In the latest issue of the New York Times Magazine, Adam Davidson has a searching photo-essay on the strange inversion of the economy of the northeastern United States. The industrial might concentrated between New York and Washington, D.C. had once been one of the chief drivers of America’s wealth and power. Now, however, wealth is concentrated in and around the financial capital and the political capital to an alarming degree, and Davidson offers a look at the world that has been left behind:
Generation after generation, and wave after wave of immigrants, found opportunity along the corridor. Washington collected the taxes and made the rules. Wall Street got a small commission for turning the nation’s savings into industrial investment. But nobody would have ever confused either as America’s driving force.
This model was flipped inside out as Wall Street and D.C. became central drivers, not secondary supports, of the nation’s economy. Now, on its route between them, the train passes directly through or near 8 of the 10 richest counties in the United States, but all of this wealth is concentrated near the endpointsof the journey: Manhattan’s satellites in northern New Jersey and the towns where lobbyists and government contractors live in suburban Virginia and Maryland. This is a geographic representation of a telling contradiction. For the past 30-plus years, through Republican and Democratic administrations, there has been much lip service paid to the idea that the era of big government is over. Long live free enterprise. And yet in the case of those areas surrounding the capital, wealth has gravitated to the exact spot where government regulation is created. Why? Because many businesses discovered that renegotiating the terms between government and the private sector can be extraordinarily lucrative. A few remarkable books by professors at N.Y.U.’s Stern School of Business argue that a primary source of profit for Wall Street over the past 15 to 20 years could be what I call the Acela Strategy: making money by exploiting regulation rather than by creating more effective ways to finance the rest of the economy.
The beauty of Davidson’s collaboration with the South African photojournalist Pieter Hugo is that it leaves you to draw your own conclusions. To oversimplify matters, I think of Hugo’s images as an illustration of the real stakes of our unedifying but nevertheless very important political contest.