our economy through these bad times - won't remain atop the Wall Street Journal's salary statistics when times improve.

No matter what happens, however, the stark survival-of-the-fittest mentality of capitalism can't hide the dark reality that our economy is in love with our tax dollars.

Talk about "too big to fail."
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