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Thursday, December 8, 2016
A Goal for Trump: End Disproportionate DC Affluence
J. Robert Smith
A friend is fond of saying, "But for the federal government, Washington would be Richmond." He's not dissing Richmond. He's making the common sense observation that behemoth government is the reason DC metro thrives. After all, as of late 2014, five of the nine richest counties in the U.S. were commuting distance from Washington.
A Trumpian government reform project would reduce the federal government as an engine of DC metro's wealth. That wealth has created legions of affluent professionals, in and out of government, who reside in DC's ever-sprawling reach. These government-dependent pros are about protecting their turf and growing government when possible. It's not mainly ideology that drives them; its paychecks and contract fees. Follow the money first.
The Washington metro is where there is the most concentrated number of influential constituencies for big federal government. Federal employees and contractors tend to be better educated and upwardly mobile. More than some are two-income households and can command well over $200,000 annually in combined pay. There are benefits and pensions, too. These pros make up a powerful lobby-army dedicated to advancing their interests – whether or not that conflicts with what's best for the nation. Middle and working class citizens across the republic get short shrift.
In the wake of Trump's election, American Thinker's Thomas Lifson wrote, simply: "The federal government requires structural reform." That sentence has huge implications. Structural reform of the federal government isn't sexy, but a significant overhaul of it could do more to promote economic vitality and, not incidentally, safeguard our liberties than slews of other initiatives.
Donald Trump and his team of very savvy business achievers should well appreciate the need to downsize government while assuring that core functions are even better executed on leaner budgets -- and with fewer workers. This involves more than ridding Uncle Sam of waste and fraud – though that's a start.
Newt Gingrich has spoken publicly about a role in Trump's administration. He wants to be Trump's strategic planner. That's perfect for Newt. Anyone who knows anything about Gingrich appreciates that he's spent a career pushing to reinvent Uncle Sam. Sam needs to be positioned as a leaner, meaner machine to meet the evolving challenges of the 21st Century. The federal government's professional class constituencies must be reined in and winnowed as part of the process.
Making Uncle Sam a new man is easier said than done. But if Trump isn't the guy to take on the challenge, who is? When might a similar opportunity present itself?
Lifson's article principally addressed ways of making federal employees more accountable and the need to control public employee unions. Check and check. No union should be able to impede the functions of government. As Lifson points out, collective bargaining is overdue for reform and limits.
Another reform for Trump and congressional Republicans is to make government service less lucrative. Federal employees need to revert to being "public servants." In fact, language matters. Henceforth, they should be called "public servants." There should be some sacrifice in working for fellow citizens. Duty over reward.
One idea: as a rule, federal government positions should offer compensation less than comparable positions in the private sector. As of 2010, according to the Congressional Budget Office, only professional degrees and doctorates were compensated at less than private sector rates. Every other employee class exceeded private sector compensation.
Cost of living adjustments for federal employee relocations should be shrunk – or, better, limited to a brief timeframe, say, 24 or 36 months. The Washington, DC, metro, which boasts an expensive cost of living, shouldn't be made affordable to public servants ongoing. If you want to make better wages and benefits, find a job in the private sector. Living in the DC metro strains your budget, move to Des Moines.
The DC metro has become home to hundreds of thousands of government employees, contractors, and others who have stakes in Big Government, Inc. They and their kids may go back to Pittsburgh to visit family at Christmas, but Pittsburgh is no longer home – particularly for the kids. Their first loyalties are to the Nats, Redskins, and Capitols, not the Pirates, Steelers, and Penguins. The Washington area shouldn't be a federal government employee's permanent home.
During the depths of the "Great Recession," visiting Washington, DC's precincts, one hardly knew that the nation had been hard hit by a sharp economic downturn. Oh, well, yes, housing prices dipped in DC metro, but never cratered. There were foreclosures. The economy slumped, but not for very long. Watering holes, restaurants, and boutiques were doing business. The streets were still chockfull of BMWs, Mercedes, and Volvos.
In the DC metro, there's no such thing as the "rich side of town." There are rich sides of town.
Where to begin? Potomac, Bethesda, McLean, North Arlington, Northwest DC, Chevy Chase, Reston, Fairfax, Alexandria, Falls Church – among others. The median income in Falls Church City, Virginia, is $121,250 annually (tops in the nation). The median home value for a house in McLean: $887,100, with the forecast trending up. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Arlington fetches $2,193 per month; two bedrooms run on average at $2,892.
Expensive? Right, but plenty of Washington area residents can afford the tab – off the taxes you pay. Or off the federal debt politicians are racking up – $19.9 trillion, to date. Those who can't pay the tab – or those who refuse to pay the freight to live closer in – make absurd treks to DC's exurbs, where housing prices are generally better but higher than many other locales.
Politics are, indeed, impacted by hundreds of thousands of people residing in the DC area who derive incomes directly or indirectly from Uncle Sam.
Virginia, once reliably the land of conservative Democrats, and then reliably Republican, has gone from purple to blue in the last presidential election. Liberal Democrats dominate the highly urbanized, government-employee heavy Maryland and Virginia counties ringing DC. The affluent, federal government-centric counties of Northern Virginia now routinely tip the scales in Commonwealth contests. Maryland, always Democrats' turf, has become a virtual bedroom community for the federal government (Montgomery and Prince George's counties leading the way).
Anything wrong with thriving, affluent communities and the rich who occupy them? Not when affluence comes from private initiative and enterprise, from producing goods and services that consumers need or want and voluntarily pay for. Government produces nothing; it takes, consumes, and redistributes – often incompetently. Essential services there are for governments to provide, but most services aren't essential. There's something wrong when wealth is lopsidedly generated off taxpayers. Living the good life off the ingenuity and hard work of private sector achievers and middle and working class folk in places like Kalamazoo and Kokomo is perverse.
Government service shouldn't be a destination and a way of life, as a rule (we'll make allowances for the military, intelligence, and law enforcement). Public service should entail sacrifices and be of shorter duration than careers in the private sector.
But for big government, Washington would be Richmond. That's the way it really should be.