Is Washington the Worst Place on Earth?

Today we learn that New York Times Magazine reporter Mark Leibovich has penned a book called This Town: The Way It Works in Suck Up City, exposing all the awfulness of our nation's capital. As Politico reports, "Two people familiar with the book said it opens with a long, biting take on [Tim] Russert's 2008 funeral, where Washington's self-obsession—and lack of self-awareness—was on full display. The book argues that all of Washington's worst virtues were exposed, with over-the-top coverage of his death, jockeying for good seats at a funeral and Washington insiders transacting business at the event." Sounds about right.

In the past, I've offered Washington some gentle ribbing, employing colorful phrases like "moral sewer" and "festering cauldron of corruption." In truth, D.C. is a complicated place, and like any city it has its virtues and flaws. But you don't find many other cities where the inhabitants regularly write about how despicable the place is. Obviously, there's "Washington," an actual city where people live and work, and "Washington," a rhetorical construct that embodies the things people don't like about government and politics. But is Washington worse than anyplace else? It's a tough call, but here are some reasons I think D.C. comes in for more of this kind of criticism:

Washington is small.

Part of the reason D.C. has no representation in Congress is that when it was established, it was thought that while the work of government would be carried out in the District, no one would live here. That may not be true anymore, but it's still extremely small for the capital of the most important country on Earth, and that increases the extent to which it is defined by politics. There are other cities, like Los Angeles or Detroit, where one industry dominates. But with a little more than 600,000 people, Washington ranks No. 25 in population among U.S. cities, behind places like El Paso, Memphis, and Fort Worth. So even if the entertainment industry dominates L.A., there are still a few million people there whose work isn't directly connected to it. Because D.C. is so small, it's more dominated by its dominant industry than anywhere else.

What Washington does affects everyone, and not always in a good way.

To get back to the Los Angeles comparison, even if you think, say, the offerings on the Disney Channel are part of a plot to turn our nation's tweens into a bunch of morons (I'm convinced this is true, I just don't know who's behind it or what they hope to achieve), its dominant industry probably produces things you love, too. Detroit may be a mess, but they make cars there, and you've probably had a car you loved. Despite the fact that Washington has produced some terrific things like Medicare and the Clean Air Act, it's also the fount of a steady stream of misbegotten policies and political nastiness. And D.C.'s most horrible people can have an impact on all of our lives. There are no doubt people just as vile in other places, but it's easy to just laugh at some Wall Street jerkwad or a despicable Hollywood agent. That disgusting congressman, on the other hand, is making the laws we all live under.

Washington gets more scrutiny.

The fact that politics gets the deserved attention it does means that ordinary people hear a lot not only about the consequences of policy but the ugly process of making it. The production of a movie may involve just as much pettiness, squabbling, and backstabbing as the passing of a law, but it doesn't get as much attention, because there's a smaller and more specialized press that covers it, compared to the armies of journalists that swarm Capitol Hill and the White House. That means that most of the ugliness is on full display.

Nowhere else do more people fail upward.

The fact that connections matter more than merit in getting ahead is true to some degree everywhere, but not to an identical extent, and nowhere is it more true than in Washington. Anyone who has worked here has encountered multiple incompetent fools who nevertheless managed to keep getting jobs with more and more authority, where they do an incredibly crappy job, only to be hired for another job at an even higher level, where their lack of talent will be even more apparent. That's because more than anywhere else, jobs, consulting contracts, and the like are distributed based on who you know. Again, this is true everywhere, but in Washington, connections seem to trump talent every time. That doesn't mean Washington isn't brimming with extraordinarily talented people, because it is. But based on my unscientific survey, it has more hacks enjoying undeserved career advancement than anywhere else.

Washington has more short-timers.

OK, I'm not sure this is true, and I don't know if anyone has the data to establish it. But it does seem that a huge number of people come to Washington, spend a few years working in the politics industry, and then leave to go somewhere else. There are people who love it here, but in my experience, there are few who love it here so much that they can't imagine living anywhere else, unless it's because they want to keep working in politics. In contrast, you'll find lots and lots of people in places like New York or L.A. or San Francisco or Chicago who think it's the best place in the world and don't ever want to leave, no matter what they do for a living. That transient population keeps D.C.'s character defined by politics, which is the part that never changes.

That's my list; you could probably come up with some other things. So is Washington worse than anyplace else? Does it really have a higher concentration of dreadful people doing dreadful things? I can't say for sure. But maybe.

Comments

I think there's a big issues with the difference between the political side of Washington and the government side. The political side, which includes the media, Hill, and a lot of your partisan actors, is very transient and kind of in its own circle, and this is what the rest of the country sees and thinks is awful. The government side, by which I mean the actual civil servants, are more often here long-term or permanently and are very much outside the political circus side. These are the vast majority of the people working in the "dominant industry." The political side seems to focus inward pretty strongly which makes Washington seem even smaller than it is. There's a reason a lot of us who live here tend to emphasize the difference between "Washington" and "DC." Those of us in DC, the bureaucrats, the working class, and other more permanent fixtures, don't see this "Washington" in the place they live. In fact, most of what a lot of us know about that world we get through the media just like anyone in California or Kansas or wherever. True, people may be more interested in general because government spending may more directly affect our jobs, but we're very much outside of "Washington" even if we live here.

So in case it wasn't clear, I'm a bureacrat and I love DC and don't want to live anywhere else.

Very well said Clark, thanks for clarifying all this drama of Washington and DC, could not say it nectar fuel better!

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