D.C. Area Has Exploded Since Kennedy Era

I’m quite partial to the Potomac River. My mother crossed it on her doctor’s visits in the months leading to my birth. And while I spent my youth in freewheeling California, I knew I’d return to the changing seasons that give the region much of its character. But my, how that character has changed.

This week, reminiscences of where people were when they heard the news of the Kennedy assassination prompted me to ask: What was greater Washington, D.C., like then?

Consider where I live, Fairfax County, Virginia. In 1963, that then-sleepy burg set off on a growth surge that’s ballooned in population to more than a million people today, with new homes and shopping malls spread out across what was farmland not long ago. In fact, when I was a youngster, “going to McLean” meant driving out to the country for a picnic. Today, McLean is considered an inner suburb – albeit a fancy one.

Now, if you don’t live in the national capital area, you might wonder what this has to do with you. The answer is: everything, because you’re paying for it. As the federal government expanded its footprint beyond the District of Columbia’s borders, it’s brought a bonanza to those surrounding areas.

It’s not just federal agencies setting up shop across the Potomac. It’s also government contractors, lobbyists, trade associations – you get the idea. And in this company town, getting in good with the boss – that is, Uncle Sam – can make life good indeed. Consider the following findings on the region from George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis, which focuses on greater Washington:

During the recent Great Recession, higher-wage occupations registered no net job losses.

Since 2008, net new job growth has been greater in higher-wage occupations than that in lower-wage ones.

Since 2000, federal spending on contracting has nearly tripled, growing from less than $30 billion in 2000 to $82.5 billion in 2010.

Since 2001, the number of higher-wage jobs has increased by 163,589 – more than the net increases in lower- and mid-wage jobs combined.

Since the recession of 2008-2009, the Washington region lost fewer jobs and recovered more quickly than other large metro areas.

In 2012, the Washington region had the lowest poverty rate of the nation’s 15 largest metro areas.

Around 36,000 people who work in metropolitan Washington maintain permanent homes outside of it, including in other countries.

Housing in the Washington metro area is now among the most expensive in the nation.

And as The Washington Post reported last week, the region added 21,000 households to the nation’s top 1 percent over the last decade, with no other region coming close. (For the record, my household was not among those.)

So why is life inside the Beltway so different? It is not just that D.C. is out of touch with the rest of the country. It truly is unlike the rest of the country – insulated from the detrimental effects of the policies emanating from Congress and the White House.

If Democrats and Republicans agree on one thing, it’s that they like spending our money. And the dirty secret they don’t want you to know is that they could balance the budget in less than 10 years. Just hold increases to less than 2 percent each year. Heck, cut spending by one penny for every dollar, and the U.S. budget would be balanced in five years. I should note, my organization, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and others recently asked Congress to spend at least “One Dollar Less” next year.

The Beltway Bandits who line up along the Potomac will fight that tooth and nail. But thankfully, as the economist Herbert Stein used to say, if something cannot go on forever, it will stop. And government growing at this rate cannot continue.

Already, there are some signs for optimism.

Of the top jurisdictions with the most job losses because of the sequester, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia were in the top five. ‘Bout time!

Last year, The New York Times placed D.C. as the city with the most college-educated residents – the figure has doubled since 1963. So what will these privileged denizens do if Uncle Sam were to slim down? The same Post story, citing “signs of change,” offers a possibility: “Washington is among the country’s leaders in venture-capital deals. The region’s business dynamism – a measure of how many new companies start and fail each year – is on the rise, suggesting a more entrepreneurial culture.”

Shocking perhaps, but good news if it means some learning is going on about the importance of profit and loss in a real market economy, not an artificial, government-driven one. Maybe those very smart people who’ve been feeding at the public trough aren’t so dumb after all.