Another Perspective

The Impenetrable Beltway Bubble

Hubris and wealth combined.

By 12.4.13

Jeffrey Turner (Flikr Creative Commons)
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I do my fair share of carping about Washington’s “elites,” say, for their free-spending ways or their reckless adventurism abroad. That said, when I speak to family and friends back in the Heartland, I usually dissent from at least some of the common epithets thrown at the inhabitants of the Beltway who claim to govern America. “Stupid,” “dumb,” “idiots,” and sometimes “clueless” are the typical pejoratives used. From my perspective only the last one is accurate. The denizens of Washington may live in an impenetrable bubble, but they are actually quite smart, well educated, top of their class, and… clueless as to what most Americans are thinking and feeling. Poor judgments on the NSA’s snooping and the proposed intervention into Syria are just two recent examples. And the President’s patent falsehoods about letting folks hold onto their existing insurance plans, well, that was not stupidity but outright dishonesty predicated upon the view that the rubes will sit still for anything on offer from their betters in Washington. To be bipartisan, Chief Justice Roberts’ bizarre argument that Obamacare was really a tax and not a mandate, thus allowing it to pass legal muster, really took the cake for cluelessness. You had to go to an Ivy League law school either to a) dream that one up, or b) believe it.

The inhabitants of the nation’s capital, at least the ones at the top of the executive, legislative, and, most definitely, judicial branch all come from the top schools, are type-A personalities, and over-achievers. They are also workaholics. Since coming to Washington, I have never seen people work harder unless they were medical interns or residents, trial lawyers, or men who hated their wives, and didn’t want to go home at night. But here people, especially those at the highest levels of the pyramid, are really driven, driven hard, to achieve their policy goals and personal ambitions. To play on the old feminist slogan, for them, the political is personal, indeed, to the very core of their beings. It is not just professional. It is ontological.

In sum, Washington’s governing class came here to save the world whether or not the world wanted saving. They knew what needed to be done and, by God, they were going to do it whatever it takes, including a substantial dollop of tax dollars. Oh, yes, the dollars. All the idealism, ambition, even the paternalism and do-gooder tendencies have turned out to be quite lucrative for the Beltway. Whether it be the war on poverty or terrorism, some people may lose; but Washington always wins.

Thoughts about elites, bubbles, and the like often come to me while waiting at a stoplight. Looking around at the cars in front of me and to the side, I see very few domestic models as I might in Bozeman, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, or St. Louis. Rather, my eyes feast upon a smorgasbord of Mercedes, BMW, Lexus, Maserati, Bentley, and Audi automobiles which, I confess, are quite beautiful and inflame all those materialist tendencies Pope Francis has urged us to overcome. Even in the depths of the Great Recession, I never detected the slightest fall-off of diners in the restaurants around town.

Charles Murray has amassed some data that demonstrates how much of a bubble the Washington area has become over the past few decades. In his enlightening, if deeply sad, book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, he maps the concentration of the elite class that can be found in many of America’s great cities and is now a kind of self-contained culture unto itself. This “new upper class” is the result of “the increasing market value of brains, wealth, the college sorting machine and homogamy” — the latter being the “interbreeding of individuals with like characteristics,” most notably education and cognitive ability. Washington, D.C., along with New York and Los Angeles, has a very large number of what Murray calls “SuperZips,” which he ranks based on the number of residents with top scores on standardized tests such as the SATs and high median income. (There is an entire appendix devoted to methodology which I will spare the reader.)

“If you are invited to a dinner party at the home of a member of Washington’s narrow elite, the address could conceivably be in Great Falls, Old Town Alexandria, a few neighborhoods in Arlington or Falls Church, or on Capitol Hill, but it would be a surprise if it were,” says Murray. “Given only the knowledge that your host is a member of the narrow elite, you can lay big odds that the address will be in Georgetown, the rest of Northwest Washington, Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Potomac, or McLean.”

All of the thirteen zip codes in these communities are SuperZips, eleven of them in the 99th centile as of 2000. Ten of the eleven were in the top half of the 99th centile, “places with combinations of education and income shared by fewer than five out of every thousand Americans. The other three zip codes among the thirteen had centile scores of 99.4, 98.9, and 98.8.”

Murray quotes the political pundit, Michael Barone, a migrant to Washington from Michigan, who described his block in the District on which could be found “my next door neighbors (Princeton ’57 and Radcliffe ’66), the folks next to them (both Harvard ’64) and the people across the street (Yale ’71 and Yale law ’74), plus me (Harvard ’66 and Yale law ’69). Just a typical American neighborhood, in other words.”

The SuperZips are clustered in Washington in densities unrivaled anywhere in the country. According to Murray, “it is possible to go from Ellicott City [Maryland] in the north to Springfield [Virginia] in the south without setting foot outside SuperZips, a cluster containing 827,746 adults in the 2000 census, 89 percent of all people in SuperZips in the Washington area.”

Mark Leibovich, chief national correspondent for the New York Times Magazine, offers a view of Washington’s elites, up close and personal, in his occasionally funny yet depressing book, This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital. The back of the dust jacket states, “WARNING: This Town does not contain an index. Those players wishing to know how they came out will need to read this book.” This is the tip-off that the book is mostly about narcissism and the self-serving, self-reinforcing world of the elites which, while common to major cities around the world, has a unique flavor here on the Potomac. Washington, with its own kind of small-town groove and interlocking power structure, is “Lake Wobegon with power.”

No one comes off well in this book. Not Tim Russert, Trent Lott, Harry Reid, Terry McAuliffe, Bob Rubin, Chris Matthews, Ken Duberstein, Sidney Blumenthal, Darrell Issa, the staff of Politico, or the rest of the members of this “grimy ecosystem.” The Beltway is “Suck-up City” in which “Sucking up is as basic to Washington as humidity.” Here “It has never been easier for ‘strategists’ and ‘consultants’ and ‘agents’ of all stripes to affix themselves like barnacles to the local money barge, sucking in green nutrients.”

Former Louisiana Senator, John Breaux, now a lobbyist, once said that his vote could not be bought but “could be rented.” This may be one of the many reasons Senator Tom Coburn compares Washington to “parasitism.”

Leibovich cites estimates of former congressmen now lobbying between 160 and 305, depending on what sources you believe. My former congressman in St. Louis, Richard Gephardt, who served as Democratic majority leader in the House, a solid supporter of organized labor, was, by 2010, listing his billings for his lobbying firm at $6.59 million. He represents Goldman Sachs, Boeing, and Visa. While in Congress he supported a resolution condemning the Armenian genocide of 1915, “only to oppose the resolution as a lobbyist who was being paid about $70,000 a month by the Turkish government…”

“Genocide goes down a little easier at those rates,” says Leibovich.

Is such cynicism unfair? Maybe. Most human beings have mixed motives, both altruistic and selfish. But it is fair to say that the extreme concentration of power and wealth in Washington creates conditions which, inevitably, lead to abuse of power and the public purse regardless of the motives any well-meaning individuals may have had when they first arrived in This Town in their youth.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.