Between 1950 and 1990 the fastest growing state was Nevada, with a 651% population increase. The District of Columbia was last, down 24.3%. West Virginia was the only other state that saw any decline in population. Last year Washington DC became the fastest growing “state,” up a bit over 2%, Texas was second. Here’s Glenn Reynolds:
We don’t live in The Hunger Games yet, but I’m not the first to notice that Washington, D.C., is doing a lot better than the rest of the country. Even in upscale parts of L.A. or New York, you see boarded up storefronts and other signs that the economy isn’t what it used to be. But not so much in the Washington area, where housing prices are going up, fancy restaurants advertise $92 Wagyu steaks, and the Tyson’s Corner mall outshines — as I can attest from firsthand experience — even Beverly Hills’ famed Rodeo Drive.
Meanwhile, elsewhere, the contrast is even starker. As Adam Davidson recently wrote in The New York Times, riding the Amtrak between New York and D.C. exposes stark contrasts between the “haves” of the capital and the have-nots outside the Beltway. And he correctly assigns this to the importance of power.
Washington is rich not because it makes valuable things, but because it is powerful. With virtually everything subject to regulation, it pays to spend money influencing the regulators. As P.J. O’Rourke famously observed: “When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.” But it’s not just bags-of-cash style corruption. Most of the D.C. boom is from lobbyists and PR people, and others who are retained to influence what the government does. It’s a cold calculation: You’re likely to get a much better return from an investment of $1 million on lobbying than on a similar investment in, say, a new factory or better worker training.
. . .
Under the original Constitutional plan, the federal government’s powers were to be few, and mostly concerned with external relations. Under those circumstances, the risk of corruption was comparatively low. Nearly all regulation would come from state governments. They might be corrupted — since they’d be the only ones worth corrupting — but problems would be compartmentalized (corruption in Rhode Island wouldn’t have much effect on Connecticut, much less Utah) and disciplined by competition with other states.
Well, it’s been quite a while since things worked that way; things started go go downhill with the federal expansion under the New Deal, and then really took off after the “regulatory explosion” under President Nixon, who created such entities as the Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety & Health Administration.
It’s no coincidence that as the federal government morphed from an entity that did a few highly visible things well, to one that did a whole lot of not-so-visible things less well, respect for the federal government plummeted even as the political class’ wealth climbed.
One can envision the following five categories:
1. Things Washington does not do, but should do (a carbon tax to reduce global warming.)
2. Things Washington does that it should do (national defense, the earned income tax credit, etc.)
3. Things that would be the Federal government’s responsibility if they were worth doing, but they aren’t worth doing (Sarbannes-Oxley, Dodd-Frank, and a whole lot more.)
4. Things that Washington does that should obviously be done at the local level (Department of Education, highway spending, and a whole lot more.)
5. Things Washington does that should not be done at any level (OSHA, FDA, War on Drugs, and a whole lot more.)
Although Washington should do more in a very few areas, overall we’d be far better off with a much smaller capitol city.
PS. West Virginia should not completely give up hope for the future. Eventually the Washington DC megalopolis will grow so large that its suburbs will spread into the hills of West Virginia.